Is Israel the Holy Land?

Under the old covenant God set apart one nation on earth as His special people, His “holy nation” (Exod. 19:6).  Israel was the holy land, as God was present with them in a special way by virtue of the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem and Mount Zion were the city of God (Ps. 46:4; 87:3). 

Today most churches teach that Israel or the land of Palestine in the Middle East continues to be the Holy Land.  However, such a teaching runs contrary to the teachings of Scripture and the New Testament. 

It is true that the Old Testament prophesied a future for Jerusalem and Israel.  Thus, many churches today claim that the reconstitution of Israel as a nation in 1948 marked the partial fulfillment of this Biblical prophecy.  However, such an idea runs contrary to the New Testament’s teaching on the subject.

This paper seeks to explain why the earthly nation of Israel is no longer the Holy Land. 

Let us begin by considering the Old Testament’s teaching on this subject.  Old Testament history shows Israel’s apostasy, spiritual adultery, and rebellion against God.  After exhibiting great patience and longsuffering with His wayward people, God gave the northern kingdom of Israel up to destruction at the hands of the Assyrians in 722-721 B.C., and later the southern kingdom of Judah was likewise destroyed and sent into exile by the Babylonians in 587-586 B.C. 

During the days of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem was once again destroyed, as Jesus predicted, in A.D. 70.  The Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the second Temple.  

Even before the people of Israel sent Jesus to the cross, with the people shouting to Pontius Pilate, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!,” while calling on Pilate to release to them Barabbas the murderer—even before this time, the land of Israel had become a profane place.  Jesus lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” (Luke 13:34; cf. Matt. 23:37).  Jesus told the Pharisees of His day that they were the “sons of those who murdered the prophets” (Matt. 23:29-32). 

If we consider the Old Testament, we see in such places as Jeremiah 5, Ezekiel 10 and Ezekiel 14 that the once Holy Land ceased to be holy, as God departed from their land.  God had promised to dwell in the temple in Jerusalem on the condition that the people would faithfully worship Him there.  Yet, by their corrupt and false worship, the people had defiled God’s temple. 

When Jerusalem was made a den of thieves, God justly departed from it, as is described in Ezekiel chapter 10 where the glory of the LORD departed from the temple in Jerusalem.  By means of a vision, God showed His servant Ezekiel that He had left the temple because His holiness could not be blended with the ungodliness of an immoral and idolatrous people.  The people were superstitious and engaged in false worship practices.

So if God left the once holy land and destroyed both the northern and southern kingdoms and again destroyed the holy city in A.D. 70, why should we think that the land still remains holy? 

Although the congregation of God’s people was planted in Judea until the time of Christ, the Bible teaches us that God’s Church now has spread even “to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Christ made both Jews and Gentiles “one” and “has broken down the middle wall of separation,” which once divided them (Eph. 2:14).  Christ made Gentiles (non-Jews) citizens of “the commonwealth of Israel” and members of “the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:11-12).  Christ “abolished in His flesh the enmity” that long existed between Jews and Gentiles, creating “in Himself one new man from the two” (Eph. 2:15).  He reconciled “both” Jews and Gentiles “to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:16).  Thus, “the Israel of God” now consists of both ethnic Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) (Gal. 6:16).  In Christ Jesus, there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). 

The New Testament teaches that to be a Jew in God’s eyes is not an ethnic identity but a spiritual identity: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29).

The apostle Peter teaches that all Christians are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, . . . the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).  Here we see one of the clearest expressions of the new reality that was hidden in the Old Testament but which the New Testament has made clear:  The church of Jesus Christ is “a holy nation.”  It is the new Holy Land, the new Israel. 

As Christians, God makes us all citizens of the holy land, which is heaven (Phil. 3:20), when He grafts us into the body of Christ.  When we are grafted into Christ, we already in a manner possess eternal life and have become the citizens of heaven.

God is holy.  Holiness is one of God’s perfections or attributes (Exod. 15:11; Lev. 20:26; Josh. 24:19; Ps. 99:9; Rom. 1:4; Eph. 4:24; Heb. 12:10).  Since God is holiness itself, any holiness that exists in the world, any holiness that any mortal creature possesses or any land or object possess, is derivative.  Only God has the power to declare a person, place, or object as holy. 

True Christians are holy; we are saints (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 3:13; 2 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 12:14).  The church (Gk.
 ekklesia) means “the called out ones”—those who have been called out from the enslavement of the sinful world, the flesh, and the devil, to serve God.  Christians are holy by virtue of their union with Christ.  We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus become God’s holy temple (1 Cor. 3:16, 17, 19; 2 Cor. 6:16).  The Lord sets us apart from the world and consecrates us unto Him.  Through justification, God looks on us as holy (sanctified) as a result of Christ’s perfect holiness and righteousness, which has been imputed (transferred) to us and received by faith alone.  As we mature in Christlikeness by the power of the Holy Spirit, we progressively become more and more holy, putting off sin, renewing our minds by God’s word, and putting on Christ’s perfect righteousness and holiness.  In our glorification, we one day will be made perfectly holy in heaven. 

Only God can declare something to be holy or unholy; He does so through His revealed will, the Bible (Exod. 3:5; 12:16; 20:8; Isa. 44:8; 45:6, 21; Acts 10:28; 1 Cor. 7:14).  The Bible alone is sufficient for the church’s doctrine and nothing may be added to or subtracted from it (2 Pet. 1:3; 2 Cor. 3:5, 9; Rev. 22:18-19; Deut. 4:2; 12:32-13:5).

Churches, apart from God’s Word, do not have the authority to declare something to be holy.  It is sinful to declare something common (i.e., not holy), if God says it is holy.  Likewise, it is sinful to call something holy, which God does not call holy.

God never declared the modern nation of Israel to be holy or a holy land, and therefore it is a presumptuous sin for us to declare it to be so.  In fact, such a claim runs contrary to the clear testimony of the New Testament as to the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jerusalem and Israel.

The New Testament shows us that heaven, which the apostle John refers to as “the holy city, New Jerusalem,” fulfills the Old Testament prophecies concerning the future splendor of Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12; 21:1-4, 9-27).  God will rebuild His temple not in old Jerusalem in the Middle East, but in the New Jerusalem, of which “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22).  

The New Jerusalem contains all God’s elect from throughout the ages, both Jew and Gentile.  It includes those whom God saved and will save under both the old and new covenants.  This truth is seen in the fact that the New Jerusalem has twelve gates “and names written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.”  And “the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:12-14). 

The New Testament book of Hebrews gives us this same teaching, there referring to the “heavenly Jerusalem”: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24).

Yet, perhaps most clearly of all, we can see why Israel is no longer the holy land through the symbolic contrast God gave us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (4:21-31).  There Paul contrasts the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, and their mothers, Sarah and Hagar.  Sarah was a free woman and Hagar was a slave woman.  God says that the two women represent “two covenants” (Gal. 4:24).  Hagar represents the covenant “from Mount Sinai, which bears children who are to be slaves” (Gal. 4:24)  Sarah represents the covenant of Abraham, which is fulfilled in the new covenant, the covenant of Christ.  Hagar “stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children” (Gal. 4:25).  “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26). 

The apostle Paul continues in Galatians 4:28-31: “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit.  It is the same now.  But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son."  Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.” (NIV)

Among other things, Paul here teaches us that the present city of Jerusalem in the so-called “Holy Land” is the land of Hagar, the slave woman.  In contrast, Christians, who like Isaac are children of promise, are citizens of a “better country,” “a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).  “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:14).  Christians are the citizens of God’s new Holy Land, which is the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2); she is the mother of us all. 

By praying for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6), we pray for the peace of Christ’s Church.  The Church is God’s holy land, for that is where His Holy Spirit dwells.  We are the temple of God.  God is no longer tied to any particular place or nation.  For man to declare any nation, city, or place as holy is sheer superstition.  God has declared that we are the new Jerusalem. 

So, in sum, under the old covenant, the nation of Israel was a holy nation only as long as God’s glory dwelt there.  God’s glory departed from them as a result of their rebellion (Ezek. 10:18).  Under the new covenant, all God’s people, Jew and Gentile, are set apart as holy and are citizens of the holy land known as the heavenly Jerusalem, heaven itself (Phil. 3:20; Heb 12:22).  Wherever God’s saints are gathered together, that place is holy only insofar as they are God’s holy temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19), not because the building or ground where they are is holy. 

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