Who is the “Israel of God” referred to in Galatians 6: 16: “And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace upon them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God”?
Some people teach that Israel is permanently set aside by God and that the promises made to her are fulfilled in the Church (or Assembly). In their eyes “the Israel of God” refers to the Assembly, while the literal Israel, “Israel according to flesh” (1 Cor. 10: 18), is cast off forever. Those who follow this line of teaching usually argue that the expressions “as many as shall walk by this rule” and “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6: 16) are simply different descriptions of the same people. Thus the phrase “Israel of God” is made to cover both Jew and Gentile in the Assembly. Some have even allowed their bias to creep into translation, changing “and” to “even”, and so leading the reader to presume that there is only one company in the passage. There really are no substantive grounds for the alteration. By contrast, I believe that two companies are in view, not one, and that “as many as shall walk by this rule” is to be distinguished rather than combined with “the Israel of God”. The apostle wished “peace upon them” (the first company) and then peace “upon the Israel of God”.
The term “Israel of God” occurs nowhere else in Scripture. “Israel” itself occurs hundreds of times in the Bible, and over seventy times in the NT. Sometimes it refers to the land of Israel itself (see Matt. 2: 20), and sometimes to ethnic Israelites (see Acts 2: 22), but always to Israel in a literal sense. If Gal. 6: 16 actually refers to Jews and Gentiles and “Israel” is used there only in a metaphorical sense, then it is the only exception to this rule. This fact alone ought to make ‘replacement’ theorists stop and think. Nor is Rom. 9: 6 of any relevance to the issue, for both of the uses of the word “Israel” there clearly refer to Paul’s “kinsmen, according to flesh” (v3, my emphasis).
While we do not read of the “Israel of God” elsewhere in Scripture, we do read of “a remnant according to election of grace” (Rom. 11: 5). This remnant is in the “present time” (v5), is composed of ethnic Israelites and not Gentiles (see vs. 1, 7), and is contrasted with “the rest” (v7), the unbelieving mass of the nation of Israel. In verse 25 we are told that “blindness in part is happened to Israel” implying that there is also a part of the nation that is not blind. This latter “Israel” is, I believe, what Paul had in view in his expression “the Israel of God”.
Galatians was written mainly to Gentile believers (see Gal. 6: 12). Many of these had been seduced into following Judaistic rules by Jewish false teachers, but the apostle’s purpose in writing was to convince the Galatians to return to the pure Gospel he had preached to them at the first. Now under the law, restrictions were put upon man to control that which came naturally to him. In Christianity, by contrast, there is a new creation which is devoid of any inclination to sin. Thus if the believer walks in the Spirit, he is able to live in a way that is pleasing to God without any reference to the law at all (see Gal. 5: 23). These Gentile believers had been troubled (see Gal. 1: 7; 5: 10), by “law–teachers” (1 Tim. 1: 7), possibly to the extent of being frightened into legalism in the same way as in Acts 15: 1 where “certain persons, having come down from Judaea, taught the brethren, If ye shall not have been circumcised according to the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved”. Thus Paul wishes “peace” (not trouble) upon those Gentile saints that were walking according to “this rule” (Gal. 6: 16, my emphasis) that is, the principle of living associated with the new creation, and referred to in the previous verse. This was the rule that Paul wished the Gentile believers to live by—not the law of Moses.What then of the genuine Jewish believers? No doubt the Judaizing teachers were keen to assert their natural pedigree. The expression “Israel of God” (my emphasis) seems to be deliberately adopted by the apostle to remind the Jews that “not all [are] Israel which [are] of Israel” (Rom. 9: 6), and that God distinguishes between “Israel according to flesh” (1 Cor. 10: 18) and genuine Jewish believers. The attack on the Gentile saints was to compel them to be circumcised (see Gal. 6: 12). Being already circumcised, this was not an issue for the Jewish believers. The danger with them was of resting simply on the fact that they were natural descendants of Abraham. They needed to understand that while in the future “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11: 26), in the “present time” only a “remnant” (v5) of the nation would obtain blessing. That remnant of genuine Jewish believers were the only part of the nation that God recognises in the present era—hence the expression “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6: 16).