History is strewn with examples of ethnic groups being disregarded, persecuted, or treated as less than human. Tragically, isolated verses from the Bible have been used to justify such atrocities as the slave trade or anti-Semitism. But throughout the Bible we see God's intention to reach all races and nations with salvation (Genesis 12:2-3, Revelation 7:9). We see this the most clearly in the life of Jesus, who embodied God's love for all people, including the diverse ethnic groups right around him. As we take a closer look into Jesus's cultural milieu we can begin to understand the deep significance of his radical inclusion.
Jesus's Ethnic Background
Jesus came from Nazareth, a Jewish village in Galilee that was part of the Roman Empire. The Romans had also conquered Greeks, Syrians, and dozens of other ethnic groups. Jesus would have encountered the differences between other nations and races, and also had a keen awareness of his own ethnic identity. As a Jew, he would have known the history of his people and the way foreigners had repeatedly invaded and oppressed them. And also how, further back in their history, God brought them into the Promised Land with the instructions to wipe out the nations living there, and not to intermarry with them (Deuteronomy 7:2-3).
We can't ignore these difficult aspects of the Bible. The idea of annihilating people groups is terrifying to us. But it is part of Old Testament history—God judged the Canaanites due to their practices of child sacrifice, incest, and bestiality (Leviticus 18:21-29). And God wanted to create a nation that was pure, undefiled, set apart to worship the true God. God gave a reason for the urgency of this command: "Because they would lead your children away from the LORD to worship other gods" (Deuteronomy 7:4). The Jews in Jesus's time knew their ancestral history and still followed Old Testament laws to maintain the purity of their nation. To them, all other people groups were Gentiles, or heathens.
A Divided World View
Due to this history, Jesus's culture was divided between Jew and non-Jew. Even Samaritans, who shared Jewish ethnicity and faith, were spurned because they had not adhered to racial and religious purity laws.
Yet Jesus presented a different way—one that wasn't based on annihilation or exclusion. In the Gospels, we see Jesus revealing that the kingdom of God is for everyone. When a Canaanite woman (the very ethnic group God had warned against) asks for help for her daughter, Jesus at first seems to refuse, referencing her being a Gentile. But when she presses further, Jesus heals her daughter, and praises her faith (Matthew 15:21-28). The point has been made. Jesus is interested in every person, regardless of background. In another encounter a Roman centurion comes to Jesus concerned about his sick servant (Matthew 8:5-13). He says, "Just give the order and my servant will get well." This causes Jesus to praise the man's faith, elevating a Gentile above the Jews. "I tell you, I have never found anyone in Israel with faith like this. I assure you that many will come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven." Jesus expands the image of the kingdom of God to the east and west, including all the nations of the world.
Jesus Bridged the Divides
Many religious people were appalled at seeing Jesus get close to people from other ethnic groups. But rather than going against the Jewish law, Jesus fulfilled the law and the other Scriptures. God chose to reveal himself first through Israel, from whom the Messiah would come, but not to stop there: "I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus redeemed the whole human race, bringing together all people and breaking down all dividing lines (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Galatians 3:28).
Jesus Brings New Peace and Reconciliation
Divisions and prejudice between people of different races and cultures can be seen all around us, causing suffering and exclusion. But Jesus calls us to live as he did, and to follow him in taking down barriers. How could you leave your comfort zone to reach and befriend people of different ethnicities and origins? How is Jesus inviting you to see each person through his eyes, the eyes of the one who brought life to all?
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