The Few and Chosen

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 19, 2020.

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).[1]

Why doesn’t everyone who hears the gospel believe? Is it not good enough? Perhaps the presentation was not persuasive enough? Or, is it a testimony to human liberty, exercising our freedom to believe or reject the gospel? But, if it is a matter of choice, what does rejecting the gospel say about the heart? What does believing or rejecting the gospel say about your heart? Is it merely a matter of choice? Of course, my questions presume a knowledge of what the gospel is. Perhaps we should begin with a more basic question: What is the gospel?

The gospel, the Greek word euangelion, means “good news.” Originally used as a declaration of victory in battle, it is used in the New Testament to connote victory over sin and death by God’s grace through faith in Christ. We, who are sinners by nature, were dead in our sin, and earned our wages of death through our trespasses, hear the good news that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) and accept the free gift of eternal life by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Through his perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, we are made alive spiritually with him. Through faith in him, we are justified as righteous, adopted as children, indwelled by his Spirit, sanctified to his image, and guaranteed the inheritance of eternal life. This is the essence of the gospel, and it is indeed good news.

So, if it really is so good, then why doesn’t everyone believe? Consider Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast. Despite the king’s elaborate preparation and consistent invitation, there are many who do not accept the invitation. Extending the invitation broadly, there are some who accept the invitation and enjoy. And, there is the one who accepts, comes, but is wrongly clothed and is forcefully removed. And then Jesus concludes his parable with this summarizing statement: “many are called, but few are chosen.” In light of this statement, let’s consider this parable more closely.

Invitation to the Feast

Not everyone was originally invited to the royal wedding feast. Yet, those first invited spurned the invitation, refusing to come despite extravagant enticement. The response of the invitees varies from indifference to violence, but in the end they meet with the same end, the king’s wrath. But the wedding feast will go on, as the king extends his invitation to others, those willing to come to the feast.

Speaking to the crowds of Jerusalem and the Jewish leaders, Jesus’ parable is an obvious allusion to the nation of Israel. Whether they understand that Jesus is the son whose wedding feast they are rejecting is not completely clear, except in retrospect. Certainly they could not fathom Jesus’ veiled reference to Jerusalem’s demise or comprehend the inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God. But in A.D. 70 the capital city of Israel was destroyed and the temple, which once signified God’s presence among his people, was leveled to the ground. Proceeding from Jerusalem in the first century, the gospel did advance to the Gentiles, as it continues today, even to “the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Therefore, the parable tells of the nation of Israel’s rejection of the metaphorical king’s invitation to the son’s wedding feast. But through the lens of the gospel it also tells the story of all who have heard and rejected and all who have received and believed. The common denominator between the two perspectives is the free offer of the gospel.

Consider these three aspects of the free offer of the gospel in this parable: First, think of the free offer of the gospel like the king’s invitation to the wedding feast: The invitation is given as an announcement of sorts of God’s plan of salvation. Through Scripture, we hear it in its primitive form in Genesis when God tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring “will crush your head” (Gen. 3:15 NIV). We hear it in God’s promise to bless Abraham’s offspring and through them the world (Gen. 15-17). We hear it in God’s covenant with Moses and David and through the prophets up to John the Baptist’s call to repentance. And, we hear it when the Apostle John explains that whoever believes in God’s Son “should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Second, the free offer of the gospel, like the king’s favor, includes the announcement of the promise of redemption. We hear this in the beginning of the Decalogue, declaring Israel’s redemption from slavery, pointing to a greater redemption to come. It is the promise of redemption from sin by faith in Jesus Christ for those who believe (Gal. 3:22).

Third, like the king’s invitation in the end, the free offer is made in the form of an invitation to receive. No distinction is made in its offer. No presumption is made of who will or won’t receive it. But, despite the invitation, some still reject it.

Rejecting the Invitation

Not all who hear the free offer of the gospel receive it and believe, just as not all invited to the king’s wedding feast attended. Note the progression of the king’s invitation in Jesus’ parable. There is an initial invitation rejected. The king extends his invitation again pointing to the extravagance of his generosity. But to his lavish invitation the invitees respond with indifference. One has farm work to do. Another must manage his business. They are far too busy for a feast.  And there are others who despise the king’s invitation finding it repulsive. They choose to respond with the hatred of shame and murder.

Israel, like the invitees, did spurn the invitation of their God. Though he had given them the kingdom, they rejected God’s Son. They were too preoccupied, so to speak, to accept the invitation. And what better way to cease the incessant invitations of the king than to kill his messengers.

Likewise the free offer of the gospel is made to all who will receive and believe, but few do. Many see no need in it. Others are far too busy, preoccupied with their work or family or friends. Who needs the gospel when there is gold? Who needs to hear the good news when we already have the good life? Others don’t find the offer entertaining enough to replace the numbing narcotic of the trivial and trite. Who needs to worry about eternity when we have must-stream TV? Amusing ourselves to death, are we amusing ourselves for hell? Others have found religion in politics, worshiping at the altar of the election. Saturating our hearts and minds in the echo chamber of the so-called news and party politics, who needs eternal things when there is so much to worry about? Maybe the gospel will matter someday, but not until after this election.

Then there are those who do not merely reject the free offer of the gospel; they hate it. They despise the belief that salvation is necessary in the first place. Sin is a religious classification not a human condition. And Jesus is at best a sympathetic figure relegated to history. The gospel then is a rampant pandemic to eradicate at all cost.

Rejecting the king’s invitation is not without its consequences. In Jesus’ parable the result is the king’s wrath. He sends his army; he executes the murderers; he burns the city. For, to reject the king’s invitation is to reject his son.

Just as Israel rejected the Son of God and suffered the consequences, so all who do not receive and believe the free offer of the gospel will receive the wrath of God. If this is the case, why do some reject the free offer of the gospel and others receive it?

Receiving the Invitation

In Jesus’ parable the invitation to the wedding feast is extended to “the highways and hedges” (Luke 14:23), foreshadowing the gospel carried to the Gentiles in Acts. Yet, it is not only Gentiles who believe the gospel but Jews as well, revealing the one true Israel through faith in Christ. Why then do some receive the invitation and others don’t?

While the free offer of the gospel is made to all, it is only through the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit that anyone receives the invitation of the gospel and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. We refer to this as effectual calling, which our Larger Catechism defines as, “the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein” (Q. 67). It is only by the grace of the Holy Spirit that anyone believes.

Sometimes effectual calling is coupled with the expression “irresistible grace,” which leaves some with the mental image of being dragged to Jesus like a child kicking and screaming. This is simply not the case. In keeping with the imagery of the parable, a table of God’s goodness is set before us in Christ. By God’s grace through faith in Christ he is not only our Lord and Savior, but in fact “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 1:20). And so, as the Holy Spirit opens our spiritual eyes to see Christ, we run to him shouting the victory cry, “Gospel!”

It is, however, possible to receive the invitation to the wedding feast and to arrive, believing you are a worthy invitee. But it is only those with the appropriate wedding attire who are allowed to enjoy the feast.

Inappropriate Attire

With the wedding feast finally underway, the king enters to look upon the party and his guests. In their midst he spies one who has “no wedding garment.” The king confronts him. The man is speechless. And then, the man is not merely asked to leave the party. He is bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness. By the king’s actions we realize that the wedding garment is the most important validation for all who have accepted the invitation.

In the Kingdom of God, only those who come clothed in the righteousness of Christ are worthy to attend the wedding feast. Some may hear the free offer of the gospel and willingly receive it, but they adorn their filthy rags of self-righteousness. The gospel sounds like a good plan to avoid that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But the good news they heard was merely a recycled self-improvement plan.

It is really amazing how long some people can pull off this charade. They learn the vocabulary, engage in activities, and persuade many in the church that they are truly a believer. But really their righteousness is like filthy rags, revealed eventually by an unwillingness to repent and a barren, fruitless life.

Those who attend the king’s wedding feast can only attend in the wedding garment of the righteousness of the Son. They enjoy a place at the table based purely on his merits. They celebrate not what they have done for the king or his son. No, they celebrate the goodness of the king for the son’s sake. Who are these humble people? They are the few and chosen.

The Few and Chosen

Summarizing his parable, Jesus succinctly states, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” This is the defining statement of God’s judgment on the nation of Israel and all who reject the free offer of the gospel. It further clarifies how someone can seemingly receive the offer of the gospel but actually be an imposter. The Greek word translated “chosen” is eklektoi from which we get our word “elect.” Those who are chosen by God are the elect, those chosen by God the Father in Jesus the Son before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).

The book of Revelation refers to the few and chosen as “only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27). And for the few and chosen, the parable will become reality, when one day we will hear the angelic cry, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Rev. 19:7). And, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).

If you have heard the free offer of the gospel and received it, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ; if you trust only in the finished work of Christ, looking not to your righteousness but his alone before God; if you know the conviction of the Holy Spirit and see his presence producing fruit through you; you are one of the few, the chosen, not merely an invited guest but a child of the King.

J.I. Packer, who died on Friday at the age of 93, said, “Adoption is the highest privilege of the gospel. The traitor is forgiven, brought in for supper, and given the family name. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater” (Knowing God). The gospel is good news, indeed the greatest, for the child of God.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

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