The remnant church

What are those texts that define Adventists and how do we see in them their identity as “the remnant church”?

Gerhard Pfandl, PhD,is a retired associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

On October 22, 1844, thousands of eager Christians in the United States waited for the second advent of Christ. Obviously, they had been mistaken, but out of their disappointment arose the Seventh-day Adventist Church, also referred to by its members as “the remnant church.” Adventists define themselves this way based on a careful exegesis of certain texts in Revelation. What are those texts, and why do Adventists see in them their identity as “the remnant church”?

The witness of scripture

Revelation 12 clearly teaches that God has a remnant church at the end time. After describing the history of the Christian church (under the symbolism of a woman), from the time of Jesus (the child in verse 5) to the end of the 1,260 years (538–1798), Revelation says: “And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring [“the remnant of her seed”—KJV], who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17, NKJV).

This verse brings us to a time after the 1,260-year period (Rev. 12:6, 14), i.e., in the nineteenth century. Seeing that he was unable to wipe out God’s faithful people, Satan becomes angry with a particular group called “the rest of her offspring” or “the remnant of her seed”—the remnant church. The focus rests now, not on the woman (symbol of God’s faithful people throughout the ages), but on this particular group, “the rest of her offspring,” or the remnant church.

Only twice in this chapter does John mention an “offspring” of the woman. The first one is the male child in verse 5, the Messiah; the second, “the rest of her offspring,” the remnant church. Both times John clearly identifies the offspring of the woman, supporting the view that “the rest of her offspring” comprises the visible remnant church. Two identifying marks, or signs, of this remnant church are given: they keep “the commandments of God,” and they have “the testimony of Jesus.”

Keeping the Commandments of God

Whatever commandments we may want to include in the first identifying mark, we must certainly include the Ten Commandments. Thus, the first identifying sign of the remnant church is their loyalty to God’s commandments—all His commandments, including the fourth, the Sabbath commandment . To paraphrase Revelation 12:17: At the end of time God will have a church—the remnant church—which will be recognized by the fact that they keep the commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath commandment.

In the time of the apostles, or the early church, this would not have been a special sign because they all kept the Sabbath; but today, when most Christians “keep” Sunday, the Sabbath has indeed become a distinguishing mark.

Having the testimony of Jesus

The second identifying mark is “the testimony of Jesus.” What does this phrase mean? The expression “testimony of Jesus” (marturia Iesou) occurs six times in the book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10 [twice]; 20:4).

First, we look at Revelation 1:1, 2, and 9. The introduction to Revelation sets forth the source, i.e., God, and the content of the book—the revelation of Jesus Christ. In verse 2 we are told that John bore witness to “the Word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus.”

We commonly understand “the Word of God” to refer to what God says; and “the testimony of Jesus,” in parallel to “the Word of God,” must therefore mean the testimony that Jesus Himself gives. How did Jesus testify of Himself? While here on earth, He testified in person to the people in Judea. After His ascension, He spoke through His prophets.

In Revelation 1:9, the parallelism between the “Word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” is again clearly discernible: “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ”(NKJV; italics supplied).

“The Word of God” in John’s time referred to the Old Testament, and the “testimony of Jesus” referred to what Jesus had said, the truths He revealed as recorded in the Gospels and through His prophets, like Peter and Paul.

The spirit of prophecy

In Revelation 19:10, therefore, we read the explanation, “ ‘For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ ” (NKJV). What is “the spirit of prophecy”? This phrase occurs only once in the Bible and only in this text. We find the closest biblical parallel in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, where Paul refers to the Holy Spirit, who, among other charismata, gives the gift of prophecy, and the person who receives this gift is called a “prophet” (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11).

Just as in 1 Corinthians 12:28, those who have the gift of prophecy (v. 10) are called “prophets,” so in Revelation 22:8, 9, those who have the spirit of prophecy in 19:10 are also called “prophets.”

Note the parallelism between Revelation 19:10 and Revelation 22:8, 9:

[See PDF for table]

The same situation occurs in both passages. John falls at the feet of the angel to worship. The words of the angel’s response are almost identical, yet the difference is significant. In Revelation 19:10, the brethren are identified by the phrase, “Who hold [have] the testimony of Jesus”; in Revelation 22:9, the brethren are simply called “prophets.”

Thus, if we use the Protestant principle of interpreting scripture by scripture, we can conclude that “the spirit of prophecy” in Revelation 19:10 is not the possession of all church members in general but only of those who have been called by God to be prophets.

Hermann Strathmann, a Lutheran scholar, commenting on Revelation 19:10, says:

According to the parallel 22:9 the brothers referred to are not believers in general, but the prophets. Here, too, they are characterised as such. This is the point of verse 10c. If they have the marturia Iesou [testimony of Jesus] they have the spirit of prophecy, i.e., they are prophets, like the angel, who simply stands in the service of marturia Iesou. 1

Similarly, James Moffat explains:

“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” This prose marginal comment specifically defines the brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus as possessors of prophetic inspiration. The testimony of Jesus is practically equivalent to Jesus testifying. 2

The witness of the targumim

The Jewish readers in John’s day knew what was meant by the expression “Spirit of prophecy.” They would have understood the expression as a reference to the Holy Spirit, who imparts the prophetic gift to man.

Rabbinic Judaism equated the Old Testament (OT) expressions “Holy Spirit,” “Spirit of God,” or “Spirit of Yahweh” with “the Spirit of prophecy.” This can be seen in the frequent occurrence of this term in the Targumim (written translations of the OT in Aramaic):

Thereupon the Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this in whom there is the spirit of prophecy from before the Lord?” (Gen. 41:38).3

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua, son of Nun, a man who has within himself the spirit of prophecy, and lay your hand on him” (Num. 27:18). 4

Sometimes the term Spirit of prophecy refers simply to the Holy Spirit, but, in many cases, it refers to the gift of prophecy given by the Holy Spirit. Commenting on this expression in the Targumim, F. F. Bruce says:

The expression “the Spirit of prophecy” is current in post-biblical Judaism: it is used, for example, in a Targumic circumlocution for the Spirit of Yahweh which comes upon this or that prophet. Thus the Targum of Jonathan renders the opening words of Isaiah 61:1 as “The Spirit of prophecy from before the Lord God is upon me.” The thought expressed in Revelation 19:10 is not dissimilar to that already quoted from 1 Peter 1:11 where “the Spirit of Christ” is said to have borne advanced testimony in the Old Testament prophets. . . . In Revelation 19:10, however, it is through Christian prophets that the Spirit of prophecy bears witness. What the prophets of pre-Christian days foretold is proclaimed as an accomplished fact by the prophets of the new age, among whom John occupies a leading place. 5

Summary of Revelation 12:17

Returning now to Revelation 12:17, we can say that “the rest of her offspring . . . keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ,” which is the Spirit of prophecy, or the prophetic gift.

This interpretation is strengthened by a study of the Greek word echō, meaning “to have.” This word indicates possession. They have a gift of God— the prophetic gift. If “the testimony of Jesus” was simply our testimony about Jesus, John would have written something like this: “They keep the commandments of God and testify about Jesus,” or “they bear testimony to Jesus.” But the Greek work echō is never used in the sense “to bear a witness.” 6

In summary, we can say that the remnant church, which, according to prophecy, exists after the 1,260-day period (after 1798), has two specific identifying marks:

1. They keep the commandments of God, including the Sabbath command as God gave it.

2. They have the testimony of Jesus, which is the Spirit of prophecy, or the prophetic gift, in their midst.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, from its inception in 1863, has always claimed these identifying signs for itself. As Adventists, we proclaim the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath; and we believe that, as a church, we have the testimony of Jesus, i.e., that God manifested Himself in the life and work of Ellen G. White.

Our pioneers were quite certain that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Revelation 12:17. G. I. Butler, General Conference president between 1871 and 1888, wrote in an article entitled “Visions and Dreams”:

Is there then no people in whom these conditions combine in these last days? We believe they truly do in Seventh-day Adventists. They have everywhere claimed to be the “remnant” church for the last 25 years. . . .

Do they keep the commandments of God? Every one knowing anything about this people can answer that this is the most important part of their faith. . . . In regard to the Spirit of prophecy, it is a remarkable fact that from the first of their existence as a people, Seventh-day Adventists have claimed that it has been in active exercise among them. 7

Ellen White firmly believed that Seventh-day Adventists were God’s remnant church and that Revelation 12:17 applied to them. Seventh-day Adventists “are God’s representatives upon the earth.” 8 She also wrote: “We have the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, which is the Spirit of prophecy.” 9 And she counseled, “Let all be careful not to make an outcry against the only people who are fulfilling the description given of the remnant people who keep the commandments of God and have faith in Jesus, who are exalting the standard of righteousness in these last days.” 10

And we still believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church with the Spirit of prophecy as one of the identifying marks.

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. 11

As Seventh-day Adventists, we are members of God’s remnant church. However, this identification with the remnant church does not accord us an exclusive status with God. We have never taught that Adventists alone are saved; we have always recognized the reality of what has been called “the invisible church,” God’s faithful people throughout the ages. Also today, God has faithful people in all churches, including the Catholic Church. 12 Salvation is not guaranteed through church membership in any church; we are saved as individuals, not as a church. But being a part of God’s remnant church means that we have access to God’s special gift, the inspired counsel of Ellen White, and can participate in proclaiming God’s special end-time message—the three angels’ messages—to the world.


1 Hermann Strathmann, “Martyrs,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964–1974), 4:500.

2 James Moffat, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. R. Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1956), 5:465.

3 Bernard Grossfeld, The Targum Onqelos to Genesis, The Aramaic Bible, vol. 6, eds. K. Cathart, M. Maher, M. McNamara (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), 138.

4 Idem., The Targums Onqelo to Leviticus and the Targum Onqelos to Numbers, The Aramaic Bible, vol. 8, eds. K. Cathart, M. Maher, M. McNamara (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), 102, 145 (italics in the original). Other occurrences of the term spirit of prophecy are found in Exod. 31:3; 35:31; Num. 11:25, 26, 29; 24:2; Judg. 3:10; 1 Sam. 10:6; 19:10, 23; 2 Sam. 23:2; 1 Kings 22:24; 2 Chron. 15:1; 18:22, 23; 20:14; Ps. 51:13; Isa. 11:2. See Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, 7 vols. (München: Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1965), 2:129. 5 F. F. Bruce, The Time Is Fulfilled (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), 105, 106.

6 G. Pfandl, “The Remnant Church and the Spirit of Prophecy” in Symposium on Revelation B Book II, ed. Frank B. Holbrook, DARCOM Series, vol.

7 (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 312, 313. 7 G. I. Butler, “Visions and Prophecy,” Review and Herald, June 2, 1874, 193.

8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 2:452.

9 White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 114.

10 Ibid., 58.

11 Seventh-day Adventists Believe, 2nd ed. (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, 2005), 247.

12 See Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 234.

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Gerhard Pfandl, PhD,is a retired associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

February 2013

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