God's universal remnant

Exclusive parochialism or constant faithfulness? What is the essence of the remnant?

Santo Calarco is a pastor in the Greater Sydney Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Australia.

Does New Testament ecclesiology allow for the emergence of an eschatological remnant church? The question is dis cussed in all ranks of Adventism today. Some point out that the term remnant church does not appear in Scripture. They contend that only in the King James Version of Revelation 12:17 does the term remnant appear at all, and that a remnant concept is by nature parochial and implies that others are not truly Christian.

We will examine the question by developing a "remnant theology" as found in the Old Testament, the intertestamental period, the early New Testament church, and the church in the last days.

The term remnant church appears nowhere in Scripture. It grew out of nineteenth-century consciousness of apocalypticism. Yet the concept is scriptural, rooted in the Old Testament.

Remnant in the Old Testament

The remnant motif is a key theme in biblical eschatology. 1 From the experience of Israel, we see that apostasy always invited divine judgment. There is a clear connection between the remnant concept and the themes of apostasy and judgment.2 God in His mercy preserved a faithful remnant in every crisis and vested them with the promises, privileges, and responsibilities of the covenant (see Isa. 10:20, 21). He purposed to send the Messiah to this remnant (Isa.ll:l,10,ll;4:2;53:2;Jer.23:3-6;Micah 5:2-9), to establish His kingdom (Isa. 4:2, 3; 11:11, 16 [cf. verses 1-9]; Jer. 23:3 [cf. verses 4-6]; Micah 4:7 [cf. verses 1-8]; 5:7, 8 [cf. verses 2-15]; Zeph. 3:12,13), and to work through them to evangelize the heathen (Joel 3:1, 2).

In the days of Elijah, a remnant of 7,000 refused to bow to Baal and survived future destruction (see 1 Kings 19:17, 18). A similar remnant emerged in the Assyrian captivity of 721 B.C. (Isa. 10:5, 20, 22), and the Babylon captivity of 605 B.C. (Eze. 6:5-9). The Old Testament also clearly distinguishes between a national Israel and a spiritual Israel within that nation.3

The Old Testament reveals another important characteristic of the remnant. Amos 9:11,12 points out that a remnant of Yahweh-believing Gentiles would join with the eschatalogical remnant of Israel. The passage affirms that by God's grace a remnant from Edom and all nations would share in the Davidic covenant promises. The purpose and mission of Israel was to draw in these Gentiles 4 (which unfortunately they failed to do). Thus from the Old Testament itself we see that the eschatological remnant would transcend all national and ethnic barriers (see Isa. 66:19, 20; Zech. 9:6, 7; 14:16; Dan. 7:27; 12:1-3).

Remnant in intertestamental time

Postexilic Jews, reacting against the unfaithfulness that resulted in the captivity of 586 B. C., became exceedingly rigorous in their Torah observance. In time this legalism caused their remnant theology to reflect exclusivism and separatism. All who did not measure up to the prevailing interpretation of the law found themselves excluded from the community of faith. This principle of exclusivity manifested itself again in the time of the Essenes and Pharisees. Seeking to establish a sense of security before God, sectarian Judaic groups imposed on them selves the most rigorous observance of priestly rituals. They wanted to identify themselves as the saved, the eschatological remnant.5 The Qumran community, for example, saw in themselves the holy remnant promised in the Old Testament.6 They considered themselves spared by God's mercy as the sole bearers of the covenant promises.7

The Dead Sea sect, in making remnant claims for itself, exhibited a sectarian attitude that set it against the rest of the nation. It taught that only a fraction of Israel had remained true to God and still qualified as Israel. The exclusiveness of this sect prevented it from taking interest in anyone outside Israel, believing that its mission was to preserve the national religion in its purity. The Pharisees held similar sentiments about the remnant.8

Remnant in the Gospels

The remnant motif also dominates in New Testament teaching. In contrast to the pharisaical exclusivism, an open universalism prevails. Because of this, some oppose a remnant theology marked by exclusiveness. They wish to preserve the accessibility of Jesus and the universalism of His message. Their concern is that if Jesus sought to gather a remnant, it must somehow correspond to that of Pharisaism and like movements. How ever, time and again Jesus rejected the views and practices of the Pharisees and other remnant groups (see Matt. 12:1-8; 15:2-9; 23:23-28).9 Is it possible, then, that Christ and His forerunner viewed themselves as calling forth a remnant?

John the Baptist's message was a cry of judgment and a demand for repentance. He sought to assemble an Israel of the truly converted, who alone would escape the coming judgment and wrath (see Matt. 3:1-12). But in contrast to the rigid particularism of contemporary remnant groups, John's preaching was universal.

Jeremias notes: "John the Baptist towers alone above the numerous founders of remnant communities. He, too, gathers the holy remnant... that is the meaning of his preaching of judgment, his call to repentance, his baptism. But his remnant is not like that of the Pharisees or the Essenes. Both the Pharisees and Essenes gathered a 'closed' remnant. 10

John's appeal was to all strata of Israelite society. Here we find the phenomenon of an open remnant that included all who would "bear fruit that befits repentance" (Matt. 3:8, RSV). 11 Jesus, by accepting baptism from John, allied Himself with this remnant. In fact, He regarded both John and Himself as fulfilling a divinely appointed role, announcing the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God.

The point is this: in the scheme of biblical eschalology, judgment and remnant are correlatives. According to both biblical and extrabiblical literature, "the remnant is defined by judgment, either a judgment already accomplished or a judgment to come." 12 Hence a message of judgment calls forth a remnant.

Jesus proclaimed an impending judgment when He warned, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matt. 4:17, NRSV). It was the eschatology of judgment and restoration that led to the formation of Judaic remnant groups, and Christ's message corresponded to this framework "point for point." 13 Then, "if the mission of Jesus relates to the judgment of Israel, the question of the remnant is ipso facto posed." 14

Jesus, who offered salvation to all who repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15), never intended to create a remnant that was exclusive and particularist.15 He conceived of His mission as the salvation of an open universal remnant, conscious that His work was for the "lost sheep" (Matt. 10:6) and that only "few" (Matt. 7:14) would accept the invitation.

Although the term remnant in this con text never appears in the Gospels, closely interrelated words do: the "little flock" (Luke 12:32; cf. Luke 12:32; Isa. 40:11; Mark 14:27; John 10:11), the "lost" (Luke 19:10; cf. Eze. 34:15-19), the "poor" (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20), the "little ones" (Matt. 18:6), and the "few" (Matt. 20:16). These Gospel terms reflect the remnant vocabulary of the Old Testament prophets.

A relationship also exists between the prophetic theme of the eschatological Shepherd, His remnant flock, and the corresponding Gospels. For example, the prophet Micah unites the promise of a "remnant of Israel" (Micah 2:12, RSV) with the promise of the Messiah who, born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), would gather them "like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture" (Micah 2:12, RSV). As previously mentioned, this eschatological remnant would emerge from both Jews and Gentiles (see Micah 4:11-13). Hence nationalism gives way to universalism. The Gospels, then, present Jesus as the eschatological Good Shepherd who came to gather the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24) and the Gentiles (John 10:16; Mark 13:10; see Matt. 15:22-28).

For this universal mission Jesus called from Israel His twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes. By ordaining His twelve, Jesus instituted the faithful remnant of Israel and called it His church (see Mark 3:14, 15; Matt. 16:18).

Remnant in the book of Acts

In the book of Acts, the earliest Christian community viewed itself as a remnant within Israel. Peter's Pentecost sermon in chapter 2 was addressed primarily to Jews. He drew heavily on Joel 2:28-32. Peter invited his hearers to join not a new religion but Israel (see Acts 2:40). Hence these Christians saw them selves as a remnant within Israel awaiting the imminent reign of God (see Acts 1:6). They understood the promise of the Messiah as applying only to themselves (see Acts 2:39; 3:20-23).

Not until Acts 5:11 do we see the word "church" (ekklesia) appear. From chapter 6 onward we note a development in the believers' concept of themselves as an ekklesia, church. The early Christians came to understand themselves, not as an exclusive remnant, but as an open universal remnant, no longer con fined to the boundaries of Israel, but scattered all over the world. With Gen tiles accepted as fellow heirs of the new community without any prerequisite of circumcision, we see a shift from separatism to universalism, from a closed remnant to an open remnant. The Jerusalem Council bears witness to this open remnant concept.

In Acts 15:1, 2, 5 a controversy emerges between Paul and Jewish Christians. The bone of contention involved Gentiles joining the church. Was it necessary for these former pagans to be circumcised first and become Jews be fore they could become Christians? James' reply is both interesting and significant. He settles the matter in Acts 15:13-21 by referring to Amos 9:11,12, maintaining that the prophets foresaw an eschatological remnant of Israel including both Jews and Gentiles (see Acts 15:16,17). Hence the church should not place upon Gentiles any specifically Jewish conditions of entry. Evidently, the remnant now became the church.

Remnant in the Epistles

Paul's chief treatment of the remnant motif is found in Romans 9-11, where he interweaves the theme into his argument about Israel's rejection of Christ. Citing Isaiah 10:22,23 and Isaiah 1:9, Paul maintains that a remnant, hypoleimma, of Israel will be saved (Rom. 9:27). This combination of Old Testament citations displays Paul's application of the remnant. 16

In Romans 9, Paul develops a distinction between the Israel of the "flesh" (verse 8) and the Israel of the "promise" (verse 8), the latter not being restricted to physical lineage (verses 26, 27). The remnant now includes all who have faith in Christ (Rom. 10:4, 9-13), including Jews and Gentiles (9:24; 10:12). 17

In Romans 11:1 -5 the concept of the remnant accompanies a reference to Elijah's complaint and God's reply (1 Kings 19:14, 18). Paul's purpose is to show that God has not totally cast off His people, but that a remnant has indeed remained faithful to Him as in the days of Elijah. Paul takes up the concept of remnant and weaves it through these chapters "to show that the Old Testament prophecy of the remnant is fulfilled in a community consisting of Jews and Gentiles." 18

An element of the remnant motif also springs from Paul's idea of the seed. 19 In Galatians 3:16 Christ is the seed (sperma) of Abraham, God's remnant. Utterly faithful and holy, the Messiah can assure our survival amid the catastrophe of sin. As God's seed (remnant), Christ has broken down human barriers and called His people out of the world into the church (ekklesia, those called out). In Christ's body there is no Jew or Greek; all are one in Him (verse 28); all are children of God. Those who are baptized into Christ form His ekklesia, the community of the Seed (remnant).

A question confronts us here. If the remnant has become the church, how can there be a remnant church? The answer is simple. Just as the Old Testament foresaw a faithful remnant within Israel after a time of apostasy and impending judgment, the Apocalypse portrays a faithful remnant within the church after its time of apostasy and judgment.

Remnant in Revelation

In the book of Revelation the remnant theme may be studied lexically, contextually, and theologically. Lexically, Revelation employs the adjective loipos eight times. Although the word is translated "remnant" only in the King James Version, it can have "a meaning reminiscent of the remnant idea." 20 Sweet correctly asserts, "The Greek suggests the concept of the faithful remnant, the nucleus of restoration after disaster (cf. Isa. 6:13, RSV; Rom. 9:27-29)." 21 Loipos is a derivative of leimma, 22 "remnant." Loipos occurs 120 times in the LXX and together with its related kataloipos occupies more than 37 per cent of remnant terminology in the Old Testament. Hence, translating loipos as remnant is not only permissible but proper.23

The remnant, loipos, in the Church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:24) are those who have remained faithful (verse 19) in the midst of apostasy, namely spiritual immorality with the impure woman Jezebel (verse 20). This has a remarkable parallel with Revelation 12-17. The church in Sardis is dead, but "the things which remain" (Rev. 3:2) are to be strengthened because there are still "a few" (verse 4) who are faithful, unsoiled, and worthy.

What remain are the final remnants of earth's history: the remnant that is saved (Rev. 12:17) and the remnant that is lost (Rev. 19:21). But note the following first.

Judgment and the final remnant

We have already seen that judgment and remnant are correlatives in the scheme of biblical eschatology. The New Testament picks up the Old Testament construct and places them in a now/not-yet framework. So the judgment is seen as both a present and a future concept. That is, judgment is inaugurated with the ushering in of the new age with the coming of the Messiah ("Now is the judgment of this world [John 12:31]"). At the same time, judgment is awaiting a consummation at the end of time. The Apocalypse reveals this clearly.

Revelation 12 and following chapters depict the last and climactic battle between good and evil. John records the battle between the dragon and the woman.24 The woman is "the church, but only in so far as the church is continuous with God's people from the beginning." 25 The serpent, having pursued the woman with no effect, turns against "the rest of her offspring" (Rev. 12:17, RSV), "and this turns out to be the earth-dwellers' crowning disaster." 26 As surely as the dragon was not able to destroy the Man child, Jesus the Messiah, "so he will be unable to destroy the church." 27 The rest of the church's offspring find their proper place just prior to the harvest (Rev. 14:12-20), the return of our Lord.

Satan, in attempting to destroy the remnant, conspires with the last day Babylon, that harlot woman who be comes drunk with the blood of the saints (Rev. 17:1, 5, 6). The saints are God's remnant, keeping His commandments and having the testimony and faith of Jesus (Rev. 12:17; 14:12).

A number of considerations indicate end-time Babylon as apostate Christianity in the last days. First, Paul indicates that before our Lord returns there must first be a "falling away" ([Greek apostasia} 2 Thess. 2:1-3). Second, in Revelation 17 the image of a harlot woman from the Old Testament is used to describe God's people as apostate, as committing spiritual adultery, that is idolatry (Eze. 16:3, 15, 28, 32; 23:29, 30; Hosea 2:1, 2, 5, 13). Third, the garments that the wicked woman wears are those of the high priest symbolic of a religious system posing to represent God (Rev. 17:4, cf. Ex. 28:5, 6, 9, 14). And fourth, the fate of the harlot is burning by fire (Rev. 18:8). This is significant because the death of a harlot in the Old Testament was generally by stoning (see Deut. 22:21), except in one case when the harlot was the daughter of a priest (see Lev. 21:9).

In the end-time religious crisis, God's people obey His commandments rather than yield to counterfeit worship (see Rev. 14:12; 13:10). These faithful ones constitute the final remnant. They pro claim the eschatological message of judgment (Rev. 14:7) and call forth from Babylon (Rev. 18:2-4), into the remnant, refugees from "every nation, tribe, tongue, and people" (Rev. 14:6, NKJV). Here we see an open, universal remnant within the apostate people!


In summary, the New Testament not only allows for a remnant theology but explicitly expounds one. However, remnancy defined in a narrow and exclusive framework is not only untenable but condemned in the Bible.

The reality of an eschatological remnant church finds its roots in both Old and New Testaments. Even though true remnancy was thwarted during the intertestamental period, the message of universalism emerged with the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus. The book of Acts shows how remnancy carried forth into early Christianity. In the Apocalypse we find an added eschatological dimension to remnancy.

The Adventist Church has been entrusted by God to preach and teach the remnant message. We must beware, however, lest our remnant theology be come parochial. Bearing the remnant message is not only a privilege but a responsibility. That message is ever to be the everlasting gospel, calling forth God's remnant from "every nation, tribe, tongue, and people."

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Santo Calarco is a pastor in the Greater Sydney Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Australia.

August 1993

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