Christians familiar with the story of ancient Israel know of that nation’s tragic obsession with idolatry, culminating in the decision by Yahweh to withdraw his protection and allow the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem. Nevertheless, God in his mercy did not entirely eliminate His people, but allowed a remnant to survive—provided they endured faithfully for a time as strangers in a foreign land.
Though often overlooked, the idea of a faithful remnant existing within a larger, apostate group of God’s people is a significant motif within scripture. It signifies the utter dependability of God to fulfill his promised intentions; despite Israel’s national commitment to spiritual harlotry, God’s decree that he would establish an eternal kingdom through a descendent of David remained. To demonstrate the unshakeable nature of his promise, God thus preserved a small remnant from which the Jewish nation could one day be rebuilt. Those saved were indeed faithful and righteous, but it was not their ‘work’ in following the Mosaic Law that saved them, but the commitment of God to keep his word. The remnant of Israel existed because of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and lovingkindness.
The remnant of Israel in Babylon is the greatest Old Testament example of this spiritual pattern, but there were many smaller signs of God’s intentions in Israel’s earlier history. When Elijah lamented that he was the sole remaining faithful Israelite under the disastrous reign of Ahab and Jezebel, the Lord revealed that there were others in Israel who had not bowed their knee to Baal.
1 Kings 19:18, NLT
Yet I will preserve seven thousand others in Israel who have never bowed to Baal or kissed him!”
Other prophets also spoke of a remnant through which God would fulfill his word.
In that day the remnant of Israel, the survivors of the house of Jacob, will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God. Though your people, O Israel, be like the sand by the sea, only a remnant will return.
Micah 4:6, 7
“In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will gather the lame; I will assemble the exiles and those I have brought to grief.I will make the lame a remnant, those driven away a strong nation. The LORD will rule over them in Mount Zion from that day and forever.”
Zechariah 8:11, 12
“But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the LORD Almighty. “The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.”
Zephaniah 2:6, 7
The land … will belong to the remnant of the house of Judah; there they will find pasture. In the evening they will lie down in the houses of Ashkelon. The LORD their God will care for them; he will restore their fortunes.
The cycle repeats
Despite the miraculous circumstances by which the Jewish exiles left Babylon and returned to their homeland, Israel’s preoccupation with foreign philosophies eventually reemerged. When Jesus was born some 520 years after the exiles’ return, Israel’s spiritual condition was again in a compromised state. The Jews were a subject people—this time to the Romans—and Judaism had splintered into a number of factions, each with their own solution to Israel’s current malaise.
- The Pharisees believed that rigorous adherence to their interpretation of the Mosaic Code gave them moral superiority over ordinary Jews, and gained them special favour from God.
- The Sadducees promoted a more naturalist world-view, denying the existence of spirits or the resurrection of the dead. They were sticklers for the written code and demanded that everyone else was too.
- The Essenes were a mystical tradition that in some ways preempted the Church. They held property in common, but tended to withdraw from society into isolated desert communities.
- The Herodians were political in orientation, advocating closer ties with King Herod and the Roman overlords.
- The zealots took the opposite point of view, believing that violent insurrection was the solution to a free Jewish state.
- Finally, Hellenist Jews were Gentile converts who spoke Greek and had different cultural backgrounds than traditional Hebrews. Their experiences of life outside Israel created alternative expectations and attitudes to those of their Hebrew brethren.
Clearly, there was no shortage of groups with which Jesus could have aligned himself; yet he remained aloof, refusing to validate their particular claims by associating with one or more of them. Instead, Jesus called to himself the ‘remnant’—individuals like Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38), who were waiting with faith and patience for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom and his call to radical discipleship cut through the religious and political rhetoric of the day, bearing fruit among pure-hearted believers unobstructed by misplaced loyalty to a particular Jewish sect.
Fide sola Dios
Regardless of time or history, loyalty to God alone is the defining aspect of the remnant in all generations of God’s people. There are many who claim to follow Yahweh, yet give him only part allegiance. The idols of God’s people are many, and though their forms have changed since ancient times their sensuous false promises remain, and are a constant temptation the unwary believer stumbles over.
1 Corinthians 10:11 provides key insight into how the Church must view the experiences of ancient Israel:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.
How serious must the Lord be about His Church, when He can say through Paul that the entire history of Israel is but an example and a warning, and that the Church is ‘the real deal,’ the fulfillment of His intentions! We must let the warning speak, so that those with ears to hear might understand, and be saved:
Rescued by God from a life of Egyptian slavery, Israel was birthed under holy fires atop Mount Sinai, given laws and land, yet became wealthy, complacent, and compromised. The Lord sent prophets, but to no avail, and foreign armies, but with no success. Imitation of the nations around became Israel’s norm, and only token resistance made by priests and king. Finally, the Father of Israel made the agonizing decision to prune from his vine all those people with a poisoned heart; only a stub was left, a remnant sustained by grace and mercy alone.
And now, the Church. Not victorious as we imagine. Not the ‘agents of glory’ we suppose ourselves to be. Like Israel, the Church suffers from her own success; accepted by the world, she has become idolatrous, compromised, and rejected by God. This is a hard thought to think. Perhaps only the remnant understands. For there is a remnant of true believers in apostate Christianity, just as there was a remnant in Israel. The Lord’s word endures, and will be fulfilled upon the return of Messiah—but not before, and not through human effort.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
It was not within the remnants’ power to return themselves to Jerusalem. In one night, the mighty kingdom of Babylon was overthrown (Daniel 5:30, 31), and a way was opened for the people of God to repossess their city. So will it be for this current remnant, the survivors of apostate Christianity. Though we are detained for a while in Babylon, it is not and will never be our home. We know not when, but suddenly Messiah will return, Babylon will be defeated, New Jerusalem will descend, and the remnant will at last possess their inheritance.
In Part 2 of this series I will examine the remnant in Church history to the present, outline characteristics of remnant believers, and examine the current Church idolatries they must actively resist.