Galatians Study

Galatians 6:14-16 But far be it from me to boast, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…….all that counts is new [personal] creation. All who take this principal as their guide: peace and mercy be upon them, the Israel of God.                                                        Revised English Bible

The proper interpretation and translation of the last phrase in Galatians 6:16 has become a matter of controversy in the past century or so. Formerly, “The Israel of God” was understood as a name for the Church. The καὶ (“and”) which precedes the phrase upon the Israel of God, was understood as an explicative καὶ. This understanding of the grammar is reflected in the Revised Standard Version’s Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God, and in the New International Version’s:  even to the Israel of God. It is not necessary, to understand the καὶ as an explicative in order to get substantially the same sense. If it be regarded as an ordinary connective καὶ, the all who take this principal, correctly refers to the individual Christians, Jewish and Gentile, and Israel of God to the same Christians, regarded collectively; being the entire messianic community.”

So the rendering “and upon the Israel of God” (KJV and others) is acceptable enough, provided it is not misapplied. In any case, it is clear that in this verse Paul cannot be pronouncing a benediction upon persons who are not included in: All who keep the Christian rule….The entire argument of the epistle contradicts any idea that here in 6:16 he would give a blessing to those who are not Christians.

The phrase has become controversial because the traditional interpretation conflicts with principles of interpretation associated with Dispensationalism. Dispensationalists, those who believe in a ‘rapture to heaven’, insist on maintaining a sharp distinction between “Israel” and “the Church”.

They refute the idea that here Paul is using the phrase “Israel of God” in a sense that includes Gentiles, because this undermines their contention that “the Church” is distinguished from “Israel” in Scripture. This major tenet of dispensationalist hermeneutics, is a false teaching.

The dispensationalist explanation of the meaning of “The Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 is contrary to Paul’s main point, in which it is said that: in Christ Jesus … there is neither Jew nor Greek. This central idea of the epistle, is expressed in the third chapter: “you are all one in Christ Jesus … if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” Galatians 3:26-29 

 The fascination with the secular state of Israel which is so characteristic of dispensationalists today has led many of them to think that the restoration of the Jews as “God’s people” has already occurred, despite the fact that their rapture has not yet happened and the Jews continue to reject Christ. Dispensationalists insist that this unbelieving Israel according to the flesh must be blessed by everyone. But of course this premise is totally wrong, because there is no blessing for anyone who rejects Christ.

The attempt to limit the meaning of “Israel of God” to the carnal sons of Judah betrays a fundamentally wrong approach to biblical interpretation, and to New Testament theology in particular. I give below some excerpts from writers who are more accurately express the meaning of Galatians 6:16. Even in these authors I find, however, an insufficient appreciation of Paul’s teaching. Peace be … upon the Israel of God, is a positive blessing and affirmation of true Christian believers as the spiritual Israel of God.

Justin Martyr on “the true spiritual Israel”

Jesus Christ … is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through Christs salvation.

John Chrysostom on Galatians 6:15-16

Observe the power of the Cross, to what a pitch it hath raised him! not only hath it put to death for him all mundane affairs, but hath set him far above the Old Dispensation. What can be comparable to this power? for the Cross hath persuaded him, who was willing to be slain and to slay others for the sake of circumcision, to leave it on a level with uncircumcision, and to seek for things strange and marvellous and above the heavens. This our rule of life he calls “a new creature,” both on account of what is past, and of what is to come; of what is past, because our soul, which had grown old with the oldness of sin, hath been all at once renewed by baptism, as if it had been created again. Wherefore we require a new and heavenly rule of life. And of things to come, because both the heaven and the earth, and all the creation, shall with our bodies be translated into incorruption. Tell me not then, he says, of circumcision, which now availeth nothing; but seek the new things of grace. For they who pursue these things shall enjoy peace and amity, and may properly be called by the name of “Israel.” While they who hold contrary sentiments, although they be descended from him and bear his appellation, have yet fallen away from all these things, both the relationship and the name itself. But it is in their power to become true Israelites, by keeping this rule, by desisting from the old ways, and following after grace.

Martin Luther on Galatians 6:16

Lectures on Galatians, 1519. “Walk” is the same verb that is used above (5:25). “Walk,” that is, go, by this rule. By what rule? It is this rule, that they are new creatures in Christ, that they shine with the true righteousness and holiness which come from faith, and that they do not deceive themselves and others with the hypocritical righteousness and holiness which come from the Law. Upon the latter there will be wrath and tribulation, and upon the former will rest peace and mercy. Paul adds the words “upon the Israel of God.” He distinguishes this Israel from the Israel after the flesh, just as in 1 Cor. 10:18 he speaks of those who are the Israel of the flesh, not the Israel of God. Therefore peace is upon Gentiles and Jews, provided that they go by the rule of faith and the Spirit.

Lectures on Galatians, 1535. “Upon the Israel of God.” Here Paul attacks the false apostles and the Jews, who boasted about their fathers, their election and the Law. Romans 9:4-5   The Israel of God are not necessarily the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel but all those who, as Abraham the believer (3:9), believe in the promises of God now revealed in Christ, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.

John Calvin on Galatians 6:16

Upon the Israel of God. This is an indirect ridicule of the vain boasting of the false apostles, who vaunted of being the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh. There are two classes who bear this name, a pretended Israel, which appears to be so in the sight of men, and the Israel of God. Circumcision was a disguise before men, but regeneration is a truth before God. In a word, he gives the appellation of the Israel of God to those whom he formerly denominated as the children of Abraham by faith (Galatians 3:29), and thus includes all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, who are united into one body of Christ.

William Hendriksen on Galatians 6:16

Paul continues: 16. And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace (be) upon them and mercy, even upon the Israel of God. According to the preceding context, this rule is the one by which before God only this is of consequence, that a person places his complete trust in Christ crucified, and that, therefore, he regulates his life by this principle. This will mean that his life will be one of gratitude and Christian service out of love for his wonderful Saviour.

So far the interpretation runs smoothly. A difficulty arises because of the last phrase of this verse. That last phrase is: “kai upon the Israel of God.” Now, varying with the specific context in which this conjunction kai occurs, it can be rendered: and, and so, also, likewise, even, nevertheless, and yet, but, etc. Sometimes it is best left untranslated. Now when this conjunction is rendered and (as in A.V., A.R.V., N.E.B.), it yields this result, that after having pronounced God’s blessing upon all those who place their trust exclusively in Christ Crucified, the apostle pronounces an additional blessing upon “the Israel of God,” which is then interpreted to mean “the Jews,” or “all such Jews as would in the future be converted to Christ,” etc.

This interpretation tends to make Paul contradict his whole line of reasoning in this epistle. Over against the Judaizers’ perversion of the gospel he has emphasized the fact that “the blessing of Abraham” now rests upon all those, and only those, “who are of faith” (3:9); that all those, and only those, “who belong to Christ” are “heirs according to the promise” (3:29). These are the very people who “walk by the Spirit” (5:16), and “are led by the Spirit” (5:18). Moreover, to make his meaning very clear, the apostle has even called special attention to the fact that God bestows his blessings on all true believers, regardless of nationality, race, social position, or sex: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek; there can be neither slave nor freeman; there can be no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

In harmony with all of Paul’s teaching in this epistle, see also Ephesians 2:14-22, and also in harmony with the broad, all-inclusive statement at the beginning of the present passage, where the apostle pronounces God’s blessing of peace and mercy upon “as many as” shall walk by this rule, an object from which nothing can be subtracted and to which nothing can be added, it is my firm belief that those many translators and interpreters are right who have decided that kai, as here used, must be rendered even, or (with equal effect) must be left untranslated. Hence, what the apostle says is this: “And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace (be) upon them and mercy, even upon the Israel of God.” Cf. Psalm 125:5. Upon all of God’s true Israelites, Jew or Gentile, all who truly glory in the cross, this blessing is pronounced.

O. Palmer Robertson on the Israel of God

The recognition of a distinctive people who are the recipients of God’s redemptive blessings and yet who have a separate existence apart from the church of Jesus Christ creates insuperable theological problems. Jesus Christ has only one body and only one bride, one people that he claims as his own, which is the true Israel of God. This one people is made up of Jews and Gentiles who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah.