Which nations are the nations?

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Christ’s possession, judgement, and reign over the nations (τὰ ἔθνη) constituted a central eschatological hope among the early Christians. They believed God was acting to bring about the obedience of the nations. Across the empire pagan Greeks were “turning from idols to serve the living and true God and await his son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (Romans 1:5, cf. Romans 15:18).
The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations; in him the nations shall hope (Romans 15: 12).

And to the one who is victorious and continues in My work until the end, I will give authority over the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter and shatter them like pottery— just as I have received authority from My Father (Revelation 2:26-27).

From [Christ’s] mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Revelation 19:15).

By [New Jerusalem’s] light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it (Revelation 21:24).

This hope is summed up nicely with reference to Psalm 110:1. Christians awaited God to put Christ’s “enemies” under his feet (cf. 1 Cor 15:25, Hebrews 2:8). This included rebellious nations (Matthew 25:32-46, 1 Cor 2:6).

According to most eschatological models though, this submission of the nations to God is still in our future; there remains disobedient nations that must be subjugated. While this is true, there is evidence to suggest that when the early Christians spoke of “the nations” they were specifically speaking of the Greco-Roman world as controlled by the Roman empire. I will argue the point in what follows.

The nations in the Hebrew Bible

Consider, for instance, the language employed by the Deuteronomists regarding the Conquest of Canaan:

This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the nations everywhere under heaven; when they hear report of you, they will tremble and be in anguish because of you (Deuteronomy 2:25).

And all the nations of the earth shall see you that the name of the Lord has been surnamed to you, and they shall be afraid of you (28:10)

Or concerning the Assyrian/Babylonian exile:

And the Lord your God will disperse you to all nations, from an end of the earth to an end of the earth (LXX Deuteronomy 4:27).

The Lord will bring upon you a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, like the swoop of an eagle, a nation whose speech you will not hear (28:49).

If taken literally this language is patently false. We know now that the world is much bigger than the Ancient Near East. But if taken from the perspective of an ancient Israelite it makes perfect sense. Every nation—as far as an Israelite was concerned—really did fear the children of Israel as they purified Canaan. And as far as the Biblical compilers were concerned, the Israelites were conquered by empires that came from the other side of the earth. From Israel’s limited vantage point, they had been scattered throughout all the nations—from one end of the earth to another.

What emerges here is an Israel-centric view of the world. “All the nations” refers to the nations surrounding Israel. “Ends of the earth” refers to the limits of an ancient Israelite’s geographic vision.

The reaches of God’s international judgement are also more limited than might be expected. The oracle in Joel 3 demonstrates this. According to the prophet, following Judah’s return from exile and restoration, God will “gather all the nations” and judge them “on account of my people and my heritage Israel.” They will be judged because “they scattered [Israel] among the nations… divided my land… and cast lots for my people” (Joel 3:1-3). The nations the prophet indicts are those close to Israel and complicit in Israel’s demise: Tyre, Sidon, Philistia, the Greeks, the Sabbeans (3:4-8). This is not “all the nations” in any literal sense. In fact the oracle goes on to identify the peoples to be judged as “all the neighboring nations” (3:12). Once again, “all the nations” refers to those nations relevant to Israel’s experience.

The nations in the New Testament

For the early Christians, it was the churches, not Israel, that was of central importance. It was the experiences of these churches and the nations within which they were planted that mattered.

During the first few centuries the churches proliferated within the reaches of the Roman empire. Though Paul’s ministry was essentially confined to this empire, he speaks as if the gospel message has been heard in the entire world (Romans 1:8, 10:18, 1 Cor 4:9, 1 Thessalonians 1:8, Colossians 1:6). Paul writes that the gospel “has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” and “was believed in throughout the world” (Colossians 1:23, 1 Timothy 3:16). Luke follows suit (Luke 2:1, Acts 11:28, 19:27). It is clear then that for the early Christians the Roman empire constituted the whole of the civilized world. This was the scope of their geographic knowledge and concern.

It was also the nations of this empire that aroused the concern and animosity of the early churches. It was these particular nations—those ruled from Rome—that terrorized the churches and resisted their proclamation. These were the nations that raged and conspired “against the Lord and his anointed” (Psalm 2:1-2, cf. Acts 4: 25-26). The nations relevant to the churches were therefore the pagan peoples of the Greco-Roman world.

It is for this reason that John dresses up Rome and its empire in the guise of Babylon. Babylon for John is not a general image of any evil power; it is a coded image of a specific city, a city of great concern to the early churches. This is the empire that must collapse under its own weight (Revelation 18-19). This is “the kingdom of the world [that] has become the kingdom of the Lord and his Christ” (Revelation 11:15). Rome’s vassal states then, are the nations that must be judged and rebuilt under the authority of Christ.

15 thoughts on “Which nations are the nations?

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