“For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” (Matthew 25:3,4)
When Jesus spoke in parables He frequently gave no explanation. No doubt this was intentional, for it caused His people to wrestle with Scripture to discern an appropriate interpretation. Such Scripture included the Apostolic writings as these gave official detailed doctrine for Christ’s Church.
The ten virgins in the parable each possessed a lamp. One can understand the “lamp” in the parable to be that which outwardly identifies a Christian. Baptism fits as such an outward identification. All ten virgins had the mark of being a Christian; we could simply say they were all baptized into Christ. Our Triune God had brought them into His family, and thus all were initially saved.
As the parable progresses we observe that five virgins had the necessary oil to burn in their lamps, while the other five had insufficient oil. When the bridegroom’s arrival was close, the lamps were to shine-forth and illumine Him. The five with insufficient oil could shed no light upon His pending arrival. What then is the oil?
Some have considered the oil (with the lamp’s flame) in the parable to be a Christian’s good works, the foundational work being love. Truly such love shining from a Christian illuminates Christ, for without Him and His love we can do nothing. Understanding the oil to be good works flowing from one’s salvation at first seems untenable since it appears to put good works into the formula for determining one’s salvation. Scripture informs us that good works are necessary, however they are not necessary to save us. The good works produced by those who believe in Jesus will automatically flow from their faith in Christ. Christians are not consciously performing good works in order to be saved. Thus it comes as no surprise that on Judgment Day the saved will ask in befuddlement, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? [Mt 25:37-39]. James explains the necessity of good works by challenging: So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works [2:17,18].
Of good works Jesus says, By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples…You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…these things I command you, so that you will love one another [Jn 15:8,16a,17]. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave a command that readily relates to the lit lamps in the parable of the Ten Virgins: Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven [Mt 5:16].
So how can the five foolish virgins have no good works? They have no good works because they have abandoned the faith. Or to put it another way, they have ceased believing and trusting in Jesus, and disconnected from Him they can do nothing to illuminate Him. Or to put it another way, they did not continue in Christ’s word, by which Christians are empowered unto good works. Or to put it another way, they grieved the Holy Spirit who, through the Word of Christ, works all good within us.
In summary: Be ready for Christ’s return; have oil in your lamps. That is, continue in His Word, through which He gives us the Spirit, by whom we are established in faith, from which good works naturally flow.