“Those who will walk by this rule, peace on them, and mercy, even on the Israel of God.”
Who or what is “Israel”? Statements by the apostle Paul, such as “not all Israel is Israel” (Rom. 9:6) and “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26), clearly reveal that the question is one that can only be settled by careful exegetical and theological consideration. Simply assuming that Israel is an earthly nation, or a plot of land in the Middle East, does not reflect a thoughtful reading of the Word.
As I understand it, the most fundamental and important meaning of “Israel” in Scripture is God’s covenant people, who were gathered together in an earthly nation throughout most of the Old Testament era, but now are spread throughout the world in the New Covenant kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the church today is the extension and completion of Old Testament Israel, so that through Christ we receive all the promises made to that ancient people (both now and in the future).
It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain and defend that understanding thoroughly—for that I refer you to O. Palmer Robertson’s excellent book The Israel of God (P&R, 2000), or other books that discuss the distinctions between “dispensationalism” and “covenant theology.” But here I want to address one very specific issue: Is the New Testament church ever called “Israel” in the Bible? I’ve often heard my dispensationalist friends say, “The church is never called ‘Israel.’” I think they’re wrong about that, and if so, it reflects on the bigger theological issues.
It seems to me that the church is called “Israel” in many ways in Scripture, without using that exact term (see the last section of this paper). But I also believe the exact term is used in Galatians 6:16, and the term is actually used for the purpose of affirming the continuity of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. So I would like defend the use of the word “Israel” in referring to the church, and the “covenant theology” behind it, by entering into a thorough exegetical discussion of this disputed verse. Hopefully those who take the time to work and think through it will not be too quick to make the statement I mentioned above. And perhaps some may find themselves more open to a greater continuity in God’s plan through the ages.
There are basically two views propounded as to the identity of "the Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16: Either the phrase refers to all believers (both Jews and Gentiles), or it refers to believing Jews only (whether they believe currently or will do so in the future). My conclusion is that Paul was referring to all believers in a manner that would bolster and conclude the argument of the epistle, which is that Gentile believers should not be required to live as ethnic Jews under the Mosaic economy. I will present several arguments for that view, which will include criticisms of the opposing view and answers to some objections.
Support from the Syntax of the Verse
The case for the "all believers" view begins first with considerations from the syntax of the verse itself, which would be entirely unnatural if Paul referred to a large group ("those who will walk by this rule"‑‑meaning all believing Jews and Gentiles) and then added a reference to a small part of that same group (believing Jews). It would be like saying, "I cheer for the football team and the linebackers," and like that sentence it would be nonsensical unless there was some clear contextual reason to view the word "and" (Gk. kai) as meaning "especially" or otherwise distinguishing the part from the whole. Taking the kai to indicate "especially" is very troublesome, because if Paul wanted to communicate that idea he could have used a very common construction containing the word malista (translated "especially"), which he did in fact use in an almost identical arrangement in Galatians 6:10 (cf. Acts 25:26; 1 Tim. 4:10, 5:8, 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10; 2 Pet. 2:10).
If the "especially" connotation is eliminated as unlikely, then the "believing Jews" view is left with a "team and the linebackers" structure defies the normal use of language. One commentator suggests that this kind of wording may be found in Mark 16:7, but admits that he knows of no other possible example. (And even that example in Mark is questionable because there are other viable explanations for the wording of the verse.) So it seems more likely to me that the connected phrases in Galatians 6:16 are describing the same group of people and the kai is being used in an explicative sense that can be translated "even," "namely," or "that is." Therefore "the Israel of God" is appositional to "those who walk by this rule.” This syntactical construction is not overly prevalent in the New Testament, but it is more common than the awkward one suggested above by most "believing Jews" proponents. Examples of the explicative use of the particle are John 1:16, 1 Cor. 3:5, 8:12, and 15:38. In those verses the phrase after the kai is not something different from and additional to the phrase before the kai; rather the second is merely restating the first in a different way.
I am aware that some proponents of the "believing Jews" view say that "those who will walk by this rule" is referring only to the Gentiles rather than to all believers. They base this idea on the possibility that the pronoun hosoi takes a definite form rather than an indefinite. But even if it does, the limitations implied in the definite are in need of no other explanation than the one already provided by the words "who will walk by this rule." It is a definite group of people in that it only includes those who are justified by faith alone, but it still includes all who are justified by faith alone, whether Jew or Gentile.
Another item of syntactical support given for the "believing Jews" view is the idea that Paul could have made "the Israel of God" clearly appositional if he would have left out the kai. Thus the last part of the verse would read, "peace and mercy upon them, upon the Israel of God." Because Paul included the kai, the argument goes, he clearly intended to separate "them" and "the Israel of God." The problem with this argument is that the word order in the Greek text reads, "And those who by this rule walk, peace upon them and mercy, kai upon the Israel of God." Since there are no punctuation marks in the Greek text, an ommission of the kai by Paul would have resulted in this meaning: "peace upon them and mercy upon the Israel of God." The only way that Paul could retain the combinational benediction ("peace and mercy" bestowed together) and communicate the appositional sense in this syntax, therefore, was to add the kai as a kind of punctuating conjunction. In modern English we would use a comma: "Peace and mercy upon them, the Israel of God." In ancient Greek Paul needed to use the kai: "peace upon them and mercy, even upon the Israel of God."
Finally, exegetical arguments for the "all believers" view cannot be complete without addressing the strongest support for the opposing view, which is the fact that the Greek preposition epi ("upon") is used in Galatians 6:16 with both groups. Because the verse bestows peace and mercy "upon them and upon the Israel of God," the argument goes, therefore Paul meant to differentiate the two groups. This argument is strong because such a structure is common in New Testament Greek when the writer refers to two separate groups or ideas (e.g. Matt. 27:25; Heb. 8:8), but several considerations render it inconclusive. First, the New Testament sometimes uses one epi with two separate groups (e.g. Matt. 5:45), indicating that the two syntactical structures are interchangeable and that neither necessarily conveys a distinct emphasis. Second, there is at least one other New Testament occurrence of the preposition appearing twice with two appositional objects (Rom. 10:19; cf. Heb. 10:16), so that construction is not entirely without precedent. And third, if the kai is indeed used in an explicative rather than a copulative sense, then the grammar of the verse is already unusual and we should not expect too much normality in the other features.
Support from the Immediate Context
Verse 15 also supports the idea that Paul was referring to both Jews and Gentiles as "the Israel of God." That verse says, "Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation [or creature]." In addition to restating Paul's recurrent theme that ethnic or physical characteristics do not determine whether one is a "son of Abraham" (see next argument), that verse also uses the term "a new creation," which sounds very similar to the term "one new man" in Ephesians 2:15. That may be significant because in the latter verse Paul is explicitly referring to the Jews and Gentiles being consolidated into one people of God. So it is possible that the "new creation" may be referring to "the Israel of God," rather than to the regeneration of individual believers, as it is often understood. Regardless of the validity of that notion, verse 15 still unmistakably has the concept of "no more ethnic distinctions in the people of God" and fits perfectly with a reference to the Gentiles being included in "the Israel of God."
Also, in verse 15 Paul says, "May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross." Considering the life he lived prior to conversion, described in Philippians 3:2-8, it would be difficult to eliminate the idea of Jewish ethnic pride from his statement. In other words, Paul is saying (at least in part), "The only thing that distinguishes me from anyone else is the grace of the cross. I would not differentiate myself in any way from a Gentile believer, least of all by upholding a racial distinction that false teachers are using to indicate superiority." So when he applies the term "Israel of God" to Gentiles also in verse 16, Paul makes explicit what has been implicit in his preceding words. The parallels to that passage in Philippians, by the way, are striking: there the Apostle says to Gentiles as well as Jews, "We are the true circumcision" (v. 3), meaning that a Gentile believer can be said to be "of Israel" just as much as Paul, who was "of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews" (v. 5).
Support from the Larger Context
The most significant support for the idea that "the Israel of God" includes Gentile believers is a theme that Paul weaves throughout the book of Galatians in his attempt to prove justification by faith. That theme is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the spiritual lineage of Abraham (Gal. 3:7‑9; 3:14; 3:18; 3:26‑29; 4:26‑28; 5:16). Since that lineage is undeniably implied in the word "Israel," Galatians 6:16 is merely reminding the reader about what has been taught throughout the epistle. This answers the objection that there is no other instance in the New Testament where the church is explicitly called "Israel." That may be true, but one can say the same thing with different words. For instance, the phrase "by faith alone" does not appear in the Bible in connection with justification (as Roman Catholic theologians are quick to point out), but we Protestants hold tenaciously to that slogan and support it by saying that the idea is clearly expressed in many passages. Another example would be the term "three in one" (or "trinity"): although those exact words are not used to describe God in the Scriptures, the concept is clearly communicated by the use of other words.
Similarly, terminology like "sons of Abraham," "blessed with Abraham," "Abraham's seed," and "heirs according to the promise" are simply other ways of expressing the concept that believing Gentiles are a part of the covenant people that has been called Israel (cf. Rom. 9:6‑9; 24‑30; 11:17‑24; Eph. 2:11‑22; Phil. 3:3-5; etc.). Trying to defend the idea that "Abraham's descendants" and "Israel" refer to two different groups, on the other hand, is an exegetical nightmare. (The explanation that "sons of Abraham" merely means "to be like Abraham in some way" falls flat because the other similar terminology mentioned above cannot mean that, and also because the Judaizers and Jewish believers would not understand the phrase that way when they heard it.)
Many of the “believing Jews” proponents say that the word "Israel" must mean ethnic Jews, because the word always refers to the ethnic people in the New Testament. First, I’m not sure that idea even fits with the Old Testament use of the term, because proselytized Gentiles were also considered to be a part of Israel (see Robertson, pp. 184-185). Second, as I mentioned above, there are other ways to say "Israel" than "Israel," and those other similar terms do often speak of a covenant people that includes Gentiles as well. Third, the word "Israel" is indeed used to refer to the “spiritual” people of God, as opposed to the ethnic, in at least one case (Rom. 9:6—and notice that Paul says the same thing in two other ways in the following verses). Fourth, we know the meaning of words primarily from their context rather than from their lexical catalog, though the latter is important to consider. And finally, “covenant theologians” are not overly concerned with this problem, because we do not believe that God intended to continue calling the elect "Israel," but rather that He would give His people a "new name" or "another name" (cf. Isa. 56:5; 62:2; 65:15). This could be a reference to the church, which takes the name of Christ (Matt. 16:18), or it might simply be a way of saying that the constituency of "Israel" would be so different that the name would no longer be appropriate for common use. In other words, there is no reason even in the covenantal scheme that we would frequently find God calling the church "Israel." We would only expect it to happen when there was a specific point to be made, like in Galatians 6:16.
The Judaizers themselves provide the last support that I will mention in this paper. Paul pronounced a curse on them in the beginning of his discussion (1:8‑9), and undoubtedly one of his purposes throughout the book was to directly and specifically confront their error. He even resorted to acid sarcasm at one point in his polemic against them (5:12). Most commentators present the idea that the Judaizers filled their propaganda with references to Jews being "sons of Abraham," and thus Paul attacked their error head on by boldly stating that the believing Gentiles were also "sons of Abraham." Would it not be therefore natural to assume that the Judaizers also ranted about the glories of the ethnic nation of Israel, and that Paul, wanting the Gentile believers to know that they did not need to return to the trappings of that fleshly institution, ended the epistle by reminding them that they themselves are a part of "the Israel of God"?
In closing I would like to add an observation that does not really serve as a support for my view, but would provide an illustration of its superiority if it is indeed the best interpretation. I read a Master's thesis about this specific issue in Galatians 6:16, in which I thought the author exhibited commendable objectivity and candor in presenting the considerable support for the "all believers" view. It appeared to me, however, that although his careful consideration led him to reject the "believing Jews" theory, he could not bring himself to accept the "all believers" view because of his theological predisposition against covenant theology. Though I would never denigrate such a predisposition (if it was formed by careful study), the alternative conclusion he presents to the two traditional views was shocking to say the least. He ends up claiming that Paul must have been referring to the Judaizers as "The Israel of God," even though the apostle had consigned them to hell at the beginning of the epistle! One wonders which view this man would have embraced if he had not been so afraid of covenant theology.