The Israel of God

 

 

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INTERPRETATION OF THE PHRASE
"THE ISRAEL OF GOD"

Galatians 6:16

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.”

THE ISRAEL OF GOD:
Has God Replaced Israel with the Church?

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 or Logos)

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: New American Standard Translation: 1995. Moody Publishers) (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). (Morris, Henry: Defenders Study Bible. World Publishing)

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. 1985. Victor - Vol 2 Page 611 or Logos) (Bolding added)

William MacDonald writes that...

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 or Logos) (Bolding added)

The King James Version Study Bible adds that...

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 or Logos)

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. (Walvoord, John: "Does the Church Fulfill Israel's Program?" in Bibliotheca Sacra: published by Dallas Theological Seminary. Dallas TX: Volume 137, Issue 547, 1980- online)

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.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson)

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. 1981. Moody or Logos)

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) (Bolding added)

Beloved, Jehovah could not have been much clearer! God is not finished with Israel or the Jews! So continue to

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem"!

 

 

 

ADDENDUM
Other Resources

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.

 

 

 


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