Both Jews and Non-Jews Belong Equally to “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16)


In Galatians 6:16, the apostle Paul concluded his letter to the Galatians with an expression that he never used anywhere else:

And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”

Who belongs to this group that Paul refers to as “the Israel of God”? Who is excluded?

Argument #1: Only Jewish Believers Are the Israel of God

Some insist that Paul could only have been speaking of Jews, believers in particular. The following quotes are representative of this view:

“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, Ro 2:29 and Ro 9:6,7″ (John MacArthur, Galatians. Chicago: Moody Press, p. 210).

“This controversial verse, with its expression, unique in the New Testament, ‘the Israel of God,’ has been misinterpreted as teaching what 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” (D. H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary: Clarksville, Md.: Jewish New Testament Publications).

H/T: Steve Thomas, “Christian Zionism – Deconstructing the Myths – Biblically – One at a Time” (Facebook)

In one article, Arnold Fruchtenbaum claims that “the Jewish believer” differs from “the Gentile believer,” and that “four lines of biblical truth” form the basis of what he calls “the Messianic Jewish distinctive.” One of these lines is “the Doctrine of the Israel of God,” in which he says the term “Israel” is used narrowly: “It should be pointed out that the term Israel is never used of Gentiles, whether they are believers or not, nor is it used of the Church; it is used only of Jews.” According to Fruchtenbaum, Paul makes a distinction in both Romans 9:6-8 and Galatians 6:16 between “Israel the whole composed of all Jews; and Israel the elect, composed of all believing Jews.” In Galatians 6:16, he claims, believing Gentiles are “the them” and believing Jews are “the Israel of God” (Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “Jews, Gentiles, Christians,” Ariel Ministries).**

Thomas Ice agrees with Fruchtenbaum that “the New Testament consistently differentiates between Israel and the church,” adding that these are “two peoples” of God. When it comes to the term “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, they insist that Paul is speaking of “believing Jews in contrast to unbelieving Jews called ‘Israel after the flesh’ (1 Cor. 10:18)” (Thomas Ice, “Israel / Church Distinction: The Fourth Foundation,” Rapture Ready).

Argument #2: All Followers of Jesus Are the Israel of God

Then there are those who, like myself, believe that “the Israel of God” must include all who belong to Christ, Jews and non-Jews alike. In Paul’s day, both Jewish and non-Jewish believers were walking according to the rule named in the previous verse: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). If Paul used the expression, “the Israel of God,” to only mean Jewish believers, then the following passages would be untrue:

[1] “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him” (Romans 10:12).

[2] “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” (Galatians 3:28).

[3] “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:9-11).

If only Jewish believers were “the Israel of God,” but non-Jewish (i.e. Gentile) believers were locked out of this privilege, then there really would be a distinction between Jews and Greeks in Christ. There really would be favoritism and partiality, based on race or ethnicity.

A similar problem exists when the claim is made that all ethnic Jews are God’s chosen people. There’s no doubt that those who belong to Christ are God’s chosen people, as these passages reveal:

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being chosen according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12).

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Colossians 3:12-13).

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (I Peter 2:9-10).

Those who teach that all Jews are God’s chosen people sometimes fall back on the idea that God has two chosen peoples (one based on race, and one based on faith). This, however, also makes nonsense of Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:10-11 (quoted above), for it places Jewish Christians (aka Messianic Jews) into two chosen groups. It says that they are [1] chosen because of faith, and [2] doubly chosen because of race. Meanwhile, according to this view, non-Jewish Christians (aka “Gentile Christians”) are only part of one chosen group. Unlike Jewish Christians, they are only chosen because of faith. They allegedly don’t have the same overlap of blessings that Jewish believers do, because they are not of the Jewish race. This also creates favoritism, partiality, and distinction, contradicting the teachings of Paul.

Being a part of the Israel of God is the privilege of all who abide in Christ, because Jesus is true Israel, God’s chosen One. This is developed further in two earlier posts at this site:

[1] “Why I Stand With Israel,” outlines how Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, and John demonstrated that what was once said of national Israel is now said of Jesus.

[2] God also promised that He would one day make a new covenant with the house of Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). One way that we see this fulfilled is when Paul, in Ephesians 2, declared that the household of God, His holy temple, the one new man of Jews and Gentiles together, was being built on the foundation of the apostles, who were also known as “ministers of the new covenant” (II Corinthians 3:6). See “God’s Promise of a New Covenant to the House of Israel.”

The Myth of An All Jewish Israel

There’s an idea prevailing in the Christian Zionist movement today that Israel was, and was always meant to be, exclusively Jewish. This idea is applied to ancient Israel, as if God’s promises made to ancient Israel were for Jews only, then and forever. This idea is also applied to modern Israel, saying that the land belongs only to Jews, etc. However, even in ancient Israel, many non-Jews were joined to Israel. Besides the non-Jews who were among Jesus’ ancestors (Matthew 1:1-17), there are numerous other examples. Here are just two:

And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send [the children of Israel] out of the land in haste… Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed multitude went up with them also…” (Exodus 12:33-38).

And in every province and city, wherever the king’s command and decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a holiday. Then many of the people of the land became Jews, because fear of the Jews fell upon them” (Esther 8:17).

Ever since Jesus was obedient to the point of completing His work on the cross, the Israel of God has everything to do with Him and nothing to do with being outside of Him. People of all nations are included. As Paul taught, no one who is in Christ is any longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.”

Thomas Schreiner’s Excellent Summary of Galatians 6:16

Thomas Schreiner offers some excellent thoughts on why Paul’s epistle to the Galatians as a whole mandates that there is no separation between Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) believers when Paul speaks of “the Israel of God” (Schreiner is an author and professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary):

The key question in Galatians is whether one must become a Jew and be circumcised to belong to the people of God. Must one receive circumcision to belong to the family of Abraham? The false teachers argued that circumcision and observance of the law were required to be part of Abraham’s family. But Paul has argued throughout the letter that circumcision is unnecessary and that those who put their faith in Christ belong to the family of Abraham. When he speaks of “the Israel of God” at the conclusion of the letter, where he rehearses the major themes of the letter, he is driving home the point that believers in Christ, members of the new creation, are the true Israel.

Such an interpretation fits with the whole of the letter, for believers in Christ are the true sons of Abraham [Gal. 3:29]. But if they are Abraham’s children and belong to his family, then they belong to the Israel of God. It would be highly confusing to the Galatians, after arguing for the equality of Jew and Gentile in Christ (3:28) and after emphasizing that believers are Abraham’s children, for Paul to argue in the conclusion that only Jews who believe in Jesus belong to the Israel of God. By doing so a wedge would be introduced between Jews and Gentiles at the end of the letter, suggesting that the latter were not part of the true Israel. Such a wedge would play into the hands of his opponents, who would argue that to be part of the true Israel one must be circumcised.

Instead, Paul confirms one of the major themes of the letter. All believers in Christ are part of the true Israel, part of God’s Israel. This fits with what Paul says elsewhere when he says believers are the true circumcision (Phil 3:3). Since believers in Christ are the true family of Abraham and the true circumcision, they are also part of the true Israel.

–Thomas Schreiner, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 382 – 383

Amen. Let’s also not forget that Galatians is where Paul contrasts earthly Jerusalem and the Jerusalem above, saying that one was in bondage and about to be cast out, but the other (“the Jerusalem above”) is free and is the mother of God’s people (Galatians 4:21-31).

Christopher Gowan (Associate Editor of The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) interacts with Schreiner’s conclusion, agreeing with it and expanding upon it in an article titled “Context Is Everything: ‘The Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16” (4-page + PDF). It’s worth reading as well.

A Question

Finally, I have a question for those who would insist that Paul was speaking only of Jewish believers when he referred to “the Israel of God.” Paul’s use of this expression implies that there was an Israel during his time that was not of God, which would have been national Israel (as a whole, minus the remnant of believers). It’s often insisted today that modern Israel is a continuation, or a restoration, of national Israel, which was wiped out by the Roman armies in 70 AD. If that (pre-70 AD) Israel was not of God, then why is national Israel today allegedly “God’s chosen people”, “the apple of God’s eye,” a nation that we must bless and support unconditionally, etc.?

Paul did make a distinction in Galatians 6:16, but it wasn’t between Jewish believers and non-Jewish believers. It was between “the Israel of God,” those who belong to Christ, and the Israel that was not of God, those outside of Christ. The Israel of God today still has everything to do with God’s chosen One, Jesus Christ.

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**When Fruchtenbaum claims that only Gentile believers made up the “them” of Galatians 6:16, he is basically saying that Jewish believers were not walking according to the rule that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (verse 15). Supposedly, only Gentile believers were walking according to this rule. In effect, Fruchtenbaum puts all the Jewish believers in Paul’s day into the camp of the Judaizers, who Paul said were in danger of falling from grace (Galatians 5:4).

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7 thoughts on “Both Jews and Non-Jews Belong Equally to “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16)

  1. I agree with the article. If McCarther is right why did Paul withstand Peter to the face? Peter could have just said their are rules for Jewish Christians and rules for gentile Christians. Separate but equal. Perhaps they could have put the gentile Christians in the Balcony. There is nothing new or gospel about this kind of thinking. But uniting Jew and Gentile making a new humanity now that is gospel and that is what Paul and Jesus gave their lives for.

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  2. Adam, I love your articles and agree with pretty everything you write. But, this is one that, while I believe you are correct in your overall understanding, I believe Paul meant something different in using the term Israel of God in this instance. I do think Paul was referring to the Elect of national Israel, who could also be identified as the 144,000 of Revelation, the remnant saved out of the old order. At the time Paul wrote this, the world was still divided into Jews and Gentiles but was in the process of entering the new order of things when that distinction would come to a final end. So Paul would transition between language that still made that distinction between groups, while explaining what the new order of things was. This can make things confusing for us now because many think this distinction still holds. Unlike Ice and McArthur, among many others, I do not believe today’s Jews are to be viewed with the distinction that the Apostles had to deal with in their writings though. They are just like any group of people driven by a false religion that causes much geopolitical instability. Their reason for being a separate, divinely used physical nation ended.
    An interesting topic for discussion would be to look into the story of how God gave the name Israel to Jacob only after Jacob “wrestled” with God, meaning, after Jacob came to faith. That tells me that the name Israel, in God’s eyes, has always only been legitimately carried by people of faith.
    I hope I’m being clear enough in what I’m attempting to communicate. I might have to write a longer post to explain what I mean better.

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  3. To help clarify the point I was attempting to make in an earlier comment, I do not believe this view is true: “the New Testament consistently differentiates between Israel and the church,” adding that these are “two peoples” of God.” There were never two peoples of God. There was always one people of God – by faith, made up of ethnic descendents of Abraham and those who were not. Back then, people of faith joined themselves to the physical nation of Israel because it was the place and system where people worshiped the true God. But in this verse, the first question to be answered before anything else should be, are there two groups of people being referred to here, or one? That should be the focus of the debate. Is Paul saying “peace and mercy” be upon two different groups of people AT THAT TIME, or is he calling one group – the people who “walk according to this rule” – the Israel of God?
    Adam, I believe you are correct in your assessment of who, in general, can be called the Israel of God, but I believe Paul was referring to two different groups of people in this verse. But, the two groups are not the church on one hand, and ethnic Israel on the other. I believe Paul’s Israel of God in this verse is referring to the faithful, saved remnant who identified themselves as Israelites, and therefore, because of their faith, were the legitimate Israel of God. The “them” Paul is referring to are new believers joining the spiritual “commonwealth of Israel” who did not identify themselves with national Israel, but because they accepted the Gospel, are now considered true Israelites.

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  4. I think you’re completely misquoting Dr Fruchtenbaum there. He is saying that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile but in other areas there are distinctions, there’s no issue with that at all. Before Jesus came there were obviously believing Gentiles but no matter how pious they were the Gentiles couldn’t bring forth the Messiah because the Messiah was to come from the Jewish line. There’s a distinction in that area. If we apply the line of reasoning of no difference to the rest of Galatians 3:28 then that means there are no differences any more between male and female but there are obviously still physical distinctions but spiritually in Christ we are one and we all come to Him the same way whether Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, which is by grace through faith in Jesus.
    If you now define as Israel being made up of all believers then when you read the OT when you read about the nation of Israel do you say that’s the Church so when God gives lists of curses to Israel such as in Leviticus 26 or Deuteronomy 28 do you take those curses as well as the blessings that are promised?
    There is no issue with all that Paul has said in Galatians to say that the ‘them’ in 6:16 refers to Gentile believers while the Israel of God refers to Jewish believers, and actually this can be argued from the structure of the verse.

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  5. […] The Old Testament prophets looked forward to a day when the people of God would be made up of many nations and He would dwell in their midst. Zechariah had that vision (Zech. 2:10-12). Isaiah had that vision (Isaiah 11:10), and Paul taught that it had become a reality in his day (Romans 15:8-12). Amos had that vision (Amos 9:11-12), and James declared at the Jerusalem council that this had become a reality in his day (Acts 15:13-17). Despite these examples and more, Christian Zionism and dispensationalism insist that ethnic “Jews are God’s chosen people” and national Israel is God’s chosen nation (These four posts refute these ideas: #1, #2, #3, and #4). […]

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