N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 12 (Circumcision of the heart, Part 6A)


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 accomplish our salvation.

David’s comment

I want to respond to a comment by David,

David wrote,

It would seem that Joel 2:30, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” was the apostle’s prooftext to show that when the Messiah and Spirit came, the ceremonial laws of Moses would be irrelevant.

I agree, and I think there’s even more to it.

When Paul essentially replaces physical circumcision with circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, then possession of the Spirit becomes the “mark” of being one of God’s covenant people, a member of the faith community. Circumcision was not replaced with baptism, filling out a membership card, attending Membership 101 class, filling out a volunteer sheet, going forward to place membership, or the like. The boundary marker is now possession of the Spirit — as Joel said it would be.

(Joel 2:28-32a ESV)  28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.  

30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.  32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. 

If we take the idea of the Spirit replacing circumcision as fundamental — as fundamental to Christianity as circumcision is to Judaism — then we are forced to re-interpret this passage —

(Col. 2:11-17 ESV) 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands [that is, circumcised by the Spirit (baptism is done with the hands!)], by putting off the body of the flesh [our sinful, fallen natures are sanctified by the Spirit], by the circumcision of Christ [that is, circumcision of the heart by the Spirit], 12 having been buried with him in baptism [when the Spirit is normatively received], in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh [our sinful, fallen natures], God made alive together with him [the Valley of Dry Bones!; Deu 30:6 “that you may live”!], having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [the resurrection proves that God can defeat and so will defeat the worst that his enemies can throw at him].

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath [as such exterior things have nothing to do with whether you possess the Spirit]. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ [who gives us a preview of the New Heavens and New Earth in his church, which is far closer to the reality to come than Israel was].

In v. 17, Paul imagines a bright, shining light from the NHNE shining backwards in time. It illuminates Jesus, the Kingdom, and the Spirit — which cast shadows back in OT times. The shadows reveal something of what is to come — but in silhouette. Now that we are closer to the Light and possess the illuminated things (what Paul calls the “substance” or “body”), why focus on the shadows? Move from mystery to revelation, from prophecy to fulfillment.

Thus, the ceremonial laws are not so much repealed as superseded and obsolesced. They point toward something better than themselves not yet received in hand.

[T]he phrase ‘of the things that were to come’, which qualifies ‘shadow’, shows that the proper contrast is that between the old age and the new. Christ has inaugurated the ‘age to come’. The regulations of Judaism were designed for the period when the people of God consisted of one racial, cultural and geographical unit, and are simply put out of date now that this people is becoming a world-wide family. They were the ‘shadows’ that the approaching new age casts before it. Now that the reality is come, there is no point in clinging to the shadows. And the reality belongs to Christ.

N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale NTC 12; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 125.

[Paul’s] style of argument throughout this passage is heavily ironic, portraying Judaism as ‘another religion’ in order to show that Christians do not need it for completeness. Here he is in effect saying: even in terms of pagan religion itself, Judaism has to do with the shadow-world, not with reality. The word for ‘reality’ here is sōma, which elsewhere regularly means ‘body’: so that the phrase could be translated ‘the body of Christ’. Since this seems quite out of keeping with the context, sōma is usually taken solely as the opposite of skia, shadow, and this meaning is undoubtedly the primary one. But the proximity, within the same argument, of verse 19, where the ‘head’ and the ‘body’ are introduced quite casually, may suggest that Paul is aware of, and wishes to exploit, a double entendre here. He manages to refer at the same time to the substantiality of the new people of God, as opposed to the shadowy nature of the old, and to the fact that this new people is the ‘body of Christ’.

N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale NTC 12; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 125-126.

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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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