Who Are the Nations?

Discovering God’s Global Mission

Radius International Missiology Conference | Minneapolis

It seems to me that, whenever I focus my attention on God’s global purpose to announce the unsearchable riches of Christ to all the peoples of the world, God sends my way unexpected encouragements, as if to say to me, I’m in this, John! This is not marginal to your calling. I’m in this! Give yourself to this. I mean to bless this.

For example, this conference has been on my calendar for months. But just a few weeks ago a pastor asked if we could have lunch together, which we did on Monday. He told me that his church of about 10,000 people had a vision to send 500 missionaries to the unreached peoples of the world, and that they were at the 146 mark. He was brimming with encouraging stories of God’s powerful intervention.

This was the first time I’d met him, and as we talked, it became clear he did not consider himself Reformed in his theology. But I told him that when he talked about the supernatural power of God in converting sinners, he was talking like a Calvinist. So, we had a great conversation about why charismatics need Reformed theology, and why Calvinists need charismatic experience.

He told me his church is so committed to sending people to unreached people groups that if someone applies for missionary support and says that they are called to a mission field with an established missionary presence, the church doesn’t turn them down, but they pay for them to go to a location with an unreached people and spend time praying again about their life’s calling. And then if they’re still convinced, they’ll send them.

And then, as if I needed more timely encouragement, I got this email, also on Monday, which I hope encourages you as well:

Hi Pastor John,

After all your years of preaching, perhaps you’ve wondered at times, “Are they going? Have they actually left and abandoned their homes to take the gospel to the unreached?”

Yes. After attending the CROSS conference in 2013, 2016, and 2019, I went to Radius and was trained there. Three months ago I arrived in Chad, with my team of 9 to seek to reach the Maba people. We are only at the beginning, but perhaps when I am your age, if God wills it, I will see with my own eyes what you’ve seen coming as well — a church among the Maba people.

Then just a few weeks ago, I got the encouraging word that Louisville, Kentucky, has lifted pandemic restrictions so that the CROSS missions conference for 18–25-year-olds can return this December with no limitations. That’s really good news. I love that conference.

And one more encouragement: the leadership of Desiring God has just begun to rally around a vision for an online missions conference in the fall of 2022, not for young people but old people like me — the 69 million baby boomers who will be 58–76 years old next year and who own over half the nation’s wealth ($59 trillion), and most of whom will be tempted to waste the last quarter of their lives thinking that heaven starts at retirement rather than letting heaven start at heaven. Our aim in that conference is to blow up that idea and call a few million boomers to less recreation and more proclamation.

All of that to say: I am thrilled to be here, and I can hear God’s voice over my shoulder saying, I’m in this! I want you to do this. Give yourself to this. I hope he does the same for you.

Organ of Saving Faith

So, what is this? The Radius leadership asked me to speak to you on the question, Who are the nations? The Great Commission of the Lord Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). What does nations mean?

I am going to talk a good bit about nations and peoples and tribes and families and languages and cultures, because the Bible does. But I am aware of a danger in doing this — namely, that we get so caught up in our focus on groups that we lose touch with a radically essential biblical truth. So, let me start by declaring that truth, lest it be lost in all of this talk of nations and peoples.

“No one can see the light of the glory of God in Christ on our behalf.”

The truth is: there is only one organ of saving faith, and that is the individual human soul. Families and tribes and peoples and nations do not have an organ of saving faith. The place where the miracle of regeneration intersects with this fallen world is the individual human soul. Passing from death to life through the divine gift of saving faith happens only in the human soul — or, as it is sometimes called, the heart. There is no other organ of saving faith.

Whatever the people group, whatever the nation, whatever the tribe, whatever the family, the miracle of passing from death to life — from being a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) to being a new creation in Christ (Ephesians 2:10) — that miracle happens in the human heart.

God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

No one can see the light of the glory of God in Christ on our behalf. We see it with the eyes of our heart or we perish (Ephesians 1:18). Saving faith is a radically individual, personal experience. So, the first thing to say about the question, Who are the nations? is that they are groups of individuals who live or die by the authenticity of the saving faith in each heart.

The Great Commission itself in Matthew 28:19–20 points in this direction. When Jesus said, “Make disciples of all nations [ethne], baptizing them [autous] . . . and teaching them [autous],” he shifts from the neuter noun ethne (disciple the nations) to the masculine pronoun autous (baptize them; teach them), instead of making them agree with nations. Why? Because individuals have hearts that can believe and bodies that can be baptized. And individuals have minds and hearts that can be taught. Corporate entities like nations, people groups, tribes, and families do not have an organ to believe or a body to be baptized or a mind to grasp apostolic teaching. Only human individuals have such organs, bodies, and minds.

At the last day, Jesus said in Matthew 25:32–33, “all the nations” [panta ta ethne) will be gathered before him as he sits on his glorious throne. But he will not separate nation from nation. He will separate sheep and goats among the nations. Because Christ did not purchase nations; he purchased a people from the nations. Revelation 5:9 says, “By your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

That’s the first thing I want to say about who the nations are: They are groups of individuals who live or die by the authenticity of the saving faith in each heart. All missions, all evangelism, prays and proclaims toward this authentic faith among the unreached peoples of the world.

Seismic Missions Shift

So, if God’s work in human individuals is so decisive in regeneration and in the formation of a new people, a bride for the Son of God, then why, in God’s general providence, is the world so thoroughly composed of differing people groups, ethnicities, cultures, tribes, nations? And why, in God’s saving providence, does his plan of redemption involve such a pervasive concern for these groups? Which is another way of asking: Why, in the last sixty years, has global missions become so remarkably focused on unreached peoples, as opposed to unreached people and places?

I’m old enough to be able to testify that I grew up in a very missionary-oriented home, and I never heard my parents pray for unreached peoples. I would have thought it was a grammatical mistake (people is already plural!). They always prayed for missionaries on the home and foreign fields. Sixty years ago, missionaries went to fields. They didn’t go to peoples.

Then, in 1974, Ralph Winter dropped his bomb at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland, arguing that there were 24,000 peoples in the world and 17,000 of them were unreached, even though the church was boasting that it could now be found in every single country of the world. So, if “nation” refers to geopolitical states or countries, then there are disciples from all the nations of the world.

It never occurred to me, or to most people, sixty years ago that when we used the phrase “Cherokee nation,” we were far closer to biblical categories of thought than when we spoke of the nation of Argentina or Germany or Japan. But over the last sixty years, there has been a seismic alteration in the vocabulary and conceptuality of missions thinking. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my own understanding of God’s purposes for peoples, and my understanding of the goal of missions, went through a significant biblical reorientation.

God’s Purpose and Our Missionary Plans

So, let me take a few minutes and point to some of the biblical evidence that God’s purposes for the world cannot be properly accounted for if we focus only on individuals, and missionary planning cannot properly be done only in the pursuit of individuals. Both God’s purposes and mission strategies must take account of the biblical emphasis on nations and peoples and tribes and languages and families.

What’s in a Word?

Let’s start with the well-known Greek phrase panta ta ethnē from the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [panta ta ethnē]” (Matthew 28:19). Sometimes people say that ethnē, just by its lexical meaning, refers to ethnic groups. That’s not true. It may. But it may also refer to non-Jewish individuals without any reference to a people group.

The plural ethnē is used 130 times in the New Testament. The ESV translates it “nations” 33 times. In all the other uses, ethnē is translated as “Gentiles.” And some of those uses of “Gentiles” simply cannot refer to people groups but only to non-Jewish individuals. For example, in Ephesians 3:6, Paul speaks of ethnē (Gentiles) who are members of the body of Christ alongside Jews.

So, ethnē can refer to ethnic groups (people groups, nations) but whether it does is not based merely on the word but on the context. For example, is it translating an Old Testament text where a Hebrew word is used that definitely refers to people groups? We will see an example of this in a few minutes in Romans 15:11.

In the last 35 years of my missions preaching I have tended not to start with Matthew 28:19–20 but to end with it, because the meaning of panta ta ethnē depends on the wider biblical understanding of God’s purposes in missions, not on the lexical meaning of ethnē in isolation.

Worthy Is the Lamb

In fact, the lodestar of my missions preaching became Revelation 5:9–10, where the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down before the Lamb of God in heaven and sing,

Worthy are you to take the scroll
     and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
     from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
     and they shall reign on the earth.

What makes this passage so powerful is that it correlates the design of missions with the design of the atonement. In the atonement, God ransomed by the blood of the Lamb individual people from every tribe and language and people and nation. And now, our missionary calling correlates with that. That’s our missionary warrant and promise as we preach the gospel to all these groups.

“God ransomed by the blood of the Lamb individual people from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The Moravians are not the only missionaries who took their inspiration from these words in Revelation 5. But perhaps they used them more memorably than anyone else. As they got on the ships in eighteenth-century North Germany, headed for utterly unreached peoples, probably never to return, they lifted their hands and cried out as the ship pulled away, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!” That comes straight out of Revelation 5:9 — the Lamb of God shed his blood to ransom individuals out of every tribe and language and people and nation. And he will have the reward of his suffering.

Worldwide Blessing

Then I move from Revelation 5:9 back to Genesis 12:2–3 to see how God sets in motion this mission to all the peoples and tribes. He chooses one man, one people, with a view to reaching all the peoples. That’s not the way we would do it. But we are not God. God says to Abram,

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

That promise is repeated four times in Genesis (18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14), but most importantly, Paul quotes it in Galatians 3:7–8 like this:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles [ethne] by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations [panta ta ethnē] be blessed.”

Now we have a good contextual warrant for treating that phrase panta ta ethnē as a reference to all the people groups — families, tribes, languages, nations. The saving blessing of Abraham reaches to all the ethnic groups through the gospel. By faith in the Jewish Messiah, believers from all the nations receive the promise of Abraham: a right standing before the God of the universe.

Work Among the Nations

Finally, I would point to Paul’s self-understanding as a missionary. He says in Romans 15:9 that the Jewish Messiah came into the world “in order that the Gentiles [ethnē (nations?)] might glorify God for his mercy.” Then he weaves together three Old Testament texts (from the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets) to show how he understood this divine purpose in sending Christ and how that purpose relates to peoples. Romans 15:11 is key. It’s a quote from Psalm 117:1: “Praise the Lord, all nations [panta ta ethnē], and let all the peoples [pantes hoi laoi] extol him” (my translation). The poetic parallelism is clear: “all nations” is clarified with “all peoples.”

This is the biblical backdrop of Paul’s own sense of missionary calling to the unreached peoples of the world, which he now articulates in Romans 15:19–21, 23–24:

From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
     and those who have never heard will understand.” . . .

But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, . . . I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.

Thousands of people were not yet converted in those regions where Paul said he was finished and has no room to work. We know that because he left Timothy there and told him to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). Which means that Paul distinguished between his missionary calling, and the calling of a local pastor and evangelist.

He had just said that Messiah Jesus came into the world that the nations might glorify God for his mercy. Then he quoted Psalm 117 and shows that these “nations” were people groups. And then he said that his church planting work in these regions was done and there were peoples in Spain that need missionaries.

“Go, and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ among all the peoples of the world. Don’t stop. Press on.”

So, against this biblical backdrop (from Revelation 5 and Genesis 12 and Galatians 3 and Romans 15), and lots more that could be said, I infer that the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 (“Go . . . make disciples of all nations”) does indeed include the meaning, “Go, and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ among all the peoples of the world. Don’t stop. Press on, like Paul, until you’ve seen churches planted in them all. I have all authority over those peoples. And I will be with you.”

United in Glory

Let me end by circling back to my emphasis on individuals at the beginning. And let’s see if we can put the diversity of the peoples together with the individual heart of saving faith and see why God did it this way. Why is there a radical focus on individual faith, and a pervasive pursuit of all the diverse peoples?

My conviction is that God decided that the human heart would be the point where his saving grace takes hold of humanity, because the goal of salvation, according to Ephesians 1:6, is the “praise of the glory of God’s grace” (my translation). But the essence of praise is not the movement of lips. Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). The essence of praise is the admiring gladness of the human heart in the glory of the grace of God.

So, God has made the glad trusting, admiring, treasuring of the glory of his grace in the human heart the centerpiece of his ultimate purpose for the universe. Not the redeemed body. Not the new earth. Not the new heavens. But the human heart, white-hot with pleasure in the glory of God, is the centerpiece of the ultimate purpose of God.

But there is another principle at work in attaining the goal of God’s greatest glorification. The principle is this: the fame and greatness and worth of an object of beauty shines with greater brightness in direct proportion to the diversity of those who rejoice in its beauty. If all believing human hearts were from one people group and full of glad praise to God, he would get great glory in that salvation. But if, in the end, all the redeemed hearts come from ten thousand different ethnic groups, then their united pleasure in the glory of God’s grace will shine with a brightness of praise far beyond the praise of any one group. This is the ultimate reason why the diversity of nations exist. And why missions exists.