The Difficulty and Importance of Keeping Watch

The Difficulty and Importance of Keeping Watch

It’s been noted that when people know that their time on earth is drawing to a close, they will, understandably, focus on telling those they love the things they consider to be most important; the things they don’t want to die having left unsaid. Though in the case of Jesus everything he taught was important, it is interesting that in the chapter that comes between our passage last week and our parable this morning, he had begun to talk about the end times and the signs that would accompany the end of the ages. Among these were: warnings about counterfeit Messiahs and prophets arising, complete with signs and wonders intended to deceive even God’s elect; rumors of wars; nations rising up against one another; earthquakes, famines—all of which Jesus described as the beginning of birth pains.[1] But after providing numerous descriptions of what must occur before the end, Jesus added, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”[2] This reminds us, then, of the need for both readiness and caution in pronouncing any era as the end of all ages: readiness because even in the span of our lives, we’ve tragically experienced these signs in cult leaders and wars throughout the world and natural disasters and famine; but caution, too, because the existence of these signs doesn’t mean today is the end—maybe it is but maybe it will be delayed. Most recently the Y2K computer paranoia didn’t occur nor did the ages end as some predicted they would when the year 2000 ended. Again, no one knows when Christ will return, the Father excepted.

Yet Jesus wanted his disciples to be ready. So he spoke to them about the end times during his last days on earth because with the initial coming of Christ, the King of the cosmos, in human flesh the last days were inaugurated; the beginning of the birth pangs had begun. But the parables we’ll be considering both this week and next address the readiness aspect for the time when Christ returns and the ages, as we know them, draw to a close. For all those who have lived since his arrival to—and departure from—earth should be ready to meet their Maker because, again, he can return at any time or his return may be delayed—so we’re called to watch and be ready.

In this morning’s well-known parable, Jesus began by noting, “At that time,” that is, when Christ Jesus returns at the end of the age,[3] “the kingdom of heaven will be like….” and let me pause here. As we’ve noted before, the kingdom of heaven is a central theme of Jesus’ parables. In Matthew alone, it’s mentioned fifty times.[4] Though Christ is King over heaven and earth, what you and I experience here on earth is his kingdom rule by his Holy Spirit in his worldwide church. It’s beyond humbling to consider that Jesus Christ has entrusted us, his children and followers, to carry on the work he did while on earth—“teaching in [the] synagogues,”—or for us, the church gathering whose roots are found in the synagogue gathering—“proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness”[5] to the best of our ability. For it is by these means that our gracious and kind God choses to answer that portion of the Lord’s prayer we prayed together earlier in the service: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But one day when Christ’s work of redemption is complete, when he has gathered into his kingdom all who are his own, evil will be vanquished, Satan will be overthrown, our struggle with temptation and sin will come to an end, and death will be no more. And what a glorious day that will be! But because we are not God and therefore can’t know when Christ will return, again, we need to live faithfully whether he returns immediately or his return is delayed for an unexpectedly long amount of this. And the tension between these two possibilities regarding Christ’s return is the focus of this parable.

So, again, 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.” Christ’s return to establish upon earth the rule that already exists in heaven “will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” A modern-day equivalence to these virgins would be bridesmaids in a wedding party. And, according to one source, “It was the Jewish marriage custom for the groom and his friends to leave his home and proceed to the home of the bride, where the marriage ceremony was conducted, often at night. After this, the entire wedding party returned to the groom’s home for a celebratory banquet.”[6] So these ten virgins were awaiting the return of the groom that they might partake of the celebratory marriage feast.

Now of these ten women, “Five…were foolish and five were wise” (verse 2). And what distinguished foolish from wise behavior was readiness for, verse 3, “The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.” So this first group simply had the oil contained in their lamps but they hadn’t brought any extra oil along for when they ran out. They didn’t think about or prepare ahead for the time when the bridegroom would return. Since their lamps were fine for the present, they didn’t bother preparing for the future. But as many no doubt were reminded with the recent power outages, preparedness can be very important. Ron and I were fortunate enough not to have lost power but if we had, I have no idea where any of our flashlights are, much less if they’re in working order. This is unwise—okay, this is foolish!—but not uncommon. We only tend to think about flashlights when we need them and the foolish virgins found themselves in a similar situation. Since they had all the oil they needed in their lamps for the present, they hadn’t bothered to prepare for the future should the bridegroom be delayed in returning.

However even though there was no sense of urgency, the wise virgins didn’t simply have the oil already contained in their lamps, but they “took oil in jars along with their lamps” (verse 4). So they were prepared with a refill if and when their lamps burned through the oil they already contained. They were ready to meet the bridegroom whether his return was immediate or delayed. Had they been living today, these wise women would not only have known where their flashlights were but they would have had working batteries in them in case their electricity went out.

And these wise ones were rewarded for their readiness for, as we read in verse 5, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming.” In fact he was delayed so long that all ten women “became drowsy and fell asleep.” But “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” (verse 6). It was time for the wedding party to return to the groom’s home for the celebratory marriage feast for, as expected, the bridegroom had come. Even though he may have delayed more than expected, nonetheless he had come!

And when his arrival was announced, all the women awoke and trimmed the wick in their lamps (verse 7). However, verse 8, the foolish ones asked the wise for some of their oil since their own lamps were going out. But the wise virgins were unable to comply for, as they noted, “there may not be enough for both us and you.” So they told them, “Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves” (verse 9). And, given that their lamps were going out, the foolish virgins were left with no other choice but to do so.

But, alas, “while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.” And what we knew would take place from the very first lines of the parable now came to pass: “The virgins who were ready”—in other words, the wise women—“went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut” (verse 10).

In time, the foolish virgins returned and said to the bridegroom, verse 11, “Lord, Lord,…open the door for us!” Now the form of address used by these women is no doubt inappropriate. As noted by Dr. Stuart and other Old Testament scholars, this double-stating of a name is an example of a “repetition of endearment.” In the ancient world repeating someone’s name was a way of indicating that there was a close relationship between the parties involved. So our Linebrook family might say to Richie, “Richie, Richie” because we know him. But we wouldn’t repeat the name of a cashier we didn’t know who was working at Market Basket. Similarly, the foolish women who said, “Lord, Lord,” shouldn’t have used this form of address for they didn’t know the bridegroom. Had they known him, they would have been ready to meet him and brought along extra oil in jars for their lamps as the wise women had. But they didn’t. And this is why the bridegroom says to them, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

And the only thing Jesus had to say by way of explanation as to this parable’s meaning was, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” These five foolish virgins, in other words, were an object lesson in what not to do. Because they didn’t keep watch; because they weren’t ready, entry into the wedding banquet of the bridegroom was denied them.

Now this parable is interesting for a number of reasons:

First, it’s evident that the bridegroom represents Jesus who, though he had not yet suffered, died, risen from death, and ascended to heaven, nonetheless was alluding to a time after all of these things had come to pass when his followers would be looking for and awaiting his final return. So by means of this parable Jesus was able to reassure his disciples that he would return and that they needn’t be concerned if his return seemed to be inordinately delayed.

Second, in this parable virgins represent both the wise, that is, those who know and believe in Christ and await his return, and the foolish, those who neither know or believe in Christ nor await his return. And as we’ve noted before this feminine imagery is in keeping both with the Church being referred to as Christ’s—or God’s—bride[7] in Scripture and with infidelity to God being indicated by harlotry or prostitutes.[8] The point is this: if God, if Christ is the bridegroom, then we, corporately, have only two choices regarding our relationship with him—either we are his faithful and wise bride or we are unfaithful and foolish harlots.

Third, as already noted there are two aspects to the kingdom of heaven, the topic of the parable. On the one hand, with the coming of Christ, the king over heaven and earth, God’s kingdom has already arrived; it has already been inaugurated; the beginning of the birth pangs have begun; on the other, God’s kingdom is not yet complete; and it won’t be—it can’t be—complete until Christ’s final return when his work of redemption for this world is done. But in the meantime, you and I and all believers who are, hopefully, seeking to live like the wise virgins, are called to be faithful; to be ready; to be prepared whether Christ, our bridegroom, returns today or in another thousand years.

Now though I don’t think the anecdote I’m about to tell is the intended application here, someone shared with me that they once asked their grandmother why she would tidy up her house every night before going to bed. Her answer was startling: “In case Christ returns,” she replied. And then she added, “If Christ should return while we’re asleep, I want to make sure he finds our home a welcoming place.” And though this account was shared in a humorous manner, I have to tell you, hearing about this grandmother touched me. That she would want our Lord Jesus Christ to feel welcomed and cared for in her home is such a beautiful gesture. Isn’t this what we do for those we care about? I know Ron and I try to. Yesterday we had a voice ensemble rehearsal at our home and, as we always do, we tidied up our home before everyone arrived because we wanted everyone to feel comfortable and cared for when they came. As I have more than once thought about this grandmother, I can’t help but be struck by how sweet her love for Christ was that she would make the effort to tidy up her house each night before going to be so that should our Lord return, he would feel welcome in her home!

What this grandmother got right was that his return can occur at any moment and, when he did, she wanted him to be pleased. For not just in this passage but in other places in Scripture we’re told we can be sure of two things. Again, one is that one day Christ will return to complete his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven; and, two, no one knows when that day will be—therefore we need to watch and be ready. For we are living between the times.

Matthew makes this point in chapter 24 of his Gospel in recounting how Jesus told his disciples, “42 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.”

In Mark’s Gospel, he changes the analogy from a thief to a homeowner but to the same end: [9]32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

So, too, Luke combines elements included by both Matthew and Mark in stating, “35 Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. 39 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”[10]

So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What does “keeping watch” for the Lord’s return look like? I mean, keeping watch is easy when you know what time to expect someone—again, yesterday, Ron and I expected the voice ensemble to arrive at 10:00 AM because that’s the time we told them. So we kept watch—we kept looking out the window every time we heard a car door—or even if we didn’t—because we didn’t want to keep anyone waiting outside in the cold.

But what does “keeping watch” entail when we don’t know the time of someone’s arrival? What does “keeping watch” mean for us who seek for and await our Lord Christ Jesus’ return? This is the question that this morning’s parable begs us to ask and address.

Now due to movies such as the Thief In the Night series, I think we can have a skewed perspective about not knowing the day or hour of Christ’s return. Though it is certainly true that not only Jesus but also Paul used the image of a thief in the night to symbolize the unknowable nature of Christ’s return, I think these movies can cause us to miss the point of such imagery. Whereas the cinematic Thief in the Night provided a particular interpretation of what will take place when Christ returns—complete with rapture, tribulation, antichrist, and mark of the beast (at least according to Wikipedia since I’ve never actually seen any of these films!)—I’d like to suggest that the point of this thief analogy is entirely different. It isn’t intended to make us focus upon a terrifying apocalyptic nightmare that will one day ensue. Rather the point is that because we don’t know when Christ will return, we who belong to him, who have been sealed by and are now indwelt by his Holy Spirit, should live in a manner that is in keeping with knowing Christ. In short, the point of “keeping watch” means that on a daily basis we should be seeking to live our lives in ways that honor him—in ways that show our love for him and our love for each other. So keeping watch means, for example: Praying without ceasing—talking with our heavenly Father throughout our day; bringing those we love—and even those we deem to be our enemies—before him in prayer.

Keeping watch means confessing our sins. Seeking Christ’s forgiveness when we turn astray—as well as the forgiveness of those we’ve wronged—and granting forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

Keeping watch means caring for those whom God has placed in our lives.

Keeping watch means being responsible stewards of whatever talents and gifts he’s provided.

Keeping watch means taking care of this earth on which he’s placed us.

Keeping watch means taking care of ourselves—did you notice that even the wise virgins in the parable were sleeping?

Again, to keep watch is both very simple and very profound for it means that whether Christ returns today or in a hundred years, we are to live our lives intentionally as we daily seek to know and love him and one another until he returns. In fact, in the passage in I Thessalonians where Paul states that Christ’s coming, that is, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,”[11] he goes on to observe to his fellow followers of Christ, “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” And then Paul makes the practical application in all of this:

So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

Paul is making the same point as our parable. Should there be an unexpectedly long delay in Christ’s return, we mustn’t give up hope. We mustn’t assume he’s forgotten us. We mustn’t stop living as he calls us to live. No, we need to be watchful—that is, we need to live faithfully. And as we saw last week, our faith in God should be demonstrated in our love for those whom God has placed in our lives. If we know the Lord, as the five wise virgins did, it should be apparent in the way we live our lives. Our lives should be marked by a sense of expectancy as we look forward to and are ready for his return; if we don’t know the Lord, as the five foolish virgins did not, this too will be apparent by the way in which we live our lives. And we should keep in mind that there’s no time like the present to live for Christ. Though God is merciful beyond all imagination, there won’t be any second chances. He calls us to live faithfully now so we shouldn’t put this off.

As one source notes, “The ‘kingdom of heaven/God’ in the preaching of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels is the reign of God that he brings about through Jesus Christ—i.e., the establishment of God’s rule in the hearts and lives of his people, the overcoming of all the forces of evil, the removal from the world of all the consequences of sin—including death and all that diminishes life—and the creation of a new order of righteousness and peace.”[12]

Brothers and sisters, the birth pangs have begun so let us watch and be ready for when Christ returns to welcome us to the great wedding banquet:

Let us daily talk with our loving and heavenly Father knowing that he cares for us.

Let us similarly daily love and care for those around us to the best of our ability.

Let us daily care for this world over which he’s made us stewards.

Let us daily take care of ourselves.

Let us persevere—and encourage one another and build each other up with the hope Christ has given us.

Let us demonstrate the faith we have in God by the way in which we live with others.

And who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to tidy up our homes before we go to bed tonight. In case Christ returns, we want him to feel welcome, don’t we?

Let us pray.

[1] Matthew 24:4–8, 23–26:Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains…. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time. 26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.

[2] Matthew 24:36.

[3] Matthew 24:3: As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

[4] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Matthew 3:2.

[5] Matthew 4:23–25; 9:35.

[6] Crossway ESV Study Bible notes.

[7] Isaiah 54:5: “For your Maker is your husband— the Lord Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.”. See also Hosea 2:19: I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. Revelation 19:6–8:Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’” Revelation 21:1–4: 1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[Isaiah 65:17] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[Isaiah 25:8] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” See also Ephesians 5:32. After speaking about relationships between husbands and wives in vv. 21–31, Paul concludes: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

[8] The following represents but a brief sampling: Isaiah 1:21: See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers! Jeremiah 3:1–3: 1“If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again? Would not the land be completely defiled? But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers would you now return to me?” declares the Lord. “Look up to the barren heights and see. Is there any place where you have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers, sat like a nomad in the desert. You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen. Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame. Ezekiel 16:30–34: 30 “‘I am filled with fury against you, declares the Sovereign Lord, when you do all these things, acting like a brazen prostitute! 31 When you built your mounds at every street corner and made your lofty shrines in every public square, you were unlike a prostitute, because you scorned payment. 32 “‘You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! 33 All prostitutes receive gifts, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere for your illicit favors. 34 So in your prostitution you are the opposite of others; no one runs after you for your favors. You are the very opposite, for you give payment and none is given to you. Hosea 9:1: Do not rejoice, Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing floor.

[9] Mark 13:32–37.


[10] Luke 12:35–40. Luke makes a similar point earlier in the chapter in the parable of the rich fool who built bigger barns to store surplus grain for the future and thereby felt he could “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Then, vv. 20–21: 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” See also Luke 17:34–35 where he addresses how it will be “on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (v. 30). 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”

[11] I Thessalonians 5:1–3: 1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

[12] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Matthew 3:2.

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