Q: #391. What is a Gentile?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Apparently, the word "gentile" is not actually an original Hebrew or Greek word. It comes from the Latin word gentillis," which was used numerous times by St. Jerome when he made a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate. The word "Gentile," as used in the Bible, comes from the Hebrew word "goy" (plural "goyim") and the Greek word "ethnos" (plural "ethne") (and occasionally "hellen"). The definitions of goy and ethnos are essentially the same: "nation, people, heathen."
The most common definition of a "Gentile" by most people has been: "any person who is not a Jew." While this is somewhat accurate, a better definition might be: "Any 'nation' or 'people' that was/is not Israel." (Many Jews believe that being Jewish is more about one's heritage than one's beliefs [i.e. "I am a Jew by birth].) In (Gen 12:2), God made a covenant with Abraham, and said, "I will make you a great nation ("goy")." This "nation" became the Israelites (the Jewish people). The Israelites became God's "chosen people," and were the instrument through which God would accomplish virtually everything in Bible times: salvation, the lineage to Jesus Christ, the authorship of the most of the Bible, the giving of the law (through Moses), and more.
Every other "nation" that was not a part of this covenant was "Gentile." These nations generally rejected the God of the Jews, instead worshipping false gods and idols. As such, they were often considered "pagans" and "heathens." In fact, the Old Testament uses the word "heathen" 143 times, and in EACH instance, the Hebrew word "goy" is used. However, it is clear that some individuals from these "heathen" nations did turn to the true God, place their trust in Him, and become a part of His covenant (See: Ex 12:48, Num 9:14). Some well known "Gentiles" of the Old Testament who appear to have made this commitment include: Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (mentioned in the lineage of Jesus), Jethro and his daughter Zipporah (Moses' wife), Naaman, and Nebuchadnezzar.
Fortunately for most of us though, the Old Testament also prophesied that one day the "nations" (Gentiles) that were not a part of God's covenant would become a part of it (Isa 42:1)(Isa 49:6)(Isa 60:1-4)(Isa 11:10). When Jesus came to Earth as the prophesied Jewish Messiah (see: Biblical Prophecy), the Jews rejected Him. As a result, salvation was offered to the Gentiles (Rom 9:30-33)(Rom 11:11)(Acts 13:46-48). Gentiles were "grafted into" God's covenant (Rom 11:17-24). We see this come to full fruition in the book of Acts. Peter was shown a vision that God had granted salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-15). Peter then saw this in action through the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:17-48). He proclaimed it to other Jews (Acts 11:1-11), and again at the debate of the Jerusalem Council as to whether or not Gentiles needed to keep the law (Acts 15:1-29). Paul became known as the "apostle to the Gentiles" (Acts 9:15)(Rom 11:13)(Gal 2:8-9)(1 Tim 2:7).
This salvation is still available today to ALL people. ALL men may now be a part of God's covenant through Jesus Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile) (Gal 3:28)(Rom 10:12)(Col 3:11)(1 Cor 12:13). All are one in Christ.