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The True Promised Land

December 13, 2012

Yesterday I overheard someone talking about the importance of modern day Israel in regards to biblical theology. I decided to hold my tongue – primarily because I was not involved in the conversation – but also because the argument against such a view requires a bit of time surveying the scriptures and laying a new theological foundation. This could take a long time depending on how much knowledge a person has of the Bible – particularly the Old Testament. My wife, who was the one actually engaged in the conversation, later asked me if there was an appropriate response next time this topic came up. While I’m not sure that what I’m about to write is necessarily an appropriate response, I do think that it provides a starting point for giving people who hold this view a new perspective.

First of all, I should say that what I’m about to write about Israel is strictly biblical. I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading and analyzing all the goings on in the Middle East and I don’t completely understand all the intricacies involving the political history of the nations involved in these disputes. Frankly, this is because it doesn’t really matter – at least in theological terms – and I won’t be writing about them here. Because I’m dealing with the theological aspects of Israel, and because what I’m preparing to write about Israel may come across as negative (in theological terms), I’m sure some will consider my position to be anti-Semite, or insensitive, or even non-Christian (given how much the future of Israel is wrapped up in the modern church’s theological views). This is really not the case, but I do want to state at the start that regardless of how one feels about Israel (and the Middle East in general), Christians should always feel sympathy for the hardships that are occurring over there. A theological position that says that Israel does not really matter anymore does not necessitate that Israel does not matter in terms of the suffering that they face, the innocent people who are caught in the crossfire, or any injustices that they face. One can still pray for Israel the way that one would pray for any other nation – that God would prevent further suffering, that the gospel would spread throughout the land, and that justice would be served.

A large part of the impetus behind the Christian’s support for Israel is for the land of Israel. In other words, it’s not just that the people of Israel are important theologically, but the land that they inhabit is also important. This is because there are actions that need to be accomplished in this land in order to bring about the coming of Christ. For instance, many believe that the temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem and that the sacrificial system must be re-instituted. So, if in the near future, the Middle-Eastern conflict resulted in the people of Israel being preserved, but having to relocate to another land, this would be regarded as a serious setback by many Christians. This view of the importance of the land is tied back to God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15. My intention is not to lay out every detail of this view (there are too many variations on this view to even count!), but to show that the proper understanding of the Promised Land leaves every Israel-centrist view without a leg to stand on. Also, because I want to attempt to present a view that is “conversationally appropriate,” I will not be laying out every detail that supports my view, but rather presenting a (hopefully) easy to understand concept that explains some of the key moments of biblical history in broad strokes.

To begin with, let me explain why the Promised Land and the Israelites were important at in the Old Covenant. From the very beginning, God’s plan was to bless the whole world. The way that God chooses to bless the world is through a mediator. This is probably fairly obvious to us now, as we know that Jesus Christ is the mediator for the world, but this was not a new concept that began with Jesus’ death and resurrection. From the beginning God has appointed mediators. Adam was the first mediator. God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathed life into him (This is key for later… don’t forget!). He then placed him in the garden and told him to tend and keep it (literally, to guard it). Part of what it meant to be a mediator was leading worship. Already we see that Adam is mediating between God and the earth through his dominion, but we also see it in his relationship with Eve. Adam is the one who received the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam then told Eve. This is partly why the sin belongs to Adam, even though Eve ate first – Adam was responsible. He had mediated God’s command to Eve, and then stood by and allowed her to be deceived by the serpent. He knew better. He was to lead his wife into proper worship, but failed. Later on we see that Noah is a mediator and the first thing he does after the flood is lead his family in worship. Abraham is a mediator too. Abraham is constantly setting up altars where ever he happens to be living at the time. The rest of the patriarchs do the same thing. Moses is a really good example of this form of individual mediator – 1 Corinthians 10:2 tells us that Israel was baptized into Moses – this is a type of mediation.

After this particular mediation, we start to see a community of mediators. First, in the firstborn sons at Passover, who are later replaced in Numbers 3 by the Levites. Part of what it means to be a mediator is to be a liturgical servant – a priest. They would lead the worship practices for Israel. This also meant taking care of all the holy things associated with worship – including it’s transportation while in the wilderness. Now that God has established certain rules to go along with worship, participating in worship could be a dangerous activity. The Levites were there to take on that burden. They were consecrated specifically for this special task. While the Levites were mediators, though, for the rest of Israel, Israel was a mediator for the rest of the world – the Gentile nations. Israel is called a priestly nation, and their participation in the worship of God was not strictly for their own benefit – they were worshipping for the whole world. This included prayers, singing, and the sacrificial offerings. Just as the Levites had an extra burden placed on them as mediators to Israel, the Israelites had an extra burden on them that the rest of the world did not have. For instance, just look at the Law. Much of what is commanded of the Israelites did not apply to the Gentiles – even the God-fearers. The same goes for the feasts – the Gentiles were not required to attend every feast as the Jews were. Perhaps the most obvious burden was circumcision – this was strictly a Jewish ritual. A Gentile could be a worshipper of God (attending the feasts voluntarily, offering sacrifices, worshipping, etc…) and not have to be circumcised. Speaking of the Gentiles, ultimately this mediation was supposed to be for the whole world. Israel’s worship was to naturally lead toward service to others. This was not a difficult task, as there are numerous accounts of Gentile God fearers throughout the Old Covenant – sometimes whole nations – yet Israel struggled with this duty.

At this point I want to highlight the progressive aspect of Israel’s priestly service. As I’ve stated, worship was at the center of this service and it was for the whole world. I hinted earlier to Adam’s priestly service in the garden, but let me emphasize this point – the garden was the place of worship in the beginning. There are numerous details that support this statement throughout the first chapters of Genesis, but in order to keep this short, let me emphasize one aspect of worship: the place of worship is where God met His people. We see this in the garden when God comes to meet with Adam and Eve. Of course, they’ve already sinned and are afraid to meet with God and so the very first worship service in the garden never actually takes place – they’re driven out before it happens. What’s important for our purposes, though, is to see that worship is central to the world. By central I don’t mean placement (although this is often literally true, as we’ll see), but rather in the figurative sense. Eden is where Adam lives, and worship takes place in the garden within Eden. This worship is to flow out into Adam’s work in the garden, but ultimately it is to flow out into the rest of the world (I won’t speculate as to what things would have looked like had Adam not sinned, but it’s pretty clear that Eden was not the only location of importance – God created the whole world – the whole world was meant to worship Him). Regardless, we know that Adam failed in this task. Later on we see that Adam does worship God (God accepts Abel’s offerings, but not Cain’s), and, as I’ve mentioned, the rest of the Patriarchs establish worship throughout the lands. What appears to be happening in these instances is that God is preserving and choosing people to carry out His plan, but they are people without a land. Where ever they happen to be, they are the “holy land” and worship is established in their midst and God meets with them.

God eventually makes a covenant with Abram, and promises to give him a land for his offspring. This is the Promised Land. This is not fulfilled until Joshua leads the Israelites into Canaan, but we see a change in the worship practices while they’re in the wilderness. God no longer meets with His people at various altars – He only meets with them in His designated spot – the tent of meeting. Numbers 2 describes for us the centrality of this worship. The twelve tribes were to encamp around the tent of meeting – three on each side. I’ve already mentioned the Levites role in this worship, but let me emphasize one aspect of their role that I haven’t yet – the Levites were to guard the tent of meeting. No one but the priests were allowed to enter the tent of meeting and the Levites were to kill anyone who tried to enter. This harkens back to Adam’s role in the garden as guardian. Adam unfortunately, allowed an outsider to enter into the holy place – He should have killed the serpent (or at least died trying!).

When Israel finally takes possession of the Promised Land, we see the building of Solomon’s temple. This is only accomplished once David has driven out the last enemy and cleansed the land. Israel is now a “Holy Land” and a new, “permanent” place of worship is established. The Levites are still the guardians of this worship and they are placed at the gates of the temple. Israel is at the center of the world, Jerusalem is the at the center of Israel, and the temple is the center of Jerusalem. Israel is in the perfect position now to be the mediators of the world! Not only should their worship attract the world to them, but they are strategically positioned to send out missionaries. Of course, we know how this turns out: the temple is destroyed and Israel is exiled. This, though, is not the end. Eventually the king of Persia allows the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their temple. What’s interesting to note, though, is that when the temple is finally rebuilt and Jerusalem is finally re-established as home for Israel, the emphasis seems to be placed on Jerusalem as the Holy Land – the center of worship (as opposed to the temple) –  and Levites are placed at the gates of the city.

Perhaps I should emphasize one important aspect of this progression of worship – when God establishes a new and greater place of worship/role for Israel, He never returns to the old ways. They’re done. We’ve moved on to better things. So as we move into the New Testament and the incarnation of Jesus, we’re in a world where Jerusalem is still the center of the world, but have failed in their mission. They’ve been given numerous opportunities to fulfill their duties, but they have chosen not to do them. The nations have only been blessed because God has sent Israel to them through captivity and exile. Yet God has brought Israel back to her land and given her one last chance. Once Jesus begins His ministry, most of his miracles and parables have something to do with the sins of Israel and the destruction of the temple. Jesus (the true Israel) is preparing to do what the nation never did. Jesus will be the mediator for the world that Israel never was. But here’s the key – the nation of Israel was never the fulfillment of that promise to Abraham. Before we talk about this, though, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: A.D. 70. As much as modern day evangelicals want to ignore this date, it can’t be done. A proper understanding of the New Testament hinges 100% on this date. What I’m talking about, for those who don’t know, is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. On this date, Rome wiped Jerusalem off the face of the earth. The temple was completely destroyed – not one stone was left standing. As I’ve said, when God moves on to the next phase, He never leaves it so that we can go back. Isn’t it interesting that after all this time, the church (or even Israel) has never returned to that previous form of worship? Guess what – they’re not ever going to either. We’ve already moved on.

Remember that promise about a Promised Land? A Holy Land? It started out as a garden,  and it eventually moved around with the Patriarchs, who sometimes marked it with stones. Later it moved with Israel in the wilderness, crossed the Jordan, and conquered Canaan. After that is was established as a city and eventually a nation. It didn’t end there. The Promised Land was always about dirt. There’s dirt in a garden, dirt in the Middle East, dirt in Canaan and dirt in Jerusalem. That dirt was only “holy dirt” insomuch as God was dwelling in that dirt. Once He walked in the garden, later He resided in a pillar of fire and a cloud. After that He resided in an ark and eventually His home was a temple. But that was just a temple made of stone. Now He dwells in a temple made of flesh. And that stuff about dirt? Guess what we’re made of? That wasn’t just some incidental information at the beginning of the Bible. God wants us to know that we’re made of dirt. But dirt’s not a bad thing. If it’s holy dirt, it’s a great thing. What do you get when you mix dirt and water? Clay. Moldable clay. The church is made of dirt. It’s also holy. We’re one in Christ when we’re baptized – turned to clay. We also pray and sing for the world. We worship God. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices. There’s no going back. Who needs a temple made of stone? Not God – He has something better. Who needs a sacrificial system? Not God – He sent His only begotten Son. Who needs the nation of Israel? Not God – He has the church. But Israel needs Him. That’s why we worship Him. That’s why He sends us out. We’re the true Promised Land.

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