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No. 29 Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons October, 1996


Concerning the Nations

by James B. Jordan


Revelation 21:24 says, concerning the light shining from the New Jerusalem, "and the nations will walk by her light, and the kings of the land will bring their glory into her." Similarly, Revelation 22:2 says, concerning the Tree of Life, that "the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

Some (perhaps most) commentators still think that the New Heavens and New Earth and New Jerusalem are pictures of the _nal estate of humanity, after the Last Judgment. This is plainly impossible, because Revelation 22:17 reads, "And the Spirit and the bride say, `Come’; and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost." Moreover, the gates are always open, according to Revelation 21:25-26: "And in the daytime – for there will be no night there – the gates will never be closed, and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into her."

The gates of the Church/Kingdom (New Jerusalem) are open, evangelism is ongoing, and the nations are transformed. This is just as Jesus commanded in the Great Commission: "disciple all nations."

What are "nations"? The Bible assumes that there are such things, and that they have distinct foci of existence (even if they have _uid and fuzzy boundaries historically and geographically). The Bible also assumes that it is right and proper for people to exist as parts of nations, thus condemning all drop-out sects like the Essenes and Anabaptists.

In my essay, "Tribes, Tongues, Peoples, Nations," in Studies in the Revelation No. 5, I pointed out that the Gentiles are routinely denoted by this four-fold phrase in Revelation. The term "nations" simply summarizes this more expansive description. I pointed out that "tongues" refers to the Patriarchal Era, after the Tower of Babel; "tribes" refers to the Sinaitic Era, the time of the Judges; "nations" refers to the Kingdom Era, when Israel was one nation among several; and "peoples" refers to the Restoration Era, when many peoples lived within the Ecumenical Imperia.

"Tongues" clearly is primary, or _rst. We can begin to de_ne a nation as a group having the same language, and consequently thinking the same way at this fundamental level. Languages set up associations and categories, and often a word in one language has no precise equivalent in another. People of one language group have a set of associations that they live by, which will not be the same as those living in another language group. This can be a dangerous thing, as nations fail to understand one another and get into con_ict; but it is also a glorious thing, as each language provides its own particular slant or perspective on God and the cosmos.

People speaking the same larger language may still employ various dialects, which create sub-cultures within the larger language culture. Think of the di_erences between British English, Indian English, Australian English, American English, Southern-American English, and Black-American English, for instance. These sub-languages have di_ering musical intonations, di_ering nuances of meaning, di_ering body language, and also some di_ering words and spellings.

Now, eventually we shall have to discuss situations like Switzerland, where three languages exist in one culture; but let us postpone that matter, and here focus on languages as the basis of nations.

The Tower of Babel

The origin of many tongues and nations comes at the Tower of Babel. We read in Genesis 11:1 that the whole earth was of one lip and had one set of words. It is important to understand that "lip" does not refer to language, but to religious belief, as a concordance study of this term will reveal. (See Zephaniah 3:9; Psalm 81:4-5; Isaiah 6:5-7; etc. See James B. Jordan, The Bible and the Nations (1988), p. 9, available from Biblical Horizons .)

The people built a city and a tower; the city a cultural unit gathered by their one language, and the tower a religious artifact built in terms of their one belief-system. In Genesis 11:6-9 we read that God attacked their tower and scattered the people in terms of their "lip," their religious beliefs.

The foundational scattering was not in terms of language and culture, but in terms of religion. Instead of one idolatrous system in the world, there came to be many. To be sure, from an objective perspective all of these idolatries are pretty much the same, but the nations do not think so. There is hardly a dime’s worth of di_erence between Molech and Chemosh, but the Moabites and Ammonites did not think they were the same at all. There is hardly a dime’s worth of di_erence between Leninism and Maoism, but the Russians and Chinese did not think so. Until the nations turn to the true faith, God keeps them at war with one another in terms of their idolatries, and thus keeps them weak.

Language, however, was also diversi_ed. The original tongue (almost certainly Hebrew, or proto-Hebrew) was scattered into thousands. This also helped keep the nations divided and relatively powerless.

The Gift of Tongues

The Day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, is a validation of all these separate languages and cultures, but it overturns the scattering of idolatrous religions. The Day of Pentecost calls all people back to the true faith, without calling them to leave their languages and nations. This shows us that linguistic and cultural diversity was always part of God’s plan, and in itself is a good thing.

The meaning of the Gift of Tongues is this: Formerly, only the Hebrew tongue was a _t vehicle for the Word of God; but now all languages will become _t vehicles for the Word of God. The Spirit will transform all languages and cultures, and over the course of time, they will become increasingly _t vehicles for God’s Word and Kingdom. The temporary miraculous manifestation of the Gift of Tongues was a sign to the Jews that this had taken place; indeed, as a judgment on the Jews the gospel was not preached in Hebrew at all. Jews from every nation heard the gospel in their own languages, not in Hebrew or Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.

But the coming of the Spirit is permanent, and so the Gift of Tongues is also permanent. Every time the Bible is translated into a new tongue, the Gift of Tongues, given to the Church as a whole, is in operation. Every improvement on an initial translation is also a manifestation of that Gift.

The Jews had no authorization to translate the Hebrew scriptures before Pentecost. The fact that a copy of these scriptures was kept hidden in the Temple shows that the scriptures were not published to the nations as such. The Jews did make a "translation" into Greek, called the Septuagint, but they put numerous errors into it, almost certainly as a sign to Jewish readers (and to Yahweh) that they were not making an accurate translation. One of the great failures of the early Church was her failure to make an accurate Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Instead, the early Church relied on the Septuagint, and certain errors crept into the Church as a result (erroneous chronologies; confusion over the Apocrypha; etc.).

At any rate, the abiding presence of the Spirit’s Gift of Tongues is a validation of all languages and cultures within the sphere of the one true "lip" (religious belief).



The Meaning of Language

The Second Person of God is the Word of God. God is Language; He is Word. Indeed, the alphabetical psalms show us that God is Alphabet: Aleph through Tav – and now that all languages are validates, Alpha through Omega, and Aye through Zee. The Spirit or Breath of God makes the Word sound aloud, with musical intonation. God speaks, and His Word is His Second Person, and His breath or musical intonation is His Third Person. This it not the only way to speak of the Triunity of God, of course, but it is one of the ways the Bible reveals, and it is the way we must speak of it here.

Human beings are made in the image of God. Like the Father, we breathe out our words with our breath (spirit). Thus, our language is part of the essence of what we are as human beings. Moreover, we are made particularly in the image of the Son of God, the Word. We are living words, living epistles, living torahs. The only thing more fundamental is our religious confession, our worship (primarily) of the Father. If we are _rst of all worshippers (homo adorans), we are also always second of all speakers.

The diversity of languages makes for a multiplicity of manifestations of the Word of God. The Son is revealed in the forms and structures (grammar) of languages. Language is a form of "natural revelation" that shows God to us, especially the Word of God. The structures of language are the structures of human life, as the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy points out.

Thus, the diversity of languages means a diversity of the image of God. The original image (Adam) is refracted into all the human beings who have ever lived, and at another level is refracted into all the language groups (nations) that have ever existed.

Now this is the important point: If individual human beings are images of God, and if also individual marriages and families are images of God, so are nations. Each nation is a distinct image of God, as distinct as individual human beings and individual families. The God who saves individuals and families is also a God who saves nations as nations.

This is the actual command of the Great Commission: Disciple all nations. Jesus might have said, "disciple the world," but that might have implied that nations are to disappear. He might have said, "disciple individuals" or "families," but that might have implied that nations as such are not to be discipled. The phrase "disciple the all nations" clearly means the whole world, and embraces individuals and families as well.

The mode of national discipleship, and of individual and family discipleship, is the transformation of warped, perverted, bad language patterns into _t, proper, and Godly language patterns, without destroying or replacing the language itself. This process begins when the Word is taken into a new language by an evangelist and is prophetically proclaimed in that new language. The Word (Bible) acts to transform the language (as Luther’s Bible transformed German, and as the King James Bible transformed English).

As a result, individuals, families, and nations begin to think in new ways, in new categories. One of the problems with missions lies at just this point. Missionaries tend to take the Christian cultural products of their own language-nation and impose them on their converts. Thus, we have the incredibly stupid phenomenon of Korean Christians singing American gospel songs. What needs to happen, however, is to take the Word (with sacrament and transformed life-in-community) into the new culture, and then let the new culture _ower into its own expressions. The linguistic tones and cadences of Korean will eventually produce Korean hymns, based _rst on the psalter and then arising from translations of the traditional hymns and new hymns written in Korean.

Tongues, Tribes, Nations, Peoples

There is a progression and a diversi_cation of the concept of "nation" in history, originating in linguistic diversity. The tribe speaks the same language, and rejoices in the sound of its language as sung, but does not usually have a set geographical location. The tribe moves about.

The nation has a set geographical location with a king and a capital city. Because of this, the nation may have on its fringe people who do not speak the o_cial language of the nation, but who are in the process of acculturating into the nation. We see this in the history of the United States.

The people, living within an empire or wider culture (e.g., Western Civilization), has its own language and culture, but is also part of a larger language and culture. There is a common language that everyone knows in addition to his own. In the Greek and Roman world, that language was Greek. In Western Civilization it used to be Latin, while today it is English.

Accordingly, we have to say that it is possible for a culture or a nation to have more than one language. There are many languages in China, but it is basically one (or two) culture(s). China overcomes its linguistic diversity by having one written language that consists of ideographs rather than of letters that spell out sounds. People of various languages can read the same ideographs, but will sound the words di_erently. Switzerland has three o_cial languages, and people are expected to know all three.

We should note, though, that all Chinese languages are of the same basic type, as are the three Swiss languages. But in the future, who knows what combinations of language and culture God will bring about?


What makes a group of people a nation is primarily its common language. Since language can exist at several levels, so can national organizations. Southern-American English and Black-American English both exist in the larger context of American English. Each Swiss Canton has its own language, but is part of the larger Swiss Confederation. All educated people in the ancient world spoke Greek, but also their own national languages. All educated people in the Middle Ages spoke Latin, but also their national languages. Though geography plays a role in determining what a nation is, it is secondary. Boundaries are less important than language and culture. Governments also play a role, but governments come and go, while language remains.

Afterword: Further Investigations

The various studies of Thomas Sowell have shown that national and sub-national cultural groups possess cultural abilities, disabilities, and tendencies. These characteristics are retained even when the group migrates into another national culture and learns a new language.

The explanation for this phenomenon can hardly be genetic (contrary to The Bell Curve), and is not cultural in the purely environmental sense. If the latter were the case, immigrant groups would lose their tendencies as they assimilate into the new nation.

A plausible explanation for this phenomenon is found in the research of Rupert Sheldrake and his associates, summarized in Sheldrake’s The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1989). Sheldrake argues that while there is no inheritance of acquired characteristics in the genetic sense, there is such an inheritance in a "_eld" sense. Each animal, crystal, human society, etc. has a "type," and that "type" changes in time in response to changed conditions and as a result of habitual reinforcement. Changes in "type" of a_ect entire populations of a given kind of creature, and usually happen in response to catastrophic changes in environment. Such patterns or habits of existence exist at various hierarchical levels, so that as regards human life, certain sub-groups within a nation may become loosely patterned toward certain occupations, while the nation itself may become loosely patterned toward certain orientations, and the human race as a whole is being patterned by God’s hand toward her ful_llment and destiny.

I believe that what Sowell and Sheldrake are uncovering has much to say about God’s intentions for nations. God has diversi_ed the human race linguistically and also culturally, and all of these groups are to be transformed by and bring their blessings to the New Jerusalem. Further study is, however, needed in this area.