As with the Temple and Israel itself, ‘the land’ points to something beyond itself and to a greater reality than a mere piece of real estate. Just as God’s presence could not be confined to a single building, so his blessing could not be restricted to one parcel of land.
Fulfilled in Jesus
We should not be surprised, then, to discover that God’s promises relating to the land find their fulfilment in Jesus (and not in a literal future return of the nation of Israel to the land). The land is Israel is often represented as a vineyard (Jer 2:21; 5:10: 12:11f; Ezek 15:1-8; 17:1-10; 19:10-14; Isa 27:2-6); and Jesus applies this very imagery to himself (Jn 15:5). As the land was the source of sustenance for God’s people, so now is Jesus (Jn 6:35,48,51). Released from the restriction of localisation, God’s blessing now extends to the whole earth. The meek now inherit ‘the earth’, and not merely ‘the land’ (Mt 5:5). It may be significant that Jesus instructed the ‘rich young ruler’ to sell all his possessions – including his land, Mt 19:22 (cf. Acts 4:34-37). See also Paul’s teaching in Eph 6:1-3 – the OT promise about living long in the land is now extended to ‘the earth’. And in Rom 4:13 the promise of the land to Israel is similarly extended.
Fulfilled in Jesus’ followers
The identification of people with place may seem strange. But this is precisely how the imagery of the book of Revelation works: John is told that he will see ‘the bride, the wife of the Lamb’, but then what he actually sees is ‘the holy city, Jerusalem’ (Rev 21:9f).
The people of God are no longer called to occupy a land; they are, rather, summoned to the ends of the earth. The prophets foretold of the time when the nations would flock to Jerusalem to worship (Isa 2:3); this is fulfilled when the NT people of God take the place of God’s worship to the ends of the earth. As Wright says: ‘the redeemer does not now come to Zion, but from Zion, going out into all the world to “gather the nations”, not by their coming to the central symbol of ancient Judaism, but by their becoming the central symbol.’
When Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:2), we should perhaps hear echoes of God’s promise to go ahead of his people to prepare a place for them in the promised land. It may be that Jesus is referring not to heaven, but rather to God’s dwelling among them. Gundry remarks that the word ‘place’ might well be rendered ‘abode’, suggesting even more clearly the believer’s position in Christ (and note Jesus’ teaching on ‘abiding’ in him). Jesus’ language parallels that of Ex 15:17, suggesting that the fulfilment of the promise concerning the promised land will be found in the presence of the Spirit of Christ among his people.
God’s people live, then, not in any particular place, are dispersed around the globe; they do not reside in the land of Israel, but ‘in Christ’.
The land and the New Jerusalem
The New Jerusalem encompasses the entire renewed cosmos, populated by the renewed humanity.
The foregoing discussion helps us to understand why the issue of the land is essentially absent from the NT. This might seem surprising, given its central place in the OT (and was central in Jewish concerns at the time of Christ). Waltke states that ‘land’ is fourth most common word in the OT, and yet is never used in the NT with reference to Canaan. The reason for this is that in Jesus the territorial promises of the OT are fulfilled.
Based on: Rob Dalrymple, These brothers of mine: a biblical theology of land and family and a response to Christian Zionism. Sipf & Stock, 2015. Chapter 7.