Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Part 4: What will happen to the nations?

Individualism is a pervasive world view that now exists in the west. It affects how everything is played out, especially attitudes towards the gospel. I won't go into depths on individualism now- I will leave that to experts like Mark Sayers.

Unfortunately this means that people often only read the bible looking for ways that the individual can be saved. This approach neglects the fact that people best come to God in the context of their community, culture and nation. This approach also means that many western readers neglect to realise that the bible is so full of the theme of nations.

One of my bug bears is the western pre-occupation with an eschatology that has Jesus returning really soon to rescue them from an uncomfortable society that is not as cosy and puritan as it once was. This is a very selfish approach that does not acknowledge the thousands of nations around the world yet to understand the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus was not plagued by individualism. He saw it as his role to bring the truth and gospel to all of Israel, to the "lost sheep of Israel." It is true that his method was to focus on the small, not on the big. Jesus preferred to spend his time discipling a smaller group of people than preaching to the masses- as much as he had compassion on the masses. But even as Jesus was discipling his core group of men and women, he was doing this in the midst of community, one of the building blocks of an ethnic nation. Jesus avoided individualism.

Jesus spoke to his disciples of the end of time. But Jesus chose to deflect this error and focus his attention on the importance of the nations. He explained that the gospel he had been teaching them needed to go to all the nations of the world.
This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14).
This was not just a nice idea, but a necessity for the end to come. This is so often ignored by western individualism, a world view that is so self focused it ignores the wider world.

Some even try to argue that it is therefore only necessary to preach the gospel to all nations, and that when all have simply heard, this is then good enough and Jesus can return. Wrong. Aside from this being unloving, there are other scriptures that underline God's purposes are far deeper. 
Jesus tells his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." It is clear that preaching is not enough, making disciples of all nations is the goal. Doing this takes patience and a lot of time.  (Matthew 28:19)

That is not the end though, nor the only evidence that Jesus cares about the nations. We can take a flash forward to the end of the age in Revelation. Multitudes are worshiping before the throne of the Most High God. There are so many there that no one could even count them. 
They are singing: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the lamb. (Revelation 7:10).  But don't forget to notice who is there as they are worshiping God. A multitude of people from every nation, tribe, people and language. That's people from everywhere, all nations. This underlines that it is God's desire that his plan of salvation is for nations, not just individuals. and that all nations need to be in heaven, not just in small numbers, but in a multitude.

Following the posts:
It should now be clear what a nation is, and how significant they are to God in his eternal plan of salvation. In following posts I would like to take a look at what empires are, how they differ from nations and are not part of God's plan, how there is only one good empire and how the Kingdom of God fits into the concept of nations and empires.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Part 3: What is the definition of a nation?

What is a nation?

This is an anthropological question as well as a political one. Every society has building blocks. In many places around the world this is the extended family. In some places, it is a nuclear family (although this is an exception historically and geographically). Still in other places the extended family is quite large and better referred to as a clan. A tribe is best understood as clans living in close proximity to one another with interaction. There is some blurring between the clan and the tribe. There is also an unclear distinction between tribe and nation. Each of these designations are best understood on a spectrum.

Many of the world's earliest cities started to appear as early as 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists now view some of the earliest as large villages rather than cities. The earliest were Jericho (modern day Palestine) and Catal Huyuk (in modern day Turkey). These "cities" had populations of up to 6,000 people, but they did not have the social structure to make them cities. The earliest cities that all archeologists seem to agree on are Uruk and Ur, both in ancient Sumeria. Their history can also be traced back earlier, but they reached "city status" by around 3000 b.c or 5000 b.p.

The city is an important element in the question of what a nation is. The city was the next stage in political development after the tribal village system. It was in the city that early nations consolidated their identity. Each city was independent from the next. One thing that can be certain from scripture is that God took notice of cities. A prime example is Nineveh, of whom God said "how can they not be important to me? 120,000 people live there."

In the broad sense of the word a nation is an ethnic group that shares a language, culture and geographical location. There are plenty of varying debates about when a nation is defined distinctly from another, if any of these criteria change. I wrote an article a few years back about the birth of the modern Australian nation, and the seeds of the gospel within the nation. This serves to show that new nations can be born, and that the Australian nation does differ from its roots. I would definitely differentiate between the modern Australian nation, and the some 200 Aboriginal nations that existed before 1788.

In the earliest historical sense, when individual cities rose up, they were often separate nations from other cities around them. This was not always the case, sometime a nation had more than one, in the case of Ur and Uruk, but most nations did not have multiple cities. Each nation has its own distinct identity and is entitled to it as such. 

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Part 2: Nations in the Bible

This idea that "the nations" are important to God is not some fleeting idea in the Bible. It laces every story, every context, and is intertwined throughout the entire epic. It is simply because as westerners we are individualistic that we miss this emphasis. We make the perilous mistake of thinking that God's story is only about salvation, and then we reduce that to individual salvation.
One of my favourite verses in the Bible, I think sums up very well the purposes that are in the heart of God. Habakkuk is complaining to God about the violence and injustice surrounding Israel. The Lord responds that he can use any nation for his glory, even the Babylonians.
The Lord goes on to explain to Habakkuk that in a future time all will be clear:

This vision is for a future time, 
it describes the end and it will be fulfilled, 
if it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. 
It will not be delayed. 
What sorrow awaits you who build cities with money gained through murder and corruption! 
Has not the LORD of Heaven's armies promised that the wealth of nations will turn to ashes? 
They work so hard but all in vain! 
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
(Habakkuk 2)

God is very interested in the behaviour of nations. The Lord wants to see his world transformed in every way to bring glory to him. He desires people every where to worship him and to display their love for God and for people through righteous and just living. It is glorifying to God when the nations live in the way that he desires.

It is not enough for individuals to simply live righteously. People exist in families, clans, tribes, communities and nations. These social structures must be transformed by the gospel. It is when this happens that God is glorified.

God's heart for nations is the very reason that God decided to use a nation as part of his plan. He spoke to Abraham and told him that he would be come a great nation that would bless all nations. Sadly, this plan is not fully revealed in the old testament. We see a hint of this during the time of Solomon. During Solomon's reign, his wisdom and fame spread to other nations of the world. Kings and Queens from around the world came to him. It is clear to see that God wanted this to work better than it did. Nevertheless, there is still an example here. The Queen of Sheba came up to Israel during Solomon's reign. She took Judaism back to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian people became believers of the old covenant. These facts can be verified by studying Ethiopian history and archaeology.

The story did not stop with the Queen of Sheba for the Ethiopians. Later on, in the story of Acts, Philip shares the completion of the gospel with an Ethiopian Eunuch. The Eunuch already understood the old covenant. Philip explained to the Eunuch who Jesus was from Isaiah. The Eunuch became a believer in the New Covenant and went back to Ethiopia to explain the rest of the story to them. This is probably the best example in history of a "Jewish" people becoming Christian en masse.

There are so many examples in the old testament that speak about the nations. I will not try to quote them all. Many of them can be found in the prophets, because it was something that God was trying to teach his people.

If we are to obedient to our Lord, then we should of course pay attention to Jesus' words to his disciples before he ascended into heaven:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.
Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
(Matthew 28).

If we are to understand these words of Jesus, we need to pay attention to what he said. He asks us to make disciples. Disciples are followers of Jesus. But pay attention, he doesn't speak just of individuals, but of nations too. They are very important to Jesus. I consider it to be an interesting and vital note at this point that Jesus did not ask his followers to start churches or to build temples, he asked them to make more followers and to teach them to obey Jesus' commands. Again, in Jesus' commands there is nothing about planting churches, building churches or establishing a priestly temple system.  (But, that is probably for another post.)

There is a parallel in Jesus' words, from the very first command that God gave in Genesis. God told people to "go out into all the world and multiply". This is exactly the same principle that Jesus applied to his disciples- "go out into all the world and multiply followers of me and of all nations." There is an eternal godly principle here of multiplication to the point of filling the earth with God's glory. And I believe that God deserves nothing less than the earth being full of his glory.

If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is that the nations have always been a massive part of God revealing his glory in the earth, and that he will get his desire, but is very patient in doing so.

More in part 3 about how to define a nation, and whether every nation has a part to play in God's eternal glory.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Series: Empire, the Kingdom of God and Nations- a biblical and political perspective. Part 1: Nations in the Bible

This is the first post in a series on the topics of Empire, Kingdom of God and Nations. I would like to have a look at each of these topics from both a biblical and political perspective. The goal is to better understand what God thinks about these topics and how we should live out following Jesus in this context.

A good place to start this series is probably at the beginning of the chronological biblical story. The first of these concepts that arises in scripture is that of a nation. It is easy to read a word without considering the full meaning, the mistake being to interpret nation as a political nation state. This is surely one of the definitions of nation, but not the first one we come across in scripture.

The tower of Babel becomes the starting point for the discussion. I won't go into this stories dating in history- that is perilously hard to do. One thing is certain from this story though- this is where the nations rebelled against God. The people rose up with pride in their hearts, "Hey, we should build a really great city, it will have a huge tower as its centrepiece, that will reach even up into the heavens, we will become famous and powerful. God will not be able to send us out across the world like he wants us to do, because in our great power we will do what we want." God sees their rebellion and says, "anything that they want to do will be accomplished, their pride must be ended." God decides to confuse their common lingua franca, and the people are stuck with their tribal dialects. They give up on their plans of world domination, and set out to live separately from one another, just as God intended when he said "go into all the world and multiply."

This is the story in the Bible where the nations are scattered. It is not exactly the story where the nations are born. There is a clear outline of the birth of the nations in Genesis 10. What ever date you place the tower of Babel, the nations were already coming into view before the tower. Each section of descent in Genesis 10 concludes with, "these were the descendants, identified by clan, language, territory and national identity."  "All the nations of the earth descended from these clans after the great flood."

A linguistic world view that allows for multilingualism allows for each of these clans to have their own language at the same time as a common language existed. Many a time people have viewed this story and concluded that it was a curse from God to create multiple languages. This is simply not true, the various languages had already developed. God confused the common language, not as a curse, but as a means of grace, so that they would fulfil his plans and multiply to fill the earth. 

This alternative view, that God acted in grace at Babel, allows us to see that the nations are a good thing in God's sight. This altered world view is further confirmed in the story of Abraham in Genesis 12. (Some time into the distant future after Babel.) God promises Abraham that he will become a great nation and that "all nations on earth will be blessed through you." God had a positive plan for all of the nations. He chose to make a nation out of Abraham.

The nations become a recurring theme of scripture from the tower of Babel, through the old testament, the new testament and up to revelation. They are dear to God's heart and a big part of his plan of salvation.

More to follow in future posts about How to Define a Nation, How to Define an Empire, What does the Bible have to say about Empires?, Are there still Empires in the world today?, What is the Kingdom of God and how does it relate to Empires and Nations?, Discipleship movements that change nations.