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Bound for the Promised Land: God’s Promise and the Pilgrim’s Progress

‘On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,

And cast a wishful eye

To Canaan’s fair and happy land,

Where my possessions lie’

– Samuel Stennett, 1787 –

From creation to culmination, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the greatest true-story ever told. It tells of mankind’s rosy start, our fall into sin, and God’s gracious plan to restore us to His promised land. We may all bear God's image, but we are all also ego-centric. Most curse God and chart a course to destruction. The rest try to find their own road back to God and the perfection of Eden. Yet neither succeeds. God alone draws the map. He alone secures for believers a ‘city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Heb. 11:10).


In Genesis 11, Terah and his family are on the move. ‘They went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to go to the land of Canaan; and they came as far as Haran and settled there’ (Gen. 11:31). We aren't told why Terah picked up sticks, only to settle down prematurely. Did he tire of travel after leaving the metropolis of Ur, with its schools, stores, and indoor plumbing? Maybe he fell ill and died. All we know is when Terah bowed out, God chose Abram to complete the journey: ‘And Yahweh said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, and from your kin and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing’ (Gen. 12:1-2).

God’s promise was grand, yet Abram still grew weary after years sojourning in the land of promise. He lacked an heir and owned no property, so God factored compassion into His plan of redemption. God eased Abram’s mind by graciously cutting a covenant with him, saying: ‘“look toward the heavens, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your seed be.” Then Abram believed in Yahweh; and He counted it to him as righteousness.’ (Gen. 15:5-6).

The New Testament tells us ‘when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself…And so, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise’ (Heb. 6:13, 15). The land sworn to Abraham and his seed was and is a physical place: the land of Israel. The first five books of Scripture each end with a longing to return and inhabit God’s promise, but the New Testament reveals a better promised land. One that is more than dirt and borders.

By the time of Christ, the Jews prayed for a warrior Messiah to rid the land of Roman oppressors. God had created Israel with care, telling Moses it was “a good and spacious land…flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). Jesus perplexed the leaders who adored the land and insisted Messiah would reconquer, renew, and return Israel to its rightful heirs: them. But Jesus saw things differently. He saw the truth behind the truth. The eternal kingdom behind the earthly promised land.

The apostles must have pondered God's promise of His people's land as they celebrated the final Passover with Jesus. The first Passover had launched the exodus out of Egypt and back toward where God's people belonged; out of bondage and into God’s promise. Hopes were high sixteen-hundred years later for similar deliverance, but Christ dashed them after the last supper in John 13. Once Judas left to betray Him, Jesus delivered a one-two punch of hope and sorrow to His true disciples, saying: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him…Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come” (13:31, 33).

The apostles reeled in shock. Naturally Simon Peter spoke up first, asking: ‘“Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later”’ (13:36). Jesus of Nazareth, the greater Joshua, was meant to conquer the promised land for His followers, or so they thought. Thus John 14 opens with a seismic reframing of God’s plan. Christ declares: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (14:1-3).

In John's gospel, the ‘I am’ claims of Christ lay clear demarcation lines between the old and new covenants. While they do not diminish or destroy the reality of God’s promise to Abraham, they do point to eternity. As Paul would say, God gave the promised land to the Jews as ‘a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ’ (Col. 2:17). Hence Jesus told His believers to trust that He, and He alone, would bring them to the greater promised land.

When we see God's promise with heavenly eyes, Christ becomes the ‘bread of life’ that feeds believers who journey through the wilderness and into blessed eternity. He is the ‘light of the world’ that guides our steps like a beacon in the night. He is ‘the door’ that must be passed through into a renewed creation. He is ‘the good shepherd’ that lays down His life for the sheep, sacrificing Himself for our eternal inheritance. We could go on, but let’s spotlight one last claim as we close.

Thomas gets bad press for doubting Christ’s bodily resurrection, but at least he spoke up at the last supper when the other disciples only trembled in silence. Thomas sought assurance, trusting that Jesus loved him enough to give it. He disagreed with Jesus that they already knew where He was going, saying: ‘“Lord, we do not know where You are going. How do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me”’ (John 14:5-6).

Jesus is not one way among many that take us to God’s promised land. As the creator, sustainer, and source of all life, Christ is and always will be the only way. As Paul says: ‘for as many as are the promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes. Therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us’ (2 Cor. 1:20). The promised land awaits. If we believe and follow Jesus Christ, He will lead us there.

All Scripture quotations are from the Legacy Standard Bible



When I read Genesis 11:27-32, which was referred to in this post, I see it as the story of a grieving father. Terah’s son, Haran, “died before his father” (v. 28). Sometime after that, the family started to journey to the land of Canaan, but then they came to a city with the same name as Terah’s deceased son, and he couldn’t move on from there, so there they dwelt, and there Terah died. He never reached the land of Canaan. Could it be that his grief over his son kept him stuck in that place that bore his son’s name? Interesting to ponder….

Edwin O'Hanlon
Edwin O'Hanlon
Nov 09, 2023
Replying to

Very interesting. The wonder of Scripture is you read and re-read but you never quite plumb the depths. I can't believe I missed the fact that Terah very likely named the place/city of Haran after his (prematurely?) deceased son. It's doing a little bit of exegeting the white spaces, but it seems a fair guess that, as you said, Terah never recovered from his son's death and therefore became stuck in place. And don't we so often do the same thing. We get overwhelmed by earthly woes and lose the impetous - if just temporarily - to press on toward God's promised land.

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