It’s difficult for us to grasp just how revolutionary the unity among Jews and Gentiles in the church was to people in the first century. Their divide was tremendous. Let me provide an illustration.
Consider this brief story from Luke 17:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.
Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)
How many times do we read of Jesus healing lepers? What’s the significance of leprosy in the Bible? When Jesus gives sight to a blind man, we readily understand the implication. But what about leprosy?
Leprosy is a dreadful, disgusting disease. People in the ancient world also believed it to be highly contagious and seemingly incurable, so lepers were banished to isolation. They could have no contact with anyone including their families. If a leper appeared to be healed, he was required to go to the priests for examination and a lengthy purification process.
The spiritual significance of leprosy is that it represents sin. We see that implied by the story which I’ve just cited. Jesus supernaturally cleanses these men of a disease that left them alienated and dying. In the end, he tells the Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.” Sinners are justified by faith.
More to the point, no self-respecting Jew would go anywhere near a leper. Jewish tradition required that lepers shout to anyone approaching them: “I’m a leper! I’m unclean! Keep your distance.” Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t avoid them. He seems to intentionally find them. He heals them. He removes that filthy thing which separated them from the rest of society. He restores them.
To the first-century Jew, the idea of including Gentiles into one body with the Jews was the spiritual equivalent of inviting lepers into the fold. Gentiles were to remain separate and alienated. There could be no equality. There could be no harmony. They were tainted by their disobedience to the law and their ungodly worship of false idols. They were spiritual lepers.
Even so, Paul says, “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). How can that be? It is because Christ has the power to cleanse lepers. Never mind the past. Gentiles are justified by the Lord and the same faith as the Jews. Every believer is bound together by Christ and his gospel.