"Behold, the Lord, the GOD of hosts, will lop off the boughs with a terrible crash; Those also who are tall in stature will be cut down And those who are lofty will be abased." (Isaiah 10:33)
Unredeemed humanity - even for that matter carnal Christians - are hardly able to do the will of God by themselves. The root of the problem is the power of sin and their carnal mind which is opposed to God and His ways (Rom. 8: 5-8; 1 Cor. 2: 14, 1 Jn. 5:19). The salvation experience is the primary and the most important step in tackling the problem of sin and the secular mindset. However, receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is just the first step; it is the doorway into the realm of God. To completely transform the new believer into a mature Christian, into the image of Christ, God has first to undertake a molding and purifying process in the life of the person. This is the process of sanctification that requires various processes to mature the believer into a vessel fit for God’s higher purposes.
The Pruning Process
The sanctifying measures God initiates in the life of the believer primarily target the natural man in the areas of self-sufficiency and self-glory (Ps. 147: 10-11; Jer. 9:23-24; 1 Cor. 1:3-31; Jn. 15:4-6; 1 Pet. 5:5b; James 4:13-16). God’s objective targeting these areas is to bring the believer to a life of faith and dependence on God, to a life of humility and obedience. God wants to restore His original image in man that was lost because of the fall. The pruning process targets thinking habits, to re-shape set mindsets, worldviews, and plans of life. It also targets behavioral patterns, settled habits of life and relational patterns. The final product God is aiming at is none other than the original image of mankind before the fall. It is the restoration process of image not less than the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Eph. 4: 22-24; Heb. 12:5-6,11; Rom. 12:2).
The pruning experience will differ from person to person. What each person will pass through will depend on what God sees needs addressing. Whatever the sin or the bad habit God detects, He will remove through His fire. The type and length of the pruning process will also depend on what God wants to form in a person’s life. The purpose God has for the person’s life determines how God will refine and mold him. Nonetheless, the result is essentially the same in all. After the pruning experience, the person will be ready for the service of God, as a restored and empowered vessel of God, promoting God’s higher purposes on earth.
The Remnant Principle
The pruning process by which God works – to restore His righteousness in the life of His people and to prepare His servants for a higher service – in this discussion I call God’s remnant principle. The same idea we encounter in the Old Testament in the form of the remnant-branch principle (Job 14:7-9; Isa.10: 33,11:5; Jer. 23:5; Zech. 6: 12-13), and in the form of the cross-resurrection principle in the New Testament (Matt. 10: 38-42; Jn. 12: 23-26, 15:3; 2 Cor. 12: 7-10, Phil. 3: 10-11; Rev. 22:16). God’s Old Testament remnant-branch and New Testament cross-resurrection are inherently the same. Both as a process their purpose is to purge sin and self-sufficiency, and to bring man closer to God and to make man a totally-surrendered servant of God. The importance God places on this principle becomes clearer as we study the following examples.
1. The Case of King Nebuchadnezzar
The fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel has an incident which is a stark illustration of the remnant principle. The chapter recounts a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful king of the Babylon. The dream is about a luxurious tree which is suddenly cut down to its stump. The branches are removed way, but the stump is preserved, wrapped in chains. After a long waiting period (literary, seven seasons) the stumps revive.
The dream foretold what will come to pass in the life of King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. The dream foreshadowed what God will do to humble the king for his pride and self-sufficiency.
The luxurious tree: The majestic tree signified the king in his worldwide power and influence, in his unprecedented glory and impressive achievements. However, these blessings made the king proud; he took all the credit for his spectacular achievements. He left God no room for his success. His pride attracted the attention of Heaven in the form of God’s humbling judgment. God cut down the pride of the king. The king left his palace to roam the fields as a lunatic (Dan 4:10-14, 20-22).
The stump: The luxurious tree is not destroyed; it is not torn out of the ground by its roots. The tree was cut down to a stump. God left a hope of life, a future, for the tree. But it must remain bound, wrapped up in chains. Similarly, God did not kill Nebuchadnezzar for pride. God could have killed him as He killed king Herod for pride (cf. Acts 10). Instead, God humbled Nebuchadnezzar. His reduced roamed the fields like a lunatic. Invincible chains were all around him, a sign of the judgment of God in his life. The mighty king was humbled to the point of eating grass. The king remained a miserable figure until the time God visited his stump self in His mercy (Dan 4: 14-17, 31-33).
The branch: Once the process of humbling the king was completed, God let the humbled, transformed king to be restored to his former glory. After the king has completed the appointed time of his trials and repented of his sin of arrogance, God restored him to sanity and to the throne. King Nebuchadnezzar, transformed by his humbling experience, became a God-knowing and God-serving leader (Dan. 4:34-37). A new branch (a transformed man) emerged from his testing dark times to rule in the fear of God.
2. Noah: The Cosmic Meltdown
In the Old Testament the lives of Noah, Job, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, etc., we can see the same remnant-branch principle at work. bear testimony to the workings of the same principle in their lives.
For example, in the Flood account (Gen 6 –9), we read how God judged the entire world for depravity. We can consider the Flood which God sent on that generation as His ax of His judgment that God laid at the root of the tree of human pride and depravity. God gave the depraved world a time to repent, but at last when they did not, He moved in with His ax of judgment. The Flood, which destroyed everything in its wake, except a “stump,” a seed of hope. Noah and his family were that “stump” which was not removed along with the branches of sin. The “sump” was wrapped up (protected) in the ark, while the deluge prevailed on earth and destroyed everything with life. After a season (after God made sure that which should be removed has died out), God remembered Noah and his family in the ark. The remnant of humans, its stump, God brought out of the ark, made them the new branch that fill the earth.
3. Job: Rising from the Ashes
In the life of Job, we also encounter the remnant-branch principle, working at a microcosm level (cf. Job 14: 14: 7-9).
We first meet Job prosperous and in favor with both God and man. However, God permitted Satan to bring series of calamities into Job’s life
Job was hacked down by series of disasters of every type. He lost his children, his wealth, and his health in rapid succession. Job was reduced into the lowest state any person can ever experience. Job became a mourning, destitute, sickly, and despised man. That respected man among his community, ended as the most humbled despised person. The luxurious branch of Job removed, only his stump remained intact. He did not understand why such ordeal can happen to a man a God-fearing man like him.
When God allowed God-fearing Job pass through a fiery ordeal. God has His own reasons. It is because even the religious life is not exempt from the pruning knife of God. Even pious has some dross to be cleansed of His life. Does Job know that God’s favor in His life does not depend on works, but in faith? When everything does not seem to work in his life, does Job still love and trust God? Does Job know God’s love is not dependent on our circumstances, even on our pious deeds? God restored Job after the pruning process. God revived the ‘stump’ of Job.
Job received double for all what he lost. Job learned the true way of worshiping and understanding God. A new man has first to emerge from the ashes to carry God’s glory. God can bestow His secrets only to the new branch, the purified Job. God wanted a new wine-skin to pour His new wine into.
4. Israel: A Remnant Shall Return
For most of their story, Jews disregarded God’s laws, pursuing idolatry and sinful practices. As the result, God sent judgment on Israel time and again. The purpose of the judgments of God, either war, exile, or famine, all were intended to cleanse the people from their habit of transgressing His ways.
God’s judgment usually came against Israel in the form of natural calamity or invading armies. God used dire punishments such as drought, plague, enemy forces, and exile to humble His people. The aim of God’s judgment was primarily to remove the proud and the arrogant among the people, particularly those who led the people astray. Through the judgment process, God always preserved a holy remnant whom He later uses to bring about national restoration and revival of spiritual commitment (1 Kgs 19: 10; Is. 2: 12-22; Amos 3: 9-12; Micah 2: 12-13; 5: 7-8; Zephaniah 3: 11-13).
In understanding the principle of God’s dealings with Israel, the Book of Isaiah is the best guide. In his inspired prophetic evaluation of his nation, Isaiah amply uses the metaphor of a cut tree that will come to life again from its stump. A felled tree, a surviving stump (remnant), and a regenerated new branch characterize Isaiah’s prophecies (Is. 4:2 –6, 6:11-13, 10:15,33-34, 11:1, 14:8, 27:6, etc.). For example, Isaiah wrote,
Behold, the Lord, the Lord of Hosts,
Will lop off the branches with terror,
Those of a high stature will be hewn down,
The haughty will be humbled,
He will cut down the tickets of the forest with ax,
And Lebanon will fall by the Mighty One. (Is 10:23-34)
On the other hand, God would preserve a holy stump, and use that to restore and renew the nation. Isaiah wrote,
If only a tenth of the people are left, even they will be destroyed.
But just as stumps remain after trees have been cut down,
Some of My chosen ones will be left as holy seed. (Is 6:13)
We can consider one historical episode in Israel’s history to see how what Isaiah’s and other prophets’ words in this regard came to pass. God used Babylon as His ax of judgment against idolatrous and arrogant Judah (2 Chr. 36:14-16). Judah was carried away into captivity for 70 years. In the captivity, God preserved a remnant, a holy seed unto Himself, which He later used to bring about the restoration of His people. After the appointed period of captivity was over, God visited this remnant and brought it back to its own land. Leaders like Ezra, Nehemiah, Joshua and Zerubbabel, and all the rest of the returnees, were the remnant God used to rebuild the temple and city, and revive true worship in the land. Here we note how God used Babylon to purge His people of their pride and idolatry. God preserved a humbled and cleansed remnant which He used to perpetuate the identity of Jewry and to preserve Judaism in its original form (see Ez. chapters 9 &10; Neh. 10:28-31).
5. Moses: A Prophet’s Life in Three Phases
At the individual level, Moses’ life serves as a good illustration of the theology of the remnant-branch. Moses can provide us with a pattern by which we can understand the way God shapes and molds His servants for His calling and divine purpose.
Moses’ comes in three distinct phases, each 40-years long. These phases in the life of Moses furnish as with the perfect model to illustrate the principle of remnant-branch theology. Each of these 40-years period in Moses’ life correspond with the three processes stages we have identified as the characteristics of the remnant-branch principle.
i. The first forty years of Moses life, were years of the natural man, developed to the highest level of rank and status. From his infancy upward, Moses was privileged to the comforts of the palace of Pharaoh. Moses was educated to the highest degree; he was instructed in all the wisdom of Egypt. In rank, he was a very powerful prince in Egypt (Ex. 2: 210; Acts 7: 20-22; Heb. 11: 23-26). Literary, Moses had it all – power, wisdom, influence, riches, glory, etc. No wonder that Moses was a smug, self-sufficient and authoritative person. Though he felt God will use him to liberate his fellow Jews from Egyptian bondage, he could barely wait until on God uses him to this end. Moses chose to act without waiting on God. Moses, in this instance, represents the natural man – mankind all in its self-sufficiency not relying on God to save it.
ii. The next forty years of Moses’ life were in quite contrast to the first forty years. In one day, Moses lost it all. After killing an Egyptian (in a botched attempt to rescue a Jew), Moses had to leave Egypt in haste to escape the wrath of the king, Moses fled to Midian. Moses stay in exile in Midian lasted full forty years. This makes the second phase of Moses’ life, or in God’s plan in the making of His servant.
God used Moses’ 40 years in Median to strip Moses of his self-sufficiency and arrogance. Moses’ glorious luxurious tree of life was cut to its stump by the strong hand of God. The man who once was used to public acclaim now became a very obscure herdsman. Before God could visit the remnant (stump) of Moses, first patience has to run its full course in Moses’ life (cf. Jam. 1:3-4).
iii. After the completion of the 40 years, God appeared to Moses at the burning bush. The much reduced Moses was anointed and commissioned by God. God commissioned Moses to be the liberator of Israel from Egyptian oppression. God’s visitation changed the lowly shepherd into a mighty prophet-prince in one day. The stump of Moses gave rise to a new branch, a branch that was destined to impact the whole world.
At the burning bush, it was as if, ‘a man-child’ was born, and a mighty man of God was anointed. Moses came out of his wilderness as a dreadful lion that will plunder the den of the powerful Egyptian Empire, releasing the God’s people from Egyptian captivity.
6. The New Testament: The Cross and the Believer
In the New Testament, the theology of the remnant-branch is presented in the form and language of the cross. In the New Testament, the cross is used in dual sense. First and foremost, the cross is about the sacrifice the Lord Jesus made of Himself on Calvary to atone for the sin of humanity. In its second sense, the cross signifies the surrender of self and one’s own will in an ongoing fellowship with Jesus. In this regard, the cross places an obligation on the believer to purge himself daily from all carnal inclinations and to transform his natural mind set to reflect that of Christ, the incarnate Word (Mat. 10: 37-39; Gal. 2:20, 5:24). Therefore, it is in the second sense that here we discuss the cross. In this sense, the cross means the lying down of one’s life in total obedience in order to do the things that please God. As God’s will goes against carnal choices, bearing a cross becomes a purging and humbling experience for the believer. The purging and experience often takes place in any of the following three forms,
- Through voluntarily carrying ones cross daily: Here the believer willingly crucifies the flesh daily so that the will of God will prevail in his life. In this case, out of his volition and desire to surrender to the will of God, the believer, happily applies the ax of the cross to his life. Through moment by moment obedience to the Word of God and to the Spirit of God, the believer lies down his life as a sacrifice to Christ (Rom. 12: 1-4). He applies the Word of God as an ax to the tree of his natural man, to cut away branches of pride and self-sufficiency from his life. The humble remnant that finally remains (forms in him) will be Christ like in its humility and obedient spirit. At the end of the process of self-surrender, God will lift up and glorify this holy remnant of a person in the sight of all (Mat. 10:37-39; Lk. 14: 7-10; 1 Pet. 5:6).
- The second avenue is a pruning process God Himself initiates and undertakes. Often, God takes the initiative to trim off fleshly desires and carnal pursuits from the life of His own people. When this happens, the working of the cross in one’s life will be deep and painful. The person undergoing a pruning experience will suffer the dark night of the soul. God applies the painful pruning knife to facilitate that a sanctified people can bear much fruit (Jn. 15: 1-7; 2 Cor. 4: 16-18, 6: 10; Heb. 12: 3-11; Jam. 1: 1:2).
- Judgment of God: Whenever the Holy Spirit has to deal with sin in a person’s life, God will subject the person to a purifying process. The person will be disciplined by the hand of God, but the purpose is to bring the person back to do the right relationship with God. The punishment God administers in the lives of His people can be quite fiery. What God does to purge His people from sin of pride and arrogance can be exacting (1 Cor. 5: 1-5; 1 Tim. 1:19-20; Rev. 2: 22-23, 3: 19; cf. Isa. 4:3-4).
Since the major emphasis of the New Testament is on humbling oneself voluntarily, the life of the Lord Jesus is presented in the Bible for Christians to follow and imitate.
7. Jesus Christ: Our Heavenly Example
Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, and death on the cross are set as examples of total surrender and obedience to God’s will (see Ps. 40; Heb 2; Phil. 2). St. Paul writing about Jesus in Philippians clearly brings out the exemplary nature of the life and suffering of the Lord Jesus. St. Paul words in Philippians 2: 1-11 give us some clue how the life of Jesus’ corresponds with the remnant-branch/ cross-resurrection principle.
1. The pre-incarnate Jesus existed in full divine glory. Jesus was part of the Godhead. In this state, Jesus was co-equal with God (cf. Jn. 1:1).
2. At the incarnation, Jesus voluntarily emptied himself of all His Divine attributes, and entered the world as a lowly human being. Not only that, but He furthermore humbled Himself to the most ignominious death, death by Roman crucifixion. His choice to die on the cross was the sign of the depth of His self-denial and total surrender to the will of God. In the eyes of the world, crucifixion was a penalty reserved only for the accursed according to the Jews, to the idiots according to the Greeks, or to the worst criminal types according the Romans.
3. Jesus’ for the depth of His obedience in dying on the despised cross, God the Father resurrected Him from the dead, raised Him to Heavenly glory, and gave Jesus a name above every other name. God the Father bestowed authority on Jesus, making Him to rule over all God’s creation, forever. God declared ultimately everyone will bow before Jesus. Jesus is called the root (i.e. stump) and branch (i.e., revival) of David’s kingdom (Is. 11: 1-4; Rom. 15:12; Rev. 22:16) for this reason.
8. The End-Time Remnant-Branch
At the beginning of each Kingdom dispensation, the remnant-branch principle operates at a grand scale. For example, when God inaugurated The Patriarchal Age we note how God worked through the life of Abram/ Abraham and Sarai/ Sarah. We note how God launched the Dispensation of the Law, we saw how the remnant-branch principle operated in the life of Moses. Similarly, at the beginning of the Church Dispensation, we saw how God used the cross-resurrection principle in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, if each Kingdom dispensation is ushered in by the grand application of the remnant-branch operation, then is it scriptural to expect the last phase in the dispensations of God’s Kingdom to manifest the remnant-branch principle on a grand scale? The answer to this important question lies through the careful investigation of the Scripture. However, besides searching the Scriptures it is also equally important and valid to listen to the voice of revelation as being given by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:10-12). “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10).
According to the Bible, Jesus’ obedience is something the church has to follow for a pattern (1 Pet. 2:21). The Christian has to emulate Jesus in His utter obedience and in enduring fiery trials (Phil. 2: 5, 3:10-11; 1 Pet. 4: 12-14; Mk. 10: 35-45; Rev. 11). Emulating Jesus’ in His utter obedience and suffering has the promise of a blessing bordering on His. If we endure our suffering as Jesus did, then we will enter to a glory like His (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. Chapters 2 & 3).
(To be continued with the second part of this article).
Glory be to God (Received and taught beginning 1988. Written and posted July 2003)
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