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The Doctrine of the Remnant in the New Testament

A Faithful Remnant in an Unfaithful World - Part 4

Christians in the post-Christendom West may be rather bewildered at how quickly the culture around them is abandoning the trappings of their Judeo-Christian heritage. However, the Lord they follow had no such illusions about his own Torah-soaked society. The hard reality is that Jesus, like the Old Testament Law and Prophets he came to fulfill, was crystal clear about the reality of God’s people as a beleaguered remnant in the midst of a fallen world under God’s judgment.

As Christians, we need to pay attention to what Jesus says about being a minority in a rebellious society. So, before closing this series of articles with some thoughts on application, it’s necessary to conduct at least a brief survey of the New Testament’s teaching on the doctrine of the remnant.

1. Remnant in the Gospels

We began this series by looking at the case of Noah. One lone righteous man found on an earth tearing itself apart in wickedness, Noah was delivered through God’s judgment along with his family. When talking to the Pharisees and the disciples on the Kingdom of God and on the day of the Son of Man, Jesus referred to Noah in the midst of his culture as a parallel: “And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of Man” (Luke17:26). Jesus’ point is that the Jews, who were eagerly anticipating the coming of an earthly kingdom, had failed to understand the necessity of Jesus’ own rejection by, and suffering at the hands of, his generation. The law-keeping of the Pharisees and the ceremonies of the Temple would not avert the judgment upon an Israel stubbornly seeking to establish its own righteousness through works.

Jesus, then, is warning his hearers not to expect things to get better here on earth before he is revealed in his full authority. Rather, it is God’s plan that the truth of God will be resisted by a wicked age, and that a prevailing evil culture will be caught unawares by the suddenness and staggering scope of God’s wrath when it comes. It’s noteworthy that Jesus does not counsel his followers to organize themselves for political action or arm themselves for war; rather, he cautions them to be watchful for false teachers (17:23), and then goes on to teach on persistent prayer (18:1-8).

Why prayer? Because, Jesus, explains, God loves and will vindicate his people: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 17:7-8a). God’s people are not to put their trust in society’s acceptance, or culture’s recognition of their rights, or in constitutions and charters. Rather, their hope is to be in God and in the justice he will bring. Jesus’ disdain for earthly justice is underlined by the chilling way he closes this section on persistent prayer: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 17:8b). It’s a rhetorical question, sadly; the answer is no. The elect will remain a remnant in an unfaithful world.

Jesus’ teaching on this subject was consistent. In the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24, a parallel passage in many ways to Luke 17, when his disciples asked him about the signs of the end of the age, Matthew records Jesus beginning with the same caution about false teachers: “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Matt. 24:4-5). Matthew then records Jesus’ dark prediction about societal rejection of the truth, but while Luke focused particularly on Jesus’ prophecy of his own suffering, Matthew relays the implications for those who follow Jesus as well: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:9-12). Here those who follow Christ will be hated by “all nations,” delivered to persecution—hardly the picture of a powerful “moral majority” in a culture.

2. Remnant in the Epistles

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, preached the same message as his Lord. So it is unsurprising that we find him emphasizing the doctrine of the remnant as well. In his letter to the Romans, in particular, Paul stresses Old Testament teaching on the remnant as being immediately applicable in his day: “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay”’(Rom. 9:27-28).

It’s easy to miss, but Paul implicitly reiterates this theme in chapter 10. In this chapter, Paul mounts an argument from multiple Old Testament texts that righteousness is established by submissive faith in Christ rather than striving to “ascend to heaven” to establish one’s own righteousness (v. 6; cf. Deut. 30:12). To conclude that argument, Paul quotes the prophet Joel: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13; cf. Joel 2:32a). The context of the quote, however, makes clear that such faith-driven calling on God’s name is the act of a God-preserved remnant, for Joel immediately goes on to say: “For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:32b). To call on the Lord, then, is a call in response to a call God first gives.

In Romans 9 and 10, while explaining why, if Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the nation of Israel devoted to God’s word nevertheless rejected him, Paul points to the Old Testament doctrine of the remnant as part of his explanation. Even the nation of Israel, bound by covenant to God, given his righteous laws, even after repeated invasions and conquests and exiles and a series of prophetic condemnations, will only see a small portion saved through judgment. Romans 9 and 10 make clear, consistently with what we’ve already seen in the Old Testament, that this remnant only is preserved through God’s grace. Against the self-righteousness and self-sufficiency of rabbinic Judaism, Paul stresses the truth of sovereign election: God will keep himself a remnant, because he chose them in eternity past to be saved.

3. Remnant in Acts

Lest anyone be tempted to dismiss the doctrine of the remnant as applicable to national or ethnic Israel alone, it’s noteworthy that, as the early church struggled to understand God’s purpose in saving Gentiles along with Jews in Christ, the doctrine of the remnant was a key element in persuading them that Gentile inclusion was indeed God’s will. At the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, James stands up and has the last word on the matter, bringing the council to consensus. To do so, like Paul in Romans, he appeals to Old Testament prophets, and says: “With this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written: ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old’” (Acts 15:15-17; cf. Amos 9:11-12).

In other words, this idea of a rebuilt remnant of Israel (“I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it”) is paralleled with the Gentiles as “the remnant of mankind” or, literally, “the remainder of men,” all other human beings besides Israel. The Gentiles God is seeking to save through the Gospel, then, are also a “remnant,” being kept by God for the purpose of salvation. The remnant of Israel is not just a rebuilt tent, but a much bigger tent!

4. Remnant in Revelation

Jesus twice echoes the idea of a faithful remnant in his letters to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation. Addressing a heresy rising in the church of Thyatira under the leadership of a “prophetess” nicknamed “Jezebel,” Jesus says: “But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come” (Rev. 2:24-25). To the church of Sardis, Jesus declares: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:1b-4).

These churches are struggling against heresy and complacency. They have allowed unbelief to take root in the church, to the point that those struggling to keep faith can be fairly described as “remnants.” This “rest of you,” these “few names,” are thus commanded to hold to Christ and keep their confession. Even in the church, even in individual local churches, then, the faithful can quickly find themselves a remnant if Christians are not watchful.

Even though I’m going to devote the entirety of the next article to application, that note is a useful place to stop and take heed. Heresy in the church is hardly new, as this text shows us, but it’s noteworthy how similar to today Thyatira sounds—self-appointed prophetesses leading folks astray through charismatic pronouncements, and churches unwilling to do the hard work of confrontation of sin. Again, as Jesus repeatedly warned, God's remnant people need to watch for false teachers. And the complacency of Sardis is echoed in the astonishment of the modern church struggling to come to grips with a massive cultural shift on gender issues—a shift aided and abetted by several generations of evangelical complacency on marriage and divorce and gender roles. We need to guard our doctrine carefully, lest we find ourselves a sudden remnant in our own churches.