A Biblical View of the “Everlasting Possession” Land Promise
This post is part of the the biblical promise of land series (click to view the other posts in this series).
I want to mention again that I am greatly indebted to G.K. Beale and his excellent work, A New Testament Biblical Theology. I am leaning heavily on this work throughout this series and most of the scholarship is credited to him.
It has been my thesis in this series that God's promise of land to His people is intimately bound up in His overall purpose – to be glorified throughout the whole earth. For God to accomplish this primary purpose, He has repeatedly decreed that His people would live among his glory in a localized piece of land and then spread out from there, carrying God's glory to the rest of the world as His image bearers. This was God's commission to Adam (start in the Eden and then fill the earth), to Noah (no centralized beginning since it was right after the flood, but still to multiply and fill the earth), and to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (start in Canaan and then be a blessing to all the nations of the earth). In essence, God has given a local land promise with a view towards globalization in order that He would be glorified to the ends of the earth. Therefore, the “everlasting possession” promise of Canaan has been expanded to cover the entire earth.
I haven't spoken to this yet in this series, but this also aligns with the “already and not yet” fulfillment framework. In this case, the “already” part is the local land promise and the “not yet” is the globalization of that promise. Eden was “already” given to Adam with the final purpose of filling the entire earth (the “not yet”). Canaan was “already” given to the patriarchs and to their descendants, the nation of Israel, also with the purpose of filling the entire earth (again, the “not yet”). This will become important later.
Not only is this globalized view of the everlasting land promise supported by the text surrounding God's commission to Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs, but it is also true for the expectations of national Israel evidenced by the Old Testament and Christianity as given in the New Testament. Further, we will see that the fulfillment of the land promise is inaugurated in Jesus Christ and is consummated in the new creation.
Old Testament Evidence for the Expected Globalization of the Land Promise
Several OT prophecies foretell the expansion of the promised land beyond the borders given to Abram in Genesis 15. Here are two such prophecies:
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.“ Isaiah 54:2-3
Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells his people to expand their possession and their land without limit to borders or boundaries. He foretells that they will spread out over the earth and their offspring will possess the lands of other nations.
“As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth...
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.” Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45
In this passage, Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar of the king's dream and then interprets it. In that dream, the kingdom of God is the mountain which filled the whole earth. It is the kingdom that will conquer over all other kingdoms and will never be destroyed. This was the Jewish expectation, that the kingdom of God would not be limited to just the borders of Canaan, but it would extend to the ends of the earth.
What is doubly interesting is that this dream was given at the time of the Babylonian exile, a time where Judah had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar who subsequently exiled many of the Jewish leaders and youth out of their promised land and into Babylon. Yet, the dream wasn't about them going back to their promised land; it was about the whole earth.
Both the Isaiah and Daniel passages tell about the coming expanded kingdom of God which will cover the entire world. This was the Jewish expectation. There are other OT prophecies that describe the expected expansion of Israel's land, but I want to discuss just one other one that has additional significance before moving to the NT evidence.
As a song sung in the land of Judah, Isaiah 26:15 says, “But you have increased the nation, O Lord, you have increased the nation; you are glorified; you have enlarged all the borders of the land.” This is clearly a reference back to the commission God gave Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs describing the spread of the nation and God's glory. Special attention should be given to the section directly following this text, Isaiah 26:16-19. This section connects the resurrection of God's people into the new creation with the fulfillment of God's commission. The implication here is that this text suggests that the fulfillment of God's ultimate purpose, to be glorified throughout the whole earth, will be consummated at the time, and possibly even through, the resurrection of people.
New Testament Evidence for the Expected Globalization of the Land Promise
As we move to the New Testament evidence, we should first take note that, outside of a historical reference by Stephen and Paul in Acts (Chapter 7 and 13, respectively), the NT doesn't discuss the localized land promise (the land with regard to Canaan). All explicit references to God's commission in the NT is with regard to the final consummated expanded land promise. What is the significance of this? An argument from silence is difficult to maintain, but, with respect to the consistent promises and purpose God continually reveals and reinforces in the OT, the NT silence is deafening. Let's investigate the NT evidence first and then we can draw some conclusions.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5
First, the Greek word Jesus uses here for “earth” is γῆ. In some instances, this word can be translated as “land,” however I believe, as do almost all of the translators, that the word here is properly understood as “earth.” Not only is this the most common understanding of the word (168 out of 250 examples in the ESV), but the times the word is translated as “land” are almost always accompanied with a reference to that specific land (re: Matthew 2:6, 2:20, 2:21, 4:15, 10:15, etc.). Therefore, in this verse Jesus makes no reference to an inheritance of any localized promised land, but instead to the globalized earth. This is their inheritance. This is what they hope for – the whole earth.
Second, Matthew 5:5 is likely a direct reference to Psalm 37:11. Throughout Psalm 37 are phrases about inheriting the land, and a couple of these verses are also given an eschatological context because of the use of the word “forever.” Considering the standard commission God gave in the OT where the eschatological part of the promise is expanded to the entire earth, I believe it is appropriate to view this Psalm and, by implication, this verse in Matthew as a reference to the globalized promise.
Third, the pseudo-bookends* of the Beatitudes have the “blessed” inheriting “the kingdom of heaven.” This is consistent with a consummated, new heavens and earth, end times view. If we understand it this way, that all of these promises are for those in Christ on the last day, then this inheritance of the earth would also be the globalized promised land.
(* I call them “pseudo-bookends” because there is debate on which verse contains the last beatitude. Some say that verse 10 is the last one and 11-12 is an extension of 10. Others say that 11-12 is a separate, and therefore the final, beatitude. Regardless, the promise is similar for both 10 and 11-12 – the “kingdom of heaven” and the “reward” in “heaven” - displaying a consistent view of the rewards in the eschaton.)
“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Romans 4:13
This is an extremely clear and obvious passage for the expected globalization of the land promise. Instead of using the Greek word γῆ as Matthew did, Paul uses the word κόσμος. Κόσμος, from which we get our word “cosmos,” means the entire earth and sometimes it even includes the heavens. It doesn't refer to a specific piece of land. Paul likely has in mind OT scripture that alludes to the Abrahamic promise as well (e.g. Psalms 2:8, 72:8, Isaiah 26:19, 27:6, 54:2-3).
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live 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 was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These 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.” Hebrews 11:8-16 (emphasis mine)
In Hebrews 11 we see, again, that the ultimate purpose of the land promise was not for the land of Canaan, for they desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” The Jews were not satisfied with Canaan and expected the future universalization of the land promise, “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
I'm not going to list out the whole passage of Revelation 21:1-22:5, but I recommend you pause and read it. Within this text is a description of the final globalization of the land promise. What was revealed to John follows what was expected. The old heaven and earth pass away and there is a new heaven and a new earth. Additionally, there is a new Eden, Jerusalem, that comes down from God. It will be a “dwelling place” for God, a place for his special presence to reside. However, this time there is no temple, but it is God himself and Christ, the second Adam, who are the temple. It was to this that the OT promises pointed and it was in this that the NT writers placed their hope. Here, the land promise is consummated.
Inauguration and Consummation of the Fulfillment of the Land Promise
“On a conceptual level, since the land promises are fulfilled consummately in the new heavens and earth, and since Jesus's resurrection launched an inception of the new creation (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:17), then it is in Jesus as the bridgehead of the new creation that the land promises also begin realization.” A Biblical New Testament Theology, p.760
Hebrews 1:2, in an allusion to Psalms 2:7-8, says that God “appointed [Christ] as the inheritor of all things, through whom He also made the world.” So it was both through Christ and for Christ that the world was made. This time of inheritance is likely the resurrection, where Christ received his new creation body. Romans 1:4 says that Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by the resurrection of the dead.” At the resurrection, when this declaration was made, Christ inherited all things and was seated (and is still seated!) at the right hand of God ruling over his inheritance (Ephesians 1:20-23).
Those that are in Christ also experience new creation. In Romans 8:18-23, Paul describes the hope and eager anticipation those in Christ have in their future bodily resurrection. Paul also mentions that the Spirit has already given the first fruits of this resurrection, so that those in Christ can already experience the work of the resurrection and new creation in their sanctification even before the final resurrection (re: Ephesians 1:13-14).
It should be stated that this is not merely a “spiritual” fulfillment of the land promise. This is a literal, physical reality. The resurrection body is physical. The new creation is a reality. There are certainly spiritual aspects to this reality, but the fulfillment of this promise is literal in the new heavens and earth, the new Jerusalem, and the resurrected body which will be achieved on the last day when the old heavens and earth passes away.
G.K. Beale writes, “redeemed people do not go to a geographical place to be redeemed; rather, they flee to Christ and God for their salvific restoration.”
Christ's resurrection was the beginning of the new creation. In the “already and not yet” framework, Christ and his resurrection initiates the “already.” Therefore, with regard to the land promise, the “already” has been fulfilled. Because of Christ, we no longer have to look to Canaan for God's glory. We can now look to Christ and to the future new creation. The old land points to the failure of Israel to expand it's land and fill the whole earth with God's glory. The new creation is what fixes this. It has already started in Christ and will be fulfilled on the last day. The promise of Canaan has been expanded, globalized, and universalized just as expected. The “already” fulfillment of this promise was completed in Jesus Christ and will be consummated on the last day when God's glory will fill the earth. “What Israel never achieved, the church in the resurrected Christ has begun to attain and will consummately possess in the future” (A Biblical New Testament Theology, p.766).
Disclaimer: While I have done my best to base my argument solely on Scripture, there are obvious political implications to this view. I want to be clear that, even though I do not believe the Bible supports a contemporary localized land claim for the nation of Israel, this doesn't mean that I believe we should not give political support to the nation of Israel. On the contrary, there are likely many political and socioeconomic reasons for supporting Israel.
This post is part of the the biblical promise of land series (click to view the other posts in this series).