From Israel and the Church – Fulfillment of Promise by Adrian Birks
Part (5) – The Land
The question of land is at the centre of theological debate concerning Israel and is one that carries with it significant consequences, both politically and missiologically. As we have already seen, views on this subject are quite polarised. On the one hand we have Zionists like Derek Prince claiming that “God attaches far more importance to [the land of Israel] than most of us imagine”57 and that “the land is given eternally to Israel.”58 At the other hand we have Stephen Sizer suggesting that “In the New Testament, the land, like an old wineskin, had served its purpose. It was, and remains, irrelevant to God’s ongoing redemptive purposes for the world.”59
So, what may we say about the land God promised to Abraham?
Firstly, there is no doubt that God promised a piece of land to Abraham and his descendants. Gen 15:18 says “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites…”” and in 17:1-8 the covenant is confirmed “… I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”” This covenant is then repeated in 26:2-4 to Isaac “… to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father” and in 28:13-15 to Jacob “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring… Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” So, God promised a piece of land (albeit rather vaguely defined 60 ) to Abraham and his descendants.
Nonetheless it was always God’s land and Israel had no claim to the land apart from their walking with Him.
As God said to Moses “the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23). In this regard many rightly make the distinction between promise and possession. Although no conditions were initially attached to the promise of the land – it was purely on the basis of God’s sovereign grace – “entrance into the land was denied to those who lacked faith, and Moses himself was denied entrance because of Israel’s disobedience. Therefore, it is apparent that important conditions were attached to possessing the land. Just as faith and the obedience that flows from faith were necessary to enter the land, so faith and obedience are necessary to maintain possession of the land.”61
While recognising that possession of the land was conditional despite the promise being seemingly unconditional, we must at this point be clear: to even discuss whether modern Israel meets the OT conditions is to presume the promises retain at least an element of physical fulfilment. Nevertheless, it must be said that if the OT promises are being fulfilled in the modern state of Israel (and I do not believe this to be the case) it is highly questionable that modern secular Israel meets the requirements of faith and obedience and thus the promise of being vomited out of the land (Lev 18:28) would appear far more probable than continued possession.62
However, what is clear is that these conditions, imposed under Moses, do nothing to abrogate the original promises to Abraham and his descendants. Consequently the NT never suggests that the new covenant annuls the Abrahamic covenant, on the contrary it is repeatedly seen as its fulfillment. So, for Paul, Abraham is the father of “all those who believe” (in Jesus), both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 4:16) and those who “are Christ’s are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:7, 29) and so on.
The Abrahamic promises find their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant he establishes. As stated earlier, while the new covenant supersedes the inadequate and obsolete Mosaic covenant, it is the ongoing fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. As a result, the issue is not whether the OT promises remain but how they are to be fulfilled.63 Thus, for those looking for a literal fulfillment it is naïve to say “We simply believe the Bible.”64 The issue is not that some believe the Bible when others do not! Rather the question is whether the promises are fulfilled in terms of land in the Middle East or (perhaps ‘and/or’) more widely in all the earth.
The first difficulty with seeing the pledge of land as being fulfilled through ethnic Israel is that the land is inextricably bound together with the city, the temple worship and a Davidic king. As Heschel writes
“Jerusalem to the Prophet is the quintessence of the land corresponding to the people… Jerusalem is called the mother of Israel, and she is also used as a synonym for Israel.”65 Similarly Holwerda claims “in the prophecies of Isaiah… Jerusalem becomes the essence of Israel and the land. Jerusalem lies at the center of the promises and becomes their content.”66
Likewise, the prophecies concerning the land include the expectation of a rebuilt city and temple, and the re-establishing of Judaic cultic life. For instance, Zionists are quick to turn to Jeremiah 32:21-22, 37-38 “… you gave [your people] this land, which you swore to their fathers to give them… [and] the Lord says ‘Behold I will gather [my people] from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger… I will bring them back to this place.’” But Jeremiah does not stop with a return to the land continuing with the declaration that Jerusalem will “be a glory before all the nations of the earth” 33:9; that a Davidic King shall return to the throne of Israel 33:15-17; and that the “Levitical Priests shall … offer burnt offerings … and make sacrifices forever” 33:18.
Thus the promise of land is tied to the promises of the city, the temple and the King so that they share a common fulfillment. Therefore, to expect a return to the land apart from a return to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the temple, the re-establishment of cultic practice and the appointment of a Davidic King to Israel’s throne, is an inconsistent application of the OT promises. Either they all have physical fulfillment or none of them do, but we cannot arbitrarily isolate the promise of land.
Secondly, for Christians, the basis for rightly interpreting the OT promises is the foil of the NT. It is worth noting that few Zionist writers make much of the NT interpretation of the OT seemingly presuming that the promises are unaffected by NT theology.67
For instance, Parsons defends Dispensational Zionism on the basis that it is,
“consistent with the ways Orthodox Jews understand their Bibles.”68
But the point is not how orthodox Jews understand their Bibles, which, of course, is unaffected by the coming of Jesus, but how do the NT writers interpret the OT? So, what do Jesus and the Apostles have to say about the Abrahamic covenant and the aspect of land?
As Chapman points out,
“Jesus had very little to say specifically about the land… [which] is all the more surprising when we see his message against the background of typical Jewish hopes and expectations of the first century AD, in which the land played a vital role.”69
In fact, there is only one clear reference in Jesus’ teaching related to the land and it is found in Mat 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This phrase repeats Psalm 37:11 where the usual Hebrew word for land (eretz) is used and translated with the Greek gē in the LXX as here in Mat 5:5. It is interesting to note that most translations choose the English word ‘earth’ rather than ‘land’70 , because as Verbrugge explains,
“It is frequently difficult to decide whether a passage is speaking of a particular country (esp. the land of Israel) or of the populated earth as a whole.”71 Nevertheless, there are many times when it can only sensibly mean ‘the whole earth’. For instance, Mt 5:18 ‘… until heaven and earth pass away …’; 6:10 ‘… your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’; 6:19 ‘do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth’; 9:6 ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ et al.
So, while gē is used of the ‘land of Israel’ (Mat 2:20) we must ask whether the context justifies such a use in this case.
In the first instance, it would be to reinterpret the whole beatitudes to suggest that only the Jewish meek shall inherit and be blessed. Moreover, in 4:24-25 Matthew states that the crowd Jesus addressed comprised of those from Syria, the Decapolis and from ‘beyond the Jordan’ which almost certainly included Gentiles. Thus, if the meek includes both Jews and Gentiles then it is they both who inherit the ‘earth/land’ – which makes little sense if taken purely in terms of the land (of Israel) but is better understood, in the light of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God (Jn 6:15 18:36), to mean the renewed earth. As Sizer writes,
“The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated would, in contrast to their narrow expectations, be spiritual in character, international in membership and gradual in expansion. And the expansion of this kingdom throughout the world would specifically require [his disciples’] exile from the land. They must turn their backs on Jerusalem and their hopes of ruling there with Jesus in order to fulfill their new role as ambassadors of his kingdom.”72
Perhaps we can see this ‘turning their backs on Jerusalem’ in the early chapters of Acts when, following Jesus’ ‘speaking on the kingdom of God’ for forty days (1:3), those first disciples who were ‘owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet’ (4:34-35). What did Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God that resulted in Jews selling their birthrights to land and giving the proceeds to the advance of the gospel? At least initially they continued to look for the national and political restoration of Israel (1:6), but Jesus clearly lifts their gaze to higher and bigger things. Whether Jesus’ response contains an implicit rebuke is debatable, what is clear is Jesus’ commission to take the message of the kingdom beyond the boundaries of Israel ‘to the ends of the earth’ (1:8).
The concern of the early church does not appear to be Israel and its land (despite continued occupation) but building the church and being ‘a light to the nations’.73
This indifference to the land and focus on ‘all the earth’ is maintained in the Apostolic teaching. For instance, Paul makes the explicit claim that ‘the promise to Abraham [was] that he would be heir of the world (Gk kosmos)’ (Rom 4:13) which is a most striking development of the promise of ‘land’. In the same way, Paul notes that the command to ‘Honour your father and mother’ is attached to a promise: ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long on the earth’ Eph 6:2-3. Although some translate this ‘in the land’ ESV, more notable is what Paul omits: ‘the land the Lord your God is giving you’ (Ex 20:12), again demonstrating that the land of Israel is no longer important.
As Tom Wright says,
“… the Land no longer functioned as the key symbol of the geographical identity of the people of God, and that for an obvious reason: if the new community consisted of Jew, Greek, barbarian alike, there was no sense in which one piece of territory could possess more significance than another. At no point in this early period do we find Christians eager to define or defend a ‘holy land’.”74
This is not to say that physical land/earth is unimportant and that it has been ‘spiritualised away’75 , as Holwerda explains,
“The people of God, Israel, is still a flesh and blood historical reality, although now a universal people… The land is still the actual land under our feet, but now it refers to the entire created earth.”76
Similarly, physical Jerusalem is not portrayed as being at the centre of God’s purposes for the future but as being ‘in slavery with her children’. Paul continues, ‘the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother’ (Gal 4:21-31). The focus of the apostles was not on the physical land or city but on ‘Mount Zion and … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ (Heb 12:22) who will one day ‘[come] down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:2). This is the true fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.
So, in conclusion, Israel, the OT people of God who inherited the land, are a pattern of the NT people of God, the church, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles, who alongside Abraham and by faith in Christ, inherit the promises of a new heavens and new earth but no longer make a particular claim to land in the Middle East. What then of the establishing of the State of Israel in 1948? Given what we have said, it is my belief that the State of Israel is not the fulfillment of OT prophecies since they are fulfilled in Christ, in the Church and in the earth. However, we would want to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in the rising and falling of nations and therefore I would suggest it is perhaps part of God’s purposes to remind the Jews of their history that perhaps they might seek and find the true Messiah.