GENTILE

The Hebrew word translated in English as ‘Gentile’ meant originally ‘a nation’. When Israel became in a special sense God’s people, Israelites used the expression ‘the nations’ (‘the Gentiles’) to refer to all non-Israelite people (Deut 7:6; Gal 2:15). God’s law prohibited Israelites from copying any Gentile customs that were likely to corrupt their religion (Deut 18:9).

But they repeatedly ignored that law, with the result that eventually their nation was conquered and the people taken into captivity (2 Kings 17:7-8). The Gentiles, whose ways Israel had copied, then became the means God used to punish Israel (Judg 2:20-23; Isa 10:5-6). Since God’s purpose was that Israel take the message of his salvation to the Gentiles, Jesus announced the gospel to the Jews first. But he knew that on the whole they would not accept it and that as a result the gospel would go to the Gentiles (Isa 49:6; Matt 10:5-7; 12:18-21; 28:19; Luke 2:32; 4:25-28). Paul likewise preached the gospel to the Jews first, but when they refused it he turned to the Gentiles and there was a great response (Acts 13:46-48; 18:5-6; 22:21; 28:28; Rom 9:30-31; 11:11; 15:16). Gentile people who did not know God had the reputation of being selfish, immoral, greedy, ungodly and idolatrous (Matt 5:47; 6:32; Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 12:2; Gal 2:15; Eph 4:17-19; 1 Thess 1:9; 4:5). Although they did not have the law of Moses as a guide, that was no excuse for their behaviour. Their own consciences told them that certain things were either right or wrong, and God would judge them accordingly (Rom 2:12-16).

In the eyes of the Jews, Gentiles had no hope of salvation, because they were excluded from the covenant promises that God gave to Israel (Eph 2:11-12). Only by becoming converts to the Jewish religion could they have hope of salvation (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:10; see PROSELYTE). It is therefore easy to see why, in the early days of the church, many Jewish Christians did not want to accept Gentiles into the church unless they kept the Jewish law (Acts 11:2-3; 15:1,5). It soon became clear, however, that the old Jewish regulations did not apply in the new community of God’s people (Acts 15:8-11,19; Col 2:13-14). Gentiles and Jews were equals; more than that, they were united in one body (Rom 1:16; 3:29; 9:24; Gal 3:28; Eph 2:13-22; 3:4-6; Rev 5:9-10).

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