PROMISED LAND AS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
What is the big deal with the land covenant? How does it relate to the new covenant or eternal life in heaven? Is there any lingering spiritual significance to a certain small piece of land in the Middle East? Would building a temple in the heart of Jerusalem actually usher in a new age? Let’s go back to the Scriptures and see what we can learn.
As we’ve noted earlier, Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, and the Jewish people were scattered. There are myriad passages about a return to the land, and about as many opinions about what that might signify. Some people think God is finished with the old covenants; if we are under the new covenant now, the old coordinates of the Promised Land shouldn’t matter. Others think that there was poetic grace in the modern reestablishment of Israel, but the connection to the land is sentimental. Still others think of a trek to Israel as an opportunity to commune richly with God at a mystical location.
There are several factors to consider here. Are we supposed to focus on physical or spiritual descendants of Abraham? On an earthly or heavenly homeland? Our answers will help us determine whether the land covenant promises are already fulfilled or pending.
As we read the next few passages, consider the possible combinations of factors. To what do these land covenant prophecies refer?
- A return to a physical piece of land?
- A figurative return to a state of mind?
- The return of physical bloodline descendants of Abraham to a Jewish state in the old borders of Israel?
- The return of spiritual descendants of Abraham to the physical boundaries of the Promised Land?
“I will strengthen the house of Judah,
and I will save the house of Joseph.
I will bring them back because I have compassion on them,
and they shall be as though I had not rejected them,
for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them.…
I will whistle for them and gather them in,
for I have redeemed them,
and they shall be as many as they were before.
Though I scattered them among the nations,
yet in far countries they shall remember me,
and with their children they shall live and return.”
—Zechariah 10:6, 8–9
“In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
He will raise a signal for the nations
and will assemble the banished of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.”
“For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”
Take a closer look at the last of these passages. Notice that “return” may be literal. Hosea states, “return and seek.” “Seek and find” would probably be better wording if a spiritual return to God were the intended meaning. Why is “return” mentioned first, then “seek”? In a literal interpretation, it looks as if there is something calling them back as the first step (perhaps the “whistle” call mentioned in Zechariah 10:8); then they are to seek God’s goodness after they return. We may be tempted to rule out the idea that these passages refer to Gentiles, that a spiritual return is implied, or that the prophecies have already been fulfilled. But let’s continue on for now.
“Return” may indicate a physical action and “seek” a spiritual one. Perhaps this passage has dual meanings. After all, the book of Hosea concerns the northern tribes of Israel who had been dispersed into other lands as divine punishment for their unfaithfulness. They were lost physically and spiritually.
As for Hosea’s mention of David, is he talking about David’s resurrection in a future kingdom, or Christ, who is the heir of David’s throne? David had been dead for hundreds of years when Hosea wrote this passage, so it is most likely one of these options. This detail is not yet clear. We need to look further.
Let’s take a stance right now and presume that these passages are pointing toward a physical return to an earthly location, not just a spiritual return in the heart, nor a “return” to a substitutionary heavenly realm. If this literal interpretation is contradicted by other passages, we can start over again and consider other meanings.
If Hosea was indeed writing about a physical return, has such a return happened already, or is it yet to occur? Is God done with the blood descendants of the nation of Israel as many seem to think? Does the Church fulfill aspects of these prophecies by being grafted into the nation of Israel? To answer these questions, we need to look again at Abraham and the promises he received from God.
Abraham did not receive his inheritance of land while he was alive. How do we reconcile this fact to God’s unconditional promise that a new homeland would belong to him forever?[footnote]Or “to the ages” according to a literal translation.[/footnote] The only way Abraham could receive this promise physically from God is to be resurrected and enter the Promised Land. A mystical interpretation of the land promise is lacking; the founders of the Church considered it obvious that God had promised physical land.
“Then [Abraham] went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.”
Here in Stephen’s testimony, we see that although God promised the land to Abraham and his offspring, Abraham never inherited it during his lifetime. Perhaps Abraham received a spiritual inheritance or a heavenly reward, but how can he possibly take physical possession of the land now that he is dead on this earthly realm? How can he receive and enjoy what God promised to give him? Can God somehow yet keep his promise, or did he let himself off the hook by changing terms via the new covenant?
The easiest way to resolve these questions is to assume that the land of God’s promise was a metaphor for a spiritual or heavenly inheritance. Abraham will not physically come back from the dead to live in the land, will he? Let’s look at a few more passages to try to resolve this question.
“Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’”
This passage draws from Amos 9 (from the LXX). Let’s read a portion of Amos 9 not included in the Acts quotation.
“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord,
‘when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,’
says the Lord your God.’”
Some people believe that God will ensure that the nation of Israel will permanently reside within the Promised Land, reading the above passage literally; others believe that God is no longer personally invested in Israel as a geopolitical entity, and assume the promise here has been superseded—if it was ever meant as a literal promise in the first place. Regardless of our contemporary perspective, it is crystal clear from the Old and New Testaments that Israel was expecting a physical restoration based on the land promise given to Abraham. Israel expected a Messiah who would bring a physical fulfillment of this promise, not a spiritual one. And the early leaders of the Church did not put their hope in a spiritual return of Christ, but rather a literal, physical return.
In Acts 7, Stephen provides a historical summary of the nation of Israel. He describes how Abraham and his offspring (including the singular anointed) were given an earthly land promise that not even Joshua or David would fully realize. For a time, Israel occupied the land as tenants. But they did not possess it for “eons,” “to the ages,” or “forever” as God had promised. What happened here? Some scholars say Israel forfeited their inheritance when they failed to keep the terms of the Mosaic covenant. The dispensational view says that once the Mosaic covenant was broken, God started a new age and a new plan of salvation, establishing the Church and discarding all aspects of the old covenants.
As we’ve already seen in Galatians 3, dispensationalism is contradicted by a careful reading of Scripture—we’ll look at other rebutting passages later. Even if Christ’s death legally fulfilled a blood sacrifice, this did not annul the promises to Abraham; according to many New Testament passages, the promises remain open. Abraham’s inheritance is here explicitly linked to the kingdom of heaven.
Christ simplifies the whole situation for us in the Sermon on the Mount, where he draws from Psalm 37.
“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.”
“The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
It would seem that Christ means to assure his audience that his heavenly kingdom is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant: the meek will indeed inherit the earth and dwell upon it forever. But was Christ speaking figuratively or literally?
Let’s assume Christ made a literal statement about physical land. For this assumption to be valid, Christ’s blessing needs to comply with the other characteristics of the land covenant we know to be true. Here are four points of comparison:
- Like the Abrahamic covenant, the blessing is everlasting––continuing minimally until the end of an age, or else eternal.
- Like the Abrahamic covenant, Christ sets no conditions for the meek to receive the blessing.
- The blessing is extended to any who possess meekness—not merely physical descendants of Abraham.
- Christ equates the inheritance of the Promised Land to inheritance of the kingdom of heaven on earth.[footnote]Within the New Testament, the concept of land is clarified and developed. We’ll take a closer look later in this book.[/footnote]
One immediate problem with the first point is that there is no clear word for “eternity” or “infinity” in the Hebrew language. The root often means “age,” so Hebrew speakers would use the phrase “forever and ever” to describe the concept of eternity. Let’s look at one passage describing time and purpose within the Abrahamic covenant.
“He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy;
they are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name!”
The most important concept in this passage from Psalm 111 is “redemption.” God has a redemptive plan to save his people and honor his promise to Abraham. God is doing the redeeming work tied into the inheritance.
Certain Psalms can sound a lot like allegories, but let’s agree with Paul that the covenant to Abraham was not made void and still has an everlasting concept intact. Also, remember that Israel at the time of Psalm 111 was not an everlasting empire (even though they experienced some high points under David and Solomon and received favorable treatment from the Phoenicians regarding trade and travel).
As for the second point regarding the unilateral nature of Christ’s blessing, let’s look back at the original promises made by God to Abraham. The word “if” is never used—though it does appear in the Mosaic covenant that was broken by Israel. Remember, Paul clearly differentiated between the two main Old Testament covenants and stated the Abrahamic could not be nullified as it was ratified by God himself, whereas the Mosaic law covenants depended on Israel’s compliance, which was lacking.
In our third point of comparison, we note that Christ’s blessing seems to be available to a larger pool of people than only blood descendants of Abraham. This change is based upon the merger of Hebrews and Gentiles to form a single congregation of God’s people. New Testament writers tend to refer to God’s people not only as Israel but as the Church, the body of Christ, or the brethren. This shift is demonstrated by the writings of Paul, especially in Romans 9–11. Old Testament language used specific phrases such as “chosen people,” but the promises to Abraham also opened up to a broader group of nations that included Gentiles. Romans 15:8–12 offers a summary of Old Testament promises to the Gentiles and states the dual purpose for Christ coming in the first advent: to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and to bring the Gentiles into these promises.
The book of Acts starts with the broad deployment of the Holy Spirit, which creates a single congregation: the Church of all believers. The Gentiles were officially “grafted” into the nation of Israel, adopted as Abraham’s descendants.
According to our fourth point of comparison, Christ meant to equate the Promised Land with the earthly arrival of the kingdom of heaven. There is a strong correlation of land with kingdom language in the New Testament. Old Testament believers had faith in the land covenant being fulfilled someday (specifically that they would be raised from the dead to live in the land forever). This concept carried over into the New Testament, but the word “kingdom” also shows up frequently in N.T. writings. So let’s compare New Testament “land” passages to those translated as “kingdom.”
The Promised Land and the Kingdom of Heaven
First, it is very clear that Christ created and inherits the whole earth.[footnote]See Psalm 2:8; Romans 4:13; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; 2:10.[/footnote] We are now called joint heirs or fellow heirs (Romans 8:17) in salvation. All enemies (mainly death and the devil) need to be conquered for co-heirs to claim their inheritance of the land and eternal life.
“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
—1 Corinthians 15:24–26[footnote]Note that Christ must reign for a while before ultimately destroying death in the end. Then the kingdom is finally delivered.[/footnote]
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.”
—Hebrews 10:11–13[footnote]Note that although Christ takes his seat by the Father, his enemies have not yet been subdued.[/footnote]
Christ himself conquered death and the devil (Romans 6:5-9), enabling him to sit at the right hand of God in Heaven. He has not yet delivered the kingdom to share with his co-heirs, according to these and other passages. The writer of Hebrews provides this summary regarding the land inheritance promise:
“These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
“And all these [Old Testament saints], though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
“For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect [resurrected] together with us.”
—Hebrews 11:40, NET
God “providing something better” recalls language from Hebrews 8:6, a verse that briefly speaks of the superiority of the new covenant to the old covenant (Mosaic). We’ll take a closer look later. There is a connection to see first.
Regardless of whether figurative or literal language was intended, Hebrews 11:39 above clearly states that the spiritual or physical promise was not fulfilled to Abraham or any other Old Testament figure mentioned in the chapter. This fact (supported by Galatians 3 and Acts 7) demonstrates the continuation of the promise—it remains active in the New Testament.
Did God go back on His promise (oath)? No![footnote]See Romans 11:29; Galatians 3:17.[/footnote] How then can Abraham receive the promise if he never obtained it during his earthly life? The answer, according to Hebrews 11, is found in the heavenly country and the prepared city.
This link of the land promise to a heavenly country is a key bridge of Old and New Testament language. The promises to Abraham and all the Old Testament saints will be fulfilled when they inherit the city to come (called New Jerusalem) in the heavenly country. They just need to wait for the New Testament saints to complete the bride of Christ at the ordained time. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the author establishes this theme that the land promise will see its fulfillment when God establishes his heavenly kingdom on earth.
The book of Hebrews begins by naming Christ as the main heir of the promise to Abraham. He indeed inherited all things: the earth and everything in it. “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things” (1:2).
The author keeps building upon the inheritance theme in reference to the promises God made in the past to Abraham.
“Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”
Hebrews 4 speaks of rest—but is this physical rest in the land or spiritual?
“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”
In 4:2 we see that the nation of Israel lost the conditional promise (contained in the Mosaic covenant) because they lacked faith. The gospel presented under Moses contained good news as it was not just about the conditions of the law. The Mosaic covenant was tied to the Abrahamic as we shall see further. This is extremely important: the core gospel message has never and will never change. Christ built upon it, but the underlying message is constant.
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”
This reference to Joshua shows that Israel did not receive the total promise of the land when they entered Canaan. According to 4:1, the promised rest still stands. If the land itself couldn’t bestow rest, there must be another, more profound rest to come. This rest only became possible after Christ finished his work on the cross and fulfilled the law. A key question is whether we receive this “rest” now or following this earthly life. We’ll explore this question in detail later. The short answer is that we can have rest now with a permanent rest to come.
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
Does this “heirs of the promise” concept refer to Abraham’s children or all nations? The promise to Abraham makes clear that all nations will blessed; salvation is offered to all whether through blood or adoption.
And so the author of Hebrews links God’s promise to salvation. Inheritance is associated with both a spiritual salvation and the earthly land of promise. How do we tie this together? First remember that Christ is the Heir of the earth and the recipient of the land promise.[footnote]See Psalm 2:8; Romans 4:13; Galatians 3:16; Hebrews 1:2; 2:10.[/footnote] When reading these passages, we get the sense that there is something about the promise not yet fulfilled.
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Again, whether we read this as literal or figurative, what is the meaning? This passage describes Gentiles hanging out with the patriarchs in the kingdom while certain blood descendants of the patriarchs are banished. Also, see interesting statements about drinking in the kingdom (Matthew 26:29).
Following the time of the patriarchs, God began to reveal more of his master plan through the prophets. At the pinnacle of the nation of Israel’s history, David prophesied future days of glory. And generations later, even as the nation descended into idolatry and ruin, prophets declared the end of sickness and disease, the taming of wild animals, the end of all catastrophes, of everything bad. These prophecies will be described in relation to other future events in Volume II. They seem to describe a perfect version of life on earth, not a bodiless existence in some celestial realm.
These promises and prophecies sound like heaven on earth. Is it truly God’s intent to restore all earthly things back to an immaculate Edenic state? We believe God promises resurrection from the dead for the saints, but will he restore creation itself?
Peter said that Jesus is the one “whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21).
And in Romans, Paul offers similar teaching:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
When God delivered the territory of the Promised Land to Joshua and the Israelites, he fulfilled the promise he had made to Moses—but his promise to Abraham was not yet fulfilled. Even with the Canaanites routed, sin remained. No earthly kingdom can subdue a sin-infested land; only a heavenly kingdom can drive out the infection. Without a truly righteous King, Priest, and Judge, the land will remain mired in a sinful state.
The Mosaic law showed Israel how to have a relationship with God and with others by living righteously. They agreed to keep the laws of this covenant, to turn away from sin. But instead they rebelled over and over again.
“See, I [Moses] have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
Here we see a very important use of the law. It is the gospel. God’s word is his message to his people—and to the rest of the world. Just as Israel was called to shine a light to the neighboring nations, we reveal God to the people around us. So while the law is useful to curb selfish behavior, to please God, and to maintain civil order, we also reflect God’s nature through our behavior.
The Israelites as a whole did not reflect God’s nature and were not able to possess the land under the conditional old covenant. Only God can cleanse the land and offer true rest. He uses a new, unconditional covenant for redemption; this new covenant is a continuation of the promises to Abraham.
Through the Mosaic covenant, God provided his people with a set of laws based upon grace; by following these instructions, Israel would experience God’s blessing and protection in the land. Through the Abrahamic covenant, God swore an oath of unconditional grace; he established laws governing his actions toward Abraham and Abraham’s offspring. This interplay of law and grace creates a lot of confusion with Christians, but there is a simple explanation that reflects the light of the gospel.
Both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are connected in that they each contain a land promise. When the conditions of the Mosaic covenant were violated and the contract broken, God decided to make a new covenant. But instead of reasserting the previous conditions, God’s new covenant reaches further back and takes on the unilateral format of the Abrahamic covenant. Once again he offers an unconditional promise of eternal life in the Promised Land. And this time he directly extends the offer to the entire world.