May 5, 2024

Watch, Therefore

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Topic: Reign of Christ Passage: Matthew 25:1–13

Many comings in life demand that we get ready. My parents are coming to stay the next few days. Based on their promise to show up, we must get our home ready to welcome them. The coming of recitals at the end of a school year. We help our kids get ready to perform well. There’s also the coming of children. Doctors give an estimated due date, and families get ready for the coming baby. We also get ready for weather that cancels church picnics.

Many comings in life demand we get ready. But there’s one coming that surpasses all others. In chapter 24 of Matthew, Jesus helps disciples get ready for his coming, a coming that will call the world to account, a coming that will be final and without second chances. It’s also a coming that’s certain. History has already witnessed several signs that guarantee his future coming. Jesus has died for sins and rose again, as he promised. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed, as he promised. The gospel is spreading to all nations, as he promised. Jesus’ future coming is just as certain.

But while there’s certainty about Jesus’ coming, we’ve also learned there’s uncertainty about when Jesus will come. The Father has not revealed that timing to us. We know enough to say there’s a delay between Jesus’ resurrection and return. But we don’t know when that delay will end. That mixture of certainty that he’s coming and uncertainty of when, should produce in us a desire to be always ready.

Jesus said that three different ways to close chapter 24. He used the days of Noah, the parable of a thief, and the parable of a wise servant to motivate readiness. In 25:1, he starts yet another parable to convey a similar message: however long his delay, the wise stay ready to meet Jesus. Let’s see how this unfolds in verses 1-13…

1 Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise answered, saying, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Jesus’ parable develops around three main characters; and I’d like to shape today’s message around their parts in the story. We’ll first consider the Bridegroom and his coming kingdom. Then we’ll consider the wise who stay ready for the Bridegroom. We’ll follow that with the foolish who don’t stay ready and miss the Bridegroom. Then we’ll close things out with verse 13, which gives the main point: however long his delay, the wise stay watchful/ready to meet Jesus.

The Bridegroom and His Coming Kingdom

Let’s start with the Bridegroom and his coming kingdom. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve heard it over thirty times in Matthew. It refers to God’s rule coming in Jesus Christ. It comes as a fulfillment of Old Testament promise. God aims to establish his heavenly rule on earth, to bring peace to the chaos, to heal all that’s broken, to replace evil with good.

Much of the time when Jesus teaches on this “kingdom of heaven” he explains it as a present reality—something “at hand” that the people experienced in his presence (Matt 4:17); something you could treasure now (Matt 13:44); something that would increase slowly over time like a mustard seed growing (Matt 13:31-32). When teaching on these present realities, Jesus would say, “the kingdom of heaven is like.”

But notice here the shift to the future tense: “the kingdom of heaven will be like.” Jesus focuses on the final stage of his kingdom—what it will be like the moment its fullness comes on earth. In verse 13, he speaks of “that day” and “that hour” again, which previously described that final day of the Son of Man’s coming—a coming that would be unmistakable, a coming that would have universal impact.[i]

In our passage, he retells that same story as the coming of a Bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God often described how he relates to his people as a husband relates to his bride.[ii] Jesus writes himself into that story. In the person of Jesus, we see God relating to his people as a husband to his bride. In 9:15, Jesus called himself the Bridegroom. Ephesians 5:25 says he comes to lay down his life for his Bride.

There were also promises for a great messianic banquet in the age to come.[iii] Isaiah 25:6 is likely the clearest. The Lord would “make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine…well refined.” God would gather his people and dine with them. On that day, he would remove their curse and wipe away all sorrows. Revelation 19 speaks of this same feast. It’s a wedding celebration. It’s a day when God finishes his great work of redemption. In verse 10, that’s the marriage feast Jesus is talking about. The kingdom of heaven will be like this great wedding feast; and Jesus the Bridegroom is coming to make that feast happen.

But something else Jesus’ parable explains is how there will be a delay in his coming. Verse 5, “as the bridegroom was delayed.” It’s not all that clear what historical customs were in play. Did the groom have to travel a long distance to get his bride and return? Did it take longer than expected to work out the inheritance? The parable doesn’t say. All we know is that the bridegroom delays his wedding procession. The Bridegroom delays the final consummation of his kingdom and all the activities that go with it.

Once that delay was over, though—when the time came to welcome him and celebrate his marriage—these ten virgins have an important assignment. Each have lamps to light the way for his coming. In the Old Testament, the young virgins would often tend to the wedding parties, sometimes using song and dance in the wedding procession (Ps 45:14; 78:63). Same here. These ten virgins have an important role of lighting the night sky. Their lamps would illuminate the procession into the feast and help everyone rejoice in the great arrival of the Bridegroom.

But a couple more things should be noted about the coming of Jesus’ kingdom: no one knows the day or the hour (Matt 25:13). In verses 5-6, the Bridegroom comes suddenly. The sleep of verse 5 shouldn’t be viewed negatively. For this parable, it conveys the idea of people going about their days normally, when then suddenly the kingdom is upon them. There’s a midnight cry: “Here’s the Bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Point being, nobody will know the exact timing of his arrival.

When the Bridegroom arrives, though, we learn that his kingdom will also separate people. That’s a pattern we’ve seen before. Like in the parable of the weeds—the weeds represented the wicked who would be separated from the righteous (Matt 13:36-43). Or in the parable of the net, the bad fish represented evil doers who will be separated from the good (Matt 13:47-50). And in the parable of the wise servant, the wicked servant is eventually separated and cast into that place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:45-51). So also here: when Jesus returns, his kingdom will separate the wise from the foolish. The wise enjoy the wedding feast while the foolish are excluded.

The Wise Who Stay Ready

That’s the Bridegroom and his coming kingdom. But why will Jesus’ kingdom separate these groups with such finality? What makes these groups so different? In the story, don’t they all have lamps? Don’t they all go to meet the bridegroom? Don’t they all fall asleep waiting his arrival? The point of the parable stands out in what makes them different. Why does Jesus welcome the wise and shut the door for the others?

Let’s start with the wise who stay ready. Five were foolish, verse 2 says; five were wise. This isn’t the only place Jesus distinguishes these two groups. We first encountered them in 7:24-27. Jesus said, “Everyone…who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” The wise person hears Jesus’ words and does them. Also, closer to our passage is 24:45. We learned there of a faithful and wise servant. His master sets him over the household, to give them their food at the proper time. And it says, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” The wise person busies himself with the master’s work.

These contexts condition our understanding of what it means to be wise. Another context that conditions our understanding of these wise virgins with lamps is 5:16. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp [same language] and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I bring that in not to say we should draw one-to-one correlations between the oil of their lamps being the good works of believers. That would be reading too much into Jesus’ parable, especially when you get to verse 9. The point isn’t that the wise had enough works and the others didn’t. The connection is broader. The wise are like lamps in a dark world, pointing others to the goodness of Jesus’ coming kingdom.

So, when we read in verse 4 that the wise took flasks of oil with them while they wait for the Bridegroom, another part of the picture is sketched in for us. The wise are in this for the long haul. However long his delay, what they want most is for their lives to welcome the King, their lives to celebrate the King, their lives to be ready for his arrival. What’s most important to them is meeting the King and enjoying his presence.

They are ready. That’s the difference. Look at verse 10, “the bridegroom came, and those who were ready, went in with him to the marriage feast.” For those who stay ready, no matter how long the wait, entry to the kingdom is your final reward. Being with Jesus at his glorious wedding feast is your final reward.

The Foolish Who Don’t Stay Ready

Not so with the foolish. Let’s consider them next: the foolish who don’t stay ready. Again, if we recall 7:24-27, the foolish person is the one who hears Jesus’ words but doesn’t do them. He’s like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. Then in 23:17, Jesus calls the Pharisees foolish for their hypocrisy when it came to the temple—all they wanted was external conformity without truly knowing God.

But another part to this picture of a foolish person is that he doesn’t prepare for Jesus’ delay. Verse 4 tells us that the foolish virgins take no oil with them. As someone else put it, that’s like having a flashlight with low batteries. It’s not going to last. Having oil was a sign of readiness in the wise virgins. The foolish virgins, then, aren’t ready. They might go for a while but eventually their light goes out. They’re not in this for the long haul. They don’t prepare themselves well to meet Jesus after a significant delay.

And when it comes time to meet Jesus, they try mooching off the faithfulness of others. Right? The cry goes out in verse 6. All of them trim their lamps in verse 7. But in verse 8, the lamps of the foolish start going out: “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.”

R. T. France writes this: “The response of the [wise virgins]…may sound selfish, and perhaps in a real-life situation they might have been willing to share…But in a parable things do not always happen according to real life, and the hard-nosed realism of the [wise virgins] invites the reader to reflect that spiritual preparedness is not something that others can provide for you: each [person] needs their own oil.”[iv]

What’s the result for the foolish virgins? Verse 10 again, “While they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

The result is exclusion from the Bridegroom’s kingdom. The Bible uses various images for final punishment. Fires that never go out. Worms that never die. Outer darkness without help. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Here we find another image: a door that shuts out the foolish from enjoying the wedding feast. Such harrowing words: “and the door was shut.” Such finality. No “Try again later.” No further opportunity. It’s shut for good, and they are left outside the joys of the kingdom.

At this moment in the parable, we also learn of something much deeper than mere non-readiness in the foolish (or readiness in the wise). Something far deeper was lacking in the foolish, and that was a personal relationship with the Bridegroom: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”[v] The isn’t factual knowledge—Jesus knows everything about everyone always. It’s better understood as relational knowledge—a knowledge that expresses one’s belongingness to the Bridegroom, an intimate knowledge like that shared between husband and wife, like that shared between God and his elect. Jesus does not know these foolish virgins like that.

Listen to this from Brian Rosner: “Making Jesus’ knowledge of a person the decisive criterion of judgment is particularly disturbing: ‘I never knew you.’ The verdict is highly personal, shatteringly brief, yet comprehensive; and it places the decision fully out of the condemned [person’s] reach. What can they do about not being known [this way]? Any appeal against this judgment would be futile…Such measures underscore the grace of God as the sole grounds for those who are saved; you can hardly take any credit…for being known by God.”[vi]

While Jesus delays, some may go through the motions of having a lamp. Some might even go along with others in the business of Christianity. But their lack of readiness to meet Jesus will prove, in the end, that Jesus never knew them. Their lack of readiness will evidence how they never truly loved him, but only wanted the benefits of his kingdom. Those whom he knows (and who truly know him), those with whom he shares an intimate relationship—they stay ready to meet Jesus, however long his delay.

The Main Point

Which brings us to the final point of Jesus’ parable in verse 13: “Watch [or stay ready] therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” All parables call forth a response. When the kingdom of heaven clashes with the kingdom of man, Jesus leaves no room for neutrality. There is only the wise and the foolish; those ready to meet Jesus and those not ready to meet Jesus; those who prepare to see him however long the wait, and those who don’t care to prepare, and look to the preparedness of others as their ticket into the kingdom. So, this parable forces us to ask, to which group do you belong?

Are you among those not ready to meet the Bridegroom? When it comes to the last day, you won’t be able to depend on being part of a good church. You won’t be able to depend on the faith of your parents to get you in the door. You won’t be able to depend on the devotion of your spouse or your Christian friends. Your only hope for entry to the wedding feast is a personal relationship with the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the Bridegroom, and one great theme spanning the Bible is how this Bridegroom comes to rescue his wayward Bride. The Bride, us—we have cheated on our Husband with all sorts of lovers (idols, false saviors, false gospels). All of us have looked for ultimate satisfaction and belongingness in other things besides the Lord. In our sins, we have been an unfaithful Bride. Yet, even while we were still sinners, Christ loved us. Ephesians 5:25 says, this Bridegroom “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle…”

Do you know this Bridegroom? Not, do you know about him. Not, are you just good at theology, important as that is. But do you know him? Do you belong to him? Have you come to him as your only hope for entry to the wedding feast? Don’t wait until the door is shut to see your need of Jesus. Two chapters ago, the parable of the wedding feast showed how the Lord’s invitation has gone out to the world. You’re invited to the wedding feast. The door of the kingdom is still open; but the Bridegroom is coming.

Are you ready? Do you know him? Or, more foundationally, does he know you? Have you come to realize his personal affection for you? Have you experienced his loving initiative in redeeming you? Have you tasted and seen that the Lord is good? Are you reassured regularly of his covenant commitment to you? When you read his word, do you hear him speaking to you as a father to his child? On days when you don’t even know yourself fully, do you find rest in the fact that God knows you fully and still draws near with patient, tender mercies? Are you known this way?

For us who know Jesus—or better, who are known by Jesus—are you staying ready to meet him? Again, the mixture of certainty that he’s coming and uncertainty of when, should produce in us a desire to be always ready. However long his delay, are you prepared to stick it out and keep your lamp burning? Brothers and sisters, are you prepared for the wait? Have you properly readied yourself for a long perseverance? The Christian life is one that keeps the lamps burning, no matter how long the night.  

There’s an old Baptist Confession from 1689. Some know it as the Second London Confession of Faith. Anyway, Article 32 includes words about the last judgment; and it says this in relation to what we’ve been learning:

As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.

One of God’s purposes in leaving that day unknown is that [we] may shake off all carnal [i.e., sinful] security and be always watchful. So often, what happens when we know the due date? We get idle. We procrastinate. We put things off. We get lazy until suddenly things must get done. We calculate how much time we can spend on ourselves. We presume that we’ll be alright until it’s the last second. But that’s not how the Lord sets things up with respect to Jesus’ coming. He sets it up in a way that keeps us focused, watchful, prayerful: “Is it today he might come for us? Will we enter the feast today? Am I ready for his arrival today? Is my life shining the way for his procession?”

That’s how wisdom thinks, beloved. Grow in the wisdom of this parable. How can you grow into this wisdom? Read the Scriptures. This isn’t the only place the Bible teaches us to think this way. The wisdom here is much like that of Ecclesiastes. After speaking of all sorts of life experiences under the sun, the brevity of all sorts of things we encounter, from joys to sorrows, from work to worship, from riches to poverty, the book ends this way: “Here’s the end of the matter…Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” In other words, live today in light of the end.

That’s what Jesus is telling us here: “Stay ready today in light of the end, his coming.” Doesn’t Paul get at something similar in Titus 2:13? The grace of God has appeared, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Godliness today is motivated, in part, by our blessed hope, the appearing of Jesus Christ. Grow in the wisdom of this parable by reading the Bible.

Let God’s word keep your sights set on the end and what that end means for now. You live in a world that is constantly trying to keep your sights on the present. “Lay up treasures here,” it will tell you. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. There’s no accountability. Stop worrying about that day. Hasn’t it been like 2,000 years anyway? Why do you think he’s coming back? Live for yourself, not for him.” That’s how the world talks; and you need the Bible to keep your eyes on Jesus’ coming.

You can also grow in this wisdom by staying in fellowship with your local church. Look around—you are a huge means of grace to keep one another ready and persevering. Hebrews 10:24-25, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” What “day”? That day of Jesus coming to get us and bringing us into the feast with him.

When you meet one on one, when you gather for care group, when you attend Bible study or share meals together, when you gather for song and hearing the word taught—these are means of increasing your wisdom as we see the Day drawing near. Isn’t this what happens when we eat and drink at this Table? Every Sunday we gather to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. The church is a community of people who can’t wait to see their Savior, and that effects what we do in the world now.

There are those whose teaching ministries have been consumed with the end-times; and where some of these teachers have erred in their handling of Scripture, it is right for us to correct them. But be careful that your criticisms don’t lead to a dismissive, neglectful attitude concerning the end-times. According to Jesus, we ought to be thinking about the end more, not less. In light of the end, get ready. Many comings in life demand we get ready. But none compares to the coming of our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

“The Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:16-18). However long his delay, the wise stay ready to meet Jesus.

________

[i] Matt 24:27, 37, 39, 42, 44.

[ii] Isa 54:5; 62:5; Hos 2:16.

[iii] Isa 25:6; Zech 8:19.

[iv] France, Matthew, 949.

[v] Similar words were spoken earlier of the false teachers: “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23).

[vi] Brian S. Rosner, “‘Known by God’: The Meaning and Value of a Neglected Biblical Concept,” Tyndale Bulletin 59.2 (2008), 223.

other sermons in this series