Is the Church the True Israel of God?
The answer to the question, “Is the Church the True Israel of God?” is found at the close of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (among other places in the NT). Continue reading . . .
The answer to the question, “Is the Church the True Israel of God?” is found at the close of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (among other places in the NT). He pronounces a blessing that has been the source of seemingly endless controversy. The ESV renders the passage this way:
“And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
The NIV renders it slightly differently:
“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.”
Those who embrace the first (ESV) translation typically recognize two groups: (1) “all who walk by this rule,” a reference either to Gentile believers or all who are in the Church, whether Jew or Gentile, and (2) all believing Jews or elect ethnic Israelites. According to the second (NIV) translation, Paul has in view only one group. The Greek conjunction kai, most often translated simply as “and,” is taken as explanatory (or the more technical term, “epexegetical”) and is rendered “even,” or in some translations is simply omitted altogether. Most commentators acknowledge that kai can be rendered in either way and that grammar alone cannot decide the interpretive outcome. Context must be the deciding factor.
Thus, a somewhat expanded paraphrase would be, “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, which is to say, to the Israel of God.” Thus in the NIV Paul identifies those “who follow this rule” with “the Israel of God.” They are one and the same.
Some have suggested that by “the Israel of God” Paul has in view all ethnic Jews, the nation as a whole, whether they believe in Jesus or not. But this is highly unlikely, if not altogether impossible. It is simply inconceivable that Paul would have considered those who reject Christ as being “of God” on whom a spiritual blessing is pronounced. We must not forget that Paul earlier in Galatians pronounced a curse (or “anathema”; Gal. 1:8-9) on those who corrupt the gospel by insisting on circumcision or any other ritual or work as a condition for acceptance with God. There is simply no way that Paul would now reverse himself and pronounce on them both “peace and mercy.” Thus, when it comes to “the Israel of God,” the two options available to us are (1) Jewish believers, or (2) Jewish and Gentile believers alike, together who constitute the Church, the one true Israel of God.
The first task in bringing us to a responsible conclusion is to define what Paul means by “this rule.” The “rule” by which Paul calls upon all to live may well be the entirety of what he has written in the letter. But more likely the reference is closer at hand.
In v. 15 Paul has declared, as if in a summary of the message of the book, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. That is to say, external marks of a particular ethnicity matter nothing to God, and therefore they should matter nothing to us. Our lives should be shaped and controlled by the “rule” of the “new creation,” namely, that regardless of one’s ancestry, blood, or ethnicity, faith in Jesus alone counts in the sight of God and alone should dictate how we see others and their ultimate destiny and how we relate to them in the body of Christ.
Throughout Galatians Paul has labored to make the critical point that one need not become a Jew and be circumcised to be a part of the people of God. The false teachers whom the apostle opposes insisted that obedience to the law, and in particular the requirement of circumcision, were essential conditions for acceptance with God. But Paul has argued repeatedly that only faith in Jesus Christ is required. Indeed, he went so far as to describe Gentiles who believe in Jesus as the “offspring” or “seed” of Abraham (Gal. 3:16, 29) in and for whom the covenant promises are fulfilled.
Thus, whether one is ethnically Jewish or ethnically Gentile is irrelevant to one’s status with God. One need only be “in” Christ, who is himself the One true seed or “offspring” to whom the promises were originally made. As Tom Schreiner explains,
“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 the opponents, who would argue that to be part of the true Israel one must be circumcised” (Galatians, 383).
Again, as Palmer Robertson points out, if one takes “Israel of God” as referring to all elect Jews, i.e., ethnic Israelites who believe in Jesus, Paul would be violating the very rule that “he himself has just established by pronouncing his blessing over elect Jews who did use circumcision to identify themselves as the people of God. ‘The Israel of God’ would be a group of people other than all those who make it a practice never to regard a distinction between Jew and Gentile as a basis for identifying the people of God. But this would have Paul contradicting his own line of argument” (The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, 41).
Let’s recall that Paul has described believers, whether Gentile or Jewish, as both the “sons” (Gal. 3:7) and “offspring”, or “seed”, of Abraham, a status attained by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Gal. 3:16, 29; and in Phil. 3:3 all such believers are called the true “circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God”). Gordon Fee concludes from this that “what Paul has done in fact is to make a final, deliberately ‘in your face,’ statement over against the agitators [false teachers or Judaizers]. They are trying to make Gentiles become a part of ancient Israel; Paul has spent the entire letter arguing vigorously against them. With this final coup [6:16] he designates those who are truly Israel, God’s Israel, as those who abide by the canon [“rule”] that the circumcision that the agitators are urging on these Gentiles counts for nothing. Christ is all and in all; and those who follow him are now designated by Paul with this neologism: they are ‘God’s Israel,’ the real thing” (Galatians, 253).
These, then, are the principal considerations that lead me to agree with Gary Burge when he says that “the apostle is redrawing the definitions for self-identity. No longer based on ethnic or historic claims to race or identity, Israel now is the title for the people of God who belong to Abraham no matter their ethnic make-up” (Jesus and the Land, 84).
So, is the Church the TRUE Israel of God? Yes.