The phrase, “for many are called but few are chosen,” is found at Matthew 22:14. A few translations, some quite surprisingly (Amplified, ISV, OJB), place the verse also at Matthew 20:16 (Amplified, Darby, Douay-Rheims, Geneva, ISV, KJV, MEV, NKJV, OJB, WEB, Wycliffe, YLT). Its placement here at Matthew 20:16 is not found in the earliest known manuscripts we have available.1 If we accept its placement here, in the context of Matthew 20:16, then we may understand the notion thusly:
The disciples had been summoned to work in the vineyard. The indulgence of the selfish, murmuring temper might hinder their “election” even to that work. Of one of the disciples, whose state may have been specially present to our Lord’s mind, this was, we know, only too fatally true. Judas had been “called,” but would not be among the “chosen” either for the higher work or for its ultimate reward. (link)
The calling, or inviting, of Judas is a significant historical reality which needs to be addressed in this context. Judas received exactly the same manner of calling, was anointed by Christ to perform the work of kingdom ministry in exactly the same manner as the rest of the disciples, and could have received exactly the same eternal rewards for trusting in and following Christ for the remainder of his life. He forfeited those eternal rewards for temporary gain and received the devastating consequences.
Someone may say, “Judas was called by Christ but he was not chosen by God.” Fair enough. But note three inescapable facts: 1) Nowhere in the New Testament are we informed that the chosen were unconditionally chosen — nowhere. That is an idea imposed upon the biblical teaching of election. 2) If we receive the argument quoted above, that a person can be called but not unconditionally chosen, then that reveals a character flaw in the Lord. 3) However, if we adhere to the concept that the called, or invited, can fail to be among the chosen, then we properly frame the matter, allowing each person invited into the kingdom of God as being responsible to trust in Christ, and keep the integrity of Christ intact.
In case the matter is not self-evident, we must state clearly how inviting people into the kingdom who have not been unconditionally chosen for the kingdom leads us to question the sincerity, integrity and character of God. Since God has Himself declared, through the authors of Scripture, that He genuinely loves this world of sinners (John 3:16), and desires the salvation of all persons within this world of sinners (Ezek. 18:30, 31, 32; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9), then we can be certain that God would not maintain a secret decree whereby there is listed the names of specific persons that He has unconditionally chosen or pre-selected to join Him in His eternal kingdom to the neglect of all others.
If this is the truth, then we conclude that God misleads people, inviting all into His eternal bliss but only secretly and efficaciously bringing to Himself through Christ those individuals listed on His eternal election clipboard. If this is the truth, then none of us has any reason to trust Him, since He operates His universe in a sneaky and underhanded course. The integrity and character of God is at stake in this matter. The question is, Can God be trusted? Does He utter one statement and yet undermine it with some secret intention? Does not the word of God teach us that “every one of God’s promises are ‘Yes’ in him”? (2 Cor. 1:20)
At Matthew 22:14 we find our phrase in, I think, a more appropriate context — that of a wedding banquet. The parable informs the reader of a king who instructs his servants to summon certain persons invited to a wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1, 2), but they refuse to attend (Matt. 22:3). The word “invited” and “called” retain the same reference here.2 Graciously, the king instructs his servants to, once again, summon the invited guests. (Matt. 22:4) “But they were indifferent and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” (Matt. 22:5 NET) We recognize the immediate reference of Jesus here as denoting the Jewish people, to whom the God of Israel has, time and time again throughout history, called them to Himself, and to faithfulness. They have, to a large measure, consistently and quite stubbornly refused His grace.
This time, however, the invited guests abuse, mistreat, and murder the servants (Matt. 22:6). “The king was furious! He sent his soldiers, and they put those murderers to death and set their city on fire.” (Matt. 22:7) The king names “the called ones” as unworthy of his grace. (Matt. 22:8) So he instructs his servants to “go into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” (Matt. 22:9) This they did and brought in everyone they could find, both good and bad, so that the wedding hall was filled with guests (Matt. 22:10). We recognize here that God’s grace has also been extended to all people, not merely of Jewish origin, but also from among the Gentiles.
But when the king enters the hall, he “saw a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he had nothing to say. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:11, 12, 13, 14) We are wise to note here that the rest of the invited guests were given wedding clothes to put on by the grace of the king:
The framework of the parable probably pre-supposes the Oriental custom of providing garments for the guests who were invited to a royal feast. Wardrobes filled with many thousand garments formed part of the wealth of every Eastern prince (Matthew 6:19; James 5:2), and it was part of his glory, as in the case of the assembly which Jehu held for the worshipers of Baal (2 Kings 10:22), to bring them out for use on state occasions. (link)
One man, however, would not receive the wedding garments, thus insulting the host — more than that,the king — and represents a vast spiritual truth here.
By remaining in his filthy rags, refusing to be adorned in costly linen belonging to another of higher rank, we may rightly understand Jesus’ message. No one enters heaven on his or her own terms. Christ is the way to the Father, truth incarnate, and life eternal. (John 14:6) If one is to attend the future heavenly wedding then he or she will do so on God’s terms and not on those of anyone else. Our filthy rags, which represent our self-righteousness (Isa. 64:6), must be replaced by the pure white linen of Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 3:24, 25, 26; Rev. 19:8, 14).
Those attempting to gain salvation via their own merit, or righteous works, are unworthy of the kingdom of heaven. This “unworthy” state is reserved also for those who refuse the grace of God regarding salvation. (Matt. 10:37, 38; 22:8; Luke 20:35; Acts 13:46) Those considered worthy of the kingdom, however, are those who look to Christ, and His righteousness for salvation, and receive such by grace through faith in Him alone (Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5, 11; Rev. 3:4).
One need not be concerned with the word “many,” in lieu of “all,” since there are references made in the New Testament which state “many” where “all” is implied (cf. Rom. 5:15, 19). The Gospel is intended to reach “all” people, and not merely “many” people, especially noted in this parable at Matthew 22:9 — lit., “call everyone you find.” That few are noted as being among the “chosen” is inferred also in these words of Jesus: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt 7:13, 14 NRSV, emphases added)
Therefore, we are not granted warrant for interpreting the phrase, “many are called but few are chosen,” as advocating the theory of unconditional election. As a matter of fact, this parable actually contradicts such a notion, specifically noted in the context of the character of the one named unworthy of the kingdom:
The “calling” answers, both verbally and in substance, to the “bidding” or invitation of the parable. The “chosen” are those who both accept the invitation and comply with its condition … The “choice,” as far as the parable is concerned, appears as dependent upon the answer given to the calling. (link) (emphases added)
In other words, those called, or invited, are only counted as the chosen, or the elect, by their answer to the call. Those who answer the call are the elect. Those who refuse the call are the non-elect. Any other interpretation, in order to be consistent with the parable itself, confuses the primary issue at hand, neglects the responsibility of each person to respond to the grace of God in the Gospel, and calls into question the integrity of a God who would call all people but secretly decree to elect from eternity past only certain individuals — all of which betrays the intended meaning of Jesus’ parable.
1 Michael Kruger notes its very early presence in the second-century work, very popular among early believers, called the Epistle of Barnabas. He notes that the phrase, as used at Matthew 20:16, could have been part of an early oral tradition. See Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 187-88.
2 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, third edition (BDAG), revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 549.