The more you look at the life of Jesus, the more we find someone who fights for the freedom and dignity of all people. Here’s what the Bible says about race.

Culture

Race Through The Bible: Part 2 (The New Testament)

Caleb Mathis

26 mins

These days, it seems everyone has something to say about race—from Hollywood A-listers and politicians, all the way to my neighbor, who sits on his porch and talks way too loudly about his political opinions on the phone (that’s for real).

But what about God? How do I know what He says about the topic when He hasn’t tweeted for 2,000 years? And should I even care?

The Bible and America have a complicated relationship. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than with the issue of race. Growing up in the Bible belt, I heard a lot of backward beliefs (supposedly) propped up by scripture. But as I’ve learned the good book for myself, it’s become impossible to ignore: the Bible is a book of color. If you’re anywhere on the spectrum of faith, what scripture teaches about race, especially at this point in American history, is worth exploring—and what it says just might surprise you.

This is the second half of a two-part series. I billed it as a double 5K for all my runners out there, a race through the Bible’s teachings about race (forgive the dad pun).

In the first article, we examined what the Old Testament has to say about race, and discovered some surprising things. Like God might not be as exclusive as we believed, choosing a Middle Eastern, dark-skinned people to be his conduit of blessing to all of humanity. We learned that the ancient world was dominated by tribalism (division based around tribal background instead of skin tone), but outsiders who turned to God, no matter their background, were consistently brought into His nation. We also learned that the term “slave” in the Old Testament means something very different than it does to 21st century Americans. If you haven’t read part 1, I suggest you start there—a more comprehensive understanding of scripture requires you to run the full 10 kilometers.

In this second 5K, we’re going to look at how the life of Jesus intersected with race, how diversity was paramount to the early church’s growth, some confusing things Paul said, and how the end of all things is one of color.

Are you ready for another five kilometers? Legs feeling tired? Get a shot of Gatorade cause Jesus has his laces tied, waiting on us.

KILOMETER 6: A MESSIAH, BUT FOR WHO?

As discussed in part 1, God’s people were constantly fighting for their place in the world. Other nations threatened their existence and even annexed and exiled the Israelites to foreign lands. From generation to generation, their one consistent hope was the ancient promise of the Messiah, a God-sent rescuer that would come and set His people free. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of the Messiah, and Israelites prayed they would live to see the day of His coming.

By the time of Jesus, Israel had passed from world superpower to world superpower, eventually settling in the lap of Rome. While the Jews were able to live in their homeland, they had no self-governance apart from the rulers appointed by the Caesars. And while they were free to worship as they chose, they were heavily taxed. Apart from an elite ruling class, most Jews despised the Romans. Surely, when the Messiah came, He’d bring a boot to the Romans and move Israel back to her former glory.

And then, in a divine flash of color, Christmas came… and from day one, we see this isn’t the Messiah we’d been expecting.

First, angels appear to shepherds. These weren’t cute little kids in bedsheets. These were men who spent nearly every day and night out in the fields, protecting livestock from harm. After one night of camping, my wife tells me I stink to high heaven. Imagine days on days, outnumbered 100-to-1 by some of the dumbest animals on the planet. To say that shepherds weren’t part of the elite of the society is probably pretty obvious. It was a dirty job and not one highly sought after. The shepherds would never have dreamed of hearing about the birth of God’s son directly from the source. Yet there they are, hearing the heaven’s echo with “Glory to God in the highest; peace on earth, good will to men.” (Luke 2:14)

Peace on earth and good will sounds great, but who is it for? Good will to what men? To men that look like us? To men who believe like us? Good will to those who keep God’s law? Good will to the struggling nation of Israel, oppressed by Rome? Or is it good will to all men? The next visitors to Jesus answer that question.

Matthew 2 tells of the coming of the Magi (or wise men). Where do they come from? Scripture just says, “from the east.” Tradition has given them names and homelands, but the Bible leaves all those details out. So what does “from the east” mean? It could be Babylon, or Persia, or India. Honestly, who knows? The key point: these men weren’t Jewish, and they shouldn’t have been there. The leading religious teachers of the day would have insisted the Messiah wasn’t for the Gentiles. And yet, not only are the Magi present but they are welcomed. What are pagans doing at the birth of the Jewish Messiah? And bringing gifts? And bowing to him as one would a king?

Like a Bing Crosby record, the Christmas hits just keep coming. Shortly after the Magi leave, Jesus’ parents are warned, in a dream, that the life of their son is in danger. Rome-appointed King Herod, hearing rumors about a newborn king, sought to kill him—with the widest possible brush imaginable. Taking no chances, Herod made the call to kill all male babies, two years and younger, in the vicinity. Jesus’ parents fled in the night, taking the child to Egypt. Wait, Egypt? The land where the Jews were enslaved for 400 years? The enemies of Israel? Full of pagans and polytheists? Yeah, that place.

The Bible says that Jesus stayed in Egypt until Herod died, approximately 4BC (Matthew 2:13-15). So, depending on when exactly the Messiah was born, it’s safe to assume he spent much of his infancy and early childhood as a political refugee in a foreign country.

Every part of Jesus’ birth is steeped in meaning. He wasn’t an exclusive Messiah—His vision was much wider than that. He came for the nation of Israel (the shepherds), would draw men from all nations to this throne (the Magi), and wouldn’t be content until his freedom was taken to the world, even to people considered to be cultural enemies (Egypt).

The Messiah’s birth is a promise kept. Thousands of years earlier, God had told Abraham that the entire world would be blessed through his family tree. That blessing, born in Bethlehem, was visited, proclaimed, and worshipped by people of every socioeconomic background and varying shades of color, both within the nation of Israel and outside it. Looks like when the angels proclaimed goodwill to all men, they actually meant it.

KILOMETER 7: BUT DIDN’T JESUS FAVOR THE JEWS?

While God’s ultimate vision was to redeem the entire world, it can’t be overlooked that he sought to do so through his nation, Israel. God chose the Jews well before the Messiah was born, and He intended to keep that promise. To that end, while inviting people of all sorts into the Kingdom of God, Jesus made no qualms about trying to reach the Jews first.

Jesus was Jewish. He worshipped God in the temple, the Jewish holy site. He reckoned with leading Jewish scholars from the ancient scriptures. He observed Jewish festivals and holy days, like the Sabbath, and lived according to ancient Law. Jesus always saw Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, not an eraser invalidating it. “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he said, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

So, is Jesus for the Jews or the Gentiles? The answer is… yes, but in that order.

One of the hardest bits of scripture is found in Matthew 15:21-28. In that passage, a non-Jewish mother comes to Jesus, begging for him to heal her demon-tormented daughter. She follows Jesus and his followers around, continually crying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”

Despite being outside the Jewish tribe, this woman clearly recognized Jesus’ divinity. Uncharacteristically, Jesus ignored her cries. But the mother persisted, to the point that the disciples, growing annoyed with her, asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus’ response to this mother sounds cold: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Wait, what? Initially, Jesus seems to contradict his status as the Messiah of all people. I wonder if the mother thought the same thing: I believe You’re the Jewish Messiah, but can you be mine too?

Hoping against hope, the mother persists. She moves past the disciples and approaches Jesus again, begging Him to heal her daughter. Again, Jesus comes with words that bite. “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.” Woof. (Dad puns, gotta love’ em.)

Hold the phone—did Jesus just call that woman a dog? He did, although our cultural context and that of the 1st-century vary wildly. Most scholars believe Jesus isn’t calling the woman a pejorative name, but rather making a point (the word “dog,” here, when translated, is actually closer to “little puppy.”) So what is Jesus saying? The Messiah is meant, first, for the Jewish people. It was God’s promise to Abraham, and God’s promise will be fulfilled. In terms of experience with God, anyone outside the Jewish faith would be as a little puppy, excited but inexperienced. Jesus’ focus remains on God’s plan.

Persistence points to the mom, though. Despite two rebuffs, she isn’t undone. “Yes, Lord,” she answers, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table!” Jesus is shocked at her reply. “Your faith is great,” he says, “Let it be done for you as you want.” When the mother returns to her child, she finds her well.

It’s an amazing story, for yet again, a person who should be outside of the faith recognizes Jesus as the one and only true God. She bows before his feet acknowledges that she has no right to the Messiah—and he blesses her, with no qualms about her tribal background.

Isn’t that how we all come to faith? Not having earned it by our merits or our pedigree. But as a person in need, finally ready to give up control of our lives and submit to God as the Master?

So yes, Jesus’ focus was to be a light to the Jews first but not to the detriment of everyone else. That’s obvious from the stories Jesus told and the marginalized groups he interacted with. His ultimate story of love in action, the Good Samaritan, has Jewish religious leaders as the bad guys and a Samaritan, a tribe hated and reviled by Jews, as the hero (Luke 10:25-37).

In a day when Jews would avoid Samaria and certainly not associate with Samaritans, Jesus willingly leads his disciples through the hated territory, stopping to talk to an outcast Samaritan woman on the way (John 4:1-26). As if showing mercy to the Samaritans wasn’t enough, Jesus also is documented healing the beloved servant of an occupying Roman soldier (Matthew 8:5-13), touching socially outcast lepers (Luke 17:11-19), and including a hated tax collector in his inner circle (Matthew 9:9-13).

Jesus came to earth as an ethnic Jew, but the Kingdom of God goes well beyond any one group or tribe. Jesus promised this in John 10 when He speaks of himself and his people. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he explains, “I know My own sheep, and they know Me… But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Jesus came to bring unity among the people of God, starting with the Jews and emanating out from there. He reiterated those intentions clearly with the last thing he said to his followers. After his resurrection, the Bible says:

Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He also said to them, “This is what is written: the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:45-48).

Nothing is more profound or true than the nursery song: “Red, yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.”

KILOMETER 8: WHAT ABOUT THE MOST SEGREGATED HOUR IN AMERICA?

What’s the most segregated hour in America? Sunday morning, about 10:00AM. That’s the hour most believers gather for a time of singing, prayer, teaching, and encouraging one another—what we call a worship service. Under most of those steeples are groups of people who look just like each other. In the little town where I grew up, there are literally two churches with the same name. They’re four miles apart. One is a historically white church; the other a historically black church. How did that even happen?

The history of the church is long and twisted. Surprisingly, though, what our modern churches do on weekends isn’t too far off from what the original followers of Jesus did with one notable exception: the color divide.

We know this because an early follower of Jesus, a man named Luke (who was actually a Greek, not an ethnic Israelite—mark another point for an outsider brought into the family of God), wrote about it. First, he penned an account of Jesus’ life, and then its sequel, a book called Acts. Acts is a history of what happened after Jesus left the earth, including the infancy of what we now call the church. He describes how early followers of Jesus would meet together in homes, sharing meals, prayer, teachings, and encouragement—replace homes with a designated building, and it sounds like a normal Sunday across America.

In Acts 1, Luke records some of the last words of Jesus. His followers, even after his resurrection, are a bit confused about what He is trying to accomplish. “Lord, at this time,” they ask, “Are You restoring the Kingdom of Israel?”

Jesus answers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus clearly shows his hand. The plan is for the world to be reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus, preached in Jerusalem first (to the Jews), in all Judea (outlying areas where Jews live), in Samaria (the closest enemies of the Jews), and then to the ends of the earth. Another reminder that the Messiah would be for everyone on earth, not just those with a specific lineage or pedigree. In the next chapter, those dominoes start to fall.

In Acts 2, followers of Jesus are gathered together when a strong wind blows among them. They suddenly find they have the ability to speak in foreign languages they had never previously known. On this day, Jerusalem had swelled with Jews from all the world coming into the Holy City for a festival. The Bible records the amazement of people as they hear the story of Jesus told in a language they can understand. The scriptures record people from at least 13 distinct regions gathering that day, from places as far as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Rome. The end result? Some 3,000 people were baptized from places all over the world. As they return home from Jerusalem, the story of Jesus goes with them.

From there, the movement of God went on the offensive, calling people who should have been excluded and continuing the biblical narrative around inclusion.

The first involved a disciple of Jesus named Philip. As recorded in Acts 8, he is walking along a dirt road when an Ethiopian servant of the Queen comes thundering by in a chariot, reading aloud from the ancient prophets. Being from Ethiopia, the man has black skin, and the scripture indicates he is a eunuch. So he starts with two strikes—he isn’t an Israelite, and the Old Testament Law prohibited eunuchs from joining the people of God. Yet Philip doesn’t hesitate. He runs up to the chariot and asks the man if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch responds no and invites Philip into the chariot to teach him. Believing in the message of the Messiah, the eunuch asks a bold question: “Look, there’s water. What would keep me from being baptized?” Philip could have answered, “Your Gentile background.” He could have answered, “Your status as a eunuch.” He could have said, “Why don’t we talk a bit more to make sure you actually know what you’re agreeing to.” But the story immediately jumps to Philip baptizing the new believer. No color, no ethnic background, no choice of the past could prevent this man from knowing the Messiah.

Two chapters later, Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, was praying when he had a vision. Acts 10 describes how he saw a large sheet coming down from heaven, filled with all types of animals. As it turns out, the law was very prescriptive when it came to food. Jews who wished to honor God had a limited amount of food that they could eat, especially when it came to animals. In his vision, Peter hears a voice telling him to get up, kill an animal on the sheet, and eat it. Peter responds like any good law-abiding Israelites: “No, Lord! I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” Then the hammer drops, as the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.”

This vision happens three times in succession. As the last one ends, some men knock on Peter’s door. They have been sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Gentile), who felt a prompting from God to send for Peter. Peter goes to Cornelius’ house and unpacks the message of Jesus for him. God’s spirit comes upon the new Gentile believers, astonishing the Jews who had traveled with Peter. Echoing the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter asks, “Can anyone prevent these from being baptized?” The answer, of course, is no, and Gentiles are baptized into the faith.

But let’s be honest, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows as people from all different backgrounds began to embrace the message of Jesus. I can empathize with the confusion. For thousands of years, the Jews displayed their peculiar status, chosen by God to bless the world by keeping the Law, worshipping in the temple, and celebrating a number of holy days each year. When Gentiles became believers, should they do the same? If so, would all these new regulations slow the movement of God among non-Jews? If not, should Jews be expected to continue to live the way they had for thousands of years? If they came to different conclusions about the laws, many of which were dietary, could Jews and Gentiles eat together? Worship together? Live around each other?

It got pretty messy, to the point that church leaders came to blows over it, including titans like Peter and Paul. But instead of remaining segregated, the early church found a secret bullet to solving conflict—not posting memes about the other side; not getting into Twitter wars; not even rallying people to vote your side in and the other side out. They… drum roll, please… compromised. (Gasp!)

In Acts 15, leaders of the early church movement met to discuss the state of affairs. It might seem silly now, but missionaries like Paul defended their work taking the good news of Jesus to non-Jews. The leaders decided that (a) Gentiles could join the movement of God and (b) they should adopt only four of the ancient laws—don’t worship idols, don’t be sexually immoral, and don’t eat strangled animals or blood.

Jews and Gentiles continued to have some hiccups along the way, but the compromising work of the Jerusalem Council did wonders for healing the division. Paul, in his letters to the early churches, also went to great lengths to teach unity among the diversifying body of believers, continually writing things like “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Say what? All the divisions that separated people in the 1st-century world—Jew vs. Greek, male vs. female, slave vs. free—were erased and counted as nothing in the church. All were equal. All were loved. All, even the non-Jews, were made heirs of God’s original promise to Abraham. The “peculiar people” were diversifying by leaps and bounds.

One wonders if the modern church wouldn’t benefit from another compromising council or two.

KILOMETER 9: YEAH, BUT WASN’T PAUL PRO-SLAVERY?

You’ve come so far. Let’s get to the finish line quickly.

This is a common misconception, based on two things: (a) in antebellum America, slavery was often defended using (misinterpreted) passages from the Bible, including some letters of Paul, and (b) because of a cultural misunderstanding of biblical slavery.

We discussed point B at length in our jaunt through the Old Testament, but it bears quickly repeating. Slavery, in the ancient world, looked quite different than the institution Americans are familiar with. Of course, slavery in any form is degrading and oppressive. But while Americans are familiar with slavery based upon race, the ancient world knew slavery as a result of unpaid debts, punishment for wrongdoing, or loss in a military campaign. So anything Paul writes about slavery should be understood in that context and not one including an unspoken (but assumed) racial slant.

On to point A. The passages mostly cited when it comes to Paul’s writings are Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-25. They say nearly the same thing, encouraging slaves to be obedient to their masters, to work for them like they were working for God Himself, and to not do wrong to the households they serve.

What antebellum pro-slavery advocates failed to do, though, was give a full picture of Paul’s theology around this topic. Far from advocating racism, Paul was writing to encourage people, new in their faith, to see everything in their lives through the lens of their identity in Christ. Funny how pro-slavery politicians might cite the passages above but fail to mention 1 Corinthians 7:21-23. In that passage, Paul is speaking directly to slaves and their owners, both of who were joining the ever-growing faith:

Were you called while a slave? It should not be a concern to you. But if you can become free, by all means, take the opportunity. For he who is called by the LORD as a slave is the LORD’s freedman. Likewise, he who is called as a free man is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.

Paul’s concern wasn’t so much physical slavery but spiritual. He spent his life arguing against trying to earn good standing before God instead of preaching the life-giving grace of the sacrifice of Jesus, who did all the hard work of reconciling us to God. When someone—a slave or a slave-owner—came into the faith, all bets were off. To Paul, everything should change. Faith should make the slave work harder. It should make the master more compassionate. Those old dividing lines shouldn’t exist anymore.

And like a good teacher, Paul didn’t always give explicit answers to those who looked to him for guidance—instead, he left room for them to hear from God and act on their own choices. One of the best instances of this is the tiny little letter of Philemon.

Philemon, most scholars believe, was a wealthy slave owner who came into the faith under Paul’s leadership in a city called Collossae. One of his slaves, Onesimus, eventually escaped and fled to Rome, hoping to blend into the populace. But like a script from a movie, Onesimus ended up meeting Paul there. He stayed on with Paul for a time, helping the aging missionary while he was imprisoned. But Paul eventually felt a prompting to send Onesimus back to Philemon, most likely accompanied by this letter. In the ancient world, Philemon had every right to punish Onesimus severely, perhaps even to the point of death. But Paul urges him not only to forgive Onesimus, but to accept him as a brother and equal. He writes:

Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—a part of myself—back to you. I wanted to keep him with me… but I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.

He goes on to encourage Philemon to accept Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother, because they are both believers now. Paul seems to be hinting at Philemon setting his former slave free, but he never explicitly says this—leaving room for Philemon to hear from God and respond accordingly. It’s the difference between teaching someone the answer, and teaching someone how to think.

But one thing is explicit: nothing—status, skin color, slave or master—mattered to Paul. Everyone was worthy of God’s love. Everyone had a spot at the table. Everyone needed reconciliation, not just with God, but with each other. The letter of Philemon is a master class on resolving a difficult situation with grace, empathy, and challenge.

As we’ve discovered before, cherry-picking a single verse here or there could paint a portrait of Paul that appears to be pro-slavery. But remembering that Paul wasn’t dealing with racially based slavery, and because of the way he spent his life tearing down dividing walls, there is no way to reconcile one iota of racism to the man who wrote the majority of the New Testament.

KILOMETER 10: IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT?

The final book of the Bible, Revelation, is probably the most confusing. Is it a play-by-play prophecy of what’s to come? Is it an encouraging letter, written in code, to churches suffering under the persecution of Rome? Is it just poetic imagery, or should I really expect a dragon sometime soon?

For all the back and forth about Revelation, it does put some very clear stakes in the ground: there is a spiritual battle. It’s going to get messy, but God is going to win. And when He does, He’s going to take his people back to the beginning of the story, a paradise on earth where He dwells alongside them.

Another one of those stakes, and maybe the last thing the Bible has to say about race, comes from a picture of God’s throne. John, the follower of Jesus who had and wrote this apocalyptic vision, said it this way:

I looked, and there was a vast multitude of every nation, tribe, people and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb… and they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God.

What God decreed at the beginning of this world will be the reality at its end: humanity will be reconciled back to God. John saw a vast array of people—of every color, tribal background, ethnicity, and language—declaring God the rightful King. It’s a beautiful picture.

Revelation can be confusing, but it’s crystal clear on this point: God is coming… and His kingdom is majestically colorful.

THE FINISH LINE: WHAT NOW?

There’s the finish line! You did it—completed a full 10K through the entire Bible. If I had a bumper sticker, I’d send it to you. Honestly, if you’ve read this far, you deserve it.

Along the way, I hope it’s become abundantly clear that God and racism are incompatible—oil and water. Even more than that, if you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, I hope you feel compelled into action. More knowledge about a topic is good, but action is infinitely better. So have the conversation, ask the question, attend the rally, write the senator, support that business, stand up for the minority, don’t let the joke pass, pray the prayer.

The best way to prepare for a future full of color—the one God’s leading all His children to—is to help create it now.

I’ll see you out there, with your running shoes on.

Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

Discussion Questions

  1. What stands out to you most about this article? Why that? (Noticing what strikes you can be the beginning of hearing from God. Lean into it. See where it goes.)

  2. Where do you see opportunities to solve the racial divide in your life? How equipped or called do you feel to do something about it? Why or why not?

  3. If you follow Jesus, we’ve signed up to try to look more and more like him. Since His heart is for all people, how can you do something to include, respect, or serve people who look different than you? Think of at least three ways, then choose one to start this week. Forward this article to a friend, tell them your plan, then ask them to help hold you to it.

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Caleb Mathis
Meet the author

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

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