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What is a Gentile?

In short, a Gentile is someone who is not of Jewish heritage. In the Old Testament, we see how the Jews were God's chosen people that He set aside from the rest of the world to stand as a witness according to the old covenant and to be the genealogical line through which the Messiah would come. God told Abraham, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1–3). Here we see both the separation of the Jewish people (God will make a nation out of Abraham) and God's inclusiveness (all the families of the earth will be blessed).

Later, God gave Moses the Law, which is largely what distinguished the Jews from others. God displayed His holiness through the Jews and, as previously stated, used their heritage to send the Savior. But God's salvation is for both Jew and Gentile, as we see borne out in the New Testament. The death and resurrection of Jesus brought the new covenant which is freely offered to all who will believe (John 3:16–18; Galatians 3:28). Jesus is the Savior of the world—of Jews and Gentiles (John 4:42; 1 John 2:2; Acts 4:12).

The Jews were very aware of their calling to be separate from the nations around them, and many of the laws in the Old Testament that dictated how they were to look, like not trimming their beards and what they were to eat, set them apart in very obvious ways. The Israelites were also to avoid the worship of false gods and other pagan practices of Gentile nations surrounding them. But, at the same time, the Jews were to be welcoming to foreigners. God told them, "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33–34).

In fact, Gentiles were allowed to join the Jewish community and follow their laws. Ruth and Rahab are primary examples of such Gentiles in the Old Testament. God always welcomed the foreigner to Him and called His people to do the same: "the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their brunt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isaiah 56:6–7).

Unfortunately, by the time Jesus came, there was hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Given the Israelites' history with surrounding nations and God's judgment when they had previously adopted the pagan practices of such nations, they had good reason to be wary of negative influences. However, during Jesus' time, many of the Jews were prideful about their heritage. Gentiles were assumed to be pagans, considered unclean, and even called "dogs." It was unusual for Jews to talk with Gentiles or go into their homes (Acts 10:28). The Samaritans were seen as half-breeds (part Gentile and part Jewish), and people to be avoided (John 4:9). Even Jesus alluded to the association of Gentiles with paganism in some of His teaching (Matthew 5:47; 6:7).

While Jesus' primary ministry was to Jewish people, He broke cultural boundaries, talking with Gentiles, healing them, and even expressing awe at their faith (Matthew 8:5–13; Mark 7:24–30; John 4:7–30). Jesus came for the salvation of all types of people—both Jew and Gentile (1 John 2:2; John 3:16–18; Isaiah 42:1, 6; Galatians 3:25–29).

After Jesus' resurrection, it took a while for His disciples to fully understand that salvation was for the Gentiles, too. Jesus told them, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19–20). They were to be His "witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The apostles first saw many Jews accept the gospel and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), then they saw that the Holy Spirit was given to Samaritans as well (Acts 8). Later God gave Peter a vision, telling him to go to the home of a Gentile who would soon seek Peter out and to share the gospel with the Gentile household. In the vision, God said, "What God has made clean, do not call common" (Acts 10:15). Peter obeyed and when he heard what God had told the Gentile, Cornelius, he exclaimed, "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34–35). The Gentiles in Cornelius' home believed, and God confirmed it with evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:1–48; 11:1–18).

The division between Jew and Gentile remained an issue in the early church, with some thinking that people needed to adopt Jewish laws in order to be saved (Acts 15). The New Testament sometimes refers to the "circumcision party" or to "Judaizers," who were such people. But God makes it abundantly clear that salvation is freely offered to all people; it is not about heritage, but is rather by God's grace through faith (Ephesians 2:1–10).

Paul explained, "For [Jesus Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:14–22).

The gospel is for both the Jew and the Gentile. The death and resurrection of Jesus made a way for all people to have access to God. "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27–28). We must simply turn to Him in faith.


Related Truth:

What is the biblical history of early humanity?

Why did God choose Israel?

Who can be saved?

What is a sojourner in the Bible?

Why is knowing about the various characters in the Bible important?


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