Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. (Matthew 25: 7)
The Word of God is a truly remarkable gift. There is so much contained in even a single verse that we could study it, meditate on it, read it and read it again, and still find new kernels of truth, inspiration, comfort and guidance in those same few words. The parable of the ten virgins is just one such passage of Scripture that offers so much.
It touches on a hope that is central to every believer – the sure and certain knowledge that our beloved saviour will return as King of Kings. The ten virgins obviously are a type of the bride of Christ, awaiting the coming the Bridegroom. This is extensively taught, and I think few Christians are unaware of this particular meaning, or of the implication that we should prepare ourselves for His coming.
What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that there is Christ’s ‘side of the story.’ Yes, we await His coming again. But the other, less preached truth, is that Christ is waiting for His bride to be ready – spotless and without blemish. This adds a wonderful and vital dimension to this well-known parable. While the church remains distracted by the world, while our attention is not wholly focused on Him, while we continue to follow our own paths, desires and purposes, we are in fact contributing to the wait. On one hand we cry, ‘come, Lord Jesus, come,’ and on the other our actions say, ‘wait, Lord Jesus, wait.’ It’s a sobering thought.
The main thrust of the parable is, of course, of being ‘ready,’ and much is taught about the necessity of keeping the oil filled. The oil is, of course, the Holy Spirit. It all seems terribly obvious, doesn’t it? But, in seeking understanding, I discovered some amazingly simple truths and imagery that add so much to this parable, aside from the more obvious reference about ‘a lamp to my feet’ and ‘a light shining in the darkness,’ implying, of course, that without the good lamp (the Light of the World) these ten virgins had no hope of going anywhere. If they wanted the Bridegroom, they had to have a lamp.
Now onto the interesting. A lamp cannot function effectively without both oil and a good wick. There must be both. The wick – the Word – is the part that makes the light, but it’s useless without oil. To illustrate, for a wick to burn effectively, it must be thoroughly soaked in oil. Remember that Jesus said worship should be ‘Spirit and Truth?’ They work together. Take one out of the equation, and you have nothing. It’s actually the oil that burns, not the wick, but without a wick the oil would ignite. Without the Word to ‘ground’ the Spirit, you end up the explosive, potentially destructive mania that is prevalent in so many churches. The focus is only on the Spirit. Without the Word, it’s all to easy to be deceived and to go off on what seems like a super-spiritual tangent of hype or experience.
However, for the wick (Word) to burn as it should, it needs to be thoroughly soaked in oil. You should never light a dry wick. It will burn ‘smoky’ and unevenly, and will never achieve its full potential. What a lesson this is for us – have you ever wondered where religious rituals and inflexible, man-made doctrine come from? It’s from treating the Word like a ‘dry wick.’ Word and Spirit work together. Consider the creation of the world – by the Word, through the Spirit. The Word is empowered by the Spirit. They are not interchangeable. The Word is inspired by the Spirit, and removing the Spirit – His teaching, guidance, revelation and conviction – leaves us with the dry rhetoric that denies the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Can you see the two extremes that are both prevalent in the body of the Bride?
Finally, let’s take a look at the simple act of ‘trimming the wick,’ one which I’ve never heard included on any teaching on this parable. Firstly, as a wick burns, it collects ‘gumph’ along the top – the charred, dead edge. This relates to ‘familiarity’ with the Word, and by that I mean our complacency. We tend to slide into a comfort zone. We know enough of the Word to get by. We can quote a handful of Scripture for various common situations, and we start to take this for granted. There’s no new growth, our knowledge becomes stale and commonplace, and we’re not stretching ourselves spiritually. After a while, our ‘flame’ burns a little smoky, but because it’s familiar stuff we don’t recognise it. It’s a slow slide, and before we know it our discernment (the brightness of the light) is compromised to a point where deception can creep in.
Secondly, it seems many users avoid cutting the wicks. Rather, they rub off the charred end, ensuring that it’s smooth and even. I believe this relates to our relationship with the rest of the body – those people who tend to rub us up the wrong way, who aren’t necessarily our first choice for company, or those who challenge us to learn and grow and develop. None of this is comfortable, but it’s essential to keep that flame burning the way it should. People and situations rub off the ‘dead bits’ and keep the wick clean and efficient.
Thirdly, consensus seems to be that a wick trimmed to a sharp central point burns the best. This shape seems to create the best flame – it burns ’round,’ giving the cleanest light. Doesn’t this make you think of the Word of God being ‘sharper than a two-edged sword?’ We need to continually keep the Word honed in us, keep the edges clean and free from accumulated encrustations. We need to continually check it to ensure that we haven’t collected things that are incorrect, that don’t belong, that compromise the flame.
Finally, a really interesting point – a wick should never be turned up too high. On the surface, this seems counterproductive. Surely a higher flame provides a better light? For a short period, yes, this may well be true. But it doesn’t last, and before long you’ll find the flame smokes and the chimney clouds up, and the light is a shadow of what it should be. The message here is that the slow, steady flame is the one that endures. A wick turned too high burns oil at a faster rate, but it burns it with diminishing effect. There is, I believe, a warning here for believers to walk in the right balance between Word and Spirit. It’s a human tendency to want to feel and experience. This seems so much more exciting, more alive, more intriguing, but it’s an excessive burst of spiritual energy that soon engenders more problems than intended. It is balance in our Christian walk that keeps the flame burning constantly, brightly enough to dispel the darkness, and long enough to stay the distance.
The secret is to fill the oil and trim the wick. Christ is waiting for His bride as eagerly as the bride waits for Him. But until we, the church, learn to take proper care of our lamps, fill them with oil and rightly trim the wicks, we’ll find ourselves waiting a while. Oil and wick work together. We cannot exclude one in favour of the other, nor should we give excessive attention to either outside of their particular purpose. Our future depends on it.
Lord, teach me and help me so that I can keep my lamp in order. Help me to be a good, clean light, to fulfill the purpose You have for me, so that I can look forward to Your coming in faith and joy. Show me what I need to trim, or when I neglect my wick or my oil, or when I focus on one at the expense of the other. Teach me balance in my walk with You, so that I may endure and rejoice at the hour of Your coming.