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Signs of the Times: The Sleeping Church

Please read Matthew 25:1-13.

Talking about “being turned off”! Here we go through our life preparing ourselves for that exciting adult life ahead of us only to hear the minister talk about persecution outside of our borders and warnings about it in the (not too distant?) future for us. Reading the paper does not really give us a break either. Whoever may be blamed for it, the result is enough to turn anyone off. Internationally, we seem to have become a reacting instead of acting nation. Nationally, it doesn’t seem to be better. Lay-offs are played down, but are an upsetting reality for those who get hit by them. “Will the gloomy predictions, that it will get worse, become true?” “I need a part time job to help pay for my education.” “I am finished with my education and want a full-time job. With thousands looking for work, will I find one?”

From a “natural” point of view, I don’t care about these signs of the times, do you? Also, of course, the first question to pop up in our mind is: Even from a spiritual point of view, what is the difference? Christian young people are people, too! They have to live just as well as do the non-Christians. So, all these sings of the times make us feel uneasy about the future.

Let’s fist make sure that we get God into this picture. Unless we want to view Him to be just good enough to get us to heaven when we die, we will want to view Him as the one who revealed Himself to be our eternal life now, for all His people (John 3:36, 17:3). Therefore, let us turn to the Bible, the only source of knowledge and information, in the midst of all the confusion and discouragement (and for some, even real fear) so that we can test our reactions to the signs of the times and be sure that we have our priorities right.

The last promise in the Word of God is found in one of the last texts of the Bible, Revelation 22:20. “Surely I come quickly, Amen.” When Jesus referred to this coming in Matthew 24, He spoke in stern terms; stern enough to upset His disciples, in much the same way as we might have reacted. Not just a synagogue, but will this Dwelling Place of God amongst His people be destroyed? To Jesus’ followers this was inconceivable. That would be like taking the heart out of God’s people and could only happen at the end of the world. Jesus then proceeds to show them where the true priorities are – not in the watching and preserving of this beautiful temple, but in the warning, “watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Matthew 24:42). To explain exactly what He has in mind, Jesus continues in Chapter 25 with the parable of the Kingdom of Heaven as it is likened unto ten virgins.

When we keep in mind that, according to verse 13, the purpose of the parable is that we should watch since we do not know the day or even the hour, it becomes clear that the introduction of “slumbering and sleeping” (vs. 5) into the parable serves chiefly to accentuate the element of surprise of the sudden announcement of the bridegroom.1 This is important for us to keep in mind for the simple reason that we, the church, are pictured right now as slumbering and sleeping.

And, we can see, that what is meant by Jesus in describing the church as sleeping, becomes an all important question. After all, we are not dealing with an interesting story about the way in which weddings took place in Jesus’ time; rather, we have to understand the spiritual truth conveyed by it.

The questions which we have to answer are as follows:

1) Who are the virgins – wise and foolish?

2) What is meant by the waiting time?

3) What represents sleeping and slumbering?

4) What is the result of the call to wake up?

            Regardless of many who emphatically make claims to the contrary, these ten virgins (plural) represent the church, and the church (singular) represents the bride of Christ. As mentioned, the virgins constitute the visible church with all its members. This, once again, is contrary to other interpretations offered. They claim that the five virgins represent the church and the other five represent the world! But, obviously, Jesus is not speaking about five Jewish virgins and five Gentile virgins, but He is speaking about ten Jewish virgins.

As we realize that the church is represented, we might then ask the question: Why are the virgins not called the give good and the five bad virgins – just as in chapter 7:25-27, the builders of their houses are not called good and bad but “wise and foolish”? What’s the difference?

It seems that the parable about the builders may help us to understand this parable. It is obvious that in the case of the builders, the houses, for all practical purposes, were good and well built. Good bricks were used, there were sufficient rooms, windows were made, etc. They were built, perhaps, according to the same good blueprint. But, when the signs of the times came, by way of storms and floods, the foolishness and wisdom showed up. Seen in this light, we can see why the expression of wise and foolish are used here – especially since its final result will not become visible until the bridegroom comes.2

What is signified by the waiting time? As always, misinterpretations abound. Some picture the assurance of the remnant as they awaited the bridegroom, instead of focusing in on their carelessness?3 Rather, the waiting time depicts the long time of waiting of the church for these 2000 years, and as we as individuals share in this waiting time.

An analogy of this can be seen in the marriage customs of the Netherlands. Before my wife and I were married, a trip to city hall was necessary to become officially engages (ondertrouwd). From that day until the wedding day in City Hall and Church, a separation would have been viewed almost as seriously as a divorce. In the same way, Christ and His Church are now engaged. “They are in principle already married, but while the church remains in the world, she is a virgin….while she waits, she keeps herself unspotted from the world.”4

Now we come to the heart of this article: What does it mean to be a “sleeping church”? When I was asked to write on this subject, the question was raised as to why the request came to me. The subject is so important, because it relates so frighteningly directly to our daily life: actions and reactions. One needs to be a minister or teacher to be able to understand, and explain this clearly on paper. One the other hand, we must remember that the Bible requires that all of us, as much as God gives us opportunity, must exhort one another, “and so much the more as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).

First of all, let us remember where this article started: with Jesus’ warning in verse 13 to “watch therefore.” We only have to think in terms of the military to get the implication. A watch is set out as a part of the preparedness of the unit of which a soldier belongs. Watchfulness is one of the basic requirements of a soldier. Many times the Bible also speaks in the same terms. Our ministers often refer to our elders as watchmen on the walls of Zion, or Christ’s church. It is apparent that the waiting time discussed above makes the warning so urgent. Not only in the parable does He delay His coming as far as normal human expectation is concerned, but also in the life of the church throughout these 2000 years.

Already in II Peter 3:4 the waiting seemed so long that the enemies of the church poked fun of the church’s watching. Today, after so many centuries of waiting, the promise may seem even more unreal. More real to us are our daily confrontations with school, teachers, work, cars, friends, entertainment. Temptations become almost too strong for us. As if this were not enough, it is as if our spirits can see clouds of God’s anger become darker and more threatening when we see the terrible iniquity increasing. This iniquity is even under the cloak of the law (Psalm 94:20), for example, gambling, abortion, and shops, stores closed to us by unions. These are the first stages of persecution here. This is the reality of our everyday life!

Under all these things comes the daily repeated reminder and admonition: “Watch”. Be a representative of your “unit”, the church. Whenever the church went through difficult times, they encouraged one another with the same words as the persecuted church speaks today: “His coming is at hand.” The result of this is a longing for His coming. Picture yourself in a country such as Hungary, China, or Russia, etc., representing almost one-half of our world. Your father has just been picked up for his “forcing damaging beliefs on his children.” Your mother is doing odd jobs to keep food on the table. You are unable to get higher education or a better job since you are a Christian. There is a real possibility of your being sent to a labor camp for loafing. You are hated by many, shunned by others, and you are troubled in your heart because of your parents. The coming of the Lord must seem like the most wanted event you can pray for!

We, in this country, apart from talks of recession, still think in terms of affluence, almost as if persecution does not exist at all. We love to force ourselves into thinking positive. We concern ourselves with things such as a bigger boat, a nice vacation, a better motorcycle, a fun beach party, a better paying job, a nicer teacher next fall, and the like. This is replacing pessimism with positive thinking, isn’t it?

But what does the Word of God call it? Slumbering and sleeping!

John Calvin writes the following, explaining this text:

“Denoting earthly occupations in which believers must be engaged…and although forgetfulness of the kingdom of God ought never to steal upon them, yet the distracting influence…of this world is not inappropriately compared to sleep.” 5

Also note the following:

“This drowsiness and sleepiness points to the spiritual lethargy which steals over the church. The members become indifferent to the coming of Christ and fall into the drowsiness of carnality and worldliness; they are, so to speak, drugged with pleasure and become lethargic with the carnal pursuit of earthly happiness.” 6

Now the question arises, what will be the result of the cry to “Wake up!” in verse 6 as it has been sounding to us from pulpit to catechism room, from Bible reading at home to school room? Remember that at the outset we concluded that we would want to get our priorities right. We are willing to be encouraged exclusively by His promise: “Surely I come quickly, Amen.”

In the case of the foolish virgins, the oil of wanting to be prepared and wanting to persevere to the end was totally lacking. It could not be borrowed from church, parents, or anyone! The door was shut to these make-believers with the terrible words: “Verily…I know you not.”

Now, what will happen to us? We are the children of Christian parents (as they were), members of the church and baptized (as they were). Also, more importantly, we are sinners as well. We read and pass on the same filthy books. We cheat in school, shoplift, lie to parents, teachers and employers. We read the Bible as little as possible. We are sleeping as they were! Shame covers our faces, tears fill our eyes…. Oh, Lord, be merciful to me, I am a black sinner! (Song of Solomon 1:5).

Our bridegroom will say, “Come with Me, you are my bride. I have loved you from before the foundations of the world. I realize that you are black.” (Song of Solomon 1:6). In my faithfulness have I cleansed you (I John 1:9) and in pure white may you go with Me in My banqueting house and My banner of love will be over you (Song of Solomon 2:4).

Prof. H.C. Hanko summarizes this well:

“For as surely as He comes, does He take His bride to Himself. The marriage with Christ will be fully consummated. The eternal joy of that heavenly banquet will be of God’s people forever.

Watch therefore. It might be the night is growing darker. Indeed it is. The Lord seems to delay His coming. But watch! Have you become sleepy with the cares and pleasures of life and begun to wonder whether the Lord will ever return? Watch! Watch in hope, in longing, in certainty. Watch unto the end. The victory is sure to be ours.”7

As expressed in the words of Him Who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars:

“Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come upon thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis, which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.

He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name before My Father and before His angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” (Revelation 3:3-6).

 

1 Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.

2 Jamieson, F. and B., Commentary on the Whole Bible.

3 Wycliffe, Bible Commentary.

4 Prof. H.C. Hanko, The Mysteries of the Kingdom.

5 Calvin, Commentary on Matthew.

6 Prof. H.C. Hanko, The Mysteries of the Kingdom.

7 Ibid.