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 judgments1 throughout various dispensations. This preservation is on account of God’s 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 God’s 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. One’s 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, 3 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, 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 God’s 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 Lord’s 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 God’s choice from the general to the particular is played out repeatedly in Scripture.
- Noah – Noah’s family was a faithful remnant supernaturally preserved through a divine cataclysm on the basis of divine grace (Gen. 7:23).
- Abraham – From out of all the nations God sovereignly and graciously chose Abraham with whom to make an unprecedented covenant (Gen. 12:1-3).
- Lot – Lot’s family was a faithful remnant supernaturally preserved through a divine cataclysm on the basis of divine grace (Gen. 19:29).
- Isaac – Abraham had two sons, but only one was sovereignly and graciously chosen as a child of promise (Gen. 17:19).
- Jacob – Isaac had twin sons, but only one was sovereignly and graciously chosen as a child of promise (Gen. 28:13-15).
- Joseph – 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 nation’s 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 (Num. 14:38).
- 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 19:18).
- 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 (Acts 15:14).
- 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. 4 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 Israel’s 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 God’s gracious choice.
God’s 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 there.
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 λειμμα (leimma), only appears twice (Rom 9:27; 11:5), the New Testament is replete with inferences to the concept of God’s 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 God’s blessing. Physical birth alone could provide only biological life.”5 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 God’s 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 chapters 9-11.
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 Israel’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 Israel’s 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 God’s 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 Testament’s theology of remnant.
Romans 11 provides the climax of Paul’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s previous election of national Israel. God’s sovereign foreknowledge, by definition, sustains His choices (Rom. 11:2).
- 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 promises.” 6
- 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 Paul’s 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, “God’s household” (Eph. 2:19), or better still, if clumsier, “a saving program…based on Israel’s 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, God’s 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 needn’t 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 nourishment.
Paul provides the reason for the unnatural branches’ recent inclusion in the tree. Gentiles have been saved in order to provoke unbelieving Jews to jealousy (Rom. 11:11-15). God’s 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 God’s 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 Covenant’s 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).
Paul’s 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 remnant concept.
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 Christ’s work.
Theological Reconsiderations Concerning The Remnant
The Remnant within Classic Dispensational Theology
Dispensationalism, as with all theological systems, attempts to categorize and systematize the revelation of God. Each particular theological system’s weakness is revealed by what happens to that specific data which does not neatly fit into the proposed constructs, grids and containers of that theology. Theologians generally hate tensions, antinomies and, above all, squishy facts that do not seem to neatly fit into one categorical box or another. The remnant of Israel is a prime example of this unfortunate pattern. This section, perhaps the most controversial, must begin with a disclaimer. What I am proposing is a revisitation of a particular poorly developed area within Dispensationalism, not Dispensationalism as a system. These views should in no way be interpreted as advocating Progressive Dispensationalism.
Much of what is being discussed can be also found within Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s massive and comprehensive Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology. It was reassuring to discover that Fruchtenbaum had arrived at many of the following conclusions ahead of this author, often choosing the same texts from which to study.
Israel’s glorious past and future figure most prominently throughout the traditional dispensational system, yet it seems that only the theological equivalent of “lipservice” is given to the realities of Israel in this present dispensation.
Two classic, decades-long DTS textbooks will suffice for examination: Dr. Chafer’s Systematic Theology8 and Dr. Pentecost’s Things to Come9. These particular works were chosen, not on the basis of being the most contemporary presentations of dispensational systematics, but on the basis of sustained influence as well as continued, widespread usage both within and without the classroom setting. In Pentecost’s classic volume Things To Come, we particularly see how the contemporary manifestation of the remnant is conspicuously absent within foundational Dispensationalism.
After the day of Pentecost and until the rapture we find the church…but no spiritual Israel. After the rapture we find no church, but a true or spiritual Israel again.10
Pentecost is denying the very existence of a present remnant, proposing no true Israel in this dispensation whatsoever, contra Paul (Rom. 11), contra Peter (1 Peter 2:1-10). It would seem certain from their writings that these apostles understood themselves to be the remnant.
From the time of Christ’s rejection by Israel until the time when God deals specifically with Israel again in the seventieth week it is not possible to refer to a remnant of the nation Israel. In the body of Christ all national distinctions disappear. All Jews who are saved are not saved into a national relationship, but into a relationship to Christ in that body of believers…There is no continuing remnant of Israel with whom God is particularly dealing today…Because that nation is now blinded, God can not have a remnant within the nation.11
Jewish believers neither lose ethnicity nor nationality. The whole point of what Paul argues in Romans 11 is to demonstrate that a contemporary remnant currently is manifesting itself, as usual. Without a remnant, there is no Israel of God (Gal 6:16) and the promises of God have been voided, leaving God unfaithful indeed (see figure 5).
It goes beyond the Biblical text to explain away Jewish believers’ current enjoyment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant by denying that they are members of the remnant of Israel. “By definition, this group (Jewish believers) bears a dual identity as both a remnant within Israel the people and as a particular community within the body of Christ”12 (see figure 6).
When God again deals with the nation Israel, salvation will be offered on the basis of the blood of Christ.13
When has God ceased dealing with Israel? And is not salvation now presently offered to them on the basis of Christ’s blood? One would get the impression from reading Things to Come that within the current church age, there are currently no Jews getting saved.
As long as the church is on the earth there are none saved to a special Jewish relationship. All who are saved are saved to a position in the body of Christ. 14
Pentecost creates a false dichotomy. He is confusing believing Gentiles with the Church. In the passion to keep Israel and the Church distinct, Pentecost has obliterated God’s remnant in this age (see figure 7).
God will first conclude his work for the Gentiles in the
period of Israel’s dispersion; then he will return to bring in the promised blessings for
The church is manifestly an interruption of God’s program for Israel…this mystery program must itself be brought to a conclusion before God can resume His dealing with the nation Israel.16
Jewish believers are like the tiny Whos in Whoville in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, shouting at the top of their lungs, “We are here, we are here, we are here!” (see figure 8). The tendency among some Dispensationalists, who know better, seems to be to use “believing Gentiles” and “the church” interchangeably, substituting one term for the other at will.
Israel and the Church
Even if one yields to the preponderance of evidence of God working with Israel through the remnant, the question then arises as to whether God is still working with Israel outside of the remnant. Pentecost’s system rejects both alternatives, overlooking that God is working with Jews during this present dispensation, both within the church and even outside of it as a national entity (see figure 9). “Yahweh continues to be revealed in Israel, both within and apart from the body of believers…God is still revealed through the existence of the people of Israel, just as in times past.”17
To teach that within the present dispensation God is only dealing with the church is declaring that God only works with one group of His people at a time. Biblically, why should we limit God to working with one group at a time? Does God only conduct with one hand? Is His arm too short? Is He not ambidextrous?
Even a poor conductor can conduct different sections of his orchestra using two hands simultaneously. If the woodwind section is currently playing more loudly than is the string section, the conductor is still equally conducting both sections. And if the score calls for the string section to cease playing in the middle of a presentation so that another group may take up the musical motif, the strings’ present silence is in no way an indication that they are no longer under the conductor’s sway. And, of course, it is also no indication that they have ceased playing altogether. Unbelieving Israel is neither set aside nor on the back burner in this dispensation. God has been steadily working his way, orchestrating lives, generations and historical events to the crescendo level that is presently beginning to break out. Soon enough, imminently, Scripture indicates, all members of the orchestra will be performing at full tilt.
An alternate way to illustrate these truths would be to picture a freshwater river flowing from west to east (see figure 10). This fresh water river is ethnic Israel. Somewhere along its course, the river splits. The majority, unbelieving Israel, changes course, flowing southward (Rom 11:7-10). What’s left, a mere remnant of Israel, now no more than a mere brook, remains on course (Rom. 11:5). The brook is suddenly intersected by a mighty saltwater river. These are believing Gentiles (Rom 11:17). Together, the freshwater brook, the believing Jews, and the saltwater river, believing Gentiles, flow together, mysteriously retaining both their fresh and salty distinctiveness (Eph. 3:6). Saltwater and freshwater fish alike are able to thrive in these waters together. This is the church, and it will flow inexorably toward its final destination.
Meanwhile, the mighty freshwater river of unbelieving Israel which had so drastically changed course has not been forgotten. God Himself is slowly but inevitably prodding this river, ever incrementally adjusting its course northward, until it will again intersect with the church river (Rom. 11:26) and all will stream together into the millennium.
The Remnant and the Abrahamic Covenant
Lest it be feared that this study is focusing too intently on Dr. Pentecost, let us turn our attention to a brief selection Dr. Chafer’s writings.
All that is related to her covenants and promises are in abeyance…No Jewish Covenants are now being fulfilled.18
It should seem that the fact of Israel being back in her land after 2000 years of exile indicates that at least one provision of the Abrahamic Covenant is currently operative. Fruchtenbaum19 reminds us that the demonstration of history shows that the Abrahamic Covenant is also still operative in that those who have blessed the Jews have been blessed in return, and those who have cursed the Jews have been cursed in return (Gen. 12:3).
No covenant promises of God are nullified by virtue of Jewish faith in Christ. The Jewish believer does not, he cannot, become a de facto Gentile in relation to the divine promises made to his ancestors. The remnant’s membership in the body of Christ does not nullify their receipt of God’s promises to His people. Neither do the promises somehow skip a dispensation. The covenants are eternal and not abrogated by the church. God has not set aside Israel, even momentarily, but has kept for Himself a remnant of faith (Rom 11:5).
It is cavalier to argue that because not every provision of God’s covenants with Israel is presently being fulfilled within the nation, that all covenants are currently inoperative. Jewish believers within the church are currently enjoying a portion of the benefits of the covenants given to their ancestors. God’s work with the church is not mutually exclusive of His simultaneously workings with national Israel in preparation for her glorious future and the final fulfillment of all covenantal promises. God’s promise, gifts, call, etc., are irrevocable, including for those Jews who are now in the church (Rom 11:29).
Of the various dispensations, Israel partakes of the Abrahamic , Mosaic and millennial dispensations in a special way. The church has a partial relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant because it is included in the promised blessing to all nations…the church will reign with Christ, like Israel, and will enjoy the new heavens, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem. The distinction between Israel and the church, however, is maintained throughout the entire program of God.20
Romans 11 maintains that in addition to Chafer’s list, Israel also partakes of the present grace dispensation. In none of the cited dispensations did or will the entirety of ethnic Israel partake of God’s special blessings for that period. Here, Chafer speaks as if the church were comprised entirely of believing Gentiles. Yet the church is comprised of believing Gentiles and believing Jews, and one cannot disenfranchise the Jewish component of the church from the entirety of the Abrahamic promises simply because the covenant doesn’t apply equally in every component to Gentile brethren.
The Remnant and the Land Covenant
Israel’s dispersion and exile and contemporary partial regathering all indicate that the Land covenant has been operational throughout the church age (Deut. 29-30). The absence of positive results from an unconditional covenant does not mean that the covenant is currently inactive if it is evident that results from the negative stipulations are presently being experienced.
The Remnant and the Davidic Covenant
Although Jesus is not currently reigning on the throne of David in Jerusalem and is not functionally the King of Israel, He is ontologically the Jewish King and as such provides a clear beacon of hope and encouragement on Whom the current remnant can rely in light of the covenant with David (1 Chron. 17:10-14).
The Remnant and the New Covenant
Three final passages will suffice to demonstrate certain weaknesses inherent to the system as outlined by Chafer and Pentecost.
In the case of Israel the new covenant will be fulfilled in
the millennial kingdom, and in the case of the church it is being fulfilled in the
(The New) Covenant cannot be realized by Israel until God has effected her salvation and restoration to the land…until Israel’s salvation, and this salvation follows the return of the Deliverer… in the millennial age.22
…These to whom (the New Covenant) was primarily and originally made will not receive its fulfillment nor its blessings until it is confirmed and made actual to them at the second advent of Christ…Its benefits will not be received by Israel until the second advent.23
It is not Scriptural to proclaim that the remnant of Israel is not currently realizing a portion of the New Covenant blessings along with their believing Gentile brethren. Jesus told his disciples at His last supper that the new covenant was about to be inaugurated, within the next few hours, upon his death. It is absurd to postulate that Jesus meant to exclude those Jews physically present with him from the enjoyment of the covenant He was about to initiate, or that He understood His disciples to be somehow disconnected from the nation of Israel. The new covenant is indeed being fulfilled for Israel in the present age to the extent that the Israel of God is participating in the body of Christ. The fact that Jewish believers are saved and indwelled in this dispensation is incontrovertibly on the basis of the New Covenant inaugurated with the death of the Messiah.
The Remnant within the Church
The distinction between the church and Israel is one of the three pillars on which Dispensationalism rests.24 However, although well intentioned, this emphasis as developed thus far neither recognizes nor integrates the Biblical truth that a portion of Israel is indeed within the church. Dispensationalism must make room not only for the traditional distinction between Israel and the church but also for Israel in the church (see figure 11).
The church is Biblically defined as believing Jew and Gentile together, a new creation (Gal. 6:15, Eph. 3:6). Yet, as House notes, “The majority of Christians today don’t think of the church as being made up of Jews and Gentiles, but Gentiles alone.”25 There is a clear failure to recognize that the remnant is always part of Israel and is not separated from it, and that it is possible to be part of the remnant and part of the church at the same time.26
The remnant is the Jewish wing of the Church. The church is an airplane that only has two wings, a Jewish wing and a Gentile wing. If one wing is lost or ignored, the church crashes. It is uncomfortably irrefutable that the convoluted history of the church since the second century has borne out that illustration.
When friends in the church speak of Jewish believers assimilating into the larger “Christian” culture, they usually mean a “Gentile” culture. For some 1500 years, the Jewish believer has not been free to celebrate his dual identity. On the one hand, the Jewish community has branded him a traitor and excommunicated him, and on the other hand, the church has demanded the renunciation of all or at least most of his Jewish cultural practices, denunciation of his national heritage, and often disassociation from other Jews.27 For 1900 years the Jewish community has attempted to marginalize, delegitimize and stigmatize the Israel of God; for 1800 years the church has forced the remnant to renounce their heritage and denounce their nation and has pronounced anathema on maintenance of Jewish culture. Jewish believers have not been allowed to retain their God-given dual identity but have been forced to assimilate into the culturally Gentile church.
Based on a faulty exegesis of Eph. 2:14-16, it is feared that the retention of cultural Jewish identity would rebuild a middle wall of partition and lead to separatism. One can only wonder what the original Jewish apostles would say. Would some believers actually say to Peter, “Why do you insist on acting so Jewish?” And would he perhaps respond, “Why do you insist on acting so Gentile?”
It seems upon even the most casual reading of the New Testament that the apostles and disciples found no conflict between their national identity and their faith allegiance. The witness of the book of Acts, in particular, suggests that for the early church to have considered themselves anything but part of national Israel, i.e. Jews, would have been absurd and unthinkable (Acts 1:6; 3:1; 11:18; 15:1-29; Acts 16:3; 21:20-26). Any imagined identity conflicts arise from deficient theological systems, not ontological realities.
Jewish people have no choice in their Jewishness, by definition; it is conferred by circumstance of birth. For the majority of Jewish believers, to ignore this God-given distinction is to disparage the rich heritage God has bestowed upon us to share with the world. Simply because the church has historically forced us to do so because of faulty theological premises does not mean that in more enlightened theological eras the trend must inevitably continue.
The question arises as to how Jewish believers, full members of both the Church and Israel, can be both the “wife of the Lord” and the “bride of Christ”. Although these are simply descriptive metaphors for communicating Biblical truth and cannot be stretched too far, many of us recoil at the incestuous implications. Obviously, some agree with the old Yiddish proverb, “With one toches28 you can’t dance at two weddings.” On the one hand, the remnant of Israel has been the wife of God from the time they were chosen at Sinai. On the other hand, all believers are betrothed to Jesus Christ. Do Jewish believers need to get divorced from the Lord so that they can become the bride of Christ, and if so, at what point does this divorce Biblically occur?
The solution to this metaphorical conundrum is that Jewish believers, as a result of both genealogical heritage and theological beliefs, are Biblically considered both the wife of God and the bride of Christ. This simply means that Jewish believers are in attendance at two weddings, one of which serves kosher!
The Jewish believer’s membership in the church does not and cannot exclude him from membership in Israel. As a Jew, a child of Abraham through Jacob, and as a follower of the Messiah, the Jewish believer belongs equally to two camps. Jewish believers, as the contemporary manifestation of the remnant, the Israel of God, reject the demand to wear only one hat, to hold only one membership card, to dance at only one wedding. We refuse, on solid Biblical grounds, to be limited to the designation of Christian or Jew. Neither is it sufficient to be considered as half of one and half of another. Jewish believers are one hundred percent members of Israel and one hundred percent members of the church.
Although there is now no distinction between Jews and Gentiles with regard to salvation and access to God (Gal 3:28), there are distinctions between Jewish believers and Gentile believers. Unity in Christ does not absolve the diversity of the components God chose to incorporate into His church. In other words, “oneness” does not necessarily entail “sameness.” What then is the role of the Jewish believer today?
The distinctions are to be found within the Abrahamic Covenant. Although Jewish and Gentile believers alike are partaking of the spiritual blessings of the covenant as Abraham’s spiritual seed, Jewish believers are Abraham’s physical seed as well, and additional elements of the covenant apply specifically to them. Elements which still apply to Jewish believers would be the divine right of possession of the land of Israel, the reciprocal blessing and cursing on those who bless and curse Israel, and the sign of circumcision, which, finding its foundation within the Abrahamic Covenant, is still incumbent upon all Jews, including those within the believing remnant (Jn. 7:22; Acts 16:3; 21:21-24; Rom. 3:1).
An additional distinction may be found within the Mosaic Covenant. This covenant has been replaced and rendered inoperative by Christ’s death and so is no longer obligatory (Heb. 8:13, Rom. 10:4). However, just because the Jewish believer is not obligated to practice Torah, it does not follow that he must not practice certain aspects of Torah. As the revealed sacred standards of God, Paul confirms that the law is still holy, righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). Jewish believers have liberty in Christ to observe certain facets of the Torah as long as those particular customs do not contradict New Testament revelation (Acts 15; 16:3; 21:21-24).
Yet when the remnant asserts its Jewishness, either culturally, historically or practically, it seems that sometimes Gentile believers feel threatened, as did Jewish believers in the first century when the situation was reversed (Acts 15, 21:20-22). Yet Jews didn’t invent these cultural and historical distinctions. In fact, most of the 4000 year history of Israel has been spent trying to overcome the seductive yearning to assimilate into the majority Gentile culture. It is God Who insisted on separation from the Gentiles. And it is only the separation, not the distinctions, which has been erased by Christ through membership in His body (Eph. 2:14-16; Gal. 3:28).
Rather than be threatened by the Jewishness of the remnant, the church should be celebrating the continued existence of the remnant as a wonderful example of God’s grace and faithfulness. We should revel in our distinctions, because then our unity is that much more captivating to an observing world. How interesting is a monochromatic tapestry? Not very interesting at all. A tapestry of two colors, skillfully and brilliantly woven together, shows far greater artistry.
Many people have assumed that Jewish believers are trying to have it both ways, that they want the privileges of dual membership in both Israel and the church. And the assumed answer is that Jewish believers cannot have it both ways. They must be one or the other, members of Israel or members of the church. They have to fit into a nice, neat little theological box. Yet Jewish believers can and do have it both ways. It is neither presumptuous nor pretentious to claim what is in actuality ours. Jewish Christians have an inheritance from two sources, Israel and the Messiah.
By way of illustration, it is as if the believing Gentiles and Jews were two sons in a blended family. They share the same father yet have different mothers. Both sons receive an equal inheritance from the father. Yet the first son will also receive an inheritance from his mother. Should the second son be jealous because the first son received an additional extra inheritance? Of course not. The inheritance wasn’t from the second son’s mother; the inheritance didn’t belong to him. Just because the Gentiles only have an inheritance from one source, Messiah, doesn’t mean that God has to make it all “fair” and remove one source of the Jewish believer’s inheritance. Does God treat all his children equally? When it comes to divine access and salvation, of course He does. The Bible says there is no favoritism, and that God is no respecter of persons. Yet the distinctions He has made have not been erased (Gal.3:28). In point of fact, it’s not as if anyone, Jew or Gentile, actually deserved his or her inheritance. And it’s not as if the inheritance we the church receive is not more than enough for an eternity of eternities. In this illustration, both sons are Rockefellers.
Considering the above theological reconsiderations and practical implications, it is proposed that we endeavor to exhibit another of the three pillars of Dispensationalism, that of the glorification of God, specifically, by believing Jews and Gentiles seeking to glorify Him through the common celebration of our God-ordained cultural distinctives. While there are many and numerous culturally Gentile customs, programs and celebrations currently practiced within the church, certain additions of Jewish origin can only prove profitable to the vitality of the body of Christ. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, primarily on the local corporate church level but also on the regional and denominational level. It is important to note that none of the following suggestions necessarily leads to the creation of separatism, ethnocentrism or so-called “judaizing,” when executed with correct intent and proper spirit.
- Activate programs and creative ideas for Jewish evangelism. The Jewish community, in America and abroad, is still a largely unreached people group, despite their historic and cultural nearness to the gospel. Although Jesus taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), and Paul taught that the reason Gentiles are saved is to evangelize Jews (Romans 11:11), the overwhelming majority of churches exhibit neither interest nor energy in reaching Jewish people.
- Actively pray for the safety and salvation of the Jewish people. The only recorded prayer for the unsaved in the entire New Testament is Paul’s prayer for the salvation of the Jewish people (Rom. 10:1). Blessing is promised for those who pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122).
- Support Jewish missions and teaching ministries. Although many churches are located within reasonable distance from Jewish communities and contain believers who have personal contact with Jews through family, friends, business, and local services, many churches are removed from such intimate contact. Regardless of proximity, all churches can participate in Jewish evangelism by supporting a Jewish parachurch ministry. Paul not only taught the priority of Jewish evangelism (Rom. 1:16) but also the obligation of Gentiles to give generously to the support of Jewish work (Rom. 15:27).
- Plan a church Israel tour. Experiencing the land promised to the chosen people can greatly enhance a believer’s love and concern for the Jewish people.
- Celebrate the messianic fulfillment of a Jewish festival such as Passover or Tabernacles. These are spiritually profitable (Col. 2:16-17) and often prove an enormous catalyst in exciting believers about their faith. Invite a Jewish ministry (such as Sojourner Ministries) to lead or assist in the implementation.
- Visit or even financially help support a local messianic congregation. Be selective here, however, as the messianic congregational movement is fairly new and there is a great deal of theological variety between individual congregations, which may or not correspond to your local church’s orientation.
- Invite the worship team from your local messianic congregation to play in your church one Sunday. It is usually easy to coordinate this as most messianic congregations worship on Friday or Saturday. One caveat: only explore this suggestion if your church is prepared to “rock your world.” Messianic music is generally of the energetic strain.
- Encourage the Jewish believers in your congregation. Many Jewish believers who, rather than join a messianic congregation, have joined a predominantly Gentile church, often feel isolated, lonely and generally “out of synch” with their Gentile brethren. They are often a tiny minority of one or only a few and perceive themselves as being “between two worlds,” not fully accepted for who they are in either arena. Although these Jewish brethren might never vocalize their isolation, some general encouragement can go a long way when incorporating any minority members into the church whole. This, of course, assumes there is at least one Jewish member of your local body. (And if there isn’t, go out and find one!)
- Create and implement a circumcision celebration within the church. This, of course, is only to be done as needed – don’t conscript a volunteer! Although this is to be implemented only by the spiritual and physical seed of Abraham, Jewish believers, it should be celebrated by the entire church family. To corporately recognize that God is not yet through with the Jewish people by publicly implementing the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant is a powerful testimony to the faithfulness of God. This suggestion should meet no opposition particularly within churches which practice the traditional customs of baby dedications or infant baptisms. As has occasionally been said in support of various church programs, “If it was good enough for Jesus (or Paul, or Peter, et al.), it is good enough for me!” (Lk. 2:21; Phil. 3:5). This slogan is particularly apt regarding circumcision.
- Similarly, create and implement a Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah celebration within the church for Jewish believing 13-year-olds. Confirmation catechisms and the like need not substitute for following the Biblical customs of our ancestors.
Messianic congregations would probably hold less appeal for Jewish believers if more churches implemented these above suggestions, allowing Jewish believers to express themselves as Jews instead of feeling compelled to exchange their customs, their heritage for post-Biblical Gentile counterparts. The liturgy of most church traditions, of “high” or “low” orientation, is replete with substitutions, equivalents and copies of traditional Hebrew customs and ceremonies. If the ancient Jewish customs are shadows of things to come and all have their essence in Christ Himself (Col. 2:16-17), their enactment can only be of benefit to the church (Eph. 4:12-13).
The greatest example of God’s historic and ongoing faithfulness is to be found in the preservation of a believing remnant. From the times of the patriarchs through the coming future tribulation, the principal evidence provided for all believers, Jew and Gentile, to confidently place their trust in Him to keep His promises and bring His program to completion is His sovereign and gracious preservation of the remnant (Rom. 9-11). It is the enduring, organic and growing remnant of Israel, the very Israel of God, which is the luminous beacon of God’s faithfulness throughout history, past, present and future.
The purpose of this work has been to demonstrate that a correct understanding of the concept of the remnant of Israel is essential to appreciating the God’s faithfulness. The remnant concept has been traced through both Old and New Testaments. Certain theological weaknesses inherent to Dispensationalism have been examined. Several practical implications of that examination have been discussed and several corrective applications proposed.
This work will conclude by joining with Arnold Fruchtenbaum in his call for a new entry to be added to our systematic theologies as a necessary corrective. It is imperative for dispensational studies to offer a comprehensive theological curriculum. Therefore, the addition of the category of Israelology would be decidedly strategic.
1Meyer, Lester V. “Remnant.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. vol. 5: p670
2Schrenk, 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
4Pritz, 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
5Zaretsky, Tuvya. “Israel the People.” Israel the Land and the People. Ed. H. Wayne House. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. p45
7Burns, 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
8Walvoord, John F., Donald K. Campbell and Roy B. Zuck, eds. Chafer Systematic Theology – Abridged. Wheaton: Victor, 1988. This edition, although greatly abridged, is the one currently in greater circulation.
9Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.
18Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology. Vol. 6:p83. As quoted in Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology. Tustin: Ariel, 1993
19Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. Israelology. Tustin: Ariel, 1993. p630
20Walvoord, et al. Vol. 2: p243
24These pillars are a literal hermeneutic, upon which rests the distinction between Israel and the church. The third pillar is the glorification of God. See Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody, 1996. p44
25House, H. Wayne. Ed. Israel the Land and the People. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. p10
27Seif, Jeffrey L. The Evolution of A Revolution. Lanham: University, 1994. p52.
28Common Yiddish word meaning “posterior”.