The Letter to the Romans



37. Remnant of Israel


Romans 11:1-6

In Romans 11 Paul looks ahead to the future of Israel. In chapter 10 he examined how God brought the Gentiles into His covenant and how God used the Gentiles' inclusion in His promises to make the hardened Israelites envious. Now Paul returns to the subject of Israel's apostasy and rejection and examines God's intention for these people He formed.

He leads by asking, "Did God reject his people?"

Paul answers his own question with the forceful declaration, "By no means!"

Since prophecy foretold over and over that God would punish Israel and abandon them to their wickedness if they persisted in unbelief, Paul's assertion seems contradictory. Yet there are also prophecies that God would not utterly abandon and reject His people.

Leviticus 26:44 contains such a promise. Following a declaration of God's intent for Israel and a detailed explanation of what would happen to them and their land if they disobeyed, there appears a promise. When they are in the land of their enemies, God states in a recognition that they would certainly be taken captive, "I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them," God declared. Long before their ultimate betrayal of Jesus, Israel had received the promise that God would not eternally reject them.

Years later, after Israel clamored for a king and finally realized what an affront their desire had been to God, they begged Samuel to intercede for them. Samuel responded that they and their king would indeed be "swept away" if they continued to do evil, yet he also stated that God would not reject His people. This constancy was not because of Israel's deserving it; it was for the sake of God's name.

Still later, David reiterated the confidence that those whom God disciplines are blessed. The Lord, David said, will not reject His people or forsake His inheritance. He ultimately will restore judgment founded on righteousness (Psalm 95:12-15).

In Jeremiah 31, in the same chapter where God reveals His promise of the New Covenant, He said that He would only if the heavens and the foundation of the earth could be measured would He ever reject all the descendants of Israel (Jeremiah 31:37). Later, in chapter 34, Jeremiah again spoke for God. Only if God has NOT covenanted with the day and the night and fixed the laws of heaven and earth, the Lord says, would he reject the descendants of Jacob and David. "I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them," He declares (Jeremiah 34:23-26).


Not Rejected: Foreknown

Paul now expands on his declaration that God did not reject His people. Again he brings up the idea of God's foreknowledge. He is saying in verse two that although Israel apostatized, God did not utterly reject them all; rather, He saved and is saving all those whom He foreknew. The nation as a corporate body may have rejected Jesus its Messiah, but within the mass apostasy are people who did believe. Not only so, there will be people from Israel who will yet believe, and these are the people whom God foreknew.

We know from the context of verse 1 that Paul is, in this case, specifically referring to Israelites, not to Gentile believers. He is saying that just as in Elijah's day, when it appeared to the prophet that there were no faithful Israelites left, God still has people whom He has chosen and foreknown from among the Israelites. Verse two is reminiscent of Romans 8:29 where Paul talks about those God foreknew to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. Those He foreknew, in this case those Jews whom He foreknew, he chose before creation of the world to be holy and blameless. He adopted them as sons through Jesus to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:4-6). These foreknown ones He called to live holy lives because of His purpose and grace which was given to them before the beginning of time but was not revealed until Jesus came and brought 'Life and immortality to light" (2 Timothy 1:8-10).

Paul is here affirming that there are Jews whom God foreknew, and He has not completely rejected His people. He is saving all those He called before creation, and the ranks of the called include Jews who might not yet appear to be responding to their predestining call.


Moses, Elijah, and Jesus

In verses 2-4, Paul refers to Elijah's experience of complaining to God that Israel had apostatized, and he alone remained faithful. Even then God reminded Elijah that He had preserved 7,000 faithful Israelites. The story occurs in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

A closer look at this story of Elijah reveals some similarities and contrasts between his experiences and those of Moses and also of Jesus.

In the 1 Kings story, Elijah became terrified when he heard that Jezebel had promised to kill him. He ran to the desert where he collapsed under a tree, and an angel awoke him and gave him bread and water. Again Elijah slept, and again the angel awoke him and said, "Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you" (1 Kings 19:7). After eating, Elijah was strengthened. He "traveled forty day and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night" (1 Kings 19:8-9).

The rest of the story is familiar. The Lord came to Elijah and asked him what he was doing there. Elijah responded that he had been zealous for God, but everyone except him had apostatized, and now they were trying to kill him too.

God had Elijah observe a raging wind that shattered the rocks, and earthquake, and a fire, but God was not in those things. Finally Elijah heard God in a gentle whisper, and he hid his face and went to the mouth of the cave.

Again God asked why he was there, and again Elijah gave the same answer. God told Elijah to return the way he had come and to anoint new people to take the thrones of Israel and Aram, and also to anoint Elisha to succeed himself as prophet.

Mt. Horeb, Elijah's destination after 40 days and nights of travel, is another name for Mt. Sinai. God strengthened him for his 40-day desert journey, but there is no indication that God asked him to go to Horeb.

Years before, Moses had spent 40 days and 40 nights on that same mountain-twice. He spent 40 days inside the cloud of God's presence both times he received the stone tablets of the covenant: the first copy which he broke upon seeing Israel's apostasy to the golden calf, and the replacement set which God gave him.

In both cases God sustained these men supernaturally. In Moses' case, however, his purpose on the mountain was clear: God asked him to come to receive the terms of His covenant with Israel. In Elijah's case, he arrived at the mountain of the Lord as an act of fear and self-pity.

Years before, Moses had pleaded with God to intercede for Israel when they sinned. Now, Elijah essentially tells God that the covenant He had begun with Israel at this very place had failed. The text notes on this passage in the NIV Study Bible yield an interesting insight. The symbolism of the wind, earthquake, and fire seem to be acknowledging Elijah's desire for God to avenge both of them and to punish Israel, but God only reveals Himself through the quiet whisper that tells Elijah to go back. Punishment would not come yet; Elijah had work to do, and God would appoint new leadership.

Another interesting insight is that even though God revealed Himself to Elijah through dramatic symbols and the still, small voice, Elijah did not change his attitude. When God asked him a second time why he was there, his answer was the same as the first time, indicating he had not understood the divine revelation he had just observed.

In the cases of both Moses and Elijah, Mt Sinai/Horeb was the site of God renewing or re-affirming His covenant with the spiritual leaders of a disobedient Israel. It was the site of God's supernatural preservation and intervention on behalf of His chosen leader. Even though Moses and Elijah displayed different attitudes toward Israel-Moses begged for God's mercy, Elijah pleaded for his own vindication and Israel's punishment-God nonetheless reiterated His sovereignty over the people, proclaimed His mercy, and strengthened His leaders for their work. The men's level of personal faith did not affect God's faithfulness.

This Sinai desert was also the place of Israel's 40 years of desert wandering during which God miraculously sustained them, disciplined them, and tested them to reveal the condition of their hearts. Deuteronomy 8:1-5 summarizes those years, and verse two reminds Israel, "Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands." Verse 5 concludes, "Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you."

The forty years for Israel and the forty days and night for Elijah were times of discipline and also times of miraculous intervention and sustenance. The two sets of forty days for Moses were also times of God's strengthening and instruction as He told Moses what He expected of Israel and established His covenant with them.

Years later, after His baptism when the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, God miraculously sustained Him through 40 days and nights of fasting followed by angelic intervention. During this nearly crushing bout with Satan, Jesus demonstrated that He was the perfect Israel. He flawlessly withstood the overwhelming temptations Satan brought upon Him. He did perfectly what neither Moses, Elijah, or the nation of Israel had been able to do. Moses had lost his temper and broken the tables of the covenant following his first 40 days on Sinai. Elijah had run to Horeb to hide and to feel sorry for himself. Israel had grumbled and complained, completely giving in to self-indulgent whining and discontent. In spite of God's provision, these prototypes had failed to be what God desired them to be.

Jesus, however, was the perfect Israel. He endured His temptation after 40 days and nights of fasting, and he countered Satan's claims with the word of God. He honored the Father and defeated the subtle temptations with truth. He did not decry Satan's lack of respect for Him as Elijah had decried Israel's attitude toward himself and God. He did not lose His temper and attempt to punish Satan by arrogantly trying to withdraw God's promises and mercy as Moses had done by breaking the tablets. Neither did he whine or complain to God about the misery he was enduring in the desert.

On the contrary, Jesus' entire response to His temptations was to honor and exalt the Father. He upheld the word of God and used it as a sword to pierce the subtle illogic of Satan's deception.

Jesus did what Israel could not do; he was consistently obedient to God and honored Him in spite of subtle temptation to honor a false god. As the Second Moses He did what the first Moses could not do; He kept covenant with God and did not bow to self-indulgent anger. As the ultimate revelation of God's will and word to Israel, he did what Israel's prototypical prophet could not do: He recognized Satan's attack as an attack on God Himself and exposed his deception by speaking the Truth of God's word.

Jesus fulfilled all of God's intentions for Israel through His own life. Not only did Jesus redeem us from sin's curse by His death, but His life redeemed our lives and the lives of God's people from the beginning of time. He was the Perfect Israel.


Israel: Elijah's Day and Paul's

Paul refers to Elijah's Mt. Horeb experience to draw his point about contemporary Israel. Elijah was convinced that all Israel had abandoned God for idols and were finally turning on him, the only one left who honored God. God reminded him, essentially, not to take himself quite so seriously. First, the issue was not Elijah; the issue was Israel's relationship with God. Second, God revealed to Elijah that he had "reserved for [himself] seven thousand who [had] not bowed the knee to Baal."

The comparison Paul is making is that during Elijah's tenure as the prophet of Israel, the nation was nearly completely in apostasy. Those who retained loyalty to God were not visible to anyone but God. Even Elijah, who had the gift of prophetic sight, did not know they existed. God, however, had sovereignly "reserved" for Himself 7,000 people who were loyal to Him.

Even so, Paul is saying, God has reserved a remnant from Israel who will honor Him. Although the nation and its leaders officially rejected Jesus, God has not eradicated the race from His plan. There is still a remnant who will accept the new birth and become true children of God. These people may not be visible to the watching world, but God knows them, and He has chosen them from eternity.

The contrast between Elijah's time and the time of Paul is that the Messiah has already come. The destination for the remnant has already been revealed: new creations born of God. The Jews of Elijah's day rejected God without a personal revelation of Him; Elijah took the rejection personally because he had been appointed to deliver God's word and to intercede for the nation. The Jews of Paul's day had rejected the incarnate Son of God. Their rejection was not merely of a God who revealed Himself through prophets, laws, and signs; they rejected the living Person of Jesus. They rejected the Promise for which the nation had been waiting for centuries. Even so, God has preserved for Himself a remnant who will ultimately honor Him.


The remnant

Many of us grew up with the understanding that we, as part of "the true church", were the remnant of God. We would inherit the blessings promised to the remnant. We even called ourselves "the remnant church of Bible prophecy". The prophecies to Israel, we believed, had been conditional upon their obedience. When they failed to recognize and accept Jesus, they turned their backs of God's promises, and His blessings now rested on our "true church" that keeps His commandments and has the spirit of prophecy embodied in the prophet Ellen White.

Because of our early firm beliefs in God's rejection of Israel as a nation and of our own special status as His chose remnant, we need to look closely at what the Bible defines as "the remnant".

The Old Testament is full of references to a remnant from Israel that God would save-and sometimes, even that He would not spare. Jeremiah 44:11-14 gives God's pronouncement upon the "remnant of Judah who had escaped to Egypt to avoid capture by Babylon. God had told His people, through Jeremiah, that they were to stay in the land of their captivity, and He would prosper them and return them to their homeland. He specifically forbade them from going to Egypt and warned that He would not protect them there. Once there, while they waited to return to Judah, they became involved in worshiping the Egyptian deities and refused to stop.

Through Jeremiah God told them, "I will take away the remnant who were determined to go to Judah to settle there. They will perish in Egypt and die by the sword."

In this case the remnant is a small number of surviving Jews from Judah, but in contrast to many other instances, in this case God is saying He will not spare this remnant because of their deliberate disobedience.

Later, in Jeremiah 50:18-20, God promises to punish the king of Babylon as He punished the king of Assyria earlier. He also promises to restore and save Israel. He says in Jeremiah 50:18-20: "In those days a search will be made for Israel's guilt" and "for the sins of Judah [reference to both the northern and southern kingdoms], but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare."

This promise specifically foretold Israel's return to their own land, but it also has a more far-reaching fulfillment as well.

Isaiah 10:20-22 declares a promise of hope but also of tragedy. In "that day", God says through the prophet, the survivors of the house of Jacob, a remnant of Israel, "will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the Lorda remnant will returnthough your people, O Israel, be like the sand by the sea, only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming and righteous. The Lord, the Lord Almighty, will carry out the destruction decreed upon the whole land. "

Like most of the promises of God's discipline and restoration of Israel, this one also has multiple fulfillments. The immediate sense of the prophecy was that God would deliver a remnant of Israel from the power of the Assyrians. They would "no longer rely on him who struck them down." In other words, they would no longer be at the mercy of the Assyrian king for their livelihood and survival because God would deliver them.

God promised that a remnant would survive the Assyrian invasion, and, in fact, Hezekiah did lead a faithful remnant to survival through that dark time. Later, a remnant of faithful Israelites returned to the land from Babylonian exile.

Paul picks up the prophetic references to a remnant, and he now uses the word to suggest that God is still preserving and will deliver a faithful remnant from among Israel even though the nation is darkened in apostasy and is far from God because of their rejection of Jesus. The "remnant" to whom Paul refers is a core of believing Jews whom God has preserved for Himself.


The Remnant in the New Testament

Paul's reference to the "remnant" in Romans 11:5 is one of three times the word is used in the New Testament. The other two times are in Romans 9:27 and in Acts 15:16-17. The reference in Acts 15 is a quote from Amos 9:11-12 where God promises that God will restore David's fallen tent that the "remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name."

The original passage in Amos reads like this: "In that day I will restore David's fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name, declares the Lord, who will do these things."

When Amos delivered this promise he didn't stress the Gentiles bearing God's name as did Barnabas and Paul as they reported to the church leaders in Jerusalem after returning from their missionary journey to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas saw that God had included the Gentiles in salvation, and they understood that the Gentiles becoming part of God's people was fulfilling the promise in Amos. Amos had used the word "remnant" to describe what was left of Israel's avowed enemy-Edom. He was describing Gentile nations becoming believing nations possessed by David's "fallen tent".

David's "fallen tent" was either referring to the united Israel, all twelve tribes which had been divided and scattered, or it referred to David's royal descendant whom God had promised would reign forever.

When Paul refers to this prophecy he emphasizes the veiled but implicit message of the original: when God restored David's fallen tent, when He established the royal priesthood promised to David and fulfilled in Jesus, there would be a remnant-a divinely protected and called core of Gentiles who would be awakened and would "seek the Lord" and bear His name.

In this instance-both in Amos and in Acts-the word "remnant" refers to God's chosen and protected Gentiles who would become part of His people. In contrast, most of the references to "remnant" in the Old Testament referred to a divinely protected and chosen group of Israelites who did not apostatize but whom God would eventually restore and draw to Himself.

In Romans 9:27, Paul's reference to "remnant" is again a quotation from the Old Testament, this time from Isaiah 10:22-23. In Isaiah the word "remnant" refers to a chosen, protected cluster of Israelites whom God would restore and return after both the Assyrian invasion and the Babylonian exile. The Isaiah passage also had a Messianic overtone. In Romans 9 Paul refers to this prophecy and shows that the time has come for viewing this Isaiah prophecy through the lens of Messianic fulfillment. God has already spared His remnant from Assyria, from Babylon, and even from other attacks foretold in Daniel and carried out during the inter-testamental period. Now he declares that although Israel's numbers have become "like the sand by the sea," as God promised Abraham, only a "remnant will be saved."

Now the last words of Isaiah's prophecy point toward a fulfillment which the Old Testament prophets and Israelites could not have seen clearly: God's final sentence on the earth which will occur when Jesus returns again. In the Old Testament, the Messiah's two appearings were shrouded in mystery. Israel knew to expect a Redeemer, but they did not understand that He would first come as a human baby and then come again as King of kings and Lord of Lords. The context of a remnant of Israel being saved now has eschatological implications. The prophecy is not just saying God will rescue a remnant from their dispersion or oppression, but it is suggesting that God has preserved and called a remnant of Israel who will be saved from the final destruction of the earth.

In other words, Israel's rejection of Jesus as the Messiah has not negated God's promises to the nation or to the patriarchs (see Romans 11:28-29). God has still kept for Himself a remnant of Israel whom He is saving.

In Romans 11:5 Paul again refers to a "remnant chosen by grace" whom he compares to the 7,000 God had preserved in Israel during the time of Ahab and Elijah. The remnant of 7,000 was hidden among the nation, and Elijah did not know of their existence until God told him. Paul uses that historical experience to explain God's similar preservation of a remnant He has chosen in New Covenant times.

The three references to "a remnant" in the New Testament explain who and what it is. It is composed of both Gentiles and Jews who believe God's promises and bear His name. It is a group of people whom God has chosen and preserved and prepared for salvation.

In the Old Testament "the remnant" referred primarily to a small core of people who retained their loyalty to God and whom He rescued and restored. They were His true people among the large multitude who claimed Him but did not serve Him.

In the New Testament the concept of "remnant" is not a recurring theme. Its three uses show that the remnant is composed of Jews and Gentiles who honor God and whom God called and preserves for inclusion among His people and for salvation. The reason "remnant" is not a New Covenant concept is that in Jesus, salvation has become a present reality, not just a promise.

By opening a new, living way to the Father with His blood, Jesus has made it possible for people to be born from above by the Holy Spirit. When a person accepts Jesus' gift of life, death, and resurrection to cover their own sinfulness, he becomes a new creation by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This reality is salvation. A born-again person is seated with Jesus at the Father's right hand. This spiritual birth is the first installment of the fulfillment of God's promises to redeem and rescue His remnant throughout the ages.

Israel understood being rescued from conquering enemies. Now God's people understand being rescued from the bondage of their own inherent sin. A remnant is preserved for future use, but when it is finally incorporated into that future project, it is no longer defined as a remnant.

For example, if a seamstress purchases a remnant of fabric, she buys a piece of cloth that is left after the rest of the bolt is gone. It is all that remains of what was once a complete piece of fabric. Once she sews that remnant into a garment, however, it is no longer defined as a "remnant". It has become something greater than it could have been on its own as a remaining fragment; it is defined as a "dress" or a "suit"-a lovely creation unique to the original remnant.

Similarly, in the new covenant God's remnant become transformed into His original purpose for them: born-again children of God. As God's true children, they can no longer be identified as a remnant, a remaining people chosen and waiting for some greater purpose. They have been incorporated into God's eternal purpose.

In the New Testament God's faithful people are called the "church", not the "remnant". The church-those bearing the indwelling Spirit of God-is the fulfillment of the purpose for God's chosen remnant. To combine these terms as many of us were taught to do (i.e. "We are part of God's 'remnant church'", or "We are the 'remnant church' of Bible prophecy") is an oxymoron at best and a heresy at worst. The remnant is saved to become new creations, part of God's people who are saved, born of the Spirit, and ultimately glorified with Him. There can be no "remnant" from the church, because unlike the nation of Israel, God's New Covenant people are spiritually born of God and are eternally secure in Him. Once a person is born of God, he cannot be "unborn".

In the Old Testament, the remnant was a handful of people who retained their loyalty to God. In the New Testament, the "remnant" people are the church, those who are born again. The name "remnant" no longer applies because they have become what they were being saved to become. When Paul uses the term "remnant" to say there is still a remnant of Israel, he is using this term in the context of the fact that Israel has been hardened for a time until the full number of Gentiles comes in (Romans 11:25). Among Israel, God is still preserving a remnant who will become true children of Abraham, born of the Spirit and adopted as children of God.

Among humanity in general, however, God's "remnant" has become the beautiful creation that it was preserved to become. It can no longer be called a "remnant" because it is no longer unfulfilled but valuable "raw material". Just as a remnant of fabric is no longer a "remnant" when it is sewn into a classic gown, so the remnant people are no longer a "remnant" when they have been born into God's family by the Holy Spirit.


Faithfulness and sovereign choice

The remnant God has preserved are those who have been faithful to God and who were called and foreknown by God from eternity. These two apparent contradictions are both taught in Scripture. Righteousness comes through faith in Christ to all who believe in Him, Romans 3:22-24 declares. At the same time, all have sinned and are out of relationship with God in their natural state. In such a state, faith in Christ is not humanly possible. Because of the redemption that came through Jesus, however, we are justified freely by His grace. In other words, our coming to faith is 100% God's work in us to which we respond with surrender.

Further, Romans 4:4-8 explains that the man who does not work-who does not try to please God to win salvation-but trusts God instead is "credited" as righteous. God's promises come to us by faith so our salvation may be entirely by grace, not at all because of our effort. This righteousness through faith by grace is guaranteed to all Abraham's descendants, and Abraham, in God's sight, is the father of all of us who trust God and believe in Jesus. This divinely decreed inheritance as Abraham's sons, even if we are not descended genetically from Abraham's gene pool, is part of the miracle of God's sovereignty. He is the One who "calls things that are not as though they were" (Romans 4:16-17).

God's sovereign decree, appointment, foreknowledge, and predestination are all at work in the appointment of Abraham's descendants. His reveals Himself to us, and His Spirit softens our hearts so we can accept His righteousness by faith in Jesus. God's choice and our response are inextricably interwoven-yet both are at work, and both have their own eternal consequences.

In Ephesians 2:4-8 Paul says that God made us alive in Him "when we were dead in sin". Our spirits were hopelessly doomed and cut off from life in God, yet while we were in that condition, God brought our spirits to life by His Spirit. He doesn't stop there, either. He "raised us up" and seated us in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. These divine acts are through none of our own efforts. In fact, Paul emphasizes that grace is given to each one of us "as Christ apportioned it". The grace we are given is shaped and determined by Jesus Himself.

The truth of the gospel leads to godliness. This truth rests on the hope of eternal life which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time (Titus 1:2). Further, this truth includes the reality that God's grace is sufficient for all we need. His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). From the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another. The grace includes the truth of the new covenant which Jesus revealed. The law came through Moses, John said, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 16-17).



God is calling you to realize your fulfillment in Him as part of the remnant He has chosen. Let go of your feelings of "specialness" related to having "present truth" or more revealed truth the rest of the world does not have. God is asking your to surrender your identity and accept His gift of atonement for your sin. You're not being preserved for a future reality as the remnant of Israel were. Rather, your are now being called to accept the present reality of new birth in Christ.

Your legacy as God's child is not that of a "remnant". On the contrary, you are chosen to experience the reality of being made new, transformed into something of which the remnant could only dream but never imagine.

When you admit your inherent sin and hopelessness and accept Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection as your redemption, you will become part of the church created by God's indwelling Spirit and composed of new creations who are alive eternally through Christ.

You are called not just to wait for something promised for the future; you are called to become now what God foreordained from creation. You are called to become God's child and heir along with Jesus.

Give up your feelings of entitlement generated by your "unique" understanding of the law and the Sabbath and the supposed great controversy. Let Jesus alone define your theology and remake you. Surrender yourself to His identity; let go of your ideas of who you are. Discover the astonishing new reality of life in Jesus.

Jesus calls you to victory and freedom and peace in Him. He calls you to the confidence of knowing He has chosen you and had claimed you for Himself for eternity. He calls you to the work He has prepared in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10).

Praise God for the mystery of Christ in us. Praise Jesus for bringing life and immortality to light. Praise the Holy Spirit for sealing us, guaranteeing our resurrection, and interceding for us.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Copyright (c) 2006 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 21, 2006.
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