James Patrick’s Blog

October 20, 2009

Promised Land in Hebrews [I&NC #13]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 3:36 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

In this final exegetical post on the subject of the Promised Land in the New Testament, we will consider the book of Hebrews.  As we would expect, a book of the New Testament written specifically to Jewish believers does not neglect the subject of land inheritance.  However, as with all the other passages we have looked at in the Gospels, Acts, and Romans, the writer to the Hebrews situates the time of the inheritance in the future rather than the present.  There is a task of world evangelisation to finish before Jewish believers can finally receive the promise of the ultimate Sabbath rest in their land.  They must learn to live by faith as their ancestors did, welcoming the promise from a distance, because perfection will be attained only together with the full number of nations descended from Abraham by faith.

Hebrews 3:1–4:11 – After demonstrating that Jesus was not an ‘angel’ but flesh and blood like us (chapters 1–2), but before explaining three ways in which Jesus had made the Law obsolete (priesthood, Temple and sacrifices; chapters 5–10) the writer to the Hebrews first dealt with the question of the promised land.  He showed that trusting in Jesus is more reliable than trusting in Moses, who bore witness to future things (3:5), but whose generation died in the wilderness through unbelief.  Clearly Joshua’s generation had not fulfilled the prophetic promise of a permanent ‘rest’ in the promised land (4:8), because David and later prophets still spoke of a future time of restoration (4:7).  Furthermore, even in the present generation there was still ‘work’ to do (4:10), and the future ‘Sabbath rest’ for Jewish believers [as for those from every nation] was a promise that would only be inherited by trusting in Jesus [‘Joshua’ in Greek] ‘until the end’ (3:14; 4:3, 11).  Believers might still ‘today’ be disqualified from inheriting the promise through unbelief and disobedience (3:19–4:2), as had the generation of Moses who died in the wilderness even after being ‘saved’ from slavery.

Obviously the writer here is not saying that the promise of ‘rest’ has been withdrawn since the Mosaic Law has been abolished, nor even that it has been ‘spiritualised’.  On the contrary, the entrance into the land under Joshua is treated as the best example so far of a fulfilment of the promised ‘rest’, and if even Joshua’s inheritance of the land was not the fulfilment, how much less could Jewish believers in the mid-first century AD think that their generation was the final fulfilment.  The writer reminds his listeners that in earlier times they endured great persecution from fellow Jews, but “accepted joyfully the seizure of your property”.  The implication is that they should again be willing to give up their land in the present age, knowing that they will inherit “a better, lasting possession” (10:34‑35).  What makes the inheritance of land in the future ‘better’ is its permanence.

Hebrews 11:8-16 – Our writer has explained how Jesus has made the Mosaic sacrificial system obsolete, and furthermore how continued reliance on it is now actually evidence instead of unfaithfulness towards God’s new covenant, deserving of terrifying judgement.  He then returns to his earlier theme of future inheritance of the promised land, inheritance that is only ensured by faithful endurance in the present (10:32‑39; cf. 3:5–4:11).  This may involve accepting present seizure of property within the land of Israel, but we can be joyful in this because we have a greater birthright (12:16‑17), a permanent inheritance in the future.  With this, our writer recalls that the ages of creation were “prepared” by God’s promise, which made them without having to use pre-existent materials (11:3; cf. Isa 66:8).  What is more, not a single one among the righteous heroes of the past actually received their promised inheritance, because their ‘perfection’ will happen at the same time as ours (11:39‑40; cf. Luke 13:28‑29).  Instead they wandered homeless and persecuted, condemning the rest of the earth’s inhabitants by their faith, and looking forward to the resurrection (11:7, 13, 27, 35‑38).  In fact, such was their righteousness that this present world was not even a worthy inheritance for them (11:7, 16, 38).  The question is, then, what is the inheritance of which the faithful are worthy?

In 11:8‑16, our writer focuses attention on the physical territory in which Abraham wandered, the country in which his listeners were now living (cf. Acts 7:4).  If he had wanted, this would have been the ideal time to tell Jewish believers that the land was no longer important, that they should hope for a ‘different’ country, or perhaps ‘living in heaven for ever’.  However he says quite the opposite.  That territory is “the land of promise”, the place “he was to receive for an inheritance”.  If none of these people of God in this chapter have yet received what was promised (11:13, 39‑40), this means that Abraham will still receive this territory at some future point.  He then writes that Isaac and Jacob lived in tents also, as “fellow heirs of the same promise”, meaning that they too will receive this territory along with Abraham (cf. Luke 13:28).

What made their behaviour unusual was that they did not actually own any of the land in their own day (cf. Acts 7:5), choosing to live in it as if they were foreigners rather than heirs.  They “confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the land”, and yet chose to remain there rather than return to the land from which they had left.  Clearly, they were wanting an inheritance, but they believed they were already in the right place.  Even so, it was not quite what they were looking for; they wanted a ‘better’ country, that is, a more permanent one (cf. 10:34), and they were prepared to wait right there until it was delivered (cf. Gen 26:1-6).  True to His word, God has been preparing a city for them, even a country, built not by their own hands but by God Himself (i.e. ‘heavenly’ – 11:10, 16; 12:22; 1 Cor 15:47‑53; 2 Cor 5:1‑4).

This is our own hope also, in every land on earth that we ourselves have been called to:  When we choose not to abandon the mission God has given us by returning to the country from which we left, it is because we are looking forward to God’s promised, prepared inheritance for us in the age to come – the very lands in which we presently live as strangers (cf. Gen 13:14-17).  On the other hand, we might choose to leave the land of our inheritance in order to help other nations receive their inheritance, just like the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh chose not to receive their own territories until the rest of the tribes had conquered theirs (Num 32:16-24).  They did not give up the hope of inheriting their land, but they postponed it for the sake of the rest of God’s people.  Heaven itself is not our inheritance; rather it is God’s workshop where He is preparing our earthly inheritance for us, “a better possession and a lasting one”.

In summary, therefore, we have seen how the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles all teach clearly that Israel will indeed permanently possess the territory promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the resurrection age to come.  This will happen after the Messiah returns, as a result of the whole nation of Israel being reconciled to their God when they see God’s mercy shown to the full number of Gentile nations.  Israel is not alone, therefore, in inheriting a promised land.  Paul saw that just as Adam’s sin affected all humanity and all creation, so Jesus’ obedience will bring restoration to all humanity and to every land on earth (cf. Acts 17:26), because by faith they too can become adopted ‘sons of God’ and the ‘seed of Abraham’.  The hope for every nation, and for every believer, is that as they move in faith to the place to which God has called them, God will grant them a permanent inheritance there in the time of resurrection and ‘restoration of all things’.  Thus ‘the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord’, for Jesus will be ‘the king of all the earth’, ruling from Mount Zion, the ‘city of the great king’ (Num 14:21; Psa 47; 48:1‑8; Mat 5:35; Rev 20:4‑9; 21:10, 22‑27).

The next post will offer a summary of the New Testament teaching concerning the promised land.

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