Friday, November 03, 2017

The land and the amen

As various people remember the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which pledged the British Government to work towards the establishment of what would become the modern state of Israel, perhaps it's time to reflect again on what God's promises to ancient Israel mean today.  For some, like His Grace, Balfour represented God keeping his promise, that Israel would possess the land in perpetuity - and therefore the modern state of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise is the fulfilment of God's word.  I can't agree.  I think this is a theological disaster (and note, this is a theological and not directly a political post; obviously one can't wholly unpick them, but this particular post is really about whether Zionism can be given a Christian theological justification), and I think I see how it happens.

Let's clear the decks a bit.  Did the God of all the earth particularly elect Israel, and particularly promise them the possession of a strip of land in the eastern Mediterranean in perpetuity?  Yes, yes he did.  You can read it right there in the Old Testament.  You can read the original promise to Abraham, you can read the reiterated promise to Moses, you can read the promise of a remnant and a restoration which the prophets bring even after Israel's exile from the land.  Now, if you pride yourself on reading the Bible literally, you will take those promises to mean just what they say at face value.  From there, you will have to assume that they remain unfulfilled, and you may conclude that they are in process of being fulfilled at the present time.  It makes sense.

But that sort of literal reading is not a Christian way to read the Bible.

The apostle Paul tells us that every promise of God receives its 'yes' in Christ.  This is the consistent perspective of the New Testament: that the story of Israel is recapitulated in Christ, and that the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in Christ.  Consider, for example, the promise that a descendant of David will reign forever over the Kingdom of Israel.  For the apostles, that promise finds it divine 'yes', its 'amen, amen', in the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to the throne of the universe.  To say that they are still looking forward to an earthly Kingdom is to deny that the Kingdom already belongs to Christ, and that is unthinkable to the NT authors.

A Christian reading of the Old Testament does not view it as a series of relatively disconnected promises, related to one another only in so far as they fit into some mysterious and as yet unfulfilled plan of God's will.  Rather, a Christian reading of the Old Testament sees the whole as moving towards one point, namely Christ.  In him, the promises find their fulfilment.  He is the Amen of God to all the promises of the OT, the meaning hidden in every part of the OT story.  So when the apostles look forward, they don't look forward to more redemptive history.  They look forward to the uncovering and revealing of the fulfilment that has already taken place in Jesus - in other words, they look for him to come again in glory.

The promise of the land is not in any sense independent of Christ - none of the promises of God are.  In fact, the promise of the land is fulfilled.  The Lord Jesus has, through his resurrection and exaltation, taken possession of all the earth.  He is in his person the recapitulation of the history of Israel in Canaan, just as he is the recapitulation of the history of Adam in Eden.  That this is not yet seen does not make it any less true.

There are not multiple storylines in Scripture.  There are not multiple words of God.  There is one Word, Jesus Christ.  He is the Amen to all God's promises, and the eternal possessor of the land.


  1. I've come round to such a view myself - perhaps not surprising, given the sort of political theology I hold to now.

    But I'd just suggest one thing... I think the land promise is fulfilled in the church as the new creation temple. The OT temple was the place of perfected creation, a microcosm in a patch of land which the church now embodies until the holy of holies fills the new creation in the form of the New Jerusalem. That's our 'promised land', here in some sense within us. Not that God doesn't own the world as a whole, but there's still a qualitative distinction, I think.

    1. Hmm... Not sure. Land and temple are related in the OT, but they're not the same thing. And temple imagery is applied fairly freely to the church in the NT, but no connection is made to the land promise. I think I'd have to be persuaded with a bit of exegesis...

    2. Ha ha. I suppose it's 'conceptual exegesis' or something. But work backwards from the New Jerusalem, which is our promised land of which we are truly citizens, the truly *new* earth or land after this cursed one is burned away/rolled up.

      As heirs of a better covenant, there are no longer the masses outside the temple in the land around the temple: we have been brought into the outer courts, with Jesus as our high priest within the veil. So it's like a step better than the OT general land/temple land bifurcation. The New Jerusalem is a perfect cube like the holy of holies, which fills the new creation completely - the 'not yet' that we still await, situated as we are in the outer courts. GK Beale's written a lot about this: look up his essay on the topic if unfamiliar.

      Thinking of salvation in spatial rather than purely legal or metaphysical terms is sorely needed for a more robust conception of the church's mission, I think, particularly in terms of engagement (or otherwise) with worldy politics and methods. In terms of only cursed land outside the garden/temple/body of Christ, new creation only within the boundaries of the kingdom.

    3. p.s. I should have mentioned the link between Ezekiel's Temple vision and the New Jerusalem. The healing waters that go out through the land from the temple in the first case are also within the New Jerusalem's walls, I think establishing that the future city is the ultimate fulfilment of the Land.

  2. I'm actually not convinced that the New Jerusalem in John's vision does fill the whole creation - it has gates and stuff, right?

    But agree that the spatial metaphor (for such I assume it to be) is important for understanding salvation. 'In Christ' has rich dimensions of meaning viewed from this angle which are lost without it. If anyone is in Christ, new creation!

    1. I think Beale would point to the damned being 'outside the city' as an indicator that it fills the redeemed New Heavens and Earth. As in, where the damned are can't be the place of new creation life.

      Which as you say suggests we are in the realm of heavy metaphor seen 'through a glass darkly'.