Russell and Duenes

Who cares if they all speak english?

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My interest in writing about nations, nationalism and ethno-nationalism has many layers. First, I’m interested in biblical truth no matter what the pragmatic consequences because God does not reveal himself to no purpose. Having “the mind of Christ” is valuable even if we don’t know all of the implications. Second, I think understanding this topic better might help us more profitably address the racial and ethnic issues with which our American churches are grappling. Third, this topic has been sadly neglected in biblical theology and the church’s missiology. If nations and ethno-nationalism don’t matter, then “cultural imperialism” is not a sin. For in that case, God cares not at all whether any distinctive nation, ethnic group, ethnic folkway or particular language survives. It follows from this that the only reason Christian missionaries should respect foreign cultures would be the utilitarian value that such respect has in providing a beachhead for the gospel. Ethno-linguistic identity then has only instrumental value under this view. Finally, I think an improved understanding of nations and nationalism will help blow away some of the fog of ambiguity in the church’s ability to carry out Christ’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all the nations.”

That said, let me make a few more remarks about the understanding of “nations” and “kings” in Revelation 21:24-25, per my previous post. In his comments there, my colleague granted the point that distinct nations might exist in the eternal state, but argued that such nations might be similar to political nations such as the United States; that is to say, he intimated that Revelation 21:24-25, interpreted correctly, makes a one-to-one correspondence between nations and kings. Thus, every nation must have a king since it says that “the kings of the earth…will bring the glory and honor of the nations into [the New Jerusalem].” Since it seems highly unlikely that every distinct ethno-linguistic group will have a separate king, it follows that these kings in Rev. 21 are likely to be kings over multi-ethnic nations, akin to our modern political nations. In other words, “nations” cannot be merely “ethnic people groups” in this view. Though this interpretation is certainly possible, I think it unlikely, and I’ll try to explain why. But let me preface my comments by granting the point that this nation stuff is tricky, and I agree with John Piper when he says,

“We have not defined precisely what a people group is. What we have found, in fact, is that a precise definition is probably not possible to give on the basis of what God has chosen to reveal in the Bible. God probably did not intend for us to use a precise definition of people groups so as to think we could ever stop doing pioneer missionary work just because we conclude that all the groups with our definition have been reached. For example, the point of Matthew 24:14 (“This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come”) is not that we should reach all the “nations” as we understand them and then stop. The point rather is that as long as the Lord has not returned, there must be more people groups to reach, and we should keep on reaching them. (Let The Nations Be Glad, 205)

So I need properly to take a less dogmatic stance. This text on “nations” and “kings” in Revelation cannot likely survive as a proof-text one way or the other. I think it shows us that “nations” do exist in the eternal state, but “nations” here could only be a synonym for “the entirety of the earth’s population.” It does not prove that “nations” in this case means only “ethno-linguistic people-groups.” However, I think that had God wanted to simply talk about the earth’s population in general, he certainly could have inspired such language in this text.

What I think the apostle John is doing here is using familiar prophetic language, particularly from Isaiah (though Jeremiah has it, too) about nations and kings, not in some precise way, but as virtual synonyms. Isaiah 41:2 says that God “delivers up nations before him and subdues kings.” Isaiah 52:15 says of the Messiah, “Thus he will sprinkle many nations; kings will shut their mouths on account of him.” Isaiah 60:3 is almost directly quoted in Revelation 21. It says, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Finally, Isaiah 62:2 says, “The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory.” You get the picture.

What I think John is doing in Rev. 21 is simply following in this usage. This does not mean that “nations” in the eschaton are “political nations” nor does it prove that they are solely reduced to “ethnic people groups.” And germane to our discussion, I don’t believe it proves that every nation here must have a corresponding king. The two terms are synonymous, used in parallel, and I think we rightly conclude merely that nations, whatever they are, exist in the final state. God chooses to see his creatures within groupings – families, tribes, peoples and nations. Revelation 22:3 says that “the tree of life” bears twelve kinds of fruit, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Now what remains to be seen is how we ought to understand “nations” in the previous sixty-five books of the Scripture. The previous teachings should shed light on John’s meaning here. And judging from the way this topic gets treated in theology – or rather doesn’t – I doubt there will be many readers who will stay with me as we explore it (my lack of writing ability notwithstanding).


Written by Michael Duenes

March 6, 2010 at 6:10 am

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