The Meaning of “the Israel of God”
The context of Galatians must determine what the phrase “the Israel of God” means. We have already noted that this phrase is unique in the biblical text. Therefore, we must examine the context in which it appears. Dr. Johnson did appeal to a context, but he appealed to a much broader one than is warranted. He appealed to the broader Pauline context, when the context of Galatians should be considered first. What does Galatians contribute to our understanding of the Israel of God?
The Occasion for Galatians
What is Paul’s purpose in Galatians? Paul writes to call the Galatians back to the gospel which he originally preached to them because they have turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all (1:6-9). Paul reminds the people of his receiving of the gospel which he preached to them. He did not receive it from any man, but through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12). He then demonstrates that he did not receive the gospel from any other man (1:13-2:10). 2:11-14 then forms the occasion for the whole controversy: Peter and the Jews were hypocritical in their relation to the Gentiles. They separated themselves from eating with the Gentiles. Paul says that this action was not in accord with the truth of the Gospel because Peter, a Jew, lived like a Gentile and not like a Jew, but he still compelled the Gentiles to become Jews. Paul then lays out the fundamental issue. We are just like the Gentile sinners because we seek to be justified in Christ, just as they. This action does not make Christ a sinner for if Paul rebuilds (the Law) again what he tore down, he shows himself to be a transgressor because he died to the Law through the Law that he may live to God. Peter was guilty of setting up again what he had already torn down, namely the Law. This verse not only refers to justification but also the total life lived under the Law. Paul says he has torn it all down, and if he sets it up again, he will have become a transgressor. He reasons on the basis of his death to the Law. Pauls says that through the Law he died to the Law in order that he might live to God. He concludes this section by saying, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness is through Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
Paul’s Application of OT Terminology to Gentiles in Galatians
Paul begins his case in 3:1. I will skip the details (as important as they are), and move straight to Paul’s argument against the Judaizers: By applying OT terminology to the Gentiles (Dr. Brian Vickers, SBTS, pointed me in this direction), which is reserved for Israel, Paul argues that the Gentiles are members of the people of God together with believing Israel. First, Paul compares the Galatians’ faith with the justifying faith of Abraham (3:5-6).
Second, Paul says that these Gentiles of faith are sons of Abraham and are in eschatological continuity with the promise given to Abraham in Gen 12:3; therefore, they are blessed together with Abraham (Gal 3:7-8).
Third, the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles (Genesis 12:3, 28:3-4; cf. Deut 11:26; 28:2; 30:1 all of Israel) as a result of Christ becoming a curse for them and the Jews (Gal 3:13 corresponding to Deut 27:26 and Deut 21:23 corresponds with the inheritance of Israel).
Fourth, the Gentiles receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (3:14), just as the Jews receive the same Spirit (Acts 10:44-48).
Fifth, the Law given to Israel does not annul the promise given to Abraham concerning the blessing of the nations (Gal 3:15-16). The Gentiles are blessed on the basis of the promise given to Abraham, not the Law given to the nation of Israel.
Sixth, the Law fulfilled its function and is now no longer guarding the Jews (3:23-25) because the Gentiles are sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ (3:26).
Seventh, there is no Jew nor Greek . . . for all are one in Christ Jesus (3:28). This phrase does not mean that Jews cease to be Jews any more than males cease to be male. The nullified distinction applies to their status in the Kingdom of God based on justification by faith and the reception of the Spirit and union with Christ. There is no more advantage for being a Jew over a Gentile as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned. In Christ, all are one.
Eighth, because all are one in Christ, the Gentiles are the descendants (“seeds”) of Abraham, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:29; fulfilling Gen 13:15; 15:5; 17:7ff; Gen 28:4 emphasizes the blessing of Abraham).
Ninth, Paul calls the Galatians children of the promise according to Isaac (Gal 4:28). Paul bases this point on Is 54:1, where the OT context is the inclusion of the Gentiles. Unequivocally, Paul says that the Galatian believers are numbered among Sarah’s children. He does not leave room for making a status distinction among the people of God.
Paul’s argument demonstrates that no distinction remains between Jews and Gentiles in the Kingdom of God. Paul applies OT terminology from Genesis and Deuteronomy, which was originally intended for the physical descendants of Abraham, to the Galatian believers. He also makes use of Isaiah 54:1 to show that the fulfillment of those Abrahamic promises has commenced with the Gentiles of his day. After demonstrating that the Gentiles are descendants of Abraham by applying OT terminology to them, he concludes the letter by blessing all who (believing Jews and Gentiles) walk according to this standard, even the Israel of God. For Paul now to turn and bless two distinct peoples would not only be confusing, but contradictory to his own gospel. The view where Paul now turns to console the Jews (presumably because of his harsh language at points) has no basis in the text of Galatians itself. Paul’s harsh comments in the letter have not been made towards the believing Jews, but to the Judaizers who have not understood Paul’s gospel in relation to redemptive history. Furthermore, Paul pronounces curses on these people in the opening of the letter (1:6-9), and Paul would foster more confusion if he now turns and blesses these people at the end of the letter.
The Broader Pauline Context
Since Johnson raised this broader context, I want to make only an introductory remark or two concerning Romans 11. Romans 11 speaks of a future salvation of ethnic Jews. The “all Israel” does refer to the future ethnic Israel. My contention with Dr. Johnson is over his appeal to Romans 11 in his interpretation of Gal 6:16. I want to suggest (not argue for at this time) that Paul stands in a different relationship to the Gentiles in Galatians than he does in Romans. In Galatians, Paul is fighting for the equal status of Jews and Gentiles in the Kingdom of God in accordance with his gospel and the OT promises. The Gentiles were not second-rate in the people of God, and Paul demonstrates this cogently. In Romans, Paul stands in a different position with regard to the Gentiles. Romans is written later than Galatians, and it is my hunch, that the Gentiles were now relishing in their freedom to the point where they no longer regarded God’s promises made to Israel as valid. Romans 9-11 responds to a misinterpretation of Paul’s position with regard to the Jews. Paul stands to defend the Jews and teach the Gentiles that God has not failed in his promises to Israel simply because God has included them in his people.
These posts have argued that Galatians 6:16 is the culmination of Paul’s argument for the equal status of Jews and Gentiles in the Kingdom of God. After applying many OT terms to the Gentiles, he concludes by addressing believing Gentiles and Jews with the most emphatic term, Israel. He calls all who walk according to the standard, the Israel of God.