Paul’s “Israel of God” – Believing Jews – Believing Gentiles – or Both?

Galatians 6:16 is a key text for replacement theologians. Essentially – replacement theology is the allegorizing and transferring of divinely promised Jewish biblical covenant blessing to the predominantly Gentile Church. In effect it’s saying that the church equals Israel – or the Church is the new Israel.

This is not some irrelevant peripheral ivory tower exercise in exegetical minutia. It’s critical that we get this one right because it has had, and continues to have, a profound and often devastating impact on how Jewish people are viewed, and how Jewish people are treated in the mostly non-Jewish world. Plus, the fact of the matter is, the average person sitting in church today is replacement by default! More often than not, they haven’t been taught otherwise, so they tend view themselves not as partakers of Jewish biblical covenant blessing (cf. Rom.11:17),  but rather as taker-overs of Jewish biblical covenant blessing (cf. Rom.11:18). But of course Jewish people get to keep the curses. I don’t have an axe to grind – but it is what it is – that’s usually how it plays out.

Galatians 6:16 reads: And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

There are two different groups in this verse separated by the word and: first – them – who are Gentile believers, and secondly the Israel of God,  who are Jewish believers. So the term Israel of God describes a second group in the verse, not the same group. The term Israel occurs 73 times in the New Testament referring each time to national ethnic Israel. It may refer to Jews in general or believing Jews in particular, but it is always ethnic Jews.  It never refers to the Church. This is why we shouldn’t make the mistake of identifying the Israel of God with Gentile believers in the sense that Gentile believers are some kind of new group of spiritual Jews.

The Book of Galatians is concerned with Gentiles attempting to attain assurance of salvation through the Law. The ones deceiving them were Judaizers. These were Jewish people demanding adherence to the Law of Moses. In their thinking a Gentile had to convert to Judaism before he or she qualified for salvation through Messiah. In view of the context of Galatians chapter 6,  in verse 15 Paul is asserting that salvation is by faith, resulting in one new creation. He also mentions two elements: circumcision and uncircumcision. This refers to two groups of people: Jews and Gentiles, two groups already mentioned by these same terms in Gal. 2:7–9.

In verse 16, Paul pronounces a blessing on the members of these two groups who align themselves with this rule of salvation through faith alone. The first group is the them, the uncircumcision,  the Gentile believers, the group that Paul directs most of his letter to. The second group is the Israel of God. These are the circumcision, the Jewish believers,  who in contrast with the Judaizers, followed the rule of salvation by grace through faith alone. Here, replacement theologians ignore the primary meaning of the Greek word kai (and), which separates the two groups and instead insist on a secondary or lesser meaning of kai (even) in order to blur God-given ethnic distinctions within the body of Messiah. So in Gal. 6:16, the primary support for the theory that the Church is spiritual Israel,  or that Gentile believers become spiritual Jews in some sense,  is a secondary meaning of one word – kai;  a secondary meaning that doesn’t really apply in this verse containing a blessing for both Jewish and Gentile believers.

In short, these are the kind of hermeneutical hoops one has to jump through when there’s a remarkable absence of scriptural support for the template of replacement theology.



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