The Reign of the Servant Kings
By Joseph C. Dillow
Chapter 3—The Inheritance: Old Testament
The biblical writers everywhere counsel the Christian to begin with the end in mind, to see life from the perspective of our final accountability before God. One day, at the judgment seat of Christ, we all hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant: enter into the joy of your Lord.” The general term for the end in mind used in the Bible is the “inheritance.” The more material aspects of it are gradually enriched as revelation progresses through the Old Testament toward the magnificent New Testament challenge to “inherit the kingdom.”
It may seem surprising that a discussion of the saints’ perseverance should begin with a study of the inheritance in the Old Testament. It is therefore appropriate that at the outset of this discussion the writer set forth his understanding of the inheritance of the saints and its relevance to the doctrine of perseverance. These conclusions may be set forth in the following propositions:
The relevance of these conclusions to the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance is obvious. First, if this is in fact the Old Testament view, it surely must have informed the thinking of the New Testament writers. If that is so, then many passages, which have been considered as descriptions of the elect, are in fact conditions of obtaining a reward in heaven; for example, 1 Corinthians 6:9. In this passage instead of Paul warning professing Christians that they may not be Christians at all, he is telling true Christians that, if they do not change their behavior, they may be in the kingdom, but they will not rule there.
This chapter is rather complex. It may be that the reader would prefer to tentatively accept the propositions listed above and skip to the next chapter.
The Old Testament Concept of Inheritance
In numerous passages of the New Testament, believers are called heirs—“inherit the kingdom,” “inherit eternal life,” and that the Spirit is the “earnest of our inheritance.” These commonly have been taken to refer to our final deliverance from hell. But a problem develops when one carefully examines the usage of the term “inheritance” in the Old and New Testaments. When it is used of Israel’s acquisition of Canaan, almost without exception, it refers to something that is merited or worked for.
Calvin struggled with Colossians 3:23, 24.
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
[From the position of Calvin’s paradigm, he appealed to Genesis 15:5; 17:1 and somehow construed the effort to which this passage appeals to be works from God that he bestows via His mercy]
The problem is that Genesis clearly says that there was a cause for the blessing—Abraham’s obedience. Calvin has turned the text upside down. There is a promise of rewards in Genesis 15:1. An inheritance came to the firstborn son by virtue of his birth. But whether or not he actually secured it depended upon his obedience and the father’s choice.
If we are obedient, then God promises to bless us. The content of our obedience varies with the blessing to be received. If the blessing is final deliverance from hell, then the only “obedience” or “work” is that of believing (John 6:29). If, on the other hand, the blessing is a richer spiritual life or reward in the future, the work is faithful perseverance (2 Corinthians 5:10).
The New Testament writers frequently refer to the inheritance of the saints by quoting passages referring to the land of Canaan in the Old Testament. Certainly the view of the inheritance of the New Testament was directly informed by the Old Testament world of thought.
An Inheritance Was a “Possession”
Nothing is more fundamental to the meaning of the Hebrew word [for “inheritance] nachala, than the idea of “possession.” It is an error of illegitimate totality transfer to define it as a “permanent possession as a result of succession.”
Guaranteed filial [hereditary] succession of property is not part of the semantic value of the word. (See also Genesis 15:7, 8; Deuteronomy 16:20; Leviticus 20:24; Isaiah 54:3; 57:13. Jeremiah says, “Therefore I will give their wives to other men, and their fields to new owners—Heb. their fields to those who will inherit them—Jeremiah 8:10) Even though the word properly denotes property received as a result of death, the Old Testament concept of inheritance has no implication of hereditary succession, as it does in classical Greek. The term only refers to sanctioned and settled possession. The fact that a son became an heir in no way guaranteed that he would obtain the inheritance. The father had the right to insist that the son meet the conditions of the inheritance or he would give it to another. The obvious illustration of this is that the exodus generation was promised an inheritance, the land of Canaan. However, they were also warned about the possibility of losing it and the need to obey God, fight the battle, and live by faith if they were to obtain the inheritance that they were promised.
An Inheritance Could Be Merited and Lost
Many within the Reformed faith hold that the believer’s inheritance is his reward in heaven and not heaven itself (William G. T. Shedd in his Dogmatic Theology, for example, writes: “This is proved by the fact that the reward of the Christian is called an inheritance—Matthew 25:34; Acts 20:32; Galatians 3:18; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 1:12. The believer’s reward is like a child’s portion under his father’s will. This is not wages and recompense, in the strict sense; and yet it is relatively a reward for filial obedience.”). In view of the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith alone, it seems curious that so many have therefore equated the inheritance with final deliverance from hell. The New Testament itself, almost without exception, presents the believer’s inheritance as something merited or earned.
The idea of merit related to the inheritance is recorded in the Bible’s earliest references:
And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant. (Genesis 17:14)
But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it. (Numbers 14:24)
So Moses swore on that day, saying, “Surely the land where your foot has trodden shall be your inheritance and your children's forever, because you have wholly followed the LORD my God.” (Joshua 14:9)
Caleb and Joshua, only two out of two million, inherited. But surely that two million was composed mainly of those who were justified! Yet only those who “had a different spirit” and who “followed the Lord wholeheartedly” inherited the land. Numerous passages in the Old Testament demonstrate that the inheritance (the land of Canaan is equated with the inheritance in the Old Testament—Deuteronomy 15:4; 19:14; 25:19; 26:1) must be merited by obedience (Exodus 23:30; Deuteronomy 2:31; 11:11-24; 16:20; 19:8, 9; Joshua 1:6, 7; 11:23).
Furthermore, the Israelites are promised “rest” (victory after the conquest of the land of Canaan), but it will be theirs only as they fight and “take possession” (Joshua 1:13-15). Not only is the inheritance of Canaan merited by obedience, but David’s reign there is predicated on his obedience and character.
Because the land of Canaan and the inheritance are equivalent terms, this implies that the inheritance is obtained only by faith plus obedience. Not only must the inheritance be merited by obedience, but is can be lost by disobedience. Even Moses was excluded from the land of Canaan (i.e., the inheritance) because of his disobedience (Deuteronomy 4:21, 22). Clearly, Moses was a type of the saved, but he forfeited his earthly inheritance (The New Testament uses the experience of Israel as a “type” and not an exact parallel. Although the case of Moses could be urged as an argument against this thesis, it seems that Moses is a special case). Not entering Canaan does not necessarily mean one is not born again.
Even though Israel had become God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22, 23), the entire wilderness generation with the exception of Caleb and Joshua forfeited the inheritance due the firstborn. Another generation of Israelites similarly forfeited their inheritance rights and was sold as slaves into Babylon (Lamentations 5:2).
A classic example of the forfeiture of one’s inheritance right was the case of Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, who lost his inheritance rights (1 Chronicles 5:1, 2). The possibility of the forfeiture of the land of Canaan is clearly presented in David’s challenge to the nation and to his son Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:8).
There is also a distinction drawn between inhabiting the land and inheriting it or, to put it in other words, between merely living in the land and possessing it. Abraham, for example, inhabited the land, lived there, but he never inherited it (Hebrews 11:13). He lived there, but he never owned it (Genesis 21:33; 35:27).
And give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants with you, that you may inherit (Heb. yarash—“posses”) the land in which you are a stranger (Heb. ger—alien), which God gave to Abraham. (Genesis 28:4)
In the Old Testament the ger, the alien, was someone who “did not enjoy the rights usually possessed by a resident.” The ger had, according to the lexicon, “no inherited rights.” Moses named his son Gershom in memory of his stay in Midian (Exodus 18:3) where he lived as an alien without inheritance rights. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived as strangers in Canaan (Exodus 6:4), meaning that they had no property rights there. The Levites, in particular, were told that they would have no inheritance rights in the land (Numbers 18:20).
It is therefore perfectly proper to think of living in a land where one has no inheritance or property.
Two Kinds of Inheritance Are Promised
The Old Testament presents two inheritance (possessions) for the people of God—all will have God as an inheritance (through faith), but only some will “possess the land” (through persevering obedience).
God is Our Inheritance
The priests, the Levites-all the tribe of Levi-shall have no part nor inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and His portion. Therefore they shall have no inheritance among their brethren; the LORD is their inheritance, as He said to them. (Deuteronomy 18:1, 2)
The prerogative of having God as their inheritance went not just to the Levites but, like the Levites, to all who know the Lord. The psalmist viewed God as his kleros (“lot, portion, inheritance,” LXX)
O LORD, You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You maintain my lot. (Psalm 16:5) See also Psalm 73:26; 119:57; 142:5.
God is the people’s portion now, and He will be their inheritance in the future as well (Jeremiah 31:33). Not only will God own His people but they will possess Him—only applies to those within Israel who are regenerate.
The Inheritance Is an Added Blessing to the Saved
All believers have God as their inheritance, but not all (e.g., the Levites, the alien, and the patriarchs, and those who died in the wilderness) have an inheritance in the land. That inheritance is an added blessing to the saved. The New Testament writers often refer to the believer’s inheritance. In so doing, they embrace the imagery of Joshua possessing Canaan or the Hebrews inheriting the land (Hebrews 3 & 4).
Abraham illustrates this point. He was a saved man when the Abrahamic Covenant was made. Because he was justified through faith, he already was an heir of God (God was his inheritance). Because of his obedience (circumcision and the offering of Isaac), he became an heir of the nations and specifically of the land of Canaan.
In Genesis 15:1-6 Abraham is promised an heir and in Genesis 15:18 an inheritance, the land of Canaan. Yet in 15:6 we are told, “Abraham believed the Lord, and He credited to him as righteousness.” This verse refers to Abram’s conversion that occurred years earlier when he left Ur. The form of the verb “believed” shows that his faith did not begin after the events recorded in Genesis 15:1-5:
Abraham’s faith is recorded here because it is foundational for making the covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant did not give Abraham redemption; it was a covenant made with Abram, who had already believed and to whom righteousness had already been imputed. (Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” in BKC, 1:55)
While Abraham received justification by faith alone, it is clear that he could only obtain the inheritance by means of obedience (Genesis 22:15-18). For the Israelites, conquering Canaan secured their “earthly” inheritance. This parallels that aspect of the New Testament believer’s future that is similarly conditional—his reward in heaven, not heaven itself.
It is sometimes erroneously stated that inheriting the land is to be compared with the believer’s entrance into heaven—Canaan in the OT being analogous to heaven in the NT. This is unacceptable because: (1) Canaan in the OT was conditioned upon works and obedience, and (2) the inheritance of Canaan was offered to those who were already justified, who would receive something in addition to justification (heaven) if they would obey. According to the writer to the Hebrews, the exodus generation as a whole was saved (Hebrews 11:29, 30). Paul had the same view:
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
(1 Corinthians 10:4, 5)
The Israelites, as a nation, seemed to reveal their regenerate condition when they promised, “. . . All that the LORD has spoken we will do. . . .” (Exodus 19:8). They had “bowed down and worshiped” and trusted in the blood of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:27, 28), had by faith crossed the Red Sea, and had drunk (i.e., “trusted in,” John 4:13, 14; 6:53-56) that spiritual rock, which was Christ; yet they never obtained Canaan, their inheritance, because of their unbelief and disobedience.
It would not be surprising then if the New Testament writers similarly viewed the inheritance of the saints from a two-fold perspective. All regenerate men have God as their inheritance, or as Paul puts it, are “heirs of God” (Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7). That inheritance is received on the basis of faith alone. But there is another inheritance in the New Testament, an inheritance which, like that of the Israelites, is merited. They are also heirs of the kingdom and joint-heirs with the Messiah (2 Timothy 2:12; Romans 8:17).
The Inheritance and Heaven—New Testament Parallels?
Many outstanding commentaries and theological works have attempted to equate entrance into the land of Canaan in the Old Testament with the believer’s arrival into heaven in the New.
A more singularly inappropriate parallel could hardly be found. An inheritance that could be merited by obedience and forfeited through disobedience is hardly a good “type” of heaven. Both aspects are, it would seem, an embarrassment to those of the Reformed persuasion. On one hand, the forfeiture of the inheritance through disobedience contradicts the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer. On the other hand, the works required to obtain the inheritance in the Old Testament contradict the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Only by allowing inheritance to mean “possession” and acknowledging that it can be merited can the parallel drawn out by the New Testament authors be explained. The inheritance is not salvation in the sense of final deliverance from hell but the reward that came to the faithful in Israel as a result of wholehearted obedience. Similarly, in the New Testament the inheritance is a reward. Canaan does not parallel heaven or the new earth but the rewards that the saints will enjoy there. These are earned by faithful obedience and may, like the inheritance of the Old Testament, be forfeited through disobedience or a failure to persevere.
The Inheritance—Promises and Conditions
From the earliest reference the inheritance was promised to Abraham and his descendants upon the basis of a divine oath. But a tension [apparent contradiction] is apparent. They were told that, if they “do what is good and right in the Lord’s sight” (Deuteronomy 6:18), they would have victory over the Canaanites and possess the land (Deuteronomy 11:22-25). Even though the inheritance has been promised on an oath, it will only come to them if they “carefully follow all these laws” (Deuteronomy 19:8-10). How is this tension [apparent contradiction] to be explained?
The answer may be seen in the parallel with Abraham. Abraham was already a saved man when he received the promise of the inheritance. Therefore, it was not the act of saving faith that guaranteed Abraham an heir (Genesis 15:4, 5) or the inheritance of Canaan (Genesis 15:8). Canaan is not parallel with heaven but with additional blessings that are given to believers on the condition of subsequent acts of faith. Abraham began to look for the reward of possession of the land in the afterlife (Hebrews 11:8, 16). One particular requirement in the Old Testament was circumcision. If Abraham had not been circumcised, neither he nor the members of his household would have inherited the promise (Genesis 17:14). That the appropriation of the blessings of the covenant was conditioned upon obedience is clearly stated:
Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son - blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
The passage is instructive in that it clarifies that the inheritance that has been given unconditionally to the descendants by oath will only be obtained by each one personally when he obeys. What is true for the “father of those who believe” is true for his descendants. The unconditional nature of the Abrahamic blessing is available for each generation of Israelites. But only that generation that appropriates it by faith will enter into those blessings. God never promised anything to a generation of rebels. It is to the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), the believing remnant of the last days, that the promises will finally be fulfilled (Romans 11:26ff).
This is also illustrated in the experience of the Israelites and their attempted initial entrance into Canaan. In Numbers 14:14ff several things should be noted: (1) they were forgiven for their unbelief and grumbling (Numbers 14:20); (2) they disobeyed and tested the Lord ten times (Numbers 14:22); (3) those who disobeyed wand who were “men” (accountable), who saw the miracles, would never enter the land of Canaan (vv. 22, 23); (4) possessing Canaan is the same as inheriting the land (14:24); and (5) only those believers who have “a different spirit” and who follow the Lord “wholeheartedly” will obtain the inheritance (14:24; cf. Joshua 14:9).
Only tow of them inherited because only two out of two million met the conditions. Thus, all the rest will go to heaven but forfeit their inheritance. This thought is in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 3:7ff where obtaining the inheritance is equated with “entering rest.”
It has been seen that the Old Testament notion of inheritance does not always include the idea of a guarantee. The Israelite became an heir by birth, but due to disobedience he could forfeit the firstborn privilege. The inheritance was something in addition to salvation and was not equated with it. It was obtained by victorious perseverance and obedient faith.