It has been long believed by many, perhaps most, Christians that after 33 AD God transferred his covenant from Israel to the Church. This is called supersessionism–the idea that the Church supersedes Israel.
As a corollary, it has been believed that the Church is the New Israel. Many think the New Testament authors teach this . . . especially Paul.
Is that true?
Paul has long been cast as the apostle to the Gentiles, who supposedly took the focus off Judaism and showed that the gospel was really a universal message for all. According to this view, Paul believed the days of Jewish particularity were over, and the days of non-Jewish universalism had begun. God’s covenant with the Jews was done, and he had transferred that covenant to the Church. No longer would God be concerned with the Jews. They had forfeited their covenant because they had rejected the messiah, Jesus.
Although Paul has been been read this way for centuries, his letters tell a different story. In Romans 9 and 11 he laments his fellow Jews who have not accepted Jesus as messiah. He says that they cause him “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2). Yet he says “the covenants” still “belong” to them (9:4), and even though they have become “enemies of the gospel,” they still “are beloved” because of their “election” which is “irrevocable” (11:28-29).
Galatians is the letter that is most often used to prove that Paul has dispensed with Jewish law in favor of a Church that has left Israel behind. Yet even here he says the gospel is all about “the blessing of Abraham . . . com[ing] to the Gentiles” (3:14) because “the promises [of blessing] were made to Abraham and to his offspring” (3:16) so that getting saved means being in Abraham’s family: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:29). In other words, the gospel means getting connected to Israel’s history, not getting away from it. In contrast, supersessionism suggests that Israel has been left behind. Galatians says otherwise.
Yet supersessionists use another part of Galatians to argue that the Church is the New Israel. At the very end of the letter Paul writes, “Neither circumcision is something, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. As for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6.15-16, my emphasis).
Actually a straightforward reading of this text might suggest that “Israel” here is quite Jewish. For Paul contrasts those who walk by his “rule” of “new creation” (in which “circumcision” at the end of the day is not ultimate), with those who do not walk by this rule. He wishes peace and mercy on those who walk by his rule. But then he adds that he wishes the same peace and mercy for another group that might seem to not walk by this rule: “the Israel of God.” Who do not believe in the need for a new creation? Jews who reject Jesus as messiah. They were the majority of Israel in Paul’s day. Yet he still calls them “of God.” They are still important to God.
That is one reading of this text, without any background knowledge of Paul’s Judaism. But consider this: the blessing at the end (“Peace be upon them and mercy upon . . . Israel”) is probably Paul’s short form (as rabbis often gave short forms of longer biblical texts) of the last benediction of the Amidah, the prayer recited three times a day by Jews then and now: “Grant peace, goodness, and blessing, grace and kindness and compassion, upon us and upon all Israel your people.”
I have explained elsewhere that Israel for Paul meant Jewish Israel with Gentiles attached as associate members. In Paul’s day thousands of Gentiles all over the Mediterranean world were attending synagogue without converting to Judaism. They did not get circumcised but listened to Mosaic preaching each Saturday morning and participated in Jewish worship. They were considered to be “righteous Gentiles” by the rabbis as long as they kept the Noahic commandments—something like the Ten Commandments. These were the “God-fearers” whom Luke often mentions in Acts. They were promised by the rabbis a share in the world to come even though they did not convert to Judaism, as long as they believed in the God of Israel and kept his most basic commandments. My point here is that they were still thought to be part of Israel even though they were not Jews per se. They were part of the “commonwealth of Israel” that Paul describes in Ephesians 2. This is probably what Paul meant in Gal. 6:16–Israel as the Jewish people, with Gentiles as associate members–those Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel.
Paul was writing in Galatians against the Judaizers who insisted that it was not enough for Gentiles to believe in Jesus to be saved, but that they had to also become full-fledged Jews by getting circumcised. Paul said No to that. It is enough, he told them, for you to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah. The rabbis were right: you do not have to become Jewish to have a share in the world to come, as long as you become associated with Israel. But the rabbis were wrong when they denied that the messiah had come. The new way to become part of Israel, without converting to Judaism, is to trust in the Jewish messiah who has come for both Israel and the Gentiles.
Natural branches and wild shoots
Paul spelled all this out in more detail in Romans, which he wrote after Galatians and after much more reflection. In chapter 11 of Romans he said that Israel was an olive tree, just as the Old Testament had often referred to Israel as an olive tree. Paul wrote that the Jesus-believing Jews are “natural branches” in the olive tree, and Gentile believers are “wild olive shoots” that were “grafted in” (vv.17-24). Paul warned the Gentile believers not to “be arrogant toward the branches” by thinking that “the nourishing root of the olive tree” does not “support you” (v. 18). In other words, Gentile believers do not stand on their own. They are saved only by being part of Israel. (Paul was not inventing something new here. Jesus himself had proclaimed that “salvation is from the Jews” [Jn 4: 22].)
So when Paul writes of the “Israel of God” in Gal. 6:16, he most likely means the Israel that is primarily Jewish but has believing Gentiles grafted in.
But why “of God”? Paul is probably making the distinction he would later make in Romans 9:6: “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Not all Jews will be in the eternal Kingdom. For some trust in the God of Israel and some do not. Some are in simply ethnic Israel, while others are in the Israel “of God.” This is the same distinction that the prophets made between the believing remnant in Israel and unbelieving Israel (for example, Jer 31:31-34; 50:18-20; Ezek 11:13-25; 39:28). Paul makes this distinction again in Romans 11 where he separates Jews who are “the remnant chosen by grace” (v. 5) from Jews who “were hardened” (v. 7).
Bottom line: the “Israel of God” at the end of Galatians 6 is the Israel made up of Jews who trust in Jesus as messiah and gentiles who join Israel by trust in that messiah. It is a Jewish Israel with gentiles as associate members. The root is Jewish. Paul says that if the Gentile branches become so “arrogant” as to forget that the Jewish root supports them, they “too will be cut off.” Israel is still a Jewish tree with Jewish roots. The supersessionist belief that the Church has replaced Israel is precisely the illusion that Paul warns against: “Remember that it is not you [Gentiles] who support the root [Jewish Israel] but the [Jewish] root that supports you. . . . [some Jewish] branches were broken off because of their unbelief, but . . . do not become proud. . . . For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you [if you come to unbelief]. . . . God has the power to graft [the majority of Jews] in again. For if you [Gentiles] were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these [currently unbelieving Jews], the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Rom 11:18-24).
For Paul, then, the believing Church will never be separated from its root, Jewish Israel. If the Church thinks it can be separate and in fact replace Jewish Israel, it has become “proud” and “arrogant” (vv. 18, 20).