The Kingdom of God: Already but Not Yet - Part II
D. Important Texts
(A more extensive analysis of Romans 11 is also found in two parts elsewhere in the material on Eschatology.)
1. Romans 11 - There is but one olive tree (cf. Jer. 11:16; Hosea 14:6), Israel, the people of God in the old dispensation. The branches = individual Israelites. Because of unbelief (rejection of Messiah) most of the natural branches were broken off (v. 16). This does not mean, however, that God has cast off his people (vv. 1-2), nor that he has nullified the covenant promises given to Israel in the OT. We must remember that those promises were never intended for the whole of the nation, but for the chosen/believing remnant within that nation. William Bell explains:
“God promised certain blessings to Abraham ‘and his seed,’ this phrase undoubtedly being understood by Abraham at the time to mean all of his physical descendants. God progressively revealed to Abraham, however, that He did not mean all of Abraham’s physical descendants, but only those of Isaac--not Ishmael. Despite the undoubted understanding of Abraham and Isaac to the contrary, God further revealed in time that not all of Isaac’s descendants were to be included in the promises either. Jacob was to be included--but not Esau. Further OT revelation began to make it clear that not even all of Jacob’s descendants (the Israelites) were to be included in the promises, but only believing Israelites (the remnant), and this fact was made abundantly clear by the apostle Paul centuries later when he enunciated the concept that ‘they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.’ The capstone to the entire doctrine is found in Paul’s Galatian teaching that Christ Himself is preeminently the seed of Abraham, and thus the initial Abrahamic concept of a vast physical progeny has been narrowed down repeatedly until one figure alone remains of his physical descendants--Christ himself. Just when it seems, however, that the Abrahamic promises have been narrowed down to the exclusion of all but Christ Himself, it is revealed that the promises obtain for all those who belong to Christ, and with this revelation, the doors are flung open once again to include not only believing Israelites, but believing Ishmaelites, believing Edomites (descendants of Esau), and believing Jews and Gentiles of every age,” (A Critical Evaluation of the Pretribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology, pp. 132-33).
Thus, faith, not physical descent, qualifies one to be of God’s people and an heir of the covenant promise. Those who by faith received Messiah and his offer of the kingdom constituted the true Israel, i.e., the believing remnant within the unbelieving nation (cf. 11:1-5 and Elijah). That the majority of Israelites (“natural branches") rejected Messiah and were consequently broken off does not counteract God’s purposes nor abrogate the promises. It simply proves Paul's point that “they are not all Israel, who are of Israel.” That is, not all physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the chosen recipients of the covenant blessings. Of course, the nucleus of the early church was Jewish; they were members of the church, however, not because they were Jewish, but because they were believers!
When the majority of the natural branches were broken off, unnatural branches (Gentiles) were grafted in (vv. 17,24). These are those Gentiles who received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (both then and now); they are the “other nation” (Mt. 21:43) to whom the stewardship of the kingdom has been given.
In summary: one cannot read Rom. 11 and conclude that the Church is wholly separate from Israel. Although we can surely speak of believing Israelites (i.e., the physical descendants of Abraham who come to faith in Christ) and believing Gentiles, they are together, as natural and unnatural branches respectively, one people of God, one olive tree.
2. Ephesians 2:11-13,19 - Again, believing Gentiles have been admitted (“grafted”) as citizens into the commonwealth of Israel (“olive tree”), from which they had previously (in the OT era) been separated, and thus they participate fully in the covenants of promise made by God with Israel in the OT.
NOTE: the NT authors actually speak not so much of OT believers being admitted to the Church (although cf. Heb. 11:39-40), but rather of the Gentile believers of the NT age being admitted to Israel.
Note also that believing Gentiles do not "replace" anyone as recipients of God's covenant promise. No believing Jew in any age has been either displaced or replaced by a believing Gentile. Rather, believing Gentiles have been admitted into the commonwealth of Israel to share equally in the promised blessings, the two (believing Jew and believing Gentile) now comprising "one new man", the Church. The "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), therefore, in and for whom the promises will be fulfilled, consists of believing Jews and Gentiles, the natural and unnatural branches in the one olive tree of God.
3. Galatians 3:16,23-29
4. I Peter 2:4-10
5. Hebrews 8:6-13
E. Is it correct to speak of the “Church” as the “True Israel”?
Titles, honors, and blessings of OT Israel applied to the Church of the NT include: (1) “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:16ff.); (2) the “circumcision” (Phil. 3:1-3); (3) the “dispersion” (I Pt. 1:1; Js. 1:1); (4) “Chosen race”, “royal priesthood”, “holy nation”, “people for God’s own possession” (I Pt. 2:9-10).
Cf. also Rom. 2:28-29; Rev. 3:9 - a “true Jew” is one circumcised not in the flesh but in the heart! Cf. also I Cor. 10:18. Note especially Gal. 6:16.
I concur with Bear that,
“the ‘people of God’ are one group,---the men of faith,--- which includes all who have lived, are now living, or shall live in a faith-righteous relation to God. This one group under the providence of God has been organized in two outward forms,---from Moses to Christ as a Nation and from Christ to the present as a Church,---but the essential mark of this group has been faith, and for this group,---‘God’s people,’---God has prepared a common and wonderful destiny,” (James E. Bear, “The People of God in the Light of the Teaching of the New Testament,” Union Seminary Review, 52:128, Jan. 1941).
F. The OT Land Promises and the Consummation of the Kingdom
1. “Kingdom of God” = the reign or rule of God over His people: “to receive the Kingdom of God is to accept the yoke of God’s sovereignty,” (TPOTF, p. 137). Cf. Ex. 15:18; Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; Isa. 43:5; II Kings 19:15; Isa. 6:5; Jer. 46:18; Ps. 29:10; 47:2,93; 96:10; 97:1ff.; 99:1-4; 145:11ff.
2. On the other hand, God’s rule manifests itself and is realized in a specific historical realm. God is indeed the King of all the earth, but the OT places great emphasis on the fact that He is in a special way the King of His people Israel, and that this rule/reign is to be realized in her history and development on the earth. God’s Kingdom, therefore, as described in the OT = His rule over Israel in the Promised Land. The OT prophetic hope was both nationalistic (because focused in Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and earthly (because realized in Canaan, the land of promise).
3. The promise of the land and God’s rule therein is given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-7; 17:1-16), Isaac (Gen. 26:1-5), Jacob (Gen. 28:13-14; 35:12), and is reaffirmed to Moses (Ex. 6:4,8; 13:5-11; 32:13; 33:1; Num. 10:29; cf. also Num. 11:12; 14:23; 32:11; Deut. 12:8-11). Furthermore, no fewer than 69 times do we find in Deuteronomy a repetition of the promise that Israel would inherit the land; and lest there be any mistake concerning the reference, in several cases the promise is directly identified as that which was given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 1:8; 6:10,18; 7:8; 34:4).
4. Was not the land promise forfeited by Israel’s disobedience? Or, if not forfeited, could it have been exhaustively fulfilled during the reigns of David and/or Solomon? No, for the hope of God’s rule over His people in the land is confirmed by the prophets who wrote well after David and Solomon as awaiting a yet future fulfillment (Isa. 2:1-4; 11:1-16; 14:1-3; 25:6-12; 27:12-13; 35:2; 7,10; 43:1-7; 49:8-16; Jer. 16:14-15; 23:3-8; 30:10-11; 31:8-11, 31-37; Ezek. 11:17-21; 20:33-38; 34:11-16; 36:22-38; 37:1-28; 39:25-29; Joel 3:17-21; Amos 9:15; Micah 4:1-7; 7:18-20; Zeph. 3:14-20; Zech. 8:4-8; 10:9-12; 14:1-9, 16-21).
5. Recognizing this, some have argued that these prophesied regatherings of Israel in the land do not refer to any future, eschatological (end-time) event, but to an actual historical fulfillment either in the return from Babylonian captivity under Zerubbabel and Joshua (in 536 b.c.) or in a later return under Ezra (in 458 b.c.). My response is 3-fold:
a. It isn’t possible to understand all the prophecies as historically fulfilled - cf. Joel 3:17-21; Micah 4:1-7; Ezek. 36-37; Zeph. 3:14-20; Isa. 11:1-6; 25:6-12, all of which are conceived of as being fulfilled only “in the last days”, “in the Day of the Lord,” etc. Note especially Zech. 10:9-12 (14:1-9, 16-21):
“Yet even after Israel had been restored to the land after the Babylonian exile, the prospect of a regathered, reunified nation still appeared in Zechariah 10:9-12. The importance of this passage and its late postexilic date should not be lost by those who interpret the promise of the land spiritually or as a temporal blessing which has since been forfeited by a rebellious nation due to her failure to keep her part of the conditional covenant. On the contrary, this hope burned brighter as Israel became more and more hopelessly scattered,” (Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 255).
b. Even if we grant that the restoration to the land referred to in the texts cited received historic fulfillment in Israel’s return from Babylon, they were restored to the land, and more specifically, to the land “which I (God) gave to their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob),” (cf. Jer. 16:15). Implications:
1. The land promises therefore were not exhaustively fulfilled by any previous historical possession by Israel, such as that of Joshua 21 or during Solomon’s rule. If they had been exhaustively fulfilled at that time, on what basis does God continue to fulfill them at such a late (post-exilic) date in Israel’s history?
2. If we grant (5) above, it demonstrates that the land promises were unconditional, otherwise Israel’s disobedience in the centuries preceding (including her disobedience which incurred the Captivity) would have precluded any regathering, for she would have no inheritance in the land at all (having forfeited it through disobedience).
c. Finally, it hardly seems possible that such historical (post-exilic) restorations to the land could exhaust the original covenant promise, for the post-exilic possession of Canaan was even less extensive than the pre-exilic possessions (e.g., under Solomon). Consequently, if the many pre-exilic possessions of the land, which were more extensive, did not exhaust the covenant promise, how could the post-exilic possession do so, being far less extensive?
It seems best, then, to interpret the historical fulfillments under Zerubbabel and Ezra as but partial, and thus as foreshadowings or the firstfruits (i.e., a token/pledge), as it were, of the ultimate and eternal inheritance which is yet future.
6. At the close of the old dispensation we are left with an as yet unfulfilled prophetic hope of God’s earthly rule over His people according to the promise given to the fathers. Since we have shown that the promised inheritance was neither forfeited nor fulfilled, what options are left? There seem to be two:
a. The land was but figurative in purpose; it was typical of heavenly/spiritual blessings which are either being fulfilled now by the Church or will be fulfilled in the age to come. The earthly Canaan, therefore, was never designed to be literally possessed as an eternal inheritance, but was to serve as a type/model of a future blessing, heavenly and spiritual in nature.
b. The land promise will yet be fulfilled, literally, earthly; but the question is “When”?
Option "a." is an impoverishment of the OT covenant promise - cf. Ladd, TPOTF, pp. 59ff. Also note Matthew 5:5; Rev. 5:10. Option "b." asserts that a glorious earthly consummation of the kingdom rule of Christ is yet to occur in fulfillment of the OT promises: but When? Again, two answers are suggested:
(1) Premillennialists insist that the answer is the 1,000 year period known as the “Millennium” which, they argue, intervenes between Christ’s second coming and the Final Judgment. According to the Dispensational premillennialist, the Millennium will witness a virtual restoration of the OT economy: temple, worship, priesthood, sacrificial system, etc.
According to the Non-dispensational premillennialist:
1. Although the OT prophetic hope was both “nationalistic” and “earthly”, in light of NT teaching on the Church (believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation) as the continuation and maturation of the believing remnant of Israel, it seems the “nationalistic” element has disappeared. The covenant promises in the OT surely were given to Israel alone, but the NT indicates that now (Eph. 2:11-13) the “seed of Abraham” encompasses all the faithful/believing (Gal. 3:16, 23-29). Believing Gentiles do not have a separate inheritance distinct from that of believing Israelites; rather, as Eph. 2 teaches, we have been admitted to the commonwealth of Israel and have become co-heirs of the covenant promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!
2. The promise of God’s earthly rule over His people has not changed, nor have believing Israelites been disinherited or displaced by the Church. The only change is that concerning the recipients of the promise: none has been deleted, but many have been added, i.e., believing Gentiles! The covenant promise was for the “seed of Abraham”, which seed we, believing Gentiles, are, through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:26-29). If there is to be a Millennium, therefore, it is not primarily Jewish in nature. It is, rather, the rule of Christ over His one people, the olive tree, itself comprised of both natural (believing Jews) and unnatural (believing Gentiles) branches.
3. One purpose of the Millennial kingdom, then, would be to serve as the time and place (at least initially) wherein the OT promises of God’s earthly rule over His people will be fulfilled.
4. Another purpose of the Millennium would be that Christ’s kingdom might be disclosed in history.
(2) The second answer, proposed by Amillennialists, is the “new earth”, which inaugurates the eternal state. According to this view, the OT promise of a Messianic reign among God's people in the land will be literally fulfilled. It will be fulfilled, however, not on the present, unredeemed earth, but on the new earth described in Rev. 21-22. Anthony Hoekema explains:
“The doctrine of the new earth, as taught in Scripture, is an important one. It is important, first, for the proper understanding of the life to come. One gets the impression from certain hymns that glorified believers will spend eternity in some ethereal heaven somewhere off in space, far away from earth. . . . But does such a conception do justice to biblical eschatology? Are we to spend eternity somewhere off in space, wearing white robes, plucking harps, singing songs, and flitting from cloud to cloud while doing so? On the contrary, the Bible assures us that God will create a new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified, resurrected bodies. On that new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity, enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God. Since God will make the new earth his dwelling place, and since where God dwells there heaven is, we shall then continue to be in heaven while we are on the new earth. For heaven and earth will then no longer be separated, as they are now, but will be one (Rev. 21:1-3) . . . . Secondly, the doctrine of the new earth is important for a proper grasp of the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program. In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Because of man’s fall into sin, a curse was pronounced over this creation. God now sent his Son into this world to redeem that creation from the results of sin. The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals, not even to save an innumerable throng of blood-bought people. The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise Lost has become Paradise Regained. We need a clear understanding of the doctrine of the new earth, therefore, in order to see God’s redemptive program in cosmic dimensions. We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall,” (pp. 274-75).
Hoekema (The Bible and the Future) finds such OT prophecies as Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 32:15; 35:2; 35:10; 35:7; 11:9 which speak of the restoration of the created order, both human and animal, to be fulfilled in the new earth, not the millennium. Furthermore, the many OT prophecies which speak of a glorious future for God’s people on the earth “should not be interpreted as referring either to the church of the present time or to heaven, if by heaven is meant a realm somewhere off in space, far away from earth. Prophecies of this nature should be understood as descriptions --- in figurative language, to be sure --- of the new earth which God will bring into existence after Christ comes again --- a new earth which will last, not just for a thousand years, but forever,” (pp. 275-76).
Hoekema finds support for this view in the fact 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/redeemed earth. For example, 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,” (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).
A significant passage that addresses this issue is found in Hebrews 11. We 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, esp. 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. Hughes explains:
"Thus Abraham did not view the earthly territory to which God's promise was attached as an end in itself, but understood it, sacramentally, as a sign pointing beyond itself to a distant and transcendental reality. He saw and greeted the fulfillment of the promise from afar as his gaze of faith penetrated beyond all earthly values to that eternal and heavenly country which is the true homeland of God's people."
Note well: although it is "transcendental", "eternal", and "heavenly", it is still a 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 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 reason these died not having received the promise, but having only seen it from afar, is that their hope was not focused on any this-earthly-inheritance, but, as v. 16 indicates, on 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.