By Jeffrey Meyers
If God promised a certain land to the seed of Abraham, saying that it would be theirs “forever” (Gen. 13:15), why do Reformed churches teach that the Jews permanently lost their right to the land? What about all these Old Testament “forever” promises and prophesies made to the Jews? How should we understand the passages that seem to imply that the Israelites have a secure place in God’s plan forever?
Just about everyone who reads the Bible will eventually end up asking questions like this. And if they don’t arise from one’s own reading of the Bible, one cannot avoid them for long in today’s world. Not only does the Evangelical Christian culture in America relentlessly preach and popularize its own answer to these questions (i.e., Left Behind and all that), but the escalating conflict in the Middle East cannot but cause us to wonder about the place of modern Israel and the Jews in God’s plan for history.
The simple answer is that when God said “forever” he meant it. There’s no need to suggest that God set aside these promises. Nor should we “spiritualize” them and make them apply directly to the Christian Church. That is not to say that these Old Testament promises don’t apply to the Church. You’ll see what I mean by denying the “direct” application of these promises to the Church as you read on. I do indeed believe that these promises and prophecies are fulfilled in the Church, but not by way of spiritualization and not simply by the Church superceding the Jews.
Christian theologians have not always been careful about formulating the precise manner in which the Church participates in these promises to the Jews. In modern theology “supercessionism” is the term used to describe the theological position first expressed by early church theologians Justin Martyr and Irenaeus that the Church is the “true” or “spiritual” Israel. But did God simply switch out the recipients of promises, replacing the Jews with the Church? Putting it like this is much too simplistic. Moreover, such a formulation conveniently sidesteps that which is crucial for Christian theology–the incarnation. Every promise and prophecy given to Israel has a very literal, material fulfillment.
I mean that if one is worried about the recipients of these promises really being Jews, genealogical sons of Abraham, then Jesus himself literally fits the bill. Jesus is literally and physically a bloodline son of Abraham and David (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). All the promises made to physical Israel are for him. He is the recipient of all of these promises. He lives today. He now literally owns the land of Palestine. Since Jesus rules the world, the land of Palestine is included in his kingdom. It is all his.
This is a point I think helps answer the charge made against Reformed theologians of “spiritualizing” the promises made to physical Israel. We haven’t answered that charge very well in our circles. I believe that in certain quarters of the Reformed church we have failed to emphasize the fact that Jesus is the last faithful Jew and therefore the inheritor of all the promises made to the sons of Abraham in the Old Testament. Some of this may be because we spend so much time arguing for the deity of Christ we forget that he is also fully human-even now at the Father’s right hand! And if human, Jesus has a history and genealogy. In other words, he is an Israelite, a Jew. That’s why there’s no need to “spiritualize” the Old Testament promises and prophecies originally made to Abraham or Israel. That’s also why the presence or absence of genealogical Jewry has no religious significance after A.D. 70.
There are no unfulfilled promises that apply to anyone other than Jesus Christ and those in union with him. I believe that what Paul speaks of in Romans 11 is future to him, but past for us. It was fulfilled prior to God putting a final end to the old world in A.D. 70. This is not the place for a detailed exposition of Romans 11. (See James B. Jordan’s insightful arguments for a pre-A.D. 70 fulfillment of Paul’s predictions in his three-part essay “The Future of Israel Reexamined”). For now my point is this: Ultimately, all the promises and prophecies made to the people of God in the Old Testament are all given to Jesus, and then indirectly to us “in him.”
Let’s stop and plow up this ground a bit more carefully. The answer to all questions about the promises made to the Jews is that the man, the Jew, Joshua Messiah, inherits all those promises. He is physically a Jew, and always will be! The genealogies end with him. There is no longer any religious significance to supposed genealogical links between post-AD 70 human communities and Abraham, Moses, or David. Jesus is the only Jew that matters any more. And united with him any person can be grafted into the olive tree of God’s promises. We partake of all the promises to the Jews in the Old Testament “indirectly.” United to Christ, the faithful and immortal Israelite, we are graciously permitted to enjoy what has been fulfilled by and given to him.
In electing the Jews God had one purpose in mind–namely, the coming of the Messiah. Once the Messiah comes, descended from Abraham and David (Matt. 1 and Luke 3), then genealogical Israel’s purpose ends. Jesus is the final Israelite. He is Israel reduced to one. He is the elect Jewish Man. He is the remnant. When he hangs on the cross, everyone else has apostatized. He is the last and only faithfully Jew. And in him, then, the whole world is renewed. As Paul says over and over again in his letters, the only election that matters now is that which takes place “in Christ.” God’s election of Israel was indeed vindicated in the life, death, and resurrection of Joshua Messiah.
If we take this seriously, then we must conclude that nothing else need happen concerning the modern-day Jews. Once Jesus died and rose again, the last generation of Jews that were in covenant with God by means of the old system were given an opportunity to repent and be incorporated into the Messiah’s body. This is what the ministry of Peter and Paul “to the Jew first” is all about. After that first-century offer, physical, cultural, and religious Judaism had no claim on or special place in God’s purposes for the world. The resurrected, ascended Lord Jesus, the ever-living Jew is the only Israelite that now matters.
This means that are no more promises to ethnic, genealogical Israel for today. Unless, of course, you don’t exclude Jesus from those promises! He is the last, faithful living Israelite. And all the promises are “yes and amen in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). The man Jesus is Israel reduced to one and “in him” we are all beneficiaries of the promises.
I don’t believe that the modern nation of Israel or genealogical Jews have any special, favored status in God’s eyes or in his future plans (apart from their trusting in Christ, of course).
The Father has no favor for any people, nation, race, or tribe that does not acknowledge the Person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ. “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him” (John 5:23). A prophesied “future” (to us) salvation of Israel would demand that the Church have an incredibly awkward stance with regard to the genealogical, cultural, and even national Israel. We would have to say that in some sense they are still “favored” or “special” and therefore be forced to “protect” their culture and people. As we have seen in the history of the Church’s dealings with the Jews, this leads to a love/hate relationship. How much better to confess that all nations, peoples, tribes, and tongues are equal, and treat them all accordingly. This is not anti-Semitic, but it levels the playing field. After Jesus and the change in the covenantal order and government of the world, the Jews are not central anymore. They are no longer priests to the nations. There’s no one place where sacrifice is offered for the world. Jerusalem is not the center of the world. And the purpose of the genealogies has been fulfilled–Christ was born of Mary. What “religious” purpose could they now serve?
If the Father did honor those who reject his Son, then there would be some special favor to be found with God the Father on the basis of genealogy or race apart from Christ–a notion that strikes me as outside of the bounds the explicit teaching of the New Testament. Everything in the New Testament screams no! There are no genealogies recorded in the New Testament after Christ’s (see Matt. 1 and Luke 3). I take this to mean that genealogies have no religious significance in the new world. Paul warns against “endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1;4; Titus 3:9). Their purpose was fulfilled in Christ. I really do believe that these New Testament statements have not been carefully considered when trying to deal with this issue. How can the Church treat some people different than others based on race or circumcision or the practice of Judaistic religious traditions? These all have no religious significance after Christ.
True, in redemptive history the Gospel goes to the Jew first after Pentecost (Rom. 1:16; Acts 13:5, 15, etc.). And after almost 40 years of having the privilege of hearing the Good News first, many of the first century Jews repented and joined the Church. But the Jews that would not repent and trust in Jesus the Messiah were rejected and cursed. Paul turns to the Gentiles exclusively at the end of his ministry because God’s patience had run out for the Jews (Acts 28:25-29; see especially 1 Thess. 2:14-16). In A.D. 70 Jesus comes to destroy the old temple and with it the centrality of the people and nation of Israel comes to an end.
A New Creation
In the new world, King Jesus, the true and faithful Israelite reigns from heaven. All who are united to him receive all of the promises made to the nation and people of Israel in the Old Testament (2 Cor. 1:20). There are no more Jews. There are no more Gentiles. This old distinction has disappeared. We live in a new world, a new creation (Gal. 6:14-15). There is only one Jew, and he is the inheritor of what was promised to Israel because he is the Greater Israel, the last true and faithful Israelite. Even if there are cultural and genealogical Jews that continue to perpetuate their “religion” after AD 70, the fact is irrelevant to the Christian faith.
Christ has done away with the whole bi-polar division of humanity (Jew-Gentile) that was in force during the Old Covenant. This is all over the New Testament (1 Cor. 12:23; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-3:12; Phil. 3:2-11; Col. 3:11; 1 Thess. 2:14-16; etc.). The Israel/Gentile division has served its purpose and is now obsolete. To try to resurrect it or continue it is to deny that Jesus is the true and final Israelite. This is an important point. All the promises are “Yes and Amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). The Gospels indicate that he is the last faithful, bloodline, racial Israelite. He dies, rises again, and ascends into heaven to rule as Lord.
There is, therefore, no “spiritualization” involved in saying that the members of the new covenant Church, whatever their nationality or genealogical stock, now have access to all the promises of the Old Testament. United to the very human, fully “Jewish” Messiah who reigns in heaven, we, the Church, are “heirs” of the promises in Him. Israel is no longer God’s “son,” but Jesus is God’s Son and we in him are all “sons of God” and heirs of the promises (Romans 8:17, 22-23; Col. 1:15-20). Paul says, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). What’s the problem? Isn’t that clear? Jesus himself repudiates the notion that being a physical descendent of Abraham gives one a special favor in God’s eyes when he dressed down the Jews of his day for making such a claim (John 8:48-59).
Jesus now owns, not only the land of Palestine (which is most certainly not holy anymore), but all of the earth. His Church in Him now is heir to the entire creation (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 3:6). We should stop calling Palestine “the Holy Land.” All such geographical and spatial defined holiness boundaries have been done away in Christ. Wherever a church is gathered, the place is “holy,” for the Lord is there. Indeed, the Church is the new temple (1 Cor. 3:9; 1 Pet. 2:5), the new “chosen people,” and the new “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). The Old Testament “land promise” has been fulfilled–Jesus now owns the land of Palestine. But this is only a small portion of the world over which he presently reigns as Lord.
Yes and Amen in Him
Is the Abrahamic covenant (AC) still in force today? Will those who bless Abraham be blessed and those who curse him be cursed? Well, yes and no. The AC was transformed by the Mosaic covenant and so in some sense it was altered even then. Then the Mosaic covenant was transformed into the Davidic Covenant. The Davidic covenant underwent changes after the exile and something new came from the old. There’s been a sequence of “new” covenants in the Old Testament. Each time this happens the older covenant is taken up into the new one with significant changes. It’s not like each old covenant just ends and a new one starts all over again. The old one is transfigured into a new one. The promises of the older covenants are taken up and furthered in the new.
And all of this comes to completion in what we call the New Testament or Covenant with the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. All of the covenants are fulfilled in him and all of the promises of the all these previous covenants are “yes” and “amen” only in him (2 Cor. 1:20)! Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant. He is a bloodline “son” of Abraham (Matt. 1). All the genealogies end with Jesus. The whole purpose of a bloodline “seed” is fulfilled in him. That’s why the New Testament, especially Paul is so adamant about the fact that the people of God are those who by faith are united to Christ. All who bless him are blessed. You love and bless Jesus, the Greater Son of Abraham, you are blessed. You curse Jesus, you are cursed. That is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. The AC has nothing to do with how USA treats modern day nation of “Israel.”
And once again, this is not “spiritualizing” the promises, as dispensationalist accuse us. Jesus was and remains a very physical, human Jew. God the Son united himself eternally to our humanity in the womb of the virgin Mary, partaking of her (our) flesh. Mary could trace her genealogy back through David to Abraham (Matt. 1) and then to Adam (Luke 3). Now, since the incarnation, the man Christ Jesus reigns in heaven as the last, faithful son of Adam, son of Abraham, and son of David. We are united to him by faith and therefore in him we are heirs of all the promises. The promises made to Abraham, David, and Israel are all appropriately received by Jesus, the very physical heir of Abraham, David, and Judah! There is no spiritualizing here, because Jesus is the bloodline heir of these promises. Only those who are united to him are co-heirs of the promises. To even suggest that God loves or favors the present-day Jews apart from their trusting in Christ is appalling, especially since today they are vocal enemies of the Church and of the Gospel.
If what I’ve said above is true, then the claim that there is still some special status or favor for genealogical or cultural Israel, even if it’s just the promise of an unbroken racial bloodline, is rather odd. The purpose of the genealogies of Israel is fulfilled in Christ. He is the last genealogical Jew that really makes any difference. And, of course, God gives the last generation of Jews alive during that time (AD 30-70) a chance to repent and be united to the true and faithful Israelite, the Greater Moses and David, who now reigns in heaven. But after that, it makes no sense to think that there’s still any point in continuing a genealogical or cultural Judaism. The “forever” promises and prophecies were ultimately made and fulfilled for Jesus Christ and his Bride, who is now “one flesh” with him.
Jeff Meyers [contact him] is the pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis, Missorri. He has been ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America since 1988. After college and serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, Jeff attended Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Jeff later earned his Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M) and is currently completing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. He has a personal blog page called Corrigenda.
Jeff is also the author of The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenantal Worship, a practical pastoral guide to worship that introduces readers to the application of Old Testament sacrificial liturgics, biblical typology, and covenant theology.