On Lepers and Virgins

In the past few weeks I have been concerned about the widespread apathy and indifference--if not outright hostility--towards the Lord Jesus Christ in our nation. Along with increasing concern for the many truly lost outsiders to the faith, I am coming to realize that many who think they are safe in the family of God--are not. Two separate passages in the Gospels have been speaking to me about these issues lately.

The Nine Lepers Plus One

There are two instances of lepers being healed in Luke's gospel. In Chapter 5, during his early ministry in Galilee the following event took place:

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one; but "go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people." But so much the more the report went abroad concerning him; and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed. (5:12-16)

The disease of leprosy in the Bible was not merely the affliction we now know as Hansen's Disease. A variety of awful illnesses are included. Leprosy carried an enormous social stigma accompanied by isolation of the individual from the community and a complex process for treatment and restoration. "The regulations concerning leprosy are in Leviticus 13-14. The most terrible thing about it was the isolation it bought. The leper was to cry 'Unclean! Unclean!' wherever he went; he was to dwell alone; 'in a habitation outside the camp' (Leviticus 13:45-46). He was banished from the society of men and exiled from home. The result was, and still is, that the psychological consequences of leprosy were as serious as the physical." (Wm. Barclay)

Near the end of his ministry on his final journey to Jerusalem Jesus was met by a group of ten lepers, one of whom was a despised Samaritan. The account is simple but the implications are profound:

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then said Jesus, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17:11-19)

First, lepers, of all people, know that they have serious needs with nothing good going for them. All ten were aware of who Jesus is. All ten called from a distance asking Jesus for mercy. All ten were immediately healed of their leprosy. Jesus asked all ten to visit a priest so they could be certified cleansed and healed and thus be restored to normal society. All ten had their deepest immediate needs met.

Only one leper--the low-life Samaritan--came back to thank Jesus. On the way he publicly declared his gratitude to God and then fell at the feet of Jesus. While all ten lepers were healed from their bodily disease, only one was made well and whole on the inside. "Rise up and go your way; your faith has made you well (Greek, sozo)," said Jesus.

Sozo is the root word for salvation, "to rescue from danger or destruction, it means to save a suffering one (from perishing), or one suffering from disease. Sozo means to make well, heal, to restore to health; to save in the technical biblical sense, to deliver from the penalties of the Messianic judgment, to save from the evils which obstruct the reception of the Messianic deliverance." Only whole (holy) men and women can enter heaven.

Lepers surely typify a sad group of suffering individuals in the world who are keenly aware of their condition. Thus (one would think) they are more likely than others to be seeking a cure--compared to "normal" people who are in good health or who have plenty of money and find their security there. All ten lepers called out to Jesus for help. Responding with immediate compassion, Jesus healed all ten lepers without a word. But only one of the lepers ended up a saved man. Is this typical of the response God gets from a very needy subgroup of society--only one out of ten responding from the heart to Jesus? What is the response rate to Jesus among the larger population of non-lepers in the world?

How many people cry out to God in a time of need or danger and find that God heals or rescues them? Surely many of these people join a church or are enabled to live changed life styles for the better because of God's one-time healing grace. But "rescuing from danger" by the Lord can be merely temporal or it can be eternal. It is not always both. In the eternal sense only one leper from this group of ten lepers ended up in the kingdom of God.

In other words, God is kind and compassionate to all men and He will often help people because they simply call on Him for mercy. (See "Common Grace" at http://ldolphin.org/common.html). Short-term, immediate help is no guarantee that the individuals helped go on to gain membership in the kingdom of God. Most people who are touched once by God in an unmistakable way do not go on to seek the internal healing of the heart, mind, emotions and will which accompanies eternal salvation.

The Samaritan leper did what all men should do when they meet the Son of God! Jesus is, after all, the legitimate Ruler of all mankind. The ex-leper fell at the feet of Jesus expressing thanks, gratitude and worship. All of us should do that, not just once but often. Being haled of leprosy is not the real deal. The more important issue is a new creation in the human heart. (2 Cor. 5).

Isaiah 45:23 is quoted twice in the New Testament (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11). Speaking through the prophet Isaiah God said,

For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, 'Seek me in chaos.' I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right. "Assemble yourselves and come, draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD?

And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.' "Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed, all who were incensed against him." (Isaiah 45:18-24)

In the end all men everywhere will bow at the feet of Jesus. This is not optional. Obviously only those who kneel before Jesus in gratitude and commitment will receive favorable treatment from the King. one parable of the Kingdom related by Jesus closes on an alarming note: "A nobleman went into a far country to receive a kingdom and then return. But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, 'We do not want this man to reign over us' When [the king] returned, having received the kingdom, [he said] "But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.'" (Luke 19:11-27)

The Five Plus Five Virgins

To switch to an entirely different example--from lepers to virgins, the late James M. Boice had some very helpful comments on the approaching second advent of Jesus and the subset of the professing followers of Christ who will inherit eternal salvation. Boice examines the three Parables of Jesus found at the end of the Olivet Discourse. Here are some of Boice's notes on the first of these parables. (May I suggest that the reader get Boice's very fine two-volume set on Matthew's gospel, from Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2001. I have found all of Boice's books excellent so far).

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' And while they went 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 maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Boice says, "it is helpful to notice that [these three parables] are parallel stories and have several important things in common. There are three ways in which the stories are the same.

1. In each case the return of the Lord is sudden and unexpected. In the story of the wise and foolish virgins, the cry, "Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him?' (v. 6) comes at midnight, when the women are asleep. The cry awakens them, and they rise up suddenly. In the story of the talents, the master returns "after a long time" (v. 19) when he is least expected. In the case of the sheep and the goats, the decisive moment arrives "when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him" (v. 31).

This is the chief point Jesus has been making from the very beginning of the discourse in chapter 24. The disciples wanted to know when Christ would return, and Jesus replied that they could not know. They would see many signs that would not be true signs of his coming: false Christs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, and false prophets. When he actually does come, his coming will be so sudden and unexpected that no signs of it can be given. Therefore, they must be ready.

The story of the wise and foolish virgins is connected to the previous chapter because it ends with words that are a deliberate echo of verse 42: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." The parable ends, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour" (Matt. 25:13). The story of the servants expands the much briefer story of the servants in Matthew 24:45-51. The parable of the sheep and the goats wraps up the entire discourse, drawing on words taken from the Lord's description of his return in chapter 24. In this chapter he also speaks of the Son of Man coming in his glory with the angels (v. 31).

2. In each case the Lard's return results in an unalterable division between two groups of people. These are stories about the final judgment, and the root meaning of the word judgment is "division." The Greek word is krisis, which we have retained in English with only a slight change in spelling. A crisis is an event that requires us to turn one way or another, to the right or to the left, forward or back. In this case, the division is between those who are ready when Jesus returns and those who are not ready. In the case of the women, five go into the wedding banquet and five are shut out. In the case of the servants, two are commended and one is judged. In the case of the sheep and the goats, the sheep inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them while the goats receive eternal punishment.

3. In each case the people who are lost are utterly surprised at their rejection. This is the most striking feature of these stories. The women who are shut out of the banquet can hardly believe that the door has been closed to them. "Sir! Sir!" they say. "Open the door for us!" But the bridegroom does not. The wicked servant thinks he has done right by burying the talent he was given. He expects to be praised and is astonished that he is rebuked and cast out. The goats do not understand the Lord's disapproval. "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" (v. 44).

When we think about this feature of the stories, we realize that they are not about people who have no use for Christ or his gospel. They are about people who are part of what we would call the visible church. Like many in our churches today, these people think they are saved and that they are on their way to heaven, but their actual destiny is hell. Is it any wonder the Lord states his warning to "keep watch and be ready" so forcefully?

A Profound and Brilliant Story

The story of the ten virgins is a masterpiece, as Bible students have long recognized. It is realistic in its details and poignant in application, and the deeper a person explores it, the more profound its lessons become.

Jesus tells about ten young women who are invited to a marriage feast. Five are wise and five are foolish. The wise women show their wisdom by planning for the possible delay of the bridegroom. They take extra oil for their lamps so they will be ready when he comes. The foolish women neglect to do so. While the women wait, they all fall asleep. Suddenly a cry goes out that the bridegroom is coming. The wise get up and trim their lamps. The others recognize that they are out of oil and ask to borrow some. "No," say the wise. 'There may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves" (v.9). The women who are unprepared start off for more oil, but while they are gone the bridegroom comes, and those who are ready go in with him to the feast. After a while the foolish virgins return and find the door shut.

"Open the door for us!" they cry.

But the bridegroom says, "I don't know you" (v. 12).

The Lord concludes, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour [of my return]" (v. 13).

How the Women Are Alike

It is not difficult to see the story's main points, especially its chief point, namely, the difference between the wise and the foolish women. Five were ready and five were not. But it is also worth seeing the ways in which the women are alike. There are at least seven similarities.

1. All had been invited to the banquet. Each of these women had received an invitation and was anticipating a banquet when the bridegroom came. This feature singles out the people who have heard the gospel invitation. They are not the unreached who have never heard of Christ.

2. All had responded positively to the wedding invitation. Some may have disregarded it or scorned it, as the townspeople did in one of Jesus' other parables (Matt. 22:1-14). But that was not the case with these women. They had received the invitation and had responded positively, which they demonstrated by waiting for the bridegroom's appearance.

3. All were part of what we would call the visible church. They had joined the fellowship of those who were waiting for the Lord.

4. All had some affection and even love for the bridegroom. They were not indifferent participants. This was a happy occasion, and they were happy for the bridegroom. It was their affection for him that had brought them to the point at which the story begins: "Ten virgins ... took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom" (v. 1).

5. All confessed Jesus as their Lord. The New International Version translates the word they used to address the bridegroom as 'Sir," but it is actually the word kyrios, which is usually rendered "Lord." In fact, it is translated "Lord" later in the chapter (vv. 37, 44).

6. All believed in and in some sense were waiting for Jesus' second coming. This is all highly commendable. In fact, if most ministers today had a church filled with such people, they would consider themselves greatly blessed. Here were people who had heard the gospel invitation, responded to it, professed love for Christ, joined the church, acknowledged Jesus as Lord, and were now waiting for Christ's return. Could anything be more desirable?...

7. All were alike in that they became drowsy and fell asleep when the bridegrooms' coming was delayed. Unbelievers sleep, but so do the elect at times. Remember Peter, James, and John in the garden? But suddenly the bridegroom came, and immediately the similarities vanished and the critical difference emerged. Five were ready and five were unprepared.

What It Means to Be Ready

The setting of these chapters is the time leading up to Christ's return. So we must conclude that there will always be people in the church who have heard the gospel invitation, have responded in some sense, and may even have some affection for Jesus, but who are not born again.

Don't be sidetracked by trying to work out the meaning of the oil. Some have identified the oil as the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit is sometimes symbolized by oil in Scripture. But if we do that, we will think that a person can have the Holy Spirit and then run out of him, as it were, or that when one runs out he or she needs to get more. The right thing is to forget about the oil entirely and think only about being ready.

But what does it mean to be ready? Charles H. Spurgeon saw it as an inner change brought about by regeneration or new birth. He wrote, drawing on a good deal of Bible imagery:

A great change has to be wrought in you, far beyond any power of yours to accomplish, ere you can go in with Christ to the marriage. You must, first of all, be renewed in your nature, or you will not be ready. You must be washed from your sins, or you will not be ready. You must be justified in Christ's righteousness, and you must put on his wedding dress, or else you will not be ready. You must be reconciled to God, you must be made like to God, or you will not be ready. Or, to come to the parable before us, you must have a lamp, and that lamp must be fed with heavenly oil, and it must continue to burn brightly, or else you will not be ready. No child of darkness can go into that place of light. You must be brought out of nature's darkness into God's marvelous light, or else you will never be ready to go in with Christ to the marriage, and to be forever with him.

Which brings us back to the pressing question of these chapters: Are you ready? I do not ask, Have you responded to a gospel imitation? Have you joined a church? Or do you believe in Jesus' second coming? I ask, Have you been born again? Have you believed on Jesus as your Savior from sin? Are you living for Jesus now? Are you truly ready, or are you among those who only seem to be prepared?

A Time of Crisis

Notice that the difference between the wise women and foolish women was revealed by the coming of the bridegroom. That is, it was revealed in the crisis moment. During the days before the wedding or the night leading up to the start of the feast, few would have noticed that five women had adequately prepared for the bridegroom's coming and five had not. But suddenly the bridegroom came, and the difference was immediately disclosed. The same will happen when Jesus Christ returns. Many who have considered themselves true children of God will be shown they are not, and many who have perhaps not even been regarded as his children will be revealed as believers.

How are you to know whether you are in one camp or the other? One answer is whether you are faithful in serving Jesus. Another is whether you are serving others because of your love for Jesus. These are the answers the next two parables suggest. But let me suggest another answer here. If the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the division it will cause will bring out the true condition of those who profess Christianity but are not actually born again, isn't it also the case that their condition may be revealed by lesser but, nevertheless, real crisis experiences now? If this is so, you can anticipate the results of the final judgment by the way you react to the problems that come into your life day by day.

Here is how one author puts it:

Nothing will more correctly reveal what is in a man than the coming upon him of some crushing and unlooked-for crisis. Let it be temporal ruin by the failure of his calculations or the disappointment of all his hopes: let it be the entrance of the death-angel into his home and the removal from it of his nearest and dearest earthly friend; let it be his own prostration by some serious illness which puts him face to face with his dissolution, and forthwith the extent of his resources is unfolded, and it is at once discovered both by others and by himself whether he is animated by unfailing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and sustained by the grace of the Holy Spirit, or whether he has been deceiving himself, all the while relying on some other support. It was a shrewd remark of Andrew Fuller that a man has only as much religion as he can command in trial.

Let us therefore look back upon the past and analyze our experiences at such testing times as those to which I have referred. We have all had them. We have all heard already, in some form or other, this midnight cry, "Behold, the bridegroom cometh"; for in every such surprise as those which I have described, Jesus was coming to us. How did we meet him then? Did our lamps go out? Or were we able to trim them and keep them burning brightly all through? Oh, if by any such event we discovered our utter resourcelessness, let us betake ourselves now to Christ that he may thoroughly renew us by his Holy Spirit and so prepare us for that last and solemnest crisis when over the graves of the slumbering dead the archangel shall cry out, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh," and all shall arise to stand before his great white throne.

Three More Lessons

The writer of those words was William Taylor, an American minister who wrote around the turn of the nineteenth century, and what he has written is enough to keep most of us examining ourselves for some time. To use Peter's words, Taylor encourages us to make our "calling and election sure" (2 Peter 1:10). But the parable of the wise and foolish virgins contains several more lessons.

1. The coming of the Lord may be delayed. This is an unmistakable inference from the story and one that has bearing on whether the events of these chapters are to be understood as having taken place at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem or whether they look forward to an unspecified future moment. Actually, there are several suggestions that Jesus' return may be delayed, among them Christ's teaching that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).

2. The Lord will come without warning. This is why the parable ends with the words: 'Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour" (v. 13). Jesus will come without warning either at the end of time or on the day of your death, which for you is much the same thing

3. Being prepared is not transferable. I do not mean by this that one saved person may not be used of God to bring the gospel to another, for that is how the gospel normally spreads. Paul speaks of the gospel being passed 'from faith to faith" (Rom. 1:17 KJV). I mean that no person can get by on another's faith. You cannot be saved by the life of Christ in someone else.

Many people delude themselves along those lines. They do not have true Faith in Christ, but they have been exposed to it over a period of years and suppose that in the time of Christ's judgment they will be able to appeal to God's work in the life of someone close to them.

"What right do you have to come into my heaven?"

"Well, I don't really know how to answer that, Lord. But consider my mother. She was a godly woman, and! learned a lot from her."

"I didn't ask that," the Lord replied. "I asked, What right do you have to enter my heaven?"

"Look at my Sunday school teachers, Lord! They were godly people; they certainly went out of their way to teach me. They prayed for me too. Don't forget them!"

Jesus replied, "What right do you have to enter heaven?"

This helps us understand why the wise women refused to give their oil to the five who were foolish. Their refusal seems uncharitable. The selfless thing would have been for the wise women to share their oil, even if it meant they themselves would have run out. But the story is not about charity. Rather, the parable reveals that when Christ returns, each person must stand on his or her own. Your mother's faith will not save you. Your wife's faith will not save you. You will not be saved by the spiritual life of your son or daughter. The question will be, Where do you stand? Are you alive in Christ? Are you ready?

4. Lost opportunities cannot be regained. The foolish women set out to buy oil, but the bridegroom came, and they were too late. So it will be when Christ returns in judgment. Those who are ready will be taken in to the marriage feast, and those who are not ready will be shut out.

Do not say, "I will turn to Christ later. I will repent after I enjoy a few more years of sin. There is always time for Jesus." You do not know that. Today may be the last time you will hear the gospel. And even if it is not-even if you do hear it again and again-it will be no easier for you to turn to God later. In fact, the opposite is the case. The fact that you have rejected the free offer of God's grace now will harden you so that you will find it much more difficult to repent later. Millions who once heard the gospel and postponed a decision have since perished in their sins. The only wise thing is to come to Jesus now. The Bible says, "Now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). (end of quote)

 "Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him." (Hebrews 7:25)

Some References on Leprosy:

Background on Leprosy in the Bible, R.K. Harrison, ISBE, 1986

The Lord Who Heals

Leprosy in the Bible - What was it? http://www.webspawner.com/users/LEPBIBLE/

Leprosy, ISBE: http://www.studylight.org/enc/isb/view.cgi?number=T5483

Ray Stedman, Dealing with the Leprosy of Life, http://raystedman.org/leviticus/0513.html

Ray Stedman, Sick Garments and Diseased Houses, http://raystedman.org/leviticus/0514.html

Lambert Dolphin, December 17, 2004. September 5, 2005.