The Land in the New Testament

by David Devenish

What does the New Testament teach about the land of Israel? Answer: absolutely nothing. There are no references to the importance of the land or of Jerusalem as a 'holy city'. Some would say that this is simply an argument from silence and that there are sufficient promises in the Old Testament to establish the land as belonging to the Jewish people without the need for New Testament confirmation. However, not only is there silence about the land but the whole tenor of the New Testament message and revelation of God's saving purpose amongst His people points in a different direction.

To a Samaritan, despised by the Jews, Jesus makes special places of worship (including Jerusalem) a redundant concept (John 4:21). When marvelling at the faith of a Gentile centurion, Jesus applied to the gathering in of Gentile peoples from all over the world the Old Testament promises of the bringing of God's people from the east and west into the promised blessings alongside Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matt. 8:11).

The promise of the restoration of David's tabernacle is applied by James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, to the reception of the gospel by the Gentiles. This confirmed they are full participants in the people of God without needing to fulfil the outward requirements of the law (Acts 15:15-19). The promised future blessing of fruitfulness for an Israel coming out of exile is applied by Paul to the new people of God, both Jew and Gentile, who receive the Messiah and the promises of faith (Gal. 4:27).

The Old Testament form of worship, including the whole sacrificial system in the temple, is merely a shadow and thus declared obsolete. In the same book, written to scattered Jewish Christians, the writer declared triumphantly, 'You have come to mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God' (Heb. 12:22) without any hint that they should also await an earthly Zion. So far as the specific promises of the land itself are concerned, the New Testament enlarges them to the whole world! Abraham is described as heir, not of a small strip of land but the world (Rom. 4:13)! The meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).

This is the glory of the mystery of God's ways revealed in the New Testament. God had chosen Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, to be God's special people as the bearers of His blessing to all the nations of the earth. Israel had failed to carry this blessing. (One prophet even ran away revolted at the prospect of Nineveh repenting and being blessed!) But Old Testament prophecy looked forward to the coming of a Messiah who would fulfil all the promises to Israel.

The Messiah himself and His dreadful death on a cross became the means by which 'all men' (spoken in the context of Greeks seeking Jesus) would be drawn to Him. This Messiah was vindicated primarily by His resurrection from the dead but also by the early fulfilment of His prophecy that the temple would be destroyed.

The mystery of God's ways revealed to the apostles and prophets, and emphasised by Paul in his letter to the Romans, the Galatians and in particular the Ephesians, was that now the only basis for salvation and being part of the people of God was through faith in this Messiah. The result was that there is now 'one new man in Christ', composed of both Jews and Gentiles, eventually from all the nations of the world, incorporated into the people of God and heirs together of all the promises to Israel. Like Isaac, we are all children of promise (Gal. 4:28). The Gentiles who believe are heirs together with believing Israel (eg Rom. 2:28-29, 3:30) and thus receive the promise through Christ.

As N T Wright puts it, 'The land no longer functioned as the key symbol of the geographical identity of the people of God, and that for obvious reasons: 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". Jesus and the church together are the new temple; the world I suggest is the new land.' (NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, SPCK, 1992).

THE BLESSING OF THE WHOLE WORLD

This does not devalue the Jews, rather it means that we believing Gentiles are incorporated into the same promises as believing Jews, enlarged so that, for example, the temple becomes the dwelling place of God by His Spirit wherever Christians are gathered. Similarly, the promise of the land is not abrogated but enlarged to encompass the blessing of the whole world which will eventually, after Jesus returns, result in the inheritance not of one small land but of a renewed earth for which all creation is longing.

But what about the promise of the 'everlasting possession of the land of Canaan' (Gen. 17:8)? Again we must read this Scripture in its context. In the same chapter, not only is the promise of the land described as 'everlasting' but so is the covenant of circumcision (v13) and are the promises to Isaac (v19). In the New Testament, circumcision is no longer necessary to define the people of God because that is determined by how we respond to Christ in faith. Circumcision of the flesh is now nothing; it is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit that counts (Rom. 2:29). The lesser is enfolded in the greater, the 'type' into the 'anti-type', the 'shadow' into the 'fullness'. Similarly, the promise to Isaac is described by Paul as being applied to Gentiles as well as Jews who believe in Christ, and thus both are children of promise. Unbelieving Jerusalem in this same section is described as children of Hagar (Gal. 4:25). The promises remain but their fulfilment is for those who receive the promise of the Messiah. It is therefore not at all surprising that in the New Testament the land is now included in the greater promise to bless the whole earth.

Furthermore the promise of the land, even in Old Testament terms, was not unconditional. Deuteronomy chapters 4 and 28 make it clear that if the Jewish people were to rebel against the Lord and embrace idolatry then they would be exiled from the land. There was in Deuteronomy a promise of return to the land but this was to follow a return to the Lord. It is clear from the New Testament that a return to the Lord involves an acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and King. In considering this, John Stott makes the following points:

The Old Testament promises about the Jews' return to the land are [accompanied] by promises of the Jews' return to the Lord. It is hard to see how the secular, unbelieving state of Israel can possibly be a fulfilment of those prophecies.

The Old Testament promises about the land are nowhere repeated in the New Testament. The prophecy of Romans 11 is a prophecy that many, many Jews will turn to Christ, but the land is not mentioned nor is Israel mentioned as a political entity.

The Old Testament promises according to the apostles are fulfilled in Christ and in the international community of Christ. The New Testament authors apply the promise of Abraham's seed to Jesus Christ. And they apply to Jesus Christ the promise of the land and all the land which is inherited, the land flowing with milk and honey, because it is in him that our hunger is satisfied and our thirst quenched. A return to Jewish nationalism would seem incompatible with this New Testament perspective of the international community of Jesus.

Jesus the Reconciler (Colossians 1: 19-20)

Dispensationally-driven Christian Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel is the centerpiece of God's redemptive purposes. This contradicts traditional Christian teaching which has Jesus as Reconciler at the center of God's purposes. To suggest otherwise is to violate the clear teaching of the New Testament.

Jesus ministered in a time much like our own time, when that which divides people is more pronounced than that which brings them together. There were at that time divisions within the Jewish community between Pharisees and Sadducees, between Zealots and those who lived a monastic existence in the desert. There were even stronger divisions between Jews and everyone else: They had nothing to do with Samaritans. Gentiles were "unclean." And most among them hated the Romans.

What Jesus did, in this divisive atmosphere, was bring people together. He deliberately chose as his disciples those within the Jewish community who would otherwise have had nothing to do with each other. He embraced "untouchables" and in other ways challenged the exclusivism which raised religious and social barriers between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Samaritan, Jew and Roman. Nowhere do we hear him speaking about one purpose of God for Jews and another for what would become a largely Gentile church. He included all in one ministry of grace and reconciliation.

The apostle Paul, speaking as a Jew who had himself once exhibited a fierce exclusivism but had now found peace with God and his neighbors through Christ, wrote this about this central purpose of Christ:

He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph. 2: 14)

So then you (Gentiles) are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord... (Eph. 3:19-21)

Jesus defined his ministry and purpose in terms of reconciliation. In him we learn that God's highest purpose is to bring together what we in our sinful divisiveness make separate. In light of this it is inconceivable that a religiously exclusive nation-state, which has come to be characterized by the building of a literal "dividing wall of hostility," can be at the centerpiece of God's redemptive plan.

That Israel is a viable nation-state, which like any other nation-state can be the source of either bane or blessing to its citizens, its neighbors and the world, is not in question here. What is in question is the place given to Israel by those who wish to put it at the center of God's redemptive purposes. For this there is no biblical justification, certainly not in light of the revelation we have received in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, reconciliation; bringing enemies together as friends; is seen to be God's overriding concern:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross . . . Colossians 1:19-20


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