In revealing the essence of humanity, the Bible has presented humans as beings which share a common unity (ancestry in Adam and responsibility before God), but also diversity (male and female). These truths are revealed in the book of Genesis, which has provided a good foundation for an understanding of humanity. It may hold the key to understanding another kind of diversity as well: ethnic and racial distinctions.
For the purposes of this study, racial distinctions are those physical characteristics which can be used to identify someone: such as bone structure, facial characteristics, and skin color. Racial distinctions are hereditary, and appear to change slowly. Ethnic distinctions are those social characteristics that identify someone as having been reared in (or adjusted to) a particular culture. Ethnic distinctions are environmental, and are constantly changing. Some ethnic communities are closely identified with certain races, while others are not. Taken together, both racial and ethnic differences are reminders of a fundamental fact of human nature: humans are ethnic beings.
The reason for this fact that all human beings have an ethnic identity may be revealed in Genesis.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.1
The creature God created appears to have had a remarkable unity until this time in history. That unity probably was a racial one as well. This can be seen from the fact that God chose to place an identifying mark upon Cain to protect him from future vengeance.2 So, if racial distinctions were passed on through Adam, one would expect Cain’s appearance to be already distinct enough that such a mark would be unnecessary.
Perhaps the transformation that God caused at Babel was more than a simple change of languages. It might have been the beginning point for racial distinctions as well. If that were so, the communities that eventually emerged from the scattering at Babel would be based on linguistic and racial distinctions. Cultural differences would evolve from these separated communities.
Jenkins suggests that that the Babel story is given to answer at least two questions: “1) Where did the variety of languages come from? and 2) How did man disperse and populate the world.”3 Perhaps the answer to a third question, “What is the origin of ethnic identity” may be found here also. What is certain is that at some point in human history the human species has diverged into a number of distinct ethnic groups.
From One Ethnic Identity to Many
The king James version follows the textual tradition which added the word haimatos (blood)4 to Acts 17:26. Thus the KJV reads “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” This rendering accents the fact that the human race has an origin in one bloodline. Most modern translations reject the word haimatos as an editorial addition, and translate something like “And he made from one man every nation.”5 But the word “man” is not in the text. It might just as easily be translated “And he made from one nation every nation.”
The word for nation in that text is ethnos, which is the generic word for ethnic groups as well as political groups. The apostle Paul was of one ethnic group (Jews) and he was speaking to the Athenians, who were of another ethnic group (Greeks). His statement recognized the ethnic distinctions between the two groups, while at the same time appealing to a common origin.
The Purpose of Ethnic Identities
God’s intention for the existence of these ethnic identities is to preserve them throughout eternity under the lordship of Christ. That can be inferred from Rev. 7:9, where John says “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” John uses four terms, and each implies ethnic distinctions. It is clear that eternity is not intended to eradicate ethnic distinctions, but will celebrate them. These distinctions, which cause a great deal of turmoil, hatred and violence in this fallen world, will be enjoyed passionately in the restored world.
In Revelation, the Lamb is the king of the ethnic groups.6 All ethnic groups will come and worship him.7 Satan will be banished to the bottomless pit so that he will be unable to deceive the ethnic groups any longer.8 The ethnic groups will walk in the light of the Lamb himself.9 The ethnic groups will bring their glory and honor into the new Jerusalem.10 Each ethnic group will receive healing and life from the tree of life.
Jesus was born into a human context, so he has an ethnic identity as well. He had a conversation once with a woman who was a Samaritan. She was from another ethnic group. As soon as she perceived that Jesus was “a prophet” she immediately called to attention a distinction between Jews and Samaritans: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”12
Jesus’ reply to her tells us how seriously we should take ethnic distinctions when it comes to our relationship to God:
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).
For the Samaritans, worship of God was defined by ethic considerations: it had to take place on Mt. Gerazim. For the Jews, worship had to take place at the temple, which was in Jerusalem. Jesus spoke of a time when worship did not have to do with ethnic externals. God was going to reach out to all ethnic groups and call them to himself equally through the Gospel.
Salvation is “from the Jews” in the sense that the message of salvation by grace originated in the Old testament. Also, it was through the Jewish ethnic group that Christ came. But that does not imply that God favors any particular ethnic group – not even the Jews. He wishes to redeem the entire human race, and that includes people from every race and culture. Christ’s death put an end to the hostility that had separated the ethnic groups:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, 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).
So, when Jesus gave his marching orders for his disciples to convert the world to the Christian faith, he told them to make disciples of panta ta ethné: every ethnic group.13 The good news is for everybody. This is also why the apostle Paul got very angry when false teaches came to the churches he established and taught them that they had to be more Jewish to please God.14 Paul said that those teachers — who taught a kind of ethnocentricity — were ruled by the flesh, not the Holy Spirit.15 Many today are deceived into believing that they have to become more Jewish in order to be more spiritual. Nothing could be further from the truth.
God Hates Racism
Racism is a special kind of hatred that exists because of ignorance and fear. God does not endorse any kind of hatred. God loves the entire human species and wants to show that love to everyone for eternity. Our differences may have begun as a result of God’s judgment upon humanity at Babel. But the end result of those differences is the greater glory of God. His majesty will be enhanced by the great diversity of those who stand before the throne and the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. Christians of diverse ethnic groups should unite under Christ their king and worship and serve together. We do not need to preserve our ethnic unity when we assemble in Christ’s name. Christ’s authority supersedes all other authorities. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.16
In our modern society, ethnic diversity is celebrated. Churches who intentionally seek to win all the people in their communities to Christ – regardless of race or ethnic origin – are noticed. These are the kinds of churches that the general population will take seriously. Churches have an opportunity to model the kind of unity in Christ that we claim will be ours for eternity. We do not have to wait until Christ returns to begin doing that.
1 Genesis 11:1-9
2 Genesis 4:15. This mark was not a racial distinction. It was given only to Cain, not his descendents. Also, the human race as we know it today is completely descended from Noah, who was a descendant of Seth, not Cain.
3 Everett Jenkins, The Creation: Secular, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, And Muslim Perspectives (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003), 170.
4 Gk. Haimatos is the genitive of haima.
6 Rev. 15:3.
7 Rev. 15:4.
8 Rev. 20:3.
9 Rev. 21:23-24.
10 Rev. 21:25.
11 Rev. 22:2.
12 Matt. 28:19.
13 Gal. 1:6; 2:16; 3:8, 13-14, 28; 4:9, 20, 25-26; 6:15.
14 Gal. 3:3; 4:23, 29; 5:13-21, 24; 6:8, 12.
15 John 4:20.
16 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16.