James Patrick’s Blog

September 8, 2009

Refuting NT arguments against ‘promised land’ [I&NC #5]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 10:33 pm
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There are some teachers who think that the Early Church no longer believed in a promised land for the children of Israel (i.e. Jews).  They cite various different New Testament verses to show this, but in each case this is not the best understanding of the passage:

Matthew 21:43 – “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruit of it.”  The image of a ‘vineyard’ in this parable typically refers in the Old Testament to the Jewish people themselves rather than their land (cf. Psa 80:8-11; Isa 5:1-7).  In line with this, Matthew (21:45), Mark (11:27) and Luke (20:19) all specify that Jesus intended the tenants to represent the leadership of the chief priests and elders / scribes / Pharisees rather than the whole Jewish people.

John 4:21 – “An hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”  This passage is teaching that in this new age of God’s dealings with mankind, worship is not restricted to a specific geographical location such as Jerusalem, and particularly not for Samaritans and other ‘foreign’ nations (John 4:22, Mat 10:5-6, Luke 17:15‑18).  This does apply to Jews also, because the Holy Spirit (4:24) is present everywhere, and because His ‘temple’ is now the Church (Mark 14:58; 1 Cor 3:9-17).  That does not mean, however, that Jerusalem will also lose its various other functions, specifically as the geographical capitol for Jewish people, and the earthly dwelling place of the coming Messiah.  Jesus spoke of a future time, long after the imminent capture of the city by the Gentiles, when Jerusalem will again be under Jewish sovereignty, and calls it ‘the city of the Great King’ (Luke 21:24; Mat 5:35).

John 18:33-38 – “My kingdom is not from this world.”  Jesus had been charged with claiming authority as the ‘King of the Jews’, and when He asked if this was Pilate’s own opinion, Pilate said he could not possibly decide on that because he wasn’t Jewish.  The real issue for Pilate, therefore, was finding out the source of Jesus’ authority, and in his view, authority came from those who followed you.  This is why he could not understand why Jesus’ own nation through the chief priests had handed him over to the Roman authorities.  Jesus then explained that His kingly authority came from God, not from the allegiance of the ethnic Jewish nation, and His subjects were rather those who had an allegiance to the Truth.  This meant that Pilate himself must also choose to submit to Jesus as king, but instead he side-stepped the underlying question of Jesus’ authority, the issue that was clearly behind the accusation of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus’ statement, therefore, is by no means a rejection of His claim over territory on earth; precisely the opposite.  Jesus is claiming to have supreme authority, not only over the Jewish nation who were rejecting Him, but even over the Roman empire.

Acts 2:45; 4:32-37 – “All who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet.”  Jewish believers selling real estate in the ‘promised land’ is certainly significant, because Ezekiel 48:14 teaches that Levites (such as Barnabas – Acts 4:36-37) must not sell land that belongs to them in the eschatological era.  Nevertheless, as Hebrews 10:34 and 11:8-16 demonstrate (see below), the Early Church clearly understood that the era of inheritance (cf. Acts 1:6-8) would not arrive until mission to all nations had been fulfilled (cf. Mat 24:14), so until that time Jewish believers could view themselves as exiles even within their own promised land, as had the Patriarchs.

Romans 4:13 – “The promise to Abraham or to his seed that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law.”  Here Paul evidently sees the promise to Abraham of the land of the Amorites as having been expanded to encompass the whole world.  Some therefore argue that the promise of a particular land is no longer in effect, but this is clearly not the intention.  Abraham is similarly called the “father of many nations” in 4:16-17, but this in no way prevents him from being the ethnic ancestor of the Jewish nation also.  John 11:50-52 similarly describes Jesus’ death for the nation of Israel, but at the same time also for the elect from all nations.  The key to understanding this ‘inheritance of the world’ is the mention of ‘seed’, elsewhere understood to be a direct reference to the Messiah (Gal 3:16).  The prophets are agreed that it is through the Davidic Messiah that the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations, and even ‘fathering’ of many nations by faith, will be fulfilled (e.g. Psa 2:6-8; 110; Isa 49:5-7; 51:1-5; Mic 4:1-4; Zec 14:16‑19).  Jesus therefore came first to the Jewish people as their promised king, ethnically the ‘seed of Abraham’, and so became the ‘heir of the world’ by unlocking Abraham’s covenant blessings for every nation through allegiance to Himself (Rom 15:8-12).  By trusting that God truly brought to life the promised Son, every nation (Jew and Gentile alike) can imitate Abraham’s righteousness and become his ‘seed’ also (Rom 4:16‑25).  Only in this way will they, like the future redeemed nation of Israel (the ‘Israel of God’), receive their own portion of the whole world which has become Christ’s inheritance (cf. Zec 8:10-13, 20-23; Eph 1:9-14; 2:11-22).

Hebrews 8:13–10:1 – This passage is the source of the common idea that the nation of Israel, or perhaps even the whole Old Testament, is ‘only a shadow’ of the Church and the present Kingdom of God.  Apart from being a woefully ignorant dismissal of the richness of God’s promises, such an idea ignores the evident concern of this passage with the Mosaic covenant alone.  Its regulations for sacrifices, tabernacle and priesthood are indeed ‘only a shadow’ of the new covenant realities.  However, the new covenant was designed to improve on the old covenant precisely as a more effective way for God to permanently fulfil His unconditional promise of land, part of the world-changing covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:7-21).  In fact, Galatians 3:15-21 makes it clear that the laws of Moses that were appended 430 years later to the covenant with Abraham were only temporary, and cannot possibly invalidate the established promises.

Hebrews 11:8-16 – The physical ‘land of promise’ that Abraham “was to receive for an inheritance” was understood by him to have a ‘heavenly’ origin, that is, something he could not attempt to build for himself now.  He declared himself an ‘exile’ on the earth despite living in the land he and his descendants would inherit, because the land was not yet his; God was still making it ready for him.  This is our own hope also, in every land on earth that we ourselves have been called to; when we choose not to return to the country from which we left, it is because we are looking forward to God’s promised, prepared inheritance for us – the very lands in which we presently live as strangers (cf. Gen 13:14-17) – in the age to come.  Some of us will choose to leave the lands of our inheritance temporarily in order to help other nations receive theirs, like the two and a half tribes crossing the River Jordan with Joshua (Num 32:16-32), but whether we stay or go, our permanent rest in the land of our inheritance will be granted by Jesus only when He returns from heaven.

Galatians 4:26 / Hebrews 12:22 / Revelation 21:2, 10 – The ‘new’ / ‘heavenly’ / ‘from above’ Jerusalem is a further development of the idea found throughout the Old Testament that earthly institutions are temporary representations of ‘heavenly’ realities.  This applies particularly to the tabernacle (Exodus 25:40), the temple (2 Chronicles 28:11-19), and Jerusalem itself, whose greater ‘heavenly’ manifestation was called ‘Zion’ by David (e.g. Psalms 48, 87, 110, 125, 132) – that is, the promised city of God’s dwelling (see references below).  This does not necessarily mean, though, that ‘heavenly’ means either ‘non-physical’ or ‘located in heaven’.  James 3:13-17 uses the same idea of ‘from above’ as opposed to ‘earthly’ to speak of the source of wisdom, rather than its location, as is also the case with the ‘new Jerusalem’ in Revelation 21.  Like the resurrection bodies we will receive in exchange for our present mortal ones in order to live eternally on the new earth, the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem will be the future physical manifestation of the present worldly city, originating with God rather than being built by men (Heb 11:10, 16; 1 Cor 15:44‑49; 2 Cor 5:1‑2; cf. Acts 26:19; Heb 3:1; 6:4‑5).  When Hebrews speaks of the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ we have already come to, this is not the walls and buildings yet to be made, but rather the “general assembly and church of the firstborn”, “righteous spirits made perfect”, equivalent to the “great cloud of witnesses” of 12:1.  That is, we have joined the growing company of citizens of that physical city “which is to come” (Heb 13:12-14; cf. 10:34; Php 3:20-21).  It is worth noting that in New Testament times, the occupants of Philippi and certain other cities were officially treated as ‘citizens of Rome’ even if they didn’t actually live there; in the same way, regardless of where we will actually live in the age to come, we will be considered ‘citizens of Jerusalem’.

Of course, these verses do profoundly undermine undue confidence in God’s special love for the modern-day city of Jerusalem, something the prophets also had to work hard at (cf. Jer 7:1‑15; 8:19; 26).  While it is undoubtedly the ‘place where He has caused His name to dwell’ (Gen 14:18-20; 22:1-14; Deut 12:4-27; 1 Sam 17:54; Jer 7:12-14; Psa 78:60-69; 132; 1 Kgs 8:27-30; Isa 62; Neh 1:9; Eze 43:1-9; 48:35; Mat 5:34-35; Rev 3:12), He has never been afraid to bring desolation on the earthly city in judgement for sin.  He allows it to be rebuilt time and again, but in these verses He promises that He will ultimately build for Himself an enduring city in that very place for the honour of His Son (Heb 11:10, 16).

Perhaps an even more significant argument against the cancellation of the land promise is what the apostle Paul does not say.  With his passion for Gentiles from every nation sharing in the inheritance of Abraham, he still takes no opportunity to declare the Jewish claim on the promised land void because of unbelief, whether in heated passages written against the Judaisers (e.g. Gal 4:21-31; Col 2:8–3:11), or in passages mentioning both believing Jews outside the land and unbelievers within it (e.g. Rom 15:30–16:11; 1 Thes 2:14-16).  He knew that the nation could finally now inherit their land permanently by turning to their Messiah, but he also knew that Jesus had returned to heaven in order to equip His people with the Holy Spirit to go to all nations first (Acts 1:6‑11).  He recognised that the temporary hardening of hearts among the Jewish people, which disqualified that generation from inheriting, was actually God’s way of encouraging Jewish believers to go and help other nations to inherit also (Rom 9–11).  Even so, he did not treat the Jews as just like any other nation (Rom 3:1-2; 9:4-5; Php 3:4-7), but rather they were in a sense ‘firstborn’ among many brethren nations (Eph 1:11‑14; cf. Jas 1:1, 18).  Eventually every nation would receive their own part of the Messiah’s worldwide inheritance, but only when all were ready to inherit.

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