What is a pagan, anyway? If you don’t like words and word origins as much as I do, you might want to skip a few paragraphs.
Dictionary.com offers these definitions, with the warning that points two, three, and five are disparaging and offensive.
1. one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks: no longer in technical use.
2. Disparaging and Offensive. (in historical contexts) a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim; a heathen.
3. a follower of any of various contemporary religions that are based on the worship of nature or the Earth; a neopagan.
4. Disparaging and Offensive. an irreligious or hedonistic person.
5. Disparaging and Offensive. an uncivilized or unenlightened person.
(pagan. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pagan (accessed: October 28, 2014).)
The word pagan appears fourteen times in the NIV New Testament; three of those times, it’s Jesus speaking in what’s commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. (I call it Kingdom Torah, but that’s a blog for another day.)
Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:46 – 47
Here the translators used “pagans” to translate telonai, literally tribute collectors. So how come they came right out and said “tax collectors” in verse 46, but used “pagans” in verse 47?
Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him”. Matthew 6:6 – 8
Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31 – 33
In both Matthew 6 passages, the translators used “pagans” to translate ethnikos and ethne, which mean “adapted to the genius or customs of a people, peculiar to a people, national suited to the manners or language of foreigners, strange, foreign in the NT savouring of the nature of pagans, alien to the worship of the true God, heathenish of the pagan, the Gentile.” (Love me some British spelling!) (http://www.biblestudytools.com/search/?q=pagan&s=References&rc=LEX&rc2=LEX+GRK)
Non-word lovers, join us here.
All this to say, in first century Israelite usage, the Jews were “the people” and everybody else was “the peoples.” The outsiders. The goyim of the Old Testament. The pagans.
So what would you have to do for Jesus to call you a pagan? Worship multiple gods? (See definition one.) Worship nature or the Earth? (See definition three.) Be an uncivilized and unenlightened clod? (See definition five) No. None of those.
You might be a pagan if…
only love those who love you first.
only say howdy to your own peeps.
babble on in your prayers, telling God what he already knows.
worry about what you’re going to eat, drink, or wear when God has promised to
provide all that.
- You don’t seek God’s kingdom and righteousness before your own concerns.
You might be a pagan. Don’t get mad at me; I didn’t decide the criteria. Jesus did.
Besides, I might be a pagan, too.