Thursday, May 31, 2012

Importance of the Gentiles. Who are the Gentiles today?

God as Christ Jesus enters into history and comes to the children of Abraham. Jesus' message disturbed and challenged the Jewish people religiously, socially and politically. His confronting image of the Kingdom of God was not what the Jewish people expected. Messiah was to be a king and champion of the religion. Jesus spent his time not just with the righteous of the faith but with those who were outside of what was considered pure and holy. Jesus talked not of war and rebellion against the Romans but of forgiveness and jubilee. His Apostles went further offering this gospel to those outside the nation of Israel, to the Gentiles, the other nations in the world. What was being focused on by Jesus inclusion of those considered unclean and not a part of the community of faith? Who are the Gentiles and what is their importance to Jesus and the missio dei that began so long ago?

A parable of three cups

There is a father of three children and to each of them he gives a drink of water. To one he gives a blue cup, to the second he gives a red cup and to the third he gives a green cup. Each of the children know which cup is theirs and they treasure and guard their cups from each other making sure that they only drink out of their cup and no one else. One day the father brings out the cups to the children all filled with water and he trips on a toy left behind. The cups fall to the floor together where the water becomes one big puddle. The children each pick up their now empty cups, the water they would have drunk is now on the floor and not separated anymore. In fact, before it was in the cups you could never have segregated the water, it was always one water. Only the cups and the children who treasured their individual cups ever defined which water was theirs.

Election of Israel : My cup is not yours

In the New Testament Jesus comes to the children of Israel, the people of the promise, the children of Abraham, the Holy Nation who followed the one true God YHWH. These people were in a state of oppression under another in a long line of foreign powers and under this yoke they chaffed and strained. By YHWH they were set apart from the rest of the world to be a holy nation before God. Lev 20:24-26 (Wright, 298-299 : 2004). It was they who had been elected by God and the fate of the all the world was dependant on the relationship between Israel and God (Fohrer, 184-185 : 1972). This heritage was sustained and kept in place by the religious elite and its strict application in the life of the Jewish people. They were Israel and the rest of the world was outside, Gentiles an Samaritans. This black and white understanding of national or tribal identity is the classical image of a persons identity (Johnson-Hodge, 274 : 2005).

YHWH was holy and his people Israel were called to be holy as well. Cleanliness was not just next to Godliness it was an essential trait of the faith, whether a person was clean or not was decided by the law. This was not just Torah as was given to Moses by YHWH it also included the oral tradition. A succession of commentaries which defined the right way to live to be clean, holy and pure before YHWH. The Pharisees had taken the law and amplified it to lead the people to becoming a Holy nation, but, they left out the core. Jesus pointed to this core that true worship honours God and serves others. The amplified traditions had to be superseded for God's law of love (Kraybill, 143-149 : 2011).

Jesus breaks boundaries : There is no difference between the cups

The Jews were a stubborn people and Jesus' parables struck right at this hardness and the boundaries they had placed on those around them. In the “Good Samaritan” Jesus lampoons not just the religious elite but the common people as well by making the hero a Samaritan! Kraybill's description of the situation is deliciously subversive as he compares the shock of combining “good” and “Samaritan” like combining “good” and “terrorist” (Kraybil, 172-175 : 2011). Jesus defined the Jewish attitude towards the Samaritans for what it was, racist. To elaborate for his disciples Jesus strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman (Arbuckle, 158-159 : 1990). More shocking Jesus openly admits that he is the Messiah is to a Samaritan woman who is working on husband number six. The level of uncleanliness of this woman was immense! Yet, here we have Jesus revealing the great mystery of his identity to this unclean Samaritan woman. Jesus reminded the Jews of God's love for the Gentiles and they tried to throw him of a cliff (Lk 4:28-29). Jesus openly declared that a Roman Centurion had more faith that any in Israel, he healed the Syro-Phonecian woman's child (Mark 7:24-29), his second feeding was on the Gentile side of the lake of Galilee. This pattern of breaking boundaries was passed onto Jesus followers, but, it did take a while for them to understand just how far reaching the Gospel message was to be.

Peter and Cornelius.

To Peter is given the keys to the kingdom its is his speech that is given prominence at Pentecost where three thousand are added in one day. These people are not gentiles though they of the Jewish faith. Their native tongues may be different but they are not Gentiles in any sense (Henson, 4 : 2012). In its incipient stage afterPentecost the followers of the way are still just a Jewish splinter group calling to those of the same religious context. It is possible that even the global reference of the missio dei at this time could mean the Jewish diaspora spread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This “left hand of God” (Glasser, 137 : 2003) was definitely a part of the future for Peter and his fellow Apostles but the missio dei was for more than the lost sheep of Israel.

The image of the unclean animals that is given to Peter on the roof of Simon the Tanner's house in Acts 10:9-16 is curious to us today, yet, to a Jew this was horrifying! As mentioned previously cleanliness was essential to relationship with God. To be unclean meant one could not be in right relationship with God. Peter's revulsion is true to the culture he was raised, it was essential to the make up of his identity. As noted before Jesus broke boundaries of social convention ignoring the rules that did not fit with the first and greatest laws concerning the love of God and your neighbours. But, there is not indication that Jesus spent time in the dwellings of Gentiles (Glasser, 217 : 2003). As he tells the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus came first for the lost sheep of Israel. For Peter to enter into the house of a Gentile was to become unclean.

Leslie Newbigin in “The Open Secret” clearly explains the tension of breaking such a strong cultural and personal boundary that Peter is under, yet, he is somehow convinced to go and see Cornelius. When Peter tells Cornelius' household the gospel the Spirit takes the situation out of Peter's control completely. Again Peter is there at the beginning of a great opening and this time instead of having to answer to the Sanhedrin he has to answer to the other very Jewish believers. There was much to discuss and it is possible that the scene was calm at all. Newbigin explains that they all knew too well the price paid by the circumcised martyrs of the Jewish faith. Jesus was circumcised and he never called to stop this practice. It was the confirmation of the Spirit being received by Cornelius which was the key factor. If the Spirit of God saw no problem with the uncircumcised then why should they? (Newbigin, 59-60 : 1995) It was an issue that would plague the early Church an issue that Paul dealt with whereas Peter (always the fall guy) struggled.

Paul's shifting identity.

By Acts 15 Paul has been out pursuing the ends of the earth and has returned to tell the Jerusalem church what has been happening with the Gentiles. They, like the Disciples, like the Samaritans, like the household of Cornelius have received the Holy Spirit. God has shown that a way has been made for the rest of the world to see this light, that the gospel is for ALL of God's creation. This is not the work of human hands. The mission is governed by the Spirit and the church merely has to follow (Newbigin, 61 : 1995). But what of the difference of culture? How is Paul able to associate freely with Gentiles being able to eat with those outside the covenant. In Galatians 2 Paul chastises Peter, when at the arrival of James' delegation, Peter retreats from eating with those who are not circumcised. The classical understanding of identity mentioned above is far from being standard. People have more than one identity and Paul explains in his writings his many identities. Caroline Johnson-Hodge in “Apostle To The Gentiles: Constructions Of Paul’s Identity” explains that Paul's hierarchy of identities is not just isolated to Paul. Many peoples see themselves in different ways local, tribal, national and religious. For westerners to group national identity and religious affiliation is uncommon, for Paul this was not so. Paul's hierarchy of identity began with his circumcision, tribal affiliation, descent from Abraham, A Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee of Pharisee's, blamelessness under the law (Phil 3:5-6). Paul's identity is set in stone as a Jew, but, he is able to put all of this aside because being “in Christ” has become the capstone of Paul's identities. If Paul is In Christ (Gal 1:11-16) therefore all those Gentiles who heard and by faith believe are In Christ too (Johnson-Hodge 274-276 : 2005).

False Identities

The opportunity is open for all to enter into the Kingdom of God. All by the Spirit are able to like Paul become “In Christ” realising the completeness of their humanity establishing the true zenith of their identity. However, this is not the reality as people fall back on tribal, economical and national identities because of oppression. The rich towards the poor, the leaders towards the people, the celebrities towards the public. There is a restriction as both hold the boundaries that stop them from truly becoming the people Paul describes where there is no Slave, no Free, no Greek, no Jew. All are not recognising their oneness In Christ. Each are dehumanised by the other through false identities created by the oppression (De La Torre, 67 : 2009). These false identities and the boundaries they create are the same that Jesus confronts. C.J.H Wright in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God asserts the salvation that is brought through Christ is for all of humanity. In Abraham's calling it is through the seed of Abraham that ALL the nations of the world will be blessed. There is no exclusion in God's story of salvation in the election of Abraham and the creation of Israel. The identity of Israel as God's chosen nation to be holy and set apart from all others was not so that Israel itself would be saved alone. All of humanity has been made in the image of God, all of humanity is to be renewed through the nation of Israel (Wright, 461-462 : 2004) . The destiny of Abraham and his seed was fulfilled in Christ so that ALL can now claim the new identity being In Christ.

Human Identity the Source

The source of all humanity is in the creator God who made human beings in his image. Just like the water in the cups the source is the exactly the same. Only the outside visage and the identity the children give the cups distinguishes them. The creators concern for all of humanity has been known and told through his prophets. Jonah's struggles against God's call to the people of Nineveh and Jonah grumbles because God loves the weak and the alien and not just Israel. The conclusion Wright gives is that this behaviour is to be imitated by his people because this is how YHWH acts and we should not wonder why we should not copy (Wright 460 : 2004). YHWH was given the image of a parent and Israel his child is expected to imitate their heavenly father (Wright, 36 : 2004). This family is not restricted to just Israel the creation narrative asserts the common origin of all humanity. There is no human being that can be considered outside the boundary of God's redemption plan. For this reason the missio dei radiates from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, our heavenly father does not want to leave any of “the children of the divine family” (Mills, 73 : 1998) out.

“In Christ” is an eschatological identity existing in the dynamic already/not yet of the Kingdom of God. Just as the source of the water in the cups is the same, so is the destination. God's people are to live in this tension where the ethics and morals demonstrated buy Christ are enabled by the equipping of Holy Spirit (Fee, 52 : 1996 ). This same Holy Spirit confirmed the inclusion of gentiles much to the confusion of the Jewish Disciples. Paul's argument is that by faith Abraham believed in the promises of YHWH therefore by faith the Gentiles come into the line of Abraham into the promise of salvation (Fee, 60 : 1996). This identity available for all who come by faith is to be the key to unity in diversity where, by Holy Spirit, unity between disparate peoples of different nationalities and languages, like Pentecost, reverses Babel (Henson, 4 : 2012). Uniting what was once divided. Where one day, like the waters rejoined in the puddle on the floor, humanity will be restored and renewed in the future already/not yet Kingdom of God.


To paraphrase Paul there is no Greek or Jew, no Male or Female, no Red cup, Blue cup or Green cup. Humanity, like the water, is divided by the identities that we place on each other. The Israelite call to be a nation separate was not to be divisive. Jesus came and broke these oppressive boundaries displaying the love that God has to all of his divine family. Paul took this universal message of salvation and made it the first identity without equal. All other cultures and nationalities come under this divine identity not replacing them but renewing them bringing them under the banner of the Kingdom of God. The importance of the mission to the Gentiles is that God is not willing to leave any of his creation behind. There is no difference all have been made in the image of God. Oppression dehumanises the oppressor and the oppressed as they consider the other less and themselves better. If we only focus on the exterior and the boundaries between us all we will be left with is empty cups.

The Gentiles today are those who are not known by the identity of “In Christ” and these people are not just outside the community.
Jesus called to the lost sheep of Israel and there are lost sheep in and outside the community. Our view has to be both outward and inward looking, doing too much of either will create problems. The Pharisees were trying to bring about change in their community and nation to the exclusion of others who did not fit within their program. Jesus showed the futility of this exclusion and how it closed the door on those who were truly in need of the love of God. There are those who are caught up in the practice of religion and not in the freedom of identity In Christ, just going through the motions not knowing the true identity that is there waiting for them. To look outside without first offering this truth of identity is to miss the point. Gentiles are those who do no know who they truly are, that their origin and destiny lie in the same loving heavenly father who through Christ by the power of Holy Spirit made a new identity so that we may be forever with Him.


Arbuckle, G. A. (1990). Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker. London : Geoffery Chapman,

Fee, G. D.(1996). Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic.

Fohrer, G. (1972). History of Israelite Religion. New York : Abingdon Press.

Glasser, A.F. (2003). Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God's Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic.

Henson, L. (2012, May 17 ). Lecture Notes Week 9. (Notes taken by Phillip Hall).

Johnson-Hodge, C. (2005). Apostle to the Gentiles: Constructions of Paul's Identity. Biblical Interpretation.(13)3: 270-288.

Kraybill, D. B. (2011). The Upside-Down Kingdom.. Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA : Herald Press

De La Torre, M.A. (2009). Pastoral care from the Latina/Latino margins. In Kujawa-Holbrook S.A & Montagno, K.B.(Eds.). Injustice and Care of Souls.(pp. 59-72). Minneapolis, Illinois : Augsburg Fortress.

Mills, M.E. (1998). Images of God : in the Old Testament. London : Cassell.

Newbign, L. (1995). The Open Secret : An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids, MI : William B. Eerdmans.

Wright, C.J.H. (2004). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press.

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