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The Promised Land

Who are the rightful heirs to the ancient land of Israel?

By Betsy Mayer

On May 14, 1948, the modern State of Israel declared its statehood in portions of Palestine once inhabited by its ancient people. A secular democracy, it was formed as a cultural homeland for both religious and nonreligious Jews.

Despite strong opposition, many Jews and Christians cite God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants to support perpetual Jewish claims to the land. See Gen. 13:15. Let’s examine what the Bible says on the topic—both the Old and New Testaments.

God’s Purpose for the Nation of Israel

God has always preserved a knowledge of Himself in a fallen world. Before the flood, it was through the “sons of God,” holy men from the line of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. These patriarchs were entrusted with the oral history of Creation, the Fall, and the promise of the Seed who would prevail over Satan. Gen. 3:15.

After the flood, God called Abraham and his descendants—the children of Israel—to preserve these truths in a world filled with idolatry and falsehood. He also gave them a special promise: “And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Gen. 26:4.

Much of this promise has been fulfilled. Abraham, once a childless, elderly man, fathered a son who became the progenitor of the nation of Israel. For many centuries they lived in the region known variously as Israel, Judah, and Palestine. Today they are known as the Jewish people, and yes, all nations have been blessed through them. Ancient Israel was entrusted with the sacred oracles of God’s moral law, the blueprint for domestic and national stability. Through Israel’s prophets God revealed the rise and fall of nations to the end of time. The “law and the prophets” were preserved in the Old Testament scriptures and are now available in many languages. Also, through Israel—specifically the tribe of Judah—came the Seed promised to redeem the fall of man.

But the promise of national greatness and a permanent claim to her ancient land was given to Israel on condition of obedience. See Deut. 28. God bore long with Israel for many centuries. At times she followed God sincerely. More often, she adopted the heathen customs of her neighbors and grossly misrepresented Him. Israel’s repeated backsliding and persistent rejection of His prophets’ warnings eventually forfeited His divine protection. Consequently, a succession of enemies invaded her cities, and her people were slaughtered or enslaved and scattered among the nations—just as Moses had warned. Deut. 28:15–68.

God promised to return a faithful remnant of Judah’s exiles to their homeland and grant them another probation. Jer. 29:10. The prophet Daniel gave details about that extra period of grace along with the precise year in which the Messiah would appear.1

The Jewish Nation at the Time of Christ

When Jesus came announcing that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” the descendants of returned Jewish exiles were proud of the strict barriers erected between themselves and their heathen neighbors. They were legalistic and exclusive, and poor witnesses of a loving and merciful God.

Although Jesus clearly fulfilled the prophetic signs of the long-awaited Messiah, the kingdom He offered disappointed their Jewish ambitions. They wanted a Messiah to restore their national greatness and deliver them from Roman occupation. Instead, Jesus talked about deliverance from sin and delivered many children of Abraham from demonic control.

His claims to be God’s divine Son and to forgive sin were viewed as blasphemy by the Jewish leaders. They resented His Sabbath healings because they felt undermined as the “guardians” of the moral law. Though Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), they viewed His hold on the popular imagination as subversive. To maintain their political power, they had to eliminate Him.

Even after the Jewish leaders instigated Jesus’ death, God gave the nation of Israel a chance to repent. Peter assured the Jews publicly, “Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” Acts 3:17–19, NKJV.

Thousands repented and accepted the gospel under the apostles’ mighty appeals. But as their numbers grew, so did the Jewish leaders’ hostility. As the end of the Jewish nation’s 490-year probation neared, their hostility grew more violent. Followers of Jesus were disowned by parents, children, and spouses. They lost homes and land. Some lost their lives. When the leaders stoned Stephen, a prominent Christian apologist, it symbolized their intractable rebellion.2 Many years after his conversion the apostle Paul described his role in the violence: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” Acts 22:4, NKJV.

Christians believed that when Jesus returned, He would restore what they had lost. Before Jesus’ death, Peter had asked, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” Matt. 19:27, NKJV.

Jesus assured him, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” V. 29, NKJV.

Promises Under the New Covenant

After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples believed fervently that He would return to “restore again the kingdom to Israel.” Acts 1:6. They preached that to enter this kingdom, one needed to “receive the Holy Spirit,” just as Jesus had explained to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” John 3:3, 6. Yet with Gentile converts, they naively promoted a Christianized version of the Old Covenant, requiring males to undergo the rite of circumcision.

The promise of national greatness and a permanent claim to her ancient land was given to Israel on condition of obedience.

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and once a militant defender of the Old Covenant, spent much of his ministry explaining the New Covenant to both Jews and Gentiles: “He is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit.” Rom. 2:29. He further clarified that under the New Covenant, the rite of Christian baptism had replaced circumcision.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Gal. 3:27–29, NKJV.

Paul encouraged Christians, as heirs of the New Covenant promise, to take the long view of their inheritance. They could find inspiration from Abel, Noah, Moses, Joseph, even the Gentile Rahab, and others who acted on God’s promises by faith: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, …and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth…. Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city.” Heb. 11:13, 16.

Similarly, early Christians were to look away from Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, which were no longer significant for salvation, and look by faith to Jesus, their High Priest in a heavenly temple. Their inheritance was in the heavenly Canaan and the New Jerusalem, not in Roman-occupied Palestine: “Wherefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” Heb. 13:12–14.

Until they arrived physically, they could come by faith to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, …to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, …and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.” Heb. 12:22–24.

Heirs to the Holy Land

During His last visit to the temple, Jesus told the Jewish leaders that because of their stubborn opposition to the gospel, “the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” Matt. 21:43. His final words as He left that day were, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” Matt. 23:38. From there, He went to the Mount of Olives and prophesied that not one stone of their temple would be left upon another. Matt. 24:2. They crucified Him two days later.

Forty years later, both Jerusalem and the Jews’ splendid temple lay in ruins. Since then, many nations have vied for control of the “Holy Land,” and many flags have flown over Jerusalem. Three world religions still claim Jerusalem as sacred ground. And despite being recognized by 165 of the 193 UN member states, the State of Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors who deny its legitimacy, some of whom are bent on destroying it.

Because the Bible is not considered authoritative by everyone, claiming Jewish rights to their ancient lands by an appeal to Scripture is unrealistic. Even if it was, comparing what God intended in His covenant promise to the reality of modern Israel requires us to admit that these are two very different nations. One could more logically argue from the Bible that Jews have forfeited all rights to their ancient lands.

The prophet Daniel was shown in vision that throughout history a succession of superpowers has conquered and ruled based on their own agendas. They have advanced the interests of smaller nations like Israel as it serves their will. But the God of heaven promises to end this cycle and set up an everlasting kingdom where peace and righteousness reign. See Dan. 2.

Because Jesus is the only Jew who kept the law perfectly, He is the only true heir to the covenant made with Abraham. See Gen. 17:1, 2. He is the Seed who conquered the serpent and regained the rightful inheritance not only to the ancient land of Israel, but to the dominion of the world lost by Adam and Eve at the Fall. He promises to share this inheritance with both Jews and Gentiles who “put on Christ.” Gal. 3:27.

There is only one true heir to God’s covenant with Abraham. He alone can redeem Israel’s lost inheritance.

But they won’t inherit this ruined and war-torn world! Jesus promises that He will put an end to sin and sinners at His second coming and then recreate this earth for the righteous of all nations.3 And the holiest of cities will be its capital:

“And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.… And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it.” Rev. 21:2, 24.


  1. See “The Kingdom of God Is at Hand!” in this issue for an explanation of this prophecy.

  2. Ibid.

  3. 1 Thess. 1:7–10; Rev. 21:1–8.

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About the author

Betsy Mayer is the managing editor of Last Generation magazine.