Note: For decades we’ve been preparing a dictionary of biblical vocabulary in Portuguese. (There’s light at the end of that tunnel.) We invited people from around the world to contribute. One of our contributors was Paul Goddard, then Dean of Students at Harding Academy in Memphis TN and also a former columnist for Forthright Magazine. What follows is his submission on the term “Gentiles”. The abbreviations for Bible books have been maintained.
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, 2S 7.22-26.
This term distinguishes between Abraham’s descendants and their contemporaries, Gn 10.1-32; 11.10-32; 12.1-3; 18.18; 22.15-18; 26.1-5. While in Egypt, these offspring became an exclusive nation known as the Israelites, Ex 1:.-14; 19.1-8; Lv 20.22-24; Dt 28.1-14. Considered God’s chosen people, their purpose was to bring justice and light to the nations, Is 42.1-6; 49.6; Zc 2.11; Ml 1.11.
This 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 giving and adoption of a holiness code, Ex 20.1-21. However, the two groups continued to live in peace, Nm 35.15; Dt 24.14; Jg 3.1-6; Rt 4.5-10; 2S 11.2-27; Ezk 47.21-23.
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, Dt 7.1-6; Ps 2.1-12; 106.34-41; Is 1.1-31; 2.6-9; Jr 27.1-22. Developing an aversion for the nations, the term “Gentile” became a word of scorn during the post-exilic period, Ezk 10.1-44; Ne 10.30.
With the coming of the Messiah, God repeatedly reminded the Jews of his desire to make all nations his people, Is 49.6; 56.6-7; Zc 2.11; Ml 1.11; Lk 2.28-32. Beginning in “Galilee of the Gentiles” and ending with the ascension, Jesus Christ preached the kingdom of God was open to all nations, Mt 4.12-17; 28.19; Lk 24.45-47; Ac 1.8. However, during the early days of his ministry, his followers were commanded to stay away from the Gentiles, Mt 10.5-7. It was not until the Jewish leaders rejected the Messiah that Jesus’ disciples were prepared to go to the Gentiles, Mt 15.21-28; Jn 1.10-13; 4.1-42; 12.20-36.
Following the resurrection, Peter was the first Jew to preach to the Gentiles, Ac 10.1-48; 11.1-18. 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, Ac 13; 22.21; 26.15-18; Rm 11.11-36; Ep 3.1-3. 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, Ac 15.5-35; 1P 2.9-12; Rv 7.9; 22.1-5.