Our Identity & Inheritance

Finding our identity as a people in Christ means that we should have a good idea of God’s promises to Christ and how we receive this promised inheritance through Him. Receiving the promises of Abraham as the children of God through Jesus requires a little further examination. As we endeavour, we also need to keep in mind the pattern throughout the New Testament of a fulfillment in Christ and then an expansion into greater blessings bursting forth from Him. If the OT was a shadow and had revelatory limitations, the NT certainly brings them to light without limits! I want to take a moment now to write about the most controversial of these ancestral promises mainly the promise of the land inheritance.

References to the land and the promise of its blessing are entrenched in our OT Scriptures. It is the most prominent focus of the Abrahamic Covenant and was at the centre of the expectation of the OT saints[1]. During their time in Egypt, God pledged that He would bring them to the promised land (Exodus 3:17) but the promised land wasn’t given to them as a vacant piece of territory. There were others living in this geographical area who were mighty men (Numbers 14) and the Hebrew’s fear and lack of faith caused that generation leaving Egypt to forfeit these land promise. However, God would still lead another generation to this region and receive the land of promise (Numbers 14:30). By the time we arrive at the book of Joshua, God would lead them through a mediator, Joshua, to take possession of the land from the occupants. They were commanded to drive out the current inhabitants and God would guarantee the success of this mission. This land, however, was a gift. Just as faith and the obedience that flows from faith were necessary to enter the land, so faith and obedience are necessary to maintain the land. It remains covenanted land, God’s gift to Israel in the fulfillment of covenant promises. It never loses its character as a gift, and Israel must never forget the “giftedness” of the land[2].  In other words, there is conditionality attached to the land title which was their faithfulness to the Lord. God promised that if they were unfaithful, acted corruptly and worship idols, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord drives you. There you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. (Deuteronomy 4:26-28). As we previously mentioned, we believe that the land promises were fulfilled to Israel prior to the New Testament (Joshua 21:43-45; Nehemiah 9:7-8) but eventually they came to lose the possession of the land due to their unfaithfulness to God (Hosea 4:1-3; 9:1-3; Zechariah 7:8-14). God promised, through the prophets, that He would demonstrate His covenant faithfulness to restore them to the land if they repent (Jeremiah 33:14-26). He would accomplish this through a renewal which the Lord would work (Jeremiah 31:31-37; Ezekiel 36:25-28).

As we pointed out, the most controversial of Yahweh’s promises to Israel is found in the fulfillment of the giving of the land. Many question this premise and argue that the land promises to Israel have not entirely been granted. Therefore, for many, there is a focus upon a future fulfillment.

The Promise of the Post-Exile Land

When the people of Israel prepared to go into exile, and a restoration was promised, the prophets seem to equate the return to the land with a restoration of Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:1-2; 51:11; 52:7; 62:12). As the prophecy of Isaiah unfolds from the new horizon of the promised return from exile to the far horizon of the New Heavens and New Earth, the scope and glory of Jerusalem expands to embrace the entire earth. The city’s children will be more numerous than those of Jerusalem before the exile, and she will need to enlarge her “habitations” to contain them because her descendants will “possess the nations[3]. Isaiah sets his sights on a day of glorious visitation from God on the great city (Isaiah 60:2) and that those who were citizens of this city would be referred to as the holy people of God, the redeemed of the Lord (Isaiah 60:14; 62:12). This city will not require the stellar light since God’s presence will illuminate this city (Isaiah 60:19). When the exiles returned, they repossessed the land, rebuilt the city and its temple but the land did not experience what Isaiah described. There wasn’t a peace or rest upon the city, but continued oppression and war. While Isaiah sees this Jerusalem as a place where a holy people reside (Isaiah 60:14; 62:12), and Zechariah calls for this holiness and justice (Zechariah 8:14-17), we are told that they failed to meet their responsibilities in the renewal of the covenant (Nehemiah 9:36). The Jerusalem that had been described in Isaiah as filled with the glory of God and a blessing to the nations, and who would enjoy the wealth of the nations (Isaiah 61:6), had not come because it was not received through holiness!

The New Testament & The Land

When we enter the time of the NT, we will quickly notice that there is very little mentioned about the land. A theme that was so dominant in the OT is now almost silent in the NT. If we believe that there is a continuity between the Old and the New, what happened to the land promises? Some have argued that the land in Paul’s writing is absent due to his view of the fulfillment of the law in Christ. There is no need for the obedience of the law and since the land is part of the old covenant, there is no need to bring it into the new covenant promises. They see the fulfillment of these land promises in a spiritual sense and that they have no territorial significance. Others argue that the land promises are for Israel alone and hence there will be a fulfillment in the distant future during the millennium. Both these interpretations are wanting when looking at the NT scriptures. In Ephesians 6:2, Paul instructs the Ephesians to obey the command to honour their parents with the promise that you may live long on the earth. The repetition of this command and its outcome shows that these are not heavenly, non-physical promises. For those who restrict it to Israel must deal with the fact that Paul was writing to Gentiles in Ephesus who would be the recipients of this promise.

We’ve previously argued that the physical land promises were already granted to Israel and that Christ is the recipient of the Abrahamic covenant promises, which includes the land. In what sense does Christ inherit the land? Much like the other features of the promise, they are fulfilled in Christ, and in a sense, expanded upon. The book of Romans seems to imply that “the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13). In this passage in Romans, Paul uses the term “kosmos” for world. This is communicating an expansion on the promise to the land of Canaan. The believer in Christ possesses all things, which includes “the world” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). This is largely what Isaiah was communicating, that the expansion of Israel would encompass the nations. Whereas Judaism tended to place a national and restricted territorial stamp on the promises to Abraham, Paul perceives in Christ their universal scope[4]. Israel as land was associated with the Kingdom of God which, now, has been received through the Messiah. While Paul mentions very little about the land, he does mention much about inheritances. Paul is quite consistent to argue that the “inheritance” is the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 15:50; Galatians 5:21). Remember, the kingdom under the OT, was always associated with the borders of Israel. Much like the expansion of the Abrahamic blessings to include the believing of all nations, the land promises have extended to the world. This expansion is accomplished through the forward march of the kingdom and its people. As it permeates the nations with the message of the good news, the kingdom grows in citizens.

The gospels are, once again, not focused upon land titles but a more universal expansion that comprises of the earth. The inherited Kingdom of God will expand further than the borders of Israel. Christ is the possessor of both the heavens and the earth and His meek ones will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

The New Jerusalem

As already mentioned, the prophets, when thinking in terms of the land, seemed to focus primarily on Jerusalem as the center of that territory. It symbolized the Kingdom and its people. Jerusalem was the capital city of Israel, the city where God dwelt (Psalm 132:13) and that God established forever (Psalm 48:1; 132:14). This dwelling was seen by the prophets as being an eternal dwelling place (Ezekiel 43:7). It wasn’t any ordinary city, but the city of the King (Jeremiah 3:17) and the city of salvation (Isaiah 4:2-4)! We previously looked at the physical Jerusalem in the 1st century as a place that the Lord Jesus condemned. It was known as the city that killed the prophets (Matthew 23:37), one that would reject its Messiah and in return, would suffer the judgment of God (Matthew 21:33-44; Matthew 23:37) with the city eventually being burned to the ground by the Romans, it would truly be left to them desolate (Luke 19:41-44).

In an interesting development, the apostle Paul, in Galatians 4:21-31, writes about this new Jerusalem. After having proclaimed that the inheritance from the covenant of Abraham was received by faith and not by stipulations or ceremonies of the Mosaic law, he then proceeds to a comparative between two covenants represented by two women. Hagar represented a covenant of the flesh, proceeding from Mount Sinai and in return bearing children that are slaves. Mount Sinai is mentioned as a reference to the “present Jerusalem”. This representation demonstrates that the children of Hagar, who reside in that current Jerusalem, were slaves. The symbol of the law and slavery was Jerusalem in Paul’s day. Paul contrasts the bondwoman with the free woman. This free woman would bear sons through the promise. There is a second Jerusalem spoken of which is not under law or bondage, but that is free. It is a Jerusalem from above, from the heavens! For those believers in Galatia, Paul associates them with this woman, the free Jerusalem. These believers were like Isaac, children of promise and born of the Spirit. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 and associates this new Jerusalem with the fulfillment of this text. They were to “cast out” this Jerusalem, its laws, its ceremonies, and cling to the free woman. The post-exilic Jerusalem (New Jerusalem) would have more children than the old Jerusalem. The Old Jerusalem was now a symbol of slavery, while the New Jerusalem was the symbol of freedom and salvation.

The theme of the New City is carried on in Hebrews where we are told that Abraham left his homeland and was looking forward to a city that has foundations and would be built by God (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham never made it to the land of Canaan but remained a sojourner throughout his life. Unlike his tent, this city would have foundations where he could establish himself much like the city that the writer of the Hebrews was looking to (Hebrews 13: 14).  Unlike the current city, it would be a lasting city (13:14) in a heavenly country (11:16). An important portion in Hebrews to consider is Hebrews 12:18-24. The section begins with the term “for” which gives reason for the following verses. The reason for this following section is that these believers were commanded to pursue peace and holiness (v.14) and, in return, guard against apostates (vs. 15-17). These believers were not like those of old and should conduct themselves as saints.  To make the point, the author points to the fact that they had not come to Mount Sinai. He describes the mountain with vivid details, a place of fear (vs.18-19,21) and exclusion (v.20).  In contrast, these NT believers met God at Mount Zion. This was a different place where there wasn’t a place of fear or exclusion. It was a different mountain, with a more spectacular city, the new Jerusalem. Zion was the dwelling place of God (Isaiah 8:18), the place where the redeemer would come (Isaiah 59:20) and where Israel would be preserved (Isaiah 4:5; 60:14; Jeremiah 3:14; Joel 2:34; 3:17, Zechariah 1:17). Believers have come to Mount Zion, the place of redemption and preservation!  It is the city of the Living God, where myriads of angels dwell, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). Not the assembly at Sinai, but the assembly of the true firstborn, Jesus Christ (Exodus 4:11; Colossians 1:16). These have been brought to God and to His Spirit (12:23), to Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant!

In summary, the promises for God’s people were surrounded by the city of Jerusalem and they are now attached to a different Jerusalem, a city with heavenly essence. Believers with the faith of Abraham, who’s names are written in the book of life (Philippians 4:3) are the citizens of these new Jerusalem (Philippians 3:20). This is obviously what John was also attempting to communicate in Revelation 21:27. Nothing unclean would enter this new Jerusalem, a promise fulfilled from the text of Isaiah 52:1 and 4:3. We are commanded by the Lord Jesus to be a city on a hill, the Jerusalem that will bear the light of the word of God (Matthew 5:14).

[1] This question of realisation is directly related upon the current situation in Israel as to who owns the land. Do the physical descendants of Abraham still have a biblical right today to possess the land of Israel? This sensitive question is the foundation behind wars and conflicts in the state of Israel.

[2] Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, David E. Holwerda, WM B. Eerdmans Publishing, Page 90-91

[3] Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, David E. Holwerda, WM B. Eerdmans Publishing, Page 97

[4] Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, David E. Holwerda, WM B. Eerdmans Publishing, Page 103


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