Some problems in Covenant Theology
Paul Henebury recently wrote about Some Problems I Have With Covenant Theology (2). He cited some examples where authors seem to discount or ignore the land, in their discussions of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Henebury wrote:
Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham” (New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.), does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support this extra-biblical covenant. He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures (528 [though insisting the OT be interpreted via his interpretation of the NT!]), but he begs leave to spiritualize the texts when it suits (511 n.16). That way he can maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention” (513 n.19). Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me. For more on Reymond’s position see my review of his book, especially sub-heading (5).
O. Palmer Robertson’s book, The Christ of the Covenants, was also criticized for dismissing the land promises. Henebury wrote:
Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages (often avoiding the referents within the context) can be a mind-numbing experience. One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, the Church, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ. For example, Robertson says,
“The covenants of God are one. The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants. This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people. But the diversity ultimately merges into a single purpose overarching the ages…The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e. grace] relate organically to one another…” – O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63
That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”
If we turn to CT’s own explanations of their system we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge. I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says. By “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching. Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ch. 8). He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in. He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way” (41), and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob with the Abrahamic covenant (42) does not last for long. Needless to say the land promise to Israel evaporates under the flame of Reformed typology as the book progresses (Ch. 13), and the Church becomes the “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant (e.g. 289).
I agree with Henebury that the land promises ought not be minimalized or dismissed, and that they were always central to the covenants, and that any alleged careful picking out of selections from biblical texts, while omitting others, seems improper, and may even be misleading. But, why must “land” in prophecy always be immune from interpretation? Even where the language is clearly metaphorical?
In the parable of the talents, in Matthew 25, one of the servants buried his talent in the ground. Is this meant literally? Was there nowhere else he could have stored it? Maybe the talent buried in the ground points to the meaning that we should attach to the land, in the promises to Abraham, and in various prophecies. A literal approach is like burying the talent in the ground. “Land” means land, and nothing else!
In the New Testament the church is compared to Israel in the wilderness, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, and in Revelation 12:6, and 14, where the woman who flees to the wilderness represents the church in the present age. This wilderness represents the experience of every Christian in this present life; the period between coming out of bondage, and entering our promised future “rest.” The wilderness experience for the Israelites was a period of trial, and testing. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 says, “God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.”
In the New Testament, the wilderness in which the church finds herself is not a literal desert. And her destination is not the literal territory of Canaan. In Hebrews 11:16, the saints desire a “better country,” which indicates that the promised land the saints hope to enter is something other than the literal territory of Palestine. The church is described as not yet having received her promises:
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
When the Israelites went into exile, and were removed from their land, there was a spiritual meaning attached to it, just as, when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, and were deprived of access to the tree of life. The removal of Israel from their land represented not possessing the promises, which were spiritual in nature, and not believing the gospel. It was symbolic of unbelief.
The restoration of Israel to the land, as foretold by the prophets, will be forever, and so it represents their spiritual reconciliation to God. Dwelling in the promised land represents much more than possessing an earthly territory in this present life. The modern migration of Jews to the modern territory of Canaan does not fulfill prophecies about the restoration of Israel to the land.
Ezekiel said only the righteous will enter the land. Those who transgress against God will be purged out. But this does not seem to happen, when Jews emigrate to Palestine.
And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel: and ye shall know that I am the LORD.
Obviously the “land” that Ezekiel’s prophecy refers to could not be the literal territory of Canaan, or Palestine, or the modern Jewish state, but rather, it is spiritual in nature. The promised land of Canaan was a shadow or type of a more lasting inheritance, and in many prophecies, the promised land is symbolic, and metaphorical.
The prophet Joel said Jerusalem will be holy, and said no strangers would pass through it. [Joel 3:17]
In John 4:21-24, Jesus showed that the literal Mount Gerizim, and the earthly Jerusalem, and the literal land, all became shadows and types of spiritual realities under the New Covenant. Jesus revealed the spiritual things that they represent, through the apostles, and in the New Testament. This is one of the great truths of the Gospel, that makes the saints free.
In the 4th chapter of Hebrews, belief in the gospel is referred to as rest. The land corresponds to that which must be believed. [Hebrews 4:1-3]
The author of Hebrews associated the “rest” spoken of in Joshua with the eternal “rest” promised to the saints. [Hebrews 4:5-11] He said, “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” [Vs. 11] Verse 12 refers to the word of God, which is “sharper than any twoedged sword;” the association between “rest” in verse 11, and the word of God in verse 12, and the whole context in which these verses occur, suggest that entry into the rest that the land of promise represents involves believing the word of God. The promised land set before the saints, a paradise like Eden, is the truth, into which the Spirit leads the saints, as Jesus promised his disciples. [John 16:13]
Jesus identified himself with God’s temple. In the earthly Jerusalem, the temple was in the city, but in the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, the city is in the temple. John wrote that he saw no temple in the heavenly Jerusalem, but said “the Lamb was the temple of it.” In prophecy, the holy city and the temple are intricately associated. Jerusalem and temple seem to merge into each other.
W. D. Davies wrote, “the pertinent texts move without warning from the temple to Jerusalem and vice versa, so that these two entities, in their earthly and heavenly forms, are in constant association. … And, since the texts dealing with the Temple always implicitly, and usually explicitly, implicate the city, just as Jerusalem became the quintessence of the land, so also the Temple became the quintessence of Jerusalem.” 
Jesus reigns in the heavenly Jerusalem, and possesses the “key of David.” [Revelation 3:7] The “land” or territory in which he reigns is spiritual, as he opens the minds of people to the truth. “A man can receive nothing except it be given to him from Heaven.” [John 3:27] Those who are “beheaded” for the testimony of Jesus “reign with Christ.” [Revelation 20:4]
In Ezekiel 34 God’s sheep are described as scattered on mountains. “My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.” [Ezekiel 34:6] God will gather them, and bring them to the mountains of Israel. “And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.” [Ezekiel 34:13-14]
Three times the mountains of Israel are mentioned here. The prophet was not speaking of literal sheep. They are symbolic of the saints; Jesus said he is the “good shepherd.” [John 10:11, 14] His sheep are not ethnic Jews, but Christians. And the mountains of Israel are also metaphorical; they represent promises, and God’s righteousness. David said, “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O LORD, thou preservest man and beast.” [Psalm 36:6]
In the Olivet discourse, Jesus said: “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains.” [Matthew 24:15-16] The mountains that Jesus meant, I think, are symbolic of the promises of God to the saints.
Jacob said, when he blessed his son Joseph, “the blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills.” [Genesis 49:26] The “utmost bound” alludes to their height, suggesting they are lofty, or spiritual, and “everlasting” means eternal. Thus, mountains represent spiritual things, that the saints are to flee to.
In Zechariah 14:4, the Mount of Olives cleaves in the midst, and half of the mountain moves to the north, and half of it moves to the south, forming a wide valley. Mountains in prophecy represent revelations of God, and prophecies, and promises, and the Mount of Olives represents the Olivet discourse of Jesus.
There are two opposite schools of interpretation of the Olivet discourse: preterism, and dispensationalism. Preterism says that the Olivet discourse applies to the events of 70 AD, when the earthly Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Dispensationalism says that the things foretold by Jesus in the Olivet discourse will occur in a future seven year tribulation. Those two opposite schools of interpretation are pictured by the two halves of the Mount of Olives that are displaced from their positions, moving to the north and to the south, forming a valley between.
Zechariah said, flee to the valley between. I suggest that the valley represents the judgment that occurs in the age of the church, the period between the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, and the end of the age, when Christ returns.
Mountains and valleys are both symbolic. This is indicated in the message of John the Baptist, who preached a message that was based on Isaiah 40:3-5:
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
No literal mountains were made low; no literal valleys were filled, in ways that might have fulfilled the prophecy. But, figurative mountains were made low, notably the special status of ethnic Jews, and Mount Sinai, which represented the Mosaic legislation. [Galatians 4:24-31] Valleys could represent missing information, as they are regions where land has been removed by erosion or tectonic movements; many such valleys were filled, and missing revelations were provided by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.
The valley of Hinnom is the subject of lengthy prophecies in the book of Jeremiah. From the frequent mention of it in scripture, Gehenna is one of the most significant valleys in the entire promised land. In the sayings of Jesus, Gehenna represents a judgment, as do other valleys mentioned in prophecy. The valley of Jehoshaphat, in Joel 3, also called “the valley of decision,” is one. Tradition associates this with the Kidron Valley that lies between Jerusalem and the mount of Olives. In the New Testament, the valley of Meddigo, or Armageddon, has a similar role, as both sites are places where the nations are gathered together, and God pleads with them on behalf of his people.
The valley of Gehenna is near Jerusalem, which represents the camp of the saints. To be cast into it means being excluded from the holy city, because one is deemed unfit for the kingdom of God. The walls of Jerusalem represent salvation, and Gehenna lies outside the walls of the city.
Jeremiah 31:38-40 describes an extension of the boundaries of Jerusalem. According to this prophecy, the valley of Gehenna will be included within the extended boundaries of the holy city. A region enclosing the valley of Hinnom, called the “valley of the dead bodies,” Jeremiah says, will become “holy unto the Lord.” This implies there is hope for those cast into Gehenna.
The prophet Joel spoke of a time when “the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth out of the house of the LORD, and shall water the valley of Shittim.” [Joel 3:18] The fountain that comes forth out of the house of the Lord must correspond to the mystical “broad rivers and streams” of Isaiah 33:21, and the healing river of Ezekiel 47:1-12, and the rivers of living waters in Zechariah 14:8. The valley of Shittim was where the Israelites camped before coming into the promised land, so the fountain flowing from the house of the Lord is a prelude to the people of God possessing the spiritual things the land represents.
Joel 3:18 says that all the ravines of Judah will flow with water. This would include the valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna. In the same prophecy, the hills flow with milk, and the mountains drop down new wine. Here, the wine and milk represent the truths of the gospel. The new wine suggests new understanding from the scriptures. This prophecy also suggests that even those cast into Gehenna will obtain mercy, and will come to repentance, and will worship God.
Don’t be like the servant who buried his talent in the ground, or the land! The “promised land” of prophecy is a God-given “talent,” and it is clearly metaphorical in many prophecies, as are mountains and valleys and rivers and cities.
- Did Jesus reinterpret the land promise?
- Does the church inherit Israel’s land promise?
- Was the land promise abandoned?
- The land metaphor and the gospel
- The land promise in the New Covenant