Ethnicity in Acts

The church is, by design, a multi-ethnic community.

A diverse local church, living in unity, serves as a witness to the reconciling power of Jesus and the inclusion of all peoples in God’s kingdom.

Jesus calls all people to follow him, and the local church is meant to be a physical manifestation of this reality – a local, visible representation of the Kingdom of God, in which every ethnos is represented.

The promise that every tribe, nation and tongue[1] would be unified in worship of the creator isn’t just an idea to hope for in the future, it is something that can be accomplished, though not perfectly, now!

In Acts, we find the Spirit of God moving among a highly diverse group of people, bringing them into the Jesus-family, the church. This group of people that don’t ‘naturally’ fit together (aka misfits) come from all different ethnos and are bound together by the love and grace of God made known to us through Jesus; beginning with the miracle of Pentecost and culminating in the missionary activities of the early church.

This work of God in bringing the nations together was as shocking and unique then as it is now. Just as they often are today, ethnic differences during the events in Acts were often leveraged by the kingdoms of this world to generate division. In the earliest days of the church, people that didn’t fit with each other (misfits) came together to form a diverse new community.

On average, one’s ethnicity/nation/people (greek = ethnos, which I will use throughout this article) was core to their existence[2], shaping their politics, economics, daily practices, family life and religion.

The designation of people into ethnos is a key way we communicate about ourselves[3] and the ancients were powerfully aware of their ethnos[4]and formed much of their life around it.

Every time Luke, the author of Acts, uses ethnos (often translated as ‘gentile’) he always has an ethnic category in mind[5]. His contemporary audience would have as well.

Ethnic identity allowed a person to know which group(s) they belonged to, which group(s) they were excluded from, and which people(s) they should stay away from.

At the time Acts was written, diverse people coming together was not unprecedented. The Roman Empire[6] was known for bringing together people from diverse ethnos into a singular community but where Rome created ‘unity’ through military action and financial self-interest[7], the gospel of Jesus the Christ called for something else. What makes the diversity found in Acts unique is the Spirit of God calling these various ethnos to look out for the interests of others; to be a unified  group of misfits[8].

Much insight can be gleaned by reading Acts and asking how a group can be unified and yet diverse. Another way to ask it is ‘Which people groups get to be in the Jesus-familyAnd what does their inclusion mean for the various, different ethnos’ represented.

While we might be inclined to believe this question is outdated to modern readers  – especially those living in a multi-ethnic society – close reflection of the events of the last few years makes this question as relevant now as it was then.  Most of their daily life during the events of Acts was centered around one’s ethnic identity, just like so many parts of our own lives are today.

In Acts, Luke progressively pushes the ethnic boundaries of the church wider and wider, eventually arguing that there are no ethnic boundaries to the church family.

The Jesus-family is for all ethnos. And while all ethnos are included, their unique ethnic identity is not ‘erased’ or ‘merged into one’.

In an essay on the Apostle Paul and multiculturalism, Theologian Dr. John Barclay states:

“Paul does not, I believe, ‘erase’ or ‘eradicate’ cultural specificities, but relativizes them. Paul never loses his respect for Judaism, even for circumcision, which he regards as a sign of advantage for the Jews (Rom 3:1-2)… It is important for him that Christ was a Jew and thus a ‘servant of the circumcised, to fulfil the promises to the patriarchs’ (Rom 15:8). But it is also important that Christ is now the Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, who call on him in faith on the same terms, whatever their cultural identity. Thus Jews and Gentiles are simultaneously affirmed as Jews and Gentiles and humbled in their cultural pretensions.[9]


Acts 1 – Samaritans and the ‘Ends of the Earth’

In response to the question “Are you now restoring the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), the resurrected Jesus answers enigmatically, telling his disciples that they would go out to be his witnesses (Greek: Martyrs) all around the world.

He says:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Acts 1:7-8

One of the interesting things about this four-fold list (which is likely riffing on Isaiah 49:6) is that it goes from Jerusalem, the cultural center of the Hebrew-speaking Jews, to Judea, a broader region which served as home to Jews of other ethnicities[10] (e.g. Galilean), then to Samaria, home of the ethnic group known as Samaritans, who shared a history with the Jewish group, but were treated as ‘other’ (and recognized themselves as such).

The fact that Samaritans as a group were despised by many of the Jewish people makes Jesus’ use of a Samaritan in his famous parable strikingly controversial.

The final ‘region’ is the ‘ends of the earth‘ which could be understood in multiple ways.

Most plainly, one could understand this to be purely geographic… the ends of the earth implies the edge of the map, the outer regions of the known world.

Another reading could understand the text as meaning the ‘lesser known’ ethnos or ‘ethnos of lesser importance’. The word translated as ‘ends‘ is eschatos which Luke sometimes uses to signify ‘of last importance’[11][12].

Even if the nuance of ‘lesser’ is not intended, it is likely that we are to understand this phrase in terms of both geography and ethnicity, a reading that I think best captures the meaning[13]. It seems that Luke’s original hearers would not have made a stark contrast between the two since ethnicities are almost always tied to the land from which they originate.


Acts 2 – The Unnecessary Miracle

After portraying the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, Luke chronicles an unnecessary miracle[14] when Peter speaks and the audience hears his speech in their own language.

‘They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” ‘

Acts 2:7-11

What makes this miracle unnecessary is that those gathered around Peter almost certainly spoke the common trade languages of either Aramaic or Greek in addition to the various languages of their home countries.

Theologian, author and Provost of Trinity Christian College, Dr. Aaron Kuecker notes that throughout Acts, the “direct speech of the Spirit always directs the hearer toward non-Israelites (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2)[15]

The Spirit was not working miraculously through Peter to perform a practical duty (like a supernatural Google Translate), but rather the miracle shows that the church is to grow as a multi-ethnic organism in which all languages and dialects (which are almost always connected to identifiable ethnicities) are represented.

The Perspectives series states:

“We understand that the Kingdom of God, which is relentlessly pressing back the darkness of the world today is nevertheless, ‘not of this world.’ We [as carriers of God’s mission] seek not the subjugation of ‘all nations’ to ourselves. God is calling to Himself a new creation, a new people but we do not believe He is doing away with cultures that make peoples distinct. All peoples (biblical ‘nations’) must become equidistant to the face and blessings of our living Lord and reflect His glory in worship.”[16]

The hearers were not only hearing the good news of Jesus, they were hearing it in their lesser known language, thus elevating and equalizing the various cultures represented and showing that a person isn’t required to give up their individual and cultural identity in order to join the family of Christ.

Kuecker notices that,

“Rather than eliminating the cultural particularity marked by language, the Spirit explicitly affirmed ethno-linguistic diversity by allowing the crowd to hear Peter’s address in the diverse languages of their respective births[17]


Acts 6 – The Ethnocentric Distribution of Material Resources

One of the ways the early Jesus-family lived out the gospel was by acting according to the values of his kingdom in the here and now. They made it their mission to live ‘on earth as it is in heaven.

This meant that no one would go hungry and that everyone would have what they needed to live. This seems to have been accomplished by a social program that included the consistent distribution of food to widows[18]. It was in this distribution of material resources that we find one of the first ethno-centric conflicts in the early church.

In those days, as the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a complaint by the Hellēnistēs[19] against the Hebraios that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Acts 6:1

Though these men and women were part of a community created and bound by the Holy Spirit, divisions still arose and cultural preferences, and sometimes supremacy, remained. Even after witnessing the power of the Kingdom of God, those in the early church fell into cultural patterns of superiority and preference.

The Spirit-led solution was to have the Jesus-family designate seven leaders (seven being the Biblical symbol indicating completion) to manage the distribution of resources. Little is known about these leaders and we cannot be certain of their ethnicity[20] but what is clear is that their names are Greek and it was the Greek widows that were the injured party.

Notice that Luke specifically lists the seven Greek names:

The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables[21]. Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men[22] of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and PhilipProchorusNicanorTimonParmenas, and Nicolaus, a convert from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. Acts 6:2-6

The original hearers of Acts would recognize the names as Greek and would have likely intuited Luke’s point: that restitution and resolution often lies in the aggrieved parties being represented within the leadership.

Luke shows that the Spirit led the Jesus-family to designate leaders from the injured party’s group as a solution, thus elevating the voices that were, intentionally or unintentionally, silenced.

As Kuecker argues:

“For Luke, there is no place for ethnic hegemonies or ethnocentrisms that use ethnic privilege to exclude, to oppress or to hoard resources (whether social or physical). Luke goes to great lengths to demonstrate that whenever subgroup identities (especially ethnic identities) become primary within the Jesus group, the group malfunctions (Acts 1:21-22; 5:1-11, 6:1-7, 11:1-2, 15:1-5).”[23]


Acts 8 – The Ethiopian Eunuch

Luke records Philip (one of the Greek leaders from Acts 6) going to Samaria (which was named in Acts 1 as the 3rd region/ethnos for witnesses of the Jesus-family to visit).

On the road, Philip notices a chariot carrying a eunuch[24] from Ethiopia that served in the royal court (It was not uncommon for those that worked close to royal families to be castrated so as not to ‘sully’ the royal line).

The Eunuch, who had been in Jerusalem for worship and possibly trade purposes, would have likely been excluded from aspects of worship in and around the Temple due to his status as a eunuch.

Moreover, he would not have been able to father children, and thus was excluded from family life. This is likely why he asks Philip about Isaiah 53 which speaks of Jesus having a mutilated body and no descendants.

Philip shares the good news of Jesus with the man, who then asks to be baptized.

After this, the Ethiopian “goes on his way rejoicing” and likely takes this good news to Ethiopia. Luke shows that the church has now spread outside of the Roman empire, deeper into Africa, a fact that can be appreciated today through Ethiopia’s long and rich Christian tradition.

In light of this exchange, Kuecker argues:

“The incorporation of the eunuch highlights the Spirit’s role in orchestrating intergroup contact and fulfills Isaiah 56:3b-5: “The eunuch is no “dry tree,” but, by virtue of his admission into the community represented by Philip, he becomes a member of a new group- even if from a distance. The eunuch now has a family. The Spirit overcomes the natural impulse to forbid the incorporation of the “other” and instead joins the “other” to the in-group. The eunuch, like the Samaritans, retains his old identities; but now those identities take on a new and chastened significance thanks to the work of the Spirit. The eunuch can now know himself not primarily as “eunuch” but as a baptized (and Spirit-filled) member of the Jesus group.” [25]



Throughout the book of Acts, we are given an account of how the Spirit of the living God worked to unite diverse ethnos into one body, bound together not by any common affinities, but by the love and grace of God made known to us through Jesus the Christ.

It is the story of imperfect people from imperfect human cultures, all drawn together by the grace of a perfect God into a community that testifies to His Kingdom, as it is and is to come.

The examples given by the church in Acts as it relates to inclusion of diverse groups in worship, resolution of ethnic-centered strife and the spreading of the gospel amongst groups that differ from us, offers a beautiful example for modern readers to follow and strive towards as we seek to navigate the cultural differences around us today.




[1] Revelation 7:9-12

[2] Kuecker, Aaron. The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. London: T & T Clark International, 2011.

[3] Smith, Mitzi J. 2012. The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women. ISD LLC. p. 2

[4] Kuecker, Aaron. 2011. The Spirit and the “Other”: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. Bloomsbury Publishing. p38

[5] Kuecker, Aaron. 2011. The Spirit and the “Other”: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. Bloomsbury Publishing. p39

[6] Balch, David L. 2015. Contested Ethnicities and Images: Studies in Acts and Arts. Mohr Siebeck.p.27

[7] Balch, David L. 2015. Contested Ethnicities and Images: Studies in Acts and Arts. Mohr Siebeck.p, 20

[8] Kuecker, Aaron. 2011. The Spirit and the “Other”: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. Bloomsbury Publishing. p48

[9]  Brett, Mark G. 2002. Ethnicity and the Bible. BRILL. p211

[10] Pao, D.W. (2016). Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Pub, p.95.

[11] See Luke 14:9-10 and Luke 13:30 some are eschatos who will be first and some are first who will be eschatos.”

[12] While eschatos is also used to signify the last in a sequence (e.g.the last days), it may be that Luke intends to capture the common valuation of the “outer regions” as the place(s) where “lesser” ethnicities dwell (sometimes referred to as barbarians). In my opinion,the controversial inclusion of Samaria as the third region in the list lends itself to this reading.

[13] Bock, D.L. (2010). Acts. Grand Rapids (Mich.): Baker Academic, pp.64–65.

[14]  Kuecker, Aaron. The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. London: T & T Clark International, 2011.(116)

[15] Kuecker, Aaron. The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. London: T & T Clark International, 2011.

[16] Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Fourth Edition edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, California: William Carey Library, 2009 (xvii)

[17] Kuecker, Aaron. The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. London: T & T Clark International, 2011.(117)

[18] Widows are frequently mentioned in scripture as part of the quartet of the vulnerable, the widow, orphan, foreigner and poor.Caring for these members of one’s community was a matter of justice and frequently addressed in scripture.

[19] Many modern translations add “Jews” (e.g. Hellenistic Jews” or “Greek Speaking Jews” / Hebrew Jews or ‘native’ Jews). Regardless of the translation, the author uses different ethnic identifiers for the two groups. Some argue that the difference is only in language, but this fails to recognize the way language is often, if not always a primary means of ethnic identity and boundaries.

[20] Bauspiess, M., Christof Landmesser, Lincicum, D., Brown, R.F. and Peter Crafts Hodgson (2017). Ferdinand Christian Baur and the history of early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 106.

[21] “Wait tables” carries an unhelpful connotation in modern use. The greek is “diakono trapeza” which could also be the “ministry of the table” and likely carries a nuance of financial oversight (trapeza could also be translated as ‘bank’ (see Luke 19:23). “Waiting tables” perhaps is best understood as managing the distribution of material resources. Anyone charged with feeding large groups of people knows the importance of logistical oversight, management and leadership skills. This was no small task. 

[22] Bultman argues that we should not understand these seven as ‘deacons’ but rather as representatives of the hellenist group. See Bultmann, R. (2007). Theology of the New Testament. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press.

[23]  Kuecker, Aaron. The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. London: T & T Clark International, 2011.(220)

[24] Luke appears to highlight the man’s status as eunuch in that he mentions it five times in the text, and also does not mention his name (which seems to be uncommon for Luke as he named others that are encountered (e.g. Simon, Cornelius, Lydia)

[25] Kuecker, Aaron. 2011. The Spirit and the “Other”: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts. Bloomsbury Publishing. p168