Called or chosen ?
Jesus said, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’, but what did he mean? (Matthew 22:14). A church member asked me this question recently. Several further questions arise from the original one. Who are the ‘many’ and who are the ‘few’? What is the difference between the ‘called’ and the ‘chosen’? Who does the calling and who does the choosing?
To discover the meaning of Jesus’ words, I looked at several dictionaries, translations and notes in Study Bibles. For example, Strong’s Hebrew dictionary defines ‘called’ as ‘invited’ and ‘chosen’ as ‘elect’.
Charles Ryrie comments, ‘It indicates that there is a general call of God to sinners inviting them to receive his salvation and there is also a specific election that brings some to him’.
John MacArthur’s observations are similar – the call is ‘a summons to repentance and faith … Many hear it but few respond’. The ‘few’ who do respond are ‘the elect’. Those who reject the call ‘do so willingly’, the ‘chosen’ respond ‘only because of the grace of God in choosing and drawing them’.
Having thought about the sense of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:14, I then asked, ‘What comes before this verse and what follows it?’ It is an essential rule of biblical interpretation to read a text in its context, and this text sums up Jesus’ parable of the king inviting guests to his son’s wedding.
The people invited make excuses why they cannot attend the wedding. Some even kill the king’s servants (vv.1-4). Therefore, the king sends his servants to ‘go into the highways, and as many as you find invite to the wedding’ (v.9). The servants went and ‘gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good’, so that ‘the wedding hall was filled with guests’ (v.10).
What is the message of this parable? God, the divine King, invites sinners to receive Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Those who are hungry for the pardon of sin find satisfaction in Christ – who alone can satisfy the deepest needs of the soul.
Those who rejected the king’s invitation and killed his servants represented the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. From chapter 19 through to 25, Matthew focuses on the growing hatred of the Pharisees and Sadducees towards Jesus – their malice finally leading to his death on the cross.
As the Jews rejected their Messiah, so also today many religious people, like the Pharisees, do not see their need of a Saviour. Some who have attended church or chapel all their lives will spend eternity in hell – with the rapists and child-abusers whom they have despised!
The guests brought from the highways to the feast signify those who repent – who are not too proud to confess and turn from their sins. They pray, with the tax collector, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13).
The proud & the penitent
But what of the latter part of the parable, in which one man is found without a wedding garment (Matthew 22:11-13)? An illustration may help to explain these verses. Imagine walking down the street in your everyday clothes. You look untidy; maybe your jumper or dress is well-worn. You don’t wear your best clothes when you go to the supermarket!
Then suddenly someone grabs your arm and pulls you into a wedding reception. ‘I’m not dressed for a wedding’, you protest. ‘Don’t worry’, says the usher, ‘the bridegroom’s father has provided a wardrobe of clothes’.
By nature we are dressed in the rags of sin. But God has provided us with a new suit – ‘the garments of salvation … the robe of [Christ’s] righteousness’ (Isaiah 61:10). The perfect life of Christ and his blood shed on the cross cover all our sins.
But some, like the man at the end of the parable, despise the free wedding garment of salvation. They think the clothes of their own deeds are good enough. To reject God’s provision of salvation in Christ paves the way to the ‘outer darkness’ of hell.
We may divide every congregation into two groups – the proud and the penitent. All hear Christ’s invitation through the gospel preacher but some accept the invitation and some reject it. ‘Many’ (the entire congregation) are ‘called’, but ‘few’ (those who repent of their sins) turn out to have been ‘chosen’.
So far, we have looked at the significance of Jesus’ words and their context – the parable of the king inviting guests to his son’s wedding. Now let’s ask three questions.
Why invite many?
If God has chosen only ‘a few’ why invite the ‘many’?
Firstly, we invite all to come to Christ because God commands all sinners to repent and believe. The Philippian jailor asks Paul, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ The apostle commands him to believe. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:30-31). Paul, preaching in Athens, declares, ‘God now commands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). Unbelievers willingly choose not to believe and choose not to repent.
Secondly, God saves every sinner who seeks his mercy. ‘Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13). Those who call demonstrate that God has chosen them.
Thirdly, God commands Christians to deliver the gospel invitation: ‘go … and as many as you find invite’ (Matthew 22:9; 28:18-20).
How should we invite the ‘many’?
The king used his servants to deliver the invitations to his son’s wedding – and do so urgently. In like manner, Christians deliver God’s invitation to sinners. We must not present the gospel with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. Believers are to urge unbelievers to come to Christ.
Listen to the king’s words in Luke’s account of the parable. ‘Go out in the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’ (Luke 14:23). The Amplified Bible expands the word ‘compel’ as ‘Urge and constrain [them] to yield and come in’.
This understanding of the word ‘compel’ finds support in Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God’.
Picture a man threatening to jump off a bridge on to a railway track. Wouldn’t you try to persuade him not to jump? Rejection of Christ is spiritual suicide. Shouldn’t we plead with sinners not to jump into an eternal death?
Will there be only ‘a few’ in heaven?
The apostle John answers this question in Revelation 7:9: ‘I looked, and behold a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’. We seem so ‘few’ on earth, but we will join ‘a great multitude’ in heaven.
I think it was the American theologian Benjamin Warfield who suggested that there will be more in heaven than in hell. Is this feasible? Consider that the elect will come from all periods of history and from all parts of the world. Add to this the hundreds converted in times of revival.
And what about children who die in infancy? Some preachers such as C. H. Spurgeon have argued that these children will populate heaven. The devil is mighty, but God is Almighty. Remember Paul’s words to the Romans – ‘Where sin increased, grace increased all the more’ (Romans 5:20, NIV).
Will you be among the ‘great multitude’ of heaven? To put that question another way, are you one of the ‘many’ or one of the ‘chosen’? The chosen accept God’s invitation to receive salvation through Christ – and acceptance leads to heaven. The ‘many’ reject God’s invitation – and rejection leads to hell; because to reject God’s invitation is to reject God himself.
Stan K. Evers