Most Christians are not using the word Gentile to describe themselves. We don't often hear anyone say "I am a Gentile". There seems to be some negative association with the word; it is as if it means a non-believer, an idolator, or a pagan. As most of us do not want to be connected with those groups we instinctively reject the name Gentile for ourselves. But, are we missing out on something deeper when we reject that name?
For those of us who are not from a Jewish heritage, are we really Gentiles? Is that a name we can be proud of?
When Simeon met with Joseph and Mary in the temple with the infant Jesus, he said:
“... my eyes have seen Your salvation Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30–32 NKJV)
This does not sound negative— Jesus was to bring "revelation to the Gentiles". That means us!
When Ananias was called to go and meet Saul (Paul), now a changed man, he at first resisted.
Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.
We can see in these verses a contrast— Gentile is not the same as Israel. And the Lord chose Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles. A few verses later, in the next chapter, we again see Gentiles in a positive light.
Acts 10:45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
We again can see the contrast. The "circumcision"— the Jewish people— were astonished that the Holy Spirit had also been given to the Gentiles. They later "glorified God" because:
Acts 11:18 ...“God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
There was a lot of controversy about how these new Gentile believers should be connected with the community of Jewish believers. How would this "church" work with two very different cultural groups?
The controversy is worked out in Acts chapter 15 at the Jerusalem council. Acts 15 is sometimes misunderstood as the event where the law was set aside. That is not what it is about. The disagreement in Acts 15 is over whether Gentiles must go through a processes of conversion and become Jewish before they would be considered full members in the community— in the church. The council did not change the rules for the Jewish people. In fact, it they didn't change the rules for the Gentiles either. People from the other nations had always been part of God's plan.
(This With His People Study on Acts 15 goes into more detail on the Jerusalem Council.)
Back at the very beginning, in Genesis, we find that God had a plan that extended to the whole world.
Gen. 12:1-3 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
There are many texts in the Old Testament that speak positively about the Gentiles.
Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles!
Laud Him, all you peoples!
For His merciful kindness is great toward us,
And the truth of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
The book of Isaiah, especially, has a message for us— the nations of the world.
Isaiah 11:10 And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; For the Gentiles shall seek Him, And His resting place shall be glorious.
Isaiah 42:1 Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.
God's plan for a connection between Israel and the nations is made especially clear in Isaiah 56.
Isaiah 56:3 Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD speak, saying, “The LORD has utterly separated me from His people”...
Also the sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants—
Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And holds fast My covenant—
Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Paul seems to have been especially concerned with these Old Testament prophecies about the nations— the Gentiles— and how they would relate to Israel. Paul opposed those who were wanting to compel the new Gentile believers to leave their ethnic identities and assume a Jewish identity— to join the nation of Israel. How could these Old Testament prophecies come true if there were not people of many nations who were worshiping the God of Israel?
Romans 3:29-30 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
The Lord is God for both the Jewish people and the Gentiles— the people of other nations. In the ancient world, it was common for every tribe and city and nation to have its own god. Paul was saying that there is one God— there is one creator and ruler over all. There are no tribal deities. All people are to join with Israel in worshiping the Creator.
Rom. 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Paul is asserting that the gospel is for all people— "everyone who believes"— but he is not saying that there is no distinction between ethnic groups. There is still a Jewish people and there are still "Greek" people— meaning people of other ethnicities.
Paul speaks most directly to us Gentiles in Romans chapter 11. He makes it very clear how we are to relate to Israel.
Romans 11:13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,...
Romans 11:17 And if some of the branches [unbelieving Israel] were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree,
Romans 11:18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
We Gentiles are not to "boast against the branches"— we are not to be arrogant towards Israel. As we have received mercy, we are to be humble as they also receive mercy.
Romans 11:30-31 For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.
In fact, we Gentiles are to "glorify God" for this very mercy toward Israel.
Romans 15:8-10 Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision [Jewish people] for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: “For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, And sing to Your name.” And again he says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people!”
God has a plan for us Gentiles. We don't have to be ashamed of our identity. We are not Israel— but we are "grafted" in with Israel on to the root— Jesus— of that olive tree.
Revelation 7:9-10 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”