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'?
This second invitation is more precise and urgent than the first. Everything was ready for the marriage celebration, yet the servants sent in this round of invitations were no more successful than the first. The king's kindness was met with contemptuous ridicule; indifference became scorn. The invitees' business interests meant more than their obligations to the king. Some were even murderously hostile, showing their wickedness in their treatment of his servants.
God's servants, the prophets, were ridiculed, attacked, and abused, and since Christ's death, His servants have been just as cruelly treated (Matthew 23:34-36). The disrespectful refusal of the invitation, leading to the more grievous sin of murder, results in unexpected judgment (Proverbs 1:24-26). The initial prophetic fulfillment of this can be seen in Jerusalem's destruction in AD 70, when the Roman armies of Titus ("his armies") destroyed the city (see Luke 21:20-22). God carried out this judgment on a people who utterly rejected both His Son and His servants.
Is Heaven the Reward of the Saved?
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 22:4: