by David Tavender
Gentiles are non-Jews or non-Israelites, and are variously referred to in the Scriptures as “the nations” or “the heathen”.
The book of Ephesians, written around 60-62 A.D., reveals an aspect of God’s plans which was previously not known by mankind before that time. Although it is called a mystery, we can very much liken it to being a secret which has now been told. So, what was this big secret?
“That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6)
The Greek words behind this verse tell us that Gentiles are joint-heirs of a joint-body and joint-partakers of His promise. In other words, the same in every aspect. Now, we may be tempted to think, especially in New Testament times, that Jews and Gentiles were always the same. But this was not the case.
From the time of the conversion of Cornelius (a Gentile) in Acts 10, until Israel was set aside in God’s plans in Acts 28, there were in fact two categories of Christians: Jews in Christ and Gentiles in Christ. Note that the common feature was being in Christ. In regard to salvation there was equality between believers of all nations. However, there were still some differences between the two during the Acts Period, and we can see some of these in the book of Acts. But, as we would expect, the books and letters written during that time also reflect the different ways in which God dealt with believers, and we outline some of these here.
(1) Jews held the prior place
Jews held the prior place in God’s plans for mankind, because the promises were to be fulfilled through that nation. You’ll remember that, way back in Genesis, Abram was called to father a nation through which God would bless all nations (Gen 12:1-3), and for the rest of the Old Testament, no Gentiles are even mentioned unless they come in contact with the Jews.
Surprising as it may seem, this difference still existed during the gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the Lord sent his disciples out to preach, saying, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel”. (Matthew 10:5,6). Obviously the Lord saw a difference between Jews and Gentiles at that time. This was because Israel was still the nation through whom God was dealing with mankind, and it was important for them to repent first before they could be a blessing to the other nations.
Contrary to popular opinion today, Israel were not finished with after the death and resurrection of Christ, and they continued in the Acts Period, through God’s longsuffering, to be the instrument through which He would bless the world. Hence we find that the salvation of Israel was still the major goal, and this is reflected in the fact that during the Acts period, Paul preached to the Jews of each town first in his journeys (as illustrated in Acts 13:5,14,45,46; 14:1; 17:1,2,10; 28:17).
The prior place of the Jews in God’s dealings at that time is also reflected in one of the letters written during the Acts Period – the epistle to the Romans. Although there are many portions of Romans which talk about salvation and apply equally to Jews and Gentiles, there are other sections which illustrate that there were still differences between the two groups in God’s plans at that time:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile“.
“There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”
“What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew … much in every way.” (Romans 1:16; 2:9,10; 3:1,2)
(2) Gentiles were blessed via Israel
Still in Romans, we are told that Jews and Gentiles in the Acts Period were a bit like an olive tree and branches which had been grafted on. Gentiles received the blessings via Israel. This is referred to as nourishing sap (or “fatness” in the KJV) See Romans 11:17-22.
(3) Different laws were in place
It is sometimes easy to overlook the fact that the law of Moses was still being kept by the apostles and other Jewish Christians during the Acts Period. Nevertheless, it is so, and many felt that Gentiles should also be expected to keep the law of Moses. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) it was decided that there should be only four laws for Gentile believers – “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood”.(Acts 15:20)
So, while there were only four ceremonial laws in place for Gentile Christians, the Jews were still expected to keep the Mosaic law. No one said “stop circumcision” or “stop keeping the ceremonial feasts”, etc. In fact Paul went out of his way to keep the law on one occasion. There were reports that Paul was telling Jews not to circumcise their children, and not to live according to the law of Moses. There was no truth in these rumours, and Paul continued to live in obedience to the law (Acts 21:19-21,24). On this point, it should be noted that keeping the law was of no value as regarding salvation. Galatians 3:12, also written during the Acts Period, says, “that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God it is evident, for the just shall live by faith”. The law was still required to be observed by the Jew for reasons more to do with signifying holiness of God’s chosen people, and because the law was a shadow or picture of heavenly things (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). Clearly, at that time, there were two different sets of laws in place for Jewish and Gentile believers, even though members from both groups were Christians and blessed equally in regard to their hope of salvation.
(4) Gentiles blessed to provoke Israel
Romans 11:11-13 tells us that Gentiles were given these blessings in order to provoke Israel to jealousy. Jealous, because non-Israelites were now being blessed in ways which were previously exclusive to Israelites. In this way it was hoped that the Jewish nation as a whole would repent; however, the majority rejected Christ as the Son of God. This situation remained right up until the final few verses of the book of Acts.
The Mystery – Equality
After Acts 28, Israel were set aside for their continual unbelief as a nation. Naturally, we should expect that the letters written after Acts 28 would reflect this change – and they do. One of the first letters written after this change was Ephesians, and we read about a mystery – or secret – which was newly revealed:
“That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6) In other words, equal in every way.
These are the conditions which are in force at present, and we find that the national differences have disappeared.
- There is now no prior place for Israel, believers are equal in every way (Ephesians 3:6)
- Gentiles are blessed completely independently of Israel, God’s rule for one believer is God’s rule for all believers (Colossians 1:27);
- The law of Moses is not in force and there are no ceremonial ordinances (Col 2:13-17)
- Blessings of our dispensation do not depend on Israel (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Finally, read Ephesians 2:11-18 and note how Jewish and Gentile believers, who were once separated because of race, have now been joined in every way through Christ. The priority of the Jew, which was a part of God’s dealings during the Acts period, is not in operation today.