The Bible is full of references to the nations. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the word “nations” appears 469 times with 431 of those being in the Old Testament. The singular “nation” occurs 594 times with 529 of those being in the Old Testament. So we find well over 1,000 references to nations in the Bible. It’s a major theme that is not developed much by preachers or theologians.
Nations are not what they used to be. What we call a “nation” today did not exist before the year 1500. In fact, about 80% of modern nations have been created since the year 1900 and before that their territories were governed in ways that were different from the modern nation. That means, of course, that the idea of the modern nation did not exist when the Bible was written. So it would be a mistake to assume that when we find the word nation or nations in the Bible, it means what we mean today. But what did it mean?
We get our first clue from the Bible itself. Books of the Bible like I Samuel are full of references to the Philistines. But their country (or nation) Philistia is not mentioned. In fact, it is impossible to figure out from what the Bible says where it was. This is true for other nations mentioned in the Bible. The repeated references to “the Philistines” and the lack of references to “Philistia” make it clear that the focus was on the people, not the territory or the government. In the Bible, nations are defined by their people. An objective reading of the Old Testament leads us to the conclusion that a nation was a group of people with a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language. They had territory, but that was not in focus. In fact, territory was flexible; it could be expanded by war or shrink in war. Historians have confirmed this conclusion.
But today we would not call a group of people who share a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language a nation. We would call them an ethnic group. We do say things like “Cherokee nation”. In Canada, native peoples are called “First nations”. But in general, when we say nation we mean country and that is not at all what was meant in the Bible. Almost all countries are composed of peoples with different ancestors, beliefs and languages. Switzerland is mostly composed of peoples of Germanic, Italian and French descent, culture and languages. India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and many other countries are composed of dozens or even hundreds of peoples with different ancestors, cultures and beliefs. Clearly what is called a nation in the Bible is not what we call a country today.
This is confirmed by the word the New Testament uses for nation – the Greek word ethnos. Of course, our word ethnic comes form the Greek ethnos.
Why is a Bible translator writing about this obscure piece of Bible information?
Well, understanding this changes how we understand parts of the Bible. Let’s take a look at a well-known verse:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, … ” (Matthew 28:16-17, ESV, emphasis mine)
For starters, there are a few less than 200 countries in the world, but here are over 7,000 languages. The Joshua Project lists 9,832 people groups. Going and making disciples of all of them is quite different than going to the relatively small number of modern nations. Second, the focus of Jesus’ command is not geographic, but ethnic and cultural. There are many churches in Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example, but there are peoples (“nations” as the word was used in Jesus’ time) in those countries where the Gospel is virtually absent. A country with lots of churches can have places it in where there are peoples where the church is absent – where we have yet to put into action Jesus command to “make disciples of all nations”.
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