Home > Heavenly Jerusalem, Promised land > Did Jesus reinterpret the land promise?

Did Jesus reinterpret the land promise?

May 11, 2011

In Did Jesus reinterpret the Old Testament? Mike Moore discussed the views of scholars who have suggested that the land promise of the Old Testament was reinterpreted by Jesus and the apostles. Moore wrote:

What do Colin Chapman, Stephen Sizer and other anti-Zionists mean when they tell us that Jesus and the Apostles “reinterpreted” the land promises found in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures? The implications of such a claim are very serious.

If we can understand the Old Testament only through the lens of Jesus and the Apostles, as Chapman and Sizer claim, in what way can the Hebrew Scriptures be said to be “profitable … for teaching” in their own right? Why bother to read them at all? Why not just read the New Testament?

The idea of a lens is a metaphor, and I think it is one that is appropriate for this case. Jesus spoke quite a bit about the eye, and in most cases, his sayings seem to refer to the eye in a metaphorical sense, as if he were speaking of one’s ability to understand spiritual things. And the metaphor of a lens is similar, having to do with the eye, and perception of the meaning of great ideas or concepts of a spiritual nature, such as the gospel. A lens can be put on or taken off; Jesus even spoke of plucking out one’s eye, if it causes offense.

The little horn described in the prophecy of Daniel  7, which dominates the saints, is distinguished by “a mouth that speaks great words against the Most High,” and “eyes like the eyes of a man.” A human viewpoint, it seems, is suggested by the phrase “eyes like the eyes of a man.” And so the horn that dominates the saints may represent the human point of view, which is something all men have by nature. This human attitude, or approach to the things of God, contrasts with the divine point of view, which is one which given by God, who enlightens men through his word. “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.” [Psalm 119:130] “For the LORD giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.” [Proverbs 2:6] Without the enlightenment that comes from above, the meaning of the scriptures is hidden. The Jews who rejected Jesus, Paul said, were blinded, so that when reading the Old Testament, they fail to understand its meaning. Moore continued:

The claim that Jesus and the apostles reinterpreted the Old Testament Scriptures implies the promises of a land for Abraham’s physical descendant had one meaning before Christ (i.e. a literal meaning) but now they mean the opposite (i.e. they have a spiritual meaning). Either the promises always had a spiritual meaning (which no one, not even Moses understood) or they continue to mean what they always meant.

Let’s see if this argument holds up, if it is applied to the temple. In the Old Testament, there is little to indicate that the temple at Jerusalem could be a type of Christ, and of the church. Jesus referred to himself as a temple, and Paul spoke of the church as a temple in Ephesians 2:20. “Him that overcometh,” Jesus said, “will I make a pillar in the temple of my God.” [Revelation 3:12] The spiritual meaning of a type is not something that is its opposite; there is an element of similarity between the type and antitype.

Similarly, the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness foreshadowed Christ, who described himself as the true bread from heaven. [John 6:32, 41] That is, he was the fulfillment of the promise that was foreshadowed by the manna in the wilderness. So it is with the land also; it is one of the types and “shadows” of invisible things promised to the saints. What does it represent? In Hebrews 4, it is symbolic of the spiritual rest of the believer.

Hebrews 4:11-12
Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

It is likely, I think, that the promise of the land was always meant to be understood spiritually. This is clear even from the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, where the tree of life, one of the two trees in the garden, represents the Spirit of God, and is mentioned again in Revelation 22, where it is present in the New Jerusalem, and its leaves serve for the healing of the nations. In Eden, like all trees, it grew out of the the land. When Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, they no longer had access to the tree of life.

The role of Israel’s promised land was in some ways similar to that of Eden. The people of Israel dwelt in it, but like Adam and Eve, they were banished from it, and went into exile because of their sins. A remnant returned from the exile, and resumed the Mosaic worship in a rebuilt temple. The Jewish nation continued until in the first century AD, the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.

In Genesis, God promises the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are hints in the account that the land is metaphorical, and that it is special, and that Abraham’s possessing it had a divine purpose. Those men understood that it had a symbolic meaning. The land was promised first to Abraham; then, the same land was promised to Isaac; then, the same land was promised to Jacob. None of them possessed it in their lifetimes. Consider; when they are all raised up, expecting to inherit the land, whose will it be? If a literal territory is meant, there would be a problem, but the problem disappears if the land represents something spiritual, and eternal, which is inherited by every one of the saints, such as the promise of salvation. Moore continued:

If the promise of land to Israel no longer means a promise of land, the implication is that we can no longer take the Old Testament at its face value.

If, however, we still read those “God-breathed” Scriptures at face value, we cannot do so with “profit” because although the promise of “land” may have meant what it said on the tin to the original readers, it no longer has the same meaning because Jesus and the apostles supposedly “reinterpreted” the promise.

Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 2:1-2, “The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.”

In the New Testament, it is clear that Jerusalem has been raised up; it is located in heaven, far above the earth’s mountains and hills. It must have occurred when Jesus ascended to heaven, after his resurrection. And in that case, things said of Jerusalem that applied to the time before Jesus ascended to heaven applied to the earthly city, while prophecies that refer to Jerusalem after Jesus ascended to heaven apply to the heavenly city. This would explain the “reinterpretation.”

Keep in mind, that Jerusalem is now the heavenly city, while the earthly city is represented by Hagar, the Egyptian bondwoman, who was cast out of Abraham’s house. [Galatians 4:21-31] Moore continued:

The anti-Zionist claim also presents us with another problem. If the reinterpretation of the land promises by Jesus and the apostles is true, the new interpretation must have always been the way to understand them. So we are faced with a problem of God promising material blessing to Israel when, in fact, he is really talking about spiritual promises to “the Church”.

We cannot therefore use the term “reinterpretation” without doing damage to the New Testament doctrine of Scripture.

We can talk about Jesus and the apostles exposing “deeper meanings” to the land promises. We can say the New Testament uncovers “fresh layers” or draws out previously unknown “implications” to Old Testament texts but we cannot talk about reinterpretation.

It looks like the author of Hebrews was involved in “reinterpretation” of the land promise, in Hebrews 11:10, where he said that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” And similarly, only by a “reinterpretation” of the land promise, could he have concluded that they desired “a better country” than the one that was promised, as stated in Hebrews 11:16. The city is identified as the heavenly Jerusalem. Moore continued:

The New Testament itself recognises that the meaning of some Scriptures was previously unknown or misunderstood until the coming of Christ but that is not the same as saying Christ “reinterpreted” the meanings.

And nowhere does Jesus imply the land promises did not really mean the promise of land.

The safest and most common sense approach to the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants of land is to accept that although there may be deeper layers to the promises and greater implications behind the texts, the basic face-value meaning of the “land” passages remains inviolate.

If the land was indeed one of the types or “shadows” of the Old Covenant, it is the reality that the land represents, that the saints need to understand, and possess. In Revelation 12:6 & 14, the church is pictured by a woman in the wilderness, and the wilderness implies she is seeking to enter a destination, and a promised “rest.” The serpent threatens to carry the woman away in a flood from his mouth, no doubt a flood of flawed interpretations, and false teachings.

The land is symbolic of the spiritual things promised to the saints, one of which is that when the Spirit of truth comes, “he will guide you into all truth.” The New Testament reality which the land represents is something other than the Old Testament shadow. This is expressed in the following comment by Stephen Sizer: An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land: A Critique of Christian Zionism.

Christian Zionism errs most profoundly because it fails to appreciate the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the ways in which the latter completes, fulfils and annuls the former. It is fundamental that Christians read the Scriptures with Christian eyes, and that they interpret the Old Covenant in the light of the New Covenant, not the other way round. In Colossians, for example, Paul uses a typological hermeneutic to interpret the Old Covenant: Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col 2:16-17)

Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews stresses:

The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’ But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. (Heb 8:1-6)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Heb 10:1)

Under the Old Covenant, revelation from God came often in shadow, image, form and prophecy. In the New Covenant that revelation finds its consummation in reality, substance and fulfilment. The question is not whether the promises of the covenant are to be understood literally or spiritually as Dispensationalists like to stress. It is instead a question of whether they should be understood in terms of Old Covenant shadow or in terms of New Covenant reality. This is the most basic hermeneutical assumption which Christian Zionists consistently fail to acknowledge.

So, for example, in the Old Covenant animals and food are sacrificed anticipating the offering of the body of Christ. A portable tabernacle foreshadows the permanent presence of the Spirit of God indwelling his people. God provides Israel in the desert with manna from heaven, water from a rock and a serpent on a pole. All these images find their fulfilment not in more manna, or water or indeed in a higher pole but in the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ of which the Old Covenant forms were but a shadow. By their very nature the Old Covenant provisions must be seen as shadowy forms rather than substantial realities. The same principle applies to the promises concerning the Land which also serve as revelational shadows, images, types, prophecies, anticipating God’s future purposes, not only for one small people, the Jews, but the whole world, revealed fully and finally in Jesus Christ. Hebrews sums this up succinctly: ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe’ (Heb 1:1-2).

In Revelation 12:16, “the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.” The “earth” or “land” here could well be pointing to the reality that the “land” represents; I suggest the truth is what swallows up the serpent’s flood.

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