Who are God's children today?
Who has the right to be called a child of God in the New Testament? Do we need to be born into the lineage of Abraham or can anyone become God’s child?
There is a teaching gaining momentum currently which says that only those of Jewish lineage can be saved. It argues that in the New Testament, when the Bible says that Gentiles came to saving faith in the Lord, it is referring to the lost sheep of Israel, and that the Bible says that Jesus only ever came for the Jews. We will put this teaching to the test of scripture, to discover who – according to the Bible – are God's children in the New Testament.
BIBLICAL DEFINITION OF GENTILES
Gentiles in the Old Testament
We will begin our discussion by looking at the Biblical definition of the word ‘Gentile’. Who does the Bible say is being spoken of by that word? In the Old Testament, the original Hebrew word for Gentile is ‘Gowy’, and its definition in the Biblical dictionary is:
Gowy (Hebrew)/Gentiles (English) = Strong’s H1471
A foreign nation not worshipping the true God – hence Gentile.
Gentile, heathen, nation, people.
Now this word can be translated into English as either ‘Genitle’ or ‘heathen’. Here is an example of the word (indicated by the underline) being used in the Old Testament.
“But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD cast out from before the children of Israel.” – 2 Kings 16:3
The above verse clearly shows that the ‘Gowy’ (translated as ‘heathen’ in this example), refers to the nations which Israel conquered, in other words, non-Jews. Now let's take two examples where the word is translated ‘Gentiles’:
“So shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles where I will drive them.” – Ezekiel 4:13
“Israel is swallowed up; now they are among the Gentiles like a vessel in which is no pleasure. “ – Hosea 8:8
In the above two examples, again we see a clear distinction between Israel (God’ people) and the Gentiles (the foreign nations) they were living among. Therefore the Biblical evidence is that Gentiles are those who are NOT of the house of Israel. In the Old Testament, God chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be His people. Everyone who fell outside of that lineage was called a Gentile. So by definition, a Gentile was anyone who was NOT an Israelite.
Let's see if the same is true in the New Testament.
Gentiles in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the word translated as ‘Gentiles’ in English, is ‘Ethnos’ in the original Greek. Here is the Biblical definition of it:
Ethnos (Greek)/Gentiles (English) = Strong’s G1484
A multitude associated or living together – a company, troop.
A multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus – the human family.
A tribe, nation or people group.
In the OT, foreign nations not worshipping the true God, pagans, Gentiles.
In the NT, Paul uses the term for Gentile Christians.
So it seems that this Greek word ‘Ethnos’ (the pagan nations not worshiping God), is referring to the same people the Hebrew word ‘Gowy’ (heathen or foreign nations not worshiping God) is speaking of. Let’s look at a few New Testament examples of the word in use, to see if we can confirm that. Again, the word which we have underlined is the word ‘Ethos’ in the original Greek text.
Example one: Here ‘Ethnos’ refers to the heathen people God drove out of the promised land.
“Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness... which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David.” – Acts 7:44-45
Example two: ‘Ethnos’ refers to the Roman soldiers who scourged and crucified Jesus.
“Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” – Mark 10:33b-34
Example three: ‘Ethnos’ refers to the people who worshiped demons.
“the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” – 1 Corinthians 10:20b
It is clear from the above three examples then, that the word Gentile in the New Testament refers to those outside of the house of Israel.
We have now shown that in both the Old and the New Testament, ‘Gentiles’ refers very specifically to non-Jews. This means that the Gentiles spoken of in the New Testament cannot be a reference to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel. Now let's check our conclusion using a different approach – let's look at the message of the scriptures.
Can non-Jewish people be saved according to the New Testament text?
BIBLICAL TEACHING ON GENTILES
The Apostles and the Gentiles
The book of Acts reveals that the apostles did not think that Jesus came to save the Gentiles. Look at this story from Acts 10 where Peter is on the roof of his house, praying. In a vision he sees heaven lowering down a great sheet full of unclean animals and God tells him to eat of them. Peter refuses, saying he will not eat any common or unclean thing. God replies, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This happens 3 times. Right after this, men knock on Peter’s door, calling him to come visit a Gentile, a Roman centurion, called Cornelius. When he gets there, Peter says:
“You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came...” – Acts 10:28-29a
Clearly the centurion was not a Jew and therefore it was unlawful for Peter to even be there. But Cornelius then tells Peter how an angel appeared to him, telling him to send for him. So Peter replies:
“In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him...” – Acts 10:34-35
Peter then begins to share the gospel message with Cornelius and all the other Gentile relatives and friends he invited to join him.
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision... were astonished... because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.” – Acts 10:44-45
The Jews were surprised that these heathen people were given the Holy Spirit because they were not Israelites – not children of God's promise. But God, in order to show His acceptance of them, poured out His Holy Spirit. He used this experience to show Peter and the Jews, that the Gentiles – those previously considered unclean and outside of God’s grace – could now be saved. When Peter tells the other apostles about the experience, they also complain that he should not have gone to the Gentiles. Yet look how Peter responds:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning... If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”
Peter had witnessed God’s approval of these Gentiles, so who was he to contend with God’s will? And the other apostles, hearing that, accepted his words.
“When they heard these things they became silent and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.’ ” – Acts 11:15, 17-18
So the meaning of this story is plain: Something dramatic changed in the way God relates to Gentiles in the New Testament. But a closer look at the scriptures shows that it had always been God’s plan to bring the Gentiles (non-Jews) into His family through Jesus Christ.
God’s intentions found in the Old Testament
Look at this prophetic passage where God the Father is speaking to His Son, the coming Messiah:
“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” – Isaiah 49:6
So there we have it – how extraordinary! Yes, Jesus would come to restore Israel back to God. But that was not the end of it, that alone was not enough. Jesus would also bring salvation to the Gentiles, to men at the very farthest corners of the earth.
Isaiah gives us a few more glimpses of this same truth. We offer two examples:
“I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You [Jesus Christ] as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles,” – Isaiah 42:6
“The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” – Isaiah 60:3
The Apostle Paul also tells us that evidence of God’s intentions to bring in the Gentiles can be found all the way back in the book of Genesis:
“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall all nations be blessed’... that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” – Galatians 3:8, 14
The word ‘all’ used in this verse means ‘the sum of all types’ (see Strongs G3956). So Paul is pointing out that the promise God gave to Abraham would come to every single type of nation, not just Israel. And therefore, through Jesus Christ, Abraham’s blessing came upon the Gentiles as well. We will explain the reason for this more fully in a moment, but first we must address a question which often comes up at this point.
The lost sheep of Israel
So why would Jesus say that He was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, if He knew that He was sent to save the Gentiles as well?
“I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” – Matthew 15:24
Jesus said a similar thing again when He sent out the twelve disciples on their first mission trip. He told them to stay away from the Gentiles and go rather to the house of Israel.
“These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” – Matthew 10:5-6
This verse makes it perfectly clear that the ‘Gentiles’ are not ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
Through Jesus's entire earthly ministry you will see that He never went to preach to, or heal, the Gentiles (with only two exceptions). But – and here is the critical turning point we want to make very clear – after His resurrection, His words changed. When He commissions His disciples, only moments before His ascension, He tells them to go to “all the nations”, and make disciples of them all.
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” – Matthew 28:18-19a
So before Jesus’s death, He says to His disciples “Do not to go to the ‘Ethnos’, rather go only to the lost sheep of Israel”. Then after His resurrection He says, “Go to all the ‘Ethnos’ (none are excluded), and make disciples of them all.” Mark says it this way:
“And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’ ” – Mark 16:15
To understand what has created this extraordinary turn of events, we have to look at the New Covenant.
THE NEW COVENANT
In the Bible, the word 'Covenant' and 'Testament' are translations of the same word. So when we are speaking of the New Testament, we are actually speaking of the New Covenant. In the same way, when we speak of the Old Testament, we are speaking of the period of the Old Covenant.
The exact moment when God's covenant changed from the Old to the New, was when Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross. His death initiated a New Covenant. This is why He taught His disciples at the last supper to use communion (the symbol of His crucifixion), as a reminder of the New Covenant:
"Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.' " – Matthew 26:28
"And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you." – Luke 22:19-20
When the New Covenant was established, it replaced the Old Covenant.
"...He says: 'Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant... not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt...In that He says,'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." – Hebrews 8:8a, 9a, 13
The covenant is the thing that determines the framework or structure of God's relationship with mankind. So when the covenants changed, so did the entire framework of approaching Him. The Old Covenant was established between God and the nation of Israel. The New Covenant was established between God and one man, only Jesus Christ. This is why in the New Covenant, the only way to get to God is through Jesus Christ.
"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.' " – John 14:6
This is so critical an issue to understand, that we have devoted an entire piece to explaining it in much more detail. We highly encourage you to read that piece as we cannot devote the time it would need to explain it here.
For more information on the Covenants, please click the link below:
ATONEMENT FOR ALL MEN
So then, why did Jesus first say, "do not go to the Gentiles" and then later "go to all the Gentiles"? Because when He spoke the first time, the dispensation was the Old Covenant, and only Jews had any right to approach God. But after His death, once the New Covenant had been established, the door was opened to all men.
"Therefore, as through one man’s [Adam's] offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s [Jesus's]righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life." – Romans 5:18
“it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:46b-47
So then, under the Old Covenant (which was only with the house of Israel), Jesus neither went to the Gentiles, nor did He send His disciples to minister to them. But under the New Covenant, He had been given all authority and purchased a way for all men to be drawn back to God.
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” – Titus 2:11
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” – 2 Corinthians 5:19a
“Jesus Christ, the Righteous One... is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:1b-2
Note that the Biblical definition of this word ‘world,’ used in the two previous verses, makes it very clear who is being spoken of here. Quite literally it means ‘the whole mass of men alienated from God’, so everybody is included:
World: (Strongs G2889)
The inhabitants of the earth, men, the human family.
The ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ.
Because Jesus’s death made this possible, we find in the book of Revelation that there are all manner of saints singing to the Lord Jesus at the end of time:
“You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; For You were slain and You have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” – Revelation 5:9b
That God's grace would extend to all men, was a mystery hidden in the Old Testament and only fully revealed at the time of the apostles:
“by revelation He made known to me the mystery... which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs... and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.” – Ephesians 3:3-6
Jesus knew that He had come for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Therefore He prophesied that after His resurrection, He would draw all mankind to Himself.
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” – John 12:32
Again He shows He was sent to bring in more than just the lost sheep of Israel by the words of the next verse:
“I am the good shepherd... And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” – John 10:14, 15b-16
The Apostle Paul gives us a fuller understanding of what Jesus meant by these words:
“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh – who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands – that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” – Ephesians 2:11-19
To put that in simpler language, Paul is saying that those who were Gentiles, and not of the circumcision, not Jews, not under the Old Covenant promise, not under the law and without any hope – have been brought near to God by Jesus’s blood. And that God has taken the Gentile and Jewish believers and made them both one in Christ, since both now have access by one Spirit, to one God, through one Saviour. Therefore God says:
“I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.” – Romans 9:25
So Jesus was sent first to the house of Israel, to draw them home. But after His resurrection, He could also draw the lost world of all mankind, who were not previously God’s people. To the Jews, He has become the fulfilment of all God’s promises. To the Gentiles, He has become a brand new and glorious hope. As Paul says in a few places, Jesus came first for the Jews, but then also for the Gentiles after that.
“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.” – Romans 1:16
But since all are made one in Jesus, none of these distinctions means anything any longer:
“there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” – Colossians 3:11
We offer one last verse to finish this point.
“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.” – Romans 3:29-30
We have no reason to boast
Whether Jews or Gentiles, white or black, old or young, male or female, rich or poor – we are all sinners. That makes us all unworthy of God. None of us is deserving of eternal life. In times passed, God showed His mercy on the Israelites more than on the rest of the human race. But we make a mistake to assume that His mercy on them reveals some extra worthiness on their part. It does not.
“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” – Romans 3:9
“He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning.” – 1 John 3:8a
Everything we have – our lineage, our looks, our intelligence – all was God’s gift to us. How can we then expect a greater reward from Him because of what He gave us? How can we boast about what was none of our doing in the first place?
“For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” – 1 Corinthians 4:7
Therefore we conclude that it is only by the grace of God that any man can be saved, whether Jew or Gentile, lost sheep or found, every sin is paid for by the blood of Christ Jesus, shed once for all.
“The Lord is... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:9
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh... That whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” – Act 2:17a, 21
God's children then are those who have trusted in the mercies of a loving God, and believed in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Those who have been willing to let God transform them into people of faith – like Abraham was.
“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” – Galatians 3:7
Which brings us to our last point: What about the promise to the seed of Abraham?
WHAT ABOUT ABRAHAM'S SEED?
God's promise to Abraham runs all through the Old Covenant (through the nations of Israel), to those who were circumcised in their flesh. But that same promise continues on into the New Covenant (through Jesus Christ), to those who have a circumcision of the heart. We will try to explain clearly what has happened here. Paul says:
“they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham... those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God.” – Romans 9:6b-7a, 8
So in the New Covenant, it is no longer the physical descendants of Abraham that are counted as sons of the promise and therefore sons of God. In this next passage, Jesus is speaking to Jews, but He tells them that they are not sons of Abraham in spite of their lineage:
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father... You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” – John 8:37-40a, 44
Under the New Covenant, it is not the physical seed (or descendants) of Abraham who are the children of God’s promise. It is now spiritual seed (those who share the faith of Abraham), who are considered His children. It is those who share his heart, not those who share his blood. John the Baptist had something similar to say:
“But when he (John the Baptist) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” – Matthew 3:7-9
And so both John and Jesus show that God would no longer count mere descendants of Abraham as God's children. It was a matter of the heart. Those willing to follow the Lord and His way would now be considered God’s children. Those who bore the fruit of righteousness and the heart of faith.
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you [the Jews] and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” –Matthew 21:43
That is why Jesus warned that those who used to be counted “sons of the kingdom” would find themselves cast out and others, who used to be strangers to the promises of God, would sit with Him in heaven.
“many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness” – Matthew 8:11-12b
Paul exposes the irony of Israel’s problem.
“What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.” – Romans 9:30-32a
“For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” – Romans 4:13
Abraham’s promise now comes through the one single seed – Jesus Christ.
“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” – Galatians 3:16
Therefore, if we are in Christ, then all that is His is accounted to us. He is the seed of Abraham, so we can all become knit into that promise through faith in Him. By God’s sovereign will, His grace has come to all men through one Man, His Son, Jesus Christ.
“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham... that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” – Galatians 3:7,14
Even the Jews can only find their way to God now through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any claim of lineage.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Galatians 3:28-29
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” – 1 Timothy 2:5-6
We conclude then that since salvation comes to all men by faith, our genealogy is no longer of profit to us, nor is it a problem for us. Continual debates about our lineage are pointless.
“But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless.” – Titus 3:9