This article is condensed from a worship talk presented to the Biblical Research Institute Committee on October 19, 2021. It retains elements of the oral style of the original presentation.—Editors.
We find, scattered through the pages of history, the accounts of great men and great women who contributed to the community in which they lived and to the larger world around them.
These great men and great women, who have been immortalized in our consciousness, are nothing more than ordinary people who had a purpose, prepared for that purpose, and committed to persevere no matter what the cost or condition. These ordinary people became great not because they had a purpose, not because they were prepared, and not because they persevered. These ordinary people became great because they were willing to ignite their purpose, for which they were prepared and for which they were committed to persevere, thereby setting themselves on fire with action.
It was this fire in Nelson Mandela that brought apartheid in South Africa to an end. It was this fire in Sister Teresa of Calcutta that dutifully served the poor. It was this fire in Florence Nightingale that brought relief to the sick. It was this fire in Sir Winston Churchill that helped win a world war.
This fire that was ablaze in these great men and great women captured and consumed the admiration and allegiance of those that were around—and they themselves were caught on fire!
The pages of history could very well have included legions of ordinary people with their signature of greatness had they only ignited a purpose into action. There is so much that the citizens of this world have in common that the difference in those who are considered great is they did something with what they had.
If they had time, they prized it. If they had a skill, they perfected it. If they had a vision, they proclaimed it. If they had an opportunity, they pursued it.
This morning I invite you to explore with me a familiar parable of Jesus found in Matthew 25:1-13. This parable offers us insights into the time period that surrounds our anticipation of the second coming of Christ.
The parable opens a window into the lives of 10 women—and if we spend some time at this window, we soon realize that these 10 women had a lot in common. My time at the window revealed that they were all virgins; they were all invited to a wedding; they all had lamps; they all fell asleep; they all heard the announcement—“the bridegroom comes!”—and they all saw the bridegroom.
Looking through the window, I could not help noticing that even with all that these 10 women had in common, it was the failure of five of them to do one thing that made the difference. Someone who does not have much time to spend looking through the window may see only the obvious: Half of the women took no oil for their lamps. However, someone who takes the time to examine the scenery that presents itself at this window would recognize that the difference was that half of the women did something with what they had. They all had lamps, but only half of the women did what was necessary to ensure that their lamps would produce light.
This world needs more love than it needs literature. This world needs more volunteers than it needs vegetarians. This world needs more givers than it needs gossipers.
This parable is set in a culture in which the bridegroom, not the bride, is the focus of attention—a culture in which the bride is ready and waiting while the bridegroom has no set time to arrive. The marriage supper is held in the evening at the home of the groom. The house is given up for the day to the women, who busy themselves robing the bride and adorning the house.
As the night wears on, and the duties of robing the bride and adorning the house are all done, a period of relaxing and drowsy waiting sets in; thus, as in the parable, all 10 women were overcome with sleep.
When the bridegroom begins his procession through the streets, a cry is heard all along the route that gives warning to those waiting with the bride that it’s time to arise and prepare a corridor of light to welcome the bridegroom with honor.
As Jesus presented this parable to His disciples, He conspicuously provided them with His assessment of these 10 women before outlining the events that took place that was the basis of His assessment. He declared that “five of them were wise, and five were foolish” (Matt. 25:2).
This approach in presenting the parable suggests to me that Jesus was serving notice to His audience and to us today that if we learn from the experience of these 10 women, we would be well advised to take the appropriate action to be considered wise when our own assessment is made.
They all had lamps, but it was those that were wise who could do something with their lamp. The lamp of the wise had purpose, not posture. The lamp of the wise had preparation, not presumption. The lamp of the wise had perseverance, not paralysis. The lamp of the wise had power, not pretense.
As I was looking through the window and seeing the lives of these 10 women in the parable, I realized that there was another window nearby, and in my curiosity, I also looked through this other window. To my amazement, I saw myself among many people and could not help noticing how much we had in common. We all go to church. We all are baptized. We all return a faithful tithe and offering. We all have the Spirit of Prophecy. We all have this faith in Jesus. We all believe and accept Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf at Calvary. We all believe in His resurrection. We all believe in His ascension to prepare for us a place, and we all believe that He is coming back again!
All that I found common to us as I looked through the other window is the very basis of our indictment. For though we have much in common, we often do nothing with what we have. Our lives provide no evidence of what we have. Our lives provide no evidence of what we believe. Our lives provide no evidence of what we have accepted to be true. Yes, we have much in common, but no one can tell or feel the power of what we have!
Some may say this morning that my window gazing has no basis in reality. But I would say the contrary is true. The question for each of us today is “What am I doing with this faith that I have?”
Growing up in the country of Jamaica meant that having a lamp in the home was a necessity. The utility company would choose the most inopportune times to leave us in darkness, and this was done without warning. So our lamps had to be always ready. As I reflected on my years with our lamps at home, I realized that the whole process of a lamp giving light is so germane to the life of a Christian.
Let me take a moment and share with you a few insights gained from my reflection about our lamps at home in Jamaica. Let me give you a little course in “lampology”: Each person or room should have its own lamp. You must know where to buy oil; you must buy oil; you must buy your oil before you need it (prices are higher in a time of crisis!); each lamp must be filled with its own supply of oil; you must continually monitor your supply of oil; the wick must be immersed in the oil; the wick is difficult to light without oil; the wick will burn out quickly without oil, and whatever light is produced is minimal; the wick should be trimmed periodically so there is no impediment to oil being ignited into light. The lampshade must be clean, or else the light will not be seen; and you must light the lamp.
Now that you have successfully completed that introductory lesson in lampology, let me give you the advanced lesson. The question is “How does the oil in the lamp make it up the wick so that it can be ignited into light?” Well, here i
s the answer. The process is known as capillarity—the elevation or the depression of a liquid where it comes in contact with a solid, such as the side of a glass. If the liquid can wet the side of the glass faster than the liquid is able to bond to itself, then the liquid will rise.
So then, if our faith in Jesus is of such that it wets our souls faster than our desire to have faith in ourselves, then our faith in Jesus can only rise to the top and all that is left for us to do is ignite that faith into a living fire so that our light can so shine before men that we may see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven!
We live in a dark and cold world, and we need more people who are willing to put their faith on fire. This world needs more love than it needs literature. This world needs more volunteers than it needs vegetarians. This world needs more givers than it needs gossipers. This world is looking for and needs to see Jesus in you and in me. This world needs our faith on fire so ablaze that it will capture and consume those around us and they themselves can be caught on fire.
The monotony of waiting caused the 10 women to fall asleep. At such a moment of excitement and expectation I wonder how someone—anyone—could fall asleep. Maybe it was the certainty that the bridegroom would come. Maybe it was the certainty that they would hear the call in the distance. Maybe it was the certainty that they were already inside the house.
No matter what may have been the certainty, it’s clear that not everybody was ready for the bridegroom to come. In that time of waiting, some lamps were on while some lamps were out. In that time of waiting, some were sleeping in certainty while some were sleeping in carelessness.
We who are waiting for Jesus to come are living in a period of monotony—a continuous monotony of disasters, crime, violence, war, famine, sickness, and death. In this monotony we are waiting for Jesus to come, but we feel weary. All we can do is rest in the assurance that “he that shall come will come” (Heb. 10:37, KJV).
As we wait, is there a purpose to our faith? As we wait, is there a preparation for our faith? As we wait, is there a perseverance to our faith? As we wait, is our faith on fire?
It was at the midnight hour that they heard the call. The time of waiting was soon to come to an end. The bridegroom had not yet arrived at the house, but he was closer now than he had been before. Those who were sleeping in certainty arose to find their lamps with light. Those who were sleeping in carelessness arose to find their lamps in darkness.
In this moment of crisis, the wise recommended to the foolish to go and buy oil from those that sell oil. The passage does not tell us if they indeed were able to buy oil, but my guess is that it would have been very unlikely at that hour.
It’s not a matter of selfishness, but each lamp must have its own oil. Each person must know Christ for themselves. Each person must have their own faith in Jesus. It’s this knowledge of Christ and faith in Him that is the source of light in our lives.
When the bridegroom finally arrived, he found five women there with their lamps providing a corridor of light to the door of the marriage supper. All who were with the bridegroom and the five women who were stationed at their post of duty went in, and the door was shut.
When Christ returns, He will recognize us by the light of our lives, which is produced by our faith in Him. Our faith on fire will reflect Christ, and as He sees His reflection in us, He will say: “I know who you are—come in with Me. I know who you are because you loved Me. I know who you are because you fed Me. I know who you are because you visited Me. I know who you are because you spoke of Me. I know who you are—come in with Me!”
The five women, who in their hour of crisis went to buy oil, returned to a closed door, and petitioned the bridegroom to let them in. The bridegroom came to the door, but his response was “I don’t know you!” This declaration is quite astonishing considering that these five women had been invited to the wedding.
In my sanctified imagination here is what I believe happened. When the bridegroom came to the door there was darkness on the outside and light on the inside. You see, I don’t believe that they were able to buy oil at that hour of the night. I am sure you have experienced it, given those two conditions of darkness outside and light inside. The person on the outside can see the person on the inside, but the person on the inside cannot see or clearly distinguish the person on the outside. So the five women could see the bridegroom, but as far as the bridegroom was concerned, He was unable to recognize those who were standing at the door in darkness! How could he let them in? In the darkness they could provide no proof of who they were and why they should be able to come inside.
“Good works can never purchase salvation,” writes Ellen White, “but they are the evidence of the faith that acts by love and purifies the soul. And though the eternal reward is not bestowed because of our merit, yet it will be in proportion to the work that has been done through the grace of Christ.”*
Let me conclude with a paraphrase of some famous words of Sir Winston Churchill: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that when Christ shall come and through the ceaseless ages of eternity He will still say: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”
* Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 314.
Paul H. Douglas serves as treasurer of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.