How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The wise and foolish virgins

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who, having taken their lamps, came to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five wise. 3 For the foolish ones, having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them. 4 But the wise took oil in the flasks with their lamps.

5 With the bridegroom delaying they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But in the middle of the night there was a shout: ‘Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 But the foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Lest there not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.

10 With them having gone to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready entered with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But answering he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch, therefore, for you do not know the day or the hour.

What is the historical frame of reference of Jesus’ parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins? Tradition has taught us to read this as a story about a final consummation at the second coming of Jesus, at some uncertain point in our own future. Taken in isolation from the story that Matthew is telling this might be a plausible interpretation, but if we take the narrative context seriously, I think we have to conclude that what Jesus had in mind was a much more immediate and relevant outcome.

The parable forms part of Jesus’ teaching about future events in response to a question about the destruction of the temple and the end of the age (Matt. 24:3). He describes the hardships and challenges that the disciples will face during a period of mounting ‘tribulation’ in Judea. This narrative climaxes ‘immediately’ in a symbolic statement about the appearance of the ‘sign of the Son of Man’ in heaven (Matt. 24:29-30). The ‘tribes of the land’ – that is, the tribes of Israel, not of the whole earth – will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven and sending out his angels to gather his disciples to participate in his vindication and victory.

I will not go into the detailed reasons here why I think that in Jesus’ mind this corporate vindication was closely associated with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans – I just think it makes good sense of i) the temporal and logical development of the passage; ii) Jesus’ repeated and unequivocal insistence that all these things would take place within a generation; iii) the background to this language in the prophets, Daniel in particular; and iv) the historical perspective of the early community of disciples.

Jesus is clearly anxious to impress upon his disciples that although they can be confident that these things will work themselves out within their lifetimes, they cannot afford to be careless or complacent about the task that he has given them. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins makes this point: the disciples are not to be like the foolish virgins who find they have run out of oil for their lamps when the bridegroom finally arrives at the house and are excluded from the party.

There are two other significant places in the New Testament where the image of a wedding feast is used in this sort of eschatological sense. We should consider them first, before asking particular questions about this parable.

The parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14)

The king gives a wedding feast in honour of his son. When those invited treat the king’s servants shamefully and kill them, the ‘king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city’ (22:7). Then he sends his servants out into the streets and they invite all and sundry to the wedding feast, ‘both bad and good’.

This looks like a straightforward allegory: official Judaism, represented in this context by the chief priests and the Pharisees, rejects the invitation to participate in the celebration of Jesus as God’s Son and mistreats both the prophets and the disciples (cf. Matt. 5:12; 23:29-31, 34); God’s judgment on these murderers is to destroy Jerusalem and the temple; and instead the ‘poor’ and ‘sinners’ are invited to the feast – though the unfortunate man who gets in without a wedding garment is consigned to the ‘outer darkness’, where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. The bride plays no part in the story: the wedding feast is given for the king’s son (22:2).

The final warning that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ (22:14) recalls the question put to Jesus in Luke when he is on his way to Jerusalem: ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ (Lk. 13:23). At issue here is the fate of the Jews in Judea. The narrative culminates in the desolation of Israel’s house (cf. 13:35) and the exclusion of ‘all you workers of evil’ from the feast that will celebrate the restoration of the kingdom of God. This is the same feast, in effect, as the wedding feast of Matthew 22:1-14. It stands as a symbol for the renewal of the people of God around Jesus as the Son of God as the direct outcome of judgment and tribulation.

The marriage supper of the Lamb

The other significant marriage feast in the New Testament is found in Revelation 19:6-10. It forms part of the climactic account of divine judgment on Rome: ‘the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants’ (19:2). The context has shifted, but this is again an argument about ‘kingdom’: ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’ (19:6) – this time not by judging Israel but by defeating Rome, the arch imperial oppressor of the saints. But the same pattern is played out: the city or nation or empire that persecutes the servants of God is destroyed, and a party is held to celebrate the establishment of an alternative ‘kingdom’ of the Son.

In this case, however, the bride has become a key figure, because in John’s mind this celebration also entails the reunion of Jesus with the saints who suffered at the hands of the oppressor. These are the martyrs, who had been killed ‘for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, who come to life and reign with him for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4). This is their reward for having faithfully endured suffering and for having ‘conquered’.

Back to the virgins

The first thing to note is that this is also a parable of the kingdom: ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom….’ The two previous passages have suggested that ‘kingdom’ has in view historically significant events in a foreseeable future that will have a profound and far-reaching impact on the status of God’s people in relation to the nations. This sense is supported broadly by references throughout the New Testament to texts such as Psalm 2; 110; Daniel 7:13-14. Jesus is the Son who is given authority over the nations which threaten the existence of the people of God.

Secondly, in the Old Testament the imagery of a wedding feast is used widely to describe the joy inspired by God’s restoration of his people:

Thus says the Lord: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “ ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’” (Jer. 40:11; cf. Is. 61:10; 62:5; Joel 2:16)

Jesus’ use of the metaphor is entirely consistent with this motif. Nothing in the text indicates that he is using it to describe events unrelated to the theme of the restoration of the people of God following judgment.

Thirdly, it seems a much too obvious point to have to make, but the parable is addressed to a specific group of people – the disciples, who do not know when their deliverance and vindication will come, who will have to wait some time before the master or the bridegroom returns to the house. If they are to fulfil their calling, if they are to be good stewards, good shepherds of the emerging flock of renewed Israel, they will have to be prepared, ready at all times, proactive in exploiting the opportunities given them for extending the reach of this movement of transformation.

OK, so we’re off the hook?

No, that would be a serious misunderstanding of this argument. In the first place, we still need to determine what it means to be responsible participants in this ongoing story. I regard it as an exegetically and historically sound insight that Jesus spoke prophetically and symbolically about events that would take place within the lifetime of his disciples. But we cannot conclude from this that the New Testament has no bearing on the existence of the redeemed, vindicated people of God beyond these proximate horizons.

Secondly, I have always maintained that there is a third horizon in the New Testament, just perceptible in the background of the historical argument about the eventual vindication of the emerging church. In broad anthropological terms it is the inescapable judgment of death on human sinfulness, but the historical narrative of the people of God from Abraham onwards, which is repeatedly a narrative of failure and restoration, has generated the ultimate prospect of a new heavens and a new earth, of a final destruction of all that is evil, and of the renewal of life in the presence of the Creator.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 10/19/2010 - 07:51 | Permalink

I'm supposed to be at a Guildford church keaders' prayer meeting in about ten minutes, so this is a quick response, as it seems to be picking up on a contribution I made a few days ago (about the parable of the ten virgins).

I'm grateful to Andrew for his thoughtful inclusion in the discussion of the other parables and references to weddings and marriage celebrations. I'd like to reflect on these further, at some later date.

At the moment, I'd just want to say that there is a much bigger picture than Andrew allows, when images of wedding and marriage come into play, which is the eschatological marriage of YHWH with his people, and which goes back to the Passover/Exodus, and the giving of the covenant at Mount Sinai. In this imagery, Israel hovers between bing described as YHWH's 'son', and HWH's 'bride'.

The 'bride' always was 'the bride to be', since Israel's relationship with YHWH was always the wayward bride. In that sense, the Mt Sinai covenant always was provisional, and waiting for covenant renewal, which was anticipated in the covenant agreement itself (Deuteronomy 30:6).

The celebration of bride and bridegroom is described in Revelation 19. The bride appears as 'the new Jerusalem' in Revelation 21.

The question is: do the allusions to weddings and marriages in the parables cited limit the fulfilment of what they imply, in terms of very obviously broader biblical imagery, to AD 70? For all the outworkings in AD 70 of the warnings Jesus had been giving about not recognising God's purposes and not working with what God was doing, I do not think that the AD 70 itself can be said to fulfil without remainder the rich seam of biblical imagery which the references are tapping into.

In Revelation 19, it is not Rome which is in the frame, but Babylon. This is a separate argument, but the burden of proof has to fall on those who wish to limit the meaning of 'Babylon' to 1st century Rome. I think the range of imagery suggests that we are looking at more than Rome, though Rome may well be included.

Peter, I hope you made it on time to your prayer meeting, with oil in your lamp, and did not find yourself cast into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I agree that there is the thought that Israel is YHWH’s bride from its earliest beginnings – you see it in Jeremiah 2:1-2, for example:

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.

But it’s difficult to find this language before the prophets, which suggests that it becomes important at the point of crisis, when Israel has come under judgment and is in need of restoration.

It also seems necessary to keep in mind that a wedding feast is not an ongoing state or relationship but a particular moment – the moment when the coming together of bridge and groom is celebrated. That’s why it becomes relevant at times of ‘eschatological’ crisis.

You speak of a ‘rich seam of biblical imagery’ that Jesus taps into, but the imagery is actually quite focused and limited in application: it describes a particular type of event, the reconciliation of God and his people following judgment.

So your reference to ‘broader biblical imagery’ seems misleading. There is nothing either in Jesus’ use of the metaphor of a wedding feast or in the Old Testament background to suggest that he is thinking of something other than the ‘coming together’ or fulfilment that would be an outworking of the crisis of AD 70. As I have repeatedly said, Jesus explicitly limits the completion of these events to the lifetime of his disciples.

It seems to me that the question is: Does the context of Matthew 24-25 require Jesus to say more than what was relevant to his argument about judgment on Jerusalem, the restoration of the people of God, and the obligation of his disciples to remain faithful to their vocation?

The point is that language and imagery may have a broad usage, or broad meaning, or a broad set of connotations, but that does not mean that it must have a correspondingly broad referent. General language – even language that draws on a rich tradition – can be used to describe a particular event, and it would constitute some sort of referential fallacy to suppose that other referents are entailed with it.

So, yes, arguably the symbolism of ‘Babylon’ could be used quite legitimately in other contexts, to speak of later circumstances. But that does not mean that John did not have in view the particular event of judgment on pagan Rome, which, given the actual context in which he and the churches found themselves, must have been a matter of overriding significance.

Andrew, I did get to the prayer meeting, on time, and wasn't refused entry for lack of oil in my lamp, so I was a very properly prepared little virgin (even though I hadn't time to brush my teeth beforehand).

I agree that the relationship of Israel to YHWH as bride to husband is developed more fully than anywhere else in the O.T. by the prophets, who depict Israel's history retrospectively with this imagery (eg Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 16, ). But I don't think they developed the imagery exclusively, and only as a response to Israel under judgement.

The covenant sign of circumcision, from Abraham onwards, introduces marriage imagery into the relationship with YHWH, and so links the human marriage covenant (from Genesis 2:23-24 onwards, repeated three times in the NT in gospels and epistle) with the covenant between God and his people. The link between circumcision and marriage to YHWH may not have been explicit, but it didn't need to be; it spoke for itself.

This link is reinforced in the puzzling incident with Zipporah and Moses' son in Exodus 4:24-25, which lends support to the idea of a 'marriage' in the circumcision ceremony. When Zipporah says of Moses: "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me" after she circumcises her son, it is sometimes taken to be a criticism, by Zipporah, of the physical brutality of circumcision with which she associated Moses. But it makes more sense if her words are understood to refer to a betrothal, through Moses, to God. By the circumcision of her son, she has been betrothed (or has confirmed her betrothal) to God, in a ceremony instituted through Moses.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, in the connection between human marriage and divine marriage which is made explicit by Paul, Christ's intent has a present and future goal (from their standpoint and ours): the presenting of the church as holy and blameless to himself.  Indeed, human marriage is said to be a reflection of the marriage between Christ and the church. There are clear echoes of Ezekiel 16 here, and a reinforcement of the divinity of Christ, by the way, in the parallels between YHWH and Christ. The context may be of Israel under judgement in Ezekiel, and the renewal of the people of God in Ephesians, but there is no sense at all in Ephesians, except perhaps very indirectly, that AD 70 is seen as the event which will in itself bring about that consummation. The church's relationship with Jesus in the past and the present is presented as a marriage, but this marriage will only be fulfilled when the purpose for which the relationship was created achieves eschatological completion: with the resurrection of the dead, new heavens and new earth, and God dwelling among his people.

I don't question that AD 70 is seen as a very imminent and practical concern in gospels and epistles, but I do not believe that it can be seen as the exclusive future concern of the one, or even predominantly of the other. From Abraham onwards, God's plan was for Israel to be a servant to the whole world. Jesus is the completion of that purpose, as the promised seed, and as the bearer in himself of the new creation, and the new covenant which would fulfil the purpose of the old covenant. The parables of Matthew 24  and 25 to me contain elements of an AD 70 fulfilment, and also a rather louder proclamation of more distant events not fulfilled in AD 70, which makes even more sense to us in our historical relation to the parables than it might have had to the original hearers. 

Whether Jesus, or the original hearers of the parables, understood or intended the more distant application has to be judged from the structure and content of the parables themselves. There is no suggestion that any were surprised that the new creation did not come about in AD 70, and there is little evidence of AD 70 being seen as anything more eschatologically significant than the vindication of Jesus through his fulfilled prophecy. The further, new creation, fulfilment was understood to come later, and not connected with AD 70 itself.

I am quite sure that the Matthew 24 and 25 parables, as well as Matthew 22, would have been discussed and studied by the early church, and the wedding content would not have been associated primarily with AD 70, but seen as pointing to a more distant time when the church would be presented to Christ as the fulfilment of YHWH's purposes reaching back to Abraham, and of course before that. Bearing in mind that there is an equivalence between references to YHWH and references to Christ in more than one part of the OT and NT.

AD 70 might well have been seen as an important staging post in the emergence of the new covenant community out of the ashes of apostate Israel and the old covenant nation, but not, I argue, as the terminal event of the Matthew 22, 24 and 25 parables themselves.

In Matthew 22, there is the same exclusion of the unprepared (wrongly clothed) wedding guest as the unprepared virgins in Matthew 25, with the same awkwardness of exclusive association with AD 70 (when the unprepared were inside the city, and the prepared were outside, having fled).

In a nutshell, AD 70 did not represent the fulfilment of all that was implied in the use of wedding/marriage/bridal imagery, in OT and NT.

In Revelation 19, the wedding celebration is not disconnected from the appearance of the bride in Revelation 21:2, which is directly connected with the future fulfilment of God's purposes in Revelation 21:3-4 and the rest of the chapter.

There's plenty more to discuss from the opening post of this thread, but things have already moved on, and there is another post to read, which opens up another discussion thread. For now, I'll leave you guessing as to whether I'll reply to that or not.

The evidence you put forward for a broader of the wedding feast imagery is extremely limited. You have a penchant for finding implicit arguments all over the place! The Zipporah passage is so obscure as to be irrelevant, but in any case, there is nothing in it to support your argument about a betrothal to God.

Ezekiel 16 is important and may well have a bearing on Ephesians 5, but the thought in these two texts is still quite different from the eschatological use of the marriage feast in the prophets and by Jesus. The washing of the bride with water in both Ezekiel 16 and Ephesians 5 refers to the beginning of the covenant relationship between God and his people, and there is no marriage feast imagery involved. The eschatological pattern is different: the feast represents the reconciliation of God and his people after judgment. That element is missing from Ezekiel 16: the wife goes off and plays the harlot, and there is no prospect in the parable of reconciliation.

So we are still left with the basic motif: a wedding feast that celebrates the reconciliation of God and his people after judgment. Since we believe that because of Christ we are no longer subject as a people to the condemnation of the Law, there is no reason to demand subsequent fulfilments for these prophecies of judgment and restoration. There is a final judgment on Israel in AD 70 accompanied by a final restoration as a result of the faithful ministry and witness of the disciples, celebrated symbolically as a wedding feast. But then the people of God is under grace, and the old typology has become redundant. Thus there is an absolute theological reason for denying that Jesus intended this language to have relevance beyond the eschatological crisis that saw the emergence of the church from the obsolete system of Judaism.

In a nutshell, AD 70 did not represent the fulfilment of all that was implied in the use of wedding/marriage/bridal imagery, in OT and NT.

Well, no, that’s true. But that was precisely my point about the difference between meaning and referent. The imagery could quite properly – though with different connotations – be used in in respect of the victory over Roman paganism or the renewal of creation (see below). But that does not mean that Jesus must have been referring to these things when he warned the disciples sitting in front him to stay vigilant because they could not be sure when the bridegroom would come to the house.

And you keep avoiding the fact that Jesus explicitly states that all these things – the judgment of Israel, the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, and the vindication of the suffering community of disciples – will take place within a generation. Why not just take him at his word?

In Revelation 19, the wedding celebration is not disconnected from the appearance of the bride in Revelation 21:2, which is directly connected with the future fulfilment of God’s purposes in Revelation 21:3-4 and the rest of the chapter.

What do you mean it’s ‘not disconnected’? There’s a thousand years between them – whatever that means.

The marriage feast in Revelation 19 celebrates the purity and righteousness of the church, and perhaps specifically of the martyrs, that overcomes persecution and eventually gains the victory over Rome. Because of their faithfulness they have shown themselves to be a fit bride for the Lamb, who is the one who suffered righteously before them.

In Revelation 21 the metaphor appears to be used a little differently for the final reconciliation of God and his people as part of a new creation, though again, I’m not sure whether the descending city is meant to represent or contain specifically the martyrs who have reigned in heaven with Christ for the thousand years.

I'm sorry Andrew, but this is a classic case of you sweeping aside anything which does not fit with your view of things.

Circumcision is a huge illustration of marriage to YHWH - and underlies the covenant, and all subsequent bridal/wedding/marriage illustrations in the OT.

You have simply ignored the connection between the human marriage covenant of Genesis 2 and the divine marriage covenant of God with his people, clearly brought together in Ephesians 5. Moreover, Ezekiel 16 is echoed distinctly in the Ephesians 5 passage, and the passage does indeed have to do with the eschatological purposes of Christ for the church, without any reference to restoration after judgement. You seem not to have read this paragraph at all.

Revelation 19 has everything to do with Revelation 21. Revelation is full of recapitulations, and this is just one of them. The imagery is the same for a reason. You can't just say that the imagery means something different because you want it to!

You haven't really read or taken in my interpretation of Matthew 24, or taken note of any of the comments I have made on the parables. I don't really think you want to listen to any view other than your own.