N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 10 (Circumcision of the heart, Part 4)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.

Rom 2:25-29, Part 4 [JFG]

(Rom. 2:25-29 ESV)  25 For circumcision [the mark of a Jews] indeed is of value if you obey the law [Torah], but if you break the law [Torah], your circumcision becomes uncircumcision [of the heart under Deu 10:16 and 30:6].  

26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law [Torah], will not his [physical] uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision [or the heart]?  27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code [Torah] and circumcision but break the law [Torah].

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [merely knowing Torah rather than obeying Torah]. His praise is not from man but from God.

Ezekiel and the Spirit  [JFG]

Ezekiel’s prophecies about the Glory of God establish many of the NT’s metaphors used to describe the Spirit. But there are also several passages speaking more directly to what the Spirit will do in the Messianic age.

(Ezek. 11:17-21 ESV)  17 Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’  18 And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations.  19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,  20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

Now, “spirit” in v. 19 is generally translated with a lower case “s” — although this is far from certain. The word (ruach) can mean Spirit, life, breath, wind, or even attitude. And Ezekiel is certainly saying that the people will have an attitude change. But as we’ll see, Ezekiel likes to play with the multiple meanings of ruach, so that “spirit” often carries more than one meaning — such as both Spirit and attitude. After all, the Holy Spirit does change our hearts to have a better attitude.

(Ezek. 18:31-19:1 ESV)  31 “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”  

Notice the repetition of the promise of a “new heart” — after God had promised to circumcise the Israelites’ hearts in Deu 30:6. And Ezekiel keeps associating this with the ambiguous “spirit” or ruach.

God through Ezekiel makes this promise regarding the end of Exile —

(Ezek. 36:24-28 ESV) 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.  25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  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.  28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

The parallels with Deu 30 are unmistakable, and God says that he himself will change the hearts of his people — but for a purpose. They will have changed hearts so that they’ll be obedient.

According to Ezekiel, who is it that obeys God’s statutes and rules? Those whose hearts have been change (circumcised) by the Spirit. And so we see that Paul in Rom 2 is only restating what the prophets had said centuries earlier.

The Valley of Dry Bones [JFG]

In one of the most evocative passages in the Bible, Ezekiel speaks of God taking an army of dry bones and rebuilding them by his Spirit. He is speaking of the end of the Exile. In fact, he is speaking of the events we call “the Acts of the Apostles.”

(Ezek. 37:1-14 ESV) The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.  3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”  

We don’t know which valley. My guess is that the metaphor is a contrast with the mountain on which Jerusalem sits. The Temple was on Mt. Moriah. If you fall from the Glory present in the Temple, you land in a valley. And downhill from the city of Jerusalem, there were graves.

But why have they not been properly buried? The answer is to be found in the covenant curses. The practice of throwing bodies out into the open to be eaten by wild animals is well attested in ancient Near Eastern sources. The treatment was applied especially to those who had broken contracts and treaty oaths … .

Ezekiel probably viewed the present scene as evidence of the fulfillment of Yahweh’s own covenant curse in Deut. 28:25–26: “Yahweh will put you to rout before your enemies. You will march out against them by a single road, but flee from them by many roads. You will become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses will become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.” … While Ezekiel would undoubtedly have been reminded of this curse, the command to prophesy to the breath to enter these corpses that they might live offers hope. Yahweh is hereby announcing the lifting of the curse!

Daniel Isaac Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997–), 377–378.

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath [ruach] to enter you, and you shall live.  6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath [ruach] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”  

Remember: ruach can mean life, breath, or Spirit. The wordplay does not translate that well into English, but it seems that Ezekiel meant for ruach to carry multiple meanings at once. That is, it’s futility to insist that ruach means only one thing at a time.

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath [ruach] in them.  

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath [ruach]; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath [ruach], Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath [ruach], and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”  10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath [ruach] came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.  

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’  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 [ruach] 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.”

What does it mean? Well, many things. But one thing is that the Exiled Jews will be dead in the eyes of God — like dry bones outside the gates of the city of God. Remember:

(Isa. 66:22-24 ESV) 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.  23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.  

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

The Exiled Jews will be as those who died outside the camp — the place of criminals and rebels — and outside of the inheritance, that is, the New Heavens and New Earth. They are as unable to resurrect themselves as a skeleton found shining in the desert heat.

But God can take the Exiles, give them his Spirit, breathe life into them, and restore them to the fullness of humanity — indeed, back into God’s own image — and he can restore their inheritance. And it can only happen by the power of God.

Again, this is Pentecost, but not just Pentecost. It’s also every baptism, because we all receive the Spirit from God and our dry bones become not only flesh but a “mighty army” for the Lord, re-created in his image by the power of his breath, the Spirit.

Recapitulation [JFG]

Ezekiel’s final reference to the Spirit is —

(Ezek. 39:28-29 ESV) 28 Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore.  29 And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel is very explicit in speaking of exile and the curses of Lev 26 and Deu 28-29 and the end of Exile in Deu 30 — all to be lifted by the outpouring of the Spirit on the “house of Israel” — not just a few apostles and prophets, but the entire nation — all who repent and so escape Exile.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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