GALATIANS 6:16; 3:29; and PHILIPPIANS 3:3
These three verses in Paul’s epistles are often used by ones who claim that Christians today are Israel, or spiritual Jews. While I know we are not Israel, just what is Paul referring to in these verses?
It certainly is a doctrinal and spiritual tragedy when Christians don’t “rightly divide the word of truth” in recognition of God’s two programs — the one with Israel and the other with us today in this dispensation of God’s grace to the Gentiles. Not only does confusion abound in so many areas of doctrine and practice, but Christians even fail to identify themselves properly. Since they are commonly taught that we today are fulfillers of Israel’s promises and partakers of Israel’s program, it is not very far-fetched that they end up thinking that they are ‘spiritual Israelites,’ or ‘spiritual Jews,’ etc. Indeed such teaching prevails today, as you know. It is a major tenet of Covenant Theology, and just about any other doctrinal system that does not “rightly divide the word of truth.”
The verses you cited, (Galatians 6:16; 3:29; Philippians 3:3; along with some others like Romans 2:28-29), are commonly used by ones who want to uphold the idea that Christians today are spiritual Israelites. And when it comes to exposing the error of the idea, you will need to deal not only with the “right division” of God’s word, but also with the fact that these verses are being mishandled within their own respective contexts. As I briefly comment on these particular verses, I am going to focus on the error of how they are mishandled within their own contexts.
Galatians 6:16 — In view of the fact that this verse refers to “the Israel of God,” this is naturally one of the favorite verses. First of all let’s note how this verse is commonly mis-read in many people’s minds. It is commonly read and misunderstood as if Paul said, “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy; that is upon the Israel of God.” In other words, it is commonly mis-read and misunderstood as if Paul was identifying the ones who walk according to this rule as “the Israel of God.” But that is not what the verse says at all. Instead the designation “the Israel of God” is immediately preceded by the second of two directive prepositions, which actually identifies “the Israel of God” as another entity which Paul pronounces as partakers of “peace” and “mercy” if they too “walk according to this rule.” The two directive prepositions in the verse, “on” and “upon,” identify two distinct entities which can be partakers of “peace” and “mercy” by walking according to the rule that Paul is talking about. The “them” are the ones like the Galatian saints (and us) who are members of the “new creature” of the preceding verse that God is now making “in Christ Jesus,” where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, etc. However, “the Israel of God” is another and different entity entirely. It is composed of the ones Paul spoke particularly about back in Galatians 2:1-10. Hence there are two designated entities in Galatians 6:15 and 16 — the “new creature” and “the Israel of God.”
Before God brought in this present dispensation of Gentile grace, suspended His program with Israel, raised up the Apostle Paul as the apostle of the Gentiles and committed to him “the gospel of the uncircumcision,” His program with Israel was in effect. In accordance with this, Peter (as the apostle of the circumcision) was preaching “the gospel of the circumcision” to “the circumcision.” Now in view of the teaching of the prophets, those in Israel who believed “the gospel of the circumcision” were cleansed of any identification with apostate Israel. They were no longer identified with apostate Israel which, for example as God said through Hosea, He no longer considered to be His people; and, as Isaiah said, were a nation not called by His name. Hence, apostate Israel was not “the Israel of God.” In fact God had actually delivered it over to the Adversary and had dedicated it to destruction in His day of wrath. In contrast to apostate Israel it would be those of “the circumcision” that believed Peter’s “gospel of the circumcision” that would be the nation called by God’s name, that would be “an holy nation,” that would be given the kingdom, that would be accounted to the Messiah for a generation, that would be the people of God; in short, that would be identified as “the Israel of God.”
Hence, “the Israel of God” is what those in apostate Israel became part of when they believed “the gospel of the circumcision” that Peter and the 11 preached before God brought in this present dispensation of His grace with the raising up of the Apostle Paul. “The Israel of God,” therefore, was naturally in existence when God suspended His program with Israel and brought in the present dispensation of Gentile grace. And as Paul explains in Galatians 1 and 2, at a set time God had him deal with them to communicate unto them the gospel which was committed to him to preach among the Gentiles. When that took place, Peter and his were given to fully understand the suspension of their program, and how to conduct themselves in view of it. But this means that for a period of time both the members of God’s new creation the church the body of Christ and “the Israel of God” existed together, and even side-by-side, so to speak, as in the Galatian area. (Which of course is why Paul talks about them and cites them as the identifiable entity known as “the Israel of God” in his epistle to the Galatians. The Galatians were very familiar with them.)
Therefore just as the two directive prepositions of Galatians 6:16 demand, there were two distinct identifiable entities in the Galatian area: the one being the members of the “new creature” God is forming “in Christ Jesus” through the preaching of “the gospel of the uncircumcision” committed to Paul, and the other being “the Israel of God” formed in God’s program with Israel through the preaching of “the gospel of the circumcision” committed unto Peter. The Galatians saints that Paul wrote to were not “the Israel of God” and neither are we. “The Israel of God” came out of apostate Israel just as the prophets taught it would and it only exists in connection with God’s program with Israel.
Paul also deals with the doctrine of “the Israel of God” in Romans 9-11, especially in the latter part of chapter 10 and the first part of chapter 11. The remnant of Israel according to the election of grace is “the Israel of God.”
Galatians 3:29 — The only reason why anyone would ever use this verse to try to uphold the idea of being a spiritual Israelite is because they completely fail to understand what Paul teaches in Romans 4 about Abraham’s dual-fatherhood: that is his fatherhood regarding justification by grace through faith before God ever had him circumcised, and his other fatherhood as “the father of circumcision” once he was circumcised. In Galatians 3:29, (as is clear from the preceding context regarding justification unto eternal life), Paul is dealing with Abraham’s fatherhood regarding justification. He is not dealing with Abraham as the father of the circumcision.
As Paul teaches in Romans 4, faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness when he was in uncircumcision. And in so doing that, God established Abraham as “the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” And this He did, once again, before He ever had Abraham physically circumcised and thereby set him apart in connection with the special program He has for him and his physical children. Hence, Abraham is our faith-father-example when it comes to justification unto eternal life, even in this formerly unprophesied dispensation of grace. (The suspension of God’s program with Israel has no effect upon this fatherhood of Abraham.) And therefore when we believed the gospel of Christ preached unto us in this dispensation, we walked in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham and God counted our faith for righteousness too. Hence, we justified Gentiles in this dispensation are “Abraham’s seed” in connection with his fatherhood regarding justification unto eternal life, and in connection with the promise of that eternal life being vested by God in the one “seed” which is Christ. But we are not Abraham’s seed, or children, in connection with Abraham’s other fatherhood as “the father of the circumcision.”
Philippians 3:3 — In view of what I just said regarding Romans 4 and Galatians 3, it might seem contradictory for Paul to be saying here that “we are the circumcision.” But there was more to circumcision than it just being “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which (Abraham) had yet being uncircumcised.” As the “rudiment of the world” that it was, it also meant something in connection with the doctrine of sanctification. And that is the way Paul is referring to it in Philippians 3.
When Paul says “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh,” he is contrasting us who possess the ‘real circumcision,’ so to speak, with those among the unbelieving Jews who are in truth “the concision,” only cutting off the physical flesh of the foreskin as they perpetuate the rudiment of the world of physical circumcision.
The “rudiments of the world” all employed a physical, visible, tangible operation, which testified to the need for God Himself to perform a similar operation of a spiritual nature to the inner man, in order for there to be real things like, true cleansing, true sanctification, true worship, and the like, in God’s sight. Regarding physical circumcision, it testified by its physical operation to the need for God Himself to perform an operation that cuts one off from the natural deadness of the body of his sinful flesh so that he can be sanctified unto God’s service and render to God true functional life and worship. Physical circumcision — the circumcision made with hands — never could produce such sanctification. It, along with the other rudiments of the Law, only testified to the need for such a circumcision made without hands to be made by God Himself.
The provision for that true inward-man-sanctifying-circumcision was made when Christ died upon the cross as our substitute-Redeemer. And in connection with the riches of God’s grace unto us “in Christ” in this dispensation, God performed that circumcision even on us the very moment we trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as our all-sufficient Savior. And as such, “we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”
This real circumcision that God Himself performs is what Paul describes in more detail in Colossians 2:8ff, especially in verse 11.
10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: (Colossians 2:10-11)
In view of being made partakers of this circumcision made without hands, we are “the circumcision” as Paul says in Philippians 3:3.
_ K.R. Blades