Israel and the Church (Part 2)

Loaves and fishes mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha in the Galilee (Photo: James Emery/Flickr)

The following is a continuation of “Israel and the Church (Part 1)”.

The God of Israel

Galatians 6:16

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, former professor of Greek and New Testament Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, has done a detailed study of Galatians 6:16. In his introduction, Johnson makes the following observation:

In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, persistent support remains for the contention that the term Israel may refer properly to Gentile believers in the present age… the primary support is found in Galatians 6:16 …

I cannot help but think that dogmatic considerations loom large in the interpretation of Galatians 6:16. The tenacity with which this application of “the Israel of God” to the church is held in spite of a mass of evidence to the contrary leads one to think that the supporters of the view believe their eschatological system, usually an amillennial scheme, hangs on the reference of the term to the people of God, composed of both believing Jews and Gentiles. Amillennialism does not hang on this interpretation, but the view does appear to have a treasured place in amillennial exegesis.

In speaking of the view that the term refers to ethnic Israel, a sense that the term Israel has in every other of its more than sixty-five uses in the NT and in its fifteen uses in Paul, in tones almost emotional William Hendriksen, the respected Reformed commentator, writes, “I refuse to accept that explanation.”…

What I am leading up to is expressed neatly by D. W. B. Robinson in an article written about twenty years ago: “The glib citing of Gal. v. 16 to support the view that ‘the church is the new Israel’ should be vigorously challenged. There is weighty support for a limited interpretation.” We can say more than this, in my opinion. There is more than weighty support for a more limited interpretation. There is overwhelming support for such. In fact, the least likely view among several alternatives is the view that “the Israel of God” is the church. (1)

Johnson presents three views concerning this verse. Only the first insists that the Israel of God is the Church as a whole while the other two limit it to Jewish believers. The first view is described as follows:

The first is the claim that “the Israel of God” is simply a term descriptive of the believing church of the present age… The Israel of God is the body who shall walk by the rule of the new creation, and they include believing people from the two ethnic bodies of Jews and Gentiles. (2)

The basis for the first view is:

The list of names supporting this view is impressive, although the bases of the interpretation are few and feeble, namely, the claim that the kai … before the term “the Israel of God” is an explicative or appositional kai;… and the claim that if one sees the term “the Israel of God” as a believing ethnic Israel, they would be included in the preceding clause, “And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them.” (3)

Johnson rejects this view on three grounds. The first is for grammatical and syntactical reasons for which there are two. (4) The first is that this view must resort to a secondary or lesser meaning of kai:

It is necessary to begin this part of the discussion with a reminder of a basic, but often neglected, hermeneutical principle. It is this: in the absence of compelling exegetical and theological considerations, we should avoid the rarer grammatical usages when the common ones make good sense. (5)

Because the latter usage serves well the view that the term “the Israel of God” is the church, the dogmatic concern overcame grammatical usage. An extremely rare usage has been made to replace the common usage, even in spite of the fact that the common and frequent usage of and makes perfectly good sense in Galatians 6:16. (6)

Second, Johnson points out that if Paul’s intention was to identify the them as being the Israel of God, then the best way of showing this was to eliminate the kai altogether. […] The very presence of the kai argues against the them being the Israel of God. As Johnson notes, “Paul, however, did not eliminate the kai.” (7)

The second ground for rejecting this view is for exegetical considerations, which deals with context and usage. Concerning usage, Johnson states:

From the standpoint of biblical usage this view stands condemned. There is no instance in biblical literature of the term Israel being used in the sense of the church, or the people of God as composed of both believing ethnic Jews and Gentiles. Nor, on the other hand, as one might expect if there were such usage, does the phrase ta ethné (KJV, “the Gentiles”) ever mean the non-Christian world specifically, but only the non-Jewish peoples, although such are generally non-Christians. Thus, the usage of the term Israel stands overwhelmingly opposed to the first view.

The usage of the terms Israel and the church in the early chapters of the book of Acts is in complete harmony, for Israel exists there alongside the newly formed church, and the two entities are kept separate in terminology. (8)

For those who would cite Romans 9:6 as evidence, Johnson shows that this verse is no support for such a view, for the distinction is between Jews who believe and Jews who do not:

Paul is here speaking only of a division within ethnic Israel. Some of them are believers and thus truly Israel, whereas others, though ethnically Israelites, are not truly Israel, since they are not elect and believing … No Gentiles are found in the statement at all. (9)

Even many Covenant Theologians have agreed with this view of Romans 9:6 and do not use it to support their view of Galatians 6:16. As for context, Johnson observes:

On the contrary, the apostle is concerned with correcting the gospel preached to the Galatians by the Judaizers, particularly their false contention that it was necessary to be circumcised to be saved and to observe as Christians certain requirements of the Law of Moses in order to remain in divine favor … The apostle makes no attempt whatsoever to deny that there is a legitimate distinction of race between Gentile and Jewish believers in the church.… There is a remnant of Jewish believers in the church according to the election of grace.… This approach fails to see that Paul does not say there is neither Jew nor Greek within the church. He speaks of those who are “in Christ.”… But Paul also says there is neither male nor female, nor slave nor free man in Christ. Would he then deny sexual differences within the church? Or the social differences in Paul’s day? Is it not plain that Paul is not speaking of national or ethnic difference in Christ, but of spiritual status? In that sense there is no difference in Christ. (10)

The third ground for rejecting this view is theological:

… no historical evidence points to that the term Israel being identified with the church before A.D. 160. Further, at that date there was no characterization of the church as “the Israel of God.” In other words, for more than a century after Paul there was no evidence of the identification. (11)

Johnson’s summary concerning the rejection of the first view is:

To conclude the discussion of the first interpretation, it seems clear that there is little evidence—grammatical, exegetical, or theological—that supports it. On the other hand, there is sound historical evidence against the identification of Israel with believing or unbelieving Gentiles. The grammatical usage of kai is not favorable to the view, nor is the Pauline or NT usage of Israel. Finally, … the Pauline teaching in Galatians contains a recognition of national distinctions in the one people of God. (12)

The second view is that the Israel of God is the believing Jewish remnant within the Church. This is Johnson’s own view and is the common dispensational view. Johnson describes this view as follows:

The second of the important interpretations of Galatians 6:16 and “the Israel of God” is the view that the words refer simply to believing ethnic Israelites in the Christian church. Does not Paul speak of himself as an Israelite (cf. Rom. 11:1)? And does not the apostle also speak of “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (cf. 11:5), words that plainly in the context refer to believing Israelites? What more fitting thing could Paul write, it is said, in a work so strongly attacking Jewish professing believers, the Judaizers, than to make it most plain that he was not attacking the true believing Jews? Judaizers are anathematized, but the remnant according to the election of grace are “the Israel of God.”…

Perhaps this expression, “the Israel of God,” contrasts with his expression in 1 Corinthians 10:18, “Israel after the flesh” (KJV), as the true, believing Israel versus the unbelieving element, just as in Romans 9:6, the apostle distinguishes two Israels, one elect and believing, the other unbelieving, but both ethnic Israelites (cf. [Romans 9] vv. 7–13). (13)

Johnson supports this view on the same three grounds that he rejected the first view. On grammatical and syntactical grounds, Johnson states that “there are no grammatical, or syntactical considerations that would be contrary” to this view and, furthermore, the “common sense of kai as continuative, or copulative is followed.” (14) In other words, it uses the primary meaning of kai.

On exegetical grounds Johnson states:

Exegetically the view is sound, since “Israel” has its uniform Pauline ethnic sense. And further, the apostle achieves a very striking climactic conclusion. Drawing near the end of his “battle-epistle” with its harsh and forceful attack on the Judaists and its omission of the customary words of thanksgiving, Paul tempers his language with a special blessing for those faithful believing Israelites who, understanding the grace of God and its exclusion of any human works as the ground of redemption, had not succumbed to the subtle blandishments of  the deceptive Judaizers. They, not the false men from Jerusalem, are “the Israel of God,” or, as he calls them elsewhere, “the remnant according to the election of grace” (cf. Rom. 11:5). (15)

As for theological grounds, Johnson states:

And theologically the view is sound in its maintenance of the two elements within the one people of God, Gentiles and ethnic Jews. Romans 11 spells out the details of the relationship between the two entities from Abraham’s day to the present age and on to the fulfillment in the future of the great unconditional covenantal promises made to the patriarchs. (16)

The third view agrees with the second, that the Israel of God must refer to Jewish believers and not the Church as a whole but sees this Jewish remnant as still future:

The third of the interpretations is the view that the expression “the Israel of God” is used eschatologically and refers to the Israel that shall turn to the Lord in the future in the events that surround the second advent of our Lord. Paul would then be thinking along the lines of his well-known prophecy of the salvation of “all Israel” in Romans 11:25–27. (17)

The third view … takes the term “the Israel of God” to refer to ethnic Israel but locates their blessing in the future… (18)

Johnson has no major objections to the third view for “Grammatically and syntactically, this last option is sound.” (19) Theologically, this view is also sound for:

… the view harmonizes with the important Pauline teaching that there are two kinds of Israelites, a believing one and an unbelieving one. (20)

The only real problem is exegetical, since “…the eschatological perspective … has not been one of the major emphases of the Galatian epistle as a whole…”‍‍ However, Johnson allows for the exegetical possibility of this view for the wider context did mention the Abrahamic Covenant and the Kingdom of God.

The second view is probably the best. While the third is biblically acceptable, the first view is not. Johnson concludes:

If there is an interpretation that totters on a tenuous foundation, it is the view that Paul equates the term “the Israel of God” with the believing church of Jews and Gentiles. To support it, the general usage of the term Israel in Paul, in the NT, and in the Scriptures as a whole is ignored. The grammatical and syntactical usage of the conjunction kai is strained and distorted—and the rare and uncommon sense accepted when the usual sense is unsatisfactory—only because it does not harmonize with the presuppositions  of the exegete. And to compound matters, in the special context of Galatians and the general context of the Pauline teaching, especially as highlighted in Romans 11, Paul’s primary passages on God’s dealings with Israel and the Gentiles, are downplayed… the doctrine that the church of Gentiles and Jews is the Israel of God rests on an illusion. It is a classic case of tendentious exegesis. (22)

The conclusion is that the Church is never called, and is not, a “spiritual Israel” or a “new Israel.” The term Israel is either used of the nation or the people as a whole, or of the believing Remnant within. It is never used of the Church in general or of Gentile believers in particular.

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(1) Johnson Jr, S. Lewis. Paul and ‘The Israel of God’: An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study. The Master’s Seminary Journal 20(1):41-55 Spring 2009, pp 41-43. Quoting in this section Hendriksen, William. Exposition of Galatians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1968, p. 247, and Robinson, Donald WB. “The distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers in Galatians.” Australian Biblical Review 13 (1965): 29-48.

(2) Ibid., p. 43.

(3) Ibid., pp. 44-45.

(4) Ibid., pp. 47-49.

(5) Ibid., pp. 47-48.

(6) Ibid., p. 48.

(7) Ibid., p. 49.

(8) Ibid., p. 49.

(9) Ibid., pp. 49-50.

(10) Ibid., p. 50.

(11) Ibid., p. 51.

(12) Ibid., p. 51.

(13) Ibid., p. 45.

(14) Ibid., p. 51.

(15) Ibid., p. 52.

(16) Ibid., p. 52.

(17) Ibid., p. 46.

(18) Ibid., p. 52.

(19) Ibid., p. 53.

(20) Ibid., pp. 53-54.

(21) Ibid., p. 53.

(22) Ibid., p. 54.

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mm (in English); (in Hebrew). Arnold Fruchtenbaum is the founder and director of Ariel Ministries, a U.S. based ministry that has been providing Bible teaching from a Messianic Jewish perspective for over 40 years. Arnold was born in 1943 in Siberia, Russia, after his Jewish father was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy when he fled Poland from Hitler. With the help of the Israeli underground in 1947, the Fruchtenbaum family escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to Germany, where they were confined to British Displaced Persons' camps. There, Arnold received Orthodox Jewish training from his father, before the family finally immigrated to New York in 1951. Before their release, however, the family was befriended by a Lutheran minister, and it was this contact that eventually led Arnold and his mother to the New York headquarters of the American Board of Missions to the Jews (ABMJ). Five years later, this same meeting brought Arnold, at age 13, to saving knowledge of Jesus the Messiah. Read more about Arnold at