July 25 (2): Galatians 6:16

This note is supplemental to the concluding article on “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”; it deals with Gal 6:16, and, in particular, with the unusual expression “the Israel of God”.

Galatians 6:16

“And, as (many) as walk in line by this (measuring) rod, peace upon them, and also mercy upon the Yisrael of God”

I discussed the first clause in the aforementioned article (above); the “(measuring) rod [i.e. rule]” (kanw/n) being the statement in verse 15 (on this, see the previous note), though Paul doubtless would have applied it as well to the teaching and line of argument in the letter as a whole. The second half of the verse is a benediction offered by Paul, one which is similar to the “blessing of peace” (Birkat ha-Shalom) of the Shemoneh Esreh (“Eighteen Benedictions”) in Jewish tradition: “…and mercy upon us and upon all Israel, your people” (cf.  Betz, Galatians, p. 321-22)—the two-fold reference “us… and Israel” indicates an extension from the local congregation to all Israelites and Jews. Paul’s juxtaposition is similar, though slightly different:

“upon them (i.e. those who walk by this rule)…and upon the Israel of God

The main difficulty interpreting Paul’s statement is to identify just what he means by the unusual expression “the Israel of God” (o(  )Israh\l tou= qeou=). There are three possibilities, that it refers to: (a) Israel (Jews/Judaism) in the normal ethnic-religious sense, (b) Jewish believers, or (c) believers in general. The first of these is to be excluded for two reasons: (1) it would seem to contradict the entire thrust and message of the letter, and (2) the qualifying term “of God” strongly suggests that believers specifically are intended (cf. below). This leaves the last two possibilities, either: (i) Jewish believers in particular, or (ii) all believers (Jew and Gentile alike). Many commentators today, influenced by a scholarly (and modern pluralistic) emphasis on the Judaism of Paul, assume that he means the former (i); on the other hand, the overall context of Galatians, strongly suggests the latter (ii). However, it may be possible to combine aspects of both interpretations and thereby achieve a more accurate sense of Paul’s thought. A comparative analysis of similar phrases and expressions, in Galatians as well as other of Paul’s letters, I believe, points in this direction. There are two points of comparison:

    1. Expressions involving “Israel”
    2. Expressions involving “of God”

1. “Israel” ( )Israh/l). In several instances, Paul refers to “Israel” in the traditional ethnic-religious sense to refer to himself (or others) as an Israelite (2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Otherwise, there are several significant passages (apart from Gal 6:16):

    • Romans 9-11—Paul refers to Israel 14 times in these chapters, which provide perhaps his most detailed and extensive discussion of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (from an eschatological viewpoint); these chapters will be examined in more detail during the study of Paul’s View of the Law in Romans. As I will be discussing there, the key verse to an understanding of Paul’s thought is Rom 9:6: “for the ones out of Israel [e)c  )Israh/l], these are not all Israel”—in other words, not all of those belonging to Israel (in the normal ethnic-religious sense) are the true Israel. According to Paul’s teaching in Romans (and elsewhere), some Israelites fell away and have not believed (i.e. have not trusted in Christ), while Gentiles who believed in Christ have become part of (the true) Israel. Paul’s difficult, challenging eschatological statement “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) will be discussed (along with the modern “Two Covenants” approach to Rom 9-11) in a later note.
    • 1 Corinthians 10:18—Here Paul uses the expression “Israel according to the flesh” (o(  )Israh\l kata\ sa/rka), which can be understood two ways: (a) in an ordinary ethnic-religious sense, (b) or “according to the flesh” (kata\ sa/rka) in contrast with “according to the Spirit” (kata\ pneu=ma). His frequent use of kata\ sa/rka in this specialized, latter sense, indicates that he may intend this here as well. The overall thrust of his illustration in 1 Cor 10:1-18ff matches the message of Rom 9:6: that many Israelites have fallen away, in spite of being born into the covenant and participating the religious and spiritual blessings provided them by God—i.e. they are not part of the ‘true Israel’.
    • 2 Corinthians 3:7ff—Paul uses a similar manner of illustration in 2 Cor 3:7-18, but applied directly to the (written) Law of Moses. Israelites (Jews) possess the Torah, being taught/instructed by it and hearing it proclaimed constantly, and yet many of them are veiled from the truth of it (in Christ).
    • Romans 2:28-29—Paul distinguishes between one who is a Jew (i.e. Israelite) outwardly (from birth, circumcision and observing the Torah), with one who is a Jew inwardly (by the Spirit), i.e. believers in Christ. This would clearly indicate that there is a true Israel “according to the Spirit” as compared with Israel “according to the flesh”—cf. Galatians 4:21-31 (esp. v. 29).

2. “of God” (tou= qeou=). Paul’s use of this qualifying term indicates a very definite connotation, one associated specifically with believers (in Christ). To begin with, he is certainly drawing upon traditional Old Testament and Jewish language, with phrases such as “fear of God”, “glory of God”, “judgment/wrath of God”, “kingdom of God”, et al, in a manner shared by Judaism and early Christianity. But at times, certain idioms seem to be applied within a specific Christian (Gospel) context, to indicate that which is true, or truly comes from God. A few important examples may be noted:

    • “the justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh tou= qeou=), especially as contrasted with the justice/righteousness that come through observing the Law (i.e. “works of the Law”)—Romans 3:5, 21-22; 2 Cor 5:21
    • “promise(s) of God” (e)paggeli/a tou= qeou=), esp. as fulfilled truly in Christ (and in the Holy Spirit) unto believers—Rom 4:20; 2 Cor 1:20; Gal 3:16-22ff;
    • “knowledge of God” (gnw=si$ qeou=) and “wisdom of God” (sofi/a tou= qeou=), esp. contrasted with false/human knowledge and wisdom—Rom 11:33; 1 Cor 1:17-24, 30; 2:6ff; 15:34; 2 Cor 10:5; Col 1:10; Eph 3:10.
    • “assembly [i.e. the people called out] of God” (h( e)kklhsi/a tou= qeou=), which likely has the specific nuance of the “true congregation”, i.e. of believers in Christ—cf. especially Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 10:32; 11:22; 15:9 (note the references to Paul’s persecution of believers).
    • “temple/shrine of God” (o( nao/$ [tou=] qeou=)—Paul uses this expression in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16 (cf. also 1 Cor 6:19 and Eph 2:21), referring to believers themselves as the (true) temple (properly, shrine/sanctuary) of God, as opposed to the earthly Temple (which Paul otherwise rarely mentions, 1 Cor 9:13; 2 Thess 2:4).
    • “the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=)—this expression occurs in Romans 7:22, 25 and 1 Cor 9:21; in Romans, Paul seems to use it broadly in the sense of the “will of God”, and as contrasted both with the Law of Moses, and, more particularly, to the “Law of sin”. In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul defines it specifically as being “in the Law of Christ” (e&nnomo$ Xristrou=).
    • “the commands of God” (e)ntolw=n qeou=)—I discussed this expression (1 Cor 7:19) in the previous note; the examples above, and the comparative context in Paul’s letters, suggest that he means this in the sense of the true commands (reflecting the Law or will “of God”), more or less synonymous with the Law/command of Christ (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21).

All of this strongly indicates that “the Israel of God” refers to the true Israel, and thus to (all) true believers in Christ. However, it is possible that the apparent distinction between them (those following the ‘rule’ of Gal 6:15) and the Israel of God, may be Paul’s way of moving from the Gentile (Galatian) believers to include the Jewish believers as well. If so, then this could represent a simpler, summary statement of what he expounds in far greater detail in Romans 9-11.

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