One of the main themes of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the nations, a subject that remains largely in the background in the Old Testament but emerges into the foreground in the New Testament. 

The Old Testament

Everyone knows that the main characters in the Hebrew scriptures and Old Testament are the LORD (the God of Israel) and the people of Israel. God elects a particular people among all the peoples of the world to know and obey him. The story of God’s intimate up-and-down relationship with this particular people is the main subject in the Old Testament.

Yet the theology of the Old Testament is misunderstood until the role of the nations is also brought into view. The nations are all of the peoples of the world other than the people of Israel. 

In his comprehensive article “Nations” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, K-Q, Volume 3, E. John Hamlin of McGilvary Theological Seminary in Thailand explains that there are three Hebrew words in the Old Testament that are used almost synonymously to refer to the nations. These three words denote, respectively, a people who possess a common kinship, a social and political group, and simply a people. In the Septuagint (LXX), these words are usually rendered in Greek in the plural as ethne, although very occasionally the word laoi (peoples) is used. The singular ethnos (nation) and the plural ethne (nations) constitute the roots of our English word ethnic, which Merriam-Webster defines as “of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” In the Old Testament, the nations represent what Hamlin calls “the particularities of [humankind] from which arise the infinite varieties of social, political, cultural, and religious expressions which form the fabric of the life and history of [humankind].”

Even though the nations known to ancient Israel were political groups, they are not really equivalent to modern nation-states because their populations were generally homogeneous and lacked formal legal constitutions. Except when they did take form as political and military entities, the nations are essentially what we might view as ethnic groups.

It is true that the nations represent the background of the story of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. 

They are introduced in the first 11 chapters of Genesis in the narratives of the Creation and Fall of humankind, the flood and new beginning of humankind through Noah and his family, and the dispersal of the peoples from the tower of Babel to speak different languages in different places throughout the world. After that, the story of the Old Testament turns toward the special history of God’s election of Israel, beginning with the narratives concerning Abraham and his family. Yet even in this special history, the nations are not forgotten: when God calls out Abram from the other peoples of the world, he promises him that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3 b NIV).

As the story of Israel unfolds in the Old Testament, the nations make their appearance as the enemies of Israel, especially the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Midianites, and the Philistines. The prophets’ oracles against the nations express God’s judgment on them because of their opposition to God’s purposes for God’s people (e.g., Ezekiel 25-32).

Despite the hostility of the nations toward Israel, the hope of God’s blessing of the nations promised to Abraham is never forgotten in the Old Testament. In Deutero-Isaiah’s prophecy, the redemption and restoration of sinful Israel will be a witness to the nations: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11 NRSV). The prayer for God’s blessing on the king of Israel in Psalm 72, which Christians interpret as a prophecy of the Messiah, contains a vision of the gathering of all the peoples of the earth into communion with God’s people under the reign of their king: “May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy” (Psalm 72:17 b NRSV).

The nations constitute the background to the story of Israel in the Old Testament, but the reason that this is so is because their identity and destiny can only be understood rightly according to the faith of Israel. In his discussion of the nations in Church Dogmatics IV.3.2, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, the Reformed Swiss theologian Karl Barth observes:

The decisive point for the nations, too, is what the same God [of Israel] is also for them, namely, that they, too, in their critical function in relation to His people are not governed and directed by themselves or by fate or chance, but, unknown to themselves yet very really, by this God whose will ordains in relation to them too.

The New Testament

It is in the New Testament that the nations come into focus in the foreground of the story and message.

Because of a tradition of English translation of the New Testament, the prominence of the nations in the New Testament is unfortunately obscured. The Greek New Testament continues the practice in the Septuagint of using ethne with the definite article ta (in the nominative case) to denote the nations, and the appearance of ethne is frequent and significant in the New Testament. However, the frequency and significance of references to the nations are obscured for most English readers because ethne is not usually translated as the nations, but as the Gentiles. Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons why the Gentiles is chosen instead of the nations for a translation of ethne with the definite article is because the English tradition of translation has been influenced by the Latin Vulgate. In the Vulgate, references to a clan, race, nation, or people are translated from Greek into Latin, and gens and gentes are the Latin equivalents for the Greek ethnos and ethne. Hence, because of the influence of the ancient Latin translation of St. Jerome, our English New Testaments usually translate ethne with the definite article (the nations) as the Gentiles. Moreover, the Gentiles denotes individuals who comprise the nations and better fits the sense of some passages. For this essay, consistency in translating ethne with the article as “the nations” will be practiced in order to emphasize the continuity of the message of the New Testament with the Old Testament. 

How would English-speaking readers of the New Testament understand its message if ethne were translated as the nations? To get a sense of how our English New Testament would read if the literal sense of ethne were preserved, just consider a couple of passages in the New Testament. In Matthew 10:18, Jesus tells his disciples who are being sent on a mission, “and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles” [NRSV], but the literal translation would be, “and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and to the nations.” Acts 15:1-35 is a report on the apostolic conference in Jerusalem, one of the turning points in Luke’s epic history of the earliest church. It is the conference in which all the apostles confirm that the mission of the church is to be directed toward both Jews and the nations. Every reference to the Gentiles in Acts 15:1-35 according to the NRSV is a translation of ethne with the definite article, and each one could be translated as the nations. For example, in Acts 15:7 Peter says according to the NRSV, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.” The word ethne with the definite article in this sentence could be rendered as the nations, so that Peter says, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the nations would hear the message of the good news [the Gospel] and become believers.”

When ethne in the New Testament is translated as the Gentiles rather than the nations, the connection between the account of the nations in the Old Testament and the new prominent concern for the nations in the New Testament is obscured for English-speaking readers. 

In the New Testament, telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth constitutes the proclamation that he is the Messiah of Israel who has come. The aim of Jesus’ public career was to restore Israel as the people of God gathered around himself. Accordingly, Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 NRSV). During his ministry of reconstituting Israel as the messianic people of God called to fulfill God’s purpose, which is that Israel be “a light to the nations’’ (Isaiah 42:6d NRSV), Jesus did reach out to some non-Jews in order to point toward the mission that would be accomplished by a reconstituted Israel. For instance, although higher critics assert that the story of the feeding of the four thousand may be a repetition of the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the indications in Matthew 15 are that this feeding occurred in the Gentile region of the Decapolis on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and that it was a messianic banquet for the people of the nations who witnessed Jesus’ ministry and “praised the God of Israel’’ (Matthew 15:31b NRSV). As the Apostle Paul says, “For I tell you that Christ [the Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that [the nations] might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8-9 NRSV, the nations substituted for the Gentiles).

Hence, the church in the New Testament is the reconstituted Israel around Jesus the Messiah. The crucified and risen Jesus commissions his disciples to be his apostles, the foundation of the church that is called to accomplish the mission of going to the nations. In one of the rare instances in most English translations when ethne with the article is not translated as the Gentiles, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all [the] nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV, the definite article in the Greek added).

The church’s growth in faith and outreach as the newly constituted Israel demonstrates how God fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Following his statement in Romans 15:8-9 about the full purpose of the coming of Jesus the Messiah both to serve the Jews and to enable the nations to glorify God, in Romans 15:9b-12 Paul quotes several texts from the Old Testament (Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; Isaiah 11:1). As usual, the NRSV translates ethne as the Gentiles instead of as the nations in all these texts that represent a sampling of Old Testament prophecies about God’s plan for the nations. For instance, in Romans 15: 11, Paul quotes Psalm 117:1; the NRSV of Romans 15:11 is as follows, “And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.’” The NRSV of Psalm 117:1, which Paul cites, states, “Praise the LORD, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples!” Following this message about God’s plan for the nations, Paul concludes his Epistle to the Romans by explaining that he wrote the Christians in Rome such a bold letter about his version of the Gospel because he had been given grace “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to [the nations] in the priestly service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering of [the nations] may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16 NRSV, the nations substituted for the Gentiles).

The New Testament closes with the great eschatological hope of the Revelation to John that there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” praising God and his Messiah for the gift of salvation (Revelation 7:9 NRSV). In the End, God’s purposes will be consummated, and then there will be “the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2 NRSV).

The Theological Status of the Nations

A review of the message of the Old and New Testaments concerning God’s plan for the nations provokes reflection on their theological status.

Like his Swiss Protestant neighbor Karl Barth, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar also presents an overview of the biblical account of the nations in Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, III. Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ. Balthasar judges that only Israel and the church are dramatis personae, true characters or actors in the divine drama of the salvation of the world according to the Bible, but the nations are not dramatis personae or “theological ‘persons.’” Balthasar explains that, while the nations are the object of God’s providential care in history, they are not the object of God’s “special election,” as are Israel and the church of Christ. He interprets the New Testament as teaching that when the church is created and begins to include the nations in its membership, “it is not the nations as such who enter the ambiance of Christ’s Church but always individuals from these nations, whether in considerable numbers or not.” He points out how the book of Revelation speaks of the chosen as those who come “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). Hence, Balthasar concludes that “the nations as such, in their cultural differentiation, have no theological significance.”

Balthasar presents a strong point of view, but it is subtler than it seems. One of the differences between his survey of the biblical account of the nations from Barth’s is that he includes a thoughtful assessment of the religious beliefs and practices of the nations apart from Israel and the church. I think that he concludes that the nations are not true actors in the divine drama of salvation because their inclusion as “the nations as such” would entail approving their religious beliefs and practices as alternative ways to ultimate salvation, which would contradict the special revelation given to Israel and the church. In this sense, surely Balthasar is correct in his judgment concerning the biblical perspective on the nations. However, I think he implies, but does not flatly state, that when persons from the nations are included in the church, they retain their ethnic identities insofar as these identities are consistent with being baptized into the church. As Balthasar himself says, the religions of the nations cannot be considered as “paths of salvation,” and therefore “to that extent, the nations and their diverse cultures forfeit the dignity of being theological persons in the theo-drama, however important the diversity and distinctiveness of each may be in the context of the history of religions and however much these factors must carefully be taken into consideration by the missionary Church.”

Granting that the faith of the nations must be coherent with the faith of Israel and of the apostles of Jesus Christ as received in the tradition of the church, there is still room to say, as does E. John Hamlin in the first sentence of his splendid article on “Nations,”“In the biblical drama there are three dramatis personae: God, the nations, and Israel. The nations are the matrix of Israel’s life, and the raison d’etre of her whole history and calling.” This point of view understands the church as being in continuity with Israel. In other words, to say that the nations are dramatis personae in the Bible affirms the distinctive ethnic cultures of the nations is essential to God’s purposes in creating, redeeming, and consummating the world.

Pertinent to reflection on the theological status of the nations are the Apostle Paul’s formulae in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. After referring to being “baptized into Christ” in Galatians 3:28, Paul declares, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” After speaking of Christians’ acquiring “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10), Paul then says in Colossians 3:11, “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all!” In these significant formulae, Paul is not saying that participation in Christ and in his church by baptism and our personal renewal by faith results in the abolishment of our ethnicity and its worth. Rather, he is stressing how, even though there remain differences among us, we are united by our common baptism and we acknowledge that our true identity is that we are all the people of God, being created in God’s image and renewed in God’s image by being saved from sin to become the children of God. The “all” (i.e., the different distinctive ethnic identities of all persons) is not abolished, but “Christ is all and in all” (i.e., all our distinctive ethnic identities are not as important as our common identity in Christ, and no longer separate us from one another since Christ is in all peoples, but they are valuable for our common life as Christ’s church).

Cultural Criticism in Light of the Biblical Perspective on the Nations

As the church lives in an ever-changing world with its successive zeitgeists—the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climates of different eras—new issues cause the church to respond by discovering anew old truths deposited in the scriptures and in the Christian creed. In our era, the zeitgeist is marked by a preoccupation with persons’ ethnic identities. This is a result of the fact that no longer are the nations generally isolated from one another by geography and national boundaries, but they are dispersed throughout many places in the world and dwell side by side in different localities. As a result of this social and political pluralism, ethnic identity becomes a major concern. Ethnic peoples face the challenge of preserving their cultural distinctiveness within a pluralistic society, and they also face the challenge of learning to live in peace alongside those who are different from them

One of the important developments in the current zeitgeist is the emergence of identity politics. This is such a new phenomenon that dictionaries published in the 1980s and 1990s do not include this term. Today Merriam-Webster defines identity politics as, “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.” Dictionaries will probably modify their definitions of identity politics as time goes on, but Merriam-Webster’s definition can serve as a fair expression of what the term usually means now. 

The rise of identity politics is understandable as different ethnic communities within a pluralistic society will feel a need to preserve their distinctiveness and rights, and the whole society should acknowledge the uniqueness and rights of every ethnic community as a matter of both cultural enrichment and social justice. However, the problem with identity politics is that particular ethnic communities tend “to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.” This tendency in identity politics is a dangerous recipe for social strife and the destruction of societies.

It seems that every trend in the zeitgeist is, at bottom, a kind of heresy of the Christian faith. All heresies contain some truth; if they did not, they would be neither convincing to some nor appealing to any. Hence, every heresy is a one-sided presentation of the truth that resides in the Christian faith. Yet heresies distort the whole truth and therefore are divisive. Identity politics is attractive to many because it presents the truth of the worth and rights of every ethnic community, but it distorts the whole truth because it works against a common good and unity by robbing people of their dignity by encouraging them to internalize their grievances into an identity as victims and by setting them against others, rather than building up those things that make for peace and unity. When Christians adopt the world’s identity politics, they are succumbing to the zeitgeist and failing to witness to the wholesome truth of the Gospel.

From the Christian perspective, we should be able to perceive the good and the bad of identity politics. It is good to celebrate the distinctiveness of each ethnic community because each contributes to the richness of society by manifesting the diversity of God’s good creation. On the other hand, identity politics is destructive because it tends to divide the peoples from one another as they jostle with one another to assert their own particular interests. Identity politics also encourages a sense of victimization and resentment. Christians cannot endorse the destructive elements in identity politics because Christians have learned of the divine plan for the nations by which all peoples come to know their true identity as human beings created in, and restored to, the image of God and united together in Christ. Thus, Christians sense a call to witness to society by working toward a common good around which all peoples may unite. Diversity is good, but not at the expense of common unity.

Ultimately, there will not be any “healing of the nations” except by the future coming of Christ and the final outpouring of the Holy Spirit to transfigure the creation into a new creation. Yet many may already participate in this healing by being included in God’s people by baptism and faith. This is why the messianic people of God, the church, is always missionary, reaching out to include people of all ethnic identities within one body. Today the church not only can engage in mission in foreign countries, but it can also accomplish its mission within every pluralistic society where the nations gather side by side. While the church should bear witness to the larger society by affirming cultural distinctiveness while also calling for common unity, its greatest witness is to be present in the world as Christ’s community of those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” who praise God together.