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Who is “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16?

Who is “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16? Good men have disagreed as to how to answer this question. My purpose in reviewing the debate here is not to explore every argument in detail but to at least review the various views, state my view, and give a snapshot of the primary arguments for how I myself would go about identifying “the Israel of God.”1 I hope that a run through the issues will be at least a good exercise in exegesis and theology if nothing else. If you find yourself convinced by my explanation below, I’ll be glad to welcome an advocate for what is obviously a difficult verse.

In this verse, Paul states, “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16 ESV).

View 1: Many today and historically have equated “the Israel of God” with “all who walk by this rule,” that is, the rule of righteousness by faith in Christ who was crucified for us and walking in the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:25; 6:14). The Israel of God includes every Christian and is thus equivalent to the church as a whole.

View 2: Others see “the Israel of God” as believing Israelites in distinction from unbelieving Israelites. In other words, some Israelites believe the gospel in this age and are thus “of God” while others do not and are not.

View 3: Like View 2, “the Israel of God” consists of believing Israelites, but not just some of them. This Israel is all of them, but in the future, that is, “all Israel” that “will be saved” in time to come (Rom 11:26).

I personally hold to View 2, believing that God will also save all Israel in time to come as Rom 11:26 states. It seems to me that Paul has the present situation more on his mind than eschatological concerns, though View 3 is certainly possible. Covenant theologians typically follow View 1, while dispensationalists typically follow Views 2 and 3.2 While theology certainly comes to bear on this passage, I hope to demonstrate that exegesis and context are on my side, which, as I believe with other passages in Scripture, happens to lead me to a dispensational conclusion.

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Digging into the verse at hand, a more literal translation would relocate “and mercy” after the first prepositional phrase: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (kai hosoi tō kanoni toutō stoichēsousin, eirēnē epʼ autous kai eleos kai epi ton Israēl tou theou). Seeing the literal order of words is helpful, and however one translates the verse, it is the second and especially third uses of kai (“and”) that are variously debated.

For the second use of kai (highlighted in bold in the following), one might suppose that Paul prays two prayers: (1) “peace upon them” and (2) “and mercy also upon the Israel of God.” With two prayers, one can see that the third use of kai is translated “also” as a result. Or, Paul prays one prayer for one group, “peace upon them, and mercy” and adds that this prayer is also for some within that group: “and upon the Israel of God.”3

Whether one prayer or two, more debated is the verse’s third use of kai (highlighted in bold in the following). Paul prays for “them…and upon the Israel of God.” If one were to follow View 1 above, kai would be translated as “even,” a rare use of kai, making a prayer for peace and mercy “upon them…even the Israel of God.” In other words, Paul emphasizes the identity of “them” as being “even the Israel of God” in order to highlight the unity that all Christians have as Jews and Gentiles in together being “the Israel of God.” This use of “Israel” is thus figurative and rare as the term refers to national Israel in all of its sixty-seven other uses in the NT.4

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In what seems to be the primary argument for View 1, understanding “the Israel of God” in this way emphasizes unity at the end of a letter in which Paul has been arguing against distinguishing one group from another within the church (i.e., Jews from Gentiles). All people in the church are together “the Israel of God.”

But, in defense of View 2, “the Israel of God” could also be understood as intended to distinguish believing Israelites not from Gentiles in the church but the unbelieving Israelites who were causing trouble in the church. This interpretation also takes the context of Galatians into account. Unbelieving Israelites were attempting to add the Law to the gospel. Some Israelites were believers and did not follow this false teaching. Paul thus ends his letter by identifying believing Israelites as “the Israel of God” to distinguish them from the false teachers who were attempting to lead them astray. While “the Israel of God” also happens to distinguish believing Jews from others in the church, it only shows their unity with those others in that the believing Jews, too, walk according to Paul’s rule in spite of their Jewish ethnicity and background that would make the unbelieving Jews’ false theology all the more appealing.

In keeping with this understanding, “the Israel of God” in Gal 6:16 follows the typical meaning of “Israel” in the NT, i.e., national Israelites. Also, as the qualifier “of God” limits the Israelites mentioned to those who believe the gospel, “the Israel of God” harmonizes with Paul’s teaching of a spiritual remnant among Israel elsewhere in the NT. “The Israel of God” could also be described as those who truly “belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6) and the nation’s “remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5). “The Israel of God” could even be said to find its counterpart in the unbelieving “Israel after the flesh” (1 Cor 10:18 KJV).5

In summary, I believe that identifying “the Israel of God” as believing Israelites (View 2 above) is well-supported for the following reasons: (1) exegetically, this view follows a normal usage for the verse’s third instance of kai (“and”); (2) in the context of Galatians, this view can be just as well explained as any other argument that takes the whole context of Galatians into account; and (3) in the context of the NT (and the Bible as a whole), this view follows the normal meaning of the term “Israel,” and while spiritually qualified as being “of God,” it harmonizes with other texts that speak of a “spiritual Israel” as well.

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David Huffstutler

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.



Endnotes:

  1. For a deeper look at the exegesis, context, and theology of this verse, see S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Paul and ‘The Israel of God’: An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study,” Master’s Seminary Journal 20 (Spring 2009), 41–55, and Andreas J. Köstenberger, “The Identity of the ᾿ΙΣΡΑΗΛ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ (Israel of God) in Galatians 6:16,” Faith and Mission 19 (2001), 3–18. For two commentaries that present arguments that could be used for views surveyed below, see Timothy George, Galatians (NAC 30; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 439–41, and Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 398–403. []
  2. Cf. Köstenberger, “The Identity of the ᾿ΙΣΡΑΗΛ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ,” 12. []
  3. See Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 309–11, who discusses these options. []
  4. Even if other debated passages are excluded from this number (e.g, Rom 9:6; 11:26), the typical understanding of “Israel” is national Israel. But, as the argument goes, if in one passage Israel is equivalent to believers in the present era and thus the church itself, so also can Israel as such be understood in the other passages as well. []
  5. Johnson, “Paul and ‘The Israel of God’,” 45. []

12 Responses to Who is “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16?

  1. David

    Doesn’t this problem get solved in Heb 12:22ff

    22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assemblya of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

    As a side note – I am always intrigued by the absence of mention of the Spirit of God in this comprehensive statement of Kingdom reality…. The church is Israel – simple as that. At least from this author’s perspective…:-)

  2. David

    While I appreciate some of your exegetical work – when I read the context – it appears very much like there is a bit of a slam on the circumcision – by distinguishing them from the Israel of God – what we might call “spiritual Israel”. The preceding vs seems to rule.

    Greg

  3. David – Regardless, I REALLY appreciate your addressing this matter – it is interesting – and worthy of further consideration.

    I go back to Acts 2 and see that Joel was “fulfilled” – well, sun turned to darkness…. fulfilled?? Yup – that is what the author said…:-) What are the implications….

    Greg

  4. Hi David, I wholeheartedly agree with your “view 2” on the Israel of God. No Gentile believer is ever called an Israelite in scripture. Nor does scripture ever refer to a group called “spiritual Israel”! We must always clearly distinguish between the Jew, the Gentile and the church of God. There are Jews or Israelites in the church as there are Gentiles in the church. But being “in Christ” has never placed a Gentile “in Israel” nor has being “in Christ” ever made an Israelite a Gentile!!

  5. Bruce – You are making great points – and certainly worthy of further consideration. While I detest the use of “argument from omission” for all the obvious reasons (a real cop-out most of the time) – I am wondering that Paul may not have so used in this particular context as a bite against the “dogs”…?? What do you think?

    Also – when you work through the Heb12:22ff passage – we see that we are the new Jerusalem, etc. are we not?? Etc.

    I am looking at the notion of the church of God simply being the Israel – as as those are Jews who are circumcised in the heart (which we do have explicitly stated). Is there a meaningful difference?

    This is not meant to be an answer but to keep pushing the ball. I am not strong in this area – and am intrigued by it – particularly due to a debate between Michael Brown and Gary DeMar – which I appreciated Gary’s points.

  6. Hello Greg – I’ll give a brief comment, though Heb 12 is not the focus of my post – as groups are identified in Heb 12:22-23, I would personally distinguish between “the assembly of the firstborn” (i.e,. the church) and “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (i.e., OT saints, which would include Israelites who believed). My understanding is that Heb 12:22-24 speaks of our heavenly worship as if we were at the heavenly Jerusalem, which is different from saying that we are equated with the New Jerusalem, our habitation in time to come. As to circumcision in the heart, I understand it as a metaphor for regeneration – even the externally circumcised needed this internal circumcision (cf. Deut 10:16; 30:6).

    Thank you, Bruce. I agree!

  7. Hi Greg,
    This is in response to your post yesterday…
    My thoughts on an argument from silence….An argument from silence is by far a stronger argument than one which puts words in the apostle’s mouth which he never spoke (i.e. terms like “spiritual Israel”, “true Israel”). But this (that Paul never called Gentile believers “Israelites” is really NOT an argument from silence as Paul consistently calls Gentile believers “Gentiles” and not “Israelites”! See Rom.1:13; 3:29; 9:24; 11:11,12,13,25; 15:9,10,11,12,16,18,27; 16:4; I Cor.12:13; Gal.2:8,12; 3:14; Eph.3:1,6; 4:17; Col.1:27; I Tim.2:7 and II Tim.1:11 There is not even a single instance in scripture of a believing Gentile or a group of them ever being called “Israelite(s)” or “Jew(s)”!
    Re Hebrews 12;22ff arguing for the idea that “the church is Israel”…. This passage argues nothing of the kind. Gentile believers come to Mount Zion, the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem just as Jewish believers do as “the general assembly and church of the firstborn”. Neither Jewish believers nor Gentile believers come to the heavenly city as Israelites. They both come as “the general assembly and church of the firstborn”.
    Brother, Romans 2:28,29 does NOT say, “those are Jews who are circumcised in heart”. The text speaks of two things (1) what IS NOT and what IS a Jew and (2) what IS NOT and what IS circumcision (which makes a man right with God)….
    (1) “he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly….he is a Jew, which is one inwardly and
    (2) “neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:…. circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.”
    Think about the first (being a Jew)….neither Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael nor Jacob were Jews! You had to be a descendent of Judah to be a Jew! Nor were Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael or Jacob Israelites! There were no Israelites until after Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Only then were his descendants called “Israelites”. You have to be a direct physical descendant of Jacob/Israel to be an Israelite (it’s an inward matter, i.e. one of DNA). Arabs are of the seed of Abraham through Ishmael, but being the seed of Abraham does not make an Israelite (for Abraham was not an Israelite!) Being an Israelite is an inward matter (your DNA shows you are descended from Jacob/Israel). So too being a Jew is also an inward matter of DNA, you are a descendant of Israel through his son Judah.
    Think about the second (circumcision)…. Which counts with God under the New Covenant – circumcision in the flesh, in the letter or circumcision of the heart and in the spirit? Does circumcision in the flesh make a man right with God? Or does circumcision of the heart, in the spirit make a man right with God?
    Now with these things in mind, what does Romans 2:28 & 29 tell us to answer the question:
    -“Who is a Jew?
    What do these verses tell us to answer the question: “What is it (present tense as Paul was writing after the crucifixion of Christ, i.e. under the New Covenant) to be circumcised?
    Does Romans 2:28,29 equate being a Jew inwardly with being circumcised in heart?
    Or do these two verses contrast two things:
    – (1) the claim to be Jew by an outward mark vs. the reality of being a Jew by inward DNA (Is a physically circumcised Arab a Jew?) and
    – (2) the claim to be right with God by outward circumcision vs. the reality of being right with God by circumcision of the heart in the spirit? (Is an orthodox and very religious Jewish man, who was circumcised on the 8th day after birth, right with God on account of who he is and what he has done?)

    Does this help any, brother?

  8. Bruce – Great comments and thoughts. I will be paying attention to what is really sort of a new area to me – and I see that it is one in which there are some interesting distinctions. The Gary DeMar/Michael Brown debate was quite fascinating in this regard – not sure you are familiar.

    Again – I will take these comments and throw them against the Word of God in my reading over the next several months. Thanks so much for taking the time to provide!!!!!

  9. Bruce

    Here is the link – I think it was interesting – re church replacing Israel… which I tend to move towards – but am not at all to be in any sense definitive – or even barely speculative.

    Greg

  10. Just a note to say after reading the interchange with Bruce and Greg, I so appreciate the attempt at scriptural clarity by the comments. Regardless of position, the brotherly treatment is refreshing indeed! Keep it up!

  11. Thanks Brian… though please note – it is especially easy when brother knows he does not know what he is talking about…:-) (I am not so sure I always carry that grace into other domains BUT I have specifically been focused on that – and your words are encouraging!).

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