In the ninth chapter titled “Jesus and the Early Christians” of his book, Whose Land? Whose Promises?, Prof. Gary Burge of Wheaton College argues that Jewish Israelis cannot claim that the Land of Israel belongs to them according to the Bible, because the New Testament spiritualizes the Land promise to Israel.
Burge suggests that the New Testament introduces a new and revolutionary treatment of Israel and the Nations that has not been revealed before, which implies that God’s promises to Israel cannot stand alongside God’s supposed new inclusion of Gentiles in His Kingdom.
Burge misrepresents Scripture in his attempt to delegitimize the physical descendants of Israel’s possession of the Land of Israel.
Was the Land Covenant contingent on Israel’s obedience?
Burge writes that “Jesus’ words reflect those of the Old Testament prophets when he says that people who possess the land must exhibit righteousness or else they will lose their gift” (173). This statement ignores the fact that God’s Land promise to Abraham was unconditional and eternal (Genesis 17:8). When God made the Land Covenant with Abraham, the covenant was one-sided and based on God’s integrity alone, not on anyone’s obedience (Genesis 15:7–18).
To prove his point that Israel has lost her gift, Burge points to Jesus’ parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33–44, and Mark 12:1–11, where Jesus “says that new tenants, new occupants, will gain the vineyard. New Residents will come to the land of Israel” (173–174).
It is true that God did promise later on in the Torah that the result of Israel’s disobedience will be dispersion, however, when God made His covenant with Israel in the wilderness, He also promised them that after they rebel against Him and He disciplines them with dispersion, He will restore them back to their Land (Deuteronomy 30:1–5). This means that there is not a thing that can cause God to break His land promise to Israel.
After the nation of Israel had forsaken the Lord’s ways many times throughout their history, He affirmed the restoration promise that He initially revealed through Moses, through his prophets who functioned as His covenant enforcers. For example, God tells the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, that in the last days, He will have compassion on them, and their dispersed sons will be regathered to the Land from the four corners of the earth where they were scattered as a result of being struck with discipline (Isaiah 60:9–10).
Even if Israel “loses” the Land for a time of discipline, they will be restored to it in the end, because God is not a liar (Numbers 23:19) and He does not change His mind (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17).
In telling the parable of the vineyard, Jesus does not go “one step beyond the Old Testament prophets” as Burge claims (173), but He affirms what had already been revealed to Israel from the beginning in the Law and the Prophets. In telling the parable, Jesus addresses part A of God’s plan for Israel, the discipline part, because that was the relevant part to his audience at the time. Jesus did not cancel part B of God’s plan for Israel, the compassion part, by not mentioning it.
Burge writes that “the New Testament announces a new covenant filled with new promises. In some cases, it neglects older promises; in some cases, it refashions them, making them spiritual gifts that were barely anticipated by their original recipients such as Abraham” (167).
However, Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). By rendering the Sinai Covenant inoperative with the inauguration of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31–34, Jesus did not change, cancel, or spiritualize any of God’s covenants with His people.
God’s gifts are always free, just like the gift of salvation that cannot be earned (Ephesians 2:4–9). The nation of Israel did not ask God to give them a land, and they did not desire for Him to choose them as His people, nor did they deserve any of it. The Lord is the one who initiated the covenant relationship between Israel and Himself, and He chose them because of His love and not because of their merit or performance.
When He unconditionally promised to give them a Land, He meant it and He will keep His promise, because it is incompatible with God’s character to freely give a gift and then to take it away (Romans 11:29).
Jewish Israelis, as the physical descendants of Abraham, do have a biblical basis for having a Jewish State in the parameters of God’s Land promise to Abraham, and the New Testament does not spiritualize it away, as Burge suggests.
Jewish Israelis are undeserving of it and they exhibit no righteousness, yet there will come a day when Israel will turn to Jesus in national repentance, and then they will be clothed in His righteousness (Romans 11:26). God describes Israel in that day: “Then all your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, that I may be glorified” (Isaiah 60:21).