Paul asked his Roman readers this question in the first century, in response to the Jews’ proud claims of exclusive divine recognition. These first-century Jewish Christians considered themselves to be religiously elite because of the special grace God had bestowed on them in the giving of the Mosaic Law. This was a great privilege indeed. Yet in God’s eyes, the Jews were no greater than the Gentiles, in that all had sinned and stood in need of redemption. It is not unusual for the modern Christian to wonder about the Gentiles living before the time of Christ, as they seem to have been neglected by God until the Messiah appeared. Or, perhaps many honest students of the Bible simply give no thought to the matter at all, believing that the Old Testament tells about the salvation of the Jews, while the New Testament describes the redemption of all humanity.
This type of thinking is dangerous because it raises questions about the justice of God. Paul realized this, and in his discussion he stressed that “there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11). God has promised that all men will be held responsible for their deeds on the Day of Judgment (Revelation 20:12); on that day, race, color, and social status will mean nothing—“great and small” will be assembled together. Each person will answer for his sin, his rebellion against God, or his obedience to the Law. Perfect justice demands that only those responsible be judged; babies, and those incapable of discerning right and wrong, will automatically enter heaven (Matthew 18:3). This necessarily implies that all who will be judged will have a knowledge of morality, or right and wrong. It would seem though, that the Gentiles who lived when the Mosaic Law was in effect were without a standard. As far as we know from the Old Testament, no law was given to the Gentiles congruent to that delivered from Sinai (Exodus 20). Further, the Law of Moses was not intended to be spread evangelically like the Gospel; the Jews did not actively proselytize because they were not commanded to do so.
Despite the absence of written law however, Paul declared that all men, particularly the Gentiles, were “without excuse” before God (Romans 1:20). To have no excuse is to have been given opportunity, but to have spurned it. It is to have a knowledge of the truth, yet neglect it. From this passage, it is clear that the Gentiles had some law, and that they were responsible to God for their actions just like everyone else who has ever lived. Paul discussed this at length in Romans 1-3, but there also is much evidence in the Old Testament which suggests that God did not forget the Gentiles. Actually, Gentiles figure largely in the Old Testament, and often are depicted as being more faithful than the covenanted Jews.
Before Moses, there was no distinction between Jew and Gentile. God did not favor any particular nation or family, but only the righteous. Abel was approved because he was more righteous than his brother (Hebrews 11:4); likewise Enoch and Noah were saved because of their righteous faith (Hebrews 11:5-7). For this reason, too, Abraham was chosen and set apart to become the “father of many nations,” that through his seed all nations should be blessed (Galatians 3:6). Paul reminded the proud physical descendants of Abraham that their father was not actually a Jew because he was the father of the Jews. “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision: that he might be the father of all” (Romans 4:11). He argued that although Abraham became the patriarch of the Jewish nation, God called him when he was still uncircumcised and thus no different from the Gentiles.
We know that Abraham was not alone in his righteousness during that period. Melchizedek, King of Salem, lived concurrently with Abraham (Genesis 14), and was called “the priest of the Most High God” (Hebrews 7:1). Here was a man who served God faithfully, and eventually became a type of Christ’s priesthood (Hebrews 5:6). Undoubtedly, there were other God-fearing people in the land, else Melchizedek would have no one to whom to administer priestly rites. Also, it is widely believed that Job was a contemporary of Abraham, or at least lived in the same pre-Mosaic period. An entire book of the Bible is devoted to his story, the story of a man who followed God against all odds. Not only did Job know the true God, but his friends likewise knew Him, indicating that true worshippers were probably neither isolated nor rare. Thus, while Abraham and his family obediently traveled to Canaan, other peoples worshipped God faithfully and truly.
Knowledge of God originated from several sources during these times and those that followed. Jehovah spoke to Abraham and Job directly, sent Jacob an angel, and dreams to Joseph. This straightforward contact between God and individual families effectively ended with the transmission of the Ten Commandments on Sinai—at least with the Jews (with some exceptions; cf. Judges 13:3; Luke 1:26ff.). God chose to communicate through His written Word and through the prophets. The Law was given only to the Israelites (as were the prophets), yet there were many Gentiles who believed and worshipped God without benefit of either. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro the Midianite, was a priest (Exodus 3:1) whose alternate name, Reuel, means “friend of God” (Exodus 2:18). True religious worship among the Israelites had been suppressed under the heavy hand of the Egyptians, yet only a few hundred miles to the northeast, men and women were aware of Jehovah God and worshipped him. How did Jethro come to be a priest of God? It must have been either through tradition passed down from the patriarchs or by direct revelation from God.
Nearly forty years later, another foreign prophet arrived on the scene. Balaam, a soothsayer from Mesopotamia, was summoned by the leaders of the Moabites and the Midianites to curse the children of Israel (Numbers 22:1-3). Balaam consulted Jehovah before going, agreeing only to speak the words God gave him. Whether or not Balaam was a prophet of God is questionable (2 Peter 2:15), but we can be certain that he was familiar with the One God of Israel, and that he recognized that this God was more powerful than any lesser gods to whom he might otherwise have appealed. Thus, God apparently communicated to these Gentiles (and others) by means of oral tradition or by direct communication.
More frequently, however, God used His people as an example to the heathen nations, both collectively and individually. God told Moses that the purpose of delivering Israel was that “He might show His power, and that His name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). The effect of those miracles was far-reaching. Forty years after crossing the Red Sea, Rahab the Canaanite confessed:
For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. (Joshua 2:10-11, emp. added).
The great miracle of Israel’s deliverance prompted Rahab, and all who heard the story, to acknowledge that Jehovah was the true God. Jethro cited that event as the cause of his belief, and perhaps that of the Egyptians as well: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they [the Egyptians—AB] behaved proudly, He was above them” (Exodus 18:11). In the New Testament, Cornelius developed his faith in God because of the righteous Jews in Caesarea (Acts 10:1-2).
Although the power of God working through His people caused whole nations to tremble, the example of individual godly lives often had similar effects. Ruth, a Moabitess, was so impressed by her mother-in-law Naomi that she adopted the Jewish faith, and eventually became a progenitor of the Messiah (Ruth 1:16; Matthew 1:5). God’s providence is seen most clearly when godly individuals were brought to the attention of Gentile monarchs, who then accepted Jehovah as God. This was the case with Joseph and the Pharaoh (Genesis 41:38-39), Elijah and Naaman (2 Kings 5:15-17), Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:29; 4:2-3), Daniel and Darius (Daniel 6:26), and Esther and Ahasuerus (Esther 8). Each of these Gentile men exercised authority over an empire, and to some degree each established true worship among his people. Nebuchadnezzar and Darius even issued specific decrees declaring the God of Israel as the one true God of all nations (Daniel 4:1-18; 6:25-27).
God showed Himself to the nations by great wonders wrought through Israel and by godly persons. In this way, the greatest empires the world has ever known—the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Medo-Persian—had the opportunity to know God. This alone would leave those nations “without excuse,” but God did not stop there. He also sent His prophets to them to encourage them to repent. Obadiah was sent to Edom (Obadiah 1:1), Nahum preached in Assyria (Nahum 1:1), Zephaniah prophesied to Canaan and Ethiopia (Zephaniah 2:5,12), and Amos and Ezekiel delivered judgments to the Ammonites, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and the Edomites (Amos 1:3-2:3; Ezekiek 25:2; 27:2; 29:2; 35:2). Most familiar of all is the prophet Jonah, who was sent to preach repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh in Assyria (Jonah 1:2). To his great disappointment, the entire city repented in sackcloth and ashes, and God gave them a reprieve (Jonah 3:10). That God had adequately warned all nations of His wrath against sin is evinced by the visits of these prophets, who “have been since the world began” (Luke 1:70).
The “revelation” of God to the Gentiles mentioned in Romans 1:18 classically has been interpreted as natural revelation—the Creation—an interpretation based on verse 20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” John Chrysostom wrote in the fourth century regarding this passage:
Whence was it plain then? Did He send them a voice from above? By no means. But what was able to draw them to Him more than a voice, that He did, by putting before them the Creation, so that both wise, and unlearned, and Scythian, and barbarian, having through sight learned the beauty of the things which were seen, might mount up to God (1969, 11:352).
Doubtless, God intended for His creation to be an obvious sign of His existence (Psalm 19:1), yet God has given more than that. God spoke to those Gentiles through dreams, through the example of His people, and through the prophets. Consider for a moment the wise men of Matthew 2. These men traveled a great distance, divinely guided by a star, in order to worship the Son of God. God revealed His will to these men in at least three ways. They knew to expect a Messiah to be born in Bethlehem by means of written revelation (2:5-6). An inspired dream advised them to avoid Herod on their return home (2:12). The third method God used to communicate to them is unknown, but somehow they knew to follow the star to find the Christ child. The implications of this story are intriguing, and give us reason to believe that God continued to communicate with those who truly followed Him. Paul confirmed this in his speech to the Athenians on Mars Hill when he stated that God
has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26-27).
During the Mosaic age, God was not the God of the Jews only, but of all nations. He worked through Israel to bring about the fulfillment of His ultimate plan, the redemption of all men, but God always has loved all men, and earnestly desires that they worship Him. He also has given all of mankind an opportunity to obey Him. He must have done so, else He could not hold them accountable for their sins. Unfortunately, then, as today, many rejected God’s gracious offer of pardon, choosing to exchange the truth for a lie (Romans 1:25). Even in those times of rampant idolatry and ungodliness, the Old Testament provides a glimpse of the faithful few in all the nations—those men and women who, despite the degraded society around them, chose to serve Jehovah God.
Chryostom, John (1969), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eedrmans).
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