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Stand Firm: And Keep Watch

Date: Sep. 25, 2016

Author: Bob Henkins

Matthew 25:1-13

Key Verse: Matthew 25:13

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Who knows what April 18th, 1775 and December 7th, 1941 have in common? They are two dates that changed the course of American history. What happened on April 18th, 1775? That was the evening Paul Revere made his famous ride warning people: “The Redcoats are coming.” What about December 7th, 1941? That was the morning when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Do you know how they are different? One is an example of keeping watch and being prepared and the other is not. Paul Revere had seen their prearranged signal: two lanterns had been hung briefly in the bell-tower of Christ Church in Boston, indicating that troops would row "by sea" across the Charles River to Cambridge, rather than marching "by land" out Boston Neck. Revere had arranged for these signals the previous weekend, as he was afraid that he might be prevented from leaving Boston. The Japanese attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor crippled or destroyed nearly 20 ships and more than 300 airplanes, as well as dry docks and airfields. More importantly almost 2500 men were killed and another 1000 wounded during the attack. Pearl Harbor will always stand as a warning to what can happen when you are unprepared and fail to keep watch. And that’s the main point the passage we’re going to study today is going to make. From last week’s passage we learned that Jesus encouraged his followers to stand firm to the end, he said, “but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mt 24:13) So over the next couple of weeks we are going to have a three-part mini-series based upon the parables in chapter 25 starting with this one: the parable of the ten virgins. All of them will encourage us in different ways in how to stand firm to the end.

In this parable Jesus is going to give us a clue as to what the kingdom of heaven is going to be like. Jesus starts out in verse 1, “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” In last week’s passage Jesus gave the signs of the end of the age, the time of Jesus’ second coming, the time when the Kingdom of God would be established, the time of the Messiah's rule on the earth, and naturally the disciples got really interested and asked, “When’s it going to happen?” Jesus responds, “I don’t know, no one knows, no person, no angel, only God the Father knows when it is going to happen.” This was such an important topic that Jesus actually repeated it four times in chapter 24. He starts in verse 36 saying, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. ” and then again in verse 42, then 44 and finally in verse 50. Jesus repeats the same topic in the course of 14 verses. I’d say that at this point he’s beating a drum, he’s pounding this into them.

You would think that they would get the hint. But neither they, nor many many people after them have stopped thinking about when the time would come.  For example, just a couple of decades after the apostle John wrote Revelation around 110 A.D. St. Ignatius wrote, "the last days are upon us. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible." Another early church father, Hippolytus, wrote in the year 236 A.D. that Christ was sure to return by 500 A.D. Another influential Christian named Martin about 375 A.D. wrote, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power." At the end of the first millennium around the year 1000 there were many predictions about the imminent return of Christ - to the point where Christians didn’t plant crops for the next year, buildings weren’t repaired and the details of daily life were ignored. In the 1500’s, Martin Luther wrote, "We have reached the time of the white horse of the Apocalypse. This world will not last any longer . . . than another hundred years." A little known fact about Christopher Columbus is that he was a student of biblical prophecy. He even wrote a book called "The Book Of Prophecies," in which he predicted that the world would end in the year 1656 saying, "there is no doubt that the world must end in one hundred fifty-five years." As you might imagine the year 1666 saw an explosion in end times speculation. It doesn’t seem to stop. In 1992 Harold Camping wrote a book called “1994”, where he predicted Jesus would come again September 6th. When that date came and went he predicted Jesus would come again May 21, 2011. However, Jesus was very clear that no one knows when he will come again so we should never listen to anyone that claims they know.

In fact, the day and time is so unknown that Jesus tells this parable with the intent of teaching us the suddenness and unexpectedness of the coming of the Lord which should drive us to be prepared so that we’re not caught unaware and unprepared in that unexpected moment. Notice the words, “At that time” what are they referring to? This refers to what he was just speaking about, his second coming when he comes to establish his kingdom and reward the
faithful servant and to punish the unfaithful.

The first time Jesus came the world was not ready. Although they should have been, for the prophets had pointed out the signs for them to look for. The prophets said there would be a forerunner and there was. They identified him as a voice crying in the wilderness and that's what John did. They said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and he was. Born of a virgin. Check. Of the line of David. Yep. They said he would come to Galilee and he did. They said he would have great power and he had it. But the world still was not prepared and not ready. And so Jesus came to that which was his own and they rejected him. And even as Jesus approached Jerusalem in his last days he cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Mt23:37) When Jesus saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. (Lk19:42) If you had only known what time it was, if you had only known that I was here and now it's too late. And so Jesus tells his disciples, and everyone that follows him, the parable of the ten virgins to warn the world not to let that happen again because there won’t be another chance after that.

When you first read this parable it may seem a little confusing because it mentions a bridegroom but no bride, it seems kind of weird that he is meeting ten virgins in the middle of the night, why are the lamps so important, where does this take place, why was the bridegroom so late and why was he so rude at the end? Is there any special meaning to the oil, the lamps, coming at midnight? Those are all interesting questions, and I’m sure that you probably have others, but I like to focus on overall theme of this parable and keep it simple. It’s meant to teach us that Jesus is coming to judge sinners and to reward the righteous. And when he comes it will be sudden and unexpected and thus everyone should be prepared for it because there will be no second chance. People may knock all they want, but the door will be shut. The day of opportunity will have come and gone forever.

Keeping it simple, all we need to know about this parable is four things: there is a wedding, we can understand the virgins are similar to bridesmaids, there is a bridegroom and there is a warning. But before we can get into the parable we have to understand the context in which Jesus is telling it. Jesus often uses everyday life events as teaching opportunities and in this case he used the Jewish wedding tradition. In preparation for this message, Mike had given me this pamphlet that describes Jewish marriage customs. Back in their day weddings were the greatest events a village or town could have. It would have been such a joyful social celebration that got everyone involved, friends, family and sometimes the whole town. In a Jewish marriage, there were three elements. The first is engagement. Long before the scene that we see in this parable there was an engagement. And the engagement was an official contract between the two fathers who were giving their daughter or son to each other. Back then engagements weren't really made with the couple, but usually between the fathers. A little while after that, there would be the second phase of the wedding, the official marriage ceremony which was called the betrothal. The couple would come together before a smaller group of friends and family and they would take their vows and make their commitments and covenants which were binding promises. Once this was completed they were officially married. The last phase was the engagement period which lasted about one year. During this phase the daughter and son still lived in their own parent’s home, but this gave the young man some time to get things ready to take his bride home. He had to provide a place for her, maybe build an addition on to his father's house, or a house of his own. Maybe purchase some land and cultivate a field so that he could provide and care for his new bride. At the end of the time, the groom would go with his best man and other groomsmen in the evening and pick up his bride and her bridesmaids and then all of them would go to the father’s house where they would find all the wedding guests had already gathered for their celebration. Shortly after the bride and groom arrived they would be escorted to the wedding chamber where they would go in alone and enter into a physical relationship for the first time and consummate the marriage that had been covenanted earlier. After the marriage has been consummated the groom would announce it to the others that were waiting outside the wedding chamber and the party would begin sometimes lasting seven days.

And our parable today takes place during that period where the bride is waiting for her groom to come and pick her up. And you can imagine her anticipation as she waits for her groom, not knowing exactly when he’s going to come and pick her up. That was part of the excitement.

The second thing we need to know to understand this parable are the bridesmaids. Verse 1 calls them virgins, that was just to indicate that they were unmarried and assumed to be virgins because they weren’t married yet. The verse also says they had lamps but what they really were, was torches and each one needed one because they were walking in the middle of the night from the bride’s house across town to the bridegroom’s house. They are all dressed up and they don’t want to fall on their way to the party. Some may ask the question: who are these girls? And according to the parable from what our Lord Jesus says, he’s indicating that they are professed Christians. They are those who claim to belong to Christ and are waiting for the coming of the Lord. And at first they all look alike. On the outside they appear to be the same, they're all gathered as bridesmaids, they have their wedding clothes on, they attend the bride, they have their torch, all are part of the believing community and waiting for the bridegroom. Their presence symbolizes their interest and their torch symbolizes their profession of faith in Christ, their preparation symbolizes their commitment to Jesus. At first, they all appear indistinguishable but they’re not all alike and this is the message of the parable. Verses 2-4 say, “Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.” It’s not clear to us, but it is to the Lord because he can see into our hearts. And I read about the Greek words that were used here to describe them, the first one was “phronimos” which has to do with the brain, meaning thoughtful, sensible, prudent, wise. And the second word was “moros” from which we get our word moron, meaning stupid. So although they are not outwardly distinguishable, but inwardly they are very different.

The thing that distinguishes them, that makes them different is the oil. So what does the oil represent? Some think it represents the saving grace of God that distinguishes true believers from false. Some think that the oil is like the wedding garment from the parable in Matthew 22. Some think it is like those of whom Paul wrote about to Timothy saying they had a form of godliness but without power. (2 Tim 3:5) While others think it simply means they were prepared. Whatever it is, it shows that some of them had it and some didn’t. Those who had it were wise and those who didn’t were foolish.

And this is what happened take a look at verses 6-12. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’” The virgins that thought ahead and prepared for the unexpected by bringing extra oil were considered the wise ones, while those that didn’t were the foolish ones. No one expected the bridegroom to take so long, there is no mention of what detained him. Some believe that this refers to Jesus delay in coming so as give all people more time to repent and accept his saving grace. But whatever the case, he was delayed and those who are wise should prepare for the unexpected.

But when the shouts were heard that the bridegroom was there, all the virgins woke up and found their torches out. The wise ones cut off the burnt cloth, re-oiled and lit it and were on their way. But the foolish ones were stuck, they asked for help but it was too late there wasn’t enough oil to go around. This refers to our personal faith in Jesus. Faith is something personal, we can’t barrow or share another person’s faith. And when the foolish virgins went out in search of it they found out that it was too late. The door had already been shut.

We can speculate, this and that, about why the foolish virgins didn’t go out sooner to get oil, but we don’t really know the reason only that they didn’t do it. And in a moment when they faced the reality of their unpreparedness, it will be in that moment that it's too late. This reminded me of Noah and how he prepared the Ark. Most people didn’t prepare like him and when the rain started to come down the door to the Ark was closed tightly shut. It was then that the people realized their mistake but it was too late. This wasn’t a small issue, in the case with Noah, the majority of the people weren’t prepared. In the case of the virgins, half weren’t prepared. I think they point here is to say that it's a common issue, it's not isolated. And maybe the church is filled with these kinds of people who are unprepared. That’s why Jesus says in verse 13, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” When we don’t know the hour, that means we have be prepared all the time. Otherwise if you knew the time, you could just prepare right before it happens. For example, maybe your house gets a little messy from time to time, but then you hear that someone is coming over, so you hurry up and clean the place up, usually putting the last thing away right as the doorbell rings. And with a sigh of relief you open the door. But what happens if someone stops over unexpected? You’re like, “Oh, sorry about the mess…” But God doesn’t let us know when Jesus will come again because he wants true believers, not those who are going to live one life style most of their lives and then change and live God’s lifestyle right before he comes. I think that in some ways the people who try to predict when Jesus will come again don’t really want to live as God commands. Instead they want to live their own way right up to the last minute.

So what does it mean to “keep watch?” I believe this refers to how we live our life. It means having a personal relationship with Jesus. When the foolish virgins said, ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ the bridegroom said, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ This reminded me of Matthew 7:21 when Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” And I believe we can find the way we can keep watch, and that is by doing the will of God. We can keep watch by reading the Bible, learning about who God is, what Jesus did, and how to follow God’s commands. The problem with the Pharisee is that they knew God’s commands but they didn’t obey God’s commands, they were hypocrites. And Jesus doesn’t want us to live as hypocrites. That’s why God doesn’t let us know when he’s coming so that we should live everyday as if he is coming soon. It should be our way of life, not some last minute preparation. Remember when I mentioned those Christian back around the year 1000 who didn’t plant crops or take care of their building because they thought Jesus was coming then, well that happened only a few years ago. Once I was driving behind a van, and on the van it said that Jesus was coming on October 28th, I heard that many people sold everything they had and gave it away, but when the day came and went, they were devastated. It happened back then, now and probably even in the future. These are examples of how not to be prepared. They are wasting their time trying to find out when Jesus will come again and they are not doing what they are supposed to do which is sharing his word, loving others and loving God. We need to keep watch by studying the Bible for ourselves so that we are not deceived and lead astray. May God bless you to keep watch and be prepared.

For some people being prepared and keeping watch to the end will mean when Jesus comes again, but in reality for most people the end refers to our death. And just like no one knows when Jesus will come again, no one know when they will die and usually it comes when we don’t expect it. Just yesterday I went with Julia to her friend’s mother-in-law’s wake. And we heard that she had been told that she had lung cancer on Friday and she died on Monday. It was that quick. And my daughter told me about an incident at Northwestern this week where a freshman student, who only been on campus a week or two, was killed when her bike was run over by a cement truck. How tragic. Neither of them started their days knowing that their end would come so soon, but it happens. Therefore, we must live as one who is prepared and keeps watch. May God bless you to stand firm to the end and keep watch.

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