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What Is "The Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16?

by Max Aplin  
11/05/2018 / Bible Studies


In Galatians 6:15-16 the apostle Paul writes to the churches in Galatia: 

15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor is uncircumcision, but what counts is a new creation. 16 And those who will walk by this rule, may peace and mercy be upon them, that is, upon the Israel of God.” 

My translation here depends on matters to be discussed below, as I will explain in due course. 

There is a big debate about what Paul means by “the Israel of God” in v. 16. Some Christians say that it refers to the church. Others say that it refers to ethnic Israel as a whole. And another group says that it refers to all Jewish Christians. 

In this article, I will try to determine which of these interpretations is correct. And then I will say something about why this is important. 

PRELIMINARY POINTS 

Before getting into the main part of the discussion, there are two preliminary points that I need to make about this passage. 

The identity of “those who will walk by this rule” 

Firstly, we need to consider who “those who will walk by this rule” in v. 16 refers to. 

“This rule” is very probably the whole principle of v. 15: “neither is circumcision anything, nor is uncircumcision, but what counts is a new creation.” Much less probably, “this rule” refers specifically to the new creation. 

Regardless of which of these options is correct, however, Paul clearly understands “those who will walk by this rule” as Christians who are doing the will of God. 

Simplifying a little, then, but not in a misleading way, we can say that “those who will walk by this rule” refers to the church. There is wide agreement about this. 

The Greek word kai 

Secondly, I need to say a few words about the Greek text in the second half of v. 16. 

I have translated v. 16 in this way: 

“And those who will walk by this rule, may peace and mercy be upon them, that is [kai], upon the Israel of God.” 

The Greek word that underlies my translation of “that is” is kai. In this translation, kai is being used in what is known as an explicative or epexegetic sense. This means that what comes after the kai gives more information about what is referred to before the kai. 

The explicative use of kai is fairly uncommon in the New Testament, but it does occur (e.g., in Mark 1:19; 1 Corinthians 15:24; Colossians 1:2). For the reasons that I will give below, I have chosen to understand kai as explicative in Galatians 6:16. 

However, this is not the only potential way that kai could be translated. This word more commonly means “and,” and we could potentially translate v. 16 in this way: 

“And those who will walk by this rule, may peace and mercy be upon them, and [kai] upon the Israel of God.” 

If kai is explicative, meaning “that is,” then “those who will walk by this rule” are the same group of people as “the Israel of God.” 

But if kai means “and,” there are two potential options: 

Either (i) “those who will walk by this rule” is a separate group of people from “the Israel of God,” or (ii) Paul narrows his focus as he moves from “those who will walk by this rule” to “the Israel of God,” he uses “and” loosely, and he understands “the Israel of God” to be part of “those who will walk by this rule.” 

Actually, it gets even more complicated than this, because I think the translators of some English versions of the Bible that translate kai as “and” did actually understand “those who will walk by this rule” and “the Israel of God” to be the same group. 

Anyway, I don’t want to get into a long discussion of exactly how to translate and the meanings of Greek and English words here. The key point I am making is that it is potentially possible to understand the Greek of v. 16 in any one of three ways: 

(a) “those who will walk by this rule” is the same group as “the Israel of God.” If so, then, because “those who will walk by this rule” is the church, as we saw in the first preliminary point, “the Israel of God” would be the church. 

(b) “those who will walk by this rule” and “the Israel of God” are separate groups. If so, then “the Israel of God” would be ethnic Israel. It is true that some ethnic Jews in Paul’s day were Christians (as is also true today), so some people would have fallen into both categories. But Paul could loosely be referring to the church and ethnic Israel as separate groups of people. 

(c) “the Israel of God” is part of “those who will walk by this rule.” If so, “the Israel of God” would be all Jewish Christians. 

The Greek will allow any one of these three options, although some have more natural Greek than others as we will see below. 

INTERPRETING “THE ISRAEL OF GOD” 

We are now ready to begin trying to determine what “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 refers to. 

As we have seen, there are three options: 

(1) It refers to the church. 

(2) It refers to ethnic Israel as a whole. 

(3) It refers to all Jewish Christians. 

Which, then, is the correct interpretation? 

It does not refer to all Jewish Christians 

To begin with, we should reject the view that “the Israel of God” refers to all Jewish Christians, i.e., option (3): 

First, there is the minor point that this would involve using kai, meaning “and,” in quite an unusual way to refer to a part of the entity mentioned before the kai. 

Second, having invoked a blessing of peace and mercy on “those who will walk by this rule,” i.e., on the whole church, it looks very strange for Paul then to partly repeat himself by invoking this blessing again on the Jewish part of the church. 

Third, one of Paul’s main aims in Galatians has been to show that Gentile Christians are on an equal footing with Jewish Christians. In Galatians 3:28 he has said that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek [i.e., Gentile].” And in Galatians 6:15 he has just said, “neither is circumcision anything, nor is uncircumcision.” Having said that Christian identity is not dependent on ethnicity, it would be very strange for Paul then to invoke a blessing specifically on the Jewish part of the church. 

We should therefore reject the view that “the Israel of God” refers to all Jewish Christians. 

A reference to the church is to be much preferred 

We are left, then, with interpreting “the Israel of God” as the church or as ethnic Israel. If “those who will walk by this rule” are the same group as “the Israel of God,” then “the Israel of God” is the church. And if “those who will walk by this rule” are a separate group from “the Israel of God,” then “the Israel of God” is ethnic Israel. 

In favor of seeing a reference to ethnic Israel is the fact that the word kai, which I discussed briefly above, far more often means “and” than it means “that is.” Furthermore, the Greek expression tout’ estin is more commonly used to mean “that is.” 

However, the combined weight of the counter arguments is much more impressive: 

(a) First, there is the minor point that when Paul adds “of God” to “Israel,” he is probably hinting that he is using the term “Israel” in an unusual way. It seems likely that he means something along the lines of “what God really regards as Israel,” which would be something other than ethnic Israel. 

I am not suggesting that Paul is implying that ethnic Israel no longer has validity in God’s sight. Nor am I suggesting that the church has replaced ethnic Israel in the purposes of God. But Paul does most naturally seem to be saying that there is a non-literal kind of Israel that is more significant than ethnic Israel. It is well worth noting that he makes almost exactly this point in Romans 2:28-29. 

(b) Second and much more importantly, there is Paul’s blessing to consider. In this passage he invokes God’s peace and mercy on the Israel of God. 

However, a large majority of ethnic Jews alive at the time Paul wrote Galatians did not accept Jesus as Messiah, and Paul (rightly) saw this as rebellion and as a grievous sin (e.g., Romans 9:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). It therefore seems strange that he would invoke God’s blessing on ethnic Israel in their rebellion. 

This becomes even stranger when we note how Paul’s invocation of peace and mercy on the Israel of God is parallel to his invocation of peace and mercy on those who will walk by this rule, i.e., the church: 

The first point to note here is that the peace and mercy Paul invokes on the church seems to be specifically because of the salvation they have in Christ. 

At the beginning of this letter, in Galatians 1:3, he has already said: 

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

The grace and peace Paul refers to in 1:3 is because the Galatians are saved. So surely the peace and mercy he invokes on those who will walk by this rule, i.e., on the church, in 6:16 also has to do with the fact that they are saved. 

Yet if the Israel of God in 6:16 were a reference to ethnic Israel, Paul’s invocation of blessing on the Israel of God would not be because they were saved, but it would be a kind of hope that they might become saved. So in one breath Paul would be invoking two very different kinds of blessing, one based on salvation and a second that is just a hope for salvation. And without any hint in the context that a second kind of blessing is in view, this looks very awkward. 

A consideration of Paul’s blessing, then, counts strongly in favor of seeing “the Israel of God” as a reference to the church. 

Therefore, in view of points (a) and (b), but especially (b), it looks much better in the context to understand “the Israel of God” as referring to the church. 

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT 

If in this verse Paul is describing the church as the Israel of God, as he seems to be, it would mean that he is referring to the church as a kind of spiritual Israel. 

There are, in fact, many other biblical passages which teach that the church is spiritual Israel (e.g., Romans 2:25-29; 9:6; Philippians 3:2-3; James 1:1; 1 Peter 2:9). This is a major New Testament theme. And Galatians 6:16 adds to the weight of evidence for this theme. 

In Christian theology today, the movement known as dispensationalism is very popular. In the most common form of this movement, a clear distinction is made between God’s purposes for ethnic Israel and His purposes for the church. This thinking denies that the church is spiritual Israel. 

Those who claim that Israel and the church have distinct purposes in God’s plans are actually making a big mistake. And I don’t think there is any evidence that any Christians before the 19th century believed this anyway. 

It is not my intention in this article to discuss the relationship of Israel to the church. My goal has been much more limited. I have simply tried to show that Galatians 6:16 counts as a strong piece of evidence that the Bible describes the church as spiritual Israel. And because it describes the church in this way, that counts against the view that God has distinct plans for Israel and the church.

 

See also my more general article on this topic: 

Is the Church Spiritual Israel? 

 

And see also my articles: 

Is It God’s Will for There to Be Another Jerusalem Temple? 

Beware of Interpreting Bible Prophecies Too Literally 

The Problems with Claiming to Interpret the Bible Literally

I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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