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Why Is it Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen?

The phrase "many are called but few are chosen" is one of the Bible's more challenging passages. Why are few chosen? And what can we do to make sure we are one of the few? Here's what the Bible tells us.

Why Is it Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen?

A checkerboard of files on my computer screen displays 10 pastor resumes. All of these ministers have felt the call to become the pastor of a church seeking a new minister. Our pastoral nominating committee has just received a “no” response from a minister we thought had great promise to lead our church spiritually. Earlier in the process, other dynamic ministers did not feel called to come to our church. These ministers toyed with the idea of moving on to a new church and then had a change of heart. 

Our pastoral nominating committee has witnessed the Bible verse, “Many are called but few are chosen,” live and in action in our search. Although all the ministers appear to be spirit-led agents of God, His voice does not direct them to our church. This event disappoints us, but we still pray God has the right minister in the wings for us.

Does the Bible Really Say, 'Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen'?

These exact words are found in Matthew 22:14. The words sum up the theme of a parable that Jesus  told the Pharisees in Jerusalem. In this parable, a king invites guests to his son’s wedding. The “A list” guests decline; they are too busy. Members of this crowd also kill the king’s messengers. To fill the king’s banquet hall, “. . . the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10). Yet the king is outraged when he notices that one of the B list guests is not wearing a “wedding garment.” The king has the ill-dressed man executed with much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The parable ends with the ominous words, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Then, the listening Pharisees move on to the next topic designed to trick Jesus. 

What’s the Context of 'Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen'?

Jesus has recently arrived in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, hailed by welcoming crowds as the Messiah. He is very busy healing the sick, reprimanding moneychangers in the temple, and defending himself against the watchful eyes and ears of the Pharisees. As it says in Matthew 21:45-46, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd, because the people held that he was a prophet.” The Pharisees’ goal was to use Jesus’ words to hang Him. 

Answering the Pharisees’ questions with parables provided Jesus with a handy tool. He could explain his ministry without immediate persecution because His parable messages were shrouded in confusion. All the listeners (Pharisees, disciples, the crowds) were challenged to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words. It was difficult to quote and then condemn Jesus. Bible scholars still struggle to discern the meaning of much of the gospel. 

Jesus told His disciples the truths of the kingdom of God given in parables were understood by some but not all (Matthew 13:10-16). contributor Madison Hetzler observes that those who didn’t understand fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 6:9, which says, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” 

In a BibleStudyTools article, Liz Auld says that the coming to the feast represents coming into the kingdom of God, and the full parable “reflects the consequences that will befall the unrighteous religious leaders if they do not call upon the Lord in earnest.” 

One factor helpful in understanding the Bible is knowing the cultural norms and values of Jesus’ audience. Dressing for the occasion was an important part of attending the wedding of a king’s son in Jewish culture. In Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Alfred Edersheim explains that the ancient wedding feast lasted a week, and many traditions marked the engagement period and ceremony.

Some traditions remain. At an orthodox Jewish wedding, all guests must dress with modesty. Short sleeve shirts and shorts are not allowed in a synagogue. Men must wear a black suit and tie with a white dress shirt. A yarmulke, or skull cap, is also required but provided at the synagogue for those without one. We can assume the guest killed at the wedding in the parable dressed too casually, not following what was then the proper dress code. While these traditions may seem old-fashioned, they have an important purpose: they communicate respect for the occasion and the family who extended the wedding invitation.

A bride in ancient Israel wasn’t sure when her bridegroom would arrive to take her to the wedding chamber. The groom himself didn’t know; the groom’s father decided when all was ready. Jewish bridegrooms usually came for their brides late at night, near midnight. There would be shouts in the streets, with a torch-lit procession winding its way through the town to the bride’s home. Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins teaches that we must be ready to welcome the bridegroom, who represents Christ in the Bible. We must have our lamps ready to light with wicks trimmed and enough oil to last for the evening (Matthew 25:1-13). This parable teaches that our hearts must be prepared to respond to Christ’s calling.

What Kind of Calling Is Jesus Talking About?

“Many are called, but few are chosen” applies to anyone who hears the words of salvation. They must decide whether or not to heed the tug on their heart to become a disciple of Christ. 

In the last days of Jesus’ ministry on earth, described in Matthew 21, He is throwing out a ring buoy to Jews and Gentiles alike, inviting them to share in the kingdom of God, to live as He lives. Similarly, in the parable, the king has his servants scrounge up guests, “good or bad.” Jesus calls a wide variety of people with His message of redemption. Of the people who hear Jesus’ message, however, only some truly believe He is the promised Messiah and will change their lives. They are chosen. 

How Are the Few Chosen?

The Holy Spirit prompts the chosen to accept Christ as their savior (John 14:25-26). This, too, is a gift from God. The gift of salvation, freely offered in the gospel, must be received. In the wedding parable, being invited did not guarantee a shabby guest was seated at the banquet. The guest did not even live to attend the wedding!

God gracefully welcomes a properly attired guest into His banquet hall, His kingdom. In one interpretation of the parable, putting on wedding clothes is a metaphor for clothing yourself in righteousness (Romans 13:14). We must change our lives just as we must change our clothes and put on a “new man in Christ” (Ephesians 4:24). We are all invited to take part in the feast. But we must take up the offer and submit to being made new in Christ.

What Do We Learn From the Fact 'Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen'?

This summary of the parable brings home Jesus’ message of worshipping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23). An internal or personal change of heart must take place in a person after they hear God’s message of love and salvation. Many people hear Jesus’ message; fewer follow their hearts to receive its great blessings. Many are called, but few are chosen—and few receive a life in Christ.

As with the people invited to the king’s banquet who did not attend, many people miss the opportunity to respond to God’s calling. A home church,  an acquaintance, or a traveler may call you to Christ. Throngs of people hear the gospel and, in this sense, are “called” to the Kingdom of God—called and invited to experience a personal relationship with Christ.

We individually choose whether to dress up, clean up our souls, and live in a way pleasing to God. Unlike the king in the parable, God accepts us, whatever our outward appearance. God is concerned with our souls. All children of God wear a wedding garment when our spirits are clothed in God’s grace. We are welcomed as proper guests to the banquet.

“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.” (Ephesians 1:4)

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/leolintang

Betty DunnBetty Dunn hopes her articles help you hold hands with God, a theme in her self-published memoir Medusa. A former high school English teacher and editor, she works on writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets, and family. Check out her blog at Betty by Elizabeth Dunning and her website,

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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