Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism, by Lionel J. Windsor

Reviewed by Lindsay John Kennedy

Lionel Windsor’s Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism, along with a volume by Christopher Zoccali on Philippians, is a flagship of a new series published by Cascade books and edited by J. Brian Tucker, David Rudolph, and Justin Hardin.1 This series, which strangely provides no description by the editors, examines the New Testament from a post-supersessionist perspective. These books are not strictly commentaries, though Windsor’s volume is a commentary-like monograph that comments on each section of the letters, primarily addressing their relevance for post-supersessionist interpretation.

In Windsor’s definition, post-supersessionism refers “to a constellation of differing—and often mutually contradictory—perspectives.”2 What unites them is their rejecting the idea that the Christian church replaces or supersedes Israel without remainder. For Windsor, supersessionism “should be regarded as a flawed and even harmful viewpoint that has had its day.”3 More positively, re-reading the New Testament with this conviction leads to fruitful exegetical and theological discoveries.

Ephesians and Colossians have long been read with a supersessionist bent and two factors have especially contributed to this misunderstanding. First, Ephesians and Colossians have been regarded as non-Pauline. Second, Ephesians in particular has often been considered as an ahistorical theological tract. Both factors have detached the letters from Paul’s historic mission. Interpreters often disregard the “autobiographical” sections of the letters (e.g. Eph 3:1–5; Col 1:24–2:5) as digressions or even fabrications by a pseudonymous author. Windsor laments these trends, holding rather that Ephesians and Colossians “explicitly locate themselves and their readers within the ongoing dynamic of Paul’s divinely appointed apostolic mission to preach Christ to ‘the gentiles.’”4 How is recovering the historical missionary thrust of these letters significant for post-supersessionist interpretation? Doing so emphasizes “the distinction between Jew and gentile which the letters presuppose.”5 This then enables an interpretation that is sensitive to the dynamic between Jewish and gentile believers in Messiah.

There are several perspectives that belong under the post-supersessionist banner, and so first Windsor must place his own within the spectrum. He interacts with the views of dispensationalism, R. Kendall Soulen, Messianic Judaism (particularly the writings of Mark Kinzer), and the “Paul within Judaism” trend in Pauline scholarship, noting strengths and weaknesses before presenting his own view. Though he draws upon the above, most influential in his thinking is the output of Donald W. B. Robinson and Robinson’s student Graeme Goldsworthy. Both authors emphasize the historical role of Jewish missionaries, particularly the early apostles, as fulfilling the priestly role of Israel to the nations through preaching the gospel of Jesus. Unity between Jew and gentile is found in Christ, but without eradicating Jewish identity. In fact, “in Ephesians, unity is achieved through diversity.”6 This viewpoint is “both strongly Christological and structurally Israel-shaped.”7

In the second chapter, Windsor identifies key texts and issues that are pertinent to common supersessionist interpretations of Ephesians and Colossians. Windsor summarizes popular “over-readings”8 into three categories: first, that Christ made physical circumcision invalid for all (Eph 2:11–12; Col 2:11–13); second, that Christ abolished Jewish observance of the Mosaic law (Eph 2:14–15; Col 2:13–23); and third, Christ, by forming a new humanity, erased Jewish identity (Eph 2:14–16; Col 3:11). Though Pauline authorship is not essential to Windsor’s view, he does present a case for both letters being authentic.

Turning to Ephesians, chapters 3 through 6 explore Ephesians 1, 2, 3, and 4–6 respectively. In Ephesians 1, Windsor finds several important threads for a post-supersessionist reading. First, Paul’s self-designation as an apostle is not merely a claim to authority; it is a recognition of his ministry of gospel proclamation to the nations.9 Paul’s strange reference to the addressees as “the holy ones, who are also believers in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1b, author’s translation) is emphasizing gentile inclusion in Israel’s holiness. Ephesians 1:3 is identified as a Christological adaptation of a Jewish barakhah (“blessing”). Usually, berakhoth open with a variation of “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.”10 However, Paul adjusts this phrase as “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” This raises the question of whether Paul sees Messiah as a replacement of Israel. Windsor, finds the answer in connecting this passage with the Abrahamic call (Gen 12:1–3), where God will bless Abraham and his seed, and through whom the nations will be blessed (Gen 22:17–18). Thus, Paul sees Messiah as the “fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel—and further as the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the nations through Israel.”11 The “spiritual blessings” of Ephesians 1:3–14 are therefore not vague; they are those of the Messianic age in fulfillment of the Abrahamic blessing. In other words, “God’s promises to Israel, and through Israel to the nations, have reached their eschatological fulfillment”12 in Messiah.

This is played out in the remainder of Ephesians 1:4–14. Windsor suggests that the pronouns of the passage are significant. Paul distinguishes between “we” and “you” throughout the letter. Though some instances of “we” place Paul with his audience (Eph 2:18; 3:12), elsewhere the “we” are distinguished from the “you,” who are identified as gentiles (Eph 1:11–14; 2:1–3; 2:11–12; and 3:1). Reading 1:4–14 in this light, Windsor recognizes a “priestly-style dynamic”13 at play. The “we” are the “Jewish apostolic community”14 who first received the gospel (Eph 1:7, 12; Rom 1:16) and the “you” are the gentiles who heard the apostolic message through them (Eph 1:13). Windsor reads Ephesians 1:13–14 as a “phenomenological description of the early Christian mission through Israel to the nations.”15 For example, the mention of “you” being sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13) is a reference to the giving of the Spirit to the gentile believers in Messiah (Acts 10:45) as a sign that they too belonged to God. Thus, Ephesians 1 recognizes a distinction between Israel and the nations; however, “Israel’s distinctiveness does not consist in receiving special blessings but rather in being the special channel through whom all of God’s blessings in Christ are extended to the nations.”16

Ephesians 2 is of central concern for a post-supersessionist interpretation, and it duly receives over 40 pages of discussion. Though Israel is distinct from the nations, it too experienced spiritual death (Eph 2:1–3). Ephesians 2:1–10 portrays the universal need and benefits of Messiah’s salvation. However, when it comes to Ephesians 2:11–13, there is a marked difference between the experiences of Israel and the nations. Before the incarnation, Israel alone was in a positive relationship with God (Eph 2:12). Although many interpreters find in 2:11–13 a nullifying of distinction between Jew and gentile believers in Messiah, Windsor holds that this distinction “has not been obliterated; rather it has been Christologically transformed.”17 Unity and peace are achieved through the blood of Messiah (Eph 2:13–16) and preaching of Messiah (Eph 2:17–19). This unity, however, does not come at the cost of obliterating Jewish identity. Physical circumcision is not nullified of meaning; the references to circumcision and uncircumcision are addressing the hostility attached to these labels. The “law of commandments and ordinances”18 that is abolished is not the law itself, but rather the kind of stance toward the law that requires gentile believers to bear a strict halachic yoke (see Acts 15:5, 10; 16:4). Nor are Jews and gentiles recreated as a “third race,” losing their identity in the process. English translations of Ephesians 2:15 have followed the RSV (e.g. NRSV and ESV) by adding “in place of the two.” This implies the unity comes through abolishing Jewish and gentile identity; however the text emphasizes that Jewish and gentile believers are reconciled to God and made fellow citizens together. Unity in Messiah retains the diversity.

Windsor reads Ephesians 3 as confirming his earlier emphasis upon the Jewish apostolic mission to the nations. The mention of “every family” (3:15) hints back to the Abrahamic blessing (Gen 12:1–3) fulfilled through Messiah and the apostolic mission (Eph 1:3ff).

Windsor treats Ephesians 4–6 together in one chapter. Ephesians 4:7–16 is not “primarily a blueprint of the structuring of the church.”19 Rather, it too refers to Messiah’s mission through the Jewish apostles to the nations. The gifts of 4:11 are not ministry roles in the church; they are “key figures in the early Jewish apostolic community,”20 the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20; 3:5) that played a key role in the early church. “Ministry” is also not understood as “service,” but more specifically as a “go-between.”21 Thus, the “saints” who do the work of the ministry to build the body are specifically early Jewish believers who were like priests to the nations. These verses, rather than a timeless description of church ministries, describe the dynamics and goal of the early post-Pentecost Jewish mission.

In chapter 7, Colossians is treated more briefly. Windsor builds upon the conclusions of Ephesians to present “plausible alternative interpretations”22 of relevant passages, and emphasizes the importance of the Jewish apostolic mission to the nations. Colossians 2:11 is understood in many supersessionist interpretations either to mean that physical circumcision is now in conflict with the spiritual reality, that circumcision is replaced by Christian baptism, or that it is no longer a valid boundary-marker for Jewish believers in Messiah. However, Windsor argues that “physical circumcision is not in view at all.”23 The “circumcision of Christ” is contrasted with another kind of spiritual circumcision promoted by the false teaching of Paul’s opponents in Colossae. The Mosaic law is not cancelled in 2:13–15; rather “a record of debt” incurred by trespasses against the law is in view. The Sabbath as a “shadow of the things to come” (Col 2:16–17) is not abolished in Messiah. Paul is thus addressing the false teaching that claimed certain ascetic practices (including for them, Sabbath-keeping) will bring about heavenly experiences. However, these experiences are, at best, shadows of the “things to come” in Messiah’s return.

Windsor is indeed correct that there is great exegetical and theological fruit to be plucked by re-reading Ephesians and Colossians with Paul’s early apostolic mission in mind. Windsor is conversant with a wide swathe of scholars, post-supersessionist and otherwise, and his bibliography is up to date. One may not agree with every individual interpretation; some appear strained to this reviewer. Some from other post-supersessionist perspectives will balk that Windsor appears to hold that no eschatological promises belong specifically to Jewish believers. However, Windsor’s perspective is consistent with itself and the letters are illuminated incredibly. In many ways, this awareness rings true and harmonizes well with Acts and other letters of Paul. Indirectly, Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians is bolstered by Windsor’s insights.

This reviewer is left with some questions. For example, Mark Kinzer suggests that Ephesians 1:4–6 refers to Israel’s blessings pre-incarnation, such as adoption (Rom 9:4; Ex 4:22). Windsor pushes back, given that these blessings are specifically “in Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5).24 However, he does not explain the relationship of this adoption with Israel’s historic adoption. Are these one and the same? If so, does that mean that Jews who rejected Messiah lose their adopted status with the God of Israel? Or are these two different adoptions, and if so, does this mean that Jewish followers of Jesus are adopted twice?

Also, Windsor’s explanation of “the law of commandments and ordinances” (Eph 2:15) as a specific reference to legalistic decrees and not the law in toto could have benefited from some fuller explanation. Acts 15 was helpfully brought into the discussion, but the reference to decrees and yokes in that passage are also difficult to interpret. Though Windsor’s work on this chapter is excellent, some readers may be left unsatisfied or perplexed with this section.

Windsor also missed a key opportunity in Ephesians 2. A small but growing group of scholars argues that the NT authors identify the restoration of the northern kingdom to God as being accomplished through the salvation of the gentiles. For example, Jason Staples presents this with Paul25 and Joel Marcus with James.26 It has also been argued that Ephesians 2 parallels Ezekiel 37 in several respects,27 and since the latter speaks of the restoration of both Israel and Judah, it is directly relevant to a post-supersessionist reading. Although Windsor did note some connections between Ezekiel 37 and Ephesians 2, he did not appear aware of this issue.

A sign of a book’s success is not only found in the quality of answers it provides, but also in the quality of questions it raises. In both respects, Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism does not disappoint. The fresh rethinking of Ephesians and Colossians will no doubt raise many questions for its readers. For example, what are the implications for the Jerusalem temple, given that Paul states that believers in Messiah are a temple? What do Ephesians and Colossians have to say about Messianic Jewish relations to the synagogue? Should—and if so, how should—Christian churches accommodate Messianic Jewish practice and identity in their own gatherings?

As stated above, Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism does not fill the role of a commentary, though it certainly should be read alongside major Ephesians and Colossians commentaries. The insights and issues found within are significant but sadly overlooked by most major commentaries. This book then, fills an important gap in scholarship and deserves wide readership and consideration. Having taught both books in the past, I blushed upon recognizing some of my own presuppositions being corrected. I imagine others will do the same. Thus, I cannot imagine teaching Ephesians and Colossians without regular reference to this book, and I recommend it highly.

1 Lionel J. Windsor, Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017).

2 Ibid, 3.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, 1.

5 Ibid, 3.

6 Ibid, 77, emphasis in original.

7 Ibid, 24, emphasis in original.

8 Ibid, 29.

9 See Eph 3:8; Rom 1:1, 5; 11:13; Gal 2:8; 1 Cor 4:9.

10 Pss 41:13; cf. 1 Sam 25:32; 1 Kgs 1:48; 8:15; 1 Chr 16:36; 29:10.

11 Windsor, Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism, 89, emphasis in original.

12 Ibid, 89. C.f. Gal 3:8; 28–29.

13 Ibid, 95.

14 Ibid, 99.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid, 106, emphasis in original.

17 Ibid, 119.

18 ESV

19 Ibid, 182.

20 Ibid, 182.

21 Ibid, 191; see Windsor, “The Work of Ministry in Ephesians 4:12,” “Tend My Sheep”: The Word of God and Pastoral Ministry, Keith Condie, ed. (London: Latimer Trust, 2016), 1–25.

22 Ibid, 203.

23 Ibid, 214.

24 Ibid, 94.

25 Jason A. Staples, “What Do the Gentiles Have to Do with ‘All Israel’? A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25–27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 2 (2011): 371–390; “Reconstructing Israel: Restoration Eschatology in Early Judaism and Paul’s Gentile Mission,” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 2016).

26 Joel Marcus, “‘The Twelve Tribes in the Diaspora’ (James 1:1),” New Testament Studies 60, no. 4 (2014): 433–447.

27 Robert H. Suh, “The Use of Ezekiel 37 in Ephesians 2,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 4 (December 2007): 715–33.