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Scripture teaches that only a small percentage of earth’s population will be ready to meet Jesus when He appears in the clouds of glory. The Bible calls these people “the remnant.” In their attempts to be among that group, people have taken up some rather bizarre practices.

In the fifteenth century, for instance, hordes of Christians wandered through towns and cities, beating themselves with whips and chains. Known as the flagellants, they believed that only those who mortify their flesh will be ready to meet Jesus, and the only way to mortify the flesh was to beat it silly.

In England, the radical Fifth Monarchy men taught that the way to prepare for Christ’s return was through a violent revolution— which they attempted to start.

The Shakers, in early America, said that the righteous must practice celibacy. The notorious Skoptsy sect of nineteenth-century Russia took this line of reasoning to the extreme, claiming that castration was the only way to be among the final remnant. For some reason, groups with beliefs of this nature tend to die out!

Others, all through Christian history, have believed that extreme asceticism was the key to being part of the remnant. As a result, many locked themselves away in monasteries or caves—in some cases even starving themselves to death.

Though Scripture does indeed indicate that a limited number of people will be ready to meet Jesus at His return, becoming one of them is a lot less complicated than most people have made it out to be. In fact, in just a few succinct verses, the book of Revelation describes who will comprise God’s end-time people. And, fortunately, neither flagellation, castration, nor starvation are among the characteristics it lists.

Revelation describes the remnant

Revelation’s description of this group is found in chapter 12. In just 17 verses this chapter covers the essence of salvation history (though not necessarily in chronological order). The narrative includes the expulsion of Satan from heaven (verse 9), the birth of Christ (verse 4), and the long span of time when God’s church had to flee from persecution (verse 14). It ends with the final remnant: “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring— those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (verse 17).

Later on, Revelation talks about those who “ ‘worship the beast and his image’ ” (chapter 14:11), a symbol of spiritual apostasy in the last days. And immediately after that, it describes those who, amid this apostasy, stay faithful to the Lord: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).

Though whole books could be (and have been) written about these people, Revelation makes two simple points about them. It says two characteristics qualify this group of men and women from every nation, race, and culture as ready to meet Jesus when He returns. First, they have remained “faithful to Jesus.” That is, they accept by faith what Scripture says Christ has done for them through His atoning death on the cross. Second, they obey the commandments of God. That is, in response to what Christ has done for them, they are obedient to God’s law.

Of course, these characteristics are nothing new. Both the Old and New Testaments testify to faith and obedience as the two distinguishing characteristics of God’s faithful throughout the ages. From Abel’s sacrifice of an animal as a symbol of his faith in the atoning death of the coming Savior, up through the apostle John’s words, “This is love for God, to obey his commands” (see Genesis 4:4), faith and obedience have always marked the life of the Lord’s own. That’s certainly true in the last days, too, when massive pressure will be placed on these faithful ones to join in the universal apostasy of worshiping the beast.

Of these two features, “the faith of Jesus” is the most important, because it’s from this trait that the other, that of keeping “the commandments of God,” originates and derives its meaning. The crucial aspect of those who make up this final remnant, which distinguishes them from everyone else, is the same crucial aspect that has distinguished all of God’s true followers through all the ages: they have made the gospel the center of their lives. However intense the turmoil and struggles of the last days, when almost the whole world will be swept away by Satan’s overwhelming deceptions, people of the end time will face the same issue that people have faced throughout history: Have they surrendered themselves to Jesus Christ, accepted His righteousness in the stead of their own unrighteousness, and as a result lived by a faith that is revealed through obedience to God’s law? Those who have done so are the remnant depicted in Scripture. Those who haven’t—aren’t. It’s that simple.

The simple truth

It’s that simple because the gospel is that simple. Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, teaches the basic truth that we are all sinners, we have all broken God’s law. In the New Testament the apostle Paul wrote, “ ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one’ ” (Romans 3:10–12). When Paul wrote those words, he was simply quoting the Old Testament (see Psalm 14:1–3; 53:1–3).

But the good news of the gospel is that God loves us anyway, despite our sins—and through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, we can be accepted as if we had never sinned to begin with. Why? Because on the cross Christ paid the penalty for our sins. God’s righteous anger at our evil was poured out upon Jesus, so we would never have to face it ourselves. And not only that, when we accept Christ’s death on our behalf, God credits us with Christ’s perfect righteousness. Consequently, when God views us, He sees Jesus’ perfection, not our sins and shortcomings. This is the only hope we have for salvation.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8).

Scripture teaches that we are far too corrupt to save ourselves. That’s why Christ came to save us. We have to grasp by faith this wonderful truth about Jesus. The final remnant does grasp it by faith, and that’s why it is depicted as remaining faithful to Jesus.

So we can’t be saved by keeping the commandments. But the Bible doesn’t conclude then that we can ignore them. Through Christ, we can be forgiven murder, adultery, blasphemy, lying, etc. Do we therefore continue in the very things that brought us condemnation in the first place? Of course not! Instead, we have a new life in Christ—a life in which we, through the grace of God, follow the commandments, even as Jesus did.

Indeed, Revelation 14:4 depicts the remnant as those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as first fruits to God and the Lamb.”

Here those who comprise the remnant are described as those who, in loving faith, follow (or obey) the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Their obedience isn’t an attempt to earn salvation, which would be a useless endeavor. Instead, they follow the Lamb because they already have salvation— they’re following the One who has given it to them.

Christ will return to this earth. And when He does, a faithful remnant will be ready to meet Him. Who will comprise that remnant? Not those who beat themselves silly or who starve themselves to death. No, the Bible says it will be made up of those who reveal their faith in Jesus by lovingly obeying God’s commandments.

How Perfect Must I Be?

by Clifford Goldstein
From the February 2010 Signs