In this article, Dr. Gary Hedrick, the president of Christian Jew Founda- tion Ministries (CJFM)
and editor- in-chief of Messianic Perspectives, takes a closer look at spiritual identity theft. His article was first published in January of 2016 and is republished here with minor edits.
By Dr. Gary Hedrick
Who Is the Israel of God in Galatians 6:16?
We’ve all heard about identity theft, and some of us have experienced it firsthand. It’s a crime where a thief pretends to be you. He hacks into your credit card accounts and wreaks havoc, often stealing money right out from under your nose, making your credit score tank. It’s a serious problem, especially in our digital economy. During the most recent year for which figures are available, roughly 16.6 million Americans experienced at least one incident of identity theft. Financial losses for that year totaled a staggering $24.7 billion.
However, there’s another form of identity theft that many people are unaware of—spiritual identity theft. Another name for it is supersession- ism, or replacement theology. 1 It’s a deception where professing Christians hijack Israel’s identity and take exclusive ownership of the promises God made to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Range of Options in Defining “The Israel of God:”
1. “The Israel of God” is the NT church, the spiritual seed of Abraham who have displaced the physical seed of Abraham. This is the majority view in Christendom today.
2. It’s an eschatological reference to the “all Israel” that Paul says will be saved at the end of the age (Rom. 11:26).
3. It’s a self-designation used by Paul’s Judaizing oppo- nents in Galatia and elsewhere. NOTE: The judaizers were observant Jewish individuals who had professed faith in
Yeshua but insisted that non-Jews should undergo a de facto conversion to Judaism (via circumcision) in order to gain full recognition as Yeshua followers.
4. It was a localized phenomenon in Paul’s day—i.e., a “non-judaizing” group of Jewish Christians in Galatia.
5. It’s a reference to Jewish people anywhere who are believers in Yeshua—so they represent the overlap between Israel and the church.
Bruce Waltke, a Harvard-trained Anglican scholar and prolific writer, defines super- sessionism in blunt yet honest terms. He says it means that “national Israel and its law have been permanently replaced by the church and the New Covenant.” 2. Replacement theologians build their case largely by redefining the term “Israel” in the New Testament — Galatians 6:16 in par- ticular — and making it apply to the church. However, the word “Israel” appears 75 times in the New Testament, and in every instance but one, the terms “Israel” and “the church” cannot be interchanged without
reducing the passage to absurdity. 3. When the New Testament says “church,” that’s what it means: the corporate body of New Testament believers. 4. And when it says “Israel,” it means ethnic Israel: the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The consistent testimony of God’s Word is that “Israel” refers to Am Yisrael, the “people of Israel.”
The one exception is Galatians 6:16 where Paul refers to “the Israel of God.” Al- most universally, Christian commentators through the ages have said it refers to the church, the New Israel. W. A. Criswell, the much-revered pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for more than half a centu- ry, was a respected scholar (PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) with a deep and abiding love for Israel and the Jewish people. He never believed that the church had replaced Israel, but he admitted for years that he nonetheless struggled with Galatians 6:16. It seemed to leave the door open for replacement theolo- gy, and he wanted to know why. Every- thing else in the Bible was cogent and consistent, as far as he could tell, except that one verse. At the end of this article, I’ll show you how he finally and conclusively resolved his problem with this enigmatic verse.
First, though, let’s go to the verse itself and talk about it. Why do so many people take the term “Israel,” which uniformly means ethnic Israel throughout the New Testa- ment, and then abruptly plug in a different definition (i.e., the New Testament church) in Galatians 6:16?
Here’s what the Apostle Paul says in this much-debated verse: And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. It’s only 17 words in the original Greek text, but it has occupied the attention of theologians since earliest times.
To supersessionists, the church is the New Israel or the new people of God—“the Israel of God.” Old (ethnic) Israel has faded permanently into oblivion, they say, because she (through her national repre- sentatives, the Sanhedrin) rejected the Messiah in the first century (Matt. 26:65-66). But is this really what Paul had in mind when he used this term “the Israel of God” (Gk., τὸν Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ)? I am an advocate of comparing Scripture with Scripture; however, it doesn’t help us here because there are no other passages to compare. “The Israel of God” is a unique expression. Galatians 6:16 is the only place in the Bible where it appears.
So, who, exactly, is this “Israel of God”? Well, let’s see if we can do some sanctified detective work and uncover the answer to that question.
Since we are doing detective work, let’s begin by taking a look at the scene of the crime. What does the verse itself tell us about “the Israel of God”? It says they (who- ever “they” are) enjoy shalom (Heb., “peace”) and rachamim (“mercy” or “compassion”) because they walk according to a certain “rule” with the believers in Galatia.5
Next, what was “this rule” (or “canon”; Gk., κανών) that they observed so scrupulously? Whenever we run across a perplexing word or phrase in Scripture and we can’t figure out what it means, the solution is usually nestled somewhere nearby, in the passage itself. In fact, the demonstrative pronoun “this” (as in “this rule”) in verse 16 makes it sound as though it’s something Paul has just mentioned. So, what rule did the apostle lay down just prior to verse 16? Here it is:
For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of Adoneinu Yeshua haMashiach [our Lord Jesus Christ], by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Messiah Yeshua neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:13-15)
The rule, then, is that we don’t boast or trust in anything other than the finished work of the Messiah on Calvary. There’s nothing we can do to supplement what He
did there. Through the merits of His sacrifice, imputed to us when we placed our faith in Him, each Christian has been made a “new creation.” In Him, we have new life, new priorities, new purpose, a new nature, and a vital, new relationship with our Creator—and it’s all His doing! Writing to another church, Paul said, Therefore, if anyone is in [Messiah], he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
In Galatia, there were evidently Jewish people from the Pharisaic party who believed that Yeshua was the Messiah, but didn’t consider faith in Him to be sufficient by itself. Their legal background in Judaism, steeped in layers of traditional and cultural Torah observance, may have made it more difficult for them to accept the validity of salvation by grace and through faith alone. But for whatever reason, they wanted circumcision to be a requirement. So, if a Gentile in Galatia wanted to become a believer in Yeshua, these Messianic Pharisees wanted him to undergo a de facto conversion to Judaism and be circumcised.6
Even today, some two thousand years later, this problem of additionalism (my term for piling more
requirements on top of simple faith) persists! Many professing believers want to supplement Messiah’s work of redemption with things like church membership, confirmation, baptism, emo- tionalism, living a good and ethical life, or whatever it might be.
When we say salvation is by grace and through faith alone, maybe the additional- ists think our approach (i.e., no other conditions for salvation) is too minimalis- tic—or just too easy. Surely there’s some- thing we can do to curry God’s favor, even if it’s just a tiny, little bit! Perhaps that’s their thinking. But alas, as humbling as it is, there’s nothing we can do. Like the old hymn says, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.” When Yeshua died on that old, rugged, Roman execution stake two thousand years ago, the work of redemption was finished forever (Jn. 19:30). He did it all; there is nothing we can contribute other than simply accepting it by faith.
The Power of a Three-Letter Word
Every word of the Bible is important. That’s why we believe in the “verbal” (word-for-word) inspiration of the Bible rather than in watered-down “thought inspiration.”8 Galatians 6:16 is a good exam- ple of a verse where the correct interpreta- tion can hang on just one word—in this instance, the little conjunction kai (“and”)
Again, here’s what the verse says: And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and
mercy be upon them, AND (kai) upon the Israel of God. That final kai determines the relation- ship between “the Israel of God” and “as many as walk according to this rule.” Are the two entities one and the same? Or are they distinct? That’s the issue here.
There are two ways to interpret the controversial kai in Galatians 6:16:
1. The first possibility is that the second kai should be translated “even,” indicating that both phrases (“the Israel of God” and “as many as walk according to this rule”) refer to the same entity.10 The result looks like this: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, EVEN (kai) upon the Israel of God.” (And yes, “even” falls within the range of mean- ing for the Greek word kai.) If this is the correct translation, the church is most likely “the Israel of God.” Early replacement theologians like Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom treated it like an equation—i.e., “as
many as walk according to this rule” = “the Israel of God”—because their assumption was that “the Christian church is ‘the true, spiritual Israel’” (Martyr in Dialogue with Trypho 11.5).
2.The other possibility is that this critical kai should be translated “and” because it introduces anoth- er category of believers: namely, Jewish believers in Yeshua the Messiah. The term “Israel” denotes the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—with “the Israel of God” (Jewish follow- ers of Yeshua) being a subset of greater “Israel.” This category would encompass Jewish people who are Yeshua followers. The translation looks like this: “And as many as walk according to th
is rule [i.e., the Gentile believers in Galatia], peace and mercy be upon them AND (kai) upon the Israel of God [the Jewish believers among them].”
Note that Paul blesses “the Israel of God” with “peace” and “mercy.” The apostle would have been well acquainted with the appended portion of the ancient Eighteen Benedictions, known collectively as “the Amidah” (from Tefilat HaAmidah, “the Standing Prayer”). It concludes with: “Blessed are You, O LORD, Who blesses Your people Israel with peace.” (...)
There has always been a believing remnant—an “Israel of God,” if you will—within the ranks of God’s earthly people Israel (e.g., I Kgs. 19:18). Paul may well have been taking this opportunity to point out that Jewish believers—by virtue of their personal relationship with Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace—foreshadowed the yet- future fulfillment of th
at ancient prayer for peace on the People of Israel.
Commentators who object to this second view (i.e., that Jewish believers constitute “the Israel of God”) claim that it’s inconsis- tent with Paul’s statement in Galatians that
under the terms of the New Covenant, there is no more distinction between Jew and Gentile: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Messiah Yeshua (Gal. 3:28). But is that really what the verse is saying? After all, during the course of his missionary journeys, Paul often mentioned his own Jewish heritage and ethnicity, and was readily recognized by others as Jewish (Acts 19:34; 21:39; 22:3; 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5). His statement in Galatians 3:28 about the unity of believers, then, was surely not
intended to suggest that a Jewish believer is no longer recognizable as Jewish once he’s in the Body of Messiah, just as it wasn’t meant to suggest that men and women are no longer distinguishable from one another in the family of God. The fact is that Paul continued to embrace his Jewish identity even long after he became a believer in Yeshua.11
F. F. Bruce has a variation on this second view. Leaning on the work of a German commentator, Franz Mussner, Dr. Bruce takes an eschatological approach, suggest- ing that “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 is the same entity as the end-time “all Israel” in Romans 11:26.12 He includes this note from church history: “So Marius Victorinus, the earliest Latin commentator on Paul [in the fourth century AD], comments on the phrase: ‘not “[peace] on Israel” in the sense of any and every Jew, but “[peace] on the Lord’s Israel”; for Israel is truly the Lord’s if it follows the Lord, not expecting its salvation from any other source.’ ”13
So, then, what sector of Israel would this be? Who among the Jewish people would not be expecting salvation from any other source than the Lord himself? It could only be Jewish believers in Yeshua the Messiah. They represented the overlap between the church and Israel.
Circumcision: Back-Door Entree for Legalism
If we’re right about “the Israel of God” being a reference to Jewish believers, the phrase itself may have been meant as a slap in the face for Paul’s Pharisaic opponents in Galatia (but I doubt that they responded with, “Thanks, I needed that!”). As we have already seen, they were insisting that Gentiles who came to faith in Yeshua should be circumcised according to the Law of Moses: But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
So when Paul says “the Israel of God” walks according to this rule—boasting in nothing other than the death of Messiah Yeshua—these Messianic Pharisees would have readily recognized the stark contrast between Paul’s grace- based paradigm and their own works-based approach.
Is it okay for a believer to be circumcised? Yes, of course—as long as there’s an under- standing that the physical procedure does nothing to enhance one’s spiritual standing before God. Most Jewish believers want to identify culturally with their Jewish community, and that includes circumcision for males. But at the same time, they under- stand that it doesn’t score any brownie points with God. It’s simply a way for them to identify with their Jewish heritage.
Paul himself said that in Messiah Yeshua neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation (Gal. 6:15). So if you’re circumcised, that’s fine. And if you’re not, that’s fine, too. The important thing is that you’ve become a new creation by placing your faith in the Lord Yeshua the Messiah.
The problem arises when someone starts thinking that circumcision is more import- ant than it really is.14 It can become an access point for legalism to make inroads into the life of a believer.15 It’s a concern because performance- based religion can be a source of great frustration, uncertainty, and anxiety for young or inexperienced believers.16 It can also contaminate the true message of salvation by grace, sometimes even to the point of morphing it into “anoth- er gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4).
Proof-texting Replacement Theology
Galatians 6:16 isn’t the only text superses- sionists rely on for Scriptural support.17
Another key passage for them is I Peter 2:9-10:
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
Even though the term “Israel” doesn’t appear here, replacement theologians find particular significance in Peter’s applica- tion of Jewish terminology to the church. To them, it confirms that the church has taken Israel’s place in God’s program. Why else would Peter apply “Israel” language (i.e., “chosen generation [or race],” “royal priesthood,” “holy nation,” and God’s “own special people,” all drawn from Isaiah 43:20 and Exodus 19:5-6) to the church?
This is the majority view in Christendom today, especially among those in the Reformed camp. They say Peter uses this Messianic, royal language (drawn from the Hebrew Bible) because the church has inherited Israel’s status as the people of God.
So how do we explain this? Very simply, there’s another, markedly different reason for Peter’s application of this Messianic
terminology to the church. Peter was writing his letter primarily to Jewish believers in Yeshua (i.e., Jewish Chris- tians). He was using this language to remind them that they have a rich heritage as the believing remnant of Israel (referred to by Paul as “the Israel of God” in Galatians) and that they are the vital link between Israel and the church.
This, in fact, is the most reasonable, logical, and biblical way to reconcile both passages (Gal. 6:16 and I Pet. 2:9-10) from a non-su- persessionist perspective.
While it’s true that most commentators today don’t take this view (i.e., that
Peter was addressing his fellow Jew- ish believ- ers in his epistle), it turns out that it is well attested all the way back to the earliest days of church history. A substantial number of ancient writers concluded that I Peter was addressed to Jewish believers. Here’s what Michael Vlach says:
Hiebert points out that “Origen and many others, saw them [Peter’s audience] as Jewish Chris- tians.” These “others” include Calvin, Bengel, Weiss, Alford, English, and Wuest. In its introductory comments on 1 Peter, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture states, “With few excep- tions, the Fathers believed that this letter was written by the apostle Peter and sent to Jewish Christians in the Diaspora.” It then lists Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus, Andreas, and Occume- nius as those who held this view of the Jewish audience of 1 Peter.
Peter’s letter was written to “sojourners of dispersion” (1:1), which, as Hiebert points out, “has a strong Jewish coloring.” Some have argued that the use of the Septua- gint in the OT quotations and the thrust of Peter’s argument would make Peter’s letter largely unintelli- gible to Peter’s readers if they included Gentiles. Plus, Paul points out that Peter was specifically the apostle to the circumcision (see Galatians 2:7-8).18
So, if our argument hinges on identifying Peter’s audience as Jewish (and it does, to a great extent), it would appear that we are on solid ground!
Writing in The Moody Bible Commentary, Professor Louis Barbieri provides this helpful summary:
Unlike those who are rejected by God (see [1 Peter] 2:8), Peter’s readers are A CHOSEN RACE (v. 9), probably referring to Jewish believers; a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a function no longer related to one tribe. They are a HOLY NATION, a set apart group, a PEOPLE FOR GOD’S OWN POSSESSION. Many
scholars claim that this verse indicates that the Church replaces Israel in God’s program, that the Church is the “New Israel,” and that ethnic Israel has significance in God’s plans only as it is incorporat- ed into the Church that replaces Israel. But Peter is writing primarily to Jewish believers, and these terms are perfectly suitable for the present remnant of Israel, for Jewish believers during the current Church Age.19
“The Israel of God”— Why It Matters
Why should we care about the identity of “the Israel of God”? Why is it still import- ant today, some two thousand years after Paul coined the term?
It’s important for several reasons:
1. It’s important because it assures us that God
always keeps His promises.
God made promises in the Old Testament by making covenants with certain people. We know (from archaeological discoveries) that some covenants were condi- tional (bilateral) while others were unconditional (unilateral). The Abrahamic Covenant was primarily unconditional, but did have some conditional provisions. The unconditional provisions had to do with Abraham’s relationship to God, his posterity, and his
ownership of the land of Israel. The conditional aspects had to do mainly with his possession of the land.20
The conditions for dwelling securely in the land are reflected, for example, in this warning from the Torah: “Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God. So you shall observe My statutes and keep My judgments, and perform them; and you will dwell in the land in safety” (Lev. 25:17-18). We know that Israel did not observe God’s statutes and judgments, and that they were expelled from the Prom- ised Land by the Romans in AD 70. Their possession of the land came to an end (temporarily). However, the fact that God has preserved His people Israel, even through the desolate centuries following their expulsion, is evidence of His promise-keeping power and faithfulness—and since 1948, they have been in the process of repossessing their land. The children of Israel are still His ancient people, and the relentless attempts of their enemies to destroy them have utterly failed. God is faithful even when we are not.
And since God is setting the stage even now for the final fulfillment of His promises to Israel, and their spiritual resurrection as a nation we too can take comfort in the assurance that He will likewise keep His promises to the church!
The covenant-keeping God who has not forgotten or forsaken the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same God who will never forget or forsake us.
2. It’s important because it reminds us that there’s always a believing remnant.
Even during the darkest hours in her history, Israel has always had a faithful remnant of believers. When apostasy was rampant in the days of Elijah, for instance, and the feisty old prophet thought he was the only faithful one remaining (I Kgs. 19:10, 14), the Bible tells us that there were still seven thousand men left who hadn’t bowed down to Baal (v. 18).
Likewise, there is a growing remnant of Jewish believers today—both in Israel and around the world. The new generation of believers that’s rising up in Israel (consisting largely of young people who have grown up in believing homes) is deeply committed to their Jewish identity, and in many cases, they’re even more bold and outspoken about their faith than the older generation!21
This proves conclusively that God has not rejected Israel permanently. If He were to do so, He would also be rejecting the believing remnant among them—and that is impossi- ble. That is precisely Paul’s argument when he writes, I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1).
If God had cast away His people Israel, He would have been casting away Paul, too! And that would have been, very simply, an impossi- bility.
3. It’s important because it informs our reading of the entire Bible.
Some supersessionists concentrate on the New Testament and ignore most of the Old Testament. To them, the older revelation is passé and no longer applicable for believ- ers. However, the central message of God’s Word is redemption through the shed blood of the Messiah, and that unifying theme weaves its way from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is a unified revelation. It is not schizophrenic.
The Older Covenant (the Jewish Tanakh) is about anticipation; the New Covenant (Berit haChadashah) is about implementation. One builds on the other and both are equally God’s Word! In fact, Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profit- able for all things” (II Tim. 3:16). When Paul penned those words, the only Scripture they knew at the time was the Old Testament!
4. It’s important because it helps us understand future prophecy.
We meet numerous people who say they struggle to understand proph- ecy. In many cases, the problem is that they’re trying to unlock proph- ecy without the key—and that’s Israel! The nation Israel is the linchpin around which God’s end-time program revolves. If we lack a proper understanding of Israel’s ongoing role in what God is doing here on earth, we will never understand prophecy.
5. It’s important because if “the Israel of God” isn’t the church, the supersessionists are stealing someone else’s identity.
Are you concerned about the fact that ours is a minority view in Christendom today? Just think of the biblical characters who were outnumbered in their day—tower- ing luminaries like Moses, Joshua, the Prophet Elijah, King David of Israel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Yeshua Himself (with only twelve rather ordinary guys as His disciples), among others. They obeyed God, stood alone when necessary, and ended up changing the world.
It’s really not all that complicated. Paul said, For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). You can remove, temporarily, Israel’s blessings, her land, her peace, her prominence, and you can even allow tyrants, tragically, to take the lives of her people (like the Nazis during the Holocaust); but you can never take away her gifts or her divine calling. Those things
flow from Israel’s identity as the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and that will never change.
One Preacher’s Epiphany
I told you earlier that I would share how Dr.Criswell figured out what Galatians 6:16 means. After years of frustration, he finally realized that this puzzling verse must be understood against the backdrop of the rest of the Bible. And he knew that everywhere else in the Bible, the term “Israel” refers to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, whoever they were, these people who were called “the Israel of God” had to Jewish! On one Sunday morning in 1966, Pastor Criswell shared with his congregationin downtown Dallas how the Lord showed him, at long last, the identity of“the Israel of God”: [Paul] was talking about the Jewish people who had accepted the gospel of the grace of the Son of God without works. And in contradistinctionto the Judaizers, he called these who believed in Jesus “the Israel of God.” . . . [They were] the Israelites who had come to find in faith alone in Jesus the pardon of sin, [and] the fulfillment of all of the Messianic prophecies. “The Israel of God” [is] the Jewish people who[have] found in Jesus a Savior. So allof it came to me; all of it, all of it,without exception. There is no place in the Bible where the word “Israel”is used but that it refers to the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And there is no place in the Bible wherethe word “church” is used but that it refers to the called out Ekklesia, the elect assembly of God in this day and in this age of grace. And isn’t that an astonishing thing?22
That’s how this godly pastor finally solved the mystery of “the Israel of God.” They were Jewish believers in Yeshua who trusted in Him and in nothing else! Along with Paul, who himself had been a Pharisee, this “Israel of God” stood firmly against the Messianic Pharisees who wanted to
add more stipulations for salvation.
Article here: https://www.ariel.org/pdfs/magazine/spring-2018.pdf