Why It Took Me 34 Years to Get ‘Peoples’

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

God created the world so that he would receive glad-hearted worship from the entire panorama of peoples that he himself brought into being for this purpose.

Therefore, for the glory of God, and for the gladness of the peoples, we should join him in the aggressive missionary enterprise of reaching all the peoples of the world.

Summoning the Peoples

That is what the Cross Conference this December is about. Over 3,000 students are registered so far. I am praying for twice that. It is only one small part of God’s movement in the world today to reach the nations. But it is an important part. I am thrilled to be a part of it. I hope the students of your church will come.

If it’s true that God created the world so that he would receive glad-hearted worship from all the peoples of the world, then missions is the summoning of the peoples to be glad in God. This is a happy enterprise. Yes, it is strewn with suffering and deep disappointments when many say no to the invitation. But what a privilege to announce to the nations the best news in the world. What an honor to summon them to joy: “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psalm 67:3–4). What a calling to say,

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . . . Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.” (Isaiah 55:1–3)

Even though some will say no to this joyful invitation, we have promises of stunning global success among all peoples. “The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted!” (Psalm 47:9). “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lᴏʀᴅ, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Psalm 22:27).

Peoples, Not Fields

Does the language of peoples sound natural or strange to you? It was not natural to me for 34 years. Then Ralph Winter introduced me to the biblical category of “peoples.” All I remember hearing for my first three decades was mission “fields.” Few people spoke of peoples. Now everywhere you turn, missions-minded folks speak of peoples — reached and unreached.

One of the reasons for those decades of ignorance was the King James Bible. I grew up reading the King James Bible. But in the King James Bible there are only two occurrences of the plural word “peoples,” and both of them are in Revelation (Revelation 10:11, “And I was told, ‘You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings;’” and Revelation 17:15, “The waters . . . are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages”). So we know the translators knew this plural usage.

But not once in the Old Testament does the word “peoples” occur. But the ESV has 235 instances of the plural peoples. In virtually all those cases the King James translates either as people (singular) or as gentiles.

God Is at Work

So it would be possible to grow up with the King James Bible and never realize that the Hebrew and Greek terms for people are both singular and plural (Hebrew: am and amim; Greek: laos and laoi), and never once see the term peoples in the Bible, if you didn’t read Revelation very carefully.

So I would like to spare you my ignorance. The Bible is filled with references to the peoples of the earth. God means to have them for himself. Christ died to have them: “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

God is at work mightily among the peoples. He is pursuing them. Americans are not the only ones, or the main ones in this pursuit. But while we have breath we will do our part. Pray for Cross.