What Does ‘Many Are Called Few Are Chosen’ Mean in the Bible?

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What Does ‘Many Are Called Few Are Chosen’ Mean in the Bible?

“For many are called but few are chosen.” - Matthew 22:14 KJV

Many are Called, But Few Are Chosen - Bible Context

The Bible phrase "For many are called, but few are chosen" comes from Jesus' Parable of the Wedding Feast in the 22nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

“And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.' But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. ‘But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." - Matthew 22:1-14 (ESV, bold emphasis added).

Translations of Matthew 22:14

King James Version: For many are called, but few are chosen.

New International Version: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

The Message Bible: "That's what I mean when I say, 'Many get invited; only a few make it.'"

Who is Jesus talking to in this instance, and what meaning should we attribute to the verse? In short, Jesus is reminding his hearers that though there is a general call to the gospel for all, there is a specific call to saving faith for the elect. But let's dive deeper and take a look at the wider passage. 

This verse is recorded in a section of Matthew, chapter 22, under the heading The Parable of the Wedding Feast or The Parable of the Wedding Banquet in the ESV and NIV, respectively. What do we know about this verse at first glance?

  • The verse is recorded in one of the Gospel books, the Gospel of Matthew.
  • The verse is spoken by Jesus as recorded by Matthew.
  • The verse is shared by Jesus as part of a parable; in fact, it is the last line of the parable.
  • The parable is the parable of the wedding feast.
  • Jesus often used parables to explain the Kingdom of God.

Crosswalk contributor Madison Hetzler describes parables in the article ‘What Is a Parable and How Should We Read Them?’:

“Jesus used parables in giving instruction, and both revealing and concealing spiritual truths. The parables compared the story shared with the reality of the Kingdom of God. While the first is simple and relatable, the second is profound and consequential. The two together invite comparison that opens up windows of understanding. While some understood the parables, others did not. In Matthew 13:10-16, the disciples question Jesus’s use of the parables. Why did he speak in parables? He responds that to some the truths of the kingdom had been given, but to others they had not been given. As Jesus was teaching large crowds, his true disciples heard and discerned the meaning of these stories. Those who heard but did not understand fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10.”

If Many Are Called, Why Are Few Chosen? 

What does the last line of the parable mean, then? If many are called, why are only a few chosen? This verse is the last line of the parable, and it occurs directly after the man without a wedding garment is discovered and thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible relays that ‘invited’ as used in the NIV translation of Matt. 22:14 can also mean ‘called.’ But called does not reflect how Paul uses it in Romans 8:29-30, as in this instance, the call can be rejected. ‘Chosen’ in the context of verse 14 refers to those who accept the call on God’s terms.

The ESV Study Bible advises that not everyone invited to the wedding feast is supposed to be there since few are chosen. This is the doctrine of ‘general calling’ explained by the ESV study notes:

“The gospel is proclaimed to all people everywhere, both those who will believe and those who will not. However, Paul also mentions another kind of calling, an effective calling from God that comes powerfully to individuals and brings a positive response. When the gospel is proclaimed, only some are effectively called—that is, those who are the elect, who respond with true faith (1 Cor. 1:24, 26-28). This is consistent with Jesus’ statement that ‘few are chosen,’ for the ones ‘chosen’ (Gk. eklektos, ‘selected, chosen’) are ‘the elect,’ a term used by Jesus to refer to his true disciples (cf. Matt. 11:27; 24:22, 24, 31).”

Many are invited or called via the general call of the gospel, which is presented through the Bible, churches, missionaries, and any type of evangelism. Few are chosen means that, of those invited, only the elect (true followers of Jesus) will remain at the wedding feast in the kingdom of God. Those without a wedding garment (the cleansing blood of Jesus’ righteousness to clothe them in salvation) will not be permitted to enter.

The Difference between an Internal Call and an External Call:
Guy Waters, a contributor for TheGospelCoalition.org, dissects the difference: “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.”

Who is Jesus Speaking to?

To know who Jesus is telling the parable of the wedding feast, we need to look at the chapter prior. In Matthew 21, Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem is described; He is hailed as the Messiah but He arrived humbly on the back of a donkey. At this time, He also entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought there, turning over the tables of the money changers. The sick and lame came to Him and He healed them; the chief priests and scribes witnessed these wonders and the praise being given to Jesus by the people in Jerusalem. When Jesus entered the temple again, the chief priests and elders of the people questioned His authority and challenged Him. But Jesus asked them a question first, and they could not answer it, so in response, He began to tell them parables: The Parable of the Two Sons and The Parable of the Tenants.

Matthew 21:45-46 describes the reaction of the chief priests and Pharisees to Jesus’ words: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” Matthew 22:1 starts by saying “And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying…” So we know that in chapter 22 Jesus is telling the parable of the wedding feast to the chief priests and Pharisees. And since we know that the chief priests and Pharisees perceived that the previous two parables were about them, we can fairly conclude they would have also interpreted this parable as being directed toward them.

What Are These Parables About?

Before we discuss what the wedding feast was about, let’s briefly look at the first two parables Jesus told them in chapter 21. The Parable of the Two Sons is brief and looks at a man and his two sons; the man asks the first son to go work in the vineyard, and after initially saying no the son does go to work in the vineyard. The second son immediately said he would go, but he never actually goes to the vineyard. Jesus tells the chief priests and scribes that the tax collectors and prostitutes will go to heaven before them because they believed John, while the chief priests and scribes did not.

The ESV Study Bible comments, “The parable of the two sons demonstrates the religious leaders’ failure to respond rightly to John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry. They hypocritically did not live up to their talk. The fruit of one’s life ultimately proves whether or not one is obedient to God’s message. A person’s actions ultimately prove whether or not he is obedient to God.”

The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible adds, “The phrase ‘entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’ (v. 31) leaves the door open for these religious leaders to come in, but at this point in Matthew’s account they remain outside.”

The Parable of the Tenants briefly describes a master who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants. When the fruit season arrived, the master sent servants to harvest the fruit. But the tenants beat the servants to death and eventually the man’s son as well. Then Jesus, the priests, and scribes discuss what should happen to the tenants and what the master should do. Jesus also quotes Psalm 118:22,

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Again Jesus declares that the kingdom of God will be taken from them and given to people who produce fruit. The ESV Study Bible states, “The parable of the wicked tenants continues the vineyard metaphor to show that God is taking away the kingdom from Israel.” The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible suggests the Jewish leaders will be replaced with obedient disciples of Jesus. Matthew tells us that the chief priests and scribes wanted to arrest Jesus after hearing this, but they feared the crowd who esteemed Jesus. So Jesus told them another parable, The Parable of the Wedding Feast.

The Meaning of The Parable of the Wedding Feast

The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible prefaces this parable in the study notes by explaining, “If the parable of the two sons (21:28-32) indicts the Jewish leaders and the parable of the wicked tenants (21:33-44) announces their sentence, then this parable depicts their (spiritual) demise.”

The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matt. 22:1-14) summarized:
A king is giving a wedding feast for his son, and his servants are sent out to call on those invited to the feast. However, the invitees do not show up so other servants are sent out to tell the people that dinner is prepared, the meat has been slaughtered, and all is ready. But they still do not go to the wedding; some go about their business, while others kill the servants. Angry, the king sends troops to destroy the city of murderers. Then the king tells more servants that they are to go out to the main road and find as many as they can to bring to the feast. Later, the king finds the wedding hall filled with guests, but one man did not have a wedding garment on. The man was cast into the outer darkness, which is described as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And the parable ends with, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

This parable reflects the consequences that will befall the unrighteous religious leaders if they do not call upon the Lord in earnest. The ESV Study Bible notes that the feast represents fellowship with God in His kingdom, so coming to the feast represents entering the kingdom. And the additional wedding invitations sent out to others on the main road represents the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. However, the invitation alone does not grant eternal admission to the kingdom/banquet hall. True faith is still required. A guest with an invitation cannot clothe themselves in righteousness—that is something only the King can do by His grace.

We know the Pharisees did not take kindly to the story as the next verse, Matt. 22:15 tells us, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.”

Note: There is also a similar parable in Luke 14:12-24, The Parable of the Great Banquet.

What Matthew 22:14 Does NOT Mean

Matthew 22:14 does not mean you can lose your salvation. It’s very important to understand the difference between the type of calling used here in Matthew 22 (external calling) and the type of call used by Paul in Romans 8 (internal calling of the elect to salvation). The use of ‘call’ in this parable in Matthew is one of a general invitation to the good news of Jesus Christ. For the elect to accept that general call means that they must also have an internal call (prompted by the Holy Spirit) for specific salvation as offered by Jesus through the grace of His substitutionary sacrifice. John Piper summarized this in his desiringGod.org article,

“There is a general call that goes out to everyone: ‘Come. If you believe, you will be saved.’ And there is a call like the call that Jesus issued to Lazarus as he was standing before his grave when he said, ‘Lazarus, come out’ (John 11:43). And the dead man was given life by the call.”

Dr. Piper reminds us that just because two authors (Matthew and Paul) use the same word ‘call’ does not mean that the meaning is exactly the same; to decipher what is meant we must examine the context of each verse. By examining the context of Matthew 22:14, we were able to glean that ‘call’ is meant in the general sense of a gospel proclamation to the Jews and then the Gentiles. The invitation has been sent out, those who respond to the general call must also have an inner call (Romans 8:30) from the Holy Spirit. Jesus refers to those who have the inner call to true faith as the elect; they are the true followers of God. The elect is made up of Jews and Gentiles, full of diversity, spanning the age of the earth, and as John tells us in the Book of Revelation they will be a multitude that cannot be numbered (Rev. 7:9).

Give Thanks for the Elect

Let us praise God and give Him thanks that though many are called to the gospel, some are chosen and called to be the elect. And it’s good to note that even the ‘few,' as stated in the parable, appear to be a multitude that cannot be numbered in Revelation. God is faithful and has been faithful since the beginning of creation to preserve a remnant of believers, a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, to be His elect people, saved by the grace of God the Son. It may be tempting to think that it’s not fair that only the elect enter the kingdom of God. But that perspective assumes that humanity is innocent and that everyone should be given a chance.

Scripture tells us that humanity is, in fact, not innocent. Humans became sinful after the fall, and every human born after the fall was and is born into sin and deserves death. As the Apostle Paul says, there is no one who is righteous, not one who doesn’t deserve death, for all have fallen short (Rom. 3:23). So then it is by grace that there is an elect at all...and it is not unfair that only the elect are given entry to the kingdom, it is mind-blowingly merciful. But, if God is calling the elect, why should we still spread the gospel?

God delights in giving us kingdom work; He delights in allowing us to take part in spreading His truth. God’s followers are called to spread His good news, and God grows the elect and transforms their hearts. So let us not grow weary of talking about Jesus; the good news of the gospel is timeless and needed every day. Let us continue to spread the knowledge of God’s kingdom to many, and may we be amazed at how God works.


Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Dmytro Varavin

Liz Auld is the managing editor for Salem Web Network; she edits and writes content across the editorial sites (Crosswalk.com, Biblestudytools.com, iBelieve.com, Christianity.com). She has a B.A. in Religious Studies and has taken post-graduate classes in Theology and Global Studies. She enjoys reading books from a variety of genres, trying new recipes, and visiting family. 

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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