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.
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
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.
- 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. [↩]
- Cf. Köstenberger, “The Identity of the ᾿ΙΣΡΑΗΛ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ,” 12. [↩]
- See Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 309–11, who discusses these options. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Johnson, “Paul and ‘The Israel of God’,” 45. [↩]