James Patrick’s Blog

October 27, 2009

Promised Land in the New Testament – summary [I&NC #14]

One of the possible ways of reading the numerous Old Testament prophecies about a Jewish return from exile is to see it all as having happened already in the return from exile in Babylon [see  the first post in this series].  Jesus arrived over five hundred years after that return, so His teaching and the teaching of His apostles, contained in the New Testament, should reveal to us whether or not they considered those prophecies of return to have already been fulfilled.  As will be clear below, they actually not only believed the nation of Israel to be still in a condition of spiritual ‘exile’ that denied them secure and permanent dwelling in the land, but they also knew that the Jewish people would again be cast into exile.  This exile to all nations (not just Assyria, or Babylon) would be a far greater exile than the first one, but even this one would eventually be finished.  To fulfil His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God would finally bring the Jewish people back to the land of promise very shortly before the return of Jesus.

1.  The conquest of the land under Joshua was not the ultimate fulfilment of the inheritance promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Paul clearly taught that the Law of Moses had actually made the Jewish people ‘slaves’ to sin, and as slaves rather than sons they were not permitted to inherit (Rom 7:1‑25; Gal 3:23–4:7; 4:21‑31).  Hebrews taught further that if Joshua had given the Israelites ‘rest’ in their land, David would hardly have written to a later generation warning them that rebellion would disqualify them from entering God’s ‘rest’ (Heb 4:1‑11).

2.  Even in Jesus’ generation the nation was considered to be in an ongoing condition of exile.

Jesus taught His people using parables in order to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah that the nation would “keep on hearing and will not understand… keep on seeing and will not perceive” (Mat 13:13‑15; cf. 11:5).  Isaiah was told that his prophetic task was to harden the eyes, ears and hearts of the Jewish nation until the fulfilment of the curse of exile (Isa 6:9‑13; cf. 32:1‑4; 34:16–35:6).

3.  Jesus decreed another greater exile on the Jewish nation, a final one that would complete God’s judgement against the sins of all previous generations of Israel.

In fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy to the Levites of his generation after the Babylonian Exile (Mal 3:1‑6), Jesus arrived four hundred years later as the appointed judge of the nation.  In response to their sin and hard-heartedness He delivered the verdict that the nation was unforgivable (Mat 12:31‑45; 23:1‑28).  To prove that they were more wicked than any previous generation, He would send them further messengers whom they would persecute, and therefore God would be justified in bringing on that generation the complete punishment for the sins of both them and all their fathers (Mat 23:29‑36; Luke 11:49‑51; cf. Isa 65:1‑7; Jer 16:10‑18; Rom 10:20-21).  When there is a complete judgement visited on the nation for all the blood of the prophets shed from the foundation of the world, there can never be another such punishment meted out again (Isa 51:17‑22).

4.  Evangelism amongst Jewish communities will not be completed until Jesus’ return.

Although seventy disciples were sent out in pairs to prepare for Jesus’ arrival in a town during His ministry (Luke 10:1‑17), Jesus also sent out the Twelve with a specific commission to the Jews (Luke 9:1‑10; Mat 10:11‑42), because they will be given authority over the twelve tribes of Israel when Jesus returns (Luke 22:28‑30).  Their commission, therefore, while similar to that of the seventy, concerned specifically Jewish communities (Mat 10:5‑6, 23), within and presumably beyond the land of Israel also.  They were told that this specific focus for preaching the Gospel would not finish “until the Son of Man comes”, a phrase Matthew linked closely to the Second Coming (24:3, 27‑44; 25:31‑46).  This was also explained as being the result of Jewish hard-heartedness and persecution in city after city of Israel, and Jesus’ intention was to clarify to His followers that the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” in exile (cf. Eze 34:11‑16) would not all be ‘found’ until the time of His own return.

5.  Gentile control over Jerusalem will come to an end when the “times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled.

Whereas Matthew recorded Jesus’ teachings about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and the Second Coming without differentiating them (Matthew 24:1–25:46; esp. 24:3), Luke recorded them separately, the Second Coming in 17:20‑37, and the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and exile in 21:5‑36.  Therefore Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity and exile of the Jewish people (Luke 21:20‑24) has already happened and evidently continued until modern times.  Despite the obvious severity of the judgement Jesus decreed, He did explicitly declare that at a certain point Gentiles would no longer ‘trample under foot’ the city of Jerusalem (21:24; cf. Isa 63:17‑19), which must indicate that Jews will eventually regain control over Jerusalem.  The “times of the Gentiles” may be a reference to that period during which Gentiles control Jerusalem, but it would be better to understand it as the times in which Gentiles are the focus of God’s commission to His Church, which is suggested by the word “fulfilled”.  In the latter case, Jesus would be teaching that Jewish repossession of Jerusalem will coincide with the culmination of mission to the Gentiles.

6.  Israel’s national repentance will be prompted specifically by the reception of the gospel by all other nations.

Jesus taught that “the end will come” at the point when His witnesses have brought “this gospel of the kingdom” throughout “the whole inhabited earth” and “to all the nations” (Mat 24:14), which could be said to be the ‘fulfilment’ of the “times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24).  He then instructed His witnesses to go from Jerusalem “even to the remotest part of the earth”, making “disciples of all the nations… even to the end of the age”, and in the context He was implying that only then would the kingdom be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6‑8; Mat 28:19‑20).  Paul explained this further, writing that Israel has been hardened temporarily “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”; then because of jealousy at the mercy shown to all nations, Israel would soften and “thus all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:11‑15, 25‑27, 30‑31).  Jesus indicated that this would be brought about particularly through the ministry of another prophet like Elijah at whose word the nation would turn back to God, ‘restoring all things’ (Mat 17:10‑11; cf. Mal 4:5‑6).  It is unlikely that this prophet is described in Revelation 11, where the two witnesses prophesy judgement against the nations, not salvation to Israel.  Although imagery is used from the ministries of Elijah and Moses, both prophets of judgement against unbelieving Gentiles and Jews, it is more likely that these two prophetic ‘olive branches’ are the Jewish and Gentile portions of the Church who are then resurrected as Jesus returns (Rev 11:4, 11‑13; cf. 13:7; Rom 11:17; Zec 3:8–4:6).

7.  Israel will be living in Judaea and Jerusalem when as a nation they welcome Jesus’ return as their Messiah.

Jesus regularly used the ‘fig tree’ as an image of the nation of Israel (represented by its leadership), to describe its fruitlessness (Luke 13:6‑9), its withering (Mark 11:12‑27), its destruction when dry (Luke 23:27‑31), and finally its softening and fresh leaves indicating His imminent return (Mat 24:32‑33).  ‘Sitting under one’s own fig tree’ was a common metaphor for being permanently at ‘rest’ in the land, particularly after exile (Mic 4:1‑4; Zec 3:8‑10; John 1:47‑51), so the images of softening and leaves coming out imply the beginnings of repentance and dwelling in the land respectively.  However Jesus also prophesied this explicitly:  In the ‘great tribulation’ immediately before His return, Jesus said that the believers living in Judaea would find travel on the Sabbath particularly difficult (Mat 24:15‑20, 29‑30).  Not only that, but He prophesied to ‘Jerusalem’ (both the city and symbol for the nation) at the very end of His public ministry that “from now on you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Mat 23:39; cf. Luke 13:33-35).  Following the exile of the Jewish nation, the ‘desolation’ of Jerusalem’s ‘house’ (Mat 23:38; cf. Lev 26:31‑35; Isa 49:14‑21; 62:4), the nation would again see Jesus when as a nation they could welcome Him as their Messiah (cf. Mat 21:9).  In fact, for the sake of these ‘elect’, He will shorten the days of their ‘great tribulation’ (Mark 13:14‑20).  Peter also taught that national repentance was a condition for Jesus’ return (Acts 3:19‑21).

8.  Nevertheless, secure and permanent inheritance of the land for Israel will not be possible until Jesus returns, initiating the resurrection and restoration of all things.

Using a parable, Jesus taught His disciples that only on His return as King would He distribute territories within His kingdom to them in reward for faithful service (Luke 19:11‑28; cf. 22:28‑30).  When asked about the timing of the kingdom being restored to Israel, He acknowledged His Father’s plan to do this, but instructed His disciples to focus first on mission to all nations (Acts 1:6‑8).  Jews in the Early Church, including Barnabas, Stephen and the writer to the Hebrews, modelled and taught that in this age they must not expect to be able to hold on to their property within the land of Israel (Acts 4:32‑37; 7:4‑6; Heb 4:1‑11; 10:34).  Rather, they were to live by faith, whether they left their land to bring the good news of salvation inheritance to other nations also, or whether they chose to remain in their ‘promised land’ but live as if they were foreigners, ‘strangers and exiles’.  Choosing to return to other countries for the sake of security was not a valid option (Heb 11:15), but rather they needed to persevere by looking forward to their ‘better, permanent possession’ in that very land, in the form of a city and country being prepared by God and soon to be delivered from heaven (Heb 11:8‑16; Rev 21:10, 24‑27).  Paul associated the fulfilment of Israel’s promised gift of land with the salvation of all nations (Rom 9:4; 11:26‑29; cf. Zec 2:6-12).  He therefore recognised that Jewish and Gentile believers, as both natural and adopted ‘sons of God’, would inherit their apportioned lands at the same time, freeing all of creation from its slavery to corruption (Gal 3:23–4:8; Rom 4:11‑17; 8:14‑22).  This inheritance by every nation of lands bestowed from heaven by God is a large-scale fulfilment of what will happen at the same time on a small scale with each of us inheriting ‘heavenly’ resurrection bodies (Acts 17:26 with Deut 32:8‑9; Rom 8:18‑25; 1 Cor 15:42‑49; 2 Cor 5:1‑5). Thus ‘all things’ will be restored (Acts 3:21; Mat 17:11).

In summary of New Testament teaching, the promise of land inheritance made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and spoken about by the prophets has not yet ever been properly fulfilled.  This was because God chose to use the Law of Moses to harden the Israelites in their sin, making them unable with uncircumcised hearts to inherit as ‘sons of Abraham’.  Moses taught that God would personally atone for Israel, and reconcile them to Himself by making them jealous of His favour on the nations.  Jesus then came as the ‘seed of Abraham’ bringing blessing: fulfilling the powerless Law by becoming a curse for Israel, and dying to atone for the sin of Jew and Gentile alike, reversing the disobedience and death of Adam.  His resurrection is both the object of faith, by which all can be declared righteous, and the content of our hope.  Jesus declared the Jewish nation of His own generation to be unforgivable, decreeing that within a generation they would enter into an exile that would complete God’s punishment for all previous rejection of His messengers.  Witness to scattered Jews must continue, but their full repentance and inheritance would not happen before every nation on earth had also received the good news of salvation (resurrection, deliverance and inheritance).  At the end of the age God will begin restoring Israel to her land and softening her heart towards Him, using a prophet like Elijah, and even more importantly the jealousy provoked by seeing all nations accept her Messiah.  In the midst of the ‘great tribulation’ that follows the fulfilment of the times of the Gentiles, Jewish believers in the land will undergo persecution, but will be delivered by their returning King whom they will welcome as a whole nation.  The faithful from previous generations will return with Jesus, met by surviving believers joining them from the earth in a visible imitation of Jesus’ own ascension, and all will receive their resurrection bodies with Jesus.  After destroying the enemies of His people, Jesus will establish His kingdom on earth from Jerusalem.  Within this worldwide kingdom, the Twelve disciples will rule over Israel in their land, and Gentile believers will rule over every nation across the earth, each in its own territory as apportioned by Jesus [the new ‘Joshua’].  In this way all creation will be released into the glorious freedom of the ‘sons of God’.

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September 12, 2009

Promised Land in the Gospels, part one [I&NC #6]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 8:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament frequently assumes that the land covenant is still in effect.  Here we start with the Gospels (in 3 posts), moving on after that to Acts (2 posts) and the epistles (3 posts).

To begin with, we would expect that a divine promise of territory given to the ethnic descendants of Israel be spoken of most often in passages addressed to the Jewish people.  The letters of Paul to the Gentile churches are therefore the least likely place to find mention of this land covenant, as are the writings of John who was based in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey.  Peter’s first letter was written to believers living in the northern parts of Turkey, though his second letter to unspecified recipients does refer to the “holy mountain” where Jesus was transfigured.

On the other hand, Jesus was teaching Jews within the land of Israel, much of Acts takes place in that land, and Hebrews is also written to Jewish believers there. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of passages referring to the land covenant are found in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and Hebrews.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is highly unusual in that although it is written to Gentiles, Paul sees it necessary in his extended discussion of the gospel message to specifically address the problem of the unbelieving Jewish nation in Romans 9–11.  We therefore find clear references to the promised land in Romans also.

Even so, we would not expect to have many references to the promise of land for the Jewish nation in the New Testament, for the simple reason that Jesus had unmistakeably prophesied destruction and exile for the nation within a single generation [see below].  Even though most of the Old Testament prophets do mention future restoration in passing within long oracles of judgement, warnings of imminent destruction in Jesus’ day would be even less likely to convince a rebellious generation if they were qualified by frequent reaffirmation of the promise of eternal security in the land.

With that in mind, let us turn to the passages about the land covenant in the New Testament:

(A)  Promised Land in the Gospels

In the Gospels Jesus never explicitly reissues the covenant promise of land; He would not do so to His own rebellious generation, nor could He grant the land to His followers before the age of restoration of all things.  Yet He often assumes a Jewish presence in the land of Israel at the end of the present age just before His return, and then a secure Jewish authority over that land following His return.  Here we deal with the first two of six representative passages taken from the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 10:5-6, 23 – Jesus explicitly instructed His twelve disciples to identify themselves with His own mission to the Jewish nation specifically, which was in line with their calling to rule over their own nation in the age to come [see third Gospel post below on Mat 19].  Evidently they understood this mission to be a permanent one even after Jesus ascended, as implied by both Galatians 2:7‑9 and the role of both Peter and Paul in the establishment of church communities in Corinth and in Rome (1 Cor 1:12; Rom 15:20-22; 1 Pet 5:13).  The disciples were told, “Truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”.  When seen in the context of 10:17-22 this prophecy cannot be understood to refer merely to making preparations in advance for Jesus’ earthly ministry in those cities, as was the task of the seventy sent out in Luke 10:1 (cf. Luke 9:1-6).  For Matthew, the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ was an unmistakeable reference to the second coming (cf. Mat 24:3, 23–25:46).

This indicates, therefore, that Jesus recognised the ongoing need for mission to Jewish cities and communities from the time of His own ministry right up until His final return, and one might even argue that the ‘cities of Israel’ refers to Jewish communities within the territorial land of Israel throughout that time (cf. Mat 10:5-6).  The case could be made that this passage influenced Paul’s own practice in his missionary journeys through Gentile lands of ‘going [first] to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, ‘shaking off the dust’, and ‘fleeing to the next city’ (cf. Acts 13:42-51).  Even so, ‘cities of Israel’ when compared with ‘city of the Samaritans’ in 10:5 would suggest towns under Jewish authority, or at least Jewish-majority towns, and the prohibition against travelling into Gentile areas in 10:5 may indicate that the territory of Israel as defined in the first century is in view in 10:23.

Thus we have in Matthew 10 evidence of, at very least, an ongoing mission to the unbelieving nation of Israel that will not be concluded before Jesus Himself returns to the land.  It is possible that the ‘cities of Israel’ in which mission must be undertaken actually refers to Jewish communities remaining within the traditional territory of Israel throughout the time between Jesus’ ascension and His return, providing possible evidence of an unbroken land covenant underlying this preservation.

Matthew 24:32-35 – Luke 21:29-32 seems to be a generalisation of Matthew’s version of this teaching, by drawing the parable from all trees and not just the ‘fig tree’.  However I would argue Luke himself was aware that Jesus had not just chosen the fig tree at random for this illustration, because other sayings preserved only by Luke reinforce the significance of the fig tree.  In the Old Testament, the fig tree was used to represent the nation of Israel (Hos 9:10, 13, 16–10:2; Hab 3:16-18).  More importantly, though, the shelter it provided was a metaphor for the permanent and secure dwelling of the nation within its land, ultimately connected with return from exile (1 Kgs 4:25; Jer 8:8-15; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:8-10; cf. Song of Songs 2:10-13; John 1:47-51 with Gen 28:12-15).  Jesus made ample use of this metaphor in his teaching, for example in Luke 13:6-9, where He warned the nation that He had been looking for fruit on the ‘fig tree’ for three years, and it would be given only one more year before being ‘cut down’ (cf. Luke 3:7‑9).

In Mark 11:12-14, 20-23, Mark clarifies and adds detail to the conflated story in Matthew 21:18-22 where Jesus curses a fig tree overlooking Jerusalem for having no fruit on it.  The fact that it was not the season for figs made no difference to Jesus’ acted parable, and when the disciples commented on the immediate withering of the fig tree, Jesus turned the application over to His disciples – forty years later they would similarly command ‘this mountain’ (i.e. the Temple Mount they were walking towards) to be taken up and cast into the ‘sea’ (i.e. the nations – cf. Mat 13:47; Rev 17:15).  The withering of the fig tree symbolised the hardening and coming exile of the nation.  This makes best sense also of Jesus’ prophecy to the women weeping over Him as He approached Calvary (Luke 23:27-31), that presently the nation was still ‘green’ with leaves, but within a generation it would be ‘dry’ and experience judgement.

In the light of Jesus’ metaphor of Israel as a fruitless fig tree, withered at Jesus’ command, the ‘parable of the fig tree’ in Matthew 24:32-35 takes on a much greater significance.  When the dry fig tree becomes tender again and begins to put forth its leaves, that is, when the nation of Israel softens towards God and begins once more to show signs of secure dwelling within the land, believers will know that Jesus’ return is imminent.

[Matthew’s addition of Jesus’ saying about “this generation” that will not pass away before these things take place (24:34-35) appears to apply to the parable of the fig tree, but in fact Jesus spoke the saying to conclude his discourse to the four disciples specifically about the AD70 destruction of the Temple; the parable and the saying were juxtaposed because Matthew did not differentiate between prophecies about the two judgements.  Luke understood the saying (see next post), and because he also recognised that Matthew’s attached fig tree parable must point to the ‘end of the age’, he had to deliberately generalise the parable (“and all the trees”; “the kingdom of God is near”) in order to include the whole saying properly within that specific discourse about the sooner judgement (21:29-33) .  Similar adjustments are introduced by Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27 to clarify a potentially confusing juxtaposition of sayings in Matthew 16:27‑28.]

Jesus therefore used the ‘fig tree’ as one of his favourite images of the nation of Israel (represented by its leadership), to describe its fruitlessness (Luke 13:6‑9), its withering (Mark 11:12‑27), its destruction when dry (Luke 23:27‑31), and finally its softening and fresh leaves indicating His imminent return (Mat 24:32‑33).  ‘Sitting under one’s own fig tree’ was a common metaphor for being permanently at ‘rest’ in the land, particularly after exile (Mic 4:1‑4; Zec 3:8‑10; John 1:47‑51), so the images of softening and leaves coming out imply the beginnings of repentance and dwelling in the land respectively.

Although some may argue that the parable of the fig tree is open to any interpretation simply because it is a parable, this interpretation corresponds precisely to the entirely literal prophecies Jesus gave about the Jewish nation at the end of this age [see next two posts].  Thus we may treat the parable of the fig tree as evidence of a promised reversal of the judgement of exile spoken by Jesus over the Jewish nation in His own generation; the only reasonable explanation for such a return from exile to the land of Israel is the fulfilment of God’s land covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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