Discussion has flared up again recently concerning the validity of the Old Testament promise of land since the coming of Christ. So-called Palestinian liberation theology, as expressed in particular by the Sabeel Institute, plays an important role in this respect. To put it succinctly and clearly this says, in effect, that the Old Testament finds its complete fulfilment in Christ; there are no more exclusive promises for Israel; there is therefore no more ‘promised land’ for Israel; the New Testament broadening of the promise of land brings the whole earth into focus as the domain of God’s salvation, the promise of land being fulfilled in Christ as a result; and the election of Israel ends with the coming of Christ.
The land becomes the earth
It will be clear that political aspirations are not alien to this theology. It is also clear that ancient replacement theology has much to do with this. The classical reasoning of replacement theology was: the Old Testament is ‘private’; the New Testament is ‘universal’; the promises to Israel find their fulfilment in Christ; the election of Israel ends with the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah; the church is now the new, spiritual Israel, which replaces the old, carnal Israel; the promise of land has expired and been replaced, just like all the aspects of the covenant, by the broad perspective of the whole of the earth and, finally, the eternal heavenly kingdom.
Since the events of the previous century (the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel) there are no longer many theologians still intrepidly proclaiming replacement theology. Other means and, in particular, other terminology are being sought, such as ‘fulfilment theology’ or ‘expansion theology’. But apart from the fact – which is to be greeted with gratitude – that these new attempts keep good hope for Israel open in any event, they are nevertheless essentially new flags for old tenets. And what is remarkable is the fact that most of these theologies consider the promise of land to have been fulfilled and obsolete, belonging to the temporary promises of the old covenant. As a result, there is then no vision of a prophetic return of restored Israel to the Promised Land. The document of the the Dutch Reformed Church, entitled ‘Israel, people, land and state’ dating from 1970, speaks a completely different language as far as this is concerned: the promise of land is still valid, and there is talk of a prophetic return and restoration of Israel; 1948 is even called a sign from God.
Jesus, the Jew
What the New Testament itself says is decisive, of course. It has often been pointed out that the promise of land hardly appears as such in the New Testament. This is obvious, on the one hand, in view of the absolute certainty of this promise as far as Jesus and His contemporaries were concerned: there were no question marks as far as election, covenant and promise were concerned. On the contrary, they constituted part of Israel’s faith, and required no special treatment.
Furthermore, if the universal broadening of the New Testament’s range of vision to the peoples of the world had brought about a change in the status of the promise of land, the New Testament would have certainly said so, in view of the extreme importance of this promise for Israel. On the other hand, there is indeed much more to be said than to point to the New Testament’s supposed silence on this issue.
Anyone dwelling upon Paul’s well-known words in Romans 9:4 will certainly find an explicit reference to the promise of land there: ‘Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.’ Paul says therefore, after Passover and Pentecost, that all the privileges of God’s covenant are still valid for Israel, and when he talks about the ‘covenants’ and the ‘promises’ it would thus be in complete contradiction to biblical usage to exclude the promise of land from them. If we only had this statement from Paul it should be enough to be convinced of the fact that the promise of land remains valid after the coming of Christ as well.
There is more, however. The conviction has been growing during the last decennia that it is impossible to take Jesus and the apostles out of their context within society of the then Israel. Jesus was a Jew; Paul was a Jew – and they never placed themselves outside their Jewish context. We need to learn to read the New or Second Testament anew, and to do so now against the background of that Jewish context. As far as our subject is concerned, this means that we ask ourselves how the relationship between the expectation of the Messiah and the promise of land was perceived in Jesus’ time, for classical Christian opinion believes that the fulfillment of the expectation of the Messiah in Christ implied the abolition of the promise of land. A few remarks about the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
Expectation of the Kingdom
More so than in the past, today there is a consensus about the fact that the character of Jesus’ message was eschatological. His preaching, just like that of John the Baptist, begins with the call to conversion because the Kingdom of God is nigh. And the message of the Kingdom of God can only be understood against the background of the feverish expectations of Jesus’ time, summarised in the term ‘Jewish apocalypticism’. Anyone attempting to form an impression of the Tenach’s expectation of the future, i.e. the Psalms and the prophets, separate from the direct Christian completion thereof – in other words: anyone who allows the Tenach to speak without advance interruption of what it says with Christian theological interpretations – sees the following picture: In God’s future, when the Messianic era begins, the Eternal One will confirm His covenant with Israel by bringing the exiles back to the land of promise; He will unite Judah and Ephraim, bringing the 12 tribes together in the land; He will appoint Jerusalem to be a subject of praise for the whole earth; the city of the great King, the centre of God’s work of salvation, in which the temple will have its place; His temple will also be a house of prayer for all nations, and the Torah will go out from Jerusalem over all the earth; and all this will take place under the dominion of the Messiah-King of the house David.
This – summarised – eschatological restoration of Israel, promised by the prophets, plays a big role in the apocryphal documents from the inter-testamentary period too: the land, the city of Jerusalem, the temple and the Torah are all essential elements thereof. This was what Israel believed. Of course, the crucial question is: does the New Testament see all this differently, or does it maybe even make a complete break with this expectation? That is not the case. Jesus and the apostles shared this pattern of expectation completely.
Jesus and the expectation of Israel
This begins straight away with the announcement of the birth of Jesus to Mary by the angel Gabriel. What does the angel say? ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’ (Luke 1 : 32, 33). The throne of David points directly to Jerusalem of course, and the house of Jacob consists of the twelve tribes of Israel: in line with the prophetic explanation sketched above therefore.
This expectation is typified by Zechariah’s and Maria’s songs of praise in the Advent Gospel (Luke 1). Zechariah the priest gives an impressive prophecy concerning the things that are going to happen, and it is crystal clear to anyone who has but a slight knowledge of the Bible that he is speaking the language of the Psalms and the prophets, the language of Israel’s expectation, just as Mary also speaks in the language of the Bible in her song of praise. Zechariah sees that the things that are happening in his day point decisively to the approaching Kingdom of the Messiah. His song of praise is thus also a concise summary of Jewish, biblical Messianic expectation. Zechariah gives a voice to the Messianic expectation as it was felt strongly in his day.
Nowadays, Christian preaching often tends to emphasize the idea that the Jews in Jesus’ time and, moreover, later on, clung and cling to a completely incorrect Messianic expectation. In particular, the Jews are held to have been wrongly looking for a Messiah who would deliver them from the hands of their enemies and who would bring all oppression to an end; in those days the oppression of the mighty Roman Empire. All this is alleged to be much too worldly and much too political.
It is even considered to be unbelief and blindness within the Christian tradition. The expectation of a concrete Kingdom of God on earth with Jerusalem as its centre and a special place for the people of Israel was and is called Jewish heresy by many Christian theologians. The church proposes the Christians’ expectation of salvation – defined as spiritual – instead of this Jewish Messianic expectation, which is characterised as worldly – ‘worldly’ being clearly considered to be inferior, and ‘heavenly’ being considered to be the highest possible state. Jesus is supposed not to have wanted to set up an earthly kingdom at all, but only a spiritual and heavenly kingdom – of which the church is a small foretaste – an outpost and a vanguard of the heavenly spiritual kingdom.
One still hears and reads this kind of things extensively: the Christian, spiritual expectation of salvation compared to the Jewish carnal and earthly expectation. In this way the concrete expectation of the kingdom of God’s shalom and, with it, looking towards God’s future, has been lost to a large extent in the Christian tradition – to the detriment of the church, which, as a result, has come to project the image of the ‘foolish virgins’ in Jesus’ well-known parable: the oil of expectation is almost used up, and the lamps are no longer burning. And then we have not even mentioned the damage this conviction has caused to relationships with Israel.
Anyone trying to listen to Zechariah’s and Mary’s texts without prejudice reaches different conclusions, however. It is crystal clear that they refer to the deliverance of Israel and the breakthrough of the Kingdom. What does Zechariah actually say? He sees the future salvation of Israel becoming visible already, in the speedy approach of the coming of the Messiah. God is taking care of His people and He has provided a way of salvation for Israel. He is setting up a horn of salvation in the house of David: the Messiah comes from the house of David, and He will restore David’s kingdom. And when He does so, the people of Israel will be delivered from the hands of their enemies and from the hands of all who hate them. God remembers the oath He swore to Abraham, and He is fulfilling the promise in His holy covenant with the fathers, i.e. that Israel will be able to live without fear. This means, therefore, that the people will be able to serve the Lord in the land in righteousness and holiness, without fear of persecutors and enemies.
And that is the peace Messiah brings! The herald, John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah, precedes Him. His task is to prepare the way for the great Deliverer, to preach the message of salvation and foregiveness of sins. And that is the salvation the priest/prophet sings about: the Messiah on the throne of David, deliverance from all concrete enemies, forgiveness of sins, serving God in righteousness and holiness. That is what it is all about! That is the messianic kingdom, the kingdom of justice and peace. This is how Zechariah sums up the whole Messianic expectation, and this is how he sees the Messiah’s task. And that takes place nowhere else than in the land, of course.
When Jesus sends out His 12 (!) disciples, He says that they are only to go to the towns and villages, to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6). That can be nothing else but an allusion to the prophetic promise of restoration, the return and the unification of the 12 tribes under the Messiah-King. His statement in Matthew 19:28 is even more explicit: ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’. When the Kingdom is complete (‘rebirth’) the Son of man, the Messiah from the house of David, will sit on the throne of David, and the 12 disciples will reign with Him over the restored twelve tribes of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. We see here as well therefore that Jesus shares the expectation of His people.
This becomes even clearer, if possible, in Matthew 23 : 37 – 39. Things are going to come to a head in Jerusalem; Jesus is shortly going to suffer and die. Jesus knows that, at that moment, the majority of His people will reject Him as the Messiah. He foresees another future however: ‘you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’. Jesus foresees the moment, therefore, that Jerusalem, Zion, Israel will welcome Him as the Messiah with the messianic greeting from Psalm 118. The glorious entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of His week of suffering was a prophetic sign thereof. And once more: this is completely in line with the prophetic expectation of the restoration of Israel in the land.
We point to Acts 1 for the final Bible passage. Jesus is with His disciples on the mount of the Ascension, the Mount of Olives. He has now fulfilled His mission on earth in the meantime! He has been crucified and He has risen from the dead, and He has been speaking about the Kingdom of with His disciples for 40 days. The disciples ask Him now: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? The fire of expectation has become even greater and stronger as a result of Jesus’ resurrection. What does there remain to be fulfilled, now everything has been fulfilled? The prophets’ visions will surely now become reality. God will surely finally now restore Israel to the promised glory.
Jesus in no wise rebukes His disciples for this bold question. Nor does He say that their expectation is incorrect and that they are making a complete mistake, as Christian exegesis has often explained this question. The question as to the restoration of the kingdom for Israel is in fact the most relevant question that can be asked at that moment! However, Jesus shows them a different and unexpected perspective of the way in which that hope is to become reality, and He also says that the times and the dates are only known to the Father. Only the Father knows when the moment has arrived for the kingdom to break through fully. There will first be an intervening period, which will be characterised by the work of the Holy Spirit. The most important thing that will happen in that intervening period will be the fact that witnesses of Jesus will go out to the ends of the earth. There is no mention of annulment of the kingdom for Israel in Jesus’ answer, only of postponement, and this postponement has its place in God’s plan to bring the nations to the knowledge of the God of Israel and of His Messiah and of His salvation as well. For everyone must have the opportunity of getting to know God and of getting to know Jesus.
In His love and grace God sends the Gospel of the birth of the King of the Jews throughout all the earth so that not only Israel but the nations too are reached with His salvation! The impatience of the disciples on the Mount of Olives is not rewarded on account of our salvation: God wants the goyiem to be included as well! The promise remains and the prophecy remains in the meantime: God restores the kingdom for Israel. Surprisingly, this then appears to be salvation for the nations too. This is God’s plan. The Gentiles are called and invited to that same salvation before Jesus will sit on the throne of David and Israel, and deliver Israel from their enemies once and for all, so that they can serve God in holiness and righteousness.
All God’s promises are yes and amen in Christ: the way of Christ does not abolish the promises for Israel; it confirms them: the promise of land, the promise of the return and the restoration of Israel, the promise of the restoration of Jerusalem. The Messianic expectation and the restoration of the 12 tribes in the land around the city of Jerusalem are bound together in both parts of the Bible, and, moreover, the promise of land has in no wise lost its significance or altered its significance with the coming of Christ.
The first coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are the irreversible beginning of the fulfillment of all God’s prophetic promises, whereby all the nations come into focus; the complete fulfillment of God’s promises takes place within the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in the return of Christ, i.e. the coming of the Messiah, and the eschatological restoration of the people of Israel in the land of Israel is indissolubly linked to this; none of God’s promises have expired – everything He ever promised will take place.
In the current situation this means that Israel not only has a right to live in the land that is guaranteed by international law, but also a right conferred by that covenant and within the framework of the (beginning) fulfillment of prophetic promises, and that Jerusalem – including the most contested part, the so-called ‘Old City’, i.e. Zion – is the indivisible holy city of Israel.