Sunday, August 07, 2016

The New Testament Understanding of the Land Promise

The land of Palestine in the Old Testament typifies the promised rest of the elect in Christ. Just as the nation of Israel looked forward to her everlasting rest in the Promised Land, which was never fulfilled due to her faithlessness, the elect of God now find rest in their Savior Jesus Christ. Faith is, and always will be, the requirement to enter God’s rest. As Holwerda explains:

“The promised rest, symbolized by the land, was never really enjoyed in the Old Testament, at least not for long. The rest joyfully proclaimed by Joshua became only a temporary blessing later lost. Thus within the history of Israel in the Old Testament the original occupation of the land became only an anticipation of a rest still to be enjoyed. As faith was required then, so Hebrews declares that now faith in Christ is required to enter God’s rest (Hebrews 4). This rest is not achievable within the territorial boundaries of any specific land on earth because it is a blessing associated with a heavenly country and city, a land and a city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11).”[1]

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:3-5).” Our Lord promised the kingdom of heaven to the “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3, cf. Luke 6:20), and the earth to the “meek” (Matt. 5:5). Concerning the recipients of these heavenly blessings, Brueggemann aptly comments:

“The land will be given not to the tough presuming ones, but to the vulnerable ones with no right to expect it. The vibrations begin about the “meek” inheriting the land, not the strident. This is a discernment that Israel would no doubt have wished to reject. The world believes that stridency inherits, but in its vulnerability Israel learns that the meek and not the strident have the future.”[2]

From the New Covenant perspective, it is clear that God has promised His covenant children the earth as an inheritance, and not just a localized piece of land in Palestine. The scope of the inheritance of God’s covenant people has been expanded, and indeed, has acquired a universal character. Jesus evidently applies the Abrahamic covenant, including the land promise, to the Church by expanding the original promise of Palestine to include the New Earth (Rev. 21:1).

The apostle Peter writes, “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13).” Peter did not exhort the New Testament believers to anticipate a period of residency in Jerusalem or Palestine; he urged them to look for “a new earth,” which is part of the redeemed creation following the Parousia of Christ. Likewise, Jesus did not limit the land inheritance to only the Jews, but emphasized that the “meek” shall “inherit the earth,” regardless of nationality or ethnicity. “Yet many theologians in the present day continue to interpret the promise of the land in the old covenant in terms of its shadowy, typological dimensions, rather than recognizing the greater scope of new covenant fulfillments.”[3]

Elsewhere, Robertson writes:

“[The] land-possession always fitted within the category of shadows, types and prophecies characteristic of the old covenant in its presentation of redemptive truth. Just as the tabernacle was never intended to be a settled item in the plan of redemption, but rather was designed to point to Christ’s tabernacling among his people (cf. John 1:14), and just as the sacrificial system could never atone for sins, but could only foreshadow the offering of the sacrifice of the Son of God (Heb. 9:23-26), so in a similar manner the patriarch Abraham received the promise of the land but never experienced the blessing of full possession. By this non-possession, the patriarch learned to look forward ‘to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Heb. 11:10). Abraham and his immediate descendants never returned to the fatherland which they had left, because ‘they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (Heb. 11:15-16).”[4]

The earthly city of Jerusalem is a type which points towards the anti-type: the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). As we have seen in the previous chapter, the earthly city of Jerusalem – which is a symbol of Judaism - is in bondage to the law (Gal. 4:21-31). “But there is another Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that is above, from which the enthroned Son of God sends forth his Spirit. Apart from this Jerusalem, none of us would have a mother to bring us into the realm of God’s redemptive working, for she is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).”[5]

The earthly Jerusalem is no longer the city of promise; it has lost all its significance as the Holy City of God, the city of God’s covenant people. Just as the patriarchs desired a better, heavenly city (Heb. 11:16), the Church looks forward to an eschatological, heavenly Jerusalem. “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).” Therefore, according to the New Testament record, “the historical disobedience of Jewish Israel has shattered the salvific significance of historical Jerusalem.”[6]

The promises associated with the city of Jerusalem are still in force today, but the New Testament explains to us that these promises can no longer be associated with this earthly city. God has now built a heavenly city; He has redeemed unto Himself a people who shall inherit this New Jerusalem by faith via the New Covenant administration. Holwerda elaborates:

“An underlying premise of New Testament teaching is that the promises that once were attached to the earthly Jerusalem are now attached to the heavenly and New Jerusalem. Believers in Christ have been born in Zion because Jerusalem is “our mother.” . . . The New Testament affirms that believers from every tribe and nation are citizens of Jerusalem and heirs of its promised salvation. Jerusalem has become a universal city and, as such, a symbol of the new earth. The fulfillment of the promise of land is under way, and the meek will inherit the earth.”[7]

The Psalmist proclaimed that “the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. . . . The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever (Ps. 37:11, 29).” Consistent with the Reformed understanding of the Abrahamic land promise, our Lord Jesus applies Psalm 37 to the New Testament Church in His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not spiritualizing away Israel’s covenant promise when He applies it to the Church. He is expanding the covenant to include Gentiles, and widening Israel’s territorial promise to encompass the whole of redeemed earth.

The Apostle Paul, likewise, comprehended the land promise to be universal in scope: “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:13; emphasis added).” God’s covenant with Abraham, in the light of the New Covenant, has no geographical boundaries.

Jesus and the apostle Paul undoubtedly interpreted the Abrahamic land promise to be universal and cosmological in extent and dimensionality. This inheritance was not to be granted based upon race or nationality, but “through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13) in the Messiah. In the light of New Testament revelation, we understand that Abraham’s children (Gal. 3:6-7) will not only inherit the land in Palestine, but the entire cosmos (Rev. 21:1-2).

The land in Palestine served as a type of the true inheritance of the elect, which is “a better country, that is, an heavenly (Heb. 11:16).” This land of promise is not limited in its scope, but includes the renewed Heaven and Earth. This is also the Promised Land which the patriarchs had looked forward to, which is embraced by faith in the promised Messiah.

The promises of God to Abraham thus find their glorious fulfillment in the New Testament Church:

“The New Testament has neither forgotten nor rejected the promise of the land. Earthly Jerusalem has been transcended, but the present location of the city in heaven is viewed within the continuing history of redemption, which will culminate on the renewed earth. The heavenly Jerusalem will descend as the new Jerusalem, but not until its citizens have been gathered from among the nations of the world. Judging from this perspective of fulfillment, one may conclude that the original land of Canaan and the city of Jerusalem were only an anticipatory fulfillment of God’s promise. As such they function in Scripture as a sign of the future universal city on the renewed earth, the place where righteousness dwells.”[8]

Hence, from the New Covenant perspective, the land promise has acquired a universal scope. The meek shall inherit not only the New Earth, but will also be made citizens of the new, heavenly Jerusalem.[9]


We have seen in the previous blog posts that the primary premise of dispensational hermeneutics is the assumption that a consistent, literal reading of Scripture will provide us with its intended, authorial meaning. But this principle of hermeneutics is apparently inadequate. The assumption that a literal understanding of Old Testament prophecy is the correct understanding undermines and ignores how New Testament writers interpreted similar passages of the Old Testament.

From a New Covenant perspective, the exegete should employ the principles of interpretation laid out in the New Testament by comparing Scripture with Scripture. Old Testament prophecies cannot be completely understood apart from New Testament revelation. Furthermore, the exegete should not interpret all Old Testament prophecies with a crass, wooden literalism. A more serious blunder would be to impose the erroneous, literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies upon New Testament Scripture.[10] With progressive revelation, Old Testament typological and shadowy forms become lucid and clear in the New Testament.

In his analysis of Christian Zionism and Dispensationalism, Sizer accurately perceives that the fundamental error of dispensational hermeneutics is its failure to interpret Old Covenant shadows with the light of New Covenant reality. Sizer elucidates:

“Christian Zionism [and Dispensationalism] errs most profoundly because it fails to appreciate the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the ways in which the latter completes, fulfils and annuls the former. It is fundamental that Christians read the Scriptures with Christian eyes, and that they interpret the Old Covenant in the light of the New Covenant, not the other way round. . . . Under the Old Covenant, revelation from God came often in shadow, image, form and prophecy. In the New Covenant that revelation finds its consummation in reality, substance and fulfillment. The question is not whether the promises of the covenant are to be understood literally or spiritually as Dispensationalists like to stress. It is instead a question of whether they should be understood in terms of Old Covenant shadow or in terms of New Covenant reality. This is the most basic hermeneutical assumption which Christian Zionists consistently fail to acknowledge.”[11]

Rejecting the Dispensationalist’s tendencies of regression to Old Testament types and shadows, Reformed theologians anticipate an inheritance well beyond the land of Palestine. In the light of New Covenant reality, the Reformers look forward to a kingdom far more glorious than any Jewish monarchy in the land of Palestine. Contrary to the Judaistic expectation of a reestablished throne of David on earth, the New Testament sees the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant with Christ ruling on the throne of David at the right hand of the Father. It is with confidence that Christians can declare that, “we have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1b).”

For a Christian today, the subject of Israelology extends beyond its theological ramifications. A correct perspective of Israel and its land promise have far greater implications than some might want to admit.[12] Christian Zionists and those who support their theology of Israel (i.e. Israelology) are inadvertently directing Jewish eyes to look away from the heavenly realities, and down towards the physical piece of land in Palestine. Instead of guiding the Israelites to look at the far greater fulfillment of Old Covenant promises in Christ Jesus and His Church, it is sad that some well-meaning Christians are in fact misdirecting the Jewish people back to Old Testament shadowy forms and figures. Surely, Reformed theologians must reject such a retrogressive interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.

Robertson observes that,

“In the process of redemptive history, a dramatic movement has taken place. The arena of redemption has shifted from type to reality, from shadow to substance. The land which once was the specific place of God’s redemptive work served well in the realm of old covenant forms as a picture of paradise lost and promised. But in the realm of new covenant fulfillments, the land has expanded to encompass the whole world. In this age of fulfillment, a retrogression to the limited forms of the old covenant must be neither expected nor promoted. Reality must not give way to shadow. By claiming the old covenant form of the promise of the land, the Jews of today may be forfeiting its greater new covenant fulfillment. Rather than playing the role of Jacob as heir apparent to the redemptive promises made to Abraham their father, they could be assuming the role of Esau by selling their birthright for a fleshly pot of porridge (Gen. 25:29-34; cf. Heb. 12:16).”[13]

Therefore, if the Jews are to continue with their insistence of a literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise, the tragedy for national Israel today will be the forfeiture of the blessings of the New Covenant for a piece of temporal, earthly inheritance.


[1] David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 105.
[2] W. Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 39, quoted in Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 89, n. 7.
[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000), 27.
[4] O. Palmer Robertson, “A New-Covenant Perspective On the Land,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 125-126.
[5] Ibid., 138.
[6] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 109.
[7] Ibid., 110.
[8] Ibid., 111-112.
[9] Current amillennial thinking has emphasized the earthy nature of the consummative phase of the Kingdom. For example, see Anthony A. Hoekema’s book Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1979).
[10] Sizer explains that “Christian Zionism is born out of the conviction that God has a continuing special relationship with, and covenantal purpose for, the Jewish people, apart from the church, and that the Jewish people have a divine right to possess the land of Palestine. This is based on a literal and futurist interpretation of the Bible and the conviction that Old Testament prophecies concerning the Jewish people are being fulfilled in the contemporary State of Israel.” See Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 20.
[11] Sizer, An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land, emphasis mine.
[12] For the profound political implications of Christian Zionism, see Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon, 206-253.
[13] Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 30-31.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Israel and the Promised Land: Part 2

An Everlasting or a Periodic Possession?

Dispensationalists find the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise in the future earthly millennium, when Israel will rule and exercise sovereignty over the Promised Land. But according to this dispensational understanding of fulfillment, the “everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8) of the Promised Land would mean a temporal possession of Palestine during the eschatological millennium at best. Considering the 70 years of Babylonian captivity, and almost two millennia since the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 until the formation of the present state of Israel, the 1000 years of millennial reign would barely make up half the time when Israel was dispossessed of the land in Palestine. As an analogy, if I were to purchase a free-hold property in Singapore, and was dispossessed of the property for half the time, would that be legally regarded as an “everlasting possession?”

For the purpose of our present discussion, let us briefly consider the Noachian covenant God made with the patriarch Noah in Genesis 9:

“And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. . . . And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth (Genesis 9:8-11, 16-17).”

In this covenant with Noah, God declared that he will never destroy the Earth again with a universal flood. Genesis 9:16 explicitly states that it is an “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” If God were to postpone the Noachian covenant for two millennia, and destroyed the world a few more times with universal floods, could He still claim that it was an “everlasting covenant?”

But this is exactly what Dispensationalists are propounding: that the “everlasting” covenant with Abraham is delayed or postponed for at least two millennia. The Abrahamic covenant will find its fulfillment when national Israel possesses the Promised Land in the eschatological millennium. In the meantime, God is not dealing with Israel, but with the Church. God has temporarily suspended His eschatological time clock for Israel, and His “everlasting” covenant with Abraham. He will, nevertheless, ensure that His land promise to Abraham will be fulfilled in the future, earthly, millennial rule.

What Dispensationalists are actually doing is forcing an indefinite time gap called the “Church Age” into the everlasting nature of the Abrahamic covenant. They are interpreting the literal meaning of the word “everlasting” to mean “postponed” or “delayed.” The Hebrew word for “everlasting” is used several times in the Old Testament. For example in Genesis 13:15, in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, the word is translated to “for ever.” “For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever (Gen. 13:15).” Again in Genesis 17:7-8, the same word is translated “for an everlasting” twice. “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Gen. 17:7-8).”

The idea of postponement cannot be derived from the Hebrew word for “everlasting.” Dispensationalists, who emphasize the so-called “consistently literal” hermeneutics, should interpret the Hebrew word “everlasting” to mean exactly that: everlasting, forever and ongoing. The Abrahamic land promise cannot be postponed for almost two millennia, and yet be everlasting in any sense. Likewise, the Noachian covenant cannot be postponed for any period of time without forfeiting the everlasting nature of the promise.

Indeed, when God made the Abrahamic promise to Israel, it was intended to be conditional in a sense. That is, Israel will possess the land as long as she chooses to hold it or until certain conditions are changed. From the Reformed perspective, all the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament were either fulfilled in Christ and His Church, or were forfeited through disobedience. The blessings of the covenant were not postponed or delayed.

Adams observes that obedience through faith in the Messiah is required to bring about national blessing for Israel:

“Then the nationalistic covenant with Israel was conditional. The people committed themselves, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Ex. 19:8). Obedience would bring nationalistic blessing; disobedience would bring a curse (Deut. 28). In this sense, “the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, he who practices them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:12). Blessing as a nation could be experienced only by loyalty to the covenant, as was similarly true of suzereign/vassal treaties of the Middle East.”[1]

Despite the withdrawal of God’s covenant blessing, and the exile of Israel to Assyria and Babylon, God’s faithfulness to His covenant is evident in the prophecies of Jeremiah (Jer. 30-32). “For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it (Jer. 30:3).”

Concerning the Promised Land as God’s gracious gift to Israel, Holwerda writes, “Even when Israel failed and lost the land, the promise of possession did not cease. The promise that the land will be possessed is irrevocable. But if possession is to be maintained, God’s people must become holy as God is holy.”[2] Thus, Israel’s return from exile was still conditioned by its repentance and return to God. Moses proclaimed to the Israelites:

“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee. If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee: And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).”

It is obvious that the Promised Land was never meant to be an unconditional blessing to a disobedient nation. Faith, repentance, and subsequent obedience to God’s commandments were crucial for Israel’s restoration.

It is notable that only a remnant of Israel, and not the entire nation, was eventually brought back to the land in Palestine. “The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God. For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness (Isa. 10:21-22).” God has never promised to save each and every Israelite; only a remnant was brought back to the Promised Land.

Likewise, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul tells us that, “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace (Rom. 11:5).” God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel is demonstrated by the fact that a remnant from every generation of Jews is redeemed in Christ Jesus. God has, indeed, not forsaken the Israelites. He is redeeming unto Himself a people from every tribe and tongue, Jews included.

Even in the Old Testament, restoration of Israel to its Promised Land cannot be accomplished apart from a covenant relationship with Yahweh. In relation to the New Covenant dispensation, nowhere does the Old Testament envision an unconditional, geo-political reconstitution of Israel as a nation. From a New Covenant perspective, the recognition and acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah is the necessary condition of return to the Promised Land. The land in Palestine cannot, therefore, be claimed by those who reject the Messiah as Savior and Lord.

The Old Testament patriarchs were saved by faith (Heb. 11), not by genealogy or the biological inheritance of Jewish genes. Only by looking forward to the promised Messiah and by faith in His deliverance were the Old Testament saints justified.

Holwerda writes concerning the disinheritance of national Israel:

“Judgment falls on those who do not believe. Even though, as the Old Testament people of God, Israel possessed the mysteries of the kingdom in the law and the prophets, they did not understand the mysteries. They had a different understanding of the kingdom of God, a kingdom of political might and power defeating the enemies of Israel and overwhelming the forces of evil, and, as a result, they did not believe that the kingdom of God has arrived in the person and ministry of Jesus. Consequently, their privileged position as the heirs of the kingdom would be taken from them: “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12).”[3]

The land is never promised to the Israelites unconditionally. Apart from saving faith in the promised Messiah, the New David, Israel as an unbelieving nation can have no part in the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22).

The Land Was Possessed by Israel According to the Old Testament

In the book of Joshua, God assured Joshua that He would deliver the land of Palestine into the hands of the Israelites, “Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them (Josh. 1:6).”

Dispensationalists believe that, since Israel has never literally or geographically occupied the Promised Land from the Nile to the Euphrates, the Abrahamic land promise has yet to be fulfilled literally. But this understanding ignores the testimony of the Old Testament writers, and their understanding of the land promise.

Similarly, according to Dispensationalism, Israel has yet to occupy the Promised Land based on geographical and historical evidence. But this begs the question: Should a Christian’s understanding of Scripture be based upon fallible science, geography and history, or should his interpretation rest upon the internal evidence of Scripture alone?

Although the secular historian or archaeologist might argue against the notion that the Israelites did exercise geo-political sovereignty over all of the Promised Land, the Old Testament provides us with an infallible record of this land possession:

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD said unto Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance unto Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. And the land rested from war (Josh. 11:23).”

Again, the Scripture records,

“And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. And the LORD gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand. There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass. (Josh. 21:43-45).”

Scripture emphasizes the fact that the LORD Jehovah gave unto Israel “all the land” which He promised to give to the patriarchs, and not just part of the land. The texts of Joshua 11:23 and 21:43-45 contradict the dispensational expectation of a yet future, literal fulfillment of the land promise: “There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass (Josh. 21:45).”

Israel did possess the land of Palestine according to Scripture; all the promises of God did come to pass (Josh. 21:45). The land was given to Israel via Joshua’s conquests. According to the Bible Presbyterian’s consistently literal hermeneutics, it is difficult, if not impossible, to interpret “all the land” to mean “some of the land.” Perhaps only through the usage of creative, exegetical acrobatics can “all” mean “some.”

The Book of Nehemiah, likewise, affirms the actual possession of the land by national Israel. In Nehemiah 9:22-24, the Levites confessed:

“Moreover thou [Yahweh] gavest them [the Israelites] kingdoms and nations, and didst divide them into corners: so they possessed the land of Sihon, and the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan. Their children also multipliedst thou as the stars of heaven, and broughtest them into the land, concerning which thou hadst promised to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it. So the children went in and possessed the land, and thou subduedst before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gavest them into their hands, with their kings, and the people of the land, that they might do with them as they would.”

The Book of Nehemiah, together with the Book of Joshua, testify that Israel “possessed the land,” and not simply a part of the Promised Land. Despite the temporal occupation of the Promised Land, the Jews lost possession of it through disobedience. There is no biblical evidence that an unrepentant, faithless nation will repossess the physical, land blessings of God.

The reader might begin to ask, “Should the New Testament Church understand the Abrahamic land promise as referring to a physical, geographically limited piece of land in Palestine?” Furthermore, should the actual, everlasting possession of this piece of land be considered as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant?

Despite Joshua’s successful conquest of the land of Canaan, Israel’s temporal possession of the Promised Land was not the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise. Williamson elaborates:

“Nevertheless, while the territorial promise was fulfilled in the conquest of Canaan, it was only partially fulfilled, or rather, this was only the first stage of fulfillment (Josh. 13:1-2). Although the land had been allocated to the various tribes, Israelite control of the territory was still limited. As long as there were pockets of resistance, there could be no permanent state of rest. . . . Moreover, as repeatedly emphasized in Deuteronomy, the continual enjoyment of such rest was dependent on covenant loyalty (cf. Deut. 4:25-28), without which Israel’s experience of the ‘good and spacious land’ would be short-lived (cf. Josh. 23:12-13). Thus the fulfillment of the territorial promise in Joshua’s day fell short, not only in relation to the geography, but also – and more significantly – in respect to the ideology of the promised land.”[4]

The temporal possession of the Promised Land in the Old Testament was but a typological anticipation of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise which has yet to come. This fulfillment is not limited to the nation of Israel, but also includes the Gentile nations, and will be universal in scope and dimensionality. Williamson continues:

“While the promise of land was certainly fulfilled to some extent in the period covered by Genesis-Kings, it was never fully realized. Rather, its fulfillment in the nation [of Israel] was but a preliminary stage and a symbol of its climactic fulfillment. It is not surprising, therefore, that other Old Testament writers should envisage a future and more permanent fulfillment of the territorial promise – one that would impact not just Israel, but all the nations of the earth.”[5]

Therefore, in order for us to understand the ideology behind the Promised Land, we must first consider the New Testament’s expectation of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise. This we will consider in the next instalment.

[1] Geoff A. Adams, “The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-37,” Reformation and Revival 6, no. 3 (1997): 88.
[2] David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 95.
[3] Ibid., 55.
[4] Paul R. Williamson, “Promise and Fulfilment: The Territorial Inheritance,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 23-24, quoting Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 30-31.
[5] Ibid., 32.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Israel and the Promised Land

The land promised to Israel and the patriarchs is described in the Old Testament as God’s gift to his covenant people (Gen. 12:1, 7; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:1-8; Deut. 1:5-8; Ps. 44:1-3). The land of Palestine was, in fact, God’s gracious gift to Abraham and his descendants, and carries with it a salvific significance.[1]

Holwerda notes that “the promises of salvation have an unbreakable tie to the land. From the call of Abraham (Genesis 12) to his conflict with Lot (Genesis 13), from Abraham’s concern about an heir (Genesis 15) to the promise of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 17), God promises again and again to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. . . . The land was promised and this promise was confirmed by an oath sworn by God.”[2]

Despite the land being God’s gift to Israel, it never belongs to Israel. The Promised Land belongs to God. In reality, the land is never at Israel’s disposal. It cannot be permanently bought, sold, or given to others. Leviticus 25:23 states clearly that, “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” The Israelites are never owners, but sojourners of the land in Palestine.

The land belongs to the God of the covenant, and the Israelites are only tenants in His land. Psalm 78:54 reminds us that the land is “His holy border” (NKJV) and “his holy land” (NIV). Holwerda writes:

“The land is first of all and always the Lord’s, not Israel’s. Amazingly, the people Israel are called “aliens and tenants” in the Lord’s land since they have no permanent title to it and possess it with no absolute legal right to it (Leviticus 25:23). Thus the land never ceases being a gift, even when Israel possesses it.”[3]

Furthermore, Israel’s occupation of the land in Palestine is dependent on their faith in Yahweh, and the resultant obedience which flows out from this faith. During the wilderness wanderings, God warned the Israelites:

“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you (Lev. 18:24-28).”

When Israel turned from the law and commandments of God, Jeremiah wrote, “And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination” (Jer. 2:7).

The Lord God Jehovah, through the prophet Hosea, pronounced an impending judgment upon the wayward, apostate Israel, “They shall not dwell in the LORD’S land; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean things in Assyria (Hosea 9:3).” With Israel’s continual unfaithfulness to Yahweh, the Lord of the covenant eventually removed the land from Israel’s possession (Jer. 17:1-4; 15:13-14). With the culminating rejection of the Messiah in the Gospels, apostate Israel ceased to be heirs of the earthly Jerusalem.

Israel cannot claim possession of the Promised Land apart from faith in the Messiah. Rejection of Christ Jesus would only mean the rejection of Israel by Yahweh. Holwerda observes:

“If Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the one who represents and takes the place of chosen Israel, what is the status of Old Testament Israel? If the promises given to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus and if in Jesus the kingdom of God has appeared, the eternal kingdom promised to David by which God rules his people Israel, what happens to those who do not accept the testimony of Jesus? If Jesus is Emmanuel, the prophesied presence of God with his people, what happens to those “heirs of the kingdom” who do not acknowledge that presence? . . . Continued possession of promises cannot be maintained apart from the faith that God gives to his people.”[4]

The Land of Palestine as an Everlasting Possession

Dispensationalists (and Bible Presbyterians, if I may add) reason that the land of Palestine, specified by its geographical borders, was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8).” But they fail to understand that God has intended a better possession for the elect. The saints and patriarchs “desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city (Heb. 11:16).” That “city” is not an earthly Jerusalem or a piece of land in the Middle East; it is a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). In the New Testament, God has expanded the Abrahamic land promise to include both Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant, and the inheritance to include the new heavens and the new earth.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).” The meek shall inherit the earth, not just the land of Palestine. It is significant that our Lord did not reiterate the geographical boundaries of the Promised Land. The discerning reader will also notice that “the boundaries of the promised land were never defined with geographic precision. Various descriptions were given at various times and under varying historical circumstances.”[5]

As we shall see in this series of blog posts on the land promises, the Promised Land is a typological representation of a physical reality presented in the New Testament; it points towards the inheritance of the elect, namely, the renewed creation and the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

The Abrahamic land promise was unconditional in the sense that, “while enjoyment of the promised land was denied to those who lacked faith and were disobedient, the behaviour of that one generation did not result in the nullification of the promise. Rather, ‘the promise continued even though possession of the land was deferred.’”[6]

On the other hand, we must not ignore the conditional nature of God’s land promise to Israel, which is reiterated in the Bible.[7] Only the faithful and obedient Israelites would inherit the land. Immediately after the rebellion of the Jews on hearing the reports of the twelve spies, God pronounced His verdict upon the disobedient nation:

“Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me, Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness (Numbers 14:29-32).”

It is obvious that God’s covenant is not unconditional in the sense that an apostate nation will continue to claim the right of inheritance to God’s promise. Disobedient Israelites will not inherit the Promised Land.

After the Israelites were delivered from the land of Egypt, Moses proclaimed, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever (Exod. 14:13).” But only forty years later, when Moses addressed the children of Israel, he warned the Jews of the consequences of disobedience, “And the LORD shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you (Deut. 28:68).” Therefore, after pronouncing that the Israelites will apparently see the Egyptians “no more for ever (Exod. 14:13),” Moses assured them that they would be brought “into Egypt again with ships (Deut. 28:68)” if they failed to keep God’s covenant requirements.

The prophet Jeremiah, likewise, reiterated the conditional nature of God’s promise to Israel:

“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them (Jeremiah 18:6-10).”

In the same manner, the apparently unconditional promise of blessings to the house of Eli was forfeited through disobedience (1 Sam. 2:30-32). Therefore, “curses of exile and destruction like that which fell on Sodom and Gomorrah will fall on Israel if it violates the commandments and forsakes the covenant of the Lord; blessings of prosperity and continuous possession of the land will fall on Israel if it keeps the commandments and walks in the Lord’s ways (Deuteronomy 27-29).”[8]

Without further reference to other parts of Scripture, the prosaic meaning of the phrase “everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8),” which refers to the land in Palestine promised to Abraham, appears to point toward an unconditional possession. But a perusal of similar, seemingly unconditional, promises mentioned in the Bible will show otherwise. The word “forever” must not be interpreted apart from the other statements made in connection to the land promise to Israel. It is apparent that no promise will be fulfilled to a defiant and rebellious people.

Concerning the words “forever” and “everlasting”, Loraine Boettner elucidates, “But the same thing [that is, the words “forever” and “everlasting”] is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex.31:17) and David’s throne (2 Samuel 7:13, 16, 24). But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away.”[9] For example, the high priest of the Church is not of the order of Aaron, but of the order of Melchisedec. He is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:11). Clearly, the “everlasting” in Exodus 40:15 does not mean until “eternity future.” The normal, prosaic reading of a sentence does not always convey the divine, authorial intent. Scripture must always be studied in the light of the other portions of Scripture. This is the Reformed, hermeneutical principle of the analogy of faith.

In his polemic against Christian Zionism, Stephen Sizer raises similar criticisms against the dispensational understanding of the Abrahamic land promise. He writes:

“The statement God made to Abraham that the land would be “an everlasting possession” is not necessarily understood in literal terms. Insisting on literal fulfillment is a double-edged sword. In 1 Chronicles 15:2, for example, David insists that the Levites would carry the ark of the Lord and minister before Him forever. Was this fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 1 Chronicles 23:13 God similarly promises that the Aaronic priesthood would continue “forever”. The same question may be asked, is this being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 2 Chronicles 33:7 God says that he has put his name in the temple in Jerusalem forever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? In 1 Chronicles 23:25, God promises that He has come to dwell in Jerusalem forever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? Likewise in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promises that a descendent of David will sit on his throne forever. Is that being fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ?”[10]

The answers to Sizer’s rhetorical questions are obvious to any Reformed theologian. As Willem VanGemeren has aptly answered, “the Messiah is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and as such his work encompasses the realization of all of God’s promises.”[11] We shall continue to refute the dispensational understanding of the land promises in the next post.


[1] As the theology of the land is too vast in scope to discuss in any detail in blog posts, the reader is advised to refer to the following books for more in-depth treatment of this subject: David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995); O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000); Philip Johnston and Peter Walker, eds., The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000); Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).
[2] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 88-89.
[3] Ibid., 92-93.
[4] Ibid., 53-54, emphasis mine.
[5] Ibid., 89. Also cf. Genesis 15:17ff.; Exodus 23:31ff.; Numbers 34:1-10; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:2-4.
[6] Paul R. Williamson, “Promise and Fulfilment: The Territorial Inheritance,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 23-24, quoting Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 89. Passages that seem to emphasize the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic land promise are Genesis 12:7; 13:15, 17; 15:7, 18-21; 28:13, 15; 35:12; Exodus 3:8, 17; 6:8.
[7] Cf. Exodus 20:12; 23:23-33; 34:24; Lev. 18:3, 24-27; Deuteronomy 4:1-5, 40; 5:33; 6:18; 8:1; 11:8ff.; 16:20; 18:9-14; 19:8-9; 21:23; 24:4; 25:15; 30:16; 32:47.
[8] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 92.
[9] Loraine Boettner, “A Postmillennial Response,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 98.
[10] Sizer, An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land.
[11] Willem VanGemeren,Israel as the Hermeneutical Crux in the Interpretation of Prophecy II,” Westminster Theological Journal 46, no. 2 (1984): 295.