Gospel & Culture blog
Some pastors and even theologians preach that "ethne" in “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Matt 24:14; Rev 7:refers to "ethnic people groups" or nations . The excerpt below, from my book God's image and Global Cultures, addresses this issue:
This implies that there is ethno-cultural continuity between earthly cultures and eternity. The “nations” are apparently represented in heaven, in these verses. An interpretive problem immediately presents itself: Which nations? Does this mean only nation-states recognized by the United Nations? What about nations that have gone extinct, like the Ottoman Empire and Babylon, or nations that have reinvented themselves like Egypt and Greece? What about nations that are yet to be born? It is quite problematic to link ethne (translated as “nation” in the passage above) to the modern nation-states.
Unfortunately, rather than solving a problem, rendering "ethne" as nation or "people group" further reinforces an error in popular evangelical theology of culture. Think of the difficulties in interpreting ethne as ethnic groups: Is the child of an African-American father and Korean mother a member of a distinct ethne—yet another ethne that must be evangelized and will be included in the “all cultures in heaven” list? Would reaching a Korean-African American be considered as one new ethne or two or three ethne? What about people like Tiger Woods—“Cabalasians” who have numerous ethnicities in their background (as in fact, we all do)? Are they included as a distinct ethne? Are Caucasian Americans in the twenty-first century—with the innumerable combinations of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Eastern European ancestry—to be understood as a single ethne? If we extend ethne to mean “however people identify themselves ethnically” or “all possible ethnic permutations” then we are left with so many possibilities that we may as well just say “all people.” In fact, that is exactly what many theologians conclude: We must interpret “every tribe and nation” as a metaphor for many people from all over the world.
This way of looking at ethne may seem like splitting hermeneutical hairs, but it has profound implications for an evangelical theology of culture in the twenty-first century. It should radically change the way we think about race and ethnicity. Ethnic boundaries are gradients and porous, not defined and static. Now, even if the Greek term ethne means “all people”; in practical terms, I would still maintain the conventional missiological wisdom that the best way to reach “many people from all over the world” is to focus on their self-identified ethnic groups! But those lines are always shifting and are contested.
 USCWM. "Who are the Unreached?"
 Some scholars have suggested that ethne in Matthew refers only to Gentiles. There are times when context does indicate this rendering. However, in these eschatological verses, the meaning seems to be extended to all people (see Meier “Nations or Gentiles”). Note that (ta) ethne is rendered 12 different ways, depending on context, in popular English translations: nation(s), people, country (or countries), province, Gentiles, heathens, pagans, peoples, world, foreigners, mankind, race (see Muthuraj “The Meaning of Ethnos and Ethne”) but never as “ethnicity.”
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor