By Paul Goddard,
This word commonly refers to non-Jewish people, but originally, it was used for political and social groupings. It literally means “nations”, yet at times it has been translated as “people” or “heathen”. When used in the plural, it refers to a multitude of nations, whereas used in the singular, it is reserved for God’s people/1.
This term distinguishes between Abraham’s descendents and their contemporaries/2. While in Egypt, these offspring became an exclusive nation known as the Israelites/3. Considered God’s chosen people, their purpose was to bring justice and light to the nations/4.
The tension between exclusivism and commission caused Israel’s attitude toward the nations to evolve over the course of history. Since the nations did not worship God and indulged in immorality, the threat of contamination led to the adoption of a holiness code/5. However, the groups continued to live in peace/6.
Allured by the immoral lifestyle of the heathen, Israel was disavowed by God for practicing their customs. Between 722 and 525 B.C., the Jews were scattered among the nations for their disobedience/7. Developing an aversion for the nations, the term “Gentile” became a word of scorn during the post-exilic period/8.
With the coming of the Messiah, God repeatedly reminded the Jews of his desire to make all nations his people/9. Beginning in “Galilee of the Gentiles” and ending with the ascension, Jesus Christ preached the kingdom of God was open to all nations/10. However, during the early days of his ministry, his followers were commanded to stay away from the Gentiles/11. It was not until the Jewish leaders rejected the Messiah that Jesus’ disciples were prepared to go to the Gentiles/12.
Following the resurrection, Peter was the first Jew to preach to the Gentiles/13. He was followed by Paul and Barnabas who traveled to Asia Minor. Their strategy was to preach in the Jewish synagogues, but once their message was rejected, they directed their ministry to the Gentiles/14. Likewise, after hearing that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit, the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem cordially welcomed the Gentiles into the kingdom of God/15.
1/ 2 Samuel 7:22-26
2/ Genesis 12:1-3; 18:18; 26:1-5
3/ Exodus 1:1-14; 19:1-8; Leviticus 20:22-24; Deuteronomy 28:1-14
4/ Isaiah 42:1-6; 49:6; Zechariah 2:11; Malachi 1:11
5/ Exodus 20:1-21
6/ Numbers 35:15; Deuteronomy 24:14; Judges 3:1-6; Ruth 4:5-10; 2 Samuel 11:2-27; Ezekiel 47:21-23
7/ Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Psalm 2:1-12; 106:34-41; Isaiah 1:1-31; 2:6-9; Jeremiah 27:1-22
8/ Ezra 10:1-44; Nehemiah 10:30 (Inscription warning the Gentiles not to enter the Temple.)
9/ Isaiah 49:6; 56:6-7; Zechariah 2:11; Malachi 1:11; Luke 2:28-32
10/ Matthew 4:12-17; 28:19; Luke 24:45-47; Acts 1:8
11/ Matthew 10:5-7
12/ Matthew 15:21-28; John 1:10-13; 4:1-42; 12:20-36
13/ Acts 10:1-48; 11:1-18
14/ Acts 13:1-52; 22:21; 26:15-18; Romans 11:11-36; Ephesians 3:1-3
15/ Acts 15:5-35; 1Peter 2:9-12; Revelation 7:9; 22:1-5