Tod Twist and John D. Barry
Novels and movies about the biblical apocalypse often focus on those left behind, or “the remnant.” When I read Romans 9–11, it seems like Paul’s ideas don’t match up with Hollywood or post-apocalyptic novels. This doesn’t mean Paul’s view is clear; it’s anything but that. However, we can sort out problems like this by tracing the argument of the biblical author. We can make sense of each part of the argument by using Bible dictionaries and concordance searches to look up unfamiliar terminology.
1. Start Where the Argument Begins
In Romans 9:27, Paul quotes Isaiah when describing the remnant: “Though the number of the sons of Israel are like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved” (Isa 10:22–23; compare Hos 1:10). Isaiah is prophesying about what will happen to God’s people after they’re taken into exile in Assyria and Babylon. Will they make it? Will they be faithful? Isaiah’s answer: Some will make it—but not many. The same term is found in Romans 11:5: “A remnant saved by grace”; only a remnant of Jewish people will come to Christ.
Using Bible dictionaries such as the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary and the IVP New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, we see that “remnant” is not just a single term; it’s an idea. Several terms are used to describe the concept of a remnant. We also learn that the idea of a portion of God’s people left over after judgment surfaces throughout the Old Testament.
2. Search for Similar Terms or Concepts
Because “remnant” is an idea, our next step involves searching for similar ideas in Romans. Since the Bible dictionaries provided us with comparable words, we can look up those words using a concordance or by running searches using Bible software or Biblia.com. Doing so, we learn that remnant has two related concepts: “election” (the idea that some are selected by God; Rom 9:11; 11:7) and “offspring” (9:7–8, 29; 11:1). We can verify that these two concepts are related to “remnant” because of their proximity in his discussion.
God elected Israel (9:11) and ensured that Abraham, the father of the nation, would have an offspring (9:7–10). But “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6). Paul is building on his discussion from Romans 4, where he says that Abraham’s “offspring” is anyone “who shares in the faith of Abraham” (4:16). Thus, the remnant of Israel, like those elected into the nation and like the offspring of the nation, extends beyond nationality. Although Paul may only be referring to Jewish people in this passage, the application seems to fit everyone. After all, we all need to be faithful.
3. Relate the Concept to the Theme of the Book
Sharing in the faith of Abraham is a central focus of Romans. Similar to the remnant that was faithful in exile after being judged, the Jewish-Christian remnant needed to remain faithful. Also, like the small remnant who survived, there existed only a small group of Christians. This makes the need to be faithful a pressing issue. Paul sees it as critical to the future of Christianity.
4. Connect the Concept to the Entire Argument of the Book
Paul began his discussion in Romans 9 with the deep concern that many of his fellow Jews do not believe in Christ (9:2–3). This concern resonates throughout Romans 9–11, even as he widens his perspective to include all people: “Through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11). Whether we are Jew or Gentile, being the faithful remnant remains our vocation and calling.
Pick up resources for studying the book of Romans at Logos.com/Romans.
John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.