WHO WERE THE GENTILES?
Paul, this Jewish zealot who was tagged by God, knocked off his horse, you might say, embraced Jesus as Messiah and became the Apostle to the Gentiles. Thirteen of the Books of the New Testament — right at one-half! — are by Paul; nine (one-third of the New Testament) are Paul’s letters to the Gentile churches (the remaining four are “Pastoral Epistles” written to individuals).
So. Who were these Gentiles? And what does it matter for us?
I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that, for many years, I had this mental construct of the Gentiles as something akin to “protestant Jews.” People not so very different from the Jews, but not on the inside track to knowing God. Not the “cool kids.”
It’s a bit deeper than that, though. Put plainly, the Gentiles were pagans. They were a polytheistic people. Remember your Greek and Roman mythologies from school? Those myths developed out of other myths, which simultaneously reflected and shaped whole cultures of polytheistic peoples who lived all around Israel, even before the first time Abraham said “Yes” to God and went forth to the land promised to him by God. Later, ass Greek and Roman civilization spread throughout the Mediterranean world, the various smaller nationalities and their deities became absorbed and influenced …
From the earliest days, the Gentiles were a very different people from God’s own people. We see in the Old Testament that they worshipped gods called the Baals and the Ashteroths — fertility gods, in polite parlance, but they also represent all sorts of sexual activity and depravity. There was the demon god Moloch, to whom these people sacrificed children. In fact, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that the two major points of pagan culture from which the Israelites, the Jews, were to separate themselves were sexual depravity and human sacrifice.
The Greeks, and later the Romans, expanded the old pagan deities. They (the gods) became a bit more sophisticated. Complex stories were developed to tell of their various exploits. The stories we read as literature in school were the tamer ones; Zeus, then Saturn, was not only a capricious and jealous deity, he had insatiable sexual appetites that extended not only to beautiful girls, but to boys, to beasts, to inanimate objects. The citizens of these cultures that celebrated these myths lived much the same way as the deities they worshipped. The decadence and depravity of Rome — remember your arenas and the gruesome events that occurred there; remember the massive banquets where people would go and vomit in order to be able to gorge some more? — spread in influence throughout the Empire.
It’s out of this environment that those early Gentile converts came to Christ. Boy, talk about a major paradigm shift!!! from the decadence and depravity of Rome and the pagan world to the radically different life of the Christian disciple – Whoa! When Paul writes to the Roman Church, in Romans 12:1 “present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice…be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” they knew exactly what he was talking about. This Christian discipleship wasn’t just a nice philosophical construct; Paul’s talking about bodies that had been indulged in every possible way, now being given to God and disciplined and sacrificed to chastity and moderation, concepts quite alien to the Gentile, pagan, mindset — hence, the call to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” in the very next verse.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE TO US?
We live in a world that has come full circle. Western Civilization, also known as Christendom, now has more in common, in terms of pop culture, with the ancient pagan empires of Bible times than with the Christian America my parents knew and loved when they died just over twenty years ago.
We have a major radical feminism campaign promoting a woman’s right to sexual depravity without consequences of pregnancy, and her vulnerability to becoming pregnant is identified as a War on Women.
Major television shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, Game of Thrones, etc., are really little more than dressed-up pornography. At least, when I was growing up, such graphic depictions of sexual intercourse would be considered pornographic; now we’ve become so desensitized that people, even good Christians, look askance when I say something about the utter inappropriateness of a depiction of oral sex on television.
We sacrifice our children through abortion. Child abuse and murder are on the increase — and this despite the propaganda, more than thirty years ago, that if we only legalized abortion, child abuse would no longer occur. What lies.
WE, we Christians, we disciples of Jesus Christ, have become a remnant, a countercultural minority living within a vast, increasingly-depraved world. Many of us have had experiences, have been distracted and seduced into a worldly lifestyle and are finding our way back to Christ.
The words of Paul to his Gentile converts are so very vividly applicable to us, today, Christians living in a post-Christian, newly re-paganized world. If we pay attention, if we put our hearts and minds into it, these counsels will see us through, just as they did two thousand years ago as the Church was being born throughout the world.