When dealing with the title “the Israel of God” which Paul employs in Galatians 6:16, one must recognize the exclusivity of its usage. Nowhere else in Paul’s writings or in the extent of second Temple Judaism or rabbinic literature is this term found . With this being the case, one must approach deciphering the meaning of such a term, if theoretically possible, using another route other than its historicity. To attempt to interpret the meaning of a phrase that could have great theological significance due to the implications of its interpretation can be laborious. If this phrase in Galatians 6:16 cannot be analyzed historically, then one must examine it from the broader perspective of Paul’s theology concerning Israel throughout his writings. After a basic understanding of Paul’s theology of Israel throughout his writings has been reached, one must focus on the context and tracing the argument of the epistle to the Galatians specifically. After a thorough study of the letter, one must review any exegetical problems that may remain within the passage. These steps will be taken in an attempt to arrive at a theologically sound conclusion concerning such a thoroughly debated phrase such as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16.
Paul has much to say about Israel ethnically and spiritually throughout the NT. One of the primary scriptures displaying both categorical uses of Israel is found in Romans 9-11. In Romans 9:6 Paul states “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel”. Paul clearly separates the first usage of “Israel”, his ethnic “kinsmen according to the flesh” as previously stated, from the second use of “Israel” in what seems to be the true meaning of Israel in its fullest sense as not only the children of God, but as Abraham’s true descendants as seen in the following verses . In Romans 11 Paul continues the idea of Israel in its fuller sense (descendants of God, children of Abraham) through the analogy of the olive tree. After showing that God has not rejected ethnic Israel through Paul’s personal salvation and the declaration of a current remnant of faithful ethnic Israelites as in the days of Elijah, Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to signify the true Israel who has previously been declared children of promise for their belief. If they do not believe they are broken off from Israel. If they believe they are part of Israel. Gentiles who were formerly not a part of the children of God were grafted in because of their faith. Ethnic Israel who does not believe is broken off for their lack of faith. The Gentiles can be broken off again if they do not believe just as the ethnic Israelites can be grafted back in if they believe. Those who can truly be called Israel are those who have faith in Christ.
In Ephesians 2 one finds another pivotal passage in regards to Paul’s theology of Israel in the NT. In Ephesians 2:11-12 we see that Gentiles who were once separated from the commonwealth of Israel and far off have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. Paul says that Jesus made both groups (ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles) into one new man. The barrier that divided them from one another has been abolished which was the law of commandments contained in ordinances so that the two are one new man reconciled to God . Paul states that the Gentiles who were once aliens are now fellow citizens of God’s household . He seems to see the Gentiles as members of the people of God, or as seen in Romans 9-11, the true Israel.
With a basic understanding of Pauline theology concerning Israel in it fullest sense, one can now approach Galatians in context of Paul’s idea of faith in the gospel of Christ as entrance into true Israel, the descendants of Abraham, the children of God. To begin, it is beneficial to understand the Galatian communities of faith and the problems that they faced. In Galatians 1:6-7 Paul affirms that there are some among them that are distorting the gospel and many are following them. The contents of this false gospel being preached will be seen clearly throughout the letter, as Paul will respond to the detractors misleading message. He states the seriousness of preaching a gospel contrary to that which he has preached to them with the penalty being accursed or cut off from God. Paul states that members of the Galatian churches are being bewitched, fooled, or led astray by these detractors . As one can see, it is critical to understand just what is being said that is false (the content of the false gospel that is being preached) that Paul attempts to expose to the Galatian church to better understand the purpose and goal of the letter so that one might ultimately observe the full context in which the statement in Galatians 6:16 must be interpreted.
One of the first problems we recognize that is being addressed by Paul is the fact that people are obeying and observing the law as a means to obtain righteousness apart from the truth of grace through faith in Christ. One can draw such a conclusion by Paul’s questioning the Galatians in 3:2-5. They did not receive the Spirit of God by works of the law but through faith in Christ. Paul says they suffered many things in vain if it was not by faith, but there are those in Galatia who desire still to be under law . He goes on to say that those who are seeking to be justified, or declared righteous, by law sever themselves from Christ and have fallen from grace .
Another problem seen in the churches is that there are those who have supposedly come to know God that are turning back to rudimentary teachings that once enslaved them . Observing days and months and seasons and years as an ethnic Israelite under the law would observe were things that Paul mentioned as rudimentary teachings being followed that were serious enough for him to wonder if he had labored over them in vain . These detractors who were teaching such things desired the people to follow them and shut them off from Paul and the true people of God.
Another problem within the communities the detractors are propagating that Paul addresses is the falsely proposed need to be circumcised. This is congruent with the premised idea of observing the law in order to remain justified. Paul reveals that although circumcision is part of the observation of the law that does not justify the individual, those who promote this have an all-different motive for its propagation altogether. The detractors motive, as Paul reveals in Galatians 6:12, is to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ. These Judaizers wish to make a good impression outwardly are not willing to accept the persecution that comes with accepting the message of faith in the cross of Christ. Obviously desiring Jewish acceptance rather than the discrimination that comes with the cross of Christ, they show their true intent is to boast in the peoples flesh and not in the cross of Christ. Consistently throughout the letter one can see the theological issues that stem from a desire to traditionally grasp what was demanded under the old covenant, such as adherence to the law and circumcision, not necessarily to be justified with God but to be justified among the people. Understanding that there is only one gospel for Jews and Gentiles as Paul has stated, there is no room for those adhering to another gospel to remain children of God, or as referred to in Romans 9:6, the true Israel.
From the context previously set up in the problems the Galatian fellowships were facing, one can see that the truth of the gospel of faith in Christ must be embraced in order to be a son of Abraham. With this in mind, similar to the argument which was presented in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 2, there can be a case made that the “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 are identified as those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. This case could be built in two different ways: first through the study of the context and flow of the argument in the epistle and second through a more intimate exegetical study of the passage in question.
Addressing first the flow of the argument of the letter, a case will be built for the idea that the “Israel of God” are all those who have faith in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike. The idea that faith in Christ is paramount in the deeming of God’s people is obvious from the beginning of the epistle. Paul states that if any other gospel is preached than that of faith in Christ that Paul and his companions had preached, those who preach such a false gospel are anathema, or accursed . His basis for voicing such a strong conviction is the fact that the gospel that he preached was not derived by him but received by Jesus Christ . This gospel of Christ was not reserved to ethnic Israel but was sent to the Gentiles, for this was the personally expressed reason for God’s revealing of Jesus to Paul . He recognized that just as Peter was sent to the circumcised (ethnic Israel), so Paul was sent to the uncircumcised (Gentiles) . Not only were the two sent with the same gospel, but also it was recognized by Paul that God was effectually working in the Gentiles the same way He was working in the Jews . At this point in the letter one could rightfully determine that there are no traces of favoritism in God toward Jew or Gentile in terms of the gospel.
This idea that there is no favoritism between Jew and Gentile in the gospel is further clarified by the situation between Paul and Peter in Antioch as seen in 2:11-14. Paul goes as far as labeling Peter condemned for his open show of favoritism of separating himself from the Gentiles for his fear of the party of the circumcision . Paul calls Peter and the rest of the Jews who joined him hypocrites for not being straightforward about the truth of the gospel by their actions . By no way were there to be separations made on the account of Jew or Gentile due to the truth of the gospel that was void of all ethnic favoritism.
Paul also states that by attempting to follow the old ways of Judaism such as observing the law could not justify the people with God. He says that “by the works of law no flesh will be justified ” placing all Jews and Gentiles under the same need for faith in the gospel. Paul gives grounds for the idea that no one who believes in Christ can seek righteousness through the law for if so, Christ died needlessly .
Flowing from the idea that faith is paramount in the deeming of God’s people is the further bold assertion from Paul that all those who are of faith are truly sons of Abraham . He reminds the Galatian churches that they received the spirit from faith and not from works of the law . He then teaches them that Abraham himself, father of the so-called circumcision, was only credited righteousness by faith in the gospel . With this truth the Galatians can be assured that they are children of Abraham if they share the same faith in the gospel . In contrast Paul states that those who remain under law are cursed and only those in Christ can receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.
The idea that people are shut up under sin because of the law is so that the promise can be given to those who have faith in Jesus . Paul says that the law has become their tutor to lead them to Christ so that they can be justified by faith . If this were the case, then the observance of the law as propagated by the detractors would be useless once Christ has been revealed. Paul asserts then that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female, but they are all one in Christ . Whatever separation was previously recognized, especially between ethnic Israel and the Gentiles, has been removed by the gospel of Christ. Although ethnic Israelites may have thought of themselves as the true sons of Abraham, Paul reveals that the truth is that only those who are in Christ truly can carry that name.
Along with the idea that by faith you are a son of Abraham, Paul declares that you are also now a Son of God in Christ . The adoption as sons was something promised to ethnic Israelites as discussed by Paul in the epistle to the Romans as well . In Galatians 4:5-7, we see a similar discourse to that of Romans 8:14-17 where the adoption as sons is spoken of for those who are in Christ. This is a significant observation through the course of the letter to the Galatians that the promises given to Israel are shared with Gentiles through faith in the gospel of Christ without favoritism. The analogy that Paul uses in Galatians 4:21-31 concerning the allegory of Hagar and Sarah illustrates the relationship between the old and new covenants. Hagar represents the old covenant given at Mt. Sinai and Sarah represents the new covenant. Paul shows that Isaac was a child of promise born from Sarah just as the church are children of promise from the Jerusalem above which is free from slavery under the law . The children of Hagar are seen as slaves, which correspond to present day Jerusalem . It is quite clear that the children of promise are those under the new covenant of faith in Christ and members of the true Israel above and not those enslaved below.
Paul further displays his adamancy in his refutation of the false gospel of observing the law when he states that if one receives circumcision Christ is of no benefit to them . If he does, that man will be obligated to keep the whole law , which Paul has already said that one is cursed if under the law . In chapter 5, Paul explains that the question is not that of circumcision or uncircumcision but of flesh and Spirit. Those led by the flesh are those that are under law, and those led by the Spirit are those who are in Christ Jesus. Using reaping and sowing terms, Paul describes those who live by the flesh will see corruption while those who live by the Spirit will receive eternal life . In the closing of the letter, he reiterates again that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything but only a new creation . This is very important to the next statement for Paul says that “and those who follow this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” . Now contextually speaking, this phrase seems to be in line with the rest of the letter. In Paul’s discourse he has stated clearly that cursed is anyone if they preach a gospel contrary to his, the message is for ethnic Jews and Gentiles alike, the sons of Abraham are those of faith, one cannot be justified by following the law, that the circumcision is of no value, those under the old covenant are slaves, and that those under the new covenant are children of God and of the true Jerusalem above. With all this being previously discussed, it seems the most probable stance on the identity of “the Israel of God”, based on the context and flow of argument throughout the epistle, would be all those who have placed their faith in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike; the church as a whole.
Although at first observation according to the context of the letter in its fullness, one must examine the passage exegetically for problems within syntax to determine possible translations before a valid interpretation can be made. Some of the earliest interpretive views from Chrysostom, and as early as Justin Martyr, treat the “” before the “” as epexegetic equating those “who walk by this rule” to the “Israel of God” . Chrysostom interprets it as follows: “they who pursue these things [the new things of grace] shall enjoy peace and amity, and may be properly called by the name of ‘Israel’’ . Justin Martyr agrees with this interpretation as he states that the Christian church is “the true, spiritual Israel ”. Longenecker states that grammatically the translation and then the following interpretation boils down to two possibilities: does Paul have in mind one group on whom he pronounces an expanded peace benediction, or is he visualizing two groups of people, the first being objects of his peace benediction and the second being objects of his mercy benediction . These translation options allow for two possible interpretations: either the Israel of God are those who walk by the rule of the new creation and peace and mercy is upon them (in agreement with the early interpretations from Martyr and Chrysostom), or peace be upon those Gentiles that follow the rule of the new creation and mercy be upon the Jews who are faithful to the gospel being the Israel of God .
Although both interpretations may seem equally valid exegetically, they are not read in a vacuum apart from the context of the epistle in its entirety. Following the context and flow of the argument of the epistle as previously concluded, the most probable interpretation out of the two primary exegetical possibilities is clearly that the Israel of God are those who follow the rule of the new creation in whom Paul asks for peace and mercy to be upon them.
If this interpretation is the most adequate, then many implications can be drawn in conclusion. One, that those who are in Christ are obtaining the promises that were promised to Israel as expressed in Galatians, as also mirrored in the epistle to the Romans as previously stated. Second, that the church is truly the children of Abraham that are receiving the promise of the covenants as seen throughout Paul’s literature. A concluding implication that could be drawn is that all those who are of faith in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike, are recognized as the Israel of God who are deemed the children of God.