PERSPECTIVES ON THE LAND OF THE BIBLE


I have never been to Palestine. The last time I was asked to go on a church-organised tour, I was held back partly by numerous speaking engagements, partly by lack of funds, partly by the comment of a respected pastor who had said he saw no need of going on one of these trips as he would see the land from heaven one day, but largely because I was appalled by the fact that the tours were called “Holy Land Pilgrimages.” I had not read O. Palmer Robertson’s bookUnderstanding the Land of the Bible (P&R, 1996), at that time, and could not quite enumerate or articulate the different perspectives, which Christians have with regards to Palestine. But my personal study of the book of Hebrews, particularly chapters 11 and 12, had caused me to become suspicious of the church’s view of Palestine. And so calling the tours “Holy Land Pilgrimages,” which was reminiscent (at least for me) of the Muslim haj to Mecca, became a very strong deterrent for me from joining the tour.


Does it really matter what we call those tours? I believe it does, for it generally reflects our attitude and perspective towards the land. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Mt 12:34). And as we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), it is crucial that our perspectives and attitudes on anything that will affect our Christian life and speech be biblically accurate. Does our perspective towards the Bible land affect our lives? I believe it does, as we shall see, as we study briefly the five common perspectives on it.


The Crusader Perspective


Since the time of the somewhat superstitious emperor Constantine, Palestine had been regarded by European Christians as the “Holy Land,” while Jerusalem was regarded as the “Holy City.” Constantine had built a costly church known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and his mother Helena had done similarly in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives.


From time to time, pilgrimages to the “Holy Land” took place. Early in the 11th century, however, the Seljuk Turks conquered Palestine, and Christian pilgrims to the “Holy Land” were subjected to harsh treatment and oppression by the Muslims. Many European Christians, infuriated by the reports they heard, became convinced that the Turks had to be dislodged by force: “The land is holy to God, how could infidels be allowed to rule it?”


The result of that kind of thinking was that between the years 1096 and 1291, at least four major crusades were organised or sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church to recapture the “Holy City” and the “Holy Land” from the Turks (History records eight major Crusades against the Turks, but only the 1st [1095–1099], 3rd [1187–1191], 6th [1228–1229], and 8th [1267–1272] were specifically to liberate the “Holy Land”). At least a few hundred thousand people died violent deaths during those bloody Crusades, including men, women, children, knights, peasants, dukes and commoners, Christians and Muslims.


Whatever might have been other motivations for these poignant battles, it is clear that the under-girding motivation, at least from the perspective of the medieval church, was that the land was holy and so had to be wrested from the polluting hands of infidels regardless of cost.

Is this Crusader perspective of Palestine only a historical oddity? I do not think so. I agree fully with Robertson’s assessment:

Few people today would claim that their view of the land of the Bible agrees with the perspective of the Crusaders. Yet one wonders: is not the commonplace designation of this place as the “Holy Land” tainted with the twisted outlook of the Crusaders? Just what is it that makes this land “holy” in the minds of so many? So long as the “Glory,” the Shekinah, dwelt in the temple of Jerusalem, the land was made holy by the special presence of God. But the departure of the “Glory” meant that the land’s holiness, its sanctification by God’s abiding presence, was no more. Just as the burning bush in the wilderness sanctified the ground around it only so long as the glory of God remained, so this land was “holy” only so long as God was uniquely there.


Indeed, many people may affirm that they sense a special closeness to God as they “walk today where Jesus walked.” But human feeling cannot be equated so simplistically with divine determinations. In fact, the specific teaching of Jesus was that the time would come when the presence of the holy God would be found neither in Jerusalem nor on mount of Samaria, but wherever he was worshipped in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21, 23). Material locale simply does not have the capacity to retain divine holiness.


The Crusader perspective on the land of the Bible led well-meaning people astray for centuries. It costs countless families their husbands, their children, their fortunes, and their futures. The same misdirected zeal may not characterise people today who think of Palestine as the “Holy Land.” But this view can mislead severely and substitute a false form of worship for the true. Instead of accepting the biblical teaching that any location can be the most holy place on earth if the one true God is worshipped through Jesus Christ at that place, the land of the Bible is romanticised so that people suppose that if they are there God will be known with special power and truth (op. cit., 136–137).


Many of us would have met individuals who have gone on “Holy Land Pilgrimages,” who have returned claiming how close they felt to God during the trip. These testimonies would then become advertisements for future trips. But alas, little is said about the vexation of spirit that many a Spirit-filled child of God would have felt as they endured the numerous stopovers at grossly idolatrous sites, which are supposed to have historical significance. In fact, I was told that one pastor, after a visit to the “Holy Land,” vowed never to return again as it was the most “unholy place on earth.” Could the designation of Palestine as the “Holy Land” during these trips also becomes occasion for dulling of hearts against abominable idolatry?


The Pilgrim Perspective


Closely related to the Crusader perspective is the Pilgrim perspective on Palestine. The esteemed church historian, Philip Schaff, notes that the compulsion to make pilgrimages is an instinctive phenomenon among religious persons. He says,

Pilgrimages are founded in the natural desire to see with one’s own eyes sacred or celebrated places, for the gratification of curiosity, the increase of devotion, and the proving of gratitude. These also were in use before the Christian era. The Jews went up annually to Jerusalem at their high festivals as afterward the Mohammedans went to Mecca. The heathen also built altars over the graves of their heroes and made pilgrimages thither. To the Christians those places were most interesting and holy of all, where the Redeemer was born, suffered, died, and rose again for the salvation of the world (History of the Christian Church, 3.7.89).


The difference between the Jews’ annual trek to Jerusalem and the Christian pilgrimages, however, is that the former is based on divine commandment (Ex 34:23; Deut 16:16), whereas the latter is not.


It is, of course, not wrong to want to visit Palestine or Jerusalem for study tours. The impression that would be left in the mind of those who have the privilege of seeing the land for themselves would no doubt vivify their imaginations as they read the historical accounts in the Scriptures, or when they teach the accounts. However, many Christians today who visit Palestine do so, not so much out of the desire to learn the geography of the land or even to be reminded of the historical events associated with the land, but out of a desire for some mystical romantic experience or to receive some special blessing from the Lord. So even today, many would travel half-way round the world to be re-baptised in the River Jordan, believing that somehow such a baptism would have greater efficacy.


But of course, all these superstitious notions have no basis in the Bible. The Bible promises no special blessing for anyone visiting anywhere, and baptism is in no way enhanced by having it in the Jordan or anywhere else. In the same way, those who claim to have enhanced intimacy with God while being in the “Holy Land” may be fooling themselves with some transient feelings based on some warped ideas about God and about Christianity. The Scripture not only declares God to be omnipresent, but that any spiritual blessings we may receive from God are founded solely on our union with Christ. Conditioning our spiritual experiences of intimacy with God with the place that we are in (be it in Palestine or in a medieval cathedral) suggests unbelief in the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ.


Let all Christian pilgrims (towards the celestial city) seek for intimacy with God through the means appointed by Him, especially through worship and prayer, by which we may approach the throne of grace with all boldness (Heb 4:16).


The Zionist Perspective


Many today who hold to the Crusader perspective and the Pilgrim perspective are likely also to hold to the Zionist perspective. These believe that the land of Palestine belongs to the Jews forever because of God’s covenant with Abraham. The Jews were three times displaced: first in Egypt when Jacob was patriarch; secondly during the Babylonian conquest between 606 and 581 B.C. (not counting the exile of the apostate Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.); and thirdly when general Titus marched into Jerusalem and razed her to the ground in A.D. 70. Christians who hold to the Zionist position believe that Isaiah 11:11 was fulfilled in May 14, 1948, when the modern state of Israel was constituted.


The problem with this view is, however, manifold. In the first place, a strong case may be made for believing that when Isaiah says “the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people,” he was referring to the return of the Jews during the days of Zerubbabel and Ezra, rather than to 1948 (cf. Jer 29:10–14). The first return was from Egyptian captivity!


In the second place, there is the problem concerning the identification of a “Jew” who qualifies to be the legal heir of the land promise. Who is a Jew? The prevailing definition of Jew, as being someone with a Jewish mother, cannot be supported biblically seeing that the Scripture refers to Jewish mothers without Jewish blood, such as Rahab and Ruth. Neither is a Jew simply anyone who is descended from Abraham. Ishmael and Esau both descended from Abraham, and even circumcised, yet their descendents are not regarded as Jews or lawful heirs of the covenant. On the other hand, the law of Moses states that anyone who embraces Jehovah worship and is circumcised is to be treated as a “homeborn” Jew (e.g., Ex 12:48–49). And furthermore, a homeborn Jew can be “cut off” or excommunicated from his own people by being uncircumcised (Gen 17:14) or by failure to observe some important religious restrictions (e.g., Ex 12:15, 19; Ex 30:33; etc.).


It appears then that the biblical definition of a Jew, from the Old Testament, is one who truly embraces Judaism. Do the Jews in Palestine today qualify according to this definition? I am afraid not in most cases, for it is a well-known fact that the majority of the Jews in Palestine today are atheistic, agnostic, and anti-religious in their personal sentiments.


To make matters even more problematical (for the Zionist), the Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, teaches us that:

He is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God (Rom 2:28–29).


What Paul is suggesting is that a true Jew is one who has had a heart change through the new birth. In other words, a regenerate Christian is a true Jew and legitimate heir of the promise! “If ye be Christ’s,” says Paul, “then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). The homeborn Jews, who do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Messiah, are no longer to be regarded as children of Abraham or as true Jews. Confronting the unbelieving Jews, the Lord said of them: “Ye are of your father the devil… because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not” (Jn 8:44–45). Addressing the seven churches in Asia Minor, the Lord speaks of those “which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; cf. 3:9). Who are these but unbelieving Jews. These are no longer “the circumcision,” “for we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). Gentiles who have embrace Christ as their Saviour and Lord are the true Jews, being “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;… [that they] should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph 2:19; 3:6).


There is, in other words, no biblical case for the Zionist perspective. The Zionist case is biblically contradictory and Christians who hold to the position are in fact denying the biblical teachings on the subject. One who holds that every baptised Christian has a legal right to the land of Palestine would probably be able to make a better biblical case for his idea than the Christian Zionist.


The Millennial Perspective


Going hand-in-hand with the Zionist perspective is the Millennial perspective. There are many varieties in this view, but the most common asserts that the Lord Jesus Christ will return to establish a Jewish Kingdom in “Greater Israel,” after having gathered all the Jews back to the Promised Land. Christ, according to this view, will rule from His throne in Jerusalem for a thousand years; after which there will be a massive satanically instigated rebellion led by unregenerate Jewish proselytes who live during the Millennium. At this battle of Gog and Magog (Rev 20:8), the enemies of Christ will be finally crushed and the Final State will be ushered in.


Space does not permit us to critique these assertions at this point, though it boggles the mind to think of how glorified saints could dwell together with sinful men, and even if they can dwell together, it is hard to imagine how mortal sinful men, who must surely be well aware that glorified men will not die and that Christ is gloriously sovereign, can presume to battle against Christ and His army. Perhaps Satan who is loosed at the end of the Millennium so blind their eyes that they were ready to go on a suicide mission. Perhaps.


Our concern, in this article, is really on the land. The Millennial view asserts that God’s promise to Abraham, in Genesis 15:18, that He would give the seed of Abraham the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, remains unfulfilled and awaits a future fulfilment in the Millennium. This is a strange assertion in view of Joshua’s declaration: “And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein.… There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass” (Jos 21:43, 45). And if someone should object that the geographic description given by Joshua does not tally with this assertion, then surely the record of Solomon’s reign over the land from Egypt to Tiphsah (1 Kgs 4:21, 24) should suffice to convince one who seeks a literal fulfilment of the promise, that it has been fulfilled. Tiphsah is a city by the river Euphrates. True, the Jews did not dwell in the greater part of the land for any length of time, but the fact that the nation owned the land is itself already a (literal) fulfilment of the promise. And if it should be argued that the promise can only be fully fulfilled when the Jews dwell in it forever, it may be countered, firstly by the fact that the Promised Land, understood literally, would cease existence after the supposed Millennium (Rev 21:1); and secondly, while the promise is to all the descendants of Abraham (according to their interpretation), only a very small portion of Jews (believing Jews) will actually inherit the land.


The fact is that the Millennial perspective of the land is fraught with difficulties. The fact is that God’s promise to Abraham is impossible to fulfil literally if the land and the seed are taken literally. The fact is that the New Testament (and even the Old Testament) does not equate the seed of Abraham with the physical descendants of Abraham. Says the Apostle Paul: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal 3:16). The fact is that the father of the Jews, Abraham, was not looking for a literal land but for “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10), “an heavenly… city” (Heb 11:16).


The Typological Perspective


Comparing Scripture with Scripture, we are led to conclude that the land promised to Abraham serves only a typological significance for a time so much so that the essence of the promise is not the land itself, but eternal inheritance in Christ. This is why Abraham is said to be looking for a heavenly city. This is why the New Testament no longer speaks of Abraham being heir of the land, but heir of the cosmos: “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world [Grk.kosmos], was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13). Palestine had ceased its typological significance with the illumination of its meaning by the Sun of Righteousness.


The writer of Hebrews, in 6:13–20, was referring to the covenant, which God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. It is true that Hebrews 6:13–14 alludes to Genesis 22:16–17; but Genesis 22:16–17 is referring to the oath or covenant that God made to Abraham in Genesis 15:5ff. You see, in those days, oaths or covenants were confirmed by the parties walking through a bloody path created by using some animals, which have been hewn unto halves (cf. Jer 34:18). This is why, in the Hebrew language, covenants are “cut,” not “made.”


Now, God had asked Abraham to prepare the animals by dividing them and creating the bloody path (Gen 15:9–10). Normally, the two parties who were making the covenant would walk through the path and pronounce a curse upon themselves if they fail to keep their promise. They may say something like: “Be it done unto me ever so severely as done to these animals if I should break my promise.” But that day, Abraham did not pass through the pieces. He was, though aware of what was going on, in a deep sleep (Gen 15:12). Instead, a theophany (appearance of God) passed through the pieces in the form of a “smoking furnace• and a “burning lamp” (Gen 15:17). It was to be a unilateral, unconditional covenant. Or at least it was a covenant that would be kept by God Himself. It is a promise that cannot be broken because it depended not on man, but on God Himself. Thus the writer of Hebrews asserts: “God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:17–18).


Many have speculated on the meaning of the two immutable things. Some say they refer to God’s Word and promise, but they are really the same thing. A better interpretation is that they refer to God’s Word and His being. As God passed through the pieces He would have implicitly pronounced self-destruction on Himself if He were to fail to keep His promise. But God cannot be destroyed. So it is logically impossible for God’s promise to fail. An even better interpretation, which I am quite convinced now is right, is that the two immutable things refer to the two theophanies of “smoking furnace” and “burning lamp.” I believe the “smoking furnace” is symbolic of God the Father representing the Triune God. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). The burning lamp, on the other hand, must be symbolic of Christ, representing the elect of God or all who are truly of the seed of Abraham. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Light of the world (Jn 8:12). It is not surprising then that the writer of Hebrews speaks of God’s promise as being “confirmed… by an oath” (Heb 6:17). The word rendered “confirmed” is not the usual word for “confirmed” which is bebaioô (Grk.) (cf. Heb 2:3; Mk 16:20; Rom 15:8; 1 Cor 1:6; etc.). Rather, the word is mesiteuô (Grk.). This word occurs only once in the New Testament; and may be literally translated “mediated,” for it is related to the word mesitês (Grk.) or “mediator” (Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24; 1 Tim 2:5).


What does all these mean? It means that the covenant that was made with Abraham, relative to the land promised in Genesis 15, was really a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace by which God promises unilaterally, and unconditionally (from our perspective) to bless “us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3), that “we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Heb 6:18).


Though it is unconditional for us, it was not unconditional for Christ. Christ laid down His life in order to redeem us, who have broken God’s covenant, in Adam and by our own sin. But because Christ laid down His life for us, none who are of the seed of Abraham will perish. The promises of the covenant will be fulfilled to the uttermost. Every single person who is truly of the seed of Abraham will inherit a spiritual inheritance in Christ. This happens when they enter the “heavenly… city” (Heb 11:16), the “city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10). When does this happen? This happens when a child of God is united by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, for the “holy city, new Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2a) is constituted of the children of God, “arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints” (Rev 19:8). One day this “new Jerusalem” will be manifestly “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2b). But even today, we are already part of that city of God, for the writer of Hebrews reminds us:

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… (Heb 12:22–24a).


The student of Greek would be able to tell that the phrase “Ye are come” is a verb in the plural perfect tense indicating that all believers are already in Mount Sion, in the city of the living God, in the heavenly Jerusalem. Believers are already in the same body as glorified saints who are dwelling in the presence of God. And we have already begun to enjoy the spiritual blessings, which God promised typologically to Abraham.


The typological view of the land contrasts sharply with the Millennial interpretation of the land promises, which drives a wedge between the people of God, whom God has united (Eph 2:13–17; Isa 19:24–25); and also make the fulfilment of the promises conditional upon the obedience of the physical descendants of Abraham. I am thoroughly convinced that this typological view of the land is the correct view.


Conclusion


Does it matter which view of the land of the Bible we take? I hope it is clear now that it does. The Crusader view and the Pilgrim view of the land have not only claimed many lives and gave Christianity a bad name for centuries; but they are also superstitious views, which encourage a kind of unbiblical esoteric and mystical intimacy with God which tends to demean genuine biblical intimacy which every child of God can experience through the use of the appointed means of grace. The Zionist and Millennial views of the land have resulted in a generation of Christians who are more excited about things happening in Palestine than about the state of their souls and of their church, who would pray for literal Jerusalem, but forget to pray for the peace of new Jerusalem (cf. Ps 122:6). Sadly, these views will, no doubt, also lead to many disillusioned believers as they wait in vain for things to happen in Palestine according as they have been told would happen according to the Bible. Moreover, if we are correct to say that the Zionist position is unbiblical, then one wonders poignantly if all the wars in Palestine between the Jews and Palestinians, as well as many of the senseless terrorist acts associated with the wars, over the last half-century, may not in some sense be seen as resulting, at least in part, from wrong theology. In saying all these, we are, of course, in no way saying that we support the Palestinian cause, much less their criminal acts of terrorism in Israel or around the world. But anyone who studies the events leading up to 1948 will no doubt discover that it was at least in part the Zionist perspective of the land that encouraged support for the Zionist cause.


I believe the typological view of the land is the only one that is consistent with the Scriptures and logically defensible. It is a view which promotes hope, “which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb 6:19–20). It is a view which causes us to bend our knees to pray earnestly, not so much for peace in literal Jerusalem, but to pray that the Lord may use all means to cause His elect among the Jews to renounce confidence in their flesh and to turn unto the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, for their eternal salvation. For even now, “at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom 11:5). It is also a view which instils in us a desire to see Christ magnified through the church as we sing the Psalms concerning God’s salvation of His beloved Israel (cf. Ps 22:3, 23; 14:7; 41:13; 50:7; 53:6; etc., etc.).


J.J. Lim