What do the words “For many are called, but few chosen” mean?

By Kenneth G. Parker


Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first last.  For many are called, but few are chosen.”  22:14, “For many are called, but few chosen.”

 Adam Clarke, British Methodist Biblical scholar, wrote, in part:  This place seems to refer to the ancient Roman custom of recruiting their armies.  Among this celebrated people, no one was forced to serve his country in a military capacity; and it was the highest honour to be deemed worthy of thus serving it.  The youth were instructed, almost from their cradle, in military exercises.  The Campus Martius was the grand field in which they were disciplined: there, they accustomed themselves to leaping, running, wrestling, bearing burdens, fencing, throwing the javelin, all besmeared with dust and sweat, in order to refresh themselves, they swam twice or thrice across the Tyber!  Rome might at any time have recruited her armies by volunteers from such a mass of well-educated, hardy soldiers; but she thought proper, to use the words of the Abbe Mably, that the honour of being chosen to serve in the wars should be the reward of the accomplishments shown by the citizens in the Campus Martius, that the soldier should have a reputation to save; and that the regard paid him, in choosing him to serve, should be the pledge of his fidelity and zeal to discharge his duty.  The age of serving in the army was from seventeen to forty-five, and the manner in which they were chosen was the following:

            After the creation of consuls, they every year named twenty-four military tribunes, part of whom must have served five years at least, and the rest eleven.  When they had divided among them the command of the four legions to be formed, the consuls summoned to the capitol, or Campus Martius, all the citizens who, by their age, were obliged to bear arms.  They drew up by tribes, and lots were drawn to determine in what order every tribe should present its soldiers.  That which was the first in order chose the four citizens who were judged the most proper to serve in the war; and the six tribunes who commanded the first legion chose one of these four, whom they liked best.  The tribunes of the second and third likewise made their choice one after another; and he that remained entered into the fourth legion.  A new tribe presented other four soldiers, and the second legion chose first.  The third and fourth legions had the same advantage in their turns.  In this manner, each tribe successively chose four soldiers, till the legions were complete.  They next proceeded to the creation of subaltern officers, whom the tribunes chose from among the soldiers of the greatest reputation.  When the legions were thus completed, the citizens who had been called, but not chosen, returned to their respective employments, and served their country in other capacities.  None can suppose that these were deemed useless, or that, because not now chosen to serve their country in the field, they were proscribed from the rights and privileges of citizens, much less destroyed, because others were found better qualified to serve their country at the post of honour and danger.

            The common interpretation of the words “For many are called, but few chosen.” Tends to make God an Ogre who calls a lot of people but rejects the majority of those He calls and doesn’t make sense when we examine what God tells us about his calling.

John 3:16 tells us “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

Romans 8:28-30 (NKJV) tells us ”And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

            These verses do not give evidence of God rejecting anyone whom he has called.  However,  the following verse indicates that some he has called may reject Him.

Hebrews 10:26-27 (NKJV) tells us “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.”

            Adam Clarke’s’ account of the Roman Army recruiting process indicates that getting into the Roman Army was not an easy process.  Following God’s way is also not an easy process.  Matthew 7:14 (NKJV) tells us , “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.  Clarke’s comment on this verse is, in part:

“Matthew 7:14: Because strait is the gate.  Instead of οτι “because”, I should prefer τι “how”, which reading is supported by a great majority of the best MSS., versions, and fathers.  How strait is that gate!  This mode of expression more forcibly points out the difficulty of the way to the kingdom.”

            Clarke equated the words “For many are called, but few chosen.” as different in context from those preceding it and as a reference to the Roman Army recruiting process.  We use many “stand alone” phrases in our conversations today in which the actual words we use have nothing literally to do with the meaning of what we are saying, such as “it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other” or “a stitch in time saves nine”.  It seems that the words “many are called but few chosen” could also be a “stand alone phrase” which, at the time Matthew wrote his gospel, conveyed something like “it’s not an easy process” or “it’s hard thing to do”.