We’re Glad You Asked…
QUESTION: Why does Jews for Jesus still refer to non-Jewish believers as Gentiles? Does not the term Gentile” come from the word “Goyim,” meaning “pagan?” How could a believer, regardless of his or her background, be a pagan? Are not all believers of non-Jewish origin grafted into the family tree of Abraham? Are they not then Jewish—whether they started out that way or not?
ANSWER: According to Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, Gentile is a Middle English term derived from the late Latin gentilis, and earlier Latin gens, meaning nation. The plural Old Testament Hebrew counterpart is goyim, referring to all the other nations at that time. Webster’s primary definition of Gentile is “a person of a non-Jewish nation or of non-Jewish faith.” While there is a secondary definition of heathen or pagan, we use the term purely in its primary sense to designate anyone of non-Jewish origin.
Your question involves a mixed metaphor. Gentile believers (the wild olive branches of Romans 11:16-24) are grafted into the natural olive tree, meaning Israel. However, this does not make them part of Abraham’s “family tree,” as you put it. Family tree refers to physical genealogies.
One becomes a Christian (follower of Christ) by choice, not by birth. The title applies to both Jewish and Gentile believers. Both are Abraham’s spiritual seed, but only Jews by birth are Abraham’s physical descendants. Being a child of Abraham by faith is not the same as being Jewish. A physical, ancestral relationship to Abraham involves physical circumcision, while a relationship to Abraham by faith involves circumcision of the heart as provided by the New Covenant. Even those who are Abraham’s physical progeny need the new birth in order to be called Abraham’s seed. Romans 4:9-12 explains the faith which makes Gentiles children of Abraham. It is the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised (i.e., before he fulfilled the covenant requirement that made him the father of the Jewish people through Isaac).
Also, Romans 4:17 reminds us that God said to Abraham, “…I have made thee a father of many nations.” The Greek for nations, ethnown, parallels the Hebrew goyim. The distinctives remain. There are Jews for Jesus, and there are Goyim or Gentiles for Jesus, and God loves us all alike. The importance lies not in who we are, but for whom we stand and to whom we are committed.