What does it mean to “enter the Promised Land” for a New Testament believer?

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Messages for Calebs III: What does it mean to “enter the Promised Land” for a New Testament believer?

Entering and possessing the Promised Land of Canaan is a prominent event in the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament. It also has great significance for New Testament believers. The writer of Hebrews warns us as he recounts the initial failure of the Israelites to take Canaan: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (Hebrews 4:1). His final words on this subject in verse 11 are similarly ominous. “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”

It is clear that a New Testament believer can fall short of entering God’s rest. This is the New Testament equivalent of entering the Promised Land. We are taught to “be careful” of falling short and to “make every effort to enter that rest.” Therefore a believer does not simply slide into God’s rest automatically just because he once repeated a sinner’s prayer. What does it actually mean for us to enter God’s rest, and what are the conditions for doing so? Let’s study the Scriptures.

Numbers 13:25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land. …27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan. 30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” 31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. …All the people we saw there are of great size.

Numbers 14:6 Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes 7 and said, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 
9 Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. 10 But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. 11 The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me…? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them…

Treating God with contempt

God’s holy anger was kindled against the Israelites when they treated Him with contempt by refusing to obey His command to invade Canaan. The righteous God was about to destroy His own people. But Moses interceded for them before the Lord:

19 “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”

20 The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. 21 Nevertheless, …22 not one of the men who … disobeyed me and tested me ten times— 23 …No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. 24 But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.

God imposed severe judgment on every one of the adult men over twenty years of age who treated God with contempt by disobeying His command to invade Canaan. Every one of them except for Joshua and Caleb would die in the desert and never enjoy the fruit of the land flowing with milk and honey. Serious New Testament believers must understand how this applies to us. What is the Promised Land, and what does it take for us to enter and possess it?

Scripture is not clear—perhaps deliberately so—regarding the precise meaning of “entering the Promised Land” or “entering God’s rest” for a New Testament believer. Does it mean entering the kingdom of God—getting into heaven—or does it refer to something beyond salvation?

Whatever it may actually mean, it is clear that every God-fearing believer should want to enter God’s rest and not to “die in the desert.” That much is clear. To understand what it might mean, let’s go back to the first Passover.

Entering God’s rest

The blood of the Lamb which was shed that Passover evening enabled the Israelites to escape from slavery in Egypt. This was entirely God’s work; they did not do anything to merit this. Similarly, by faith in the blood of Jesus, our sins are freely forgiven and we are set free from slavery to our sin nature—it is put to death on the cross. But that is just the beginning. For believers who remain on earth after they are saved, they must now grow up in their salvation:

1 Peter 2:2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,

Philippians 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…

Perhaps this is where “entering the Promised Land” enters the picture. Because we are saved by grace through faith, we will grow and bear fruit for the Lord as a result of our abiding relationship with Him. We are heading for Canaan, the Promised Land.

If like Caleb we follow the Lord wholeheartedly and obediently—without fear and doubt—we can enter the Promised Land. Laboring for the Lord and good works will be an outgrowth our faith. Look what the apostle Paul wrote for us.

Ephesians 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The role of good works

Most believers are very familiar with verses 8 and 9, but verse 10 is almost always missing in any discussion of grace. It teaches that God creates us in Christ Jesus to do good workswhich He prepared in advance for us to do. These are works of obedience which are the outward evidence or fruit of our salvation. If there is no obedience or fruit as an outworking of our abiding in Christ the true vine, then the person is likely not saved.

John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.

Whatever “thrown into the fire and burned” may mean, no God-fearing person should take any chances with this. Those who are looking to do the minimum just to get by into heaven are suspect. It is doubtful that Jesus endured unimaginable suffering on the cross for such people. God knows our hearts and cannot be deceived. Continuing on from where we left off in Hebrews earlier, the writer assures us:

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Rewards in additional to salvation

A person can be genuinely saved by grace through faith. The outward evidence of being saved and abiding with Christ is the bearing of visible fruit as Jesus taught in John 15. This requires work. But God will test the quality of this work. Have we produced good fruit or bad fruit? If the quality is poor, we will lose our reward although we are still saved. In addition to eternal life, therefore, we will receive a reward based on the quality of our work.

I Corinthians 3:10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

Therefore obedience leading to the producing of fruit should be evident—and required—in the lives of those who are genuinely saved by grace through faith. As Paul teaches above, they should be “building.” The quality of the fruit and work determines our reward which is separate and in addition to our salvation. Could it be that when we receive our eternal reward, we have entered God’s rest—the Promised Land? Such a reward could consist of authority to rule with Christ in his Kingdom (Luke 19:11-19). If the quality of our work does not pass the test, we will receive no reward in heaven. 

The determination of heavenly rewards

God’s standard for giving rewards

Does God hold each believer to the same standard with regard to rewards? No, He does not. God is fair. He knows that we have been given varying abilities in different measures—some more of this, some less of that. Our reward is not determined simply by the absolute quantity and quality of our work. Factored in to this is the ability which the Lord has given to us. He entrusts to each one of us “talents” according to our ability. Our reward is therefore also based in part on how many talents we have been given (Matthew 25). If we have received more talents from the Lord, He will expect more fruit from us. Conversely if we have received fewer talents from Him, He will expect less from us. And so we can receive the same reward as someone else who has accomplished much more than we have.

Luke 12:48 From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

What does it mean for us to refuse to invade Canaan?

The Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt by the blood of the Passover Lamb. This was purely by God’s grace and election. In the same way, we can be delivered from slavery to sin simply by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.

However, because of their fear that generation of Israelites refused to obey the Lord’s command to cross the Jordan and invade the Promised Land. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, all of the men over twenty years of age died in the desert. What might this signify in the New Testament?

Those who died in the desert might represent people who come to Christ, but who do not grow up in their salvation. They do not work out their salvation with fear and trembling. They do not endure; they fall away. Jesus taught that there are four kinds of people.


The four types of “soil”

Matthew 13:18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

The first type of person rejects the gospel outright. The second kind receives Christ with joy but falls away quickly during difficult times. The Israelites who refused to invade Canaan and died in the desert are a shadow of this kind of “Christian.” The third kind accepts Christ but proves unfruitful or produces bad fruit because of the distractions of this world. This might be the believer who attends church faithfully and even serves in some capacity. He or she might (or might not, John 15:5-6) be saved, but the quality of his works proves to be poor and they fail to pass the quality test. He might be saved but he receives no reward from the Lord for all his hard work. Finally, it is the fourth type of person who obediently and with wisdom bears quality fruit for the Lord and receives his reward. This is the Caleb with the “different spirit” who boldly invades Canaan and receives his inheritance in the land.

Being faithful means being fruitful

Caleb not only was obedient in invading Canaan, he actually succeeded in possessing the Promised Land. Our heavenly reward will not be based simply on trying hard and “doing our best.” It will be based on actual success in getting the job done: our active role, whether direct or indirect, in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the discipling of the nations. In the end, it is not enough simply to be “faithful.” We must bear good fruit as well (Matthew 25; Luke 19). If we are truly faithful, we will produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our personal lives as well as produce visible fruit for the extension of God’s Kingdom on earth. It is necessary therefore to apply wisdom in what we do for the Lord. Much of what passes for “ministry” today in Christianity is not bearing fruit that lasts. It is essential that we seek the Lord and carefully examine Scripture to find out what the Lord desires of us and how to execute it fruitfully and successfully.

Finally…

Hebrews 4:1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.

2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. …6 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience.

…11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

The Israelites heard the gospel in their time, but they did not combine it with saving faith. Their lack of genuine faith was revealed when they disobeyed God’s command to invade Canaan. We also have had the gospel preached to us. If we are going to enter the Kingdom of God and receive our reward—if we are going to enter God’s rest—our faith must ultimately result in obedience to the Lord’s commands.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

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