Bible Q&A: What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘all nations’?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

When Jesus gave the great commission he said to make disciples from all nations. What does the original word for 'all nations' mean and suggest? If Jesus were giving his parting words here and today, what might be his instructions?​

Answer:

The words 'all nations' appear in Matthew 28.19. They're sometimes translated 'all peoples', which is an accurate rendering of the Greek original, 'panta ta ethne'. So you're right if you're implying that his words don't mean 'countries' as we understand them now, and this isn't just talking about 'foreign missions'.

The word translated 'nations', ethne, has at least two overtones here. It means 'people groups', who might speak the same language, follow the same religion or live in the same area. But it's also shorthand for 'Gentiles', non-Jews; it's the word used for them in Matthew 10.18, for instance. In Romans 16.4 Paul refers to the 'Gentile churches', using the same word – these are churches made up of Christians who are not Jews.

So at its simplest, Jesus is just saying that the Good News is for everyone. We wouldn't nowadays think this was controversial. But at the time, he was making a point of saying that it was for every class of society, the very poorest as well as the very rich, and that there was to be a new community in which there would be, as Paul said later, 'no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3.28). 

At a time when Jews fiercely guarded their distinctive identity – and knew the stories of the courageous martyrs who had died to preserve it during the Maccabean Revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire – the idea that God could bring Jews and Gentiles together in this way was very radical. 

As to what he would say today – that's the job of the preacher rather than the Bible scholar, as we imaginatively and prayerfully apply Jesus' words to our own situations. But we could certainly point to the fact that in the UK the Church is disproportionately middle-class; that there are quite large differences between churchgoing patterns in different regions; and that older people are far more likely to go to church than younger ones. So this could very well lead us to identify 'ethne' to whom we need to go and preach the gospel.  

But it's also a challenge to us to identify people from whom we might feel really distant, or even antagonistic towards, and to think about what 'preaching the gospel' might look like for them.

Jesus' words are just as radical today as when he first spoke them.

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