The Israel of God

How are we to understand the relationship between the Church (that we see revealed and inaugurated in Acts 2) with God’s people Israel (that we see begin with their father Abraham in Genesis 12). When the N.T. speaks of the New Covenant and Abrahamic Covenant (A.C.) who does it pertain to and in what way(s)?  Also, with the coming of the Messiah how does that pinnacle event affect all these issues? What I hope to accomplish in this post is give a framework that will provide the reader with direction for these questions.

In Galatians, Paul is dealing with false teachers who have crept in teaching a false gospel.  We known from the epistle that these false teachers were imposing on the church other requirements (circumcision, dietary laws, holy days, etc.) to be full recipients of all the gospel offered.  In chapter 3, Paul lays out the case for how one is saved and what the believer is entitled to.  In vs. 14, Paul concludes that all those who believed as Abraham did are recipients of the “blessing of Abraham.”  The A.C. has often been divided into three blessings: land, seed, and blessing.  So which aspects does Paul have in mind in vs. 14 and subsequently, the rest of the chapter?  Verse 16 states,

Now the promises (plural) were made to Abraham and to his offspring.  It does not say, “And to offsprings” as referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Italics, underlining, and bold my emphasis)

Two fundamental observations should be made here.  First, Paul uses the plural when speaking of the benefits given to the believing recipients of the A.C.  So this text cannot be speaking about one particular aspect of the A.C. as some have argued.  Grammar dictates that Paul has at least two promises from the A.C. in mind.  And unless the text specifies which particular promises he has in mind; it is safest to assume all of them.  Second, the A.C. was given to Abraham and to Christ.

Paul then explains the purpose of the law from vs. 17-26.  The law was to expose our need for a Messiah and for everyone to turn to Him.  Jesus fulfilled the law and was cursed by it on the believers’ behalf (vs. 10-14).  Therefore, all who believe in Him are united to Christ and by their union to Him become “Abraham’s offspring” and thus “heirs according to the promise.”  Therefore, I conclude from Paul, Galatians 3 teaches that all who believe in Jesus are the true sons of Abraham, the father of Israel.

In the overarching story of the Bible we see God’s special people emerge on the scene in Genesis 12.  But what was it that made them special?  Was it bloodlines? No. Abraham was a Gentile until God called him and set him apart from the nations.  Abraham was the first Jew.  And it was God’s choice that made him special.  We see in the O.T. that generally those God elected were descendants of Abraham.  And so the large majority of Jews were blood descendants of Abraham.  However, having Abraham’s blood in you was never a prerequisite to being part of the nation of Israel. For example, the Egyptians who left in the Exodus with Israel, or more specifically, what about Rahab who Jesus descended from?  In the O.T. what marked someone as being part of the nation of Israel was circumcision, and submission to God’s law.  These were the outward manifestations of professed belief in the Messiah.

We later learn from Paul that not all who descend from Abraham were of Israel; but only those who were set apart by God’s choice (Romans 9:6-13).  In other words, only those who were elected and believed were truly part of Israel.  So if we know that being a blood descendent of Abraham was never a prerequisite for being part of the nation of Israel.  And we know from Paul that election and belief is a prerequisite for being part of Israel.  It would best be understood that all those who believe and identify themselves with Jesus Christ (the Seed of Abraham) and his body (the Church) are the true Israel of God (Galatians 6:16, see illustration).

1 Israel of God

Lastly, if we know that Gentile converts prior to Christ and the New Covenant are recipients of all that was promised to Abraham, but refuse Gentile converts now because of the inauguration of New Covenant and the establishing of the Church.   Then that would mean O.T. converts are entitled to more of the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant than the Church is today.  It is much more consistent to see Jesus and the Church (the body of Christ) as that which was promised to Abraham.  Therefore, there should be no distinctions between the Israel of God and the Church.

My brother Doug’s intro can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “The Israel of God

  1. Pingback: Fiery Logic | Thoughts on Israel and the Church Part 1

  2. From the outset, I’ll mention that I typically abhor blogs and the pompous soapboxing that typically takes place there. However, there are a few out there that I find worth reading, which is why I’m at Stephen’s in the first place. However, there are some problems with what is written in this entry on “The Israel of God” which I wish to comment on.

    First, I was disappointed that the entry does not actually deal with the verse from which the title is derived. Galatians 6:16 is cited once, but there is not an exegesis of the verse to seek to understand what Paul is saying when he speaks of the “Israel of God” in that verse. Rather, the entry focuses on a different verse altogether.

    The first thing I notice here is the fact that threefold division of the Abrahamic Covenant into land, seed, and blessing is dismissed according to two fundamental observations (actually, this is the second thing I noticed – but I’ll come back to the issue of to whom Galatians is written later). The first reason the division of the Abrahamic Covenant is dismissed has to do with the grammar. “Grammar dictates that Paul has at least two promises from the A.C. in mind” the blog reads, on the basis of the fact that the term “promises” appears in the plural in verse 16. True, the term is plural in v16, as it also is in v21 – but I believe it is an overstatement to say that “Grammar dictates that Paul has at least two promises” in mind, simply because the term is plural in these two instances, given the fact that the term “promise” appears in singular six times (v14, v17, twice in v18, v19, and v29). While this singular use of “promise” may not prove that the threefold division is appropriate in v16, it does suggest that the grammar does not quite “dictate” that one reject the threefold division in v16.

    The question stands, then, what “promise” (or “promises”) is Paul thinking about in Gal 3:16? Perhaps he has already answered that question before we arrive at v16. In v14, Paul tells his readers that they were redeemed “in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” It might seem from this text that Paul is specifically speaking of the blessing – all the world will be blessed, i.e., the Gentiles receive the blessing given to Abraham. And by raising the notion of “the promise of the Spirit” in v14, Paul seems to be focusing in on the promise of salvation in Christ – the promise that links the reception of the promised Holy Spirit to repentance and faith (just as it did for Peter in Acts 2:38).

    This, then, raises the issue of to whom the letter is addressed. The blog simply states that “Paul is dealing with false teachers who have crept in teaching a false gospel.” This would seem to be an unwarranted generalization, however. It would seem that Paul is specifically writing to Jewish converts who had forsaken legalism and followed Christ in saving faith. This would seem to be supported by the fact that in chapter 3, he writes “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law” and “the law was our guardian until Christ came” (v23, 24). The recipients of the letter were formerly under custody of the law – i.e., they were Jews (unlike the Gentiles, who did not have the law; cf. Rom 2:14). But now, in the Body of Christ, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is broken down – they are one in Christ. And those in Christ are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (v29) – pointing back to the blessing that has come to the Gentiles through the reception of the “promise of the Spirit” (v14).

    Abraham was promised that all the world would be blessed through him. This is fulfilled in Christ. And there is no distinction – all who are in Christ – all who repent and believe – receive the promised Holy Spirit, and are baptized into one body (1 Cor 12:13).

    But then there is the phrase “Israel of God.” The blog uses this phrase, and cites Gal 6:16, but does not attempt to analyze that text to see who, precisely, the “Israel of God” is.

    Paul writes, “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.” The first question to consider here is what “rule” Paul is referring to. Obviously, by taking on the Jewish legalizers in this epistle, Paul is not pronouncing a blessing on legalists – he is writing to encourage those who have forsaken legalism to follow Christ – so the “rule” cannot refer to a commitment to the Law. What Paul does have in mind here seems to be the “rule of faith” – i.e., belief in the gospel. In Acts 6:7, we see a number of priests convert, and they are said to become “obedient to the faith.” Paul’s benediction here in Galatians 6:16 is pronounced on those who follow the rule of faith – those who are obedient to the faith and believe the gospel.

    So, essentially, “Peace and mercy to all who have believed in the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith, even to the Israel of God.” Who, then, is the “Israel of God?”

    The phrase “even to the Israel of God” begins with the Greek conjunction kai, which might be used in various ways. Here, we might ask, is kai being used in an explicative sense or an emphatic sense?

    An explicative use of kai would simply identify or explain what is being said. For example, if Paul intends kai in this sense, he would essentially be saying, “Peace and mercy to all who believe – in other words, the Israel of God.” He would be identifying “all who believe” with “the Israel of God” – i.e., he would be affirming that believers (i.e., the Church) are, indeed, “Israel.”

    If kai is used emphatically, however, its purpose would be to emphasize something. For example, in Mark 16:7, kai is used emphatically when we read “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee.” Obviously, Peter is one of Christ’s disciples – but he is singled out here, emphasized, as one very important part of a larger group (perhaps to ensure that he receive the good news of the resurrection of the one he had so recently denied). Likewise, in Acts 1:14, we read that the disciples “joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Given Mary’s own identity as a woman, it would be strange for Luke to be telling us that “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” were joining in prayer, unless he is using kai emphatically, in order to emphasize Mary as a very important part of a larger group of women. And in our Galatians 6:16 context, if Paul is using kai emphatically, he would be essentially saying, “Peace and mercy to all believers – particularly the Israel of God.” If this is the case, the “Israel of God” is being singled out as some particularly important component of the larger group of believers.

    So the question is: How is Paul using kai in Galatians 6:16? Grammatically, both are possible. “Israel” could, indeed, be a term here to describe all those who are saved. On the other hand, “Israel” could refer to a distinct group within the larger group of believers.

    Admittedly, both interpretations are possible. I would suggest, however, that the general purpose of the Epistle to the Galatians would argue against an explicative use of kai in 6:16. One of Paul’s purposes is to address the problem of Legalizers. And one group particularly susceptible to the deception of the Legalizers are Jewish converts – those who were formerly under custody of the Law, who had the Law as their guardian until Christ came. If so much of the letter is taken up with warning Jewish converts not to heed the instruction of the Legalizers – not to forsake the gospel of grace and return to a Law that was only to be a custodian until Christ came – it would make sense if, at the end of the letter, he singles out those Jews who had, indeed, forsaken legalism and truly followed Christ. “Peace and mercy,” he would be saying, “to all who follow this rule – to all believers.” But then he would add, for special emphasis, “Especially the Israel of God – especially those of Israel who have forsaken legalism in favor of the gospel.”

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