"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, 'Tell those who have been invited, "Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast."' But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
"But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?' And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw 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 22:2-14
In this parable there is the story itself and then the true meaning of the story as it relates to the "kingdom."
That a king would invite guests to a wedding feast for his son and that the invited guests would refuse to come for such poor excuses is almost unbelievable. For example, imagine refusing an invitation to the White House for dinner because you need to have the oil in your car changed.
That the guests would actually mistreat and kill the king's messengers is beyond belief. This would say that:
- They did not respect the king.
- They were not afraid of him or even loved him.
- They were very foolish.
That the king would send his army to destroy these people is justified under the circumstances, no one would argue with this. The story becomes a little strange when the king invites the common people to fill the place of the invited guests. For those listening to this parable in the first century it would seem very strange for anyone to treat the king in the way the people did in this story. It would seem even stranger for a king to then invite common people to his table. Kings did not do this in those times. On the contrary, they stayed away from common people and slaves as much as possible. The story even has a surprise ending as the king ejects one of the guests from the feast because of improper attire.
The wedding garment (wedding clothes) was a set of clothing provided by the host to his special guests in order to spare them the expense of purchasing a new set of clothing for the occasion. At that time good clothing was expensive and hard to come by, especially for common people. Royal weddings were often made more opulent and grand when the king himself provided not only food and drink for the occasion but also a new set of clothing for each of his guests.
In the parable the common people were invited, therefore it was natural that the king provide them with the proper garments to sit at the royal table. It would not do for them to attend the feast in their regular attire. The story tells us that when the king entered to examine the feast for his son, one person had neglected to put on the garments graciously provided for him. The original guests insulted the king by not responding to his invitation, now this guest insults him by wearing his old clothes (or his own clothes) rather than the special garment provided by the king. The story ends with the just punishment of the one who was at the banquet table but whose heart and spirit was not right for the occasion.
The Story Behind the Story
I said that parables are stories that mirror unseen realities. In this parable the unseen reality is God's relationship with Jesus, and the Kingdom He came to establish. Before this parable was spoken Jesus had made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but had not been welcomed by any of the Jewish leaders. As a matter of fact, the next day He was confronted and rejected by them. This parable is largely in response to their (and by extension the Jewish nation's) eventual rejection of Him and His gospel. With this information as the key (Jesus as the Messiah is always the key) we can lay this parable alongside Israel's rejection of Jesus and see what God says about the kingdom.
- The experience of the kingdom of heaven is like a feast with the king. A joyful experience with God.
- God invited the Jews to be part of this experience, but they repeatedly rejected the messengers who invited them (prophets) and ultimately killed some (John the Baptist).
- The rejection of the Son is the rejection of Jesus, which was eventually carried out by crucifying Him without just cause.
- In response to this God sends His army to destroy those who rejected and executed His son (The Roman army laid siege and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its people in 70 AD).
- The king now invites the common people (Gentiles) to come to the feast (kingdom/heaven) through the Apostles (messengers). All were welcome, all could come to the feast.
- The king provides the wedding garment (the garment is the righteousness of Christ obtained through faith expressed in repentance and baptism - Galatians 3:26-27). This garment (righteousness) enables the guest to be in the king's presence.
- One guest enters in but on his own terms, without the robe (some want to be followers of Christ on their own terms - without following or obeying the gospel).
- The king removes the guest without the wedding garment (God will judge all those in the church and remove those who are there under false pretenses. This same point is made in the parable of the fish and net).
- His final word – "Many are called but few are chosen" has been troubling and difficult to interpret.
In order to understand this phrase we need to keep it in context of the parable and what the parable is explaining. This refers to those who will or will not come into the kingdom. Many are called (actually, all are called through the gospel of Jesus), and many are given the chance to enter in (they hear the words and know what they must do) but they refuse the invitation (do not obey the gospel). They have been called but they do not answer.
Those who answer, however, become the "chosen". The words called and chosen are both adjectives in the original Greek, they modify or describe nouns. For example, the "called" are many; there are a great number of them. The "chosen" are few; not many answer the call. If you answer the call (come to the feast, put on the robe / believe in Jesus/ put Him on in baptism) you become one of the chosen. Answering the call makes you one of the "chosen ones" of God. If you do not answer the call (do not come to the feast or sneak in without the proper cover) you become the many who are on the road to destruction (the lost).
Calvinists have often used this verse as a proof-text for their version of the doctrine of election. The idea is that man does not have the spiritual insight to respond to God's offer of forgiveness - he is too corrupted, too morally blind. The result, therefore, is that God is required to choose some to be saved and others to be damned because man is helpless to make the decision on his own. For this way of thinking, the many called and few chosen are those who are chosen or rejected by God for the purpose of salvation.
The Bible does teach the doctrine of election, but not in the way that it has been taught by Calvinists. Let me explain:
Although man has been weakened by a sinful nature, he still has the ability to exercise his free will, and in doing so often does not make the right choices. However, man can still choose to believe and obey God's directions (e.g. Abraham chose to follow God to Canaan). Other examples of Bible characters who exercised their free will to choose include Moses, who reluctantly chose to go back to Egypt; Joshua who famously challenged the people to, "Choose this day whom you will serve.." Joshua 24:15; and one of the thieves crucified next to Jesus chose to ask for forgiveness while the other did not. Every presentation of the gospel in the New Testament challenges people to obey or not. We see that some do (the 3000 on Pentecost Sunday - Acts 2) and some do not (King Agrippa - Acts 26:26-30), some fall away and come back (John Mark - Acts 13:13), and then there are some who fall away and choose to remain unfaithful (Demas - 2 Timothy 4:10).
God also chooses, but He does not choose which person will be saved or will be lost. God only makes one choice regarding salvation: He chooses who will save man, and in this regard He chose Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:4). It is in this way that Jesus becomes the chosen one (Luke 23:35).
Jesus, on His part, makes only one choice as well concerning salvation: to accept or not the cup of suffering. He does so in the garden by saying to God, "not my will but Thy will be done" (Luke 22:42). He made the choice to die for our sins.
We also make only one choice concerning salvation: to believe and obey Jesus or to reject Him - the same choice the Jews and Gentiles had in the first century. When we choose Christ we then become the "chosen" of God. Many are called by the gospel, but not many respond to it, and for this reason only a few become the chosen.
What, therefore, have we learned from this parable concerning the kingdom?
1. In its fulfilled state it will be a glorious, royal, enjoyable and happy experience - much like a wedding feast. This image helps us to understand and be patient when the kingdom in its present form has flaws, requires effort and is oppressed from many sides.
2. There will be a joining, an integration that will take place, like a wedding. In other words, the kingdom of heaven on earth (the church) will be perfected and glorified by the Holy Spirit, and then joined to Christ and the kingdom as it exists in heaven. This will take place when Jesus returns at the end of the world (I Thessalonians 4:16-18).
3. All are welcomed to enter in (many are called). Some received a special invitation (the Jews), some were called in a general way (by hearing the gospel) but all have been invited to the same feast. The same kingdom is open for all.
4. You must be dressed for the occasion. God is the one who provides the covering for us (Christ), but we must put the garment on if we wish to remain. God offers salvation through grace (forgiveness is free, we cannot buy it, make it or earn it), and we must receive it by faith. The Bible tells us that our faith in Christ is properly expressed by confessing His name, repenting of sins and being baptized in water (Acts 2:37-38). This is how you put on the wedding garment (Galatians 3:26).
5. Those who refuse the invitation and those who do not accept the invitation in the proper way will not be welcome at the feast. This is the only feast because there is and will only be one kingdom.