The promises of the Abrahamic covenant are often summarized under the headings of land, seed, and blessing. In finding the relevance of this covenant to ourselves, we often know what to do with seed and blessing. We know from the New Testament that the Seed is ultimately Christ (Gal. 3:16). Genesis 12 says that Abraham would mediate blessing to all the families of the earth, and we see this fulfilled in salvation through Christ. Christ is the Seed of Abraham, and Jews, also the seed of Abraham, brought the gospel to the Gentiles.
But the relevance of the land promise is not so clear. At first read the New Testament seems to say little regarding the land promise. In addition, the promise of land does not sound spiritual. Nonetheless the land promise is one of the central promises of a foundational covenant. Its significance cannot be dismissed.There are a number of ways in theologians have developed the land promise theme in Scripture.
Spiritualizing the Land
Some interpreters spiritualize the land theme. They claim that the land theme has been spiritualized, often saying that Christ replaces the land.
Dale Allison writes, “Christ’s ubiquity as a spiritual presence universalizes the notion of holy space and so inescapably relativizes the sanctity and significance of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants.”*
Peter Walker claims, “We can already see at least four different New Testament analogues for the land: heaven, the world, Christ himself and Christian fellowship. A creative biblical theology will have room for each where it is appropriate, and will not force the biblical material into one channel to the exclusion of others.”**
Christopher Wright summarizes his viewpoint:
So then by incorporation into the Messiah, all nations are enabled to enter upon the privileges and responsibilities of God’s people. Christ himself takes over the significance and function of the land kinship qualification. ‘In Christ,’ answering to ‘in the land,’ denotes a status and a relationship, a position of inclusion and security, a privilege with attendant responsibilities. This is the typological understanding which was referred to briefly in the Introduction. But what then has become of the socio-economic dimension of the land which we found to have been of such importance in Old Testament Israel? Has it simply been transcended, as spiritualized and forgotten? By no means. . . . The oneness of believers in Christ and their shared experience of Christ is no mere abstract ‘spiritual’ concept. On the contrary, it has far-reaching practical implications in the social and economic realms, both of which are included in the New Testament understanding and practice of ‘fellowship.’***
This approach falters on the significance of physical land in the Bible’s storyline.
* D. C. Allison, Jr., “Land in Early Christianity,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 644.
** Peter W. L. Walker. “The Land and Jesus Himself,” in The Land of Promise: Biblical, Theological and Contemporary Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 117-18.
*** Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 111-12.
Land Promsise Universalized
Others claim that the land promise has been universalized to encompass the entire creation in such a way that the specific promises to Israel are relativized or superseded.
D. A. Carson takes this view in his comments on Matthew 5:5:
There is no need to interpret the land metaphorically, as having no reference to geography or space; nor is there need to restrict the meaning to ‘land of Israel’…. Entrance into the Promised Land ultimately became a pointer toward entrance into the new heaven and the new earth (‘earth’ is the same word as ‘land’; cf. Isa 66:22; Rev. 21:1), the consummation of the messianic kingdom. . . . Matthew directs our attention … to the ‘renewal of all things’ (19:28).”*
David Holwerda comments:
[T]he horizons of the land have been shaped by the revelation of Jesus Christ. His previous Jewish focus on a particularistic fulfillment has been transformed into a Christian universalism focused on the new creation. Just as in Christ the temple had become a universal dwelling place and the seed of Abraham had been transformed into a universal people, so the promise of the land already embraces the world.**
[O]ne may conclude that the original land of Canaan and the city of Jerusalem were only an anticipatory fulfillment of God’s promise. As such they function in Scripture as a sign of the future universal city on the renewed earth, the place where righteousness dwells.**
N. T. Wright argues:
Jesus seems to have said and done remarkably little on the subject of the Land. As we saw in the previous chapter, what he did say served to undermine adherence to land as a major symbol within the Jewish worldview. He moved freely—and announced the kingdom—not only within Galilee but within the largely gentile Decapolis. . . . He seems to have been well aware of the geographical symbolism of Jerusalem, not least in its relation to Galilee; but, as far as he was concerned, one of the main significances of Jerusalem was that it was the city where prophets were killed. His sense of location corresponded, it seems, to his sense of identity and, as we shall see, of timing and purpose. He had not come to rehabilitate the symbol of holy land, but to subsume it within a different fulfilment of the kingdom, which would embrace the whole creation—from which, of course, he drew continually in the narratives and imagery of his teaching and announcement.***
O. Palmer Robertson holds that the land in the old covenant was the shadow of the new covenant reality of the earth as the promised land. Thus the land promise is not to be connected to ethnic or national Israel.****
* D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 136.
**David E. Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 104, 112.
*** N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 445.
**** O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 25, 31, 38.
Progressive Covenantalism and the Land
Progressvie Covenantalists Peter Gentry, Stephen Wellum, and Oren Martin have done much in recent years to argue for and to flesh out the latter proposal.* I would agree with Progressive Covenantalism and those with similar views (e.g., Carson Holwerda) in their rejection of interpretations that spiritualize the land. I would also agree that the land theme in Scripture expands to encompass the entire new earth. However, I do not think that this expansion of the land theme cancels out specific promises given to the nation of Israel regarding land.
*Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); Oren R. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015); Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, eds., Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (Nashville: B&H, 2016).