God Among the Barbarians

“…a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

From the typical ancient Jewish perspective, humanity was divided into two groups: Jews and Gentiles (sometimes expressed as Jews and Greeks, as in the text above). In a similar way the Greeks divided humanity into two groups: Greeks and barbarians. The Greek word barbaros meant a person who speaks in a strange tongue; it was used broadly of foreigners who were ignorant of Greek language, customs, and culture. In the Roman era the term came to refer to foreigners who lacked Greco-Roman traditions, particularly people from European lands north of the empire’s borders. Thus Paul expressed his duty toward all mankind in preaching by saying, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians” (Romans 1:14).

As best I can determine, my ancestry, like that of many Americans, does not trace to ancient Palestinian Jews, nor to the ancient Greeks or Romans. My first-century forebears would have been found among the Germanic tribes living in the farthest reaches of, or even beyond the borders of, the Roman Empire — people the Greeks and Romans would have called barbarians. I’m thankful, then, that the gospel is for them and their descendants as much as for anyone else.

To us, the word barbarian has a connotation of violent savagery that it didn’t necessarily carry in New Testament times. Yet there’s a sense in which all of us, regardless of ancestry, are barbarians. Our Creator has set forth the standard for human living, and we have violated it. He has declared the behavior that He intends for mankind, and we have, each in our own way, rejected it. Through sin we do violence to God’s law; and the price of that sin was the blood of the cross of Christ. Yet that blood provides the way for us to be redeemed and reconciled to God. Even barbarians like me — and you — can be citizens of God’s kingdom through His grace.