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Holman Bible Dictionary


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(jehn tiless) People who are not part of God's chosen family at birth and thus can be considered “pagans.” Though not synonymous in English “Gentiles,” “nations,” “pagans,” “heathens” are variants chosen by translators to render goyim in Hebrew and ethnoi in Greek. “Gentile” and “nation” suggest race or territory, while “pagans” and “heathen” suggest religion. “Heathen” is used in the KJV for the idolatrous people of Israel ( Jeremiah 49:15; Psalm 135:15 ), but is in the NIV only at 1 Thessalonians 4:5 . “Pagan” is not in the KJV but is in the RSV at 1 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 10:20 for ethnoi , and is used numerous times in the NIV for both goy and ethnos . An invariable distinction between pam (“people”) and goy (“nation”) is impossible. Both apply to Israel in the same context ( Exodus 33:13; Deuteronomy 4:6 ).

The doctrine of election in which Israel became a holy nation (Exodus 19:16; Leviticus 19:2 ) among the nations by the covenant at Sinai draws attention to the fact that no other nation has such a God or such laws. The writer of Deuteronomy forbad communion with the nations (Deuteronomy 7:3 ,Deuteronomy 7:3,7:6 ,Deuteronomy 7:6,7:16 ). The Old Testament noted the filthy ways (Ezra 6:21 ) and worship abominations (2 Kings 16:3 ) of the nations.

Affliction by other nations increased tension between Israel and the nations which gave rise to invoking curses on the nations in the Psalms (Psalm 9:1; Psalm 59:1; Psalm 137:1 ). The ultimate punishment of Israel for disobedience was being scattered among the nations.

According to the prophets, the nations were under God's control and were unconsciously being used (Isaiah 10:5-7 ); but in turn would be punished (Isaiah 10:12-16 ). Joel depicted the judgment of the nations who had abused Israel in the valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:12-16 ).

Solomon's prayer of dedication made clear that the door was never closed to the foreigner who wished to serve the Lord (1 Kings 8:41-43 ), and prophetic words and some Psalms depict the nations gathering to worship the God of Jacob (Psalm 86:9; Psalm 102:15-17; Isaiah 2:2-4; Zephaniah 3:9-10 ).

The Lord is the sole God of all peoples (Isaiah 45:22-24 ). Israel's mission was to bring justice (Isaiah 42:1 ) and light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6 ).

Jesus' ministry is interpreted in the Gospels in terms of Old Testament expectations for the Gentiles. He was a light to the Gentiles (Matthew 4:16-17; Luke 2:32 ). Though Jesus directed His work to Jews (Matthew 15:24 ) and at first limited His disciples to them (Matthew 10:5 ), He threatened that the kingdom would be taken from the Jews and given to a nation bringing its fruits (Matthew 21:43 ). Though Jesus was crucified by Gentiles (Matthew 20:19 ), equal blame is placed on both Gentiles and Jews (Acts 4:27 ).

Following the resurrection of Jesus, the commission included “all nations” (Matthew 28:19 ). The judgment scene in Jesus' parable envisioned “all nations” gathered before the glorious throne (Matthew 25:31-32 ). The promises included all those afar off (Acts 2:39 ). At the house of Cornelius, the Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45; Acts 11:1 ,Acts 11:1,11:18; Acts 15:7 ). The apostolic gathering in Jerusalem, by the apostolic letter, freed Gentiles from obedience to the law (Acts 15:19; compare Acts 21:19 ,Acts 21:19,21:21 ,Acts 21:21,21:25 ).

In the apostolic preaching the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3; Genesis 18:18 ) found fulfillment (Galatians 3:8 ). Though in times past the Gentiles had been without God (Ephesians 2:12-22 ), God in Christ broke through all boundries. Paul, sent to preach among the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Acts 22:21; Acts 26:17; Galatians 1:16; Galatians 2:9 ) was in perils (2 Corinthians 11:26 ). When rejected in the synagogues, he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; Acts 18:6; Acts 28:28 ), understanding his work in the light of Old Testament predictions (Acts 13:47-48; Romans 15:9-12 ). As the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8-9 ), claiming that in Christ racial distinctions were obliterated (Galatians 3:28 ), Paul proclaimed an equal opportunity of salvation (Romans 1:16; Romans 9:24; Colossians 3:11; compare Acts 26:20 ,Acts 26:20,26:23 ). Gentiles were the wild branches in the allegory grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11:16-25 ).

The New Testament records the repetitions in prayer by the Gentiles (Matthew 6:7 ), their occupation with material concerns (Matthew 6:32 ), their raging against the Lord (Acts 4:25 ), and their domineering rulers (Matthew 20:25 ). The recalcitrant Christian brother is to be considered as the heathen (Matthew 18:17 ).

Unbelieving Gentile standards fell short of Christian ones (Romans 1:18-32; Galatians 2:14; 1 Peter 4:3 ). The cross was folly to them (1 Corinthians 1:23 ); they were sexually immoral (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ), and sacrificed to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20 ). Nevertheless, those who believe are justified by faith (Galatians 3:8 ). By the cross the hostility is ended (Ephesians 2:11-17 ). Abraham has become the spiritual father of all nations (Romans 4:17 ).

Paul experienced great resentment among the Jews because of the opportunity he was offering the Gentiles (Romans 2:15-16 ). Nevertheless, in New Testament thought, the church made up of Jew and Gentile was the holy nation, God's own people (1 Peter 2:9 ).

The apocalypse with its shifting views, depicts a redeemed multitude of all nations (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 7:9 ), and the One who overcomes has power over the nations (Revelation 2:26 ), Babylon (Revelation 14:8; Revelation 18:2 ,Revelation 18:2,18:23 ), the beast (Revelation 13:4 ), and the harlot (Revelation 17:15 ) are the deceivers of the nations. The devil is bound to deceive them no more (Revelation 20:3 ). All nations come to worship (Revelation 15:4 ) One born to rule with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:5 ). In the closing scenes of the book the nations walk in the light of the lamp of the Lamb; the glory of the nations is brought into the city (Revelation 21:23-24 ,Revelation 21:23-24,21:26 ); the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2 ).

Jack P. Lewis

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Gentiles'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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