What is a Gentile and Who Were They in the Bible?

What is a Gentile and Who Were They in the Bible?

The word gentile is found throughout the Bible, used most often in the New Testament. Paul wrote and ministered to gentiles, Peter wrote about and interacted with gentiles, and even Simeon prophesied that Jesus was a light to the gentiles (See: Luke 2:32). Readers may wonder if this was a term used to reference a particular nation or ethnic group that was around during the time Jesus walked the earth and when the early church began.

The Greek word most often translated to gentile is ἔθνος. This word means nations or people. In the Bible, when this word is used, it is not describing one nation or ethnic group, rather the term gentile refers to anyone who is not of Jewish descent. Gentile would also broadly describe those who do not believe in God.

Where Does the Bible Talk about Gentiles?

The concept of Gentiles is found in the Old Testament. God designated the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, as His chosen people. He made a covenant with them and revealed His commandments to them, which they were to live according to. Those outside of the nation of Israel were considered gentiles. In the Old Testament, we find accounts of gentiles becoming Jewish converts and followers of God, such as the prophet Obadiah, who was from Edom.

In the Old Testament, there is a range of verses that highlight the promise that all nations will one day be able to serve God. It is prophesied that gentiles, too, would have an opportunity to become part of God’s nation, even if they were not Jewish. 

“I will sow her for Myself in the land I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, And I will say to those who were not My people, 'You are My people!' And they will say, 'You are my God!'” (Hosea 2:23).

“And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14).

““I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6).

Jesus became the bridge between the gentiles and God. Jesus’ message of repentance, salvation, His death and resurrection all extend to not only Jewish people, but to gentiles, as well. The disciples who went on to build the early Church were intentional to bring the Gospel message to all nations, which fulfilled the promise that God had made that all nations would be able to worship and serve Him. Readers can find many verses in the New Testament where the apostles preached to gentiles and made it clear that they were also now eligible to participate in salvation through Jesus Christ.

"For so the Lord has commanded us, 'I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth” (Acts 13:47).

“Therefore, let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen” (Acts 28:28).

“The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you’” (Galatians 3:8).

“To be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6).

What is the Bible's Definition of a Gentile?

Since gentiles do not make up one nation or group of people, gentiles may believe many things, but the common idea is that they do not follow the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They reject the Gospel message of Jesus and live according to their own desires and knowledge.

The Apostle Paul, when he wrote to the church of Ephesus, captured who the gentiles are and what they believe. This passage gives us an idea of what it means to be a gentile following the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed” (Ephesians 4:17-19).

Who Are Some Important Gentiles in the Bible?

There are prominent Gentiles throughout the Bible that include:

Jethro – The father-in-law of Moses was a Midianite priest. He and his family joined Moses in the desert. When Jethro heard of all God had done for Moses and the Israelites, he declared that certainly their God was greater than any other gods.

Rahab – She was an Amorite living in Jericho during the time the Lord was going to hand over Jericho to Joshua. Rahab and her family were spared when Joshua captured Jericho because she hid the spies sent by Joshua. Rahab acknowledged that their God was powerful more than any other.

Ruth – She was a Moabite who married a Judean. Ruth’s husband died, but she stayed with her mother in law, Naomi, and declared that Naomi’s God was her God, too. She devoted herself to following the ways of the Israelites, eventually marrying Boaz, another Israelite.

Luke – He was the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, which make up a significant portion of the New Testament. It is believed that Luke was a Greek physician who became a believer in Jesus. He was also a noteworthy companion in ministry to the apostle Paul. 

Cornelius – He was a Roman centurion who converted to Christianity. He, along with his family, are considered to be one of the first gentile converts and it is noted that he was highly devout to the Lord.

Philemon – He was a wealthy Gentile who converted to Christianity, likely led to believe in Jesus by Paul. Philemon was also a slave owner to whom Paul wrote on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, who wronged Philemon by running away. Paul urged Philemon to forgive Onesimus.

Why Are Jews and Gentiles Contrasted?

Jews and Gentiles are often put in contrast with one another because what separates them is whether they believe in God or not. However, when the scope of Scripture is taken into account, God’s plan of redemption has always included the Gentiles. Before His death and resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to go into all nations sharing the Gospel and baptizing all people. Paul wrote clearly that Jesus’ saving work was for all to receive and that no longer was Jewish descent what saved someone, rather, it was belief in Jesus Christ.

“This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:6-8).

Are There Still Gentiles Today?

When we understand gentiles to mean those who reject the promise and message of Jesus Christ, then yes, gentiles still exist. There are people that, just as Paul described them, have hardened their hearts and live for themselves, rejecting the message of hope and salvation in Jesus. Jesus’ great commission to preach the Gospel to all peoples and nations is one that Christians today still need to fulfill because there are many, many nations and people who still have never heard the Gospel or even know who Jesus is.

Jesus loved gentiles, and part of why He came was to make the promise to Abraham and his descendants available to every person and every nation. Salvation in Jesus strips away the things that would usually divide us and draws us together as the nation of God.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Paul focused his ministry on preaching to gentiles, and we find a great commitment in Paul’s heart to reach all nations. The torch has been passed to all believers to continue sharing the Gospel message to anyone who has not yet heard of or decided to follow Jesus.

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Pamela Palmer 1200x1200Pamela Palmer is a writer, speaker, and the founder of upheldlife.com, the platform on which she produces devotionals and faith resources to inspire keeping faith at the center of life. She is in pastoral ministry and gets to share in the emotional and spiritual lives of others. She lives and thrives on Jesus, coffee, and music. She is the author of Living a Deeper Faith: Nurture Your Relationship with God and Live a Faith-Fueled Life. Pamela married the perfect man for her and they have two beautiful kiddos. She has been published on herviewfromhome.com, and you can follow her at upheldlife.com or on Facebook.com/upheldlife.