The true promised land is the “New Earth,” an earth separated from heathendom and paganism and dedicated to the service of God.
—Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (1954)
The Heavenly Country
Abraham lived as a stranger in the Promised Land for a hundred years. During his lifetime, he never inherited any of it (Acts 7:5). But that didn’t bother him. He saw beyond Canaan. Abraham looked for a heavenly country. He looked for the City of God (Heb. 11:8-16). And yet Canaan was the Promised Land. God promised that He would give it to Abraham and His seed: “For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever” (Gen. 13:15). He even framed this promise as a covenant stipulation:
In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates…(Gen. 15:18).
What did this mean then and what does it mean now for our understanding of the history and sociology of freedom here and in the Middle East?
The Interpretation of Prophecy
Since the 1840s, the most popular books on prophecy have argued that we must take this promise at face value and apply it to what we see unfolding in the Middle East. These books have demanded a literal interpretation of the promise and flatly rejected any sort of “spiritualizing.” As a result, the American church has largely adopted a pro-Israeli stance with regard to Palestine, and American foreign policy has in some measure followed suit.
But it is a mistake to let our assumptions about prophecy obscure what God has literally said elsewhere in Scripture. And the Apostle Paul says in plain language that the Seed in question—the One to whom the Land was promised—is Christ Himself.
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ (Gal. 3:16).
The apostle is not placing a secondary spiritual meaning on the original promise. The whole flow of his argument for justification by faith stands on the plain sense of what he says (cf. vv. 19, 29). Furthermore, the prophets did recognize that the Promised Land belonged to Yahweh and more particularly to the coming Messiah (Hos. 9:3; Ezek. 36:20; Zech. 9:10; Jer. 33:15). The clearest example of this is in Isaiah’s prophecy against Assyria. Isaiah describes the coming of the Assyrian army with these words: “…and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel” (Isa. 8:8). Canaan was truly Immanuel’s land.
We should notice, however, that the word “seed” is collective in the sense that it allows for a seed that is one, yet many. And, of course, God often describes Abraham’s future seed as a great multitude—as numerous as the stars of heaven or the sand on the seashore (Gen. 22:17; Heb. 11:12). Can we say, then, that Israel as the people of Messiah should also be counted as the seed of Abraham? That depends on what we mean by “Israel.” Paul helps us here and makes a crucial distinction for us in Romans 9:
For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed (Rom. 9:6-8).
When God told Abraham, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” Abraham was to understand that God had other concerns than strict genetic descent. Ishmael and later Esau were both the seed of Abraham as far as bloodline and genetics were concerned (Rom. 9:9-14). But neither was the child of the promise. God counts those who believe, those who are justified by faith in Christ, as the true seed, the true Israel.
And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:29).
For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3).
Ishmael and Isaac
There’s more. In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul reminds us of Abraham’s family history. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. The first was the child of an Egyptian slave, Hagar; the second was the child of a freewoman, Sarah. Now Ishmael was certainly the seed of Abraham, but by purely natural means. Isaac was the seed of Abraham by promise, that is, by the supernatural work of God’s Spirit. In the end, Ishmael was expelled from Abraham’s household. Isaac became Abraham’s heir.
All of this is obvious in Genesis, but Paul’s application of the history is startling. Paul says that Ishmael and his mother Hagar correspond to the earthly Jerusalem of Paul’s day, the city that crucified Christ (v. 25). Isaac and Sarah correspond to the heavenly Jerusalem, the community of those who trust in Jesus (v. 26). And it’s to this New Covenant Jerusalem that Paul assigns the promises of God (v. 27). In other words, Paul says that apostate Israel is on the same footing as the children of Ishmael (today, the Arab peoples): they are the seed of Abraham by blood, but strangers to the promise and the inheritance—unless, of course, they repent and trust in Jesus. But to the Church, Paul writes, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise” (v. 28). The Church is Abraham’s true heir.
Heir of the World
And there’s still more. Paul calls the promise to Abraham a preaching of the gospel (Gal. 3:8). He says that “In thee shall all nations be blessed” meant that God intended to justify the heathen through faith. In other words, Abraham would become “the father of many nations,” not by natural generation, but by spiritual regeneration (Rom. 4:17). And so Abraham understood that he was heir, not merely of Canaan, but of the whole world. The method of his inheritance would be the preaching of the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20).
For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Rom 4:13).
Who Gets The Promised Land?
Joshua’s conquest of Canaan was another crucial step in the Wars of Yahweh, and yet the Promised Land was never the final goal (Heb. 4:8; 11:9-16). It was a down payment on God’s greater promise to Abraham. It was an echo of Eden, a picture of a world won to Christ, and a type and figure of eternal rest. When Israel held it in faith, it was a foretaste of the heavenly country all believers seek, “a land of sacred liberty” (Heb. 11:16). As the Old Covenant gave way to the New, Canaan became the place where Messiah was born, and—more than that—a beachhead and staging ground for Messiah’s war to bring His blessings to the whole world (cf. Rev. 19). And so Canaan was important, even crucial, in its time, but it was never more than an outpost and suburb of the true Promised Land, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21—22).
The New Jerusalem is a trans-temporal, trans-earthly, international community. It lies mostly in the future, though its King is already enthroned in heaven (Heb. 12:22-24; 13:14). It’s founded on covenant blood. Its population grows, generation by generation, as God’s people of all nations (yes, even our Arab and Israeli brothers and sisters) come to faith in Jesus Christ. It becomes progressively more visible in time and on Earth as God’s people work out the implications of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Its perfection however, lies beyond the Resurrection in the redeemed creation.
God has amazing plans for Israel and the Middle East, but to grab the sword like Peter and attempt to force His plan with bombs and blood is both unbiblical and unconstitutional. Jesus Christ owns Palestine and certainly His laws apply to every nation there. Bush and Obama have effectively destroyed Christianity in Iraq and it seems the goal is to eliminate it entirely from the region. In the end, the Bible is clear… the nation that will not serve Him will perish (Isa. 60:12), no matter what its genetic or historical claims (Matt. 3:9). In the meantime, the Church must press the claims of grace and true liberty through the preaching of the gospel both here and to the Middle East. This same gospel after all, is more powerful than any military action we can take and is the true pathway to peace. Replacing evangelism with drones will bring only death. Forgetting this could be the single biggest mistake America can make at this time.