Context Is Everything: “The Israel Of God” In Galatians 6:16 -- By: Christopher W. Cowan
SBJT 14:3 (Fall 2010) p. 78
Context Is Everything: “The Israel Of God” In Galatians 6:16
As Paul brings to a close his letter to the churches in Galatia, his final words include a profound benediction. Even as the apostle declares at the beginning of his letter a curse upon those—whether human or angelic—who would preach a false gospel (1:8-9), so now at the conclusion he pronounces a blessing upon certain individuals (6:16).1 The question is “To whom is this blessing directed?” More specifically, who is “the Israel of God” in v. 16? Answering this question is clearly the exegetical issue in Paul’s postscript that has generated the most discussion and disagreement among interpreters of the letter. Most in the history of interpretation have argued that Paul uses this phrase with reference to the church, the “true Israel” or “spiritual Israel.” Yet a number of scholars believe this view is very questionable, if not highly unlikely.
In Gal 6:16, Paul writes, “And as many as walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (ESV). The verb translated “walk by” (στοιχήσουσιν) means to be in conformity with or to follow that which is considered a standard for one’s conduct.2 Paul uses it earlier when he exhorts the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by (“conform to,” “keep in step with”) the Spirit” (5:25). Paul’s blessing in 6:16 is thus upon those whose lives are in conformity to the “this rule” he has just proclaimed. But what is this “rule/standard” (κανόνι)? In the previous verse, Paul writes, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Most likely, the “rule” or “standard” is the “new creation” itself. All who have experienced the new creation in Christ will have lives that manifest conformity to it.3 The remainder of v. 16 contains Paul’s blessing. The ambiguous syntax contributes to the differences in interpretation. The Greek text (εἰρήνη ἐπ᾿ αὐτοὺς καὶ ἔλεος καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν ᾿Ισραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ) could be rendered, “peace and mercy be upon them, that
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