Reading the Promise to Abraham
A flood of brilliant light will be shed on the New Testament when we stop uprooting it from its Hebrew environment in the Old Testament. The promise to Abraham was that he would be the progenitor of the Messiah and that he (and the Messiah) would take control of the land and possess it forever: "The whole land of Canaan where you are now an alien, I will give to you and your descendants after you: and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:8).
For every pious Israelite the horizon was bright with this grand covenant promise. So it was that Isaac's parting words contain the ultimate blessing for his son, Jacob: "May God give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham" (Gen. 28:4).
Two thousand years later, when the New Testament was written, Abraham had not personally come into possession of the promised land (literally, "the land of the promise [made to Abraham]"). Stephen, shortly before he was martyred, explained that "God gave Abraham no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land" (Acts 7:5).
The writer to the Hebrews knew well that Abraham had been "called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance" (Heb. 11:8), residing in the promised land only as an alien. What Abraham looked forward to was permanent possession of "the land of the promise." The land in question was of course located on our planet and it was this land which "he would later receive as his inheritance" (Heb. 11:8). It is a "heavenly" land since it is divinely ordained by the God of Heaven and will be blessed with the presence of the Messiah himself as YEHOVAH's supreme agent -- and with YEHOVAH God Himself! But the inheritance guaranteed on oath to Abraham is definitely to be on earth. Had he not been invited to look to the north, south, east and west (Gen. 13:14)? YEHOVAH's covenant assured him that "1 will give all the land you see to you and your offspring forever" (Gen. 13:15). Abraham was not asked to look upwards to the sky to understand his future inheritance.
YEHOVAH's formal arrangement to give the land to Abraham is celebrated as the bedrock foundation of the divine plan for mankind. In times of distress the faithful comfort themselves with the assurance that: "God remembers His covenant forever, the word He commanded for a thousand generations, the covenant He made with Abraham, the oath He swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit" (Ps. 105:811).
At the birth of the Messiah, Mary sings of the magnificent blessing of YEHOVAH God who has "remembered to be merciful to Abraham and to his descendants forever, even as He said to our fathers" (Luke 1:54, 55). Zechariah takes up the song of praise to YEHOVAH who has "shown mercy to our fathers and remembered His holy covenant, the oath He swore to our father Abraham''' (Luke 1:72, 73). The promise was for worldwide dominion -- a Messianic empire -- through Yeshua the Messiah, a theme beloved by the Apostles when they eagerly inquired of Yeshua, after a six-week intensive training in the "affairs of the Kingdom" (Acts 1:3), "Lord, has the time now come for you to restore the Kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). This episode, which caused such joy to Luke, has embarrassed commentators whose interests are far removed from those of Messiah's chosen disciples. It is time for Bible readers to renounce a mistaken tradition which criticizes the Apostles for their "political" question about the Kingdom. Yeshua did not rebuke them for any misunderstanding. The question about the Kingdom and the restoration of worldwide government under the Messiah and YEHOVAH God remains the crucial Christian question. The fulfillment of Yeshua's and the Apostles' greatest desire awaits the return of the Messiah to rule and reign with his saints in the coming Kingdom.
The promise to Abraham that he would be "heir of the world" (Rom. 4:13) awaits fulfillment at the return of the Messiah and YEHOVAH God the Father. Meanwhile YEHOVAH God has graciously allowed the Gentiles who believe the Gospel about the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God and the name of Yeshua the Messiah (Acts 8:12), and who undergo baptism, to become fellow-heirs with Abraham and the Messiah. "If you are Christians," says Paul triumphantly, "you are Abraham's descendants and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). And what is the promise?
The promise guarantees that the "blessing given to Abraham" will come upon the Gentiles in the Messiah (Gal. 3:14). We have already seen what that blessing was in Genesis 28:4: to gain permanent possession of the land in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were aliens.
Through the death of Messiah we are redeemed by his covenant blood. Our sins are forgiven. Forgiveness is contingent also upon our intelligent reception of the Gospel about the Kingdom (Mark 4:11, 12; cp. Luke 8:12). Through faith in YEHOVAH's covenant with Abraham and David and the Messiah, ratified and guaranteed by the death of the Messiah, we must now strive to gain possession of the promise made to Abraham. Our hope is to rule the world with the Messiah when he intervenes to assume his Messianic role as the first and only successful world ruler under YEHOVAH God the Father. Until that time we must "live lives worthy of God who is calling [us] into His Kingdom and glory" (I Thess. 2:12).
"When the world is reborn," Yeshua promises, "when the Son of Man comes to sit on his throne of glory, you too will sit on twelve thrones to administer the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28). "If we suffer with him we shall rule as kings with him," Yeshua says through Paul to his church (II Tim. 2:12). The Apostle repeats the message to the Corinthians: "Don't you know that the Saints are going to manage the world? And if the world is to come under your jurisdiction..." (I Cor. 6:2, Moffat). Yeshua reaffirms the Christian goal: "To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations; he will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery, just as 1 have received authority from my Father" (Rev. 2:26, 27). Then Yeshua adds: "He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:29). The Messiah will deal violently with the world at his return. Such vengeance is not characteristic of him, but it will be a necessary expression of the wrath of YEHOVAH God. The Lord Yeshua "will be revealed from heaven ...in flames of fire, taking vengeance on those who do not know God or obey the Gospel" (ll Thess. 1:7, 8). At present Christians are commanded to take vengeance on no one, following the example of the Messiah when he lived in Israel.
Heaven at Death?
Despite these dramatic statements about the destiny of believers, the traditional dogma of a vague "heaven when you die" clings in the minds of many to a few, select verses. Did not Yeshua promise "treasure in heaven" (Matt. 6:20) and a "reward [which is] great in heaven"? (Matt. 5:12). Is not our hope "stored up in heaven"? (Col. 1:5). Yet Yeshua encourages the meek with the prospect of inheriting the earth (Matt. 5:5). How is the apparent contradiction to be resolved?
The clue is given us by Peter. He speaks of an imperishable inheritance "kept in heaven for you...ready to be revealed in the last time" (I Pet. 1:4, 5). All the good things of the future, say the Rabbis and the New Testament, are laid up for us with YEHOVAH God. This does not however mean that we go to heaven to acquire them any more than one who retires goes to live in the bank where his hard-earned savings have been invested. When Yeshua and YEHOVAH God the Father return they will grant entrance into the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God on earth and possession of the world to all the faithful. That reward is at present reserved as treasure with YEHOVAH God in heaven and will be brought to the earth with YEHOVAH God and the Messiah at his Second Coming. Thus the Psalmist sings: "[God has] installed [His] King on Zion [His] holy hill. [God] said to me [the Messiah], `You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me and 1 will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter"' (Ps. 2:6-9).
Popular ideas about the Christian destiny are in collision with the Bible. Scripturally speaking, Christians do not go to heaven. Heaven is where their inheritance is now deposited. Yeshua comes back to us to bestow "the reward of the inheritance" (Col. 3:24) which is possession of the earth renewed and purified under the direction of Messianic government. "Heaven must retain the Messiah," says Peter, "until the time comes for the Restoration of all things about which the prophets spoke from long ago" (Acts 3:21). It hardly needs to be said that no prophet envisioned future bliss in a place other than a regenerated earth, blessed by the presence and the just rule of the Messiah and his assistants, and YEHOVAH God Himself.
"The government will be upon [the Messiah's] shoulders ...Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his Kingdom establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever" (Isa. 9:6, 7). "See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice" (Isa. 32:1). "In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a MAN will sit on it -- one from the house of David -- one who in his administration seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness" (Isa. 16:5). "Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the Saints, the people of the Most High" (Dan. 7:27). "`The days are coming,' declares the LORD [YEHOVAH], `when 1 will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time, I will make a righteous Branch [the Messiah] sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. At that time they will call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD [YEHOVAH] and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the LORD. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your forefathers as an inheritance"' (Jer. 33:14-16, 3:17, l8).
In the light of these thrilling promises of peace and international justice on earth, Christians should raise a protest against the "heaven" presented by leading evangelists. For Billy Graham heaven is a place far removed from this planet, in which, however, conditions will be like the most beautiful things we know on earth. Our function in heaven, according to this popular teaching, will be "to prepare heavenly dishes," "play with children, "tend gardens" or "polish rainbows."' But why doesn't he take his information from the Bible? This "evangelical" heaven is a far cry from the restored earth foreseen by the prophets and anticipated by Yeshua. The Messiah never spoke about rewards to be enjoyed in a heaven removed from the earth -- much less about disembodied souls. He promised that "in the New World, when the Son of Man sits on his throne of glory, you too will sit on thrones to govern the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28). He graciously extended this administrative function to all the faithful (Rev. 2:26; 3:21; 5:10; 20:1-6). The disciples of the Messiah must be busy preparing for this divine honor.
It was Plato who promoted so successfully the idea of the soul as a conscious entity escaping the body at death for a trip to heaven. But philosophy is the great enemy of Christian teaching (Col. 2:8). Just as the Israelites of old were unable to resist the lure of pagan religion, so the Church after the death of the Apostles fell into the clutches of Greek philosophy from which it desperately needs to be rescued. A step in the right direction will be taken when a moratorium is called on all preaching about "going to heaven," "departing souls" and "going to be with Jesus" prior to his return.
The shift from Hebrew to Hellenistic ways of thinking spelled disaster for the Apostolic faith. A progressive paganization ate away at the fabric of Truth. There was a time when Christian spokesmen sounded the alarm at the influx of pagan philosophy masquerading as Christian doctrine. So Justin Martyr in 150 A.D. warned: "If you meet some who say that their souls go to heaven when they die, do not believe that they are Christians."
Today original heresy has become entrenched orthodoxy. The truth of the Bible sounds alarmingly alien to Hellenized believers who read the Scriptures with one foot in the biblical text and the other planted in the world of their cherished Church-Platonism. The return to the Bible (i.e., the study of the Bible to "examine all things carefully," rather than a superficial and occasional glance at a few verses) will be under way when the words of noted scholars are taken to heart, not as dry academic observations, but as prophetic calls for a radical return to the Christian documents: "The difference is obvious between the mental patterns of the New Testament and most of our accustomed Christian thinking ...The explanation of this contrast lies in the fact that historic Christian thought ...has been Greek rather than Hebrew. Claiming to be founded on the Scripture, it has, as a matter of fact, completely surrendered many scriptural frameworks of thinking and has accepted the Greek counterparts instead." "The hope of the early church centered on the resurrection of the Last Day...This understanding of the resurrection implicitly understands death as also affecting the whole man...Thus the original Biblical concepts have been replaced by ideas from gnostic Hellenistic dualism ...The difference between this and the hope of the New Testament is very great." Church members, however, often seem blissfully unaware of any such problem.
The words of Yeshua promising the meek that they will "inherit the earth" provide a salutary reminder of how far we have removed our hearts from him. We may share Yeshua's Messianic outlook by understanding that the rule of the Messiah and all his Saints has not yet begun. David is dead (Acts 2:29, 34), as are all the Saints. They are not in heaven. They await resurrection into the Life of the Coming Age (mistranslated as "eternal life" in our versions) as promised in Luke 14:14, 20:35; I Cor. 15:23; Dan. 12:2. This future age will be the manifested worldwide reign of YEHOVAH God, Yeshua the Messiah, and the faithful on the earth renewed and purified. May that biblical "heaven" on earth be proclaimed everywhere as the heart of the New Covenant (Luke 22:28-30), the essence of the Gospel, and the goal of YEHOVAH's oath-bound promise to Abraham in the Messiah.
Hope of Israel
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