When the New Testament talks about “Gentiles,” what does that mean? When did the separation of humanity between the Jews and Gentiles happen? Why did the gospel go to the Jews first and then the Gentiles?
Perhaps you’ve wondered about some or all of these questions while reading the New Testament. Or maybe you’re a Jew and wondering how you fit into God’s plan for all humanity. This article will tackle these questions and more about God’s chosen people: the Jews and the Bride of Christ.
What is a Gentile?
The Bible uses the term “Gentile” in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the word translated as “Gentile” is the Hebrew word “goy” or the plural “goyim,” which meant a “people” or “nation,” either the Hebrew nation or other nations.
In Genesis 10, the Hebrew word “goy” is translated multiple times as meaning “nations,” even when referring to the line of Shem, the ancestor of the Jews. In Genesis 12:2, God used the word “goy” when He told Abraham He would make him a great nation. But God also used the term for other countries, like Egypt (Exodus 9:24).
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as “Gentile” is “ethnos” (our root word for “ethnic”). It still meant “nation” and sometimes a tribe or ethnicity, but specifically, the tribes or nations distinct from Israel. It meant any person or country that wasn’t Jewish.
By this point, the Jewish people had adopted an “us-them” worldview. They considered themselves the chosen people of God and everyone else heathens with whom they could not have social contact. For instance, they felt it was wrong to enter a Gentile’s house or for a Gentile to come into their own house. They missed the point of why God had made the Israelites His “chosen people.”
God meant the Israelites, or the Jews, to be His chosen people as a light to the Gentiles. As the Israelites obeyed God and turned away from pagan idols, God blessed the nation and performed great miracles. God intended for Israel to be a testimony to the heathen nations of the joys of following the true God. In essence, the Israelites were meant to be a missionary nation. God promised Abraham He would bless all nations through him (Genesis 12:1-3). God’s covenant made Israel a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). A priest’s duty is to intercede between God and people; he is to teach about God.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, His disciples spread the Good News of salvation, as Jesus had commanded them to do. It wasn’t long before not only Jews but Gentiles – people of other ethnicities and religions – came to Christ. This presented quite a conundrum for the disciples – the Jewish leaders of the fledgling Christian church. They had to work through questions such as does a person first have to become a Jew to become a Christian? Did Gentile Christians have to follow the Law of Moses, including all the dietary laws?
In Acts 10, we read how God used visions to lead Peter to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. As Peter shared the Gospel with Cornelius’ relatives and close friends, the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles, and they began speaking in tongues. That answered the question of whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and become Jews before becoming Christians. Peter baptized them right then and there.
God sent Paul and Barnabas on missionary trips to numerous countries shortly after. Still, some of the Jewish Christians insisted that an uncircumcised Gentile man could not be saved (Acts 15:1) and that these new Gentile disciples needed to follow the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5). This led to the “Council of Jerusalem,” where the church leaders met to discuss the matter. Peter stood up and said:
“God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:8-11)
After discussing the matter, the Jewish-Christian apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem agreed with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. They sent a letter to the Gentile Christians:
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29)
Who are Gentiles today?
Jews still use the Hebrew and Yiddish word “Goy” or “Goyim” to refer to all people of any ethnicity who aren’t Jewish. But God no longer makes that distinction.
Jesus began breaking down the self-imposed barriers the Jews had made against Gentiles. He healed the paralyzed servant of a Roman centurion, commenting that He had not seen such faith with anyone in Israel (Matthew 8:5-13). He healed the demon-possessed daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, and the entire village believed in Him (John 4:7-30).
After His resurrection and before His ascension into heaven, Jesus’ final words to His disciples were to make disciples – not just of other Jews – but all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
According to God’s Word, there aren’t Gentiles today in the sense of the Jews being separate from everyone else. Paul wrote to the Greek believers in Ephesus:
“Remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh . . . you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:11-14).
Famous Gentiles in the Bible
- God chose two Gentile women to be part of the ancestry of Jesus. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho, but she protected two Israelite spies and became the mother (or ancestress) of Boaz, who married another Gentile woman, Ruth. (Joshua 2 & 6, Matthew 1:5, Hebrews 11:15, James 2:25).
- The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament tells Ruth’s story. She was from Moab and married an Israelite man. After her husband died, she accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel, taking care of her by gleaning grain so they could eat. She married the owner of the field, Boaz, and their great-grandson was King David.
- Jethro was a Midianite priest who became Moses’ father-in-law when Moses married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. Jethro joined Moses after he led the Israelites out of Egypt and was a valuable counselor. (Exodus 2, 18)
- Moses had at least one Gentile wife (Zipporah) and possibly two. Numbers 12 speaks of Aaron and Miriam criticizing their brother Moses because he married a “Kushi” woman. The word Kushi means a “descendent of Cush.” Cush was Noah’s grandson through his son Ham. The Bible says he built an empire that included Babylon and Assyria (Genesis 10:6-12). However, “Cush” also refers to Ethiopians. God was angry with Miriam and Aaron for stirring up trouble against Moses and struck Miriam with leprosy; Moses interceded, and God healed her after one week.
- Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram (Syria). The Aramaeans had raided Israel and captured a young girl who became the maid of Naaman’s wife. Naaman was a mighty warrior, but he had leprosy. One day, the girl told her mistress about Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who could heal Naaman’s leprosy. Naaman arrived at Elisha’s door with his horses and chariots. Elisha sent him a message to bathe in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be healed. At first, Naaman was angry because the prophet didn’t come out to see him, but his servants convinced him to wash in the Jordan, and God healed his leprosy! He returned to Elisha’s house (this time, the prophet came out to see him) and said: “Now I know there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” He promised not to sacrifice to any other gods. (2 Kings 5)
- An Ethiopian eunuch who was the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was crossing the desert in his chariot on his way home. God sent Philip, a Christian, to meet him. The Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah, and Philip explained it to him, and the Ethiopian believed in Jesus and was baptized. (Acts 8:26-39)
What is a Jew?
Jews today would say that a Jew is anyone whose mother is a Jew or who has formally converted to Judaism. Jews are the people called Israelites or Hebrews in the Old Testament. The word “Jew” and the name “Judaism” for the religion come from the tribe (and kingdom) of Judah. Today, the term “Jew” means not only Hebrews from the tribe of Judah but all descendants of Jacob (grandson of Abraham and father of the twelve tribes).
For today’s Jews, being “Jewish” is more of an ethnic identity than a religious one. They would say that a Jew doesn’t even need to believe in God – if their biological mother was a Jew, then they’re a Jew, even if they’re an atheist. However, suppose a person isn’t biologically Jewish, but believes everything in the Old Testament and follows all of the Law of Moses. In that case, he is not a Jew unless he goes through the formal conversion process.
Most Jews today don’t recognize Jesus as their Messiah – their Savior. But they are still God’s chosen people, His covenant people, and His treasured possession (Deuteronomy 7:6). God still loves them because they are the descendants of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were cut off because of unbelief, but if they turn from their unbelief, God will graft them back into the tree of the covenant, for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:17-29)
Was Jesus a Jew?
Jesus was born as a Jew to a Jewish mother, Mary. He was circumcised when He was eight days old (Luke 2:21) and dedicated to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-39). He was raised in the Jewish faith, learned the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament), followed the Law of Moses, and celebrated Passover and other Jewish festivals.
When the Samaritan woman at the well called Jesus a Jew, He did not correct her. Instead, He said, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
Jesus was born as a Jew to save all people of every ethnicity. Paul pointed out that one advantage of being Jewish was that “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1–2).
“to [the Israelites] belongs the adoption as sons and daughters, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the temple service, and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them proceeds the human descent of Christ, who is God over all, forever worthy of praise! Amen.” (Romans 9:4-5)
When did the separation of humanity into Jews and Gentiles occur?
God called Abraham out, promising to make him a great nation and bless all the families of the earth through him (Genesis 12:1-3). However, not all of Abraham’s six sons were included in the covenant – only his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. God separated out the Jewish nation, making His covenant with them after bringing them out of Egypt, to be a “kingdom of priests:”
“Now if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession out of all the nations—for the whole earth is Mine. And unto Me you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Exodus 19:6)
The point of separating out the Jews wasn’t just to pour blessings out on them but for them to be a light to the rest of the world. They were to be examples of holiness to the nations, drawing the rest of the world to God.
What does it mean that the gospel brings salvation to the Jew first and then the Gentile?
In Romans 1:16, Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The Jews received the Law of Moses, the prophets’ messages from God, and the Psalms and other writings before the rest of the world. It wasn’t that God wanted only them to know His Word but that the rest of the world would know it through them.
Jesus sent His disciples out to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, and proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was near. Yet, He told them to only go to the “lost sheep of Israel,” not the Gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-8). He gave His chosen people the first chance to hear the message of salvation and then spread it to everyone else.
Not all the Jews received Jesus’ message, but those who did rapidly spread it to the Gentiles after Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus wasn’t excluding the rest of the world. His great commission at the time of His ascension was to go into all the world. That’s precisely what they did.
Because the Jews were the first to receive the Law and the Prophets and receive Jesus’ message of salvation, they are the first to be judged if they are evil. But they are also the first to be blessed for doing good.
“There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, first for the Jew, then for the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, first for the Jew, then for the Greek. For God does not show favoritism.” (Romans 2:9-11)
Christ joined Jews and Gentiles
Ephesians 2:11-22 explains how God has joined the two into one.
At one time, the Gentiles were “outsiders,” the uncircumcised heathens. They were excluded from citizenship with the Israelites and ignorant of God’s covenant promises. They were without God in the world and without hope. However, the Jews were resting on their physical circumcision, even though their hearts weren’t following after God.
Through the blood of Christ, Jesus united all who believed in His name – Jews and Gentiles – into one people. “He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.” He made “the two into one new person, in this way establishing peace.” All of us, Jews and Gentiles, can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit.
The Gentiles are no longer strangers or foreigners but citizens with all of God’s holy people, members of His family. Together, believing Jews and Gentiles are God’s house, built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles with Jesus as the cornerstone.
Unity and love
Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus for salvation are members of the same family. The distinction between Jews and Gentiles has dissolved:
“For you are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”
When Paul says “Greek” here, his meaning is Gentile. He’s writing to the Galatians, who lived in western Turkey but were part of the Greek world in language and culture. Basically, the Gentiles who believe have been adopted into Abraham’s family.
As members of the same family, we need unity and love, especially between believing Jews and Gentiles. But Christians also need to be loving, not condemning, of Jews who have not yet accepted Christ as their Savior. We are blessed if we bless Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:3). Remember, all of us at one time did not know Christ, or we outright rejected Him.
Whether from a Jewish or Gentile heritage, if we are Christians, we are the same body. We have been reconciled to God. We have been brought into harmony and unity with each other. We need to celebrate the breaking down of the wall. And our chief task here on earth is to reconcile others – both Jews and non-Jews – to God. He has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19).