Legal inheritance refers to actual property or goods received after a family member'sdeath. While Jewish inheritance customs were linked to family blood lines, Greek and Romanlaws also provided for the disposition of family possessions through the adoption of anheir. The Scriptures transform the concept of inheritance to include the acquisition ofspiritual blessings and promises from God.
The Old Testament. The Old Testament is rich in its usage of the inheritancemetaphor. The terms for inheritance occur over two hundred times, most frequently inNumbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Psalms. While Jewish inheritance laws were specific andcomplete ( Num27:8-11 ), almost all references to inheritance in the Old Testament are theological,not legal.
In the theological sense, to inherit means to "receive an irrevocable gift"with an emphasis on the special relationship between the benefactor and the recipients.Unlike legal inheritance, the benefactor, God, does not die, yet he provides material andspiritual blessings for his people.
The focus of the inheritance concept in the Old Testament is God's promise to Abraham.The land of Canaan was bequeathed to him and his descendants as an eternal possession ( Gen 12:7 ). Eachfamily in Israel was apportioned its own inheritance as an inalienable possession (Josh13-31) and given the task to occupy the land ( Judges 1:3 ). As thebiblical history of Israel unfolds, the promised inheritance specifies a righteous remnantwho will inherit the world as an everlasting possession ( Psalm 2:8 ; Isa 54:3 ; Dan 7:14 ).
From the promise of Canaan as Israel's inheritance came other aspects of the concept.The nation is described as God's inheritance ( 1 Kings 8:51 1 Kings 8:53 ; Psalm 78:71 ; Isa 19:25 ; Zech 2:12 ) whom theLord will never forsake ( Psalm 94:14 ). TheLord is conversely described as the inheritance of the nation ( Psalm 16:5 ). Theprivileged position of Israel as God's chosen people placed them at the center of God'splans for blessing.
Between the Testaments. In the intertestamental period the actual appropriationof this promise seemed remote due to the domination of Persian, Greek, and Roman powers.The reality of the inheritance of the land was deferred to the future and intertestamentalliterature emphasized the inheritance of eternal life and the world to come. The focus ofthe promised inheritance was less on national prominence in the present and more onpersonal participation in the future life with God. This idea was broadened in therabbinic literature where having an inheritance or share in the world to come was aprimary aspiration of the Jews. A notable dichotomy existed between those who wouldinherit the future world (the redeemed) and those who would not (the condemned). By thetime of the New Testament, it was common for a person to ask a rabbi, "What must I doto inherit eternal life?" ( Matt 19:16 ).
The New Testament. The legal-historical milieu of the first century provided anarray of inheritance traditions. Jewish, Greco-Hellenistic, and Roman inheritance lawsdiffered greatly in the meaning and implementation of their traditions. However, as in theOld Testament, almost all occurrences of the terms for inheritance in the New Testamentare theological ( Luke12:13 ; is the lone exception ).
Who Are the Heirs? Three major characters dominate the inheritance usage in theNew Testament: Abraham, Christ, and the believer. The New Testament continues the focus onAbraham as a central figure of the inheritance metaphor. The initial promise to Abraham ofthe land of Canaan ( Heb11:8 ) is broadened to include "the world" ( Rom 4:13 ). While thefact of Abraham's inheritance is significant, the New Testament concentrates on the meansby which he received the inheritance: God's promise and Abraham's faith, not by works ofthe law ( Rom 4:14 ; Gal 3:18 ).
The second major character is Jesus Christ. His prominent position as the Son of Goduniquely qualifies him as God's heir. He is presented as the heir of all things ( Hebrews 1:2 Hebrews 1:4 ) and thepromises of God's kingdom are focused in him ( Matt 21:38 ).
Finally, for the believer in Christ, heirship is a natural result of justification:"He saved us, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might becomeheirs having the hope of eternal life" ( Titus 3:5-7 ).Since all believers are children of God they are necessarily heirs of God ( Rom 8:17 ; Gal 4:7 ). It followsnaturally that Christians are also heirs along with Abraham and Christ ( Gal 3:29 ). Theyreceive their inheritance by faith as did Abraham ( Rom 4:13-14 ) andshare in the inheritance with Christ as sons ( Rom 8:17 ).
What Is the Inheritance? Throughout the New Testament, a striking promise forbelievers is simply "the inheritance" ( Acts 20:32 ; 26:18 ; Ephesians 1:14 Ephesians 1:18 ; Col 3:24 ).Generally, the promise refers to the possession of salvation ( Heb 1:14 ). Thebeliever's inheritance is described more specifically as eternal and joyful existence withGod. Believers are promised "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil orfadekept in heaven for you" ( 1 Peter 1:4 ).Inheriting the "world to come" is a guarantee for all those who belong to God'sfamily.
The apostle Paul employs the inheritance metaphor more than any other New Testamentwriter. For him, the object of the inheritance is the kingdom of God. He never statesexactly what constitutes the believer's inheritance of the kingdom, but assertsemphatically that unbelievers will not inherit the kingdom ( 1 Cor 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:21 ; Eph 5:5 ).
The Bible is clear that inheriting eternal life is synonymous with entering thekingdom. At the judgment, the righteous will inherit the kingdom ( Matt 25:34 ) but thewicked will be eternally tormented ( Matt 25:46 ). Thefinality of the separation of those outside of the family of God is clearly seen in theirlack of a share in God's inheritance.
The concept of the believer's inheritance highlights the dignity of the familyrelationship of the believer in Christ. No higher position or greater wealth can anindividual acquire than to become an heir of God through faith in Christ.
William E. Brown
Bibliography. E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People; A. N.Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Inheritance'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".