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Why Foreign Missions? 7. The meaning of ‘ethnoi’ in Matthew 28.19

Why Foreign Missions? 7. The meaning of ‘ethnoi’ in Matthew 28.19

The previous discussion examined the relationship between Mt. 28.16-20 and Is. 66.18-23.  One specific issue in this comparison deserves attention: who are the ‘nations’ (Greek ethnoi) to whom the disciples are to go (Isaiah 66.19 says 'from those being saved' for the remnant who are 'sent out to the nations')?  The Greek word can be translated as ‘peoples,’ ‘nations,’ or ‘Gentiles.’  

Are the disciples to go to each people group in the world?  Are they to go to the nations in the sense of each country in the world?  Or are they to go to the Gentiles in general, without the more particular idea of each distinct people group with its own language and customs being reached?

‘Gentiles’: If we are to look internally in Matthew’s Gospel, we might say that ethnoi typically means ‘Gentiles.’[1]  Mt. 4.15 speaks of ‘Galilee of the Gentiles,’ that is, where many non-Jews live.  The word ethnoi is further used in this sense in Mt. 6.32; 10.5; 20.19; 20.25. 

‘Gentiles’ or possibly ‘peoples’: The word is also probably used this way in Mt. 10.18; 12.18; 24.9, although the word could be translated as ‘peoples’ in these verses. 

‘People’ or ‘nation’: In the singular, in Mt. 21.43; 24.7, ‘ethnos’ should be translated as ‘people’ or ‘nation,’ but not as ‘Gentiles.’  Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, also uses the singular ‘ethnos’ in the sense of a specific group of people.  Several examples may be cited: the ‘Sodomite people’ and the ‘Arabic people’ (Antiq. 1.1); ‘Median people’ (Antiq. 1.124); a city called ‘Mazaca’ gave its name to the entire ‘people’ (Antiq. 1.125); the ‘Judadaians, a people of Western Ethiopia’ (Antiq. 1.135); Moabites are ‘even now a people/nation’ (Antiq. 1.206); Ishmael is said to be the founder of the Arab people (Antiq. 1.214); Amram, being well established among the Hebrews, was afraid for the whole ‘nation’ (Antiq. 2.210), etc.  Thus the term could be used with specific groups with their own characteristics, languages, and histories in mind.

‘Peoples’ or ‘nations’: Yet there are a few occasions where the word in the plural probably does mean ‘peoples,’ or at least ‘nations’ in the general sense rather than the specific sense of ‘Gentiles, not Jews’:

And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come (Mt. 24.14).

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25.32).

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28.19).

Matthew’s typical use of ‘ethnoi’ for ‘Gentiles’ may lead us to suppose that the word in these three passages could again mean ‘Gentiles.’  Yet the adjective ‘all’ suggests otherwise.  Moreover, the relation between Mt. 28.19 and Is. 66.18 also suggests that ‘ethnoi’ should be translated as ‘peoples’ or ‘nations.’ 

Is. 66.18 clearly has ‘all peoples’ or ‘all nations’ in view: ‘For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory….’ (this is so in both the Hebrew and the Greek; the Aramaic adds a third term: ‘peoples, nations, and tongues’).  Is. 66.21 says, ‘And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the LORD.’  The ‘them’ in this verse seems to refer to the nations.  This notion has already been stated in Isaiah 56:6-7:

 6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant--  7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
The places to which the survivors of Is. 66 will go are mentioned in v. 19: ‘toTarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands….’  The mention of these specific lands seems to carry the meaning of far-away lands.  The mission of the survivors is not limited to these places; the point is that they will go even to these far-away places, and therefore to every other place.

This mission in Is. 66 includes the peoples or nations of the world, but it is also a mission to recover the exiled Jews from these places:

They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring a grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD (Is. 66.20).

Thus Is. 66.18-23 has the survivors ministering far and wide to both the exiled Jews and to the peoples of the earth. 

We must, however, exercise caution.  To say that ‘all nations’ in this passage or in Mt. 28.16-20 means every people group on earth is simply to read too much into the word.  Moreover, through time the earth’s ‘peoples’ and ‘nations.’  The texts rather have a more general sense of various groups on the earth.  What both Is. 66 and Mt. 28 have in view is a mission that goes outwards to the various peoples of the earth, without trying to identify and target each people group in the world.

Here, then, is the basis for the Church’s concern with foreign missions.  Mt. 28.16-20 claims that the time has come to fulfill the prediction of Is. 66.18-23.  Thus the Church’s very purpose is to fulfill this mission to the world.  Believers and churches may well ask, ‘Where do I/we fit into this commission?’  The Church is being built through missions, and it exists for missions.  Its history is the history of missions.

[1] There is a related word that means ‘Gentile’—ethnikos.  Matthew uses this word to discount only greeting one’s brothers, since even the ethnikoi do this (5.47).  We find this word used again in Mt. 6.7 and 18.17.