"The kingdom of God" in Matthew 21:43 refers not to the future establishment of Christ's Kingdom on earth, but to a dominion then in existence.
The context of this parable begins in Matthew 21:23, indicating that its audience was “the chief priests and the elders of the people.” Verses 45-46 show their reaction:
Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet. (Emphasis ours throughout.)
Even though God had not given the religious leaders the means to understand all the mysteries of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:11), they could still perceive that Jesus aimed several of His teachings directly at them.
The chapter break obscures that Jesus continued speaking to the same leaders in the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), another parable of “the kingdom of heaven” (verse 2). The king sends out invitations to the feast in batches. The first two sets are declined, signifying the response of the physical nation of Israel. Only after the “king . . . sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city” (verse 7)—foreshadowing Jerusalem's destruction forty years after they rejected the gospel of the Kingdom—does a third call go out, and his servants find suitable guests for the wedding.
This third group of guests represents those whom Christ later gave, not only entrance to the wedding feast, but also authority to rule. As He had earlier told Peter, a representative of the spiritual nation, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). The stewardship of the Kingdom would be transferred.
Likewise, Jesus foretold of a future time when His followers would receive greatly increased authority: “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). Even as Jacob supplanted Esau, so God would make certain that Jacob's descendants would likewise be supplanted (though not forgotten) because of their unfaithfulness.
In these two parables, we can see a critical facet of God's dominion. Jesus considered the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees part of God's Kingdom, and also certified that they would have the Kingdom taken from them. They, like tenant-farmers, had a measure of responsibility over that national Kingdom because of their leadership positions within it. They wielded religious power that Jesus acknowledged (Matthew 23:2-3), which had its source in God (Romans 13:1).
In the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers, the vineyard is the Kingdom of God, and the vinedressers are those tasked with attending to it. Jesus prophesied that stewardship would be transferred because the original caretakers had proven themselves unfaithful. Psalm 80:8-19 also represents the Kingdom of Israel as a vineyard (as does Isaiah 5:1-7), and the shared symbol confirms that the Kingdom of Israel was the Kingdom of God at that time, though not in its fullness.
Similarly, the Parable of the Wedding Feast, though a parable of the “kingdom of heaven,” deals at length with Israel, specifically Judah. It illustrates the physical descendants of Abraham as not acting like Abraham at all (see John 8:30-38). God told Israel even before she made the covenant, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), revealing that His original intent for Israel was to be a Kingdom.
Israel's first human king, Saul, was unfaithful, and the Kingdom was taken from him and given to David. After the people contributed for the Temple, David praised God, saying, “For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and You are exalted as head over all” (I Chronicles 29:11). Similarly, Abijah refers to the house of David as “the Kingdom of the LORD” (II Chronicles 13:8). Both Asaph and Isaiah proclaim that God was still Israel's King, even though earlier the nation had requested a king “like all the other nations,” rejecting God (Psalm 74:12; Isaiah 33:22; see I Samuel 8:4-8; Deuteronomy 17:14). The Kingdom of Israel was an aspect of the basileia—the sovereign dominion—of God. It was a Kingdom with its origin and authority in heaven.
David C. Grabbe
God's Kingdom in the Parables (Part One)
In His first invitation, God offered ancient Israel a part in His plan of salvation, but they could not keep focused on Him. Through every call addressed to them by the prophets, they slipped and fell in willful ignorance. Those invited by the first invitation would not come. They returned their invitation unopened. They treated it indifferently as if to despise it. So preoccupied with worldly interests, they would not even take the time to open it.
Is Heaven the Reward of the Saved?
Clearly, "a certain king" refers to the Father, and the king's son, the bridegroom, is Jesus Christ (John 3:29). The bride is God's church (Revelation 19:7-9), but it is not a primary issue in this parable, nor is the marriage itself. However, the marriage feast is prominent, illustrating the full benefits of God's truth: fellowship with God, excellence, abundance, and happiness. God offers such a spiritual banquet to "the called." The glorious feast He has spread includes pardon of sin, favor with God, peace of conscience, exceedingly great and precious promises, access to the throne of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Is Heaven the Reward of the Saved?
It should be obvious that the setting of this parable is not "the marriage supper of the Lamb" when Christ returns and marries His bride (Revelation 19:9), but the preparations for it. God has been sending out the invitations throughout history.
Salvation is a process. Once acceptable for the wedding, God does not judge a person at the doors of the wedding supper. Peter says in I Peter 4:17 that judgment is now on the house of God, spiritual Israel, the church. Revelation 11:18 further shows that Christ will not judge His saints at His return, but is coming to reward the saints and begin the process of judging the nations who have not yet had opportunity at salvation—during the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment.
Once a true Christian dies, his judgment is complete. He will either be in the first resurrection and his sins never mentioned to him again, or he will await the third resurrection and death in the Lake of Fire. God does not resurrect him, make him find his way to the wedding supper, and then reject him because he does not have a wedding garment on! If he is qualified for the first resurrection, his salvation is accomplished, and he is automatically part of the bride.
The timing is not of the actual marriage supper, but of a time of calling, of inviting, of evangelism, and even of warning. This parable seems to indicate at least three distinct time frames:
1. When God called a few firstfruits in the Old Testament (see Hebrews 11).
2. Christ's invitation for those who would listen. Most rejected Him, including the leaders of Israel.
3. Those invited by the apostles, continuing to today.
The simple answer to who are the "guests" is that they are the bridal candidates whom the Father has invited wherever and whenever He has seen fit to issue invitations throughout history. Many have been called, informed, invited, offered opportunity, but few are chosen, only 144,000 to be exact. We are invited today to eat at the wedding table—every word of God—but few are responding enough to be chosen. Since "no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44), any opportunity for salvation is by special invitation of the Father, automatically putting anyone called in the "guest" category. He must then don wedding garments or be cast out!
After the choosing, sifting, and sorting, God selects a final number of 144,000, and rejects the rest. He will resurrect and change the chosen ones to spirit when Christ returns. At that point, the surviving "guests" or "invited ones" are the bride!
Jesus could not have used the actual bride in the story, for He would have had to include as part of the bride those who had opportunity at salvation and rejected it, and therefore He would cast away "parts" of the bride. What a grisly analogy that would have been! This way, many are invited by analogy as guests, some of whom He can reject and still not reject pieces and parts of the bride.
Christ uses the analogy or figure of guests, but He refers to those who have the potential to comprise the bride. The invitation is no less than to salvation, yet we have seen from other scriptures that only the bride will be part of the first resurrection, so this parable must fit those scriptures as well as make sense as a plausible story.
Remember, this parable is about the Kingdom of God, not an actual wedding feast. Christ is marrying one bride, but she consists of many individuals. So to illustrate His point, He does not refer to the bride as a bride, but as guests. This allows the Father to "throw some out" before the actual wedding.
Herbert Lockyer, in All the Parables of the Bible, says this parable may tie in with I Kings 1:5, 9 and I Chronicles 29:24. These passages describe a pre-wedding feast, common in those days. In ancient Israel such a feast was given at the beginning of a king's reign, who "married" himself to his people. Today, some people do the same kind of thing. They give a pre-wedding dinner for the bridal party followed by a wedding rehearsal.
Who Are the 'Guests at the Wedding'?
A marriage has been arranged for the king's son, and the initial invitations were sent out so all on the guest list could make plans to attend. In those times, travel over long distances was far slower than today, so plans needed to be made long in advance. However, those invited, though possibly honored by the invitation, declined to attend the wedding.
So, a second, more urgent invitation was sent out to the same people, as time was getting short, but the invitees paid little heed to it, caught up in their own activities and ventures. They stated by their actions that they cared little for the king and his son. In fact, they were sufficient unto themselves with their farms and shops; they felt they had need of nothing (Revelation 3:17).
Proving their contempt, they treated the king's servants, who had personally borne the invitations to them, with great disrespect and even killed some. The king was rightly furious, and he mustered his forces to avenge his maltreated servants to erase the disrespect shown to him. His kindness and generosity had been spurned, and he responded with wrath.
A third invitation had to be sent. For this one the guest list changed from the specially invited to the everyday person, some of which were good while others were bad. In this way the wedding was finally furnished with guests.
The custom in those days was for the one hosting the wedding feast—in this case, the king—to provide garments for the wedding guests. These wedding garments were simple, nondescript robes that all attendees wore. In this way, rank or station was covered, so everyone at the feast could mingle as equals. Revelation 19:8 defines this symbol: The wedding garment identifies the righteous, those who lived according to God's ways.
When the king entered the wedding hall, he noticed that one guest clearly stood out from all the others because he was not wearing a wedding garment. Having the man brought forward, the king asked: “Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” (Matthew 22:12). The sense of his question is one of incredulity. It might be better phrased, “Why are you not wearing a wedding garment, even though one was provided for you?”
The man was plainly not dressed correctly for this occasion. His lack of a wedding garment was another example of extreme disrespect for both the king and his son. The wording, “And he was speechless,” indicates that he was without excuse. It was not just that he lacked a wedding garment, but that he did not wear one on purpose. He had defiantly refused to put one on.
This is why the king reacts so swiftly and harshly: “Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). His judgment is not against the man's lack of a wedding garment per se, but that he did not intend to wear one. He was, in fact, determined not to wear one.
The man desired the honor of attending the wedding feast, but he did not want to follow the custom of the king. He wanted to do things his own way. His lack of proper dress revealed his inner rebellion against the king and his instructions. He was executed as a rebel.
It is here that Jesus inserts His somewhat cryptic phrase, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). God's calling clearly corresponds with the king's invitation, and indeed, the invitation went out to both the original guest list (Israel/Judah, whose people were killed in war and whose city, Jerusalem, was burned; Matthew 22:7) and then to mankind generally. We can conclude that, while God's calling is widespread—going to “as many as [His servants] find” (Matthew 22:9)—those who respond to His invitation and whom He subsequently chooses to wear a wedding garment are a far smaller group.
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 22:1: