In more than any other Gospel, Matthew uses the word Gentile or Gentiles, referring either to non-Christians or non-Jews. Gentiles are unbelievers to whom the Christian mission is directed along with Israel.
The Gentiles fall short of those who follow Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” ((Matthew 5: 47 ESV) In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls on the disciples to a higher righteousness that includes greeting those who are not brothers (Christians). In Matthew 6: 7 Jesus criticizes the Gentiles for how they pray. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (ESV) The Gentiles’ religious practices falls below the standards of discipleship as described in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the section on anxiety in the Sermon Jesus says that the Gentiles seek after what to eat, drink, and wear. The disciple is to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6: 33 ESV)
Outside the Sermon later in the Gospel Jesus predicts, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 20: 18-19 ESV) In the same context Jesus responds to the mother of the sons of Zebedee who requested that they may sit at His right and left hands in the kingdom by saying that He does not grant such a thing, only the Father does. Jesus then says to the disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Matthew 20: 25-28 ESV)
In the other passages where the Gentiles are mentioned, they are seen as those along with Israel who will be the beneficiaries of the Christian mission. During Jesus’ ministry the disciples are to go only to Israel. Mission to the Gentiles begins after His resurrection. The resurrected Lord says to them on the mountain, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 19-20 ESV) Here the Greek word translated “Gentiles” elsewhere is translated “nations.”
In the mission discourse in Matthew 10 Jesus warns the disciples: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” (Matthew 10: 17-18 ESV) Here the Gentiles are distinguished from the Jews. But, the Gentiles are also to be distinguished from the Christians that will be arraigned before them.
The word, Gentiles, is used in a prophecy from Isaiah that Matthew quotes (Matthew 12: 18ff). There it says the servant will proclaim justice to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles will hope in Him.
These days we do not call non-believers Gentiles, but the situation is the same as it was during and after the ministry of Jesus. Many people are non-Christians; some are atheists of which there seems to be a growing number. The essential task of the church remains the extension of the message of the Gospel to others both in our immediate area and around the world. Our witness needs to be attended by our defense of the faith. While this task may turn unpleasant in a hostile world, we as disciples must continue to be committed to it. An earnest view of our mission affirms the necessity of witness and defense until the end of time.
Michael G. Tavella
November 18, 2019
St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680