the great return

Bruegel, “Procession to Calvary”

Jeremiah 23:1-6

For Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007 (Reign of Christ Sunday)

This passage begins with a play on the Hebrew word PAQAD which can mean either “to care for” or “to chastise”, with a summary meaning of visit. The Lord says essentially, “Because you have not PAQAD’d my people I am going to PAQAD you.” Unfortunately for the shepherds, this is not the kind of visit from the Lord that is going to go well.

Jeremiah goes on to say that a Righteous Shepherd will come to take the place of the unrighteous ones, and that the people of Israel will be regathered from all the countries of the world to which they have been banished. One way to interpret this is that Jeremiah is talking about a regathering of the Jewish people to the current nation of Israel during a 1,000 year reign of Christ on this earth before the new heaven and new earth are created. Another interpretation takes this to mean not only the Jewish people, but the whole people of God, and understands that while the Israel being referred to is a real Israel, it is the Israel of the new heaven and new earth.

One reason to prefer the latter interpretation is this: once Jesus has come, why would God have only the Jews living near him? This just doesn’t make sense given the overall flow of Scripture, which moves outward from the Jews as a starting point to encompass every people on earth.

Some criticize this line of interpretation as “replacement theology”. They say, “You are replacing what are meant to be literal references with spiritual ones.” Ah, but here’s the rub: I’m not replacing literal references with merely spiritual ones. The new Israel is going to be a very real and literal place. It’s just not the one on which Jerusalem sits currently.

A great book related to all of this is Michael Witmer’s _Heaven is a Place on Earth_. He argues that heaven is not going to be an ethereal place in the clouds but an actual place here on a re-created earth. This kind of thinking brings together the physical and spiritual in a way that transforms everything about how one approaches life.

We are already being ruled by a Righteous Shepherd today even though we are not yet experiencing the full benefit of his rule. This is great reason to rejoice and to hope in whatever today might bring.


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