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Who Exactly Are The Remnant?

previously published in April 2006

Do you accept and believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Bible prophecy . . .”? If you’ve been baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this was part of the final question that you agreed to in your baptismal vow.

But what does it exactly mean for the Adventist church to be “the remnant church of Bible prophecy”? To begin with, the word “remnant” comes from King James Version’s rendition of God’s faithful people in Revelation 12:17. There you see that the remnant are those who keep the commandments of God and bear the testimony of Jesus. Then, how is it that Adventists have come to see themselves as “the remnant church of Bible prophecy”? Let me unpack my answer by taking you through a brief historical tour.

After the Reformation, Protestants in the 17th and 18th centuries interpreted the remnant as whoever was against the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy. In their interpretation of the end-time prophecies, Protestant interpreters saw the dragon power of Revelation 12 and Babylon of Revelation 14 as the papa-cy. Thus, the “remnant” of Rev 12:17 had to be those to protest against the papacy, i.e., themselves. The commandment-keeping of the remnant was generally seen as steadfast resistance to the idolatrous worship of the Catholic church. In fact, the central issue in the identity of the remnant and the three angels’ messages was understood as the question of what constitutes the true way of worship—all revolving around the second commandment.

In the first half of the 19th century, Protestants were generally agreed that the papacy represented the evil powers of Rev 12 and 14. The identification of the remnant in Revelation 12:17 remained as Protestants themselves. But it was in this period that some interesting innovations and modifications came out. Some now referred to the remnant as Protestant martyrs, rather than all Protestants, who died during the time of the Catholic Inquisition. Others thought that the remnant referred to the Protestants in the United States who fled from Catholic persecutions in Europe. The latter suggestion was, of course, an American innovation. Rather than seeing all Protestants as the remnant, the trend was now toward seeing it as a special group within Protestantism.

It was at this time that Adventists began to use the word “remnant” to refer to their calling and identity. Joseph Bates, an early Adventist leader, was the first to suggest that Revelation 12:17 was talking about a special group of people who would keep the seventh-day Sabbath and proclaim the soon coming of Jesus at the end of time—i.e., Adventists. Unlike the Protestants of previous centuries, Bates’ focus in the definition of the remnant was the fourth commandment, rather than the second. Bates’ concept of the remnant was picked up by others in the Adventist group, including Ellen White, and became the self-understanding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church thereafter.

It was in Ellen White’s writings that the concept of the remnant became much richer and more dynamic. White used the term "remnant" in a very broad way. At times, her use of the term was quite narrow and specific; it referred to the only people who are saved and deserve to be called God’s true people. But at the same time, she wrote elsewhere that the role of the remnant was to serve as a witness and a prophetic voice to God’s people everywhere. In this case, the remnant was a reform movement within the body of God’s people. In White’s view, the remnant’s calling was revive and awaken God’s people in a time of spiritual decline. Ultimately, White believed that Adventists were called to be the end-time remnant whose role was to lead the world to a relationship with Christ and true worship through Sabbath-keeping. White’s view has come to be the representative understanding for Adventists.

Thus, in Adventist thinking, the remnant has less to do with whom we may against (for example, the Catholics), but more with expressing our love for Jesus through obedience to all his commandments, including the fourth commandment, which most Christians have abandoned. For us, being the remnant means to love the world so much that we’ll do whatever it takes to let them know about Jesus. Needless to say, it does not give us any right to be arrogant or judgmental. As soon as we become either toward others, we cease to be the remnant since the foundational commandment that undergirds the Ten Commandments is one of love. Love, as you may recall from 1 Corinthians 13, is neither proud nor boastful.

To be the remnant church of Bible prophecy means to be the messenger of God’s love for the dying world. It means to let the world know of the coming savior who loves them very much. It also means to awaken our Christian friends to a deeper obedience to God’s will.
If you think about it, this is quite a humbling task. Why? Since we know how much we fall short of God’s will ourselves. That is perhaps why commandment-keeping is coupled with the testimony of Jesus in the description of the remnant in Revelation 12:17. The remnant will always fall short of keeping the law, except through Jesus who testifies on our behalf and accepts us through his grace.

So...who exactly are the remnant? The remnant is you and I—saved by grace, obedient by grace, and witnessing by grace.


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