Come Home: A Theology of Exile and Return

God created Adam and Eve as His imager-bearers in the world (Genesis 1:26-27). They had a relationship with God (they were “sons” of God) and also they had a commission over creation to be servant kings.[1] Although not specifically part of the imago dei, God marked off humanity with sexual complementarity for the basis of procreation and also a need for human relationship (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15). Due to sin, however, all the crucial relationships were severed. Men and women would be at enmity with each other (Genesis 3:16). The created order was cursed and the relationship with its “masters” (man and woman) broken. It would only bring forth produce through great effort (Genesis 3:17-18). Finally, the relationship with God was also severed. Although God clothes Adam and Eve with skins (prefiguring the need for sacrifice), God casts them out of His presence (Genesis 3:24). They are cast out from the Garden of Eden which was the first temple, the location of God’s presence. In other words: they are exiled from Eden.[2]

But God also promised a coming descendent from the woman who would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Although there is judgment, there is also hope found in a promise. God’s plan continues by re-establishing the world as a new creation with the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17). God will keep from judging the world again in such an all-consuming way which will allow His plan to take shape and form over the centuries.

God then calls Abram and makes a covenant with him by which the great promises of land, seed, and blessing will be fulfilled (Genesis 12:1-3). Specifically, through Abraham’s seed will come the salvation of the world. God’s plan is furthered as Hebrew people multiply (Exodus 1:20). Yet, the people are enslaved by Egypt. Through a mighty act—the exodus—God delivers Israel from bondage (Exodus 13:13-31)

After delivering the people, God forms them into a nation through His covenant with them, thereby fulfilling His promise to Abraham (Exodus 19:1-25). Although the covenant is based upon God’s grace to Israel, there also covenant stipulations that Israel must uphold. If she obeys God, then she will have long life in the land of promise. If, however, she disobeys God, then God will levy the covenant curses upon her, the ultimate of these being exile, removal from the promised land (Deuteronomy 28:63-68). But God had a plan from the start for Israel to return from exile (Deuteronomy 30:1-10).[3]

As the prophets engage with the people, they plead with Israel to turn from her wicked ways and return to Yahweh. As it becomes increasingly clear that Israel won’t avoid exile, the prophets speak of both judgment and salvation.  The future act of salvation is described as a return from exile. When the prophets speak of the return from exile, it could be easy to get the impression that only one return is envisioned, which also probably coincides with the coming of the Messiah. Yet a careful reading of the prophets indicates that there are actually two stages to the return: a physical return and a spiritual return.

Often in the prophetic message, the future is blended into one big picture, even though certain aspects of it may be separated. In other words, the way the prophets speak could sometimes be seen to imply that there will be only one stage of return from exile, even though there are actually two. The most famous of this prophetic “smashing together” is the coming of Christ. The coming of the Messiah is often picture as one event whereby He brings salvation to His people and judgment upon His enemies. The New Testament indicates, however, that there will actually be two comings of the Messiah. The first was fulfilled when Christ came to die and rise for sinners, and the second is when He will return to usher in the consummated kingdom.

In a similar way, there are two stages of exile: a physical return and a spiritual return. And this makes sense because as Peter Gentry notes, “You can get the people out of Babylon, but how do you get Babylon out of the people?”[4]

Moreover, the Old Testament itself testifies the need for a second return, a spiritual return, in two ways. First, the portrayal of the first return is pitiful in comparison to the great promises made by the prophets. The prophets envision a great day when God’s renewed people would be living securely in a new creation under a new covenant with a new David ruling on the throne. Those great promises did not come to fulfillment in the first return. Second, what the people really need is a change of heart, a renewed love for Yahweh. Because although the people return back to the land, the post-exilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) all record the exact same kinds of sin problems which lead to the exile in the first place!

So the prophets speak of a second return, a spiritual return from exile. The second return is also cast in terms of a second exodus. For example, the prophet Isaiah most noticeably uses the language of the Exodus to depict God’s future act of redemption (11:15-16; 40:3-5; 41:17-20; 42:14-16; 43:1-3, 14-21; 48:20-21; 49:8-12; 51:9-11; 52:3-6; 11-12; 55:12-13).[5] Scholar James Muilenberg writes, “Again and again Yahweh’s advent is described in language drawn from the Exodus.”[6] What Isaiah teaches is that the second exodus will supersede the first. Muilenberg comments further: “Israel’s first redemption will be repeated in even more marvelous fashion and with even greater works than at the beginning in the new Exodus from the whole wide-spreading Diaspora.”[7] In sum, the exodus provided the pattern for redemption throughout the Old Testament. Later Old Testament writers, particularly Isaiah, used the exodus to describe an even greater act of redemption in the future, in essence, a second exodus.

Other parallels between the end of the exile and the second exodus exist.[8] Ezekiel 4:4-6 shows how the prophet lied on his side for a total of 430 days, representing the sin of Israel leading to exile. The 430 days parallels the 430 years that Israel spent in slavery in Egypt before the exodus. Just as there was a period of bondage before the exodus, so there will be a period of bondage under foreign rulers before the new exodus.

With the beginning of the Gospels, the New Testament writers are continuing the story of the Old Testament. Although the nation of Israel is in the land, they still have not returned spiritually to the Lord. Many scholars have advanced this view, most notably N.T. Wright. Wright looks at many Jewish writings from the second-temple period and comes to the conclusion that the Jews believed they were still in exile. He writes, “[The Jews] believe that, in all the sense which mattered, Israel’s exile was still in progress. Although she had come back from Babylon, the glorious message of the prophets remained unfulfilled.”[9] The New Testament writers aim to show how Christ fulfills God’s promises and ushers in the true return from exile.

Jesus is the new David as well as the new temple. Through His death, Jesus inaugurates the new covenant with all of its promises: the indwelling Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, a new heart for God’s people, and the future promise of resurrection.  Jesus also brings in the new creation, albeit in an incomplete form (fulfilled, but not consummated) (1 Corinthians 5:17).

The New Testament writes also see the new exodus and the (spiritual) return from exile happening through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection opens the way for people to be reconciled to God. As Graeme Goldsworthy points out, the Exodus is the pattern of redemption in the Old Testament: “The exodus from Egypt repeats this picture with greater detail and clarity, so that the condition of the sinners and nature of God’s work to deal with this condition remain as the pattern of redemption until the coming of Christ.”[10] Therefore, it is not surprising that the New Testament writes use the language and motifs of the exodus to speak about the redemption we have in Christ.

Paradoxically, the (spiritual) exile is both over through Christ’s death and resurrection and yet still continues if people refuse to repent and believe in Christ. So although the Jews are back in the land in the Gospels, they are still spiritually exiled. Those “in Christ” have spiritually returned from exile because they are now citizens of the kingdom, yet they are still physically exiled because they await the new creation. This corrupted, sin-filled creation is not the true home of God’s people.

In the Gospels, it is made clear that Israel’s spiritual exile still continues by virtue of strategic quotations of Isaiah 6:9-10 (cf. Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40).[11] The nation as a whole has not been given the spiritual understanding of who Christ really is and thus will reject Him. Even after the Spirit has been outpoured (in fulfillment of the new covenant promises and Joel 2), Israel as a whole still refuses to believe the gospel. Paul attempts to preach to the Jews, but finds that they are still blind, as indicated by his quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 (Acts 28:25-27). It’s hard to escape the conclusion, then, that the judgment upon Israel in 70AD with the destruction of the temple and “scattering” of the Jews in the Diaspora is an intensification of Israel’s exile. The whole core and structure of Israel’s religion—temple, sacrifice and priesthood—was demolished.

This is exactly the picture that Paul paints in Romans 11. Israel is hardened and unreceptive to the gospel, while the Gentiles are joined into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant and the people of the new covenant. There is intensification, however, in the end, as the hardening and blindness of Israel will be lifted and Israel as a nation will come home to Yahweh—there will be a spiritual return for Israel eventually (Romans 11:25-27). Coinciding with Israel’s spiritual return and the end of her exile, there will also be another greater movement of Gentiles coming into God’s people (Romans 11:12).  Even the OT promised that the nations of the world who are exiled can return if they attach themselves to Israel’s God, now revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ (Jeremiah 12:14-17).

The consummation of all things at Christ’s return brings the complete fulfillment of the return from exile and second exodus. Furthermore, the judgments upon the unbelieving world intensify at the end, which are also linked back to the exodus narrative (cf. Revelation 8-10; Exodus 7-10). In other words, the judgments pronounced in Revelation are the typological fulfillments of the plagues of the exodus.[12] Through the judgments of the new exodus, God will bring His people into the new creation. The New Jerusalem will descend from heaven (Revelation 21:1). The exile from Eden will be over, but the existence of God’s people will be even greater than in Eden, for they will be forever with their Lord in glory (Revelation 21-22).


[1] Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 200-01.

[2] Stephen Demester, Dominion and Dynasty, NSBT (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 67. He writes, “For disobeying the divine word and eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the man and woman are exiled from their geographical home, the throne-room of the universe, to live east of Eden as dispossessed royalty. They are removed from the source of the river of life and the source of their beatitude, the divine presence.”

[3] Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant, 539.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Stephen J. Wellum, “The Biblical-Theological Framework of Scripture” (classroom lecture notes, 22100 –Biblical Hermeneutics, Fall 2009), 57

[6] James Muilenburg, “Isaiah” in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 1956), 399.


[8] Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant, 540.

[9] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 268-69.

[10]  Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 131.

[11] Jim Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). 358.

[12] Ibid., 546-47.

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