Q: What does the phrase Israel of God mean?
Israel of God refers to Jewish people who received Christ as their Savior and consequently belong to the church. It does not refer to the entire church.
The phrase appears in Galatians 6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and [Greek, kai] upon the Israel of God” (vv. 15–16).
The term Israel of God is often misinterpreted to mean the entire church. People with this view believe the church constitutes the true and only Israel today and that, hereafter, Christians become “spiritual Israel” or “spiritual” Jews, and all New Testament promises concerning Israel will be fulfilled in the church and do not apply to ethnic Jewish people or the literal nation of Israel.
However, the church cannot be the “Israel of God”:
- The context of Galatians 6 makes it clear that two groups compose the church: redeemed, ethnic Jewish people—referred to as the “circumcision”—and redeemed Gentiles, called the “uncircumcision” (v. 15).
- Throughout the New Testament, the word Israel (used 75 times) always refers to ethnic Jews, not Gentiles in the church. The remnant of believing Israel, “according to the election of grace” within the nation of Israel (Rom. 9:6; 11:5), is recognized as the true “spiritual Israel” (Rom. 9—11; 1 Cor. 10:32). Jews remain Jews after receiving Christ, and Gentiles remain Gentiles; Gentiles do not become spiritual Jews or spiritual Israel.
- People who see the church as the “Israel of God” use an uncommon translation of the Greek word kai in Galatians 6:16. They translate it as “even” (cf. NIV translation), which implies both redeemed Jews and Gentiles constitute the “Israel of God.” However, it is better and more natural to translate it as “and” (cf. KJV, NKJV, NASB), which implies only Jewish believers are the “Israel of God.”
- It would have been strange for the apostle Paul, the Jewish believer who wrote Galatians, to refer to Gentile Christians as Israel.
Dr. Ronald E. Diprose summarized the issue well: “Thus we conclude that Galatians 6:16 is insufficient grounds on which to base an innovative theological concept such as understanding the Church to be the new and/or true Israel.”1
- Ronald E. Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought (Rome, Italy: Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano, 2000) 47.