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Is the promised land visible, or invisible?

February 17, 2012

A problem with Sir Anthony Buzzard’s interpretation of the land promise, which he interprets as meaning Abraham’s inheritance of the entire world, looms because of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah about the people of Israel returning to their land. If the land of promise is extended to the whole visible earth, why would God’s people need to be gathered out of the nations where they were scattered, and return with weeping to Zion?

Ezekiel said that when Israel is brought out from among the nations, transgressors will be purged out from among them. [Ezekiel 20:38] This has not happened during the modern migration of Jews to Palestine, which discredits claims by some that the Jewish state in Palestine somehow fulfills prophecy. It also discredits Buzzard’s view of the land promise. Israel’s exile from the land of promise has a spiritual meaning. The notion that the land promise simply means “more land” does not fit the prophecies in the OT about a second exodus. If “the whole world” were the true meaning of the land promise, there would be no need for another exodus, and the repentance, and reconciliation which the prophets invariably associated with it. In Revelation 12:6, and 14, the woman who flees to the wilderness pictures the church coming out of the world; a spiritual exodus is in view.

Ezekiel said that all Israel will be gathered into their own land. [Ezekiel 39:27-28] Every Israelite will be brought back to the promised land; not a single one will remain in the lands of the heathen, where they were captives and exiles. Is their land a visible one? Jeremiah said they will return with weeping, and it will be a return to God. [Jeremiah 31:9-11]

If in the millennium the land promise is extended to encompass the whole earth, why would there be another exodus from the “north country”? In Buzzard’s interpretation of the land promise, in his article The promise to Abraham that he would be heir of the world, the promise to Abraham encompasses the whole world. But, if the promised land is really the whole earth, and consists merely of “more land,” how can Israel return to it? Wouldn’t they be already in it?

Buzzard’s view of the land promise leads to contradictions. He maintains that the “land” is earthly, and that the Christian hope is not a blissful future in heaven, but reigning on the earth in a future millennium. This is how he interprets the land promise, and the kingdom of God. He insists that the kingdom of Christ is not yet a reality, but future, as he looks for a visible kingdom, and a visible promised land. But, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] The things that believers hope for are not seen; the true promised land is invisible. Buzzard wrote:

Jesus’ teaching is virtually a commentary on the momentous information about God’s plan and promise revealed to Abraham. This is to be expected since Paul described the whole ministry of Jesus as a confirmation of “the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom. 15:8). It will therefore be impossible to understand Christianity if we are unclear about the promises made to Abraham.

The New Testament cannot be grasped without an understanding of the central message of the Old Testament. God had initiated a Plan for the restoration of mankind when he invited Abraham to leave his native land of Babylon and take up residence in the land of Canaan (Palestine) (Gen. 12:1-4). By covenant oath he promised to give possession of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (13:14, 15; 17:8). Long after the Israelites had entered the promised land under Joshua, it was clear that the ultimate acquisition of the land by the patriarchs still lay in the future, for Abraham had never owned a square foot of the territory promised to him. All who reckoned themselves as Abraham’s descendants would share in the same inheritance. To this compelling goal every pious Israelite looked forward with the eyes of faith. Despite every national setback the “covenant” or “word” spoken by God to Abraham served as a rock-firm guarantee of the eventual triumph of the faithful and their possession of the land (see Ps. 105:8-15).

As is well known, Jesus constantly promised his followers that in the future they would inherit the Kingdom of God. It is a very simple matter to deduce from this that “inheriting the world” (Rom. 4:13) and “inheriting the Kingdom of God” mean exactly the same thing. Christians, therefore, are heirs to the world and heirs to the Kingdom of God.

The destiny of the faithful described throughout the New Testament is to inherit the “world” or “Kingdom” with Christ when he returns. This is a cardinal New Testament teaching repeated constantly by Christ and Paul and the other writers of Scripture.

It is simplistic to say that the promise of land means “more land.” It misses the great typical meaning in the wilderness journey, the conquest of the land, and the exile, as was recognized by Andrew Jukes and others. Buzzard dismissed the view that the Christian hope is a home in “heaven.” He wrote:

It is obvious that God initially promised part of the earth to Abraham, certainly not a home in “heaven.” He was invited to inspect his future inheritance by walking up and down in it and by looking to the four points of the compass (not upwards to heaven!) (Gen. 13:14, 15). Thus modern commentaries recognize properly that “the idea of ‘inheritance’ was a fundamental part of Jewish understanding of their covenant relationship with God, above all, indeed almost exclusively in connection with the land — the land of Canaan, theirs by right of inheritance as promised to Abraham” (Dunn, Commentary on Romans, Vol. I, p. 213).

Before the time of Jesus and Paul the promised inheritance of the land had been understood to include not just Palestine but the whole world. This was based on a legitimate reading of many passages in the prophets and Psalms, which expected the Kingdom of God to extend across the earth.

Buzzard supported his interpretation of the land promise by appealing to ancient Jewish Apocryphal and  pseudepigraphical literature, citing works such as Ecclesiasticus, Jubilees, I Enoch, and IV Ezra. His selected quotations from these works, he claimed, “throw light on Paul’s thinking about the Christian’s future.” But Paul’s warning against giving heed to “Jewish fables” in Titus 1:14 likely alludes to works of this nature.

Interpretations of the land promise as meaning the whole world ignore prophecies that describe the vertical extension of the promised land. While some prophecies speak of the kingdom of God as extending worldwide, others say that Jerusalem will be raised up. Isaiah 2:2, and Zechariah 14:10 both describe Jerusalem as raised up. Isaiah said 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.”

This describes the land as having a spiritual nature. Isaiah cannot be referring to some literal tectonic movement that raises Jerusalem above the surrounding country, which would contradict other prophecies. The psalmist said, “They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever.” [Psalm 125:1]

The literal hill of Zion is probably the most mobile mountain in the Bible! But it is one of the mountains Isaiah said would be “made low.” It is raised up, as Isaiah described, and Revelation 16:18 says, “the mountains were not found.” Where is mount Zion? Hebrews 12:22-24 says, “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,  To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,  And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”

Mount Zion cannot be moved, because it is in heaven, and invisible. It is that portion of the promised land that was raised up, above all the mountains and hills of the earth. It is the “better country” mentioned in Hebrews 11:16.

To understand the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah about Israel being gathered out of the nations, and brought back to their own land, and the heavenly mount Sion, which is invisible, we need to consider the fact that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, when Jesus ascended to heaven. He is the true temple, and the tabernacle in the wilderness. The Jerusalem temples were shadows and types of the heavenly, eternal one. The restoration of Israel is spiritual; it involves the gathering of the saints from their delusions, and flawed interpretations. For example, if the promised land represents, in part, the revelations of God, and the truth of the gospel, other lands represent false beliefs, contrary to the gospel. Jesus leads his saints out of their captivity in those other lands; and in thousands of sects, and denominations, and flawed interpretations, and teaches them the truth of the gospel. This fulfills prophecies such as Ezekiel 20:34-38, and Jeremiah 31:9 about Israel returning to their land. In fact, the promised land represents all the invisible, spiritual blessings that the saints hope for. The prophecies about Israel returning to the land of promise are fulfilled by the church’s return to the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”[Jude 1:3]