Q – What does the verse “Many are called, but few are chosen” mean?
Jim – Ok, admittedly this is one of Jesus’ more cryptic statements. So, it has to be understood within its context. Of the four gospel writers, only Matthew records this saying of our Lord, but he records it twice. The first time is in Mat. 20:16 –
“So the last shall be first, and the first last; for many be called, but few chosen.”
And then again in Mat. 22:14 –
“For many are called, but few chosen.”
Both times, this phrase appears at the end of a parable. In fact, it’s the summation of the parables. So, let’s look at the parables so they can shed some light on this statement.
To look at the first parable you have to back up to the end of Mat. 19. The chapter division here is very odd. Jesus makes the same statement at the beginning and end of this parable, despite the fact that the first time Jesus said it, it’s relegated to Chapter 19, then comes the parable, then the same statement as a conclusion. Personally, I would have started Chapter 20 with Mat. 19:30 –
“Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” (Matt.19:27-30)
Then, Chapter 20 starts with the word “For.” In other words, it’s a further extrapolation on His first point – “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”
Then, He launched into this parable –
“For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matt. 20:1-15)
The lesson of this parable is pretty plain. God will call laborers into His work and they will all receive the reward of Heaven. That’s the offer. Human reason would argue that it’s unfair to pay everyone the same when they work all day, but Jesus’ householder was actually scrupulously fair. He agreed with the people who went to work at 6 a.m. that they would get a penny. The others, who came later, were never told what their wage would be, simply that it would be “whatsoever is right.” They trusted, they went to work, and when it was time to hand out the wages, the householder (God) told his steward (the Holy Spirit) to gather the laborers and bring the latest arrivers in first. When they received a full days’ wage, the ones who worked all day argued against him. But, he reminded them that they got exactly what they had agreed to work for.
And, here are the important conclusions – “Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I want with my own?” That’s vital. The one in charge, the one who puts men to work in His field and who distributes the reward, has the right to say what every laborer receives. And, “Is your eye evil because mine is good?” God’s goodness is correct regardless of how sinful men perceive it or how their standards of fairness fail to line up with God’s own.
Remember that the last to arrive at work were the first to be paid. So, Jesus’ summary statement was the same as His opening – “So the last shall be first and the first last.”
Now, the implications of that statement are far reaching. The “first” in this instance, were the apostles, who claimed that they had given up everything they had in order to follow Jesus and they wanted to know what their reward would be. They were the first laborers sent out into the missionary field. And, they wanted to know what was in it for them. Jesus told them that they would have twelve thrones in the kingdom from which they would rule over Israel. But, there would be others – Gentiles, the Church – who would come into the faith, as well. And, they would receive their reward and Heavenly estate before Israel was restored and before the apostles got their thrones. The last would be first and the first last.
Now, in that context, the apostles were to go out into the world, calling people to the work of the gospel. Many people would hear the call. But, the apostles did not have any exclusive power that would guarantee that their call would result in conversion or salvation. That would take the work and power of Christ. So, only the chosen would respond.
Many are called, but few are chosen.
The second time Jesus used this statement, it was in response to Pharisees who were testing Him and trying to trip Him up in His speech. He had just condemned them for the death of John the Baptist and told them a parable about a householder who left his vineyard in the hands of workers, but the evil workers killed all the household servants. Then, the owner sent more, which were also killed. Finally, the owner sent his son, saying, “Surely they will respect my son.” But, the evil men realized that the son was the heir, and they killed him in the vineyard to get his inheritance.
Then, Jesus asked the Pharisees, “So, what will the householder do to these men when he returns?” And, they rightly said, “He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.”
And, they condemned themselves with those words. God had been sending his servants into the vineyard and those workers – those prophets – were slain. So, God sent His Son. And, Jesus predicted that they would kill Him too, inasmuch as He was the true heir to the kingdom. Matthew continued –
“Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.” (Matt. 21:42-46)
So, this set of parables was aimed at the Pharisees and chief priests. They were a form of condemnation against them.
Jesus continued –
“And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 22:1-13)
You can see the parallels. This time it’s about a King (God), who arranged a marriage for His Son (Jesus and His bride, the Church). And, he sent out servants (the prophets) to gather those who were invited to the wedding – the historic, national Jews. They were God’s first chosen, elect people. But, they treated the servants spitefully and killed them — same events as before in a different setting. So, the king was angry and destroyed them and their city (the fall of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, at the hands of Titus, the Roman General).
Then, the king told his servants that the wedding was still on. The originally-called folk were not counted worthy. Go into the highways and call everyone you see. They called everyone they found, bad and good, so the wedding was populated. But, is everyone that’s called to the wedding ultimately part of the ceremony? Nope. The king found someone who was not dressed appropriately. He had no wedding garments.
What you need to know culturally is that in Greco-Roman/Jewish culture in the first century, it was up to the king to provide wedding garments for his guests. It was a sign of wealth and goodwill. But, this guy had no such garment. The only explanation for his lack of garment was that he came late or came through the wrong door. Either way, he did not come in contact with the porter who distributed the garments (the Holy Spirit).
Of course, the parallel is that only those called to the wedding – the wayfarers, both good and bad, out on the highways – will be clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and without that covering we cannot stand in the kingdom of Heaven.
So, the man without a wedding garment was cast out into “outer darkness” where there was crying and anguish – an allegory for Hell. Was he called to the wedding? Well yeh. Everyone who was found out in the streets was called. But, was he chosen? No, he wasn’t wearing the ceremonial clothing that only the king could provide.
Why? “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:14)
Of course, the Pharisees understood that Jesus was posing this against them. They had been called into the kingdom of God, but Jesus had already said He would take it from them and give it to a nation that would bring forth fruit. Likely, His reference was to a future generation of Israel, the reconstituted nation of Israel. Jesus was not saying that the promises of Israel would be taken from them and given to some Gentile nation. He was speaking of generations within that nation. But, they understood that He was claiming to take the kingdom of God from them because of their rejection of Him.
And, the second parable cemented that idea. Israel had all the promises of a kingdom that would never be destroyed, ruled by the Messiah from David’s throne. But, they failed to react when they were invited to the wedding of the Son. They rejected the Son. So, others were called.
“I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not; I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name.” (Isa. 65:1)
“But Isaiah is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me. But, to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.” (Rom. 10:19-20)
Those who were not looking for Him, those who were not expecting Him, those who were ignorant of Him, were called into the wedding. And, they were clothed with garments befitting the majesty of the King’s presence and the Son’s matrimony. But, anyone attempting to appear at that ceremony without the proper covering, they will be rejected. Many are called. Few are chosen. Israel was called, the Church was chosen. Sinners were called, the righteous were called, all men are called – but, few are chosen.
You know, it’s interesting how that concept plays out through Scripture. Back when Saul was ruling Israel, God told Samuel to go into the house of Jesse to anoint Israel’s new king. All seven of Jesse’s sons were called and paraded before Samuel, but God rejected every one. Finally, Samuel asked if Jesse had any other boys. He said that his youngest was out tending the sheep (naturally…). They brought David in and God said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.
Many were called, few were chosen.
One last concept. You can be called and not chosen. The general call of the gospel has gone into all the world. But, not everyone has responded. Only the chosen will respond. So, you must first be called, but you must also be chosen. You cannot be chosen and not called. You can only be called AND chosen. So, Paul used the words almost synonymously when speaking of the saints. They were the called and the chosen.
“For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are; that no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
How cool is THAT?!
Okay, last verse –
“These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them; for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.” (Rev. 17:14)
Hope that helps
That was just a long way of saying that the call to believe the gospel goes out into the world, but only the chosen respond.
Many called – few chosen.
Grace and peace,
Jim “the Pastor Dude”