To Whom Does the Promised Land Belong?

This week we are featuring the English text to a sermon given Dec 10, 2017 by Rev. Dr. Hikmat Kashouh, translated by the Institute for Middle East Studies at ABTS. As Research Professor with a focus on the New Testament and Biblical Interpretation at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) and Senior Pastor at Resurrection Church Beirut (RCB), there are few more qualified to speak on this important topic. This is a more lengthy post than usual for Acts 2:11, but given the weight and importance, we commend readers to benefit from this Middle Eastern, Biblical perspective.

The topic of my sermon today is difficult, its title being, “Whose Promised Land?” Or, I might ask, “To Whom Does the Promised Land Belong?” I am not about to give a political speech; I will leave this for politicians to do. My goal is not to solve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. This is neither my specialty nor expertise. Others are more qualified to do that. We may even need the whole universe to intervene in order to find a solution for this difficult conflict, which is much greater than us all. I leave this privilege for others.

My goal is to convey to you what God’s Word teaches about the Promised Land. As a student of the Bible and as your pastor, my goal is to help you understand this issue from a Biblical perspective. So, my focus is not on what is happening today, but rather on the teaching of the Bible regarding this important issue, both in the Old and the New Testaments.

But before I begin, please mind the following stipulations:

First, you are welcome to criticize this message. But it is very important that you do not label us politically, saying “he is with so and so, or against so and so.” My aim is to stand for the Divine Truth. My goal for us is to hear God’s voice through the Holy Scriptures, to do His will and to obey His voice.

Second, if you wish to criticize this message, please listen first to the whole message, from the beginning to the end. Do not quote a few sentences out of context and declare, “This is what he thinks!” or “This is what he is saying!” Let us listen to the whole message together, from beginning to end.

Third, let us put our prejudices aside and be as objective as possible so that we can understand the issue of the Promised Land together, later allowing for the truth to align or redefine our concepts. In this way, our understanding of the concept of land will be based upon a foundation of truth.

And finally, because a large number of us from among our dear viewers and friends have likely not studied the Bible in depth, I will need to cite a large number of verses from the Bible today. During the first part of my sermon, I will explore the question “Whose Promised Land?” in light of the Old Testament. Afterwards, I will be exploring the question, “Whose Promised Land?” in light of to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the New Testament.

Promise and Responsibility: The Land in the Old Testament

In Genesis 12, the Lord God called Abram and said to him:

“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

In Genesis 17, the Lord changes Abram’s name to Abraham, declaring:

“For I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”

Then in verse 8, the Lord says:

“‘The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God’. Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.’”

In this text, there exists a promise and a responsibility. God promises to establish Abraham as a great nation. But God also placed upon the shoulders of Abraham, and subsequent generations, a responsibility to maintain the covenant.

In Genesis 23, an important event takes place. After God had promised Abraham the land, and after he had entered into the land of Canaan, Abraham’s wife Sarah died. According to the Bible, Abraham, who had lost his wife, did not have a site in which to bury her. Yet, he did not loot a piece of land. He did not say to a certain group, “This piece of land is mine.” Not at all. According to Genesis 23: 4, “Abraham spoke to the Hittites. He said, ‘I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.’” And the Hittites responded by saying, “You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs” and “choose whatever site you please and take it for free.” As for Abraham, he refused. He paid the full price for the field. He did not plunder the land. He did not rob anyone. He did not infringe on the rights of others. He was fully ready to pay the price for the plot of land.

In the book of Exodus, God’s people were enslaved in Egypt. And as you know, it was through Moses that they left and entered into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. The book of Leviticus is filled with teachings and important commands that we should take note of regarding the land. Let us listen to what the Lord’s Word tells us in Leviticus 18:24-28:

“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled.”

He gave commands akin to saying, “Watch out! Do not do this or that; do this and that. Do not defile yourselves by doing unholy deeds.” Pay close attention to verse 28: “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” God is saying this land which He has created is a holy land and He wants it to remain so. This land has life in itself allowing it to vomit out anyone who defiles it – any person, any group, any people, and any nation who does not obey the voice of the Lord by defiling the land with unholy deeds. “Even you, my people, watch out!” This is not an eternal and unconditional promise. This promise is only true “if you do not defile the land. But if you defile the land, it will vomit you out.”

Just as God punished nations as a result of their evil deeds in the book of Joshua, He will punish His people if they do not live in holiness before Him. The prophet Micah speaks about God’s chosen people at that time, the Israelites. In Micah 2:1-3 he says, “Woe!” Listen to these words, and see how history repeats itself: “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.” They are powerful and have authority. They are able to commit evil. The Lord says that they will not receive blessing. But what will they receive instead? A curse. Woe unto them. And then again in verse 2: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance. Therefore, the LORD says, ‘I am planning disaster against this people.’”So, it is possible for the blessing to become a curse if one does not obey God’s voice.

Alright. What should God’s people do? There is a command in Leviticus 19:33-34 which states:

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”

Your love for neighbor should be as your love for yourself. This is the only way to ensure that any people will remain on earth. Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the only guarantee.

So, I want to ask: is the destruction of approximately 500 villages since 1948 an expression of love? Occupying houses, displacing millions of innocent people, destroying houses, plundering the land and its water resources, peeing in drinking water wells…, is this loving your neighbor? Is this how we express our love for our neighbor? Ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination, confiscating the property of innocent people, torture, violence, imprisonment, beating, killing, leaving children on the streets to die…, is this an expression of love towards our neighbor? Is this how you love your neighbor as yourself? Suicide bombers, killing innocent people, infringing on the rights of others, shedding innocent blood, stabbing people, violating the rights of others…, I want to ask you, is this an expression of love towards our neighbor? Certainly not! My brothers and sisters, the Book which guarantees God’s promises for His people likewise contains expectations for the people of God. If you claim to be God’s chosen, we ask, “Are you living as God wants you to live, according to His commands?”

Leviticus 25:23 contains a very important message about the land, shocking the listener when the Lord decrees that “the land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine.” Basically, do not fight over this land anymore. Whose land is it? “The land is mine!” It is the Lord’s. He is the King of this land. But He continues to address His people by saying, “And you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” So no matter who you are, you are still a foreigner and a stranger in God’s land because He owns everything.

I want now to present two practical examples from the Bible to illustrate how people at that time understood land ownership, and how God interacted with the people regarding the land.

The first story is found in 1 Chronicles 21. Satan incites David to take a census of the people of Israel, with the purpose being for David to know how many soldiers he had and take count of his people. This was a sign of reliance on the power of his army and not on the power of the Lord. It was a test that King David failed. Eventually, David realized he had sinned and God sent a plague on the Israelites. David witnessed an angel between heaven and earth with a sword drawn and extended over Jerusalem. He fell facedown, broken before the Lord asking for mercy. So, the Lord told him to build for Him an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, a foreigner living among the people of Israel. The king went to this threshing floor to build an altar for the Lord. The Bible says that when Araunah found out that God had asked for his threshing floor, and that David wanted to build there an altar for the Lord, he said, “Take my threshing floor, my cattle, whatever you need for free! It is all yours.” But listen to King David’s response: “But King David replied to Araunah, ‘No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.’” This is the right spirit! Where was David? He was in Jerusalem. And who is David? He is the king! And who is Araunah? Yet, the Bible says that David insisted on paying Araunah full price for a piece of the land. David was declaring, “I will not take your land for free, because I do not violate or infringe upon the rights of anyone. This is your land; it is your right. Even if I am taking it for the Lord, I will pay you the full price.”

The second story comes from 1 Kings 21. Ahab, the king of Samaria, was rich and lived in a great palace. Close to the palace was a vineyard belonging to a man called Naboth the Jezreelite. The king wanted to enlarge the grounds of his palace, so he wanted to take Naboth’s vineyard. The king went to Naboth and said, “Let me have your vineyard and I will give you another one in exchange for it.” Naboth the Jezreelite responded by saying, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors. This field has been passed on from generation to generation in my family. It is mine; I want to hold onto it.” The king returned to his palace and laid on his bed downcast and upset. His wife Jezebel came to him saying, “Why are you upset? You are the king!” After telling her what had happened, she said, “Really? You are the king! The king does whatever pleases him.” Long story short, she sent letters and caused strife. They slandered Naboth by saying that he had cursed God and the king. As a result, Naboth was stoned to death. When Jezebel heard the news, she rejoiced and told the king, “Go down. Take your inheritance, Naboth’s vineyard.” So the king, “the hero,” went down to the vineyard he wanted to possess with the intent to transform it into a garden with many fruitful trees. But, it was at this moment that God spoke to Elijah the prophet, telling him:

“Go to the king who is in the vineyard and say to him, ‘Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: ‘In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ Ahab said to Elijah, ‘So you have found me, my enemy!’ ‘I have found you,’ he answered, ‘because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD.’”

Wow! Therefore, anyone who would say, “This land is mine!” must ask themselves if they are morally and ethically qualified to take possession of the land. Am I correct?

Listen to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, from Jeremiah 7: 5-7: If you really change your ways and your actions…” Pay attention to the word “if.” There is a condition here. This is not unconditional. He says, If you really change your ways and your actions.” There is a second condition, “And if you deal with each other justly…” and a third condition, If you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow…” So who should you not oppress? The foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. “And do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.” This is conditional! The ends never justify the means! We never have the right in the name of eschatology – the study of the end times – to trample on Biblical ethics and values like mercy, truth, justice and equality. We have no right to do that. But we have reached the point now where we are living in a swamp of blood as a result of particular interpretations of prophecies, to the extent that we fight over small and insignificant details. We are straining out gnats, all the while swallowing sins and immorality as large as a camel. As Zechariah 8 says, “Jerusalem will be called the City of truth.” My brothers and sisters, the truth cannot be built on the shedding of innocent blood. Am I correct?

So, whose land is it? The land belongs to the one who keeps and walks according to the covenant of God. Once again, it belongs to the one who keeps and walks according to His covenant.

Thy Kingdom Come: The Land in the New Testament

Let us look now to the New Testament. What did the Lord Jesus Christ teach us about the land? What does the New Testament as a whole teach about the land? “Whose Promised Land?” according to the New Testament. I have a number of comments.

Here is the first: Christ took no interest in talking about the land. In fact, who here knows what his primary concern was? It was the Kingdom of God. His concern was not the kingdom of Israel, but the Kingdom of God and its expansion. This is a spiritual Kingdom that transcends earthly and geographical boundaries. In John 4, the Samaritan woman said to Jesus: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” But Jesus responded: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” God moved her eyes from the place of worship to the correct way of worshipping. Through Christ Jesus, worship is done in Spirit.

My second observation comes from Luke 3. John the Baptist was Jewish, right? He was speaking to the Jews in the first century:

“You brood…! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’. For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

What does this mean? Essentially, it means that not everyone who claims to be a descendant of Abraham, as a result of DNA, is truly a son of Abraham. No. For God is able to raise up children for Abraham from the stones. They will inherit the promises. From the stones! God is all-powerful.

My third observation comes from John 8, a chapter containing a very important story. Some of the Jews who were influenced by Jesus’ teachings came to Him as He was teaching, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” To which they responded, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone” to which they added, “Abraham is our father.” In response, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke the following:

“If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do what Abraham did. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.” What an answer!

The Lord Jesus is saying, “Watch out! It is possible for you to be a descendant of Abraham yet also to have Satan as your father.” These are not my words. These are the words of scripture. These are Jesus’ words. So not everyone who says, “I am a son of Abraham” truly is Abraham’s son. Show me your faith by your deeds, in how you stand for the truth. Show me that your faith is alive in holy deeds.

My fourth observation comes from Galatians 3:15-16 – a beautiful discourse about Abraham and his seed to whom Paul says belongs the promise. Do you know who the seed is? Who is the seed? The seed is Christ Jesus. Listen to these verses:

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds’, meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed’, meaning one person, who is Christ.”

So in light of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, we now have a correct awareness, a correct understanding, a correct perception, and a new way of understanding our theology. This is possible in light of Jesus’ coming. Jesus Christ represents the climax of revelation. Revelation became complete in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that through Jesus all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Through Jesus, we will inherit the promises. Through Jesus, we enter into the land. Jesus, who walked on our land, has become the Promised Land. God’s glory falls not on a geographical location, but on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen His glory.” Jesus turns our eyes from a geographical place to a person. From a place, being in Jerusalem, to being in Jesus Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” Romans 4 clarifies this point, saying from verse 9 on:

“We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”

And now, pay special attention to this: “So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised,” meaning the Jews. The uncircumcised refers to the Gentiles. “And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” So anyone who says, “Abraham is my father” must also have Abraham’s faith. Paul goes on to say that it is faith in the One who raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. So whether Gentile or Jew, no matter who you are, once you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the promises and the blessings are yours. Verse 13 is amazing: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir [read with me] of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” He is no longer heir of a certain piece of land, but heir to the world! Usually, one nation, made of one ethnicity, owns a certain geographical area. But, through Christ Jesus, the people of God come from every nation, tribe, people and tongue. So what do these people need?

They need the whole universe, the entire world as an inheritance!

Those who are in Christ Jesus, those who believe in Him, come from different tribes, different backgrounds. How then can they hold on to a certain piece of land? The whole earth belongs to God. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Hallelujah! This is why, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus Christ proclaims: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Really? You are the Messiah! We expect you to say, “Blessed is this people, for they will inherit the Promised Land.” But, Christ instead says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed are those who live by the ethics of the Kingdom, for they will inherit the earth. Again, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This means that if you want to be first, you will not inherit it. If you want to rule over it, you will not inherit it. If you love yourself, you will not inherit it. If you fight for it, you will lose it. If you love your life, you will lose it. If you hold on to its treasures, you will spoil them. The earth is for the meek, for those who do not use power. The earth is theirs. The earth is for the humble. The earth is for those who live by the ethics of the Kingdom. About himself, the Messiah said: “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” And when He was asked about His nation, He replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head!” Yet He is the One who became heir to everything. The One who showed no interest in the land became heir to everything. It is written:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

The Lord Jesus Christ is meek and heir of everything. Who are the meek today? For they shall inherit the earth.

My fifth comment is based on Hebrews 11:8-10:

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.”

It says that the Promised Land was like a foreign country. “He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And then, verse 13 says:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”

What promise and country is the author of Hebrews referring to? The answer is found in chapter 12: 21-22. He is talking about Jerusalem, what he calls the Heavenly Jerusalem. Revelation calls it the New Jerusalem coming down from above, the Kingdom of God among humankind: “Your kingdom come; Your will be done.” Isn’t this how we pray? “Your kingdom come; Your will be done.” This is God’s spiritual Kingdom among all mankind and all peoples.

My penultimate observation is from Acts 1:8. The disciples came to the Lord Jesus Christ and asked Him when He would restore the kingdom of Israel. Calvin, the great theologian, says that “the number of errors in this sentence is as many as the words in it.” They could not think beyond this one framework. With our human minds, we ask about an earthly kingdom, a political kingdom, a geographical and national kingdom. But, the Lord Jesus Christ lifted their eyes up to a heavenly and spiritual Kingdom – a global Kingdom, for all nations. And He told them: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

He tells them: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” This is the message of the Lord Jesus Christ, a universal message. Every land is a holy land belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ. So, do you understand now why Jesus Christ did not speak of the land? Because He comes from above. Again, He comes from above. He was preoccupied with God’s Kingdom being among us. There is no doubt that the city of Jerusalem holds a special place in the hearts of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

And this is why this city should belong to all. It is the city of God.

My final reflection is based on the writings of Paul in Romans 9-11. Paul was struggling with a specific thought, asking himself: “Will the Jews who rejected Christ be rejected by God for eternity?” To which the apostle Paul replies: “No, for they are loved on account of the patriarchs.” So God, in His divine plan, allowed for their rejection of Christ in order to bring others to faith in Christ Jesus. The day will come when the Jews will turn towards the One they pierced saying that Jesus is Lord and Savior. They will return and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and surrender their lives to Him. It is then that they will be grafted again into the olive tree that is people of God. And it is then that they will inherit the holy promises.

Finally, when the prophets spoke against the people of God in the past, they were not anti-Semitic. They were taking a stand for truth, against injustice. So every people, every nation, in Lebanon, in our Middle East, every group, every institution, every party, every organization, every individual, every head of household, everyone who treats his or her human brother or sister with injustice, regardless of race or color – and we are all guilty of that, none of us has not treated someone else unjustly – God raises up prophets to speak the truth and hold the offender to account.

So, in the end, what should we do?

We should pray. As the Church of Christ, we should pray. And, there are many other things that we can do. But I will only mention two verses from Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” What shall I do, as a Christian? “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Sometimes, our silence is a sin. Sometimes, our cowardice is a sin when we fail to make a decision. But:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Yes! “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.The one who wants to live on this earth peacefully must walk in the path of the Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus Christ.

About Hikmat Kashouh

Rev. Dr Hikmat Kashouh is a professor of theology and history at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, and Pastor of Hadath Baptist Church, one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in the Middle East. His church cares for hundreds of refugees in Beirut and has a dynamic leadership team making lasting impact in Lebanon. Hikmat is author of "The Arabic Versions of the Gospels” an extensive research into hundreds of manuscripts from the 8th and 9th centuries, and writes and speaks frequently on several continents.