Three Prophetic Parables

And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?—Matthew 24:3

By Carl Hagensick

Jesus’ answer to these three questions was in two parts and covers the whole of Matthew 24 and 25. The first portion of his answer (chapter 24) is in the nature of a prophecy, while the latter section (chapter 25) takes the form of three parables—the wise and foolish virgins, the talents, and the sheep and the goats. These three parables summarize in parabolic fashion the more direct answer of his prophetic words in the twenty-fourth chapter.

Two elements are common to all three of these parables. First, they all relate to a separation of good from bad, of profitable from profitable. Second, they each contain a reference to the subject of Jesus’ sermon—the second coming of the Lord (see vs. 6, 10, 19, 31).

Two Aspects of the Advent

Many students of the Bible concur that there are two basic aspects to the Lord’s return—his coming for his church (John 14:3; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17); and his coming with his church (Jude 14).

The first of these is quiet and unnoticed except by the watchers, while the second is more dramatic, revealing the fact of his return and signalling the onset of his long-promised kingdom.

Properly distinguishing these two aspects of the Lord’s return removes much of the confusion from the study of this important biblical topic.

Order of the Parables

Nowhere is this distinction more notable than in the sequence of the parables of Matthew 25. In the first parable, that of the wise and foolish virgins, it is obviously the coming for the bride that is emphasized. He comes as a bridegroom and those discerning that return are cautioned to be awake and watching, implying that it would not be a coming openly manifest to all.

In contrast, the third parable, that of the sheep and the goats, speaks of his coming in glory accompanied by all his holy angels and dealing with the assembled nations gathered before him—an event noticeable to all.

This leaves the remaining parable, the one in the middle—that of the talents—to treat the events that come between these two aspects of the second advent.

With this preface we will proceed to look at an overview of each of the three parables, not attempting to discuss the minute details of each.

Wise and Foolish Virgins—(Verses 1-13)

Two classes of individuals are featured in the first parables. Both are styled as being "virgins," pure ones. Both are honored as being chosen to lead the bridegroom to the house of the bride. Both are carrying lighted lamps. Their only distinguishing feature is that one group does not have the foresight to provide extra oil to keep their lamps burning, while the other does do so.

The parable opens by all ten going forth to meet the coming bridegroom. Presumably they would go to a nearby hill where they could mor easily spot the lamps of the approaching party of the bridegroom.

In verse 6 we read that a call went forth by one watching, "Behold the bridegroom cometh." While it is true that the word "cometh" is not supported in the Greek, it is apparently the correct thought for the approaching party does not actually appear on the scene until verse 10, "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came."

In the interim between the announcement of the bridegroom’s coming and his arrival the foolish discover their lack of sufficient oil to keep their lamps burning and must go to the market to purchase more. Upon their return they find that the party has already entered for the wedding and they are left outside.

The basic lessons are simple ones—preparation and watchfulness. The parable is discussing a separation over the coming of the bridegroom and closely associated time-wise with his arrival. It is summed up in verse 13: " Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."

The Talents—(Verses 14-30)

A similar parable to this one, that of the pounds, was given on another occasion but with much the same intent in Luke 19:12-27. There the purpose of the parable is clearly given in verse 11: "because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear."

The separation in this parable is between those servants who wisely used the talents over which they were made stewards and those who did not.

The separation takes place when "the lord of those servants cometh and reckoneth with them" (Matt. 25:19). While the Luke account of this return says that he returned "having received the kingdom," it is obvious that he was not yet in full control of that kingdom for the final act in the Luke parable is the slaying of the rebellious enemies who would not have him rule over them.

The fact that the separation included those servants who had received their talents prior to his departure strongly implies that the members of this class, the church, would be resurrected at the time of the fulfillment of the parable.

This accords well with Paul’s statement in 1 Thess. 4:16, 17 where we are informed that the "dead in Christ" rise at his return and are joined by those remaining alive at the time of his arrival.

However the lesson seems to have special import for those of the church who are on the scene when he returns. It is a harvest lesson and applies especially in the Laodicean period of church history marked by a spirit of "lukewarmness" (Rev. 3:15, 16).

The primary lesson applies well to that interim between the Lord returning for his saints and his returning with them. Therefore it is aptly placed by the Lord between the other two parables of the chapter.

The Sheep and the Goats—(Verses 31-46)

The time for the fulfillment of this parable is easy to determine: " When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats" (vs. 31, 32).

The groups that are here separated are equally easy to identify—he gathers all nations before him and separates them. This is not a division that takes place when he comes for his church but a later development in his advent. In fact this accounts for one of the main activities of Christ’s kingdom.

A similar lesson is given by the prophet Malachi. That prophet refers to the Lord gathering "his jewels," an obvious reference to his holy ones, his saints, the church. After they are gathered to be with their Lord in heaven, he states: " Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not" (Mal. 3:18).

The separation in this parable is not based on overt acts but rather on acts of omission: "Inasmuch as ye did it [acts of kindness] not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me" (vs. 45).

This will be that basis of kingdom judgment. It will not be so much condemnation for past wrongs as it will be failure to live up to the kingdom rule of love for one’s fellow man.

Some may question the applicability of this parable to the kingdom because their will be no prisons, nor hunger, nor nakedness there. These are however symbolic expressions and should be understood thus.

Those with the sheeplike disposition will visit their family, friends, and neighbors in the prison house of death. They can give them the food and drink of the knowledge of God’s word, for "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). They can clothe one another with that righteousness that comes from obedience to kingdom rules. They can welcome them into the same covenant relationship they themselves enjoy with God. They can visit, comfort, and encourage those who are discouraged with their own performance under the iron rule of that kingdom.

The Judgments

In each of the three parables there is an unfaithful class: foolish virgins, the one talent servant, and the goats. However the fate of the three classes markedly differs.

In the parable of the virgins their non-admission to the wedding is the only punishment received. They have proven themselves unworthy of the high honor bestowed upon them to be members of the procession to the bridal chambers. The loss of that privilege was considered punishment sufficient for their lack of foresight in providing more oil.

The one talent servant has two punishments. First the talent with which he was entrusted is removed from him and given to the one possessing ten talents. Secondly, he is cast into outer darkness where there is "wailing and gnashing of teeth." Wailing merely denotes sorrow and refers here to their rejection as a servant. Gnashing of teeth expresses a deeper emotion, that of frustration (See Acts 7:54).

It is only in the parable of the sheep and the goats where we find the rejected class assigned to the "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels." Their punishment is equal in length to the reward of the sheep (see v. 46).

Identifying this fire with that prepared for "the devil and his angels" enables us to clearly identify it. In Revelation 20:10 that fire is called "the lake of fire" and is defined in verse 14 with the words: "this is the second death."

The unfaithful, therefore, in the first two parables are not consigned to second death but merely lose their privileges of service and attending the wedding of the Lamb, while the unfaithful in the last of the parables suffers the everlasting oblivion of the second death. Summary

In review then, we note that the three parables are a fitting climax to the great prophecy of the preceeding chapter. They are given purposely in the order they are presented in our Bibles and show, sequentially, the tests that would accompany his return for his church, the tests that would immediately follow that return, and the ultimate tests for which that presence was designed, dividing mankind into those worthy of receiving life and those unworthy of that great gift.