There is an often quoted verse of scripture where Jesus said, "For many are called but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14; D&C 121:34).
There are some who wonder at the meaning of this saying and many understand it on just a superficial level but when we take the time to carefully examine what it is that Jesus is telling us, we find there is much more behind His words than what is apparent to the casual reader.
There are two places in the scriptures where this phrase is used. The first is found in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. Here Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and is trying to teach them who receives salvation and who doesn't. One of the teaching techniques that Jesus often used was to tell a fictitional story about a familiar situation and then relating it to a concept His listeners were not familiar with. We call this kind of technique, teaching by parables.
The Pharisees were the religious leaders of their day who smugly believed they would go to heaven simply because they were the children of Abraham who kept the letter of the Law of Moses. Since this was a false idea, Jesus began His parable to them by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son." With these words, Jesus compared a situation the Pharisees could easily understand (a marriage ceremony) to the way things happen in heaven.
In this parable, the king sent out his servants to call people to attend his son's wedding but "they would not come." Patiently, the king sent out more servants with the same message but still no one accepted the king's invitation. In fact, "they made light of it and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise." Since the king was extending a great honor by inviting people to dine at his palace he was angry that his people turned down his generous offer and declared that they were no longer worthy of his invitation.
Yet, to have a wedding celebration there must be people at the wedding feast so the king sent his servants out "into the highways and as many as [could be found] bid to the marriage" and thus "the wedding was furnished with guests." Then said Jesus to the Pharisees, "Behold, many are called but few are chosen."
The obvious meaning of this parable is that the Jews were God's chosen people and He had sent His servants, the prophets, to call them to salvation. By heeding His call they would find themselves inheriting God greatest gift, eternal life. But the Jews were a hard-hearted people who would not listen when God called so He extended His invitation of salvation to those outside the Jewish nation - the Gentiles.
Based on this knowledge, most people believe that many people are called to be saved but few who hear the gospel actually answer that call. Thus, few of the many people who were called to come unto God are chosen to received salvation.
However, in our day, the same Jesus gave us a greater understanding of what He told the Pharisees. After stating that "many are called but few are chosen," He then asked the question "And why are they not chosen?" Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have heard the answer Christ gave many times but it might be helpful to take a closer look at what He said.
But before we can do that, we first have to determine what Jesus means by being "called" and what He means by being "chosen."
Being chosen is generally understood to mean inheriting eternal life but to Latter-day Saints the term "eternal life" has a very specific meaning. Eternal life isn't just living in heaven with God forever; it's inheriting all that God has. To do that a person must become an exalted being where they are not angles but are kings and queens, and eternal priests and priestesses unto God (Revelation 5:10, 4:21.) These are they who are clothed in royal robes, wear crowns, and sit on thrones to rule and reign with Christ forever. This condition is called exaltation.
When God issues an invitation to salvation it isn't just to become like the angels of heaven. It is to become like Him! Christ didn't die just to get us into heaven. He died to gives us the opportunity to become exalted, in the same way that He Himself is exalted. That is what gaining eternal life means and this is what Jesus is referring to when He uses the word "chosen." In other words, those who accept Christ into their life have been chosen to receive eternal life. Those who don't accept Christ are not chosen to receive this benefit of the atonement.
When we think of Christ "calling" us to salvation we generally think of Him extending an invitation for us to accept Him as our Savior and that this "call" comes as a result of people hearing the gospel preached to them. While that may be true in one sense, it is a very simplistic explanation of what Jesus meant when He said that "many are called" and misses a very important element of what it takes to be chosen to receive eternal life.
The Pharisees to whom Jesus was talking to in Matthew 22 were already followers of God and were striving to follow His commandments as contained in the Law of Moses. The Jews already had priests who performed authorized ordinances in the temple and the Pharisees participated in these rituals as God had commanded. But despite this, they were still not worthy of being chosen. When looked at it this light, the traditional explanation of why they weren't chosen doesn't seem to fit. But, in D&C 121 the Lord provides a clearer understanding of why that was the case.
As we read the Lord's answer as found in this section of the Doctrine and Covenants, we need to be aware that everything He says is directed towards those who hold the priesthood. With this realization comes the clear implication that when the Lord talks about being "called" He's referring to those who hold the priesthood. The prophet Alma taught "Now they were ordained after this manner-being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and taking upon them the high priesthood of the holy order, which calling, and ordinance, and high priesthood, is without beginning or end" (Alma 13:8).
People are "called" to receive the priesthood and there is no salvation without the priesthood. To be an exalted being a person must hold the priesthood, so when Jesus said that "Many are called" what He was saying is that many people have been called to hold the priesthood but only a few of them will be chosen to receive exaltation. The question Jesus asks is, "Why are these priesthood holders not chosen?"
The answer He gives is "Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men." The way Jesus described it to the Pharisees was "they made light of it (the priesthood) and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise." Instead of having an eye single to the glory of God, the hearts of many of those who had been called to serve God were set more on the things of the world than on the things of God.
The result of this attitude is "that they do not learn this one lesson - that the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness." The clear implication of this statement is that when priesthood holders lose sight of their eternal goal by not following the principles of righteousness because they are more interested in building their own kingdom here on earth rather than that of God's then they will not be able to control the powers of heaven. And when that happens they cannot become exalted. What the Lord said is that's a lesson some priesthood holders have not learned.
An exalted being is someone who has the right to control the powers of heaven but those powers are controlled by the priesthood. Thus, the ability to control the powers of heaven is tied directly to a person's priesthood. That's what the Lord means when He says they are inseparably connected. One without the other is useless. But the power of a person's priesthood is dependent on their righteousness.
An exalted being in not just someone who holds the priesthood but is also someone who has the right to exercise their priesthood to control the powers of heaven. However, if a person is not righteous then they have no power to their priesthood which means they have limited or no ability to control the powers of heaven. Therefore, if a person here on earth has been given the priesthood but is not righteous they will not be chosen to become exalted because there is no point in giving them the right to control the powers of heaven when they have no power to their priesthood.
However, the priesthood is not used just to control the powers of heaven. And exalted person is a king or a queen which means they have rule or dominion and authority or, in other words power and influence over those whom they rule. Yet, if an exalted being were to exercise their authority or dominion - which is vested in their priesthood - over others "in any degree of unrighteousness" then their priesthood power will become diminished. When that happens they lose their ability to rule.
The Lord explained it this way: "That they (the powers of the priesthood) may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man."
The reason why God gives so many people the priesthood is to allow them the opportunity to practice the principles of righteousness so they are properly prepared to use it throughout the eternities. But there is no sense in exalting someone whose priesthood power has been withdrawn and there is nothing left of it. Hence, even though many people may be called to receive the priesthood, only a few will be chosen to become exalted because they have forgotten the point of receiving the priesthood. That's why those who do not use their priesthood in righteousness will not be chosen to receive eternal life.
If that is true then it becomes essential that we understand what constitutes the principles of righteousness. In our day the Lord has reiterated those principles but they were also taught in ancient times as recorded in the New Testament. He said these include using persuasion, as opposed to dictating or using compulsory means, being long-suffering, gentle and meek, exhibiting unfeigned love, kindness, and ruling with pure knowledge. It includes having charity to all men and keeping our thoughts virtuous continuously. It also involves acting without hypocrisy or guile. (see Galatians 5:7)
But what or who will exalted beings rule over? To be an exalted king and queen requires a man and woman being eternally married as husband and wfie who will then be able to have eternal children. It is those children whom they will rule over together. But before that can happen, a husband and wife need to learn in this life how to rule over their family using persuasive methods rather than by dictating orders or compelling behavior. It not only means learning to be patient but to be "long-suffering" or extremely patient. It means dealing with people gently and with kindness rather than being aggressive, rude, or pushy. It means showing real, true, genuine love, rather than pretended love or giving selfish love. It means being truthful and treating others as you want to be treated. It means using true knowledge as the basis on which to make decisions.
There will be times when someone under our rule may need to be reproved, corrected, or chastised but a righteous person will do so by "showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy" This is the Lord's definition of being righteous and anything less than this is unrighteous behavior.
Since our goal is to live with God forever, when we follow these principles we will feel confident being in His presence. Furthermore, when we follow these principles, the power of the priesthood will flow to us as naturally as dew forms on the morning grass and our power and influence over others and our ability to control the powers of heaven will happen effortlessly and spontaneously.
Kings not only wear crowns but they usually carry a scepter which is the symbol of their power. The Lord explained that the scepter of exalted kings will be "an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth" meaning that the symbol of their power will be their unchanging adherence to the principles of righteousness and truth. When this is the case then their "dominion shall be an everlasting dominion and without compulsory means it shall flow unto[them] forever and ever."
When we reach the point where we follow the principles of righteousness and truth at all times and in every situation then we will be chosen to be exalted, and when that happens then our dominion as an eternal king and queen will last forever and our power and influence will not have to be forced upon others but will happen naturally.
However, if it is true that the power of the priesthood is dependent upon our righteousness and any degree of unrighteousness diminishes that power, then how can we, as imperfect people, have any power when we use our priesthood? In other words, since none of us are completely righteous it would seem that no priesthood holder should have any ability to command the powers of heaven, yet we do. Why is that, considering what it says in D&C 121:37?
The answer is found in our definition of the priesthood, which is "the power of God delegated to man." The priesthood we hold here on earth is not ours but belongs to God. When we use the priesthood, its power comes mostly from God's authority. As such, it operates for us more because of His righteousness than because of our own. That doesn't mean we are not required to be righteous but, while living here in mortality, we are not expected to be totally righteous in order for our priesthood to be effective. It is because God delegates part of His power to us that allows us to practice with His priesthood so we can properly learn how to use it. This provides us with the ability to grow in righteousness through experience and thereby learn how to develop the skill necessary to wield the full power of the priesthood. (for a fuller explanation read The Authority of the Priesthood
Right now we are, in effect, "borrowing" God's priesthood as He allows us to practice with it, but exalted beings are able to use their priesthood according to their own power. That means, should an exalted being use their priesthood in an unrighteousness manner it will have no effect and without any power they cannot rule. Therefore, in the eternal worlds, the standard by which exalted beings must live is to use their priesthood in total and complete righteousness. Although many people have been called to receive the priesthood in this life, only those who have demonstrated their willingness to adhere to the principles of righteousness will be chosen to receive exaltation.