Where is the land promise in the New Testament?
Dispensationalists claim that the formation of the Jewish state is a fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecies which predict a return of Israel to the promised land. But those ancient prophecies link the restoration to a spiritual return to God, which is not evident in the Jewish population in Palestine, or in the policies of the Jewish state.
A. Boyd Luter wrote in The Land as Covenant Backdrop, Second Draft:
The role of the Holy Spirit in regard to the new covenant is critically important to understand. Paul refers to the Spirit as that which “produces life” (Gk. zoopoieo, a word which also refers to resurrection in the New Testament [see, e.g., Jn. 5:21; Rom. 4:17; 1 Cor. 15:22]) related to the ministry of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:6. The very strong imagery Paul employs here is less surprising, though, when it is recalled that’s exactly what’s pictured in the Valley of Dry Bones vision in Ezekiel 37: resurrection!
For the purposes of this paper, though, it must be noted that the vision in Ezekiel 37 does not allow the reader to think of this spiritual rebirth for Israel without bringing the land into play. In 36:24, the Lord promises, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land” (HCSB). (As will be discussed below, the wording in v. 24 is quite unusual, given that what was being immediately envisioned was Judah’s return from an exile to one nation: Babylon.) Then, using resurrection imagery, 37:12 echoes: “… I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel” (HCSB).
In carefully considering the message of the vision in Ezekiel 37:1-14, there appears to be two sequential steps pictured:
Step 1- The nation is raised from the grave (i.e., made to have a hope for a future as a nation) and returned to the land
Step 2- The nation, now in the land and portrayed as “a vast army” (v. 10, HCSB), has the ruach (LXX pneuma) of God, which v. 14 identifies as the Holy Spirit, breathed into it
Here is the main point I am driving at from Ezekiel 36-37: The first step (i.e., a renewed national hope and a return to the land) has occurred twice since Ezekiel’s prophecies of the new covenant were revealed. The first time was after 70 years in Babylon, as Jeremiah predicted in 25:11-12 and 29:10. The second time, “from all the countries,” as the wording in Ezekiel 36:24 reads, happened in A.D. 1948.
The prophecies of a restoration of Israel to the land were not fulfilled in A.D. 1948, as there has been little evidence of the spiritual change that the prophets foretold. Ezekiel’s prophecy to which Luter refers reads as follows:
For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land.
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Ezekiel said the land will become like Eden:
And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited.
There is indeed a fence! But the existence of the 703 km long Israeli West Bank barrier contradicts prophecies that describe the land as “the land of unwalled villages,” [Ezekiel 38:11] and “towns without walls.” [Zechariah 2:4]. It has made that area notoriously unlike “Eden.”
Ezekiel spoke of God being “sanctified” in the people when they are restored to their land.
When I have brought them again from the people, and gathered them out of their enemies’ lands, and am sanctified in them in the sight of many nations;
Then shall they know that I am the LORD their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen: but I have gathered them unto their own land, and have left none of them any more there.
Neither will I hide my face any more from them: for I have poured out my spirit upon the house of Israel, saith the Lord GOD.
This prophecy clearly has not been fulfilled in the Jewish state. Jeremiah 31:7-9 is another prophecy that describes the return: “They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel…”
While prophets of Dispensationalism tout the existence of the Jewish state as a fulfillment of prophecy, there are those who claim that the land promises in the OT have become obsolete. Luter referred to Gary M. Burge’s Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology. 
Burge thinks the land promises are discounted in the New Testament. He said the land promises were mostly ignored by Jesus, and by the authors of the New Testament. In a review of Burge’s book, Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. wrote: 
[Burge] points out that despite the longing and perspective of many (not all!) first-century Jews, Jesus downplays the Land — as well as two other “holy places” for Israel: Jerusalem and the Temple. In a later chapter Burge captures this point well: “the lens of the incarnation had now refocused things completely. Christian theology had no room for ‘holy places’ outside of the Holy One who is Christ.” …
Burge shows that “early Christian preaching is utterly uninterested in a Jewish eschatology devoted to the restoration of the land.” … Acts shows that “the Land of Promise was the source of Christianity’s legacy but no longer its goal.” … Thus, “the striking thing is that Paul here can refer to the promise of Abraham and not refer to the Land of Promise. … Paul is consistent with all the speeches in the book of Acts. Paul as well as Peter can consistently ignore the central elements in Abraham’s life according to Jewish teaching: land and progeny.”
Dispensationalists, according to this group of teachers, are misguided. Colin Chapman provided a similar example of this position. He wrote: 
Jesus had little or nothing to say about the land. The reason for this silence is not that Jesus took traditional Jewish hopes for granted and affirmed them, but that all these hopes are now to be understood in the context of the coming of the kingdom of God in and through Jesus.
Mark 1:15 ‘The time has come … the kingdom of God is near …’ Matthew 5:5 ‘the meek shall inherit the land’ (cf Psalm 37:11) Luke 4:17-21; 7:21-23 the Exile is over … (cf. Isaiah 35; 61:1-2)) Luke 21:20-28 ‘Jerusalem will be trampled on … you will see the Son of Man …’
Matthew 5:5 seems to be the only clear reference to the land in the teaching of Jesus. But it is not an accident that Jesus has so little to say about the land, because the land is now being understood in the context of the kingdom of God. Tom Wright has shown that when Jesus quotes verses from Isaiah which were originally about the return from Exile, he is saying in effect, ‘A new return from Exile is taking place; and all the blessings associated with return are now being offered in a new way.’
Christian authors like Burge and Chapman minimize the land promises. They claim the blessings represented by the land promise were fulfilled in a “new way,” without explaining how. But many scriptures that seem to contradict the notion that the land promises of the Old Testament scriptures have been forgotten; in Leviticus 26:42, God said he will “remember the land.”
Many Christian writers see the promise of the “seed” fulfilled in Christ, but ignore the land promises included in the same promise; for example, Genesis 12:2-3; 13:15; 15:18-21; 22:18.
The prophets described a future restoration of Israel to the land, that occurs after the return of the Jews from the exile in Babylon. Some of these are couched in very figurative language; the land is possessed by enemies; invaders from many nations come against the mountains of Israel. [Ezekiel 38:8] The mountains of Israel are possessed by heathen, and made desolate, and “are taken up in the lips of talkers, and are an infamy of the people.” [Ezekiel 36:3] Edom, the long-time enemy of Israel, claims to possess the mountains of Israel. [Ezekiel 36:5] The mountains of Israel will be possessed by Israel. [Ezekiel 36:12] The mountains will become fruitful. [Ezekiel 36:8] The mountains will sing. [Isaiah 44:23; 49:13; 55:12] The mountains will be soaked, or melted, with the blood of the armies of the nations. [Isaiah 34:3]
Ezekiel wrote about a river, flowing out of the temple, with an abundance of fish. The river heals the country it flows through. Isaiah wrote of trees growing in the desert, the wilderness becoming fruitful, beasts becoming docile, lions eating straw, venomous snakes becoming harmless, trees clapping their hands, and mountains and the hills breaking forth into singing. Joel and Amos wrote about mountains dropping wine. Joel said all the hills will flow with milk.
These prophecies include judgment of those who come against Jerusalem, and Israel’s land, and the mountains. Fire, brimstone, and hail, and “overflowing rain” falls upon them. [Ezekiel 38:22] They all fall by the sword. [Ezekiel 39:23] Their flesh is eaten by birds and beasts. [Ezekiel 39:17-19] That is after their corpses generate a great stench that will “stop the noses of the passengers,” and their burial for a period of seven months!
These prophecies reappear in Revelation; the attack by the hordes of Gog and Magog is interpreted as an assault by deceived people upon the church, “the camp of the saints” and “the beloved city.” [Revelation 20:7-9] The invitation to the birds, to feast upon the flesh of men in Revelation 19 alludes to the judgments described in Ezekiel 39.
In the New Testament, the warfare of the saints is not against flesh and blood, but it is spiritual. [Ephesians 6:12] And the territory in dispute is spiritual too. The land of promise is called “a better country, that is, an heavenly.” [Hebrews 11:16] Revelation 12:9 shows that Satan and his angels will be cast out of heaven to the earth. The saints “overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.” [vs. 11]
The significance of the land promises is no doubt one of the things that are involved here. Jesus said the meek shall “inherit the earth.” [Matthew 5:5] Other scriptures show many things given to Israel were fulfilled to the church in a spiritual way. Chris Wright wrote: 
Hebrews affirmation of what “we have” are surprisingly comprehensive. We have the land, described as the rest into which we have entered through Christ, in a way which even Joshua did not achieve for Israel (3:12-4:11); we have a High Priest (4:14, 8:1, 10:21) and an Altar (13:10); we have a hope which in this context refers to the reality of the covenant made with Abraham (6:13-20). We enter into the Holy Place, so we have the reality of the tabernacle and the temple (10:9). We have come to Mount Zion (12:22) and we are receiving a kingdom, in line with Haggai 2:6 (12:28). Indeed according to Hebrews (13:14), the only thing we do not have is an earthly, territorial city. ‘For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)
One of the New Testament passages generally overlooked in the context of the land promise is Matthew 24, and the words of Jesus, “let those in Judea flee to the mountains.” [Matthew 24:15-21] Is this related to the land promise? I suggest that indeed, it is, but most people, reading the words, forget what Jesus also said about self-preservation. When he said “flee to the mountains,” it was not for self-preservation! Jesus said, “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” [Luke 17:33]
Consider what “housetop” means here. What is a housetop?
What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.
It represents some means of open communication. It has to do with proclaiming the gospel! See also Luke 12:3. So, Jesus warned those who preach the gospel, don’t go down into your house — why? Because if Jesus gives us new understanding, we should listen, and not reject it, and return to old, worn-out interpretations!
Jesus promises to confirm the covenant to the saints. [Romans 15:8] This implies they will possess the spiritual things that are promised to them, one of which is the Spirit of truth, who guides the church unto “all truth.” [John 16:13]
The “clothes” Jesus refers to are symbolic, and they picture the truth. [Ephesians 6:14] Jesus gives to his saints as spiritual clothing. The church is the woman “clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1. The sun which clothes her represents the gospel.The bride of the Lamb in Revelation is “arrayed in fine linen.”
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
The sabbath day of Matthew 24:20 represents God’s rest, that the saints labor to enter. [Hebrews 4:3-11] Jesus warns us to be prepared, get ready, so we don’t have to flee after all the saints have entered their promised rest!
Jesus refers to not fleeing in the winter. The “summer” and “winter” are contrasting seasons. What comes between is the fall, the time of harvest. There are many references to the resurrection of the saints as a “harvest.” For example in the parable of the tares and the wheat. [Matthew 13:38-40]
What comes after the harvest is the winter, so Jesus said “pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:” [Matthew 24:20] Winter is a figure of the judgment. The judgment is called a time of “great tribulation,” in Revelation 7:14.
Jesus said, “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” [Matthew 24:19] Paul wrote to the Christian converts in Galatia, in Galatians 4:19-20: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.” So Paul pictured these believers as unborn fetuses! And he referred to himself as their spiritual mother! And similarly, those teaching the gospel are the spiritual parents of their followers.
The apostle Peter refers to believers as “babes”, and the word of God as “milk.” He wrote, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” [1 Peter 2:2]
I suggest Jesus meant those who teach the word of God to others, when he referred to “them that give suck.” He was clearly not referring to mothers and pregnant girls being in special peril. Why would Jesus pronounce woe to the preachers and teachers of the word, who “give suck”? Maybe this is a warning for those who embrace literalism; “milk” is food for babes, as it does not require chewing. The literal approach to the prophecies of scripture is represented by “milk.” The spirit of Christ exposes all the flawed interpretations, and teachings that have caused the desolation of the Church!
The promised land is a type, or figure, of the revelations of God. The oracles of God in scripture are connected with the promise of the land. In prophecy, mountains represent revelations of God, and promises to the saints, and covenants. The Olivet Discourse of Jesus, for example, is likely represented by the mount of Olives, in the prophecy of Zechariah 14. And Paul refers to Sinai as symbolic of the Mosaic legislation, in Galatians 4:24-25. The Sermon on the Mount is pictured by the mountain where it was given, which is unnamed, but is included among the “mountains of Israel.”
The kingdom of God is represented by the mountain that grows to fill the earth, since it is a revelation, and a promise, and a prophecy. And the “mountain of the Lord’s house” in Isaiah 2:2 is established in the highest place, since it was raised up to heaven, when Jesus ascended to his Father’s throne. So when Jesus said “flee to the mountains,” he wants us to seek the kingdom of God, and his promises!
Joel said mountains will drop down new wine, and the rivers of Judah will flow with waters. [Joel 3:18] But the literal territory of Judah includes a large area of desert. The promises of God in scripture are to figuratively “drop down new wine”! This suggests they will provide new insight and understanding!
4. Chris Wright, A Christian approach to Old Testament prophecy concerning Israel, in: P.W.L. Walker (ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God (revd. ed., Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1994.) pp. 18-19.
- The better country (creationconcept.wordpress.com)
- The continuity of the covenant (creationconcept.wordpress.com)
- Sheep, green pastures, and the promised land (creationconcept.wordpress.com)