Did Jesus Reject the Land Promise?

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This article is part of a series on Jesus the Jewish Messiah by Gerald McDermott. Click here to view other articles in this series.

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In Luke 21:24, Jesus prophesied that one day Jews would have sovereignty over the land of Israel.

They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

The Old Testament Land Promise

Most Christians have heard that Jesus gave up the land promise from their preachers and professors. This is the promise God gave to Abraham that to your seed I will give this land (Gen 12:7). It would not be simply for one period in the history of God’s people but for all of history: All the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed forever (Gen 13:15).

Most preachers and professors have no idea that God repeated this land promise either explicitly or implicitly in the Old Testament one thousand times![1] It shows up even more than references to the covenant. As some scholars have put it, there is no greater longing in the Old Testament for anything else but God himself.[2]

One would think that in this time of the rediscovery of Jesus’ Jewishness, scholars would see signs in the New Testament of the Jewish conviction that God gave the land forever to the Chosen People. Old Testament Jews held to this conviction even though they knew God had driven them off the land twice. When Jeremiah and Ezekiel were writing about the Babylonian exile, when most Jews were driven off the land, these prophets nevertheless testified that the Jewish people still had title to the land (Jer. 16:15; 12:14-17; Ezek. 36:17-19, 24). And in the first century AD, when other second-temple Jews like Philo and Ezekiel the Tragedian wrote of God’s “gifts” to his people, the land was the number-one gift in their minds.[3]

Universalizing the Particular?

Yet it has been the presumption of most Christians since the Enlightenment that Jesus had in mind only the world. They have declared that he did not speak of a future Israel that would be distinguished from the rest of the world. After all, they have reasoned, Jesus came to universalize the particular. The Old Testament was about a particular people (the Jews) and a particular land (Israel), but the New Testament is about all the peoples of the world and all the lands of the world. It would make sense that there would be no more mention of a land promise, and no more mention of a future for Israel. Jesus and the apostles must have been concerned only with the future of all of the world. For them to resurrect the land promise would have been to go back to the time when the Savior of the world had not yet appeared. It would contradict Peter’s declaration that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34).

This is all quite elegant and fits our current anti-nationalist mood nicely. The only problem is that it fits neither the New Testament generally nor the Gospels in particular. The author of Hebrews, for example, writes that Abraham… by faith went to live in the land of promise (Heb 11:8-9). Stephen told the high priest that God promised to give to Abraham this land in which you are now living for a possession and to his seed after him. (Acts 7:4-5). Paul told the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia that the God of this people Israel chose our fathers…and gave them their land as an inheritance (Acts 13:17, 19).

Jesus and a Future Israel

But what about Jesus? Didn’t he say the meek would inherit the earth (Matt 5:5)? Doesn’t this mean his focus was on the whole world and not the little land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean the size of New Jersey?

More on this mysterious Beatitude in a moment. In the meantime, we should know that scholars now recognize that Jesus talked about the land and its future. One day in the future, Jesus told Pharisees trying to protect him from Herod that Jerusalem would welcome him by saying, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:31, 35).

Jesus also predicted that there would come a time when Jerusalem would no longer be trampled upon by the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). This was a Jewish idiom for political sovereignty. Jesus was predicting a future time when Jews would once again gain complete control of their capital city, which took place 1937 years later when Israeli paratroopers seized control of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. Here Jesus was exercising his messianic role as prophet, complementing his other messianic roles as priest (offering himself as a sacrifice) and king (ruling the cosmos after his ascension).

Jesus also referred to a future for Israel when he said there would be a future paliggenesia, or world-renewal, during which the apostles would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28). This was a reference to the new heavens and new earth that Jesus would establish after his second coming. Christians have known about this for the last two thousand years, but what is now beginning to be noticed is that 1) it refers to a future for Israel specifically, and 2) that Jesus himself refers to a future for Israel and not just the whole world.

Restoration of the Kingdom to Israel

There is also the mysterious statement by Jesus just before his ascension in answer to the apostles’ question, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). This was after Jesus’ 40-day post-graduate seminar with the apostles on, as Luke tells us, the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). Legions of preachers and scholars have commented that this was a stupid, carnal question, for the apostles supposedly should have realized that the kingdom is only spiritual and has no earthly dimension.

But Jesus showed every sign of taking the question seriously when he replied, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his authority” (v. 7). In other words, Jesus said, “Yes, I will restore the kingdom to Israel, but the time for that cannot be revealed to you right now.” This interpretation has been argued convincingly in a recent book from Oxford University Press, Luke’s Jewish Eschatology, by Jewish scholar Isaac Oliver.

This new awareness of Jesus and the land of Israel has led more and more scholars to translate the Beatitude, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land (Matt 5:5).[4] They have recognized that Jesus was quoting Ps. 37:11 word for word. The phrase “inherit the landis repeated five times in Ps. 37, and it is clear that the land of Israel (and not the world) is meant in all five instances.

It is time for Christians to realize that the land of Israel still has theological significance and that Jesus himself testifies to this.

[1] McDermott, Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2017), 139-40.

[2] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds., Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 487-88.

[3] Philo, On Rewards and Punishment 79; Ezekiel Tragicus 35, 106.

[4] See Joel Willetts, “Zionism in the Gospel of Matthew,” in McDermott, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 125.

Cover image: James Tissot, The People Seek Jesus to Make Him King

Published on

June 1, 2023

Author

Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott serves as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary, priest-in-residence at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Crozet, VA.

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