The purpose of this article is twofold; first to encourage knowledge of the diversity of peoples inhabiting the earth, the size of any church among them, and the need to pray for and support church planting among the least reached. Second to postulate that the great commission of Christ to witness to all peoples and disciple them has some way to go to be fulfilled.
Who are the throng around the throne in Revelation 7:9?
“After these things I saw and behold a great crowd which no one was able to number out of every NATION, even TRIBES and PEOPLES and TONGUES standing in front of the throne.” Revelation 7:9 also 5:9 and 14:6.
Perhaps THE key sign our Lord Jesus Christ gave to his church that the end of the world was near was that recorded in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” This sign taken alongside his clear command to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18) and the fulfilment (Revelation 7:9) show that every people group MUST have a group of disciples before the judgment day. “ After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; “The fact that kindreds are mentioned suggests an even smaller group than that of a ”nation” which is a people group (TA ETHNE) NOT a political country.
Nation (Gr. ETHNOS) means a race or tribe, a body of people living according to one custom and rule (from ETHOS custom) especially Jews (Luke 7:5, Acts 10:22) also foreign nations (Matt.4:15, Mark 7:26 ‘the Syrophenician’, Rom.3:29) even Gentile Christians (Rom.11:13, 16:4, Acts 15:17, 10:28, 23:6, Luke 12:30, 23:2, I Peter 2:9, Matt.21:43, Acts 10:35.) Vine defines the word as a multitude of people of the same nature. The most illuminating verses on the precise meaning of nations in the Old Testament are Genesis 10 especially vv. 5, 31-32 where a list of peoples descended from Noah’s three sons is recorded. They consisted of families with their own language living in a particular area of the world (“countries” v20) often called after their forefather. This list is repeated in I Chron.1:32. These nations are of the same race or physical type, language (as part of culture) and geographical area. Included among them are Medes, Ionians, Scythians, Cushites, Philistines, Cretans, Zidonians, Elamites, Assyrians, and people from Sheba. Note that many of these were mentioned again in the list of the peoples who heard the wonderful works of God, in their own languages at Pentecost. Similarly in Acts 13:19 where Paul explains that in conquering the promised land of Canaan seven nations were destroyed, we know these were the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Canaanites, and Hivites (Deut.7:1). None of these are geopolitical nations as we have them today (e.g. those comprising the United Nations) with their national boundaries although some groupings did form into such e.g. the Medes and Persians became modern Iran but conversely a large nearby people the Kurds have no national homeland of their own and are part of several political nations. Romans 4:17 is also helpful if we remember that Abraham was the father of all the Arab nations descended from Ishmael, of all the Jewish tribes from Isaac and Jacob, the Edomites through Esau, and the tribes from the sons of Keturah. The Old Testament Hebrew word for nation is GOY, usually meaning Gentile heathen nation, although also used of Jews (Mal.3:9). Here is the Joshua Project definition,
What is a people group?
“For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance” (Source: 1982 Lausanne Committee Chicago meeting.)
Thus the key point here is that “nations” in Scripture is not the same meaning as nation states today.
PEOPLE (Heb.AM 5971) is the most frequently used O.T. word for a grouping of humans but it can mean all the people of the world (Gen. 11:6), most frequently by far (x1600) it refers to the Jews (Gen.17:14), but also God’s elect (Ps.29:11, Hos.2:23), the reprobate (Zech.14:12, the nations (Gen.25:23), language groups (Est.3:12), an extended family (Gen.32:7), or just a group in a city (I Kings 21:9), thus any size of group basically! PEOPLE (Gr. LAOS) are of the same stock and language, almost always used of the elect people of Israel (Matt.13:15) but also Philistines, Egyptians etc. (Rev.5:9, 10:11, 17:15, Rom.11:1, Heb.11:25, Acts 15:14), the elect (Acts 18:10, I Peter 2:10). Almost identical to nation but also used interchangeably in the New Testament with OCHLOS which is the word more often used for a gathered public throng. Thus in both testaments this word is quite ambiguous.
KINDREDS, TRIBES (Heb. MATTAH (‘branch’ 4294 or SHEBET branch/clan. Jon.1:8), clans (Gr. PHULE) can mean race, clan, kindred or tribe (Rev.7:5-7,9, Heb.7:13, Acts 13:21, Matt.24:30). From the tribes of Israel we can gather that this grouping were all descended from one of the sons of Jacob, spoke the same language and at the time of Moses numbered anything from twenty to a hundred thousand. Thus a tribe or kindred, is a smaller unit than a nation (Ps.22:27), which would comprise all the Israelites.
CLAN would be even smaller and families even smaller again. FAMILY (Heb. MISHPACHAH 4940) is of interest as another collective noun used in the Old Testament particularly in the covenant promise to Abraham, reiterated to Jacob that through them all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen.12:3, 28:14). It appears that families can mean anything from the nuclear family group of a couple (and their children if they have any), to a larger group that made up a tribe (Ex.6:14-19, Numbers 1, Joshua 18-19) and in Amos 3:2 it means all the Jews. When Achan was singled out (Joshua 7:16-18) he was from the tribe of Judah, of the family or clan of Zarhites, and of the household of Zabdi. The word family is used of each of these groupings. So this particular noun does not help us to distinguish group size but it usually denotes a grouping smaller than a nation or tribe.
It seems to me the use of these three terms (NATION, TRIBE and PEOPLE) are almost interchangeable, with considerable overlap, except that tribe describes a smaller group than nation or people and family a smaller group again but the writers of Scripture use them so as to cover every possible grouping of men who share common ethnic characteristics normally ancestry, language and custom, down even to the size of clans or extended families. They may NOT necessarily share the same location because so many are dispersed. The usage seems akin to, ”Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in the epistles which we believe comprehensively covers all the 150 Psalms. To include all peoples on the earth these slightly different terms are used together. The point I want to emphasise is that each of these ethnolinguistic groups must be represented as part of the bride of Christ on the last day, and ONLY THUS the great commission of discipling the nations will have been accomplished.
Tongues is clearly different languages (GLOSSAE) and these have been well documented (Wycliffe Bible Translators)*
Click on pic to enlarge.
How are we to know where the church stands in this great commission? There appears to be a general misconception among many Reformed people that the job is nearly, if not, done! Here is a recent quote from a Reformed pastor, “But, at the same time, most of humanity has heard the gospel. Only about four percent of the world’s population do not have the gospel and the Scriptures in their language today. Jesus has this in mind when He speaks of the gospel going to the ends of the earth—that after His departure and before His return the gospel would go to all nations.”
Just because 96% of the world’s people have written Scriptures surely does NOT mean the gospel has gone to the ends of the earth. What if a large percentage of these folk cannot read and there are no true churches in their vicinity as is the case in many of the unreached peoples e.g. in India? The resource is not being accessed! Hence they are not reached!
Now the vexed question is, have not some of these tribes become extinct before they were ever exposed to the gospel? A point difficult to prove but Acts 14:16 suggests that was the case. Have not some of these tribes been reached in the past and then died out? Possible but unlikely. If a people group has not been reached in 2016 it is highly unlikely, considering all the modern methods of dissemination e.g. personal witness, modern travel methods, preaching, printed page, radio/TV, internet and mobile phone, that they were reached before. The only clues would be found in a detailed history of mission in a particular country or getting info from a targetting mission organisation. But these parachurch mission agencies which support churches who do the sending, form the basic source of information for the Joshua Project which is the website I am advocating we ought to support, at least in prayer. Thus there is no harm, indeed it seems safest to me, that those groups known to be totally unreached today (no known believers), are targeted for prayer and the sending of labourers as soon as practically possible. I do not expect any single denomination to be able to achieve what is a massive operation that only God with his resources can accomplish.
According to the best sources, Joshua Project website and the book Operation World there are 9813 distinct people groups who are socially cohesive, of the same race, language and culture, but who may reside in adjoining political countries. Out of a total world population of 7.3 billion, 4051 of these groups, numbering 3 billion and comprising 42% of the total, are ‘unreached’. They may have written scriptures but many cannot read them and because their total Christian (evangelical) population is less than 2% (which could be construed as reached!) the church is incapable of reaching all their people who historically have never been exposed to the gospel. Most unreached peoples today were NEVER reached in the past either but getting evidence to prove or disprove this is difficult. Fact is, some peoples have no known believers, today and never have! I guarantee that even a brief look at the Joshua Project website will enlighten you!
The Joshua Project are also aware that many formerly reached peoples are now nominal e.g. many in the West and many who were reached by false Christianity where syncretism reigns e.g. Mexico and Central America; these would also count as unreached. The vast majority (65%) of the Unreached Peoples live in the 10/40 window which is the rectangle on the globe between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator and east of the Greenwich Meridian. This is more or less the Muslim World and the Subcontinent of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The largest of these peoples include the Shaikh of Bangladesh (136 million), the Shaikh of India (83m), the Yadav of India (60m) and the Brahmin of India (60m). India has the most unreached peoples of any country.
Our aim as part of a Reformed denomination should be to continue pressing on in places with obvious open doors and receptivity e.g. the Philippines but also be like Paul in Romans 15:20-21 who desired to reach the unreached, “Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand.” To achieve this latter task takes a lot more preparation, training and providential logistics! We can rest assured Christ the head of his church will gather every last one of his elect! But we must do all in our power to pray, send missionaries and support those who will go.
Dr Julian Kennedy