In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle Paul promised, And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. It’s pretty simple to determine what the rule is that Paul is referencing. You only have to go back one verse to Galatians 6:15 to find it, For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. So peace and mercy are promised to those who believe that being a new creation is what really matters to God, but Paul also says that peace and mercy will be upon the Israel of God. Determining who Paul is referencing on this point is much more difficult. However, that’s the task of this post. I’m going supply my answer to the question: who is the Israel of God?
As I begin, let me just say that the Israel of God might not be who we first think it is. Perhaps you’ve thought or been taught that Israel and the Church are so distinct and different that God has different plans and promises for each. Perhaps that’s the water you’ve been swimming in for decades now. However, at the offset I must confess that I cannot reason that understanding from Scripture. Therefore, what I’m about to put forth might cause you some difficulty, but I pray that you will be moved by Scripture. I will cover a lot of Scripture, and you’ll really have to chew on this and digest this, but in the end, I pray that you would receive this teaching and rejoice in it!
Let me give you my answer to the question, and then I’ll spend the rest of the post defending my answer. So, who is the Israel of God? All believing Jews and Gentiles—past, present, and future—who put their faith in the Messiah Christ are part of the Israel of God. I will use four truths to defend my answer.
1) Physical descent is irrelevant.
Galatians 6:14-15 says, But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. You see, God’s favor has never been by birth. It has never been about a physical reality and has always been about an internal reality. It has always been about the heart. It’s always been about faith.
This misconception is probably the greatest one that Jesus faced during his earthly ministry. He was constantly trying to help Jews see that their physical descent from Abraham was no reason for assurance or boasting. Jesus’ conversation with the Jews in John 8:38-41 is typical of many other interactions:
I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” 39They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41You are doing the deeds of your father.”
Even here, Jesus is saying, “I know your bloodline is Jewish; you are physically Israel, but the internal reality of your heart is not Israel. Your heart is the proof that you are not spiritually a descendent of Abraham. You’re not doing the deeds of Father Abraham. Rather you’re doing the deeds of your father, Satan”. This reason is why Paul says that circumcision isn’t anything. It doesn’t matter. But on the flipside, neither does uncircumcision. Uncircumcision isn’t anything either. In other words, salvation has nothing to do with whether you are a Jew or Gentile
Notice what Paul says matter in Galatians 6:15, For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. What matters is whether or not a person has been made a new creature by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the difference!
The Bible makes a clear differentiation between physical Israel and spiritual Israel, and one of the most profound passages that illustrates and explains this is in Romans 9-11. Paul is struggling with the fact that national Israel has rejected their God-appointed Messiah, namely Jesus Christ. Given that fact, one might conclude that the Word of God had failed, but listen to Paul’s emphatic declaration in Romans 9:6, But it is not as though the word of God has failed. Notice why Paul is so sure as he continues on in Romans 9:6-8. Basically, he gives the same reason in three different ways. The word of God has not failed because:
- v6, they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel
- v7, nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants
- v8, It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants
Paul’s reason is that there is a difference between physical, ethnic Israel and the true, spiritual Israel. He’s saying that God’s promises are still “yes and amen” because they were never given to a certain physical people. There are physical Israelites who are not true Israel. Not all of Israel is Israel.
Think about it in the following way as carried on out in Romans 9. Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, had just as much claim to Abraham as Isaac, did he not? Yet God did not show him favor. Esau, Isaac’s other son and twin brother of Jacob, had just as much claim to Isaac and to Abraham as Jacob, did he not? Yet God did not show him favor. There is a difference between physical, ethnic Israel and spiritual, true Israel.
The same basic assertion is made in Romans 2:28-29, For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. Paul is saying that being a true Jew is actually an internal reality. Therefore, a physical Jew might not be a spiritual Jew, and a physical Gentile might be a spiritual Jew. Physical descent is irrelevant.
So, in trying to determine who the Israel of God is, we cannot look to DNA or the family tree, but there is a person to whom we should look, namely Jesus Christ.
2) Jesus Christ is the Israel of God.
Have you ever noticed that the Old Testament pictured Israel as God’s son? That language is first used in Exodus 4:22-23, Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn.’ So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn. It’s used again in Hosea 11:1, When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. As R. Scott Clark says, “In the Hebrew Scriptures the expression “out of Egypt” occurs more than 140 times. It is one of the defining facts of the existence of national Israel. When God gave the Law he said, ‘I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ They were a redeemed people belonging to their Savior” (“The Israel of God,” http://www.wscal.edu/clark/israel.php). So, in the Old Testament, Israel is pictured as God’s son.
But notice how Matthew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit interprets these passages. Matthew 2:14-15 says, So Joseph got up and took [Jesus] and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Matthew says that Jesus going into Egypt and coming out of Egypt fulfills the prophecy found in Hosea 11:1. Given that the Bible has been progressively revealed to us over centuries, we must read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. Therefore, Matthew’s inspired interpretation of the Old Testament must norm our interpretation of Scripture, and according to Matthew’s interpretation, it is our Lord Jesus, not the physical Jewish nation, who is the true Israel of God.
Jesus Christ is the true Israel of God. As John 3:16 so clearly tells us, Jesus is God the Father’s only begotten Son. Jesus is the true firstborn of God. Therefore, the Jewish nation was only a type of Christ. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the only reason God orchestrated the first Exodus from Egypt through Moses was so that He might orchestrate the second Exodus here with Jesus Christ so that we might know that Jesus is the true Son of God. As one author says, “It is because Jesus is the true Israel of God that, in his infancy and indeed in his entire life, he [recapped] the history of national Israel. What rebellious national Israel would not do, Jesus did: He loved God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and his neighbor as himself (Matt 22.37-40)” (R. Scott Clark, “The Israel of God,” http://www.wscal.edu/clark/israel.php).
If we need further evidence, Paul argues along the same lines in Galatians 3:16-18, Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. To cut to the chase of what Paul is arguing, he’s basically saying, “The covenant promises given through Abraham were to Abraham and Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham, and therefore, the true Son of Abraham and the true Son of God. Every page of the Scripture is about Jesus Christ. He is the focus and darling of the Bible. Jesus is the Israel of God.
But the question remains: so, what does that have to do with us and the rest of humanity? That leads me to my next point.
3) All who are united to Christ are also the Israel of God.
The truth that Jesus is the Israel of God is massively important to us and the rest of humanity. If you want to enter into the Promised Land, you must be united to Jesus. If you want to receive the covenant promises given to Abraham, which say that in him all the families of the earth will be blessed, you must be united to Jesus. It’s in union with Him that we receive the promises.
By grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, every believing Jew and Gentile—past, present, and future—become the true Israel of God. Those who lived and died before Christ looked forward to His day. Those who lived and died after Christ look backward to His day. But from the beginning of history until the end, Jesus Christ is the key to salvation. Read what our Lord said about Abraham in John 8:56, Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.
Now, what is the scriptural support for saying that all believing Jews and Gentiles past/present/future who put their faith in the Messiah Christ are also the Israel of God?
Let’s begin with the only text in the Bible that contains the phrase “Israel of God,” which is Galatians 6:16, And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. We have to be careful here. Many have used this text to say, “See there are two groups: the New Covenant people who will walk by this rule and the Old Covenant people who is the Israel of God.” But this interpretation does not fit with the argument Paul is making here in Galatians 6:15. Circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing. Being a new creature is what matters. Again, it has nothing to do with birthright, and that’s the way it’s always been. Just look at Hebrews 11 for examples of how faith was essential to the religious life of Old Testament saints. Therefore, the best way to understand Paul’s summary statement in Galatians 6:16 is like this, “Peace and mercy be upon those who will walk by the rule that being a new creature is what matters, and this group is the Israel of God.” This interpretation is fully supported by the Greek syntax and follows perfectly in line with Paul’s argument throughout the book Galatians. For this reason, the NIV translation captures the true gist of the Paul’s words, Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. The Israel of God is those Jews and Gentiles past/present/future who follow this rule.
Galatians 3:6-9 makes this abundantly clear, Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” 9So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. Take special notice of v7, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. If you want Abraham, then you must believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and be united to Him. That’s how a person becomes a son of Abraham. It’s those who are of faith who are blessed with Abraham the believer.
It’s for this reason that Peter can use such magnificent and glorious covenant language to describe New Testament believers in 1 Peter 2:9-10, But [those who are united to Jesus Christ] are a chosen race, A royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. These Old Testament terms which seemed to be given to physical Israel are actually given to the true Israel, the spiritual Israel.
My friends, union with Christ is irreplaceable. The gospel is probably best summed up in John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. If you have Christ, you have eternal life. That’s the same gospel that been preached since the Garden of Eden when God told Satan who was manifest as a serpent that the seed of the woman would bruise Satan’s head. That seed from Eve coming up through Abraham and finally through the virgin Mary is none other than Jesus Christ, and if you are united with Christ, you are the Israel of God
Now to the final aspect of the Israel of God that I want us to look at in this post…
4) God has only one people.
Now some might say that what I’m putting forth here is Replacement Theology, which says that the church has replaced Israel as God’s covenant people. In no way is that what I’m saying. The replacement theologian would say that God had a people, namely Israel, and then got rid of them because of covenant unfaithfulness and now has the Church as His people. Essentially this teaches that God has two peoples, but just one at time. That is not what the Bible teaches. On the other hand, the dispensationalist would say that God has two peoples at the same time, namely Israel and the Church, but I believe this understanding flies in the face of Scripture as well.
So again, I’m saying that God has always had only one people. It’s all believing Jews and Gentiles—past, present, and future—who put their faith in the Messiah Christ, and this one people stretches from creation to Christ’s second coming. This people is a community of faith in Jesus Christ.
We have two vivid illustrations of this reality from the New Testament. Romans 11 pictures redemptive history as a tree:
If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:16-24 ).
The root is the patriarchs, and the tree trunk begins with the Jews, but some Jews were broken off because of unbelief, and in their place some Gentiles were grafted in. Yes, there are two types of branches representing at least two distinct people groups—namely Jews and Gentiles—but there is only one tree, representing only one people of God.
Ephesians 2 pictures redemptive history as a building:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:13-22).
Believing Jews and Gentiles are the building blocks built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. Again, there are two types of blocks representing at least two distinct people groups, namely Jews and Gentiles, but there is only one building representing only one people of God. This building, this tree is the Israel of God.
So all believing Jews and Gentiles—past, present, and future—who put their faith in the Messiah Christ are part of the Israel of God. May we see this truth and rejoice in Jesus Christ!