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.

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