This article was written to accompany the ‘The Church‘ hangout.
- What important issues can you think of surrounding races and nations that need addressing in: (a) the world, and (b) the church?
War and Peace
It has become something of a cliché to describe one’s greatest desire to be ‘world peace’. This dream is articulated by many people, from John Lennon to entrants in beauty pageants and everything in between.
Lennon knew, just like the rest of us, that the dream of imagining all the people living life in peace is far from reality. Only a few minutes with a newspaper or TV news channel is enough to glimpse the conflict and strife of the world. This destructive reality is not glossed over by the Bible. “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars… for nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:6-7)
Neither, however, does the Bible minimise the dream that Lennon articulated. World peace is God’s idea. God created a world that was ‘very good’. Humanity was given the role of filling the world and subduing it. The idea was to create a global community, living in harmonious relationships akin to those seen in the Trinity (see the article on ‘The Trinity Goes Viral’ for more on this). The world was made for peace, and God has set in motion his purpose to once again bring about a world of peace, promising a day when the nations will, “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
THINK IT THROUGH
- To what extent is the scattering of people into nations a good thing? Try to give reasons for your answer from both your own experience and from Scripture.
The Fathers of the Nations
In Eden, nations did not exist. God’s original design was a man and woman together, charged with the task of filling the earth.
Following the fall, it did not take long for sin and rebellion to spread. Murder and vengeance became part of the fabric of human society, death began to make its presence felt, and evil became so pre-eminent in the hearts of man that God regretted creating and brought judgment on the world in the form of a flood. In the midst of this judgment, Noah found God’s gracious favour and along with his family was spared the judgment.
Once the flood had receded, humanity had a new start with the eight people that had been on the ark: Noah, along with his wife, his three sons, and his daughters-in-law. God made a covenant with Noah and re-iterated the cultural mandate that had originally been given to Adam and Eve: fill the earth and subdue it.
Though there was a new beginning, the problem of sin had not been dealt with by the flood. The people on the ark were themselves sinners, and as they multiplied and filled the earth with people, sin spread with them. This is demonstrated in an incident that is recorded immediately after God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.
“The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these, the people of the whole earth were dispersed.
Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.’” (Genesis 9:18-27)
Whilst Noah’s actions are clearly wrong, the focus in the text is on Ham. The phrase used for Ham’s action is that he ‘saw the nakedness of his Father’. Whilst it may be puzzling at first glance why something as seemingly innocuous as accidentally catching a glimpse of one’s father naked should warrant such a harsh reaction from Noah, it is probable that the phrase is employed as a euphemism (the use of similar phrases in Leviticus 18 & 20 may shed some light on what actually happened).
In contrast to Ham’s sin, Shem and Japheth are portrayed as acting honourably. Not only did they cover Noah, but they walked backwards and dropped the garment on him so as not to see him in his naked state.
This incident has shaped much of world history since. It is from these three sons of Noah that the nations began to spread. Because of Ham’s sin, Noah pronounced a curse on his son Canaan. Because of Shem and Japheth’s actions, they received a blessing.
As the clans of each son began to spread across the world (listed in Genesis 10), it is in this context. Already there was strife and division between the fledgling nations, and we see such strife still exists today.
THINK IT THROUGH
The ‘curse of Ham’ has historically been used by some as a justification for the slavery of Black Africans in the United States. It is argued that Black Africans are ‘descendants of Ham’, and that White Europeans are ‘descendants of Japheth’, therefore according to the curse pronounced by Noah, Ham’s sons should be the slaves of Japheth’s sons.
- Why isn’t this understanding of Genesis 9 valid? Amongst your reasons, try to address the argument from the text of Genesis 9 and 10 itself.
Both parts of the argument used to justify slavery from Genesis 9 are flawed. Firstly, it is not at all clear that the descendants of Japheth are white and the descendants of Ham are black. In facts, listed amongst the descendants of Ham in Genesis 10 are Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians: all people of the Middle East. Secondly, the curse pronounced does not apply to all the sons of Ham in any case. It was specifically addressed to Canaan, and reiterated a number of times as the Canaanites persisted in pernicious sin (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:9-12) and was fulfilled as God gave over their land to the Israelites under Joshua.
The Scattering of the Nations
The scattering of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth was precipitated by a particular incident that is recorded in Genesis 11. All the people had come together and settled at a place called Shinar, with the goal of building a tower that reached the heavens. They were motivated by pride as they wanted to make their name great, and they wanted to maintain their togetherness, fearing the dispersal across the earth that God had mandated.
- In what ways is the ‘community’ that was found at Babel different to the kind of community that is found within the Trinity, and that God desires to create on the earth?
God responded to this with judgment. In place of a common understanding, there was now a diversity of languages. God confused their speech and dispersed the people across the earth.
The descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth were now many nations scattered across the face of the earth.
A Promise for the Nations
From this point forward, history progressed on two parallel tracks. The nations continued to disperse, differences became entrenched, and wars became commonplace. At the same time, God was intervening in human history with a plan to draw the nations together, gathering all peoples into his glorious community in Christ.
God did this by calling Abram to follow him, by making and keeping promises to Abram, and by forming out of Abram’s descendants a nation that existed for the sake of all nations, with the purpose of being a light to all the peoples of the earth.
God’s promise to Abram presents a stark contrast with the pride of Babel in several ways. Firstly, whilst the builders were attempting to avoid filling the earth as God had commanded by remaining together in one place, Abram readily obeyed God’s call to leave his Father’s house and go to a place that God was yet to show him. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)
Secondly, God promised to make Abram’s name great (and eventually gave him the name ‘Abraham’) whereas the builders sought to make their own names great. The language used is the same, but the source is different. A truly great name is not one that people give to themselves, but one that is bestowed by God.
Thirdly, while the builders had no interest in the impact of their work on the rest of the world, God’s promise to Abram was focussed on the nations. They didn’t want to be dispersed, but to create a monument to themselves in a single geographical location. God wasn’t looking to build a monument in a specific place, but to see a community scattered across the whole earth. In calling Abram, he made a people out of his descendants to take their place with the other peoples descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth. The purpose of this people was not to be a rival to the nations of the world, but to be a blessing. “And 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 dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) Every nation was to be blessed through Abram’s descendants, Israel.
A Nation for the Nations
- What examples can you think of where Israel fulfilled its calling to be a blessing to the nations?
- Can you think of examples where it failed in this respect?
In the remainder of the Old Testament, we see a complex relationship between Israel and the nations. At the same time, they were called to be different to the nations but for the nations. By standing out as a people that model life with God, and reaching out to extend the love of God to those around them, they would fulfil the call to be a blessing.
Israel was supposed to be distinct from the nations. When God had rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he made a covenant with them through Moses, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6). This was a nation that had been called out from the nations to be different. They had a unique standing before God, had a unique story that formed their national identity, and were given laws from God to govern them. As a distinct people, they were to be careful not to worship the gods of the nations around them (see for example Exodus 23:4) or to intermarry with them, which would lead them astray (see Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
Despite being distinct, Israel existed for the sake of the nations. In Isaiah’s words (ultimately fulfilled in Jesus but originally spoken to Israel), “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6). Israel welcomed guests from other nations, such as the Queen of Sheba who was blessed and impressed by her time with King Solomon (see 1 Kings 10), dedicated their temple as a place of prayer for all the nations (see 1 Kings 8:41-43), received prophetic words regarding the nations, and even sent missionary prophets, such as the reluctant Jonah, to the nations.
At its best, Israel was a nation set apart by God to serve and minister to the other nations. Sadly, these incidents were rare, and the bulk of the story was made up of rebellion against God, combined with nationalistic pride at being God’s chosen people.
The Saviour of the Nations
By the time Jesus entered the scene, Israel was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. Little thought was given to being a blessing to the nations, with the focus instead being on the re-establishment of a powerful Israel. History records that male Jews would each morning thank God for not making them a Gentile (or a woman or slave) and Jesus’ hearers, despite claims to ‘love their neighbour’, were shocked as he cast a Samaritan as the hero in one of his parables.
Whilst Israel was supposed to function as a light to the Gentiles, it was Jesus who fulfilled this role. He declared himself to be the ‘light of the world’, and showed this in the way he engaged with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 and the Roman centurion in Matthew 8. Nevertheless, the majority of his earthly ministry was focussed within Israel, and it could be argued that Jesus primarily thought of his mission in this way. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)
The Gathering of the Nations
- When Jesus appeared to his disciples following his resurrection, what did he say to them? Can you think of any topics that he referred to on multiple occasions?
Though Jesus discussed many things with his disciples during his post-resurrection appearances, there were two topics to which he referred on numerous occasions – the coming of the Holy Spirit and the sending of the disciples to the nations.
After a three-year ministry that was primarily focussed within Israel, the time had arrived for God’s promise to Abraham to be fulfilled, for blessing to be brought to every nation of the world and for the scattered nations to be brought together once more.
Following Jesus’ ascension, he fulfilled his promise to send the Spirit at Pentecost. It was also at Pentecost that the disciples’ mission to go out into the nations was started (as Jesus has instructed them to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit came).
Many theologians have noted striking parallels between Pentecost and the Tower of Babel, with Pentecost serving to ‘undo’ the scattering of Babel.
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Acts 2:1-12
- In what ways does this echo or contrast the events of Babel?
In both events, God comes down, though in one his purpose is to bring judgment and in the other to empower his people with his Spirit. In both cases, people gather, though in one case it is in rebellion against God and in the other it is in prayer. In one event, people sought to make their own name great, in another, it was to tell the mighty works of God.
At Babel, languages were confused. People who could previously understand each other were thrown into confusion. At Pentecost, people who were previously unable to communicate could now understand each other clearly as God gave the gift of tongues. People heard the gospel in their own languages, Distinctions of language were not abolished, but rather the different languages were brought together around God. As J. Daniel Hays says,
“Sin scatters the peoples of the world but God’s blessing reunites them.” (J. Daniel Hays)
This marked the beginning of the central thrust of the remainder of the New Testament: bringing together the nations as one people under Christ – the Church.
The rest of the book of Acts is the story of the Apostles taking the Good News to the nations, and despite many obstacles (staying put in Jerusalem, confusion over whether Gentiles converts need to become Jews, persecution, martyrdoms, legal battles, etc.) the book ends with the Gospel reaching Rome, the centre of the known world. The book doesn’t end by suggesting that the mission is complete, there is much more to do, but there is encouragement at the progress made. “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (Acts 28:28)
One New Man
Though God’s heart for the nations is clearly communicated through all of the Scriptures, his work of salvation among the Gentiles still came as a surprise to many. Paul describes it as the mystery of the Gospel that “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6). This is described in detail in Ephesians 2:11-22.
There was a time when the Gentiles were far off; Godless and hopeless, and there was a time when Israel had exclusive claim to God and his promises. Because of this distinction, there was hostility and resentment between Jews and Gentiles. The cross of Christ ended the hostility and brought the peoples together. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility… that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).
In Christ, the nations are brought together. The world is no longer just a scattering of nations alienated from each other and from God, but from all the nations a new people has been formed, a people from every tribe and tongue and nation, redeemed by Christ and filled with love that crosses borders and boundaries. This people is the church, and through it “the manifold wisdom of God [is] now made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 2:10)
The books of Ezekiel and Revelation both talk about trees whose leaves will be healing for the nations. In Ezekiel, these trees are coming from the Temple, and in Revelation from the city that is the Bride of Christ. Both of these are pictures of the church, and it is in the church that the nations are gathered, redeemed and reconciled, so that the elders of the heavens can 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.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
- To what extent do we see our local churches reflect the multi-culturalism of what God is building? What would it look like to see an increase in this?
- Do you believe that Israel still has a particular role to play in God’s plans? Why/why not? (You may wish to consider Romans 9:6-8 and 11:25-32 as you think about this.)
- There are still people groups that have never heard of Christ, that God wishes to gather into his church. What is your own level of ambition to see these people won for Christ, and how is this ambition worked out? (see Romans 15:18-21). Spend some time praying for the unreached peoples of the world, and for those missionaries who are working with them.