What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Many Are Called, But Few Are Chosen’?
Guy Waters / June 9, 2017
If people know anything about Jesus, it is that he was a consummate storyteller. Jesus’s parables have the remarkable ability of engaging our imaginations and challenging our assumptions. Jesus did not teach in parables to provide blanket affirmation for the way we understand God, ourselves, and other people. He taught in parables to invite us to reexamine some of our most cherished convictions about matters of eternal importance. For this reason, Jesus’s parables often unsettle rather than reassure.
Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast does just that.
This parable is, like the others, about the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 22:2). It tells the story of a king who gave a wedding feast for his son (Matt. 22:2). The wedding feast has widespread significance in the Bible. Ultimately, it is the day when God will gather all his redeemed and they will enjoy his presence in complete holiness and joy.
By the king’s order, banquet invitations go out. The king’s servants are “sent . . . to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come” (Matt. 22:3). They offer a host of excuses and mistreat the servants, so the king punishes them (Matt. 22:5–7). The king then dispatches his servants: “Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find” (Matt. 22:9).
Jesus is describing here the offer of the gospel, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. The Jewish nation had decisively rejected the offer God made to them through his prophets. For that rejection, Jesus announces the judgment God will bring—the Roman armies’ destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. But in God’s providence, that rejection is the occasion of the gopsel being extended to Gentiles. The result is that “the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matt. 22:10).
But then something unexpected happens.
The king joins his guests and discovers “a man who had no wedding garment” (Matt. 22:12). The man can give no reason why he has no garment. In an act of eschatological judgment, the king orders his attendants to “bind [the man] hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13). Jesus ends his story by pronouncing the aphorism that summarizes the parable’s meaning: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).
To understand this pithy closing statement is to understand the parable as a whole. What does Jesus mean by “For many are called, but few are chosen”? To answer, we must understand what Jesus means here by “call” and “choose.” The word “call” runs through the parable. In the Greek text, the servants are said to “call those who had been called to the feast” (Matt. 22:3). The Jewish invitees are the “called ones” (cf. Matt. 22:4, 8). The servants are then commanded to “call” the Gentiles (22:9). The word translated “called” in verse 14 belongs to the same word family as that translated “called” in verses 3, 4, 8, and 9.
This pattern helps us understand the nature of the call in this parable. It is the summons or invitation of God through his servants—prophets in the Old Testament, ministers in the New. This call bids hearers to repent and believe the good news the servants proclaim. It is possible to refuse, as many Jews did. Jesus teaches that those who refuse the call are culpable for refusing it.
But it is also possible to respond to this call in a non-saving way. The man without the wedding garment in 22:12 presumably responded to the invitation. But his lack of the garment proves he doesn’t belong at the feast, and he is justly banished. What is the “wedding garment”? It likely pictures the gift of salvation freely offered in the gospel. Only those who receive this gift will be seated at the wedding banquet of the Lamb at the consummation of all things.
Who are they who sincerely respond to the call and receive Christ in faith? Jesus calls them the “chosen” or, as the Greek word may be translated, the elect. These are all whom the Father has chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph. 1:4). Only these chosen ones will constitute the company of the redeemed when Christ returns in glory. God’s eternal choice ensures they will respond sincerely to the call.
Since the New Testament elsewhere joins calling with election (see 2 Tim. 1:9; Rom. 8:30), what does Jesus mean when he says there are some who are called but not chosen?
The external call goes to all people. But only the elect experience the internal call.
The answer lies in a distinction necessary to understand the way the biblical writers speak of “call.” In this parable, Jesus speaks of “call” in an external sense. It is the summons of God through the gospel message. This call bids men and women to come to Christ by way of repentance and faith.
In other places the biblical writers speak of “call” in an internal sense. For instance, Paul speaks of this internal call in 1 Corinthians 1:24—this is the effective, saving work of the Spirit of Christ in conjunction with the gospel’s outward call. This internal call powerfully and effectively turns the sinner from his sin to Jesus Christ. The external call goes to all people. But only the elect will, in God’s time, experience the internal call. For them, the gospel is indeed “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
What It Teaches Us
What are the main lessons Jesus has for us in this surprising, unsettling parable?
First, it is not a slight thing to refuse the summons of God through his messengers. God will hold those who refuse that summons responsible on Judgment Day. Second, Jesus wants us to realize there is a more subtle way to refuse the summons. One may pay lip service to the external call but never truly embrace Jesus as offered in that call. Even this refusal subjects us to God’s just judgment.
The bad news is we have no power in ourselves to change our rebellious hearts. The good news is God is pleased to change rebellious hearts by the invincible power of his Spirit.
If we have responded to the external call in repentance and faith, it is only because God has first been at work in us to turn us to himself in Christ. Salvation is truly by grace alone. This truth is unsettling, but Jesus unsettles us for a reason. He wants us to find salvation and life in him alone, by grace alone. And only in Christ may we find an everlasting, unshakeable foundation.
Guy Waters (PhD, Duke University) is the James M. Baird Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of numerous books, including What Is the Bible? (P&R, 2013), A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Justification: Being Made Right with God? (Christian Focus, 2010), and How Jesus Runs the Church (P&R, 2011).