In Parts One and Two of this study I argued that the New Testament provides us with an expanded definition of what constitutes an “Israelite” or a “Jew”. Or perhaps we might say that the NT provides us with a “Christified” perspective on the people of God. Ethnicity is no longer the primary concern. Having Abraham’s blood in one’s veins is not the primary consideration, but rather having Abraham’s faith in one’s heart. Jesus is the true “seed” of Abraham to whom the promise was given. But if anyone is “in Christ” by faith, he or she is the “seed” of Abraham and thus an heir according to the promise.
Where we left off is with the question of the ultimate disposition of the land that was included in the Abrahamic covenant. What becomes of that element in the promise?
I believe that promise will be literally fulfilled, but not merely (or even primarily) in the land of Canaan. It’s important we note that the initial covenant promises of the land of Canaan to Abraham (Gen. 12,13,15,17) undergo considerable expansion in Scripture, an expansion of such a nature that the ultimate fulfillment could only be realized on the New Earth. I find Anthony Hoekema’s description helpful. He refers to Gen. 17:8 and the land promise to Abraham, and says:
“Note that God promised to give the land of Canaan not just to Abraham’s descendants but also Abraham himself. Yet Abraham never owned as much as a square foot of ground in the land of Canaan (cf. Acts 7:5) – except for the burial cave which he had to purchase from the Hittites (see Gen. 23). What, now, was Abraham’s attitude with respect to this promise of the inheritance of the land of Canaan, which was never fulfilled during his own lifetime? We get an answer to this question from the book of Hebrews. In chapter 11, verses 9-10, we read, ‘By faith he [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ By ‘the city which has foundations’ we are to understand the holy city or the new Jerusalem which will be found on the new earth. Abraham, in other words, looked forward to the new earth as the real fulfillment of the inheritance which had been promised him – and so did the other patriarchs” (The Bible and the Future, p. 278).
“When we properly understand biblical teachings about the new earth, many other Scripture passages begin to fall into a significant pattern. For example, in Psalm 37:11 we read, ‘But the meek shall possess the land.’ It is significant to observe how Jesus’ paraphrase of this passage in his Sermon on the Mount reflects the New Testament expansion of the concept of the land: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:5). From Genesis 17:8 we learned that God promised to give to Abraham and his seed all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, but in Romans 4:13 Paul speaks of the promise to Abraham and his descendants that they should inherit the world – note that the land of Canaan in Genesis has become the world in Romans,” (pp. 281-82).
As Hoekema noted above, a significant passage that addresses this issue is found in Hebrews 11. Let me begin with a question: How do we explain that when Abraham finally arrived in the land of promise he only sojourned there, “as an alien . . . as in a foreign land”? (Heb. 11:9,13). Philip Hughes rightly asks: "In what sense could he be said to have received this land as an inheritance when it was a territory in which he led no settled existence and to which he had no claim of ownership?" (467). We need not speculate an answer, for the text provides its own in v. 10, "for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God."
What is this city? It is that city which God has prepared for them (v. 16), mentioned again in Heb. 12:22 as the "city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem." See also Heb. 13:14, where we read, "for here [that is, on this present earth] we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come." This surely refers to the heavenly Jerusalem of Heb. 12:22, the city which has foundations (v. 10). Note also Rev. 21:1-2, especially v. 2 where we read that John "saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (cf. 21:9-11). The reason, then, why Abraham was a sojourner and exile in Canaan was because he viewed that earthly land to be a type of the heavenly and more substantial land/country.
The point is that the patriarchs did not seek in the physical land of Canaan their everlasting possession. The focal point of the OT land promise was on land, to be sure, but on the heavenly land (Heb. 11:16) of the new earth with its central feature, the New Jerusalem.
Abraham, the one to whom the land of Canaan was originally promised, is said to receive the fulfillment of that promise, not in geographic Canaan, but in the heavenly Jerusalem. Abraham is heir, not merely of Canaan, but of the world! Indeed, according to Heb. 11:9-10, it was Abraham's expectation of permanent and perfect blessing in the heavenly city that enabled him to submit patiently to the inconvenience and disappointments during his pilgrimage in Canaan.
Look also at Heb. 11:13-16. The patriarchs themselves “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (v. 13). They died without receiving the promise, having only seen it from afar. Their hope was not focused on any this-earthly-inheritance, but, as v. 16 indicates, on “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” F. F. Bruce sums it up well by noting that, according to v. 16,
"their true homeland was not on earth at all. The better country on which they had set their hearts was the heavenly country. The earthly Canaan and the earthly Jerusalem were but temporary object-lessons pointing to the saints' everlasting rest, the well-founded city of God" (305).
The Abrahamic land promise, as well as prophecies such as Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 32:15; 35:2,7,10; 11:9, which speak of a restoration of the cosmos, are to be fulfilled on the new earth in the new creation, not on a millennial earth in the old one.
Typically at this point someone will ask: “But doesn’t the fulfillment have to sustain a literal one-to-one correspondence with the promise?” In other words, the fulfillment must consist of what can only be called a “photographic reproduction” of the promise. Therefore (so goes the argument), God has failed to carry through on his covenantal commitment to the nation Israel if he does not bring her into possession and enjoyment of the precise geographical dimensions as outlined in Genesis 12, 13, 15, and 17.
Clearly, I believe this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of promise and fulfillment as well as the relationship between the two testaments. But consider this illustration, as provided by Greg Beale in his excellent book, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” (IVP). Imagine that a father, in 1900, promises his young son a horse and buggy when he grows up and gets married:
“During the early years of expectation, the son reflects on the particular size of the buggy, its contours and style, its beautiful leather seat and the size and breed of horse that would draw the buggy. Perhaps the father had knowledge from early experimentation elsewhere that the invention of the automobile was on the horizon, but coined the promise to his son in terms that his son would understand. Years later, when the son marries, the father gives the couple an automobile, which has since been invented and mass-produced. Is the son disappointed in receiving a car instead of a horse and buggy? Is this not a ‘literal’ fulfillment of the promise? In fact, the essence of the father’s word has remained the same: a convenient mode of transportation. What has changed is the precise form of transportation promised. The progress of technology has escalated the fulfillment of the pledge in a way that could not have been conceived of when the son was young. Nevertheless, in the light of the later development of technology [corresponding to the redemptive impact of the coming of Christ], the promise is viewed as ‘literally’ and faithfully carried out in a greater way than earlier apprehended” (352-53).
Finally, we come now to the current nation of Israel and its claim to possession of the land in which it dwells. I can do no better here than to quote the words of John Piper in a sermon he preached on Romans 11. His comments deserve a wide hearing:
“The promises made to Abraham, including the promise of the Land, will be inherited as an everlasting gift only by true, spiritual Israel, not disobedient, unbelieving Israel. In other words, the promises cannot be demanded by anyone just because he is Jewish. Jewish ethnicity has a place in God's plan, but it is not enough to secure anything. It does not in itself qualify a person to be an heir of the promise to Abraham and his offspring. Romans 9:8 says it clearly: ‘It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.’ Being born Jewish does not make one an heir of the promise – neither the promise of the Land nor any other promise.
Be careful not to infer from this that Gentile nations (like Arabs) have the right to molest Israel. God's judgments on Israel do not sanction human sin against Israel. Israel still has human rights among nations even when she forfeits her present divine right to the Land. Remember that nations which gloated over her divine discipline were punished by God (Isaiah 10:5-13; Joel 3:2).
So the promise to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the Land does not mean that all Jews inherit that promise. It will come finally to the true Israel, the Israel that keeps covenant and obeys her God.
Therefore, the secular state of Israel today may not claim a present divine right to the Land, but they and we should seek a peaceful settlement not based on present divine rights, but on international principles of justice, mercy, and practical feasibility.
[Therefore] . . . we should not give blanket approval to Jewish or to Palestinian actions. We should approve or denounce according to Biblical standards of justice and mercy among peoples. We should encourage our representatives to seek a just settlement that takes the historical and social claims of both peoples into account. Neither should be allowed to sway the judgments of justice by a present divine claim to the land. . . .
Therefore Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers will inherit the Land. And the easiest way to see this is to see that we will inherit the world which includes the Land. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians will not quibble over the real estate of the Promised Land because the entire new heavens and the new earth will be ours. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, ‘All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.’ All followers of Christ, and only followers of Christ, will inherit the earth, including the Land.”
In yet another sermon from Romans (this time, 9:25-26), Piper declares that
“a covenant-breaking people does not have a present claim on covenant promises. Therefore it is wrong for America or for Christians to be unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian in the political and geographical situation of the Middle East. It may be right to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian on any given issue, but while Israel is breaking the covenant with her God by rejecting his Messiah, the criterion for what is right in the Middle East should be equally applied standards of justice and mercy among nations, not divine rights or covenant privileges. Our relation to Jews and Palestinians should be to love them and treat them with mercy and justice, as we do all others. Anti-Semitism is sin. And unquestioning rejection of possible rights of Palestinians is sin.”
I’ll close with two important observations.
(1) The view that I’ve defended in these three lessons is consistent with either historic premillennialism or amillennialism. John Piper, among many others, is a premillennialist. I, on the other hand, am an amillennialist. But we both agree there is only one people of God, the Church, comprised of believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
(2) In all of this discussion I have not addressed the question of whether the Bible teaches a mass salvation of Jewish people at the close of this present age. Piper believes that in Romans 11 Paul affirms just such a massive salvific ingathering of ethnic Jews in some way associated with the Second Coming of Christ.
Whatever view one may take on that point (and the interpretation of Romans 11:25-27), more important still is that whoever among the Jewish people is saved, regardless of when that may occur, will enter the kingdom in the same manner and on the same terms as do Gentile believers. Whether that salvation is eschatological (at the end of the present age) or historical (progressively, throughout the course of the present age), I do not believe it is God’s purpose to reconstitute or re-establish a theocratic nation separate from the Church. The Church is the only “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) that will inherit the promises of the covenant.
Therefore, any and all Jewish people who come to faith in Jesus Christ will become members of the Church, the “one new man” of Ephesians 2. They will be grafted back into the one olive tree (Romans 11) where they, together and in complete unity with Gentile believers, the “seed” of Abraham, will inherit the promises made to the patriarchs.