IS GOD FINISHED WITH ISRAEL?
The question addressed on this page is whether the New Testament Church represents spiritual Israel or the new Israel as some have taught based on their interpretation of Galatians 6:16. This is of more than passing pedantic interest, for some then go on to reason that the "Israel of God" or the "Church" has now replaced the Old Testament "Israel" and therefore God is finished with "Israel" in His prophetic plan. Is that what Paul is teaching in Galatians 6:16?
In 1847 the following article was published in Bibliotheca Sacra
“The future condition of the Jews is a subject which has received from various sources no small attention. The subject is worthy of attention. It is worthy of attention for its own sake. Every branch of truth and every department of the divine operations has in it something to repay investigation. The connection of this subject with other themes imparts to it a still higher interest. The right understanding of it will lead to some views of essential importance in regard to the general character of the religion of the Bible, besides which some lessons of practical duty will grow out of it. The Jews have been a people greatly distinguished… In the investigation of this subject it is not a mere superficial view of it with which we should be satisfied. It is a subject which enters deeply into the economy of the gospel and involves principles of the very highest moment in the interpretation of the Bible.”
HAS THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
REPLACED ISRAEL IN GOD'S PLAN?
In his last words to the Galatian believers Paul asked that
"peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God." (Galatians 6:16, NASB)
The Amplified Version renders it…
Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule [who discipline themselves and regulate their lives by this principle], even upon the [true] Israel of God!
A tragic misinterpretation (and misapplication) is to use this verse as justification for the hypothesis that since the majority of Jews rejected the Messiah and His gospel, God has instituted a new program in which the New Testament Church, the body of Christ, has replaced Israel and inherited the promises He originally intended to bestow on Israel. This genre of of teaching is often referred to as replacement theology. In context Paul is not suggesting by using the term the Israel of God that the church has replaced Israel, for in Romans 11 he declares…
I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. (Ro 11:1-note)
From this verse alone, one can conclude that God is not finished with Israel. Paul's disclaimer not withstanding, the phrase Israel of God has been misapplied by those who want to "delete" Israel from God's prophetic plan. Below are a few examples of comments on the meaning of the Israel of God that could potentially be used by someone to justify their teaching of replacement theology. Note carefully that I am not saying the authors of these commentaries espouse such a radical view but only that the way they comment on Galatians 6:16 could be utilized by others to "support" a belief that Scripture teaches replacement theology…
"The church is the true Israel." - The Disciple Study Bible
"A spiritual Israel of which every believer is a citizen" - Jon Courson's Application Commentary
"upon the Israel, that is, the Church, of God" - John Wesley
"Most interpreters understand “the Israel of God” as… another term for the Christian church. To Paul the church is the new Israel, related to God, not through physical descent, but by faith." - Arichea, D. C., & Nida, E. A. A Handbook on Paul's Letter to the Galatians. UBS handbook series; Helps for translators Page 159. New York: United Bible Societies. (Notice that this work which is geared to be an aid to those who translate the Scriptures does not even mention the alternative interpretation of "saved Jews" as a possibility!)
"the Israel of God… is one of many names for the church found in the New Testament." - Warren Wiersbe (In fairness to Dr Wiersbe his following comment includes a specific disclaimer that "this does not mean that the church has permanently replaced the nation of Israel in the program of God, but only that the church is 'the people of God' on earth today just as Israel was in centuries past.")
To reiterate, I am NOT saying that the above commentators espouse a belief that the Church as the Israel of God has now replaced Israel and that God is finished with Israel in His prophetic plan. But on the other hand one can see how a cursory reading of these commentaries might be twisted to support the false doctrine of "replacement theology".
To add to the potential for confusion, the fact is that for centuries, Israel was a nation without a land; and it seemed that the covenant promises would not be fulfilled. In fact in 1932, the respected British expositor G. Campbell Morgan concluded…
I am now quite convinced that the teaching of Scripture as a whole is that there is no future for Israel as an earthly people at all (This Was His Faith, p. 290)
It is easy to see how one might draw such a conclusion with Israel being without a homeland for such an extended time. But then Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob began to move to fulfill His covenant promises (see Covenant: Abrahamic versus Mosaic). May 14, 1948 arrived and the nation of Israel was re-born within a day despite overwhelming odds against them! For an riveting documentary on this event, watch Israel - A Nation Is Born, which presents this drama from a non-religious, albeit still fascinating viewpoint in which the Christian can clearly discern God's hand of direction.
So let's take a brief overview of how some other writers handle this controversial phrase, "the Israel of God":
Dr. John MacArthur comments that…
The Israel of God refers to Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, to those who are spiritual as well as physical descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:7) and are heirs of promise rather than of law (Ga 3:18). They are the real Jews, the true Israel of faith, like those referred to in Romans 2:28 (note), Ro 2:29 (note) and Ro 9:6,7 (note). (MacArthur, J. Galatians. Chicago: Moody Press - page 210)
Dr. Charles Ryrie writes that "Israel of God" represents…
Christian Jews, those who are both the physical and spiritual seed of Abraham. The church is not equated with the new Israel of God; rather two groups are mentioned here--all believing Galatians and especially believing Jews in that group." (The Ryrie Study Bible) (Bolding added)
Dr. Henry Morris adds that…
The Israel of God is not a synonym for the church, but refers rather to those Jewish Christians in the church who were truly resting in the grace and liberty of Christ, justified by faith in His finished work of redemption--not in circumcision or any other works of the law. Paul was contrasting them with the Judaizers, the professing Jewish Christians who were troubling the Gentile Christians with their insistence on circumcision and Jewish ritualism in general, even while they themselves could not "keep the law" (Galatians 6:13) and indeed may well have been manifesting "the works of the flesh" rather than "the fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:19, 20, 21, 22, 23-see notes). (Defenders Study Bible)
The highly respected conservative, evangelical Bible Knowledge Commentary agrees with MacArthur, Ryrie and Morris' interpretation of (Galatians 6:16) writing that
The NIV errs in translating it "even to the Israel of God" rather than “and upon the Israel of God” as in the NASB. While some believe that “Israel of God” is the church, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. First, the repetition of the preposition (“upon” or “to”) indicates two groups are in view. Second, all the 65 other occurrences of the term “Israel” in the New Testament refer to Jews. It would thus be strange for Paul to use “Israel” here to mean Gentile Christians. Third, Paul elsewhere referred to two kinds of Israelites—believing Jews and unbelieving Jews (cf. Romans 9:6-note). Lest it be thought that Paul is anti-Semitic, he demonstrated by means of this benediction his deep love and concern for true Israel, that is, Jews who had come to Christ. (Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., et al: The Bible Knowledge Commentary) (Bolding added)
William MacDonald - Many have taken this (the phrase "the Israel of God") to mean the church. However, the Israel of God refers to those Jews by natural birth who accept the Lord Jesus as Messiah. There was neither peace nor mercy for those who walked under the law, but both are the portion of those in the new creation. (MacDonald, W & Farstad, A. Believer's Bible Commentary: Thomas Nelson) (Bolding added)
The King James Version Study Bible - The verse’s final and seems to distinguish between Gentile Christians (as many as walk) and Jewish Christians (the Israel of God). (KJV Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson)
Even older commentators such as Matthew Poole (1624–1679) have not seen the "church" in the phrase "the Israel of God", Poole commenting - Upon the Israel of God;” upon the true Israelites, whom he calleth “the Israel of God;” hereby intimating and confirming the truth of what he had said, Ro 2:28 (note), Ro 2:29 (note), and what our Saviour had said of Nathanael, John 1:47, calling him “:an Israelite indeed,” because in him was “:no guile;” and establishing a distinction between such as were so really, and those who were only Israelites in name, because descended from Jacob, to whom God gave the name of Israel. Hereby also checking the vanity of the Jews, who gloried in the name of Israelites, and thought there could no water come out of the fountains of Israel which God would cast away. The apostle doth not promise, or prophesy, mercy and peace to all Israelites, but only to the Israel of God; that is, to believers, that received and embraced Jesus Christ offered in the gospel. (Matthew Poole's Commentary on the New Testament) (Bolding added)
Tom Constable writes that "the Israel of God"
refers to saved Jews. It describes a second group in the verse, not the same group. Note the repetition of “upon” that makes this distinction. Also “Israel” always refers to physical Jews everywhere else in the New Testament (65 times). Furthermore it would be natural for Paul to single out Christian Jews for special mention since in this epistle he sounded almost anti-Semitic. Therefore it is better to take this phrase in its regular usage rather than as a unique designation for the church as a whole, as many non-dispensationalists do.
“Strong confirmation of this position [i.e., that “Israel” refers to Jews in the New Testament] comes from the total absence of an identification of the church with Israel until A.D. 160; and also from the total absence, even then, of the term ‘Israel of God’ to characterize the church.” (Peter Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church, p. 83)
(Quoting Arnold Fruchtenbaum) “The conclusion is that the church is never called a ‘spiritual Israel’ or a ‘new Israel.’ The term Israel is either used of the nation or the people as a whole, or of the believing remnant within. It is never used of the church in general or of Gentile believers in particular. In fact, even after the Cross there remains a threefold distinction. First, there is a distinction between Israel and the Gentiles as in 1Corinthians 10:32 and Ep 2:11, 12-notes. Second, there is a distinction between Israel and the church in 1Corinthians 10:32. Third, there is a distinction between Jewish believers (the Israel of God) and Gentile believers in Ro 9:6 (note) and Galatians 6:16.” (Tom Constable. Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible)
D H Stern commenting on Galatians 6:16 writes that…
This controversial verse, with its expression, unique in the New Testament, “the Israel of God,” has been misinterpreted as teaching what Replacement theology (Ed note: see also What is replacement theology?) wrongly claims, namely, that the Church is the New Israel which has replaced the Jews, the so-called “Old Israel,” who are therefore now no longer God’s people. But neither this verse nor any other part of the New Testament teaches this false and anti-Semitic doctrine." (Stern, D. H. Jewish New Testament Commentary: Clarksville, Md.: Jewish New Testament Publications)
The NET Bible addresses the Greek text in Galatians 6:16 with the following comment…
The word “and” (kai) can be interpreted in two ways: (1) It could be rendered as “also” which would indicate that two distinct groups are in view, namely “all who will behave in accordance with this rule” and “the Israel of God.” Or (2) it could be rendered “even,” (Ed Note: NIV chooses "even" for translation) which would indicate that “all who behave in accordance with this rule” are “the Israel of God.” In other words, in this latter view, “even” = “that is.” (Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible)
Dr. John Walvoord, one of the most esteemed authors on Bible prophecy, in an article entitled "Does the Church Fulfill Israel's Program?", writes that…
Appeal is made (by those who do not accept a Millennium) to the fact that the Greek preposition kai is sometimes used in an explicative sense and is equivalent to namely. Or it could be used in an ascensive sense and translated even. But the normal meaning of kai is that of a simple connective as indicated by the translation “and.”… there is, in fact, no instance of (Paul's) using "Israel" except of the Jewish nation or a part thereof. These facts favour the interpretation of the expression as applying not to the Christian community, but to Jews; yet, in view of "tou theou" ("of the God"), not to the whole Jewish nation, but to the pious Israel, the remnant according to the election of grace (Ro 11:5-note), including even those who had not seen the truth as Paul saw it. In view of the apostle’s previous strong anti-judaistic expressions, he feels impelled, by the insertion of kai to emphasize this expression of his true attitude towards his people. It can scarcely be translated into English without over translating (Ed note: Young's Literal "over translates it as "peace upon them, and kindness, and on the Israel of God!"). The burden of proof is on the expositor to show that the word is used in the sense of “namely” or “even.” Such proof is completely lacking. It is significant that Arndt and Gingrich avoid listing Galatians 6:16 in their study of unusual uses of kai. Robertson has no reference to it in either his Grammar or his Word Pictures. It is also interesting that commentators who do not have a particular burden to prove that Israel is the church usually do not comment on the problem. Under the circumstances the simplest explanation is the best, that is, that what Paul is saying is that those who walk by the rule of grace as a new creation in Christ are worthy recipients of His benediction of peace and mercy, but that from his standpoint this is especially true of the Israel of God, by which Paul means Israelites who in the church age trust Jesus Christ. This is a natural and biblical explanation. In any case this verse is not an explicit statement that the Israel of God equals the church composed of both Jews and Gentiles. If those who contend for this point of view had a better verse, they obviously would not use this text. (Does the Church Fulfill Israel's Program?)
William Newell writes that…
Most of that earthly nation will perish under Divine judgments, and the Antichrist: but the Remnant will be “accounted as a generation.” Our Lord told His disciples that this present unbelieving generation of Israel would not pass away till all the terrible judgments He foretold would be fulfilled. But that that generation—“Israel after the flesh” will pass away we know; and a believing generation take their place. See Ps 22:30-note; Ps 102:18-note. Jehovah at last “arises, and has pity on her,—for the set time has come!” So we read the Psalmist’s words
This shall be written for the generation to come;
And a people which shall be created shall praise Jehovah.
This is the real Israel of God, of whom it is written, “All Israel shall be saved.” (Romans 11 - in Romans Verse by Verse)
Marvin Vincent widely recognized as a Greek scholar adds that…
The kai and may be simply collective, in which case the Israel of God may be different from as many as walk, etc., and may mean truly converted Jews. Or the kai may be explicative, in which case the Israel of God will define and emphasize as many as, etc., and will mean the whole body of Christians, Jewish and Gentile. In other words, they who walk according to this rule form the true Israel of God. The explicative kai is at best doubtful here, and is rather forced, although clear instances of it may be found in 1Cor 3:5; 1Cor 15:38. It seems better to regard it as simply connective. Then osoi ("all") will refer to the individual Christians, Jewish and Gentile, and Israel of God to the same Christians, regarded collectively, and forming the true messianic community." (Vincent, M: Vincent's Word Studies)
The Nelson Study Bible agrees but leaves a slight hint of uncertainty writing that…
The Israel of God probably refers to the remnant of believing Jews (Ro 11:1, 2, 7-see notes Ro 11:1; 11:2; 11:7). They are Abraham’s spiritual descendants (Gal 3:6-9) because they believe in God and rely on His grace. (Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. The Nelson Study Bible: NKJV)
Similarly the Wycliffe Bible Commentary has a note of uncertainty writing that "the Israel of God" possibly…
refers to the whole church, in view of the and, the more probable reference is to Christian Jews, such as Paul himself. These are the real Israel, as opposed to those who merely bear the name (cf. Ro 2:29-note). (Pfeiffer, C F: Wycliffe Bible Commentary)
Gerald Peterman in "Moody Bible Commentary" has a lengthy note:
The phrase the Israel of God is found only here in the NT (but see Ps 125:5) and probably refers to those ethnic Israelites who will come to believe in Messiah throughout the Church Age. The phrase is almost universally viewed as proving that the Church replaces Israel in God's program, or that the Church is the New Israel. But the statement is brief enough that it is unlikely to be able to bear this much theological freight. On this issue, Robert L. Saucy writes,
If we see the message of Galatians as a defense not only of justification by faith alone, but also of Paul's ministry of salvation to Gentiles as Gentiles, it becomes extremely unlikely that Paul would conclude his argument by calling Gentiles "the Israel of God." It is much more probable, in view of his strong condemnation of the Judaizers who sought to enslave the Gentile converts, that Paul sought to recognize also the validity of a true Israel. Thus, whether the reference is to Jews in the church who were presently walking according to Paul's rule or to the "all Israel" destined for eschatological salvation (Romans 11:26), it is more in line with the apostle's language, his overall theology, and the message of Galatians to view "the Israel of God" as a reference to Jewish people (The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993], 201).
In addition, several other factors suggest that the Israel of God refers to believing Jews.
First, taking this as a special blessing for Messianic Jews fits the normal syntax of the Greek copulative kai as a continuative or conjunctive usage (a simple "and" or "and also"). Paul would be blessing those "who follow this standard and the Israel of God." This is the most normal way to translate the conjunction. To see this as referring to the Church requires an unusual use of kai, translating the word as an explicative ("even"). Then the translation would be a blessing upon those "who follow this standard, even the Israel of God."
S. Lewis Johnson correctly notes,
"We should avoid the rarer grammatical usages when the common ones make good sense" ("Paul and the Israel of God" in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, ed. Stanley D. Toussaint and Charles H. Dyer [Chicago: Moody, 1986], 187).
A second argument is based on the meaning and referent of the word "Israel." Of the 73 usages, this would be the only one that would not refer to physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Editorial note: Click to see all 68 uses of "Israel" in the New Testament). It is unlikely that Paul decided to use the word in a "spiritual" sense when every other time he used it as literally referring to the people of Israel. It is sometimes argued that "Israel" in Romans 9:6 (Ed note) or Romans 11:26 (Ed note) refers to the Church as the spiritual Israel, but see the comments there.
Third, understanding the "Israel of God" to refer to the faithful Jewish remnant would fit the context in a far better way. At the end of the epistle, having rebuked those who were demanding circumcision in addition to faith as a requirement for justification before God, Paul certainly wanted to bless everyone in Galatia who supported his teaching. Since some might have viewed Paul's sharp rebuke as attacking all Jewish believers, Paul added a specific blessing. This one was not just for those who accepted his teaching, but also for the Jewish believers who agreed with him. They were "the Israel of God," the loyal Jewish remnant of Israel (Johnson, "Paul and the Israel of God," 192).
Here is Dr S Lewis Johnson's summary from his paper on Galatians 6:16:
Persistent efforts to explain “the Israel of God” in Gal 6:16 as a reference to the church defy overwhelming grammatical, exegetical, and theological evidence that the expression refers to ethnic Israel. Among contemporary interpreters, three views of the phrase’s meaning emerge: (1) “The Israel of God” is the church; (2) “The Israel of God” is the remnant of Israelites in the church; and (3) “The Israel of God” is the future redeemed nation. View 1 suffers from the grammatical and syntactical weakness of endorsing the meaning of the Greek particle kai as “namely,” a rare usage of that word. Exegetically, View 1 is also weak in choosing to define “Israel” as the church, a usage that appears nowhere else in biblical literature. View 1 also is lacking theologically because the name “Israel” is not applied to the church at any time in history until A.D. 160. Views 2 and 3 coincide grammatically and syntactically, exegetically, and theologically in positive support for those views by taking kai in its frequent continuative or copulative sense and by understanding “Israel” as a reference to ethnic Israel. View 3 shows its exegetical superiority to View 2 through the six points of Peter Richardson, which develop the ethnic nature of “Israel,” and by recalling Paul’s eschatological outlook for ethnic Israel in Rom 11:26. Theologically, View 3 jibes with Paul’s teaching about two kinds of Israelites, the believing ones and the unbelieving ones. Those who persist in advocating View 1 present a classic case in tendentious exegesis. (To read the entire paper see Paul and the Israel of God - An Exegetical and Eschatological Case Study. The Masters Seminary Journal. Volume 20, Spring, Page 41-55, 2009)
Barry Horner has a lengthy defense of why "The Israel of God" (Gal 6:16) refers to believing Jews and not to the Church:
Paul exhorted the Galatians who were principally Gentiles to show discernment in this matter. "Peace" and "mercy," which are so central and resultant concerning a true experience of the gospel, is bestowed on those who are exclusively directed in their daily walk by grace and life in union with Christ. But for those who employ Moses along with Christ, as in a relationship that may be likened to spiritual bigamy (Rom 7:1-4), peace and mercy are impossible. Moses will only aggravate the problem (Ro 5:20; 7:7). Then Paul was reminded of a minority group in the church at Galatia, a small number of Jewish Christians. They were ethnically Jewish but different from "those who want to make a good showing in the flesh" (6:12). He included them as well in his exhortation since they, being authentic Jewish Christians, were "the Israel of God" and with the Gentiles were equally able to participate in the benediction of "peace" and "mercy" (Galatians 6:16).
The Jewish Christian Interpretation
Considerable debate has surrounded the translation of this verse. The NASB, for example, reads, "And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and [emphasis added] upon the Israel of God." The HCSB reads similarly: "May peace be on all those who follow this standard, and mercy also [emphasis added] be on the Israel of God." But the NIV translates, "Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even [emphasis added] to the Israel of God."
This latter misinterpretation, wrote David Stern, a Jewish Christian, has caused immeasurable pain for the Jews. The conclusion was reached that the Church is now the "New Israel" and the Jews, the so-called "Old Israel," no longer God's people. If the Jews are no longer God's people, isn't it appropriate to persecute them? There are four reasons why this anti-Semitic conclusion is false and is not taught by this verse or any other: (1) the Greek grammar, (2) the Jewish background, (3) Sha'ul's [Paul's] purpose here, and (4) Sha'ul's teaching elsewhere.
Stern's distress here is by no means unfounded. In John Gager's The Origins of Anti-Semitism is an honest reckoning with Gal 6:16 concerning the unfortunate neglect of certain historic doctrinal factors that conflict with the common association of Israel with the church. Having noted Peter Richardson's demonstration that "Israel" was first applied to the Christian Church by Justin Martyr c. 160, Gager asserted,
This is a sobering discovery. If language provides any clues to reality, we ought now to be more cautious when speaking about rejection-replacement views of Israel in the earliest stages of Christian development. Paul's writings come a full century before the time of Justin. They are certainly the earliest Christian documents to have survived and perhaps even to have been written. If we knew nothing of their contents and were forced to hazard a guess based solely on an extrapolation from Richardson's observation about Justin, would we arrive at anything like the traditional interpretation of Paul on Israel and the Torah? In fact, Paul nowhere addresses his churches as Israel. Nor does he transfer to them Israel's distinctive attributes. The RSV translation of Philippians 3:3 ("We are the true circumcision...") indicates such a transfer, but the RSV translation at this point must be seen as dependent on the rejection-replacement view of Israel, not the other way around.
Gager rejected the identification of Israel with the church. He cited Ernest D. Burton's designation of "the Israel of God" as "the pious Israel, the remnant according to the election of grace (Rom 11:5)," but Gager apparently opted for Richardson's conclusion that "the blessing [of "peace and mercy"] falls on two separate groups: those who follow Paul's standard and the Israel to whom God will show his mercy, namely, 'all of Israel'" (see Rom 11:26).
The Exegesis of Two Key Words
"Israel" According to Paul
There is no use of the term "Israel" in the NT that is an explicit equivalent to the Christian church. Regarding Paul's usage, Burton declared, "There is, in fact, no instance of his using Ἰσραήλ [Israēl], except of the Jewish nation or a part thereof." Furthermore there is no evidence from history that the term "Israel" was synonymously used with regard to the church before A.D. 160 (see the previous section).
"And" Rather than "even"
The continuative "and" (kai) is not only contextually but also statistically preferable when compared with the ascensive "even." Most commonly, the translation is "and upon the Israel of God" (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, etc.), which shows Hebrew Christians retaining a distinct identity within the one people of God. The translation, "even upon the Israel of God" (NIV), portrays the church, comprised of all the people of God, with a refined title, the "spiritual" Israel of God. In the NT of the KJV the approximate usage is 97 percent for kai as "and" compared with 3 percent for kai as "even." The continuative use of kai has a far greater frequency than the ascensive use. Concerning the NIV's uncommon use of "even" in this regard, a degree of ambiguity remains. The ascensive use of kai could be correct, but the emphatic use is also possible: "Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even [by way of an adjunctive, emphatic thought] to the Israel of God." A. T. Robertson suggested that this may have been the original meaning of kai, so that "also" here would seem to be a preferable translation, as with the HCSB (see above). In this instance the distinctive character of the Jewish Christian is retained. It is difficult not to suspect that the NIV translation was doctrinally driven so that the intention was to identify the church as the new Israel of God.
Compatibility with Romans 11:5, 26
A broad Judeo-centric approach to Gal 6:16 is reflected in two interpretations related to Romans 11.
First, some associate Gal 6:16 with the "remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom 11:5). These were authentic Jewish Christians at the time when Paul wrote Romans, and they parallel the remnant that Paul identified as "the Israel of God"—a minority within the Gentile churches of Galatia when Gal 6:16 was written. From this perspective, Burton supported the interpretation of the expression [Israēl tou theou] as applying not to the Christian community, but to Jews; yet, in view of τοῦ θεοῦ [tou theou], not to the whole Jewish nation, but to the pious Israel, the remnant according to the election of grace (Rom. 11:5).
A considerable number of scholars has taken a similar exegetical path including G. C. Berkouwer, Hans Dieter Betz, F. F. Bruce, Walter Gutbrod, A. T. Hanson, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., and Gottlob Schrenk.
Second, it is difficult to ignore Paul's eschatological hope in a future conversion of national Israel, at which time "all Israel will be saved" (Rom 11:26). Hence this "full number" (Rom 11:12) parallels the consummation of "the Israel of God," as we have already seen with Richardson, along with the agreement of F. F. Bruce and Franz Mussner. Despite variations, both views provide a consensus that Gal 6:16 refers to Jewish Christians and therefore cannot be identified as a synonym for the homogenous people of God.
The Conflict between Exegesis and Doctrine
S. Lewis Johnson, formerly a NT professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and a strong Calvinist, wrote that in the interpretation of Gal 6:16 "dogmatic considerations loom large." He continued,"The tenacity with which this application of "the Israel of God" to the church is held in spite of a mass of evidence to the contrary leads one to think that the supporters of the view believe their eschatological system, usually an amillennial scheme, hangs on the reference of the term to the people of God, composed of both believing Jews and Gentiles. Amillennialism does not hang on this interpretation, but the view does appear to have a treasured place in amillennial exegesis." Johnson claimed to have observed "a certain rigidity" in the viewpoint that identified Israel with the Church in this verse.
Some amillennialists, however, think an ethnic future for Israel is compatible with their system. An example of this is found in the fine work of Anthony A. Hoekema on eschatology. He grants that an ethnic future for Israel would with certain strictures be compatible with his amillennial views, but he argues strongly against such an interpretation.
He then raised the question, "Why, then are amillennialists so opposed generally to an ethnic future for Israel?" His suggested answer was that if such a normal interpretation of the language of the Old Testament is followed in this instance, it is difficult to see how one can then escape the seemingly plain teaching of many Old Testament prophecies that the nation of Israel shall enjoy a preeminence in certain aspects over the Gentiles in the kingdom that follows our Lord's advent (cf. Isa. 60:1-4; 62:1-12; Mic. 4:1-5; Hag. 2:1-7; Zech. 14:16-21, etc).
The Exegesis of Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos
Herman Bavinck believed that the future salvation of Israel would only incorporate a remnant gleaned through the centuries, but Geerhardus Vos believed in a future mass conversion of Israel. In light of this, the preceding explanation of Gal 6:16 by S. Lewis Johnson is born out by the discussion in chapter 6 of Bavinck's anti-premillennial, eschatological understanding of Israel's future. As VanGemeren wrote,
In the interest of polemic against premillennialism Bavinck sacrifices the OT prophetic hope to a harmonious understanding of the NT, in which the NT passages which hold out a hope for Israel and different exegetical options are either harmonized or not fully considered. The authority of the OT as well as of the NT seems to be sacrificed out of concern for unity, harmony, and systemization.
VanGemeren also referenced Vos's similar anti-premillennial concern and why it was so difficult for him to enter into detail about his belief in the future conversion of Israel and its absorption into the Christian church. It was "because it had been connected on the one hand with the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and on the other hand with the millennial kingdom."
The apostle Paul, who never repudiated his Jewishness, who always gave priority to Jewish evangelism, who continued to indicate the most tender love for his "countrymen by physical descent" (Rom 9:3), was not likely to be propounding here a vital truth through the use of ambiguous, even specious terminology. Surely he did not declare to the Galatian Jews that, through absorption among the Gentiles, they now had been racially disenfranchised by God. Upon his arrival at Rome several years after the letter to the Galatians had been penned, Paul first sought to witness to "the leaders of the Jews" concerning "the hope of Israel" (Acts 28:17, 20). To suggest that in this situation he spoke deftly with his tongue, using an expression often employed before about a truth he believed would soon require divine "reinterpretation" is simply unthinkable. Certainly he would not have been declaring the demise of Judaism. Rather, in Rome he would have preached Christ to both Jews and Gentiles with the hope that unbelieving natural branches, through jealousy, might become part of the "remnant chosen by grace" (Rom 11:5), that is, the true "Israel of God" (Gal 6:16). In this way Paul would have heartily rejoiced in declaring, "I magnify my ministry" (Rom 11:13). (Read his excellent treatise "Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged")
The best Commentator on Scripture is always God Himself. Thus Jeremiah records Jehovah's testimony…
Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day, and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the LORD of Hosts is His name:
"If this fixed order departs from before Me," declares the LORD, "Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever." Thus says the LORD, "If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done," declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:31-37-see notes)
Beloved, Jehovah could not have been much clearer! God is not finished with Israel or the Jews! So God grant us grace to continue to...
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem"!
Bob DeWaay in his article The Millennial Hope and the Church - Pre-Millennialism Defended In Church History
"Has not the Church replaced Israel, making the idea of a `Jewish' millennium incongruous?"
The most convenient way to dispose of many difficulties in interpreting Biblical prophecy has been the adoption of "replacement theology" - the claim that the church has replaced Israel and has inherited all of the promises given to national Israel. This usually also entails the spiritualizing of promises given to national Israel. If not spiritualized, they are deemed having been permanently forfeited because of Israel's rebellion. The conclusion for most who accept replacement theology: the Jews and national Israel have no place in God's plans and no particular significance in history or the end times.
This approach is problematic. The term "Israel" is used seventy one times in the New Testament and seventy of them refer to the Jews or the nation of Israel. The one exception is the proof text for those who see no particular prophetic significance for Israel. Galatians 6:16 - "And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God." Paul is speaking of those of the new creation who are crucified with Christ. This includes regenerate Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ.
The usage here is similar to the distinction Paul makes in Romans 2:28-29 and Romans 9:6-8 between those who are physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob and those who are the remnant of faith. This distinction did not begin at Pentecost with the birth of the church, but as Romans 9 shows, was present under the Old Covenant. Nor does this distinction eradicate the significance of national Israel or ethnic Judaism. Romans 9 begins with Paul's concern for the Jews and Romans 3 begins with the advantages of the Jews. Romans 11 is clearly about ethnic Israel and the attitude of humility the church should have toward the Jews. These verses do not teach that the church is Israel or that a Jewish Israel is forever outside of God's plans.
Consider Romans 11:25: "For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in." Who is partially hardened? - not the church, but ethnic Israel. The contrast with "Gentiles" makes that clear. Romans 11:26 says, "And thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, `The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.'" Clearly (although this verse has a history of being subject to multiple, varied interpretations), "Israel" in verse 26 is the same as in verse 25 - ethnic Israel. Paul says that Israel's hardening is partial and temporary. He did not say that a complete hardening has happened forever - that "Israel" is now the Gentile church.2
Paul teaches in Romans 11 that Gentiles have been grafted into a Jewish olive tree. This means those among the Gentiles who have faith in Messiah are joined to the remnant of faithful Israel to make up "one new man" (Ephesians 2:15). Yet Israel as a group still has an identity. For example, Paul preached to Jews in Acts 13:16, referring to them as "men of Israel." In Acts 28:20, Paul referred to his arrest as for, "the hope of Israel." Paul did not make it his habit to use "Israel" to mean "church."
William Kelly (Plymouth Brethren)…
And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." In the first expression, "as many as walk according to this rule," he specially looks, I think, at the Gentile believers, such as the Galatians were. "this rule" is the rule of the new creation — Christ Himself. He adds, "peace be on them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." The only part of Israel acknowledged consists of the real believing Jews. "Israel of God" seems to be used here, not as a general phrase for every saint, but for the believing ones in Israel — those Jews who had repudiated their own works and found shelter only in Christ Jesus. Two parties are spoken of, and not one only. "As many as walk according to this rule," are rather the Gentile believers; and the "Israel of God" are the Jewish saints, not the mere literal Israel, but "the Israel of God;" the Israelites indeed, whom grace made willing to receive the Saviour. (Galatians.)
Hamilton Smith (Plymouth Brethren)…
The Israel of the flesh had crucified their Messiah, and come under judgment; the "Israel of God" were surely the godly remnant of the nation who by grace had believed and turned to the Lord. Mercy rested upon such. (The Epistle to the Galatians)
Andy Woods (Is the Church Israel) summarizes the points that favor the "Israel of God" as a reference to Jewish believers and not to the church…
1) Continuative kai is the most common New Testament form
2) Appositional kai is the rarest New Testament form
3) Point easier made by eliminating kai
4) “Israel” always means national, ethnic Israel elsewhere in the New Testament (Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, pg. 684-90)
5) Israel not equated with church by the fathers until A.D. 160
6) Why introduce sweeping point in conclusion rather than doctrinal section?
7) Twofold repetition of “upon” (epi)
8) Paul elsewhere designates two groups (Gal 6:15; 2:7-8)
9) Paul elsewhere singles out ethnic, believing Jews (Rom 2:28-29; 4:11-12; 9:6; 11:1, 5; 1 Cor 10:18)
10) Paul not anti-Semitic-Burton pg. 358
(See Andy Woods' related article Israel-Church Differences)
Arnold Fruchtenbaum in the Chafer Theological Journal (Online reference - see page 14)
Galatians 6:16 is the only passage adduced by all Covenant Theologians (see discussion of this approach to Biblical interpretation) as evidence that the Church is the spiritual Israel, or that Gentile believers become spiritual Jews. The verse does not prove any such thing. The passage reads: And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. The Book of Galatians is concerned with Gentiles attempting to attain assurance of salvation through the law. The ones deceiving them were Judaizers, who were Jews demanding adherence to the Law of Moses. To them, a Gentile had to convert to Judaism before he qualified for salvation through Christ. In Gal 6:15, Paul states that salvation is by faith, resulting in the one new man. He also mentions two elements: circumcision and uncircumcision. This refers to two groups of people: Jews and Gentiles, two groups already mentioned by these very terms in Gal 2:7, 8, 9.
In Gal 6:16, Paul pronounces a blessing on members of the two groups who would follow this rule of salvation through faith alone. The first group is the them, the uncircumcision, the Gentile Christians to whom and of whom he devotes most of the epistle. The second group is the Israel of God. These are the circumcision, the Jewish believers who, in contrast with the Judaizers, followed the rule of salvation by grace through faith alone. Covenant Theologians here ignore the primary meaning of kai (and) which separates the two groups and instead insist on a secondary or lesser meaning (even) in order to blur distinctions within the body of Christ. Thus, the only support of the theory that that the Church is spiritual Israel (or that Gentile believers become spiritual Jews) is a secondary meaning of one word, kai. The secondary meaning hardly applies in this verse containing a blessing for both Jewish and Gentile believers. This kind of circular reasoning persists, despite the remarkable absence of scriptural support.
- Table Comparing/contrasting Israel & Church
- How is the Term "Israel" Used in the New Testament?
- Is the Church Israel? Audio & Slide Show
- Does the Church Fulfill Israel's Program? - John Walvoord
- Eschatological Problems V: Is the Church the Israel of God? - John Walvoord
- Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged - Barry Horner
- Romans 11 Does God Have a Future for Israel? Gil Rugh (46 page booklet)
- The Jewish Problem - small book by Jewish believer David Baron (written in 1891-interesting!)
- Tony Garland's 15 Hour Course on Romans 9-11 - What is God's Plan for Israel?
- Why Israel Can’t Be Ignored - Discovery Series - Since the days of Abraham, no other nation has been as blessed or as troubled as the people of Israel. In this booklet, Mart De Haan shares biblical insights on the land and people of Israel and how the past, present, and future of a nation chosen by God will impact the entire world. Gain a better understanding of God’s protection for His chosen people and their mission to reveal to the world the God of all creation.
Israel - Used 68 times in 66 verses in the NAS95: Notice that all the NT uses refer to literal Israel. Not one use "spiritualizes" the term Israel (assuming that Galatians is not the lone exception!)
Matthew 2:6 'AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.'"
20 "Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child's life are dead."
21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.
Matthew 8:10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.
Matthew 9:33 After the demon was cast out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds were amazed, and were saying, "Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel."
Matthew 10:6 but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
23 "But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.
Matthew 15:24 But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
31 So the crowd marveled as they saw the mute speaking, the crippled restored, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.
Matthew 19:28 And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Matthew 27:9 Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "AND THEY TOOK THE THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER, THE PRICE OF THE ONE WHOSE PRICE HAD BEEN SET by the sons of Israel;
42 "He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him.
Mark 12:29 Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD;
Mark 15:32 "Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!" Those who were crucified with Him were also insulting Him.
Luke 1:16 "And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.
54 "He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy,
68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
80 And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
Luke 2:25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
32 A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel."
34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed--
Luke 4:25 "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land;
27 "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."
Luke 7:9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, "I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith."
Luke 22:30 that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke 24:21 "But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.
John 1:31 "I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water."
49 Nathanael answered Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel."
John 3:10 Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?
John 12:13 took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, "Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel."
Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?"
Acts 2:36 "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-- this Jesus whom you crucified."
Acts 4:10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead-- by this name this man stands here before you in good health.
27 "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,
Acts 5:21 Upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest and his associates came, they called the Council together, even all the Senate of the sons of Israel, and sent orders to the prison house for them to be brought.
31 "He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 7:23 "But when he was approaching the age of forty, it entered his mind to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel.
37 "This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, 'GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN.'
42 "But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, 'IT WAS NOT TO ME THAT YOU OFFERED VICTIMS AND SACRIFICES FORTY YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS, WAS IT, O HOUSE OF ISRAEL?
Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;
Acts 10:36 "The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)--
Acts 13:17 "The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it.
23 "From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus,
24 after John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.
Acts 28:20 "For this reason, therefore, I requested to see you and to speak with you, for I am wearing this chain for the sake of the hope of Israel."
Romans 9:6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;
27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "THOUGH THE NUMBER OF THE SONS OF ISRAEL BE LIKE THE SAND OF THE SEA, IT IS THE REMNANT THAT WILL BE SAVED;
31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.
Romans 10:19 But I say, surely Israel did not know, did they? First Moses says, "I WILL MAKE YOU JEALOUS BY THAT WHICH IS NOT A NATION, BY A NATION WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING WILL I ANGER YOU."
21 But as for Israel He says, "ALL THE DAY LONG I HAVE STRETCHED OUT MY HANDS TO A DISOBEDIENT AND OBSTINATE PEOPLE."
Romans 11:2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
7 What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened;
25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery-- so that you will not be wise in your own estimation-- that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;
26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, "THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB."
1 Corinthians 10:18 Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?
2 Corinthians 3:7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was,
13 and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away.
Galatians 6:16 And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
Ephesians 2:12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Philippians 3:5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee;
Hebrews 8:8 For finding fault with them, He says, "BEHOLD, DAYS ARE COMING, SAYS THE LORD, WHEN I WILL EFFECT A NEW COVENANT WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND WITH THE HOUSE OF JUDAH;
10 "FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS, AND I WILL WRITE THEM ON THEIR HEARTS. AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.
Hebrews 11:22 By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.
Revelation 2:14 'But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.
Revelation 7:4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
Revelation 21:12 It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel.