Who is the "Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16?

At the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul closes with:

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.               (Gal. 6:15-16)
Lots of debate has surrounded the phrase "Israel of God." Who is Paul referring to? Is he referring strictly to ethnic Jews or the church - Jews and Gentiles? I think it is pretty clear that Paul is referring to the church. Two main reasons lead me to this conclusion: the larger context and the immediate context.

First, the larger context. The rule of exegesis is the same as that of real estate: location, location, location. On this question, the grammar and syntax are ambiguous so, as with every interpretive decision, context must be determinative. We must examine the conclusion of the letter in light of the whole letter. And in many ways, the point of the letter is that there is in fact no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Remember that the anti-gospel missionaries had come along and were trying to force the Gentiles to "Judaize" (ἰουδαΐζειν), that is "to follow Jewish customs" (Gal. 2:14 NIV). They were saying to be come the true people of God, one must essentially become a Jew. Paul disagrees. Sharply.

So Paul is at pains to show that their teaching is emphatically false. It is anti-gospel. To force Gentiles to live like Jews is not walking in step with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14). He shows again and again that Gentiles become part of the children of God through faith in the Messiah. One becomes a child of Abraham - that is, a Jew - by being united to the Jewish King. Notice how pervasive this truth is throughout the letter:

  • Galatians 3:7 - "Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham." This is the exact same thing as saying that believers are Jews. The church is Israel because of faith in Jesus.
  • Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Again, the clarity is crystal. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. All are one in Christ Jesus. One, not two.
  • Galatians 3:29 - "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." Who is the seed of Abraham? Who is Israel? Who are the Jews? Those who belong to Christ. The church is the heir of the promise made to Abraham.
  • Galatians 4:28 - "Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise." The Gentiles are the children of promise if they are in Christ.
  • Galatians 4:31 - "Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman." The Galatian believers are children of the free woman. Sarah's offspring is the church.

I am not really sure how Paul could be any clearer. He's flogging a flat-lined pony here. To make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles stands at odds with the warp and woof of the whole letter.

Second, the immediate context shows that the "Israel of God" includes Jews and Gentiles. Notice the structure of verses 15 and 16: in verse 15 Paul lays out the "rule" (κανών) of the new creation: "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything." In other words, ethnicity means nada. Paul uses this same "rule" in two other places: Galatians 5:6 and 1 Corinthians 7:19. "What counts is the new creation" (Gal. 6:15). After laying out this "rule," Paul wishes peace and mercy on all who follow it, namely the Israel of God:
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.               (Gal. 6:15-16)
What is striking here is that the prayer for peace and mercy is excluded from those who would posit that ethnicity matters; that circumcision and uncircumcision do matter; that there is a distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the economy of God!

So if Paul is wishing peace and mercy on those who follow the rule of the new creation, the rule that says in essence what he already said: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile", then he cannot be making a distinction between Jew and Gentile with the phrase "Israel of God" at the conclusion of this letter! This would not make sense in light of the immediate context. In fact, it would undermine everything he has said so far in the letter. All throughout, he has shown that all who are in Christ by faith are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

Therefore, based upon the larger and immediate context, the Israel of God in Galatians 6:16 includes any who are in Christ, Jew or Gentile.

A couple of my books on Galatians: