This entry is part 76 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
6:16 ‘And all who will behave in accordance with this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on the Israel of God.’
I think that the meaning implied in the NIV and most other modern translations, is probably correct. ‘The Israel of God’ refers to the people of God in their entirety; to all those who ‘follow this rule’. This interpretation is made explicit in the paraphrase of Today’s English Version – ‘May peace and mercy be with them-with them and with all of God’s people.’
The alternative interpretation – that ‘the Israel of God’ refers to Jews who believe (or will believe) – is regarded by some (see the relevant discussion in Hard Sayings of the Bible) as having merit. The context lends some support, in that Paul may be stressing that there are some Jewish believers who have not succumbed to the Judaizers, and approve of his’rule’ in v15. Support for this would come from a comparison with Rom 11:1,5, where Paul identifies an Israelite remnant within ‘Israel’ as a whole.
W.S. Campbell (Dictionary of Paul and his Letters), doubts the correctness identification of ‘the Israel of God’ with the Christian Church. Noting the word kai, he says that the verse might best be translated, with P. Richardson, ‘May God give peace to all who will walk according to this criterion, and mercy also to his faithful people Israel.’
Fung agrees that it is ‘certainly more natural to take the kai as a simple copulative.’
I’m not competent to comment on the linguistic aspects of this (which also include the question of how the English translation should be punctuated, given that there is no punctuation in the original). But that doesn’t stop me ‘comparing scripture with scripture’ to see if Paul’s meaning can be clarified.
Some think that the identification of ‘the Israel of God’ with ethnic Israel is consistent with the teaching of this letter as a whole. Vlack (Has the Church replaced Israel?), for example, thinks that Paul is commending those Jews who have embraced the gospel of grace and rejected the Judaizers. He cites Johnson: ‘What more fitting thing could Paul write, it is said, in a work so strongly attacking Jewish professing believers, the Judaizers, than to make it most plain that he was not attacking the true believing Jews. Judaizers are anathematized, but the remnant according to the election of grace are ‘the Israel of God.’
Timothy George thinks that it would be surprising if Paul had introduced so revolutionary a concept (as equating Gentile believers with Israel) at this late stage in his epistle.
Vlack argues that this if Paul identifies ‘Israel’ with the church here, then it is the only place where he does so. But consider the following:-
- Rom 2:29 – ‘A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly’
- Rom 9:6 – ‘Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’
- Rom 9:7 – ‘Not because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children’
- Gal 3:7 – ‘Those who believe are children of Abraham’
- Gal 3:28 – ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek…’
- Gal 3:29 – ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’
Both in Romans and in Galatians Paul argues that righteousness come through faith, not by works of the law. In Rom 4 he shows that this has been the case from the beginning: Abraham was right with God before the sign of circumcision was given, Rom 4:9-11. Abraham is therefore ‘the father of all who believe’ – both Jews and Gentiles, Rom 4:11-12. Since the father of Israel Abraham – is also the father of all who believe, the designation of this company as ‘the Israel of God’ would be apt. Indeed, in Gal 3:7, ‘those who believe’ are designated ‘children of Abraham’, and these include Gentile believers, Gal 3:8. All who are in Christ both Jews and Gentiles – are Abraham’s offspring, Gal 3:27-29.
‘Whether the expression ‘the Israel of God’ in its one appearance in the NT (Gal. 6:16) denotes believing Jews only, or believing Jews and Gentiles without distinction, is disputed; the latter is more probable, especially if the expression is to be construed in apposition to ‘all who walk by this rule’. But that the community of believers in Jesus, irrespective of their natural origin, is looked upon as the new Israel throughout the NT is clear. They are ‘the twelve tribes in the dispersion’ (Jas. 1:1), ‘the exiles of the dispersion’ (1 Pet. 1:1), who are further designated, in language borrowed from OT descriptions of Israel, as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Pet. 2:9).’ (F.F. Bruce, NBD)
Sizer (Zion’s Christian Soldiers, p49) says that the identification of ‘the Israel of God’ with Jews, or at least believing Jews, ‘flies in the face of everything [Paul] has said in the first five chapters of this letter.’ We might add that it flies in the face of the immediate context: it stretches credulity to think that Paul envisions two groups of people in this verse, those who ‘walk by this rule’ (and are presumably not Jews) and those who are ‘the Israel of God’ (and presumably do not ‘walk by this rule’).
Stott says: ‘All who walk by this rule’ and ‘the Israel of God’ are not two groups, but one. The connecting particle kai should be translated ‘even’, not ‘and’, or be omitted (as in RSV). The Christian church enjoys a direct continuity with God’s people in the Old Testament. Those who are in Christ today are ‘the true circumcision’ (Phil. 3:3), ‘Abraham’s offspring’ (Gal. 3:29) and ‘the Israel of God’.
Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God): ‘The noble, evocative word ‘Israel’ itself now denotes, however polemically, the entire faith-family of the Messiah, defined by ‘faith working through love’ (5.6) and ‘new creation’ (6.15).”
Wright adds: ‘If it were the case that Paul, suddenly at this late stage, meant something else by ‘God’s Israel’ – meant, for instance, to refer either to all Jews, or to all Christian Jews, or to some subset of either of those whether now or in the future – then he would, quite simply, have made nonsense of the whole letter. Why write Galatians 3 and 4, if that was where it was going to end up? Why not settle for two families, two ‘inheritances’, instead of the single one? Why not allow that people who want to follow Moses can do so, and that those who want to follow Abraham without Moses can do so too? Why not, in short, behave as if the Messiah had not been crucified? That is what such a position would amount to.’
Luther: ‘The Israel of God consists of both Jews and Gentiles, provided that they live by the rule of faith and the Spirit.’
Schreiner, having reviewed the alternatives, concludes that the meaning here is that ‘believers in Christ, members of the new creation, are the true Israel.’ This is consistent with Paul’s teaching that believers in Christ are the true sons of Abraham; that Jewish and Gentile believers are equal in Christ, Gal 3:28; and that together they constitute the true circumcision, Phil 3:3.
Keener (NCBC) writes: ‘Paul normally uses “Israel” to mean the Jewish people, but in at least one instance qualifies this label (Rom 9:6), and once he speaks of “Israel according to the flesh” (1 Cor 10:18). Calling anyone else Israel is not, then, Paul’s usual language. It is, however, a fitting climax in this polemical letter. Paul is not, however, adopting the later Christian supersessionist practice of a group claiming to replace ethnic Israel. Rather, he is thinking of believing gentile branches grafted into the single eschatological people of God (Rom 11:17, 24); these are the eschatological converts promised by the prophets (e.g., Isa 56:3-8; Zech 2:11). Granted, for Paul, unbelieving branches, whether Jewish (Rom 11:17, 19) or gentile (11:21-22), are broken off. But Paul also affirmed that in the end time Israel as a people would also convert to faith in the Messiah, convincing by the obedience of so many gentiles to their God (Gal 11:25-26; cf. 11:11, 14). Far from discarding historic Israel, Paul is seeking to anchor his gentile converts clearly in connection with it.’
According to R.E. Ciampa (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, art. ‘Galatians’), ‘Paul seems to understand the church as the eschatological Israel in whom God’s prophetic promises are being fulfilled. His reference to ‘the church of God’ (Gal 1:13) strongly suggests that the church is the eschatological equivalent of the OT assembly of the Lord or assembly of God (Deut. 23:1–3, 8; 1 Chr. 28:8; Mic. 2:5; Neh. 13:1; see esp. the LXX). In Qumran the equivalent Hebrew expression was used to refer to the eschatological company of God.
‘The Galatian churches have been ‘redeemed’ and ‘called’ by the God of Israel (Gal 3:13; 1:6), terms which evoke the exodus of Israel from Egypt (Hos. 11:1–2). They have received the gospel (Gal 1:6–9), the good news which Israel had been waiting to hear (Is. 40:9–11; 52:7–10). The Christ (Messiah) is their Lord and they have received grace and peace from him and from God their Father (Gal 1:3). They are the children and heirs of Abraham (Gal 3:7, 29) and the children and heirs of God (Gal 3:26; 4:5–7). They have received the Spirit (Gal 4:6) whom God promised to pour out on his people Israel (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:26–27). Although the point has been debated, given the theological background above it seems most likely that the reference to the ‘Israel of God’ in Gal 6:16 is a reference to the church as the eschatologically restored people of God, which now clearly includes both Jews and Gentiles.’
It is notable that our Lord himself recognised a ‘true’ Israel that extended beyond national boundaries: see Lk 3:7-9; Mt 8:11f.