Although one is hard-pressed to even find the word "remnant" in the index
of many fine theologies, of dispensational orientation or otherwise, the
theology of remnant is crucial to a proper understanding of the
relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers. The concept of
remnant is studded throughout the Scripture, both Old and New
Testaments, and has direct bearing on no less imposing a subject than
the very faithfulness of God.
Definition of Main Terms
The concept of remnant can be Biblically
defined as that continuous portion, be it
large or small, of the community of
ethnic Israel which has been
supernaturally preserved and redeemed
through various divine judgments
throughout various dispensations. This
preservation is on account of Godís
sovereign choice, or election, and not by
virtue of human effort. Although not
selected for salvation on the basis of
merit, the remnant does, however,
necessarily exhibit faith in the object of
Godís provision and will receive ample
future divine blessing.2 Those Jews who
exhibit saving faith are called the
remnant of Israel and are a continuous
and distinct subset within the nation (see figure 1).
Jewishness is defined Biblically as being a member of the nation of
Israel, i.e., a physical descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If one is
a physical descendent of these three patriarchs, then he is irrevocably
Jewish. Oneís particular religion has no bearing on Jewishness; one can
believe or not believe anything and that would not change Jewish status.
Biblically, Jewishness is a matter of birth not faith, genealogy not
theology, blood not beliefs.
Israel is defined as the nation of ethnic Jews, descendants of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, chosen for eternity as a particular people by God at
Sinai. If one is a physical descendant of these three patriarchs, then by
Biblical definition he is irrevocably part of the nation of Israel.
The Remnant in Relation to Judaism
According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, there is within Judaism a parallel
theological concept of "remnant of Israel" (shearith Israel) which denotes
the belief that a faithful remnant would survive whatever divine
catastrophic judgments were brought upon the community because of its
disobedience. Shearith Israel is a popular name for synagogues, and a
daily prayer is said for God to guard and protect this remnant of Israel.
Seemingly every zealous sect throughout the history of Israel, often
simultaneously and competitively, has seen or views itself today as the
righteous remnant of Jewish believers, true Israel. The Essenes of
Qumran considered themselves the true remnant, as did their
contemporaries, the Pharisees, and as do the varying sects within
Orthodox and Chasidic Judaism today.
The Theme of Remnant in the Old Testament
The theology of remnant is strewn throughout both testaments and is an
essential yet often overlooked aspect of Godís program for Jew and
Gentile in every dispensation, but particularly in this present age. It can be
maintained that from the very beginning of His relationship with His
creation, the Lordís activity is primarily devoted to the salvation and
sustenance of a series of preserved remnants from various faithless and
disobedient segments of humanity who have undergone various
cataclysmic judgments and disasters. God has always chosen to save
and primarily work with remnants. The pattern of Godís choice from the
general to the particular is played out repeatedly in Scripture.
- Noah ó Noahís family was a faithful remnant supernaturally
preserved through a divine cataclysm on the basis of divine
- Abraham ó From out of all the nations God sovereignly and
graciously chose Abraham with whom to make an unprecedented
covenant (Gen. 12:1-3).
- Lot ó Lotís family was a faithful remnant supernaturally preserved
through a divine cataclysm on the basis of divine grace (Gen.
- Isaac ó Abraham had two sons, but only one was sovereignly and
graciously chosen as a child of promise (Gen. 17:19).
- Jacob ó Isaac had twin sons, but only one was sovereignly and
graciously chosen as a child of promise (Gen. 28:13-15).
- Joseph ó Joseph was sovereignly and graciously chosen in order
to save the family of Israel from disaster (Gen. 45:7).
A remnant of Israel was sovereignly preserved from divine
judgment following the young nationís apostasy at Sinai (Ex. 32).
Caleb and Joshua were the only members of the Exodus
generation to enter the land of promise, following divine judgment
- Moses prophesies to Israel that when following eventual divine
judgment, a remnant will be sovereignly and graciously preserved
and will return to the land (Deut. 30:1-10).
- Elijah was reminded that the Lord had sovereignly and graciously
preserved 7,000 Israelites who had not apostasized (1 Kings
Upon the divine judgment of Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Lord
sovereignly and graciously preserved a remnant from the northern
tribes (Ezek. 37:19).
- Upon the divine judgment of Babylonian exile, the Lord sovereignly
and graciously preserved a remnant from the southern tribes and
oversaw their return to their land (Zech. 8:5).
- God has sovereignly and graciously called a remnant from Israel to
receive salvation through the Messiah (Rom. 11:5).
- God has sovereignly and graciously called a remnant from the
nations as His people to receive salvation through the Messiah
- Upon the divine judgment of the Roman dispersion, the Lord
sovereignly and graciously preserved a remnant of Jews.
During the divine cataclysmic judgment of the Tribulation, the Lord
will sovereignly and graciously preserve a remnant (Rev. 7:4).
Ray Pritz has provided a cogent analysis of the Old Testament remnant
of Israel concept in relation to the Messiah. He sees a remnant cycle
consisting of divine judgment and the interweaving of divine preservation
of the remnant with the coming divine agent, the Messiah. This
connection can most clearly be seen throughout the prophet Isaiah,
particularly in the section known as the "Book of Immanuel" (Isaiah 7-12),
as well as several other prophetic passages (Jer. 23:3-6, Micah 4-5 et
al.). In this remnant cycle, judgment is sovereignly determined on
account of Israelís disobedience, yet the promise of sovereign
intervention and eventual restoration on behalf of a faithful remnant within
Israel provides hope. While it is the faithful of Israel whom God chooses
to include within the preserved remnant, their faithfulness results from
Godís gracious choice.
Godís choice of the remnant generally has wider repercussions and
benefits for the unbelieving remainder of the nation. The Bible indicates
that it is on behalf of the remnant that God preserves the nation of Israel
(Is. 65:8). It may even be argued that in addition to the sovereign
outworking of His prophetic plan, one reason Israel has been restored
and preserved in this century as a nation state is for the sake of the
righteous remnant of Jewish believers enjoying the privilege of residing
The Theme of Remnant in the New Testament
The great theme of remnant in the Hebrew Scripture finds specific
reference within the New Testament. Although the actual word for
remnant, leimma, only appears twice (Rom 9:27; 11:5), the New
Testament is replete with inferences to the concept of Godís gracious
preservation of a remnant of Israel.
The concept of the remnant of Israel first surfaces prominently within the
teaching of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9) where he indicates that simply
being the physical seed of Abraham, ethnic Israel, is insufficient for
personal salvation. Faith and repentance are also necessary ingredients.
This theme is further developed by Paul in Romans 2:28-29. He indicates
that there is a subset of Israel within the nation of Israel. He goes on to
indicate that, in fact, although the nation in its entirety is obviously and
intrinsically the physical seed of Abraham, in other words, Jewish, not
every individual Jew is considered by God to be the authentic spiritual
seed of Abraham as well.
This is not to say that Paul is indicating that believing Gentiles are some
sort of "true Israel." This concept is never indicated in Scripture. Believing
Gentiles are only the spiritual seed of Abraham, not the physical seed as
well. Paul is describing a purely Jewish phenomenon within the nation of
Israel. He is contrasting Jews who believe and Jews who do not believe.
He is saying that there is a subset of true Israel within the whole of Israel.
As Zaretsky notes, "Each individual Israelite needed faith to participate in
Godís blessing. Physical birth alone could provide only biological life."
Not every Jew is a member of the remnant of Israel. Paul is setting up the
argument which he will further develop in Romans 11, that Jewish
believers in Jesus comprise the current remnant of Israel.
In Romans 3:1-3, Paul asks two "teaser" questions which he will answer
in Romans 9-11. He asks and partially answers, completely in the
affirmative, whether in this present age there is any advantage to being
Jewish. He says there are many advantages, but only lists one, that of
being entrusted with the transmission of Godís revelation. The remainder
of the list of advantages await chapter 9. The second "teaser" question
Paul poses is whether the faithfulness of God is invalidated by Jewish
unbelief in Jesus. The answer to this question awaits his exposition in
In the first 5 verses of Romans 9, Paul continues to answer the question
posed in 3:1-3; specifically, what are current privileges of Israelís national
election? Paul has already answered that there are many privileges, but
has only listed one. Now he enumerates them. In addition to being the
channels of Godís revelation, the Jews are the national, firstborn son of
God; witnesses of the manifest glory of God in the Temple; recipients of
four unconditional covenants, which, among other blessings, grant
perpetual title to the land of Israel; recipients of one conditional covenant,
the Torah; a kingdom of Godís priests; recipients of divine messianic and
national kingdom promises; possessors of a rich genealogical pedigree
which courses back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and the well-spring of
the Messiah Himself.
Yet with all these ongoing privileges, the majority of Jews did not respond.
This might seem peculiar for those less familiar with Israelís history. Paul
calls the unbelieving Jewish people his family (9:3) and expresses
anguish at their state of unbelief (1-2). Yet Jewish unbelief should not be
entirely unexpected. Paul again takes up the continued potency of Godís
faithfulness by teaching that it is unnecessary for every individual Jew to
believe, because God has called to Himself a remnant from within Israel
by His sovereign and gracious choice. He returns to the point he made in
chapter 2:28-29, that physical descent from Abraham is insufficient.
Physical and spiritual descent are both necessary for membership in
true, authentic Israel (9:6-7).
Following an illustration of the insufficiency of physical descent from
Abraham alone by citing the choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over
Esau (9:7-13), it is in verse 9:27, quoting the prophet Isaiah (10:22), that
Paul uses for the first time that to which his exposition on Israel had been
leading, the word, remnant, thereby linking his teaching with the Old
Testamentís theology of remnant.
Romans 11 provides the climax of Paulís explanatory argument of
proving the faithfulness of God to Israel via the preservation of a remnant.
Paul is careful to refer to national Israel as Godís people (Rom. 11:1-2).
He asks whether God has rejected His people, Israel. The question is
phrased in such a grammatical fashion as to illicit an immediate
emphatic negative answer. A response such as, "Are you kidding? No
way!!! Israel, even unbelieving Israel, remains Godís chosen people. Do I
stutter? For I myself, an Israelite, am exhibit A."
In all, Paul provides four temporal reasons why Israel as a nation has not
been divinely rejected: one timeless reason, as well as one reason each
from past and present experience and future expectation.
The timeless reason is Godís previous election of national Israel.
Godís sovereign foreknowledge, by definition, sustains His choices
The reason from the present is the salvation of Paul himself (Rom.
11:1). If God had rejected Israel, what was he, with a less than
stellar track record regarding the church, doing here? "If there is
even one faithful Israelite, then God can be said to be faithful to his
The reason from the past is that God has always worked with a
remnant of Israel. Paul builds this case on the example of Elijah (1
Kings 19:18). Jewish believers are simply the latest manifestation
of this phenomenon. There is intensive continuity between
consecutive remnant stages throughout the history of Israel. There
is always a faithful remnant of Israel, large or small, majority or
minority, to sustain the nation (Rom. 11:3-4).
The reason from the future is that Paulís high expectation of Jewish
response to the gospel through the Gentiles indicates that God is
still actively working with Israel (Rom. 11:11-15).
Paul uses the olive tree (see figure
2) to magnificently illustrate his point
(Rom 11:16-24). The tree itself
should be identified as the traditional
dispensational "place of blessing", or
better, "Godís household" (Eph.
2:19), or better still, if clumsier, "a
saving programÖbased on Israelís
covenants."7 The roots which
nourish the tree are the
unconditional covenants given to
Israel, prominently, the Abrahamic
Covenant from which the other
covenants flow. There are three
types of branches, two of which are
natural, one of which is unnatural.
The natural branches both represent
ethnic Israel, one branch of which is
the believing remnant, the other, the
unbelieving majority. The unbelieving Jewish branches are broken off
(see figure 3). The believing Jewish branches remain. Unnatural
branches, representing believing Gentiles, are grafted into the tree, Godís
place of blessing, His covenantal saving program. The believing Jewish
and Gentile branches adhere to the tree by means of faith in Messiah.
He warns the Gentile branches not
to boast against the Jewish
branches that were cut off through
their unbelief. Those branches are
currently being "stored in water,"
kept moist for sovereign reinclusion
at a later date (see figure 4). The
tree is certainly roomy enough for
every branch. It neednít be stressed
that recently engrafted Gentile
branches need only look across the
tree to see the mighty, ancient
Jewish branches of the remnant
which for millennia have been
developing on the tree, original
recipients of the rich covenantal
Paul provides the reason for the
unnatural branchesí recent inclusion in the tree. Gentiles have been
saved in order to provoke unbelieving Jews to jealousy (Rom. 11:11-15).
Godís cycle of evangelism is here laid out: Jews stumble in unbelief,
therefore Gentiles respond to God, Gentiles provoke Jews, therefore
Jews respond to God. A win/win situation is created, and Godís
faithfulness to His covenant people is vindicated before the cosmos. The
olive tree of Rom. 11:16-24 is the most detailed functional illustration in
Scripture of the relationship of the Church to Israel and Gentile believers
to Jewish believers.
Ephesians 3:6 (also 2:11-19)
explains that one of the mysteries of
the church is that believing Gentiles
are co-heirs and co-participants with
believing Israel (the remnant) of the
Abrahamic Covenantís spiritual
blessings. These blessings are
relationship with God, salvation
through Messiah and union with Him
through the Spirit. Paul is sharing
that believing Gentiles have been
raised to the spiritual status of
believing Israel and now share in
many (but not all) of their privileges.
Together, believing Jews and
believing Gentiles are members of a
newly created community which
transcends yet does not eradicate
their national or historical
distinctions, nor their social and sexual distinctions (Gal. 3:28).
Paulís theology of remnant is seen again in Galatians 6:15-16. After again
noting that the church is mysteriously a new creation of God composed
of believing ethnic Jews and Gentiles (see also Eph. 2:15), he then
contrasts the Jewish remnant with the Gentile believers by referring to the
former as the "Israel of God." This is the only such specific reference in
Scripture, but is, as has been seen, far from the sole reference to the
Together, Rom. 11, Eph. 2:11-19, 3:6, Gal. 3:28, 6:15-16 demonstrate
that Paul views the maintenance of separate cultural identities as
essential to proving the supernaturally unifying nature of Christís work.
1. Meyer, Lester V. "Remnant." Anchor Bible Dictionary. vol. 5: p670
2. Schrenk, G. "Leimma." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed.
Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. one vol. ed. 1985
3. "Remnant of Israel." Encyclopedia Judaica. vol.14: p70
4. Pritz, Ray A. "The Remnant of Israel and the Messiah." Israel the Land and the
People. Ed. H. Wayne House. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. pp61-73
5. Zaretsky, Tuvya. "Israel the People." Israel the Land and the People. Ed. H.
Wayne House. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. p45
6. Pritz p71
7. Burns, J. Lanier. "The Future of Ethnic Israel in Romans 11."
Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church. Eds. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L.
Bock. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992. p207