Growing up, I spent many hours in fabric shops. My mother sewed many of my shirts, and my sister, 10 years older than I, had begun sewing most of her own clothes by the time she was 12.
So I grew up in a house often populated with—it seemed to me—oddly shaped and marked pieces of tissue paper
(patterns) pinned in strange positions to large pieces of cloth. I became acquainted early in life with such terms as basting bobbins, and buttonhole attachments; darts, facings, rickrack, ruffles, and pleats; and scores of things most boys my age knew nothing of. Oh, yes, and I spent hours in fabric shops.
Unless my mother and sister were picking out cloth for a shirt intended for me, I simply wandered through the aisles between the bolts of fabric, mostly fighting boredom. But then I discovered the remnant table. For me, this was the most interesting place in the store.
You see, bulk fabric comes in bolts, typically 100 or 40 yards (91.5 or 36.5 meters) long, depending on the width and type of fabric. Typical sewing projects usually take only a few yards, rarely more than three or four. Eventually, what remains of the bolt is less than enough for another project. That short piece of cloth may not be enough for a dress or a shirt, but it might serve some other purpose—quilting blocks, for example. That “remaining” little bit of cloth is “the remnant.” Those last pieces of cloth join all the other leftover pieces on the remnant table.
That variety made the remnant table fascinating to me. Next to comical cotton prints for children’s clothing, one might find silk brocade, pink chiffon, brown burlap, or white taffeta, all in one glorious jumble. I loved sorting through it all—a kaleidoscope of colors and a cornucopia of finishes and textures.
Still, the remnant table was a bittersweet place. On the one hand, I could see samples of all sorts of fabric. On the other hand, the small piece I could see was all that remained. Looking at these remnants, I often wondered what had become of the yards and yards of beauty, comfort, and craftsmanship that made up the rest of that bolt of cloth. Had the calico been used for a little girl’s dress, a stuffed animal, or even a Raggedy Ann doll? Had the silk been used for some fresh-faced teenager’s prom gown or perhaps fashioned into an elegant pillow slip?
As it turns out, a remnant is a concept that the Bible speaks of repeatedly, referring to the group of those who follow God after the rest of their family, tribe, or nation has gone astray or vanished. The first example of a remnant in the Bible was Noah and his family. “Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark” (Genesis 7:23).
The devastation of the Flood was brought about because of the pervasive violence perpetrated by humans. “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). But God preserved humanity through Noah and his family. Indeed, the very center of the Flood story declares that “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).
The Flood story does not employ the word remnant, but the concept is unmistakable. Almost the whole fabric of humanity disappeared, leaving Noah and his family as the surviving remnant. That fabric was marked with striking contrasts between humankind’s sinfulness and God’s grace and between the bitter and the sweet. The tragedy of the annihilation of so many people and animals stands in contrast to the relief and rejoicing that the human race survived in the persons of Noah and his family.
A remnant appears again in one of the most dramatic stories in all literature—the story of Jacob’s son Joseph and his brothers. Some 22 years after Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery and persuaded their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, Jacob’s other 11 sons, seeking food in a time of famine, came to Egypt. Unbeknownst to them, in those years, Joseph had risen to prominence and was now second in rank only to Pharaoh himself. And when they realized that the man who had life-and-death power over them was the brother whom they had betrayed, they felt guilt and fear.
But in one of the most magnanimous speeches ever recorded, Joseph assured them they need not be afraid. For despite their selfish and evil motivation, God used their action to rescue many. He said to them, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:5–7; emphasis added). And once again, we see the contrast between the sinfulness of humanity and God’s overwhelming grace. Even though Joseph’s brothers had committed a thoroughly evil action, God used it to preserve a remnant.
Time and again in the Old Testament, most of God’s people lost their way, substituting the worship of false gods for faith in the one true God. Eventually, the consequences of abandoning God resulted in disaster for the nation. Yet there always remained a few who were loyal to God—a remnant of the faithful.
When Elijah opined to God that he alone remained faithful to God in the northern kingdom of Israel, God corrected him: “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).
When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and carried off most of the population to Babylon, a remnant remained faithful to God. And a remnant returned to Jerusalem after decades in exile.
The Bible repeatedly shows us that whenever human sin reaches such a desperate state that God must act to limit it, He accompanies judgment with the deliverance of a remnant. But why? Because God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God wants “everyone”—in other words, as many as possible—to come to repentance, be saved, and experience eternal life. He preserves a remnant not only because He loves them—He could simply translate them as He did Enoch and Elijah—but also because they serve as His witnesses, proclaiming His saving grace and inviting others to experience that grace.
Ever since Eden, Satan has kept telling humankind lies about God. Sadly, the majority believe him. If they are to have any opportunity to come to repentance, then God must maintain a faithful remnant who will tell the truth about Him and His kingdom. It was true of Noah and his family, of the descendants of Jacob, of the faithful in the time of Elijah, and so on. In a striking example of this, the Jews who were carried into exile in Babylon returned to Jerusalem. Consequently, the Old Testament Scriptures were preserved, including the record of God’s saving acts and the prophecies pointing to the coming of the Son of God—a stunning example of bearing witness to the power and goodness of God.
So what significance, if any, does this have for you and me?
The Bible says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Note the word culmination. It suggests the end of a process that produces something greater than the sum of its parts. Somehow, the witness of all the “remnants” of the past will be assembled and completed before Christ comes. There must be one remnant yet to come.
Revelation—the book that tells us about what will take place at the very end of Earth’s history—speaks of an end-time remnant. “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17, KJV).
We have already noted that God preserves the remnant to proclaim His power and goodness and bear witness to His character. The specific content and expression of the messages are varied to meet the needs and readiness of the audience.
After the Flood, that message consisted mainly of pointing out the evil of sin and the goodness of the Creator. In Joseph’s day, for the world at large, it concerned the God who could see the future and who had preserved humanity from starvation through His prophetic dream given to Pharaoh and interpreted by Joseph. Elijah’s witness proclaimed that it was the God of Israel, not Baal, who brought the rain and gave life. In Daniel’s day, God’s faithful witnesses demonstrated that God raised up kings and overthrew empires—even Babylon, the power that then oppressed Daniel’s people, the Israelites.
And for us? We “on whom the culmination of the ages has come”? We have the opportunity to become part of the final remnant. The message is outlined in Revelation 14, where it is proclaimed by three angels. The first angel tells us that we should worship the Creator, for He is about to establish justice. The second messenger tells us that Babylon, the great opponent of God and oppressor of His people, “is fallen.” Not that it will fall, future tense, but that is now fallen, present tense. The third messenger warns us that those who worship false gods will suffer the same fate as Babylon.
This is good news, indeed. Yes, there will be judgment. But there will also be deliverance for the remnant who bear faithful witness to God. And this witness consists not only of truths to be believed and taught but also of transforming principles to be lived.
The message of the final remnant contains threads from all the remnant messages that have gone before. Those remnants are not forgotten nor are their messages outdated. Instead, it will be as if all those small fragments from the remnant table are assembled into a great tapestry in which we can see, for the first time, God’s great, magnificent pattern of redemption.
Ed Dickerson is an author, teacher, and church planter. He has spoken to audiences on three continents.