Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations
by Lionel J. Windsor
Eugene: Wipf & Stock (Cascade Books), 2017.
Series: New Testament after Supersessionism
The New Testament letters of Ephesians and Colossians are full of great truths about the gospel of Christ. But that’s not all. They’re also, equally, full of great truths about the missionary preaching of the gospel of Christ. The apostle Paul wants his readers to grasp the implications of the early gospel-preaching mission—a mission that began among God’s ancient people Israel, and expanded to the nations round about.
That means these letters need to be understood in terms of a biblical-theological missionary dynamic between Jews and Gentiles. In these letters, Paul assumes a certain distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Yet it’s not a distinction that causes separation and hostility. Rather, it’s a positive distinction that serves a missionary purpose. This missionary dynamic in Ephesians and Colossians is often underplayed. That’s why I wrote this book. In many ways, the book is a product of the biblical theology of Moore College: I’m essentially following up and filling out ideas from former Moore College teachers Donald Robinson and Graeme Goldsworthy (see Graeme’s kind endorsement below).
The book is designed for people with some theological training: i.e. pastors and theological students. If the technical-sounding title doesn’t grab you, or if you’ve never even heard of “supersessionism”, that’s OK. The subtitle will tell you all you need to know about the book: it’s about Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations. It’s not quite a commentary, but it’s a deep biblical-theological reading of the two letters with some detailed exegetical explorations of certain key passages. To whet your appetite, here’s my take on some of the passages in Ephesians:
- The strange-sounding address found in key early manuscripts—”to the holy ones, who are also believers in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1)—is original, doesn’t require the words “in Ephesus” to be inserted, and can be explained through adopting a post-supersessionist reading.
- The blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3) alludes to the blessing in Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:3).
- Eph 1:11–14 is a phenomenological descriptive summary of the early Christian gospel-preaching mission from Israel to the nations, using the same kind of concepts and terminology as found in Acts.
- The description of Christ preaching the gospel of peace to the far and near (Eph 2:17–18) is highly significant and complements the earlier description of Christ achieving peace (Eph 2:14–16). That is, Paul cares about the preaching of the gospel as much as he cares about the gospel itself.
- Paul’s description of the abolition of the “law of the commandments in decrees” (Eph 2:15) is consistent with Paul’s more nuanced description of the law in Romans 3:27–30.
- The ESV (following the RSV) is wrong to add the phrase “in place of” in Eph 2:15: this phrase is not in the original Greek and it distorts the meaning of the verse in favour of a replacement theology.
- “The saints” in Ephesians doesn’t just mean “Jewish Christians”, and it doesn’t just mean “all Christians”. That’s too static. The phrase “the saints” is used to make a point about the dynamic movement of holiness from Israel to the nations through the gospel of Christ. So “the saints” are firstly the early Jewish apostolic community, and then all those who believe in Christ–and this dynamic movement matters.
- The phrase often translated “the whole building” in Eph 2:21 means “every construction”, and refers not to a single temple but to various early gospel-preaching missionary endeavours.
- Eph 4–6 is integrally related to Eph 1–3. It is setting out a generalized form of gentile halakah that confirms and conforms to the apostolic mission through Israel to the nations.
- Eph 4:8–10 is about Christ’s victorious descent at Pentecost to equip the early Jerusalem apostolic community for gospel-preaching mission.
- Eph 4:11–12 is about the speaking-gifts among the early Jerusalem apostolic community equipping that community for the work of mission.
- Eph 4:11–16 is not a static description of church order, but a dynamic description of the preaching of the gospel from Israel to the nations and its results.
Because Colossians is less explicit about Israel than Ephesians, I don’t spend quite as much time exploring Colossians. However, I do suggest that, e.g.:
- The reference to the “circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11) is not a denigration of physical circumcision, but a response to an alternative non-physical circumcision offered by the syncretistic philosophy or philosophies in Colossae.
- The identification of certain observances as a “shadow” (Col 2:16–17) is not a denigration of Jewish observances, but a warning against being caught up in the spiritual concerns of the syncretistic religious philosophy and its associated practices, given the “substance” of the future glorious state of believers in Christ.
- The reference to the “elements of the world” to which the Colossians have “died” (Col 2:20) is not a reference to the law of Moses, but a metynomy for those syncretistic religious views, expressed in ascetic principles and calendrical observances, which are being used as a means of achieving heavenly elevation.
What is immediately striking in Windsor’s work is that we find a fresh reading of Ephesians and Colossians, one which challenges supersessionist interpretations. Still, the work doesn’t have a sharp polemical edge but evidences a patient and deep reading of texts in both Ephesians and Colossians. Even those who move in different directions and dispute some of Windor’s conclusions will find him to be a challenging conversation partner. Windsor’s provocative and yet irenic reading of Ephesians and Colossians is an important resource for all further work in these letters.
Fulfillment does not mean replacement without remainder. Such is Windsor’s argument as he examines the need to read the Pauline epistles in the light of the dynamic of the Old Testament: the gospel concerns Israel’s mission to the nations. This is a timely challenge to New Testament readers to allow Paul to speak from this perspective, and to recognize that our unity in the gospel does not mean we eliminate all distinctions, especially those between Jew and gentile.
—Graeme Goldsworthy, Former Lecturer in Biblical Theology at Moore College, Sydney; author of Gospel and Kingdom, According to Plan, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, Christ-Centred Biblical Theology and other titles.
The apostolic mission from Israel to “the nations” forms the explicit framework for Ephesians and Colossians. Yet the concrete dynamics of this mission seldom play any significant role in modern interpretation. Scholars frequently approach these letters as if the Jew-gentile dynamics inherent in the early Christ-preaching mission are either irrelevant, or are negated by the letters themselves. This book seeks to redress this deficiency. Windsor approaches Ephesians and Colossians with an evangelical post-supersessionist perspective. By highlighting, rather than downplaying, Israel’s special place in salvation history, Windsor demonstrates that Jew-gentile dynamics and missionary concerns are highly significant for understanding the overall argument of these two letters. The resulting readings offer a deeper appreciation of the biblical, Israel-centered contours in which the theological and ethical concerns of the letters are expressed. Along the way, Windsor demonstrates how certain texts in Ephesians and Colossians, which are often read as evidence of a supersessionist perspective, are capable of more fruitful and satisfactory post-supersessionist interpretations. He demonstrates that in these letters, Christ does not negate Jewish distinctiveness. Rather, Christ’s mission proceeds through Israel to the nations, creating mutual blessing in the Messiah.
- Ephesians, Colossians, and the Apostolic Mission
- Currents in Post-supersessionist Interpretation
- Soulen’s Economy of Consummation
- Messianic Judaism
- “Paul Within Judaism”
- An Evangelical Post-supersessionist Reading
- Outline of the Argument
Prior Readings of Ephesians and Colossians
- Supersessionist Over-readings of Texts in Ephesians and Colossians
- Physical Circumcision Rendered Invalid? (Eph 2:11–12; Col 2:11–13)
- Jewish Law-observance Abolished? (Eph 2:14–15a; Col 2:13–23)
- Jewish Distinctiveness Nullified in a New Humanity? (Eph 2:14–16; Col 3:11)
- Post-supersessionist Readings of Ephesians
- Critical Questions Concerning Ephesians and Colossians
- Christ Through Israel to the Nations in Ephesians and Colossians
Christ’s Blessings Through Israel to the Nations (Ephesians 1)
- Paul’s Apostolic Mission (Eph 1:1a)
- Holy Ones—Who Are Also Christ-believers (Eph 1:1b)
- Israel’s Blessing Fulfilled in Christ (Eph 1:3)
- The Priestly Dynamic of Blessing (Eph 1:4–14)
- Blessing for Whom?
- The Structure of vv. 3–14
- Blessing Determined and Given (vv. 4–7)
- Blessing Communicated (vv. 8–10)
- Blessing Inherited and Shared (vv. 11–14)
- “We” and “You” in vv. 11–14
- The Jewish Apostolic Mission in vv. 13–14
- The Apostolic Prayer (Eph 1:15–23)
- Summary of Ephesians 1
Christ’s Reconciliation of Israel and the Nations (Ephesians 2)
- Israel and the Nations in Ephesians 2
- Raised Together from Death to Life (Eph 2:1–10)
- Brought from Far to Near (Eph 2:11–13)
- Remember What You Have Become (v. 11)
- The Limited Value of Jewish Circumcision (v. 11)
- Gentile Exclusion from the Messiah and from Israel (v. 12)
- Gentiles Made Near (v. 13)
- The Blood of Christ (v. 13)
- Christ Who Achieved Peace (Eph 2:14–16)
- Breaking Down the Wall (v. 14)
- Abolishing the Law (v. 15a)
- The “One New Humanity” out of “Both” (vv. 15b–16)
- The Peace-making Activity of Christ
- Christ Who Preached the Gospel of Peace (Eph 2:17–18)
- Unity and Diversity in the Gospel-preaching Mission (Eph 2:19–22)
- Jews and Gentiles “Together” (vv. 19, 21, 22)
- Fellow-citizens of “The Saints” (v. 19)
- The Foundational Significance of the Apostolic Mission (v. 20)
- “Every Construction” (v. 21)
- The Gentile Focus: “Also You” (v. 22)
- Summary of Ephesians 2
Christ’s Riches Through Paul’s Ministry to the Nations (Ephesians 3)
- The Place of Paul’s Apostolic Ministry in Ephesians (Eph 3:1)
- Paul’s “Administration” (Eph 3:2)
- Paul’s Insight into the Mystery of Christ (Eph 3:3–6)
- “His Holy Apostles and Prophets” (Eph 3:5)
- Paul’s Role as a “Minister of the Gospel” (Eph 3:7)
- Paul as One of the “Saints” Preaching to “The Nations” (Eph 3:8–9)
- The Cosmic Dimensions of the Apostolic Task (Eph 3:9–12)
- Paul’s Sufferings Achieving God’s Purposes (Eph 3:13)
- The Apostolic Prayer (Eph 3:14–21)
- Summary of Ephesians 3
Walking in Light of Christ’s Mission Through Israel to the Nations (Ephesians 4–6)
- The Foundations of Gentile Halakhah in Christ (Eph 4:1–6)
- The Goal of Christ’s Mission Through Israel to the Nations (Eph 4:7–16)
- Unity Through Diversity (v. 7, cf. v. 16)
- Christ’s Victorious Descent at Pentecost (vv. 8–10)
- The Speaking-gifts Among the Jewish Apostolic Community (v. 11)
- The Jewish Apostolic Community Equipped for Mission (v. 12)
- The Vision: A Diverse, United Body (vv. 13–16)
- A Gospel-driven, Locally-manifested, Ecumenical Vision
- The Details of Gentile Halakhah in Christ (Eph 4:17—6:9)
- The Call to Arms (Eph 6:10–24)
- Summary of Ephesians 4–6
Jews, Gentiles and the Apostolic Mission in Colossians
- A Local Instance of the Apostolic Mission to the Nations (Col 1:1—2:5)
- Holy and Believing Brothers and Sisters at Colossae (1:1–2)
- The Colossians’ Response to the Worldwide Gospel Mission (1:5–7)
- The Colossians’ Portion in the Inheritance of the Saints (1:12)
- Paul’s Apostolic Ministry to the Nations (1:24–29)
- Walking in Christ—in the Face of Local Threats (Col 2:6–23)
- The Circumcision of Christ (vv. 6–12, esp. v. 11)
- The Cancellation of the Record of Debt (vv. 13–15, esp. v. 14)
- The Shadow and the Reality (vv. 16–19, esp. vv. 16–17)
- Death to the Elements of the World (vv. 20–23, esp. v. 20)
- The New Humanity in Christ (Col 3:1—4:6, esp. 3:11)
- Jewish Partners in the Apostolic Mission (Col 4:7–18, esp. 4:9–10)
- Summary of Colossians
Conclusions and Implications