Jesus and his chosen disciples were Jewish, living under the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. As such, most of Jesus’ teachings during his ministry were built upon principles already known by Jews familiar with the Old Testament. On four points, Jesus specifically instructed his disciples not to be like the Gentiles (the nations, the pagans, the heathen). Three of these points are made in the Sermon on The Mount (Matthew 5-7). On that occasion, Jesus instructed his disciples to love not only their family and friends, but even their enemies. Jesus said even tax collectors love those who love them, and He said, “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47-48). Then, when Jesus talked about deeds done in the service of God, such as giving to the poor, praying and fasting (Matthew 6:1-21), He told the disciples, “when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Later, in the same message, Jesus also said,
“Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32).
On another occasion when the disciples were having a dispute about preeminence among themselves, Jesus said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant...” (Matthew 20:25-26).
In the four instances listed above, Jesus told his followers that in love and treatment of others, they had to do better than the pagan world, loving even their enemies and those who did not show love in return, just as God does. In their service to God, their worship and good deeds, they were not to be like the pagan world, with its frenetic exertions in “worship,” but rather to approach service to God with a knowledge of who He is and what He desires, as He Himself has revealed. In their values and goals, Jesus’ disciples are to seek different things than the Gentiles, to have different values and priorities than the pagan world, because they know they can trust God. And while the Gentiles seek power and domination and personal advancement, the aim for his disciples is to be humble servants, as modeled by Jesus himself. Jesus’ disciples, Christians, are called upon to learn from God’s word how to behave in love for others; how to serve God honestly and intelligently and please Him; how to live in contentment with noble spiritual values and goals, trusting God for the good things we need; and how to excel in leadership by excelling in service, in imitation of the Lord, rather than the love of ruling and being ruled in the pagan world.
When those first disciples of Jesus (including Paul) went into the pagan world, to the Gentiles, with the message of Christ, they had to teach the Gentiles not only how to be saved but also the basic principles of moral behavior and basic concepts of God’s nature and power and expectations. The Gentile world was grounded on very different precepts than the Jewish nation. Paul had to warn Gentile Christians against being drawn back into the worship of idols (1 Corinthians 12:2) which have no part in the body of Christ. He had to remind disciples that came from a Gentile heritage that God’s will for them was to “abstain from sexual immorality” and to keep themselves “in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God, and that no man transgress and defraud his brother...” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). Such behaviors were common and largely rationalized in the pagan world, where selfishness prevailed and Godly restraint was unknown. In the same vein, Peter reminded Christians:
“to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:2-4).
Of course, everything that Peter and Paul warned first century converts to avoid is prevalent in 21st century America, including the tendency to disparage Christians who have embraced a higher moral standard because of faith in Jesus Christ.
The pagan world that the disciples of the first century were supposed to rise above and be separate from has never gone away, and these instructions of Jesus and his apostles have always been relevant for knowing and practicing God’s will without compromise. Perhaps in 21st century America we need to stress these principles once again with renewed determination. Pagans surrounded the Christians of the first century, and they set out to share the gospel with those Gentiles and thus turn the world upside down. Christians in the 21st century are also surrounded by Gentiles with voices growing ever louder and more insistent. According to census estimates, in 2010 there were about 2.2 billion Christians in a world of about 6.9 billion people. So a little less than 1 in 3 people in 2010 were identified as Christian. Of those, about 1.2 billion were identified as Catholic, leaving about 1 billion in the various protestant churches, denominations and sects. There are about 14 million Jews, and then about 4.7 billion people identified as Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Folk Religionists, Unaffiliated (the fastest growing segment in the U.S.A.), and Other (Pew Forum). So there are billions of people, Gentiles in Biblical language, engaged in old fashioned paganism, polytheistic idolatry, nature worship, and occult religions. Among those identified as Christian or Muslim, there are billions more engaged in a nominal monotheism that is heavily tainted by pagan philosophies, values and practices warned against by Jesus and his apostles. The U.S.A. appears to be undergoing a tide of change from nominal Christianity to religiously Unaffiliated, coupled with continued growth of various Eastern religions and ever rising interest in various old pagan beliefs and rituals. This shift is accompanied by the rationalization of increased immorality, increased passion for intoxication, increased selfishness, loss of respect for the traditional family, and a willingness to be lorded over by government or religious authorities, and all of the things Paul lists as symptoms of Godlessness in Romans 1:18-32. Christians must be diligent to see that the way of the Gentiles is not the way of the believer or of the church. The teachings of the New Testament, written in the midst a world dominated by Greco-Roman paganism, have never been more relevant nor more essential for godly living than they are right now, “so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
(All scriptures from the NASU)