(Deu 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
This text was so central that the authors of the NT refer to often so obliquely that we miss it. They understood Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Joel to promise that hearts would be circumcised by the Holy Spirit.
(Eze 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
(Eze 37:12-14 ESV) 12 “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
Notice that the promise is “that you may live.” John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul took “live” to mean “have eternal life.” Thus, they refer to the salvific work of the Spirit in Deu 30:6 terms.
(Joh 6:63 ESV) 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
(2Co 3:5-6 ESV) 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
These are surely not just new NT doctrine but allusions to the promise of Deu 30:6. Hence, in Rom 8:2, Paul refers to the “Torah of the Spirit of life.” This is a very obscure phrase unless you first think in terms of Deu 30:6, which is part of the Torah and which promises circumcised hearts, love for God, and life. Hence, obedience to the Law is replaced by a life led by the Spirit — into love for God, resulting in obedience and eternal life. This is the Christian Torah — the old Torah re-envisioned through the Spirit, in light of the cross.
Now, with this in mind, let’s talk about John the Baptist. There are some theologians — preachers, really — who teach that John brought a new covenant because he offered forgiveness through baptism rather than through animal sacrifice — kind of an in-between covenant as God transitioned from one legal system to another. And this is a mistake.
Rather, John was not changing the covenant. He was living and working within a particular understanding of the covenant that existed at the time: the Abrahamic/Mosaic/Davidic covenant. Remember: Russian dolls. New covenants don’t repeal old covenants. They further God’s revelation.
So let’s start in Matthew —
(Mat 3:1-2 ESV) In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
“Repent” does not mean “give up your immoral life.” It means “change from your intended course.” In the OT, the word almost always refers to God relenting from one plan to another, typically in response to human repentance. Therefore, we have to go to the context to understand: repent from what intended course?
“Kingdom of heaven” was a euphemism for “Kingdom of God.” The Jews often preferred to say “heaven” rather than “God” — just as we sometimes say, “Heaven help us!” when we mean “God help us!”
“Kingdom” has a dual meaning. It’s first a nation ruled by a king with boundaries and laws. The king of a kingdom is both the maker of laws and the ultimate judge. Paul appealed to Caesar, not the Roman Supreme Court, because the king was the supreme court. Separation of powers came many years later.
But, second, “kingdom” means reign. It’s not God’s kingdom unless the subjects actually honor God as king. Lines on a map mean nothing. The state of one’s heart matters much more.
And so God’s kingdom is a voluntary kingdom. He doesn’t run for office, but we choose whether to submit to Jesus as King.
The Kingdom of prophecy is spoken of in both terms. It’s both Daniel’s stone carved out of a mountain that destroys all human kingdoms, and it’s the Suffering Servant of Isaiah dying for the sins of others.
The Jews to whom John was speaking knew nothing of Jesus — not yet — but they knew about Isaiah and Daniel. And so the promise of the kingdom of heaven meant that the Exile would soon be coming to an end, the Spirit would be outpoured on God’s people, the Messiah would come and reign on the throne of David, and the blessings of the Kingdom would be received by God’s people.
The Jews might debate the details and even the nature of the Kingdom, but they’d been praying for the Kingdom ever since Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Jerusalem and taken the Jews into captivity — for hundreds of years.