(Gal. 6:16) Does the church inherit the promises of Israel?

DIFFICULTY: Paul writes, “And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). This passage has puzzled interpreters of various stripes. Is Paul saying that the church is Israel (i.e. amillenialism)? Or is he saying that the church is distinct from ethnic Israel (i.e. premillenialism)? Paul never uses the term “Israel” to refer to the church. In fact, Johnson writes,

The normal usage of “Israel” in the NT as referring to the physical descendants of Jacob. Galatians 6:16 is no exception, as Peter Richardson observes: Strong confirmation of this position [i.e., that ‘Israel’ refers to the Jews in the NT] comes from the total absence of an identification of the church with Israel until a.d. 160; and also from the total absence, even then, of the term ‘Israel of God’ to characterize the church” (Israel in the Apostolic Church [Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1969], pp. 74–84).[1]

How do we handle this difficult passage?

RESOLUTION: A few subjects should be considered in making a fair assessment of this passage.

1. Grammatical Considerations

Grammar is at the heart of this debate. Should the Greek word kai be translated as “and” (NASB, ESV, NRSV, KJV, HCSB, NET) or “even” (NIV) or simply left untranslated (RSV)?

(Gal. 6:16 NASB) And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, AND [Greek kai] upon the Israel of God.

(Gal. 6:16 NIV) Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, EVEN TO [Greek kai] the Israel of God.

(Gal. 6:16 RSV) Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.

Typically, the Greek word kai simply means “and.” While it is possible to translate this word as “even,”[2] this is not the typical translation of the word. Ronald Fung writes, “It has been objected that it is doubtful whether kai is ever used by St. Paul in so marked an explicative force as must be here assigned. It is certainly more natural to take the kai as simply copulative.”[3] By this, Fung means that the “and” translation of kai is the most warranted. In fact, we might ask why Paul would mention two different entities (the church and Israel), if he was blending these two thoughts together? Why not write, “Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, who are the Israel of God”?

2. Doesn’t this create two distinct groups in the Body of Christ?

R. Alan Cole explains, “If kai does not mean ‘even’ but ‘and’, then Paul would be allowing two separate distinct groups side by side in the kingdom of God.”[4] Commentators argue that this would fly in the face of Paul’s entire argument throughout his letter. For instance, in Galatians 3:28, Paul writes that there is “neither Jew nor Greek.” In fact, Paul argues vehemently that it is only the people of faith that are heirs of the blessing (Gal. 3:9).

However, Paul’s thinking could be similar to his argument in Romans. In Romans 2, Paul argues for ethnic Jews getting on board with the church age (“He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” Rom. 2:29). But later, in Romans 9-11, he argues for the resurgence of ethnic Israel at the end of history (“all Israel will be saved” Rom. 11:26). Likewise, in Galatians 3, Paul could be thinking in terms of ethnic Jews getting on board with the church age, and in chapter 6, he could be thinking of the final (eschatological) promises given to ethnic Israel. In other words, Paul is saying in 6:16, “I’m praying for a blessing on the people of Israel that they would understand the promises that have been given to them.”

Moreover, it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul still distinguishes ethnic Jews as separate in the Body of Christ. While there is “neither Jew nor Greek” according to Paul (Gal. 3:28), he still recognizes clear differences in ethnicity (Eph. 2:11ff). By recognizing differences in ethnicity, Paul is not claiming that one is better than another.

3. Why would Paul give a blessing to ethnic, unbelieving Israel here?

Some commentators ask why Paul would place a blessing on ethnic Israel, when the entire thrust of his letter is focused on those who have faith (Gal. 3:9)—not ethnic Jews (Gal. 6:15)?

However, since Paul was so hard on ethnic Israel throughout his letter, he might have been assuring them that God hadn’t pulled the plug on Israel altogether. To close the letter, he could be reminding them that God was still going to get back with them in the end (Rom. 9-11; c.f. comments on Rom. 2:28-29).

[1] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (479). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Ben Witherington writes, “Now it is of course possible to translate the second kai here as ‘also’ so that Paul would be saying ‘…and mercy also upon the Israel of God’, in which case Paul would apparently be pronouncing peace on one group and mercy upon another.” Witherington, Ben. Grace in Galatia: a Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998. 451-452.

[3] Fung, Ronald. The Epistle to the Galatians. Cambridge, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1988. 310.

[4] Cole, R. Alan. Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham, England: IVP Academic. 1989. 236.