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The Key that Unlocks a Great Mystery


The Bible holds a mystery that appears to be an impossible situation, one that has led some Christians to conclude God has forever rejected the Jewish people. It involves two great covenants made by God.

According to God's covenant with Abraham, then repeated to Isaac and later to Jacob, their descendants would exist as a nation before Him forever:

"I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for brit olam—an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you" (Gen 17:7).

"I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 26:4).

Moreover, according to Genesis 22:16, God swore an oath in order to seal the covenant. In the world of the Ancient Near East, an oath could never be revoked. So in the book of Hebrews, we are told that because of this oath, God's covenant with Abraham and his descendents was unchangeable (6:17-18).

But about 600 years later, God established the Mosaic Covenant with the nation of Israel, and right before entering the Promised Land, the people of Israel were warned that the consequences of disobedience to that covenant would be deadly:

"All these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey Adonai your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you" (Deut 28:45).

As part of the Mosaic covenant, Deuteronomy 28 goes into great detail about those consequences:

  • Curses on their offspring and everything they grow in their fields.
  • Plagues and sicknesses of all kinds.
  • Oppression, slaughter and captivity from another nation.
  • Expelling them from the land.
  • Scattering them elsewhere, to the point of utter destruction.

In fact, with great irony, God uses the exact terminology that he had done earlier with Abraham, only now in an opposite way that it seems to undo the very Abrahamic Covenant:

"Then you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven for multitude, because you did not obey Adonai your God" (Deutt 28:62).

The key question is—how can we reconcile God's promise to permanently preserve and bless the nation of Israel according to the Abrahamic Covenant with His promise to judge and curse the nation of Israel based on the Mosaic Covenant? Either a major contradiction is embedded in Scripture, or a means of reconciling these very different results is needed. Indeed, God has given a solution to this apparently impossible situation.

Nearly five centuries after Israel was given the Torah (Law) on Mt. Sinai, the majority of the people of Israel had forsaken the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead of worshipping the True and Living God, most people in Israel at that time believed primarily in two false gods. One of them was Baal, who was adopted from the surrounding Canaanite nations. He was a nature deity, and was particularly associated with rain, so people would pray to him for rain. The other false god was Asherah, a fertility goddess, whose name had variations throughout the Ancient Near East, including Astarte, Ishtar and Eostre, from which we get the name Easter.

The book of 1 Kings recounts those days, with chapter 18 describing what took place during the reign of the ungodly King Ahab. We are told that there were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, all of whom were Jews. Elijah was the last remaining prophet of Adonai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. All of these prophets engaged in an encounter seeking to demonstrate the identity of true deity. In this setting, Elijah issued a challenge to the people of Israel: "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If Adonai is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him" (v. 21).

On that day, the prophets placed sacrificial offerings on altars in order to see which God would answer with supernatural fire. The prophets of Baal first called upon their god without success. Then it was Elijah's turn, and God responded to his prayer by sending fire from heaven that consumed the burnt offering. The people watching the scene fell on their faces and said, "Adonai, He is God; Adonai, He is God."

Unfortunately, there would not be a revival that would sweep across the land, with the nation returning to the God of their forefathers. The nation, which had already been divided into two kingdoms—Israel in the north and Judah in the south—was continually ruled by corrupt kings who encouraged idolatry. Finally, after the numerous warnings of Moses and all the prophets went unheeded, God raised up the Assyrians to take Israel captive, followed by the Babylonians who took away Judah.

But in the midst of this saga, an interesting concept is revealed—the "remnant." After Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, Scripture records this declaration from God:

"Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him" (1 Kings 19:18).

In spite of the widespread waywardness of the people, some individuals resisted the temptation. 7,000 people is indeed a significant number. But since it is estimated that the total population of the kingdom of Israel at the time of Elijah was over three million people, this group was truly in the minority. Clearly most Jews in the day of Elijah either completely rejected the God of their fathers or they mixed biblical worship with idolatry.

While the percentages vary from generation to generation, the history of Israel is marked by this notion of a believing sub-group within the greater nation. And that is what the Bible describes as the remnant. So when we consider the full measure of Scripture, we can see many examples of a faithful minority that survived a time of spiritual and moral failure on a national level:

  • In the flood story, the continuity of all humanity in the midst of divine judgment was preserved through Noah and his family (Gen 9:19).
  • God's destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was contingent on whether a remnant of ten righteous men could be found in the city (Gen 18:32). When that proved not to be a reality, the destruction took place and the remnant was reduced to Lot and his family. But in the course of the negotiations between God and Abraham, God demonstrated His willingness to preserve the whole city because of the representative righteousness of only a remnant.
  • Joshua and Caleb were the only two adult males among the Israelites who left Egypt and were allowed to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their faith, while the rest of the people perished in the wilderness because of their lack of faith in the Lord. (Num 14:1-38).
  • Prior to the kingdom of Judah being taken captive to Babylon, Isaiah foretold the existence of the remnant as an indicator of God's mercy in the midst of judgment: "Unless the LORD of hosts had left us a few survivors, we would be like Sodom, we would be like Gomorrah" (Isa 1:9). In other words, in light of the sinfulness of the nation, they should have been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, but God preserved a remnant and the nation was still alive.
  • Later Isaiah compared Israel to a cluster of grapes (65:8). Some grapes in a cluster may be spoiled and others may not yet be ripened, but others are sweet and will produce wine. So just as the owner of a vineyard would not discard a partially flawed cluster of grapes because it can still be productive, God promised not to discard Israel because of the faithfulness of a believing remnant.

Contextually, then, the remnant refers to Spiritually faithful people with a physically Jewish heritage, interconnected over time, and they serve as representatives of the entire nation regarding God's covenant and redemptive intentions, often in the midst of divine judgment.

The Hebrew word for remnant is she'ar, from a root meaning "to swell up." From this same root we get the word se'or, translated as "leavening." The word picture behind this term is helpful to our understanding:

In the Ancient Near East, when making bread, a lump of fermented dough from a previous mixing was added to new flour and water, which then multiplied throughout the batch and caused it to rise and swell up. In this manner, a small portion—a remnant—of the original dough endured and recreated a new batch with the same characteristics of the original batch. Thus the underlying meaning of the remnant can be expressed as a remainder with the imprint of the original. In keeping with that foundation, when applied biblically to the Jewish people, a small portion of the faithful men and women of one generation endured and was manifested in a new generation with the same faithful characteristics of the original one.

When we consider the way that the remnant concept is used in the Bible, a series of valuable principles emerge that provide us with a key to understanding God's message of redemption.

The righteous remnant secures the continuity of Israel as God's covenant nation

The remnant is the solution to the seemingly impossible situation created by God's promise to preserve Israel as a nation permanently, according to the Abrahamic Covenant, and His promise that disobedience would lead to their destruction according to the Mosaic Covenant. In the midst of great chastening and judgment by God, a remnant of believers would survive and thus keep intact the substance of God's promises to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the reason is because they had turned to God in repentance (teshuvah—from a root meaning "to turn"). In the same way, they would return as a renewed nation and begin again.

So because of the righteous remnant of Jewish men and women, the serious nature of the Mosaic Covenant is not trivialized, and the promissory substance of the Abrahamic Covenant is kept intact. And it is the basis for Paul's resolute answer to his rhetorical question in Romans 11:1 concerning the rejection of national Israel, saying, "God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!"

He shows that the reason is because of the faithfulness of a select group of Jewish men and women, saying:

"In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to G-d's gracious choice" (Rom. 11:5).

He was speaking about the Jewish people in that day who believed in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and the one who gave His life as our atonement for sin. The same is true today. Messianic Jews are now the remnant of Israel, and the means by which God continues to secure His covenant promises.

This is a critical understanding that is overlooked by those who say that God has replaced Israel with the Church. But that view ignores how the Bible shows that the faithful remnant is the key that unlocks the mystery, because God keeps His promises to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through them.

A remnant also exists among Gentile Christians

In the second half of Romans 11, Paul turns his attention to Gentile believers in Yeshua. In verses 11-15 he demonstrates how the spiritual stumbling of the majority of the Israelites led to the expanded inclusion of Gentiles within the kingdom of God. It might be said in this light that God has not rejected Israel, He has added to Israel.

Paul describes the subsequent unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Yeshua by using the metaphor of the olive tree (vv. 16-24). Like wild branches grafted onto a natural olive tree, believing Gentiles share in the same root system as believing Jews and produce fruit that is like their fellow Jewish "branches." The respective branches may grow and appear slightly different, but they exist as one living entity. Here we have a depiction of the cultural differences of believing Gentiles and Jews, yet the sharing of a common salvation, the blessing of common gifts, and the exhortation to unity in Messiah.

Paul further shows how God's dealings with Gentiles after Calvary hold similarities to the ways in which He has historically dealt with Israel. Continuing with the metaphor of the olive tree, and referring to God's chastening of Israel, Paul warns: "Do not be conceited, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you" (Rom 11:20-21).

Since the earliest days of the Church, many people have called themselves Christians. They may have attended Sunday school as children or go to church today. They may be able to recite prayers and give monetary contributions. But like the Israelites of old, a great many "Christians" today have not given their hearts totally to the Lord. In His place stands modern day Baals—false gods of gold and spirituality and values that betray God's principles. Yet a believing remnant exists in the Church—persons who refuse to hesitate between two opinions, who recognize the Lord of their life, and are resolutely committed to follow Him.

Ultimately the circumstances are the same for Jews and Gentiles when it comes to our spiritual standing before God and our hope for life in the world to come. Being religious and believing in any perception of God will only give a false sense of security. Our hope is found in the true and living God alone, and His message as communicated to us in the Bible. That is a reality that has never been a matter of numbers for any people group. God is still glorified by even a faithful few from any walk of life.

God's preservation of Israel through the remnant is a reflection of the assurance of our salvation

Without a doubt, the way of salvation is the same for all—through belief in the Messiah. And God unites Jew and Gentile together into one household of faith. But there is a parallel in the way that God has protected Israel from earthly annihilation, and the way that God will protect His saints from eternal annihilation.

Israel did not earn the right to be chosen by God. They didn't deserve it. But God did it anyway. Likewise, how many of us merit our salvation? The answer is none. No man or woman can ever earn eternal life.

It is only through faith in Yeshua and receiving His atonement—the covering of our sins (Lev. 17:11), and the creation of a new heart within us (Ezek. 36:26), that people can become redeemed and thus inherit eternal life. And that great gift from God comes through Messiah Yeshua. But the amazing thing is that God has linked the assurance of our salvation it to the preservation of the Jewish people.

When Yeshua was sharing Passover with His disciples right before His death, He showed how the third cup, the cup of redemption, symbolically represented His sacrificial death. He described it this way: "He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood" (Lk 22:20). Moreover, Hebrews 9:15 tells us that the New Covenant redeems us and secures for us the promise of an "eternal inheritance." So it's all about our salvation.

The New Covenant was given by the prophet Jeremiah in his 31st chapter. It foretold how God's truth and righteousness is internalized on the hearts of people and sins are forgiven permanently (Jer. 31:31-34), just as it is accomplished by the life-changing power of Yeshua when we believe in Him. But the amazing thing is that God has linked it to the preservation of the Jewish people. At the conclusion of the prophecy of the New Covenant, He declared:

Thus says the LORD who gives the sun for light by day, and the fixed order of the moon and the stars by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the LORD of host is His name; If this fixed order departs from before Me," declares the LORD, "Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever" (Jer. 31:35-36).

The message is clear. We have been given some magnificent signs that the salvation promised in the New Covenant is as secure as the universe itself—a figure of speech that depicts permanence. And so is God's promise of the preservation of the people of Israel as a nation, just as it was given in the Abrahamic Covenant. As long as the sun is shining and the stars are twinkling and the waves are roaring, God has promised to preserve Israel in an earthly sense and to preserve the salvation of all believers in an everlasting sense.

But as we have seen, without the steadfast presence of the remnant, the preservation of Israel as a nation would not be possible. Ultimately, then, the remnant serves as an indicator of God's assurance of the salvation of all believers.

Let it be said that the promises of God are still valid today. And He continues to raise up a believing remnant of both Jews and Gentiles. So may we all be found faithful, just our Heavenly Father is faithful in keeping His promises.


Dr. Galen Peterson
© 2016 American Remnant Mission