When I see the word inheritance in passages like Ephesians 1:18 which says “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” I tend to read it as “I pray that you will know the hope of heaven.”
First, why does Paul use the word inheritance here? Second, is my understanding of inheritance as heaven correct?
Old Testament Use
Old Testament authors use inheritance in its ordinary sense of possessions passed from one generation to another (Gen 21:10, 31:14, Prov 13:22).
The biblical authors use it most frequently to describe the promised land as a whole (Ex 23:13, Lev 20:24, Num 16:14, Deut 4:21, 1 Kings 8:36) or as a specific allotment given to a particular tribe (Num 26:53-55). The Levites are the exception, who do not receive land, but tithes from the people (Num 18:21-24) or the Lord himself (Deut 10:9, Ez 44:24).
The biblical authors also describe Israel as the Lord’s inheritance (Ex 34:9, Deut 4:20, 9:26-29, 1 Kings 8:51-53). The land is the people’s inheritance from God and the people are the Lord’s inheritance. Thus, the language of inheritance most often correlates to God’s close covenant relationship with His people.
In a minority of cases, the authors expand the language of inheritance beyond God’s relationship with Israel. God also gives the other nations land as an inheritance (Deut 32:8). The nations, not just Israel, are the inheritance of the Lord’s anointed (Psalm 2:8). Finally, the nations, not just Israel, are the Lord’s inheritance (Psalm 82:8). These passages do not neutralize God’s special relationship with his people, or the people with their land, but show how God is the Lord over all the nations.
Lastly, we can discern a likely reference to a post-resurrection reward for Daniel in 12:13: “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.” Daniel will rest (die). At the end of days (return of the Son of Man), he will rise (resurrection) to receive an “allotted inheritance.” The original readers still would have thought of inheritance in connection to physical land. I find it likely that the New Testament authors drew on this verse for their uses.
New Testament Uses
The New Testament authors also use the word inheritance to talk about physical land or other possessions passed on from one generation to another (Mt 21:38, Mk 12:7, Lk 12:13, Lk 20:14, Gal 4:30, Heb 12:6). In some cases, they use it to specifically refer to the Promised Land (Ac 7:5, 13:19, Gal 3:18, Heb 11:8).
New Testament authors also use inheritance to describe some future reward that God has prepared for his people. Matthew 25:34 is especially instructive: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'” The inheritance, which is given at the coming of the Son of Man (note the Daniel reference) is “the kingdom prepared.” Hebrews 9:15 also makes note of a “promised eternal inheritance.” Peter says that God has “given us new birth… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” and “this inheritance is kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). This is a present/future reality that we are (re)born into, and yet must be kept waiting for us in heaven “until the coming of the salvation” (1 Peter 1:5). Paul encourages hard work knowing that we “will receive an inheritance” (Col 3:24) from God.
New Testament authors also describe inheritance as something we share with the people of God. Paul tells the elders that God’s grace can “give [them] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:34). Paul says in Ephesians that the “Holy Spirit … is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph 1:14). In the OT God’s possession, his people, are also described as God’s inheritance. Later Paul prays that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” (Eph 1:18). These speak both of the future hope of inheritance and the present reality of sharing it with God’s people.
Two more verses are more ambiguous about when we will share in the inheritance. Paul says that “no immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5:5) Again, he says that God has qualified us to “share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12). In both verses, entrance into/qualification for the kingdom could be seen as a present or future reality. The other thing these passages have in common is the “kingdom” language, which links it to Matthew 25:34. Many authors have shown that the kingdom of God is a present and a future reality.
Inheritance in Ephesians 1:18
Why does Paul use the word “inheritance” here?
For his Jewish readers, Paul’s use of the word “inheritance” would have reminded them of God’s promises to Israel. The prophets presented a message of hope, namely, that Israel would once again return to their land, their inheritance. That doesn’t mean that Paul imagined a reconstituted national Israel over against the Roman rulers. Instead, the inheritance is transformed into a future, no less physical reality, which all believers in Jesus would receive at the resurrection. Further, this inheritance is not just a spot of land on the earth, but the whole cosmos (Eph 1:8 in fulfillment of Psalm 2:8.)
Paul’s Gentile readers, on the other hand, would have been reminded that they were now incorporated into the people of God (Eph 2:19). They are now part of God’s possession (his inheritance) through faith in Jesus and therefore have an equal share in the blessings.
Is my view of inheritance as heaven correct?
That depends on my conception of heaven. If it is the spiritual place my soul goes to when I die then I’m probably mistaken. If however, I mean the “new hearth” which God will create and which resurrected believers will eternally inhabit, the future kingdom of God, then I think I have in mind what Paul did. Our inheritance is primarily a future physical reality, a promise in which the people of God will share.