member-states-of-the-unThe 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.

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

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”.

If you liked this, you might also like: The Guy who Obliterated Geography

The Guy Who Obliterated Geography

Anyone who has been around missionaries or in a church that supports missions has heard the following verse many times.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19 ESV)

For many years, many churches and missionaries understood the words “all nations” as referring to geography. The command would be fulfilled when people preached and planted churches in every country.

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Today (December 8) in 1924, a man was born who would radically change that understanding. Ralph Winter would start the US Center for World Missions. He and the Center would grow into force promoting a new, not geographic, understanding of this verse. He so changed missions that most of you reading this have been influenced by his ideas.

It all starts with how we understand the word “nations” in this verse. In our modern world, we tend to read it as “countries”. But the word “nation” can also mean “people”, as in “the Cherokee nation”. The original word is εθνοσ or “ethnos” from which we get the word “ethnic”. At the time Jesus spoke this command, the known world was composed of people-states: groups of people with the same identity, language and religion with some political structure, often a kingdom. These were grouped together into the Roman Empire, which was not considered an ethnos or “nation” because of its diverse ethnic, religious and cultural nature. In other words, “nation” does not refer to a place, but rather to a people.

Other culturesEven though Ralph Winter was not the first to recognized this fact, he effectively promoted it. He changed the goal from taking the Gospel to every place to taking it to every people. Not only is this closer to that the verse means, it is much more effective. For one thing, preaching in a way that respects people cultures and takes them into account communicates better. The population of Ghana, where I work, is composed of over 70 people groups each with their own language, customs, and traditional leadership. The people groups in the northern part of the country are quite different in their thinking and culture from those in the south. That led to a Gospel gap where Christianity was widely accepted in the south, but spurned in the north. When Christians from southern Ghana moved to the north and started churches they were not effective at reaching people from the north. So churches in the north tended to be little islands of displaced southerners that had little impact on the places where they were planted. It became accepted to many northerners and some southerners that Christianity was for southerners only. When asked to church by a leading Ghanaian Christian, one man from the Dagomba people of northern Ghana said, “As for us, we are Dagomba”, meaning “Church is for you, not for us.”

As missionaries and churches in Ghana and around the world began waking up to concept of people groups, they became more effective. Local languages got attention. Forms of worship and evangelism were adapted to the culture. This approach based on people groups resulted in the acceptance of the Gospel where it had long been rejected, including among the Dagomba. These positive results have been well documented, as I noted in my blog Tome.

US Center for World MissionsWhen Ralph Winter passed into glory in May 2009 he left a huge legacy. He shifted missions back to a footing that is more aligned with Scripture and which is more effective. If it is no surprise to you that there are people groups which are unreached, or that the most effective ministry takes into account local cultures and languages, then you have been influenced by Ralph Winter.

My own ministry is informed and assisted by the focus he brought and many people groups (nations) around the world are grateful for it. Today, on Ralph Winter’s birthday, let’s thank God for the blessings he has brought to many peoples through the guy who obliterated geography in missions.


The Nawuri traditional Chief had traveled a long and difficult road from northern Ghana with his entourage to attend the celebration of GILLBT‘s 50th anniversary, where he was presented with the first copy of the New Testament in the Nawuri language. He took the stage in his traditional dress. He intended to celebrate, because he wore black and white – the colors of celebration in Ghana.

After a few remarks about what a great occasion is was and how thankful he was, with his voice and face full of emotion, cried,

“We have now been counted among God’s people!”

Probably without knowing it, and certainly without being a theologian, the Nawuri Chief had touched a neglected bit of Bible truth. You see, we in the West see God’s plan as something for us personally. One of The Four Spiritual Laws™ says that “God has a wonderful plan for your life”. Indeed, the Bible affirms that salvation is offered to each individual.

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13 ESV)

But the Bible is also full of God talking about his plan for the “nations”. Of Abraham, God said:

Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him (Genesis 18:18, ESV)

The Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation are full of talk about the “nations”. In fact, that word is used hundreds of time in the Old Testament and numerous times in the book of Revelation. The word does not just mean “country”. It also refers to ethnic identity. Our Western culture is individualistic. So we read the Bible through individualistic eyes. The stuff about the nations either does not make sense to us, or we don’t see it at all.

Traditionally, each people group in Africa had its own set of beliefs which were considered “true” for them, but not for their neighbors. We see the same thing in the Old Testament: the Jews had their God, the Philistines another, the Egyptians their religion, and so on. Most times, everyone was willing to leave everyone else to his and her religion, considering that each one had their own truth. (Is this starting to sound like something you hear from people today? Well, it’s not as new as they might think.) Some would even exclude others from their religion, as Jonah wanted to do with the people of Nineveh.

In saying, “We have now been counted among God’s people!”, the Nawuri Paramount Chief sees that the translation of the New Testament into the Nawuri language confirms that the promises given to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ are also for them. He sees the Nawuri as one of the “nations” receiving God’s blessings through Abraham. In addition, he is turning his back on the idea that the Nawuri should have their own private religion.

The reaction of the Nawuri chief is echoed at New Testament dedications across the world. Those of us from majority cultures can’t understand what it is like to live feeling like we speak a language that has no value and that our identity is ignored by the larger world. When I say that I am an American, everyone, but everyone knows what that means. But before reading this, what if someone told you he was Nawuri? You might not even be able to find Ghana on a map, much less the Nawuri people group found there. The unpleasant truth is that, in the grand scheme of things in world economics and politics, the Nawuri really don’t matter and they are not known.

And so the Paramount Chief also said,

“When we go to politicians we are not known. But when we go to God we are known!”

Having your identity known to the most powerful person in the universe overcomes the fact that no one else knows you, that no one else cares. The Bible in one’s language, is proof of that God cares and that he knows.

Some learned people have mistakenly assumed that missions and the translation of the Bible devalues people or destroys their cultures. Yale professor of history, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, has debunked that theory in a number of his writings. For example, he reports that:

When a local Christian held in his hands a copy of the gospels for the first time, he declared: ‘Here is a document which proves that we also are human beings – the first and only book in our language.’ He was echoed by the testimony of another Christian in Angola who celebrated holding the Gospels in his hands for the first time, declaring jubilantly, ‘Now we see that our friends in the foreign country regard us as people worth while.’ (Bible Translation and Human Dignity, Anvil Journal 27-3, 2012)

The Nawuri Paramount chief knows in his heart what Dr. Sanneh’s research has uncovered. Bible translation, it turns out, brings to many peoples a profound sense of self-worth, of value and heightens their sense of purpose in this world – a purpose given by God. When the Nawuri paramount chief stood and made his moving declarations, I saw before my eyes one more case of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to all nations, and that is not just my opinion. It is the stated conclusion of the Nawuri chief and of many, if not all, of his subjects.

If you liked this, you might also like, Feeling the Gospel in our Bones or Before Missionaries, There was God.

The first box of Nawuri New Testaments on the stage, from which the Paramount Chief received the first copy