June 2021 Pulse
The recent eruption of violence in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again ignited old debates among some Christians concerning the promised land. I will address this question briefly in this article.
Some Christians are of the view that since the Jewish people are God’s chosen people, the promises that God made to Abraham and the Patriarchs concerning the land that was given to them still apply to their physical descendants today. For instance, in The Destiny of Israel and the Church (1992) Derek Prince asserts that ‘God attaches far more importance to [the land of Israel] than most of us imagine’ and that ‘the land is given eternally to Israel.’
Christians have also maintained that the existence of the modern state of Israel is undisputed evidence of God’s continuing favour to Israel and that the promises concerning the land still hold. In his 1998 prayer letter, David Brickner, a Baptist minister and the head of Jews for Jesus, wrote:
I believe the modern day state of Israel is a miracle of God and a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. Jesus clearly said that ‘Jerusalem would be trodden down by the Gentiles until the time of the nations is fulfilled’ (Luke 21:24). It has been 50 years since the founding of the state, but only 30 years since Jerusalem came under the control of the Jews for the first time since Jesus made that prediction. Could it be that ‘this generation shall not pass until all these things are fulfilled’?
Christian Zionists of different stripes have affirmed this basic conviction that God’s promise of the land to Israel is irrevocable and therefore the Jewish people today have the right to it. Notice how the covenantal promise is couched in the language of rights in the 1997 statement published by the International Christian Embassy:
According to God’s distribution of nations, the Land of Israel has been given to the Jewish People by God as an everlasting possession by an eternal covenant. The Jewish People have the absolute right to possess and dwell in the Land, including Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan.
The question of the promised land, which for some evangelical Christians is at the centre of the theological debate, has proven to be a divisive one. But this question also has profound political and missiological implications for Christians and the Church.
Let me state my position on this issue at the outset. I believe that the land which God has promised to the Israelites point to a greater inheritance that God’s people will receive when the kingdom of God is consummated with the return of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The inheritance of the people of God is therefore not an ‘everlasting’ share in a strip of land in Palestine, but a ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:10-16), the new Jerusalem that will descend from the heaven of God, the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-4).
Covenant and Land
In Genesis 12, we read about God’s call to Abram to leave his home in Ur and to go to the land of Canaan, a call which comes with a promise.
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves (verses 1-4).
A few chapters later, God’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants is repeated in the context of the covenant.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great rive, the river Euphrates, the land of the Ken’ite, the Ken’izzites, the Kad’monities, the Hittes, the Per’izzites, the Reph’ain, the Amoerites, the Canaanites, the Gir’gashites and the Jeb’usites’ (Genesis 15:18-21).
In Genesis 17:1-8, the promise concerning the land is repeated yet again: ‘And I will give you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God’ (verse 8).
It is important to note at the outset that the land of Canaan was given to the Israelites not because they have done anything to merit it. It was not given to them because of their righteousness or integrity (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). In fact, they are often characterised as a ‘stiff-necked’ people (Deuteronomy 9:6). The gift of the land was a sign of God’s grace and mercy to an undeserving people.
It is also important to stress that the land that the Israelites were allowed to occupy did not belong to them. The promised land is God’s land. Thus, God explicitly said to Moses that ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me’ (Leviticus 25: 23).
As this passage makes clear, the Israelites are but ‘strangers and sojourners’ in the promised land. Because the land does not belong to the Israelites, it is never at their disposal. This is underscored by the injunction that they are not to sell the land.
A distinction must therefore be made between promise and possession.
Although no conditions were attached to the promise of the land — it was made purely on the basis of God’s grace — entrance into the land is based on fulfilling certain conditions, namely, faith and obedience. That entrance into the promised land was conditional is seen in the fact that many Israelites, including Moses, were not allowed to enter it due to their disobedience (Deuteronomy 32:51-52).
The same applies to the continued residence of the Israelites in the promised land. This is again made very clear in the passages in Deuteronomy which speak of the blessings and curses that the Israelites will receive depending on their faithfulness to the covenant. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:15-16, we read:
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.
A litany of curses follows this statement, one of which is: ‘you shall be plucked off the land which you are entering to take possession of it’ (28:63). We find a similar warning in Leviticus where the Israelites were told that the land will vomit them out if they fail to keep the statutes of the Lord:
But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or stranger who sojourns among you (for all these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you (18:26-27).
This brings me back to the statement by Derek Prince that I quoted earlier about the land being the eternal possession of Israel. Genesis 17:8 — quoted above — does describe the land as an ‘everlasting possession’. However, the verses immediately following verse 8 emphasise faithfulness to the covenant as the condition of this promise:
And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout the generations … Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken the covenant (verses 9, 14).
These passages make it abundantly clear that entrance into the land and continued residence in it are conditioned upon keeping the covenant.
David Holerda has summarised the main emphasis of these passages well:
… 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.
A Better Country
As we turn our attention to the New Testament, we must begin with an important principle in Christian hermeneutics: the promises in the Old Testament must be interpreted and understood in light of the New Testament.
Christian Zionists such as John Parsons have insisted that their interpretation of the Old Testament is justified because it is ‘consistent with the ways Orthodox Jews understand their Bibles.’ For Christians, however, the point surely is not how Orthodox Jews who are unaffected by the appearance of Jesus understand the Hebrew Bible, but how the New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament.
In Hebrews, we are told that although God has spoken in past ages through the prophets, ‘in these last days, he has spoken to us by the Son’ (Hebrews 1:1). Hebrews also informs us that Christ has come to mediate a new and ‘much more excellent’ covenant which is enacted on ‘better promises’ (8:6), making the old covenant obsolete (8:13).
For Christians, the question is: How has the coming of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, shape our understanding of God’s covenant promises to Abraham? And what does Jesus have to say about the land?
In his book entitled Whose Promised Land? Colin Chapman points out that ‘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.’
In fact, instead of focusing on the land Jesus has placed his emphasis on the whole earth. This becomes clear when we compare Psalm 37:11 with Matthew 5:5 where Jesus explicitly mentions inheritance in the Sermon on the Mount. In Psalm 37:11, we read: ‘But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.’ In the Sermon, however, Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ — replacing the land with the whole earth. In other words, Jesus takes a promise from Psalm 37 concerning the land and expands it to encompass the whole world.
Jesus’ teaching concerning the kingdom is consistent with this vision.
In Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus this question: ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ The great sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin comments that ‘There are as many mistakes in this question as there are words.’ For this question reveals the disciples’ unbelievable lack of understanding about the true nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus has come to inaugurate.
No writer has explicated the myopia behind the disciples’ question better than John Stott in his commentary on Acts. Stott writes:
The mistake they made was to misunderstand both the nature of the kingdom and the relation between the kingdom and the Spirit. Their question must have filled Jesus with dismay. Were they still so lacking in perception? … The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb restore shows they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In his reply (7-8) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival.
Indeed, in his reply Jesus points to a reality that transcends the narrow and nationalistic kingdom envisioned by his disciples. The kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate will be spiritual in nature and international in membership. This kingdom will not be confined to a piece of real estate in the Middle East, but will stretch to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The apostles continued to advance Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. For example, in Romans 4:13 the apostle Paul writes that ‘The promise to Abraham and his descendants [was] that they should inherit the world’ (Gk cosmos), not the land.
In Ephesians 6:2-3, Paul alludes to Deuteronomy 5:16 which says ‘Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you’. But the apostle revises the promise tied to this command by replacing ‘land’ with ‘earth’: ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord … that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.’
The writer of Hebrews underscores the fact that the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises lies beyond the physical land. Abraham, he writes, having ‘sojourned in the land of promise’ (11:9), did not receive ‘what was promised, but [had only] seen it and greeted it from afar’ (11:13). Hebrews goes on to say that despite having resided in the promised land, Abraham and the Patriarchs continue to look for ‘a homeland’ (11:14), for they ‘desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one’ (11:16).
As Stephen Sizer has put it:
The inheritance of the saints was ultimately never an ‘everlasting’ share of the territory in Palestine but an eternal place in heaven. Indeed, the book of Hebrews shows that even Abraham, the Patriarchs and later Hebrew saints looked beyond Canaan to ‘another’ country in which the covenant promises of God would be fulfilled (Hebrews 11:10-16).
This ‘better country’, in the words of Philip Hughes, is ‘altogether other and beyond any country past or present of this fallen world, in other words, a heavenly one, unmarred by any imperfection, glorious forevermore.’
The inheritance of the people of God — that is, all who have put their faith in Jesus Christ and who have called upon his name (Romans 10:13) — is the new heaven and the new earth into which this fallen and fractured world will be transformed when the Messiah returns to consummate the kingdom he has inaugurated.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.