The phrase “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 has long been a matter of contention. Scholars and theologians, as well as pastors and church leaders have debated whether or not the Church should be included in Paul’s descriptor “the Israel of God”. Dispensationalists in particular are very concerned that we not include the Church as part of “the Israel of God”. Obviously the interpretation of this verse has theological implications.
What I find interesting is how much trouble has been spent on this verse to avoid the Church (believing Gentiles and Jews) being referred to by the precise term “Israel”. Why should that term be more important than the following terms which all clearly teach that the Church shares much continuity with Old Testament, believing Israel?
Gentile Christians (who, in part make up “the Church”) are called:
- those who share “the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all”, and thus share in “the promise” (Rom. 4:16, with vs. 13)
- Jews (Rom. 2:27-29, compare Rev. 2:9, 3:9)
- “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29)
- children of “the Jerusalem above” who is “our mother” (Gal. 4:26)
- “like Isaac”, they are “children of promise” (Gal. 4:28)
- formerly, Gentile Christians were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” now they are “no longer strangers and aliens” but are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:12,19)
- “the real circumcision” (Phil. 3:3)
- “the offspring of Abraham” for whom Christ died (Heb. 2:16)
- recipients of the “new covenant” (Hebrews chapters 8 & 10, and 2 Cor. 3:6, compare Jer. 31:31-34)
- “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion“, “elect exiles“, “sojourners and exiles” (James 1:1, 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:11)
- “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9 compare Ex. 19:5-6)
- formerly they were “not a people, but now” they “are God’s people“; formerly they “had not received mercy, but now” they “have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10 compare Hosea 1:6-10)
- “a kingdom, priests to… God” (Rev. 1:6, compare 1 Pet. 2:9, Ex. 19:5-6)
This list doesn’t include the sacrifices Gentile Christians bring to God (Rom. 12:1-2, Heb. 12:15-16) nor the idea of the Church being a temple of God indwelt by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:20-22, 1 Pet. 2:4-5). Sure one or two of the terms in the list above might be open to dispute. But the cumulative result of all of the titles above seems to be undeniable — Gentile Christians share many titles and privileges with believing Israel of old.
Given this wider Scriptural context, should it be surprising that in Galatians, a book where Paul goes out of his way to affirm in no uncertain terms the equality all believers (Jew and Gentile) share in Christ, that he would call the Church, “the Israel of God”? Again consider Paul’s statements below:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (3:28-29)
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (6:15)
Contextually in Galatians, Paul is arguing for the unity of believers in Christ, and the last part of chapter 6 is a summation of his argument. An unconditional blessing given to a Jewish “Israel of God” seems out of line with the rest of the book. Furthermore, “all who walk by this rule” (stated in vs. 15) seems to qualify the receivers of the “peace and mercy”.
I have read and reviewed O. Palmer Robertson’s book The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and found his arguments concerning the verse quite compelling. Recently I came across 2 additional articles which deal well with this question.
G.K. Beale’s “Peace and Mercy Upon the Israel of God: The Old Testament Background of Galatians 6:16b” (Biblica 80, , pg. 204-223) is fantastic. He shows that Isaiah 54:10 is most likely alluded to in Paul’s very unusual linking of the terms peace and mercy. He demonstrates that the terms are not commonly found together and demonstrates convincingly that the “new creation” motif of Isaiah 54 is likely in Paul’s mind when he penned Galatians 6:16. His analysis sides with the view that “the Israel of God” refers to all believing Jews and Gentiles together (i.e., the Church).
Andreas Kostenberger around the same time as Beale, independently worked on an article entitled: “The Identity of the Israel of God in Galatians 6:16″ (Faith & Mission 19/1 , pg. 3-24). His article approaches the issue from a wider angle analyzing the passage syntactically and theologically. He concludes that the term refers to all the believing Church, whereas the “them” earlier in the verse is more specifically focused on believers at Galatia. He also shows how this verse harmonizes with Rom. 9-11 and Paul’s emphasis there.
The articles above (as well as the book mentioned previously) would be a good read for this topic. Michael Marlowe also includes some historic quotations from earlier commentators on this particular question, at bible-researcher.com.
I don’t think that the term “Israel of God” by itself settles the dispensationalist/covenant theology debate. But I would have to think some nuancing is required for strict dispensationalists. For more on the dispensational / covenant debate, I would also point you to my series “Understanding the Land Promise“.
|Bob Hayton graduated from Fairhaven Baptist College in Chesterton, IN (BA Pastoral Theology, ’01; MA Bible, ’02), and married Carolyn (Barnard) from SD, whom he met and courted in college. God further convinced him of the need for careful Biblical exegesis and expository preaching and used the influence of his younger brother (who graduated from Northland International University, Dunbar, WI), various books and some circumstances to alter his thinking gradually concerning theology/ministry. When he moved to MN, his reform came to a head as he ended up leaving independent Baptist fundamentalism altogether, and joined John Piper’s church (Bethlehem Baptist, Minneapolis) where he sensed both an embracing of the fundamentals of the faith/conservative theology and an emphasis on treasuring Christ. Blogging has become a ministry for him in many ways, and his blog "Fundamentally Reformed" is located at: http://www.fundamentallyreformed.com/|
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