October 6, 1991

Lord of All Nations

“From one man he made every nation of men …  Now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” (Acts 17:26,30-31)

Hispanic people in North America have become impossible to ignore.  They are a significant bloc of voters, so politicians must take them seriously.  They are the fastest growing group of consumers in the United States, so business people can’t afford to overlook them.  Hispanics have an impact on jobs, schools, and neighborhoods.

This doesn’t sit well with some people.  A woman behind the counter of a service station near my house thought it was wonderful that my Canadian wife had moved to the United States with me.  Then she added, “I’d rather have Canadians moving in than all those blankety-blank Hispanics.”  Well, she didn’t exactly say “blankety-blank Hispanics,” but I don’t want to repeat what she did say.  She complained that Hispanic immigrants were taking jobs from “real Americans,” yet in the next breath she admitted her own parents were immigrants.

White people aren’t the only ones struggling with resentment.  Suspicion and prejudice are equal opportunity sins.  TIME magazine (7-27-91) recently explored the hostility between Hispanics and African-Americans in an article titled “Browns vs. Blacks.”  Competition for jobs and political clout, as well as ethnic prejudice, have bred distrust and even open animosity.

Those who aren’t Hispanic sometimes resent the increasing number of Hispanic people and try to resist their growing influence, but that is an exercise in futility.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that Hispanics are a major factor right now and will be even more significant in the future.  More than 20 million people in the United States identified themselves as Hispanic in the latest census.  Within the next twenty years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that Hispanics will surpass African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group.  And if present trends continue, within a few decades America’s so-called minorities will outnumber whites–it won’t even make sense to talk about minorities, since there won’t be a majority anymore.  All of us who live in the United States and Canada might as well accept that fact and learn to enjoy it.

I treasure my own heritage, but I’ve come to appreciate friends who have a very different heritage.  As a student, I shared an apartment with a Korean citizen and a Chinese American, as well as those from my own ethnic background.  I spent a summer in the nation of Israel.  I’ve been a pastor in a town with many immigrants from Portugal and the Netherlands.  And right now, in my present work at the Back to God Hour’s International Communications Center, I rub shoulders with people from too many different countries to mention now.  Our Spanish-speaking staff alone includes people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Chile, and Argentina.  It’s been exciting for me to meet a rich variety of people and also to hear what the Lord Jesus has been doing in their lives and in their cultures.

I’m convinced that the church of Jesus Christ is the best place in the world to get rid of prejudice and enjoy friends from a variety of cultures.  The good news of Jesus Christ crosses every barrier of nation or language or skin color.  So I’m glad that today my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, is celebrating its annual All Nations Heritage Sunday.  Each Sunday Christian Reformed people across North America praise God in at least 17 different languages, and we’re really just one small part of God’s church around the world.  Each month at the Back to God Hour we receive letters from people in more than 100 different countries who are responding to our broadcasts, and we are just one among many gospel ministries that God is using.  Christ is drawing people to himself in every part of the world.  So each year my church sets aside a special Sunday to rejoice in the rich variety of people who are united by faith in Jesus.  This year we’re giving special thanks to God for our many fellow Christians who are Hispanic.

When we celebrate the international character of the church, we are ultimately praising the Savior of the world himself, the Lord Jesus.  According to Revelation 5, the choirs of heaven honor Jesus by singing, “You were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).  The blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, is the reason that people of every heritage are being saved.

The great international family of God exists only because Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows.  Christ is the center of our faith and the one who unites us.

Right now let’s take a more detailed look at how the Christian faith applies to people of every heritage.  In Acts 17 Paul, a Jewish Christian, is speaking in Athens to a diverse group of Greeks and other nationalities.  Here’s an excerpt of what he told them:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth;  and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.  “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”

Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill.  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.                                     Acts 17:24-31

In these few words, we see four significant aspects of the Christian faith that apply to people of every cultural heritage.  First, every person has the same origin:  God made us.  Second, every human being has the same problem:  we have sinned against God.  Third, all people have the same need:  we must personally turn to God.  And fourth, everyone must face the same judge:  we will all stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.  According to the Bible, every human being has these four things in common.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First of all, we have a common origin.  As Paul puts it, “from one man God made every nation of men.”  Each nation and tribe was not created by a different god;  all were made by one Almighty Creator.  The Bible teaches that God created Adam and Eve in his own image, and that every person on this planet is a descendant of that first human couple.  In other words, there really are not many different races of people, but only one race:  the human race.  What we often label as race is really nothing more than a minor variation within one worldwide family.

So you can’t insult someone from another ethnic background without insulting yourself, since you have the same original parents and belong to the same family.  Even more important, you can’t insult another human being without insulting God, since each person is his creation bearing his image.  When you insult someone made in God’s image, the Lord takes it personally.  That’s why Jesus warned that anyone who calls his brother a fool “will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).  The apostle James writes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).

The Christian faith teaches the equal dignity and the basic family unity of every single human being on this planet.  Our dignity and unity are God-given, and our variety is also God-given.  According to the Bible, “from one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth;  and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). So whether you live in a hut or an igloo, a tidy suburb or a bustling barrio, God put you where you are.  Whatever your skin color, that’s the color God wants you to be.  God did not make people with a cookie cutter.  He made us different and colorful, since he is a creative God and enjoys variety in his creatures.  So we can be equal without all trying to be the same, since that’s how God made us.  We all have the same origin.

Unfortunately, there’s a second thing that all human beings have in common.  Not only do we have the same origin, but we all have the same problem:  sin.  Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God, we have been sinners with a constant tendency to disobey God and make up our own religion.  God wants us to reach out to him and find him, but we prefer to follow our own sinful ways and our own homemade religions.  God is pleased by the variety of people and cultures, but he is not pleased by sin.

According to the Bible, all people are have disobeyed God and fallen into sin.  No ethnic group is any more sinful or any less sinful than the next.  Sin is an equal opportunity employer, so we all have the same basic problem.

Unfortunately, certain people who claim to be Christians have sometimes forgotten this.  I think, for example, of those who think Jewish people are especially evil.  They seem to forget that Jesus and all his first missionaries were themselves Jews. Our faith began among Jewish people, so how can we possibly condemn someone simply for being Jewish?  Some of those who despise Jewish people blame them for the death of Christ, and undoubtedly there were Jewish people who wanted Jesus dead.  But what does that prove?  Gentiles also took part in the crucifixion of Christ.  And aside from who actually pounded in the nails, every true Christian acknowledges that his or her own sins were responsible for nailing Jesus to that cross.  According to the Bible, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9).

Sin has had its deadly effect on people from every culture. Our problem is never the color of our skin, but the corruption of our sin.  Unfortunately, it is often tempting to condemn one ethnic heritage as being more corrupt than other, or else go the other extreme and idealize that heritage as being perfect.

Native Americans have endured horrendous injustices at the hands of people who portrayed them savages. Western movies of years past perpetuated the myth of the virtuous, noble cowboys conquering the savage, wicked Indians.  White was good, red was bad.  But lately the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Some people seem to think that Native Americans lived in perfect holiness and harmony before Christopher Columbus and the settlers who came after him ruined their paradise.  Last year’s big Oscar winner, “Dances with Wolves,”  portrays white people (except the sensitive hero) as cruel villains, while the Native Americans are almost perfect.  Red is good, white is bad.

The truth of the matter is that Native Americans are neither savages nor saints, and white people are neither savages nor saints.  People of every heritage are made in God’s image, and people of every heritage are sinners as well.  If you live in an ivory tower or on a movie set, you might be able to idealize one group of people and vilify another, but real race relations must occur where real people with real sins must live side by side. We must be realistic, and understand that whites and Hispanics, Asians and blacks, are all affected by sin.

Racial stereotypes are not helpful.  If someone is adulterous, or dishonest, or cruel, or greedy, or lazy, or stubborn, it isn’t due to that person’s God-given skin color or national origin.  It is due to sin.  And I can’t act superior to someone who is a sinner, since I am a sinner myself.  The Bible declares, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), including me.  Jesus Christ had to die for my sin just as much as anyone else’s.  We’ve all got the same basic problem: sin.

Since everyone is created by the same God and corrupted by the same disobedience, it only makes sense that we all have the same ultimate need.  That’s the third thing we have in common:  we all need to turn back to God.  Nobody needs a new skin color or a different language, since that’s the way God made us.  But we do need to personally turn away from sin, and turn back to the one true God.

The apostle Paul says, “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill.  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:29-30).  We must turn away from sin and turn back to the one true God.  No matter who you are, no matter what your background is, no matter what nation you live in, you must turn back to the God who has revealed himself in his Word, the Bible, and in his Son, Jesus Christ.

God wants us to turn to him, not to gods that our ancestors have invented.  We must value our roots and our ethnic heritage, but that does not mean we should follow false gods.  There is not one god for one ethnic group, and a different god for another group.  God commands all people everywhere to turn back to him.

This means not only that we must turn away from false gods, but we must also beware of religion that uses the name of the true God but ignores the reality.  It’s possible have religious rituals in the name of Jesus without having a real relationship with him.  It’s possible for churches to forget the divine truth of the Bible and teach only human ideas.  But God wants us to have a living faith in him.  Church rituals have no magic value–they’re a blessing only when we’re depending on the love of Jesus.  God doesn’t just want us to reach out to some form of Christianity–he wants us to “reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27).

We can learn from the experience of Hispanics.  In many Spanish-speaking countries, people claimed to be Christians, but they never read the Bible.  If they prayed at all, it was not intimate conversation with God, but rattling off memorized prayers.  Cuban president Fidel Castro was raised that way. Castro says, “We were never taught anything more than to repeat what was written, once, ten times, fifty times, one hundred times, absolutely mechanical.  That really isn’t prayer, it’s an exercise of the vocal cords, an exercise in patience, but it’s not prayer.”

Much Christianity in Latin America was formal and superstitious and unbiblical.  But Jesus has been doing wonderful things among our Hispanic brothers and sisters in the last few decades.  People are studying the Bible again;  they are alive with the Holy Spirit;  they are trusting in Jesus instead of thinking only about their rituals and traditions.  Less than 50 years ago, only 5 million people in Latin America belonged to evangelical churches.  Today there are more than 40 million evangelicals.  In addition, the Holy Spirit has renewed many people in the older, traditional churches.  They are following the living Christ, gathering in Bible study groups, learning to really pray from the heart.  Hollow rituals have been replaced by a fulfilling relationship with the living God.  The tremendous spiritual revival sweeping Latin America and Hispanics in North America is nothing short of astounding.  God is powerfully at work in the Spanish-speaking world.

Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you have the same need–to turn to the living God himself.  If your parents didn’t have a living relationship with Jesus, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.  There was nothing wrong with your parents’ skin color or clothing or preference in food, but their religion was wrong.  Ethnic heritage is no excuse for following false religion rather than following Jesus.

Ethnic heritage does not need to be an obstacle, either.  God doesn’t accept or reject anyone on the basis of national origin, but on the basis of a healthy relationship with him.  The Bible says in Acts 10 that “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”  The Lord is completely unprejudiced; he accepts people from every background.  The Bible leaves no doubt about this.

When Jesus died on the cross, he was shedding his blood for people of every tribe and language and people and nation.  After his resurrection he told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.  In Romans 1:16, Paul says that the gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes:  first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”  Jesus began by working among the Jewish people, and then the Holy Spirit moved his followers to spread the gospel to Samaritan half-breeds, to an African government official, to Italian soldiers, to a Greek businesswoman, and so forth.  Today the Christian faith has spread to every nation and calls people back to God.

This brings us to the fourth thing that we all have in common:  we will all stand before the same judge on the last day.  As Paul told the people of Athens, God “has set a day when he will judge the world by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Jesus did not die for just one nation, and he is not going to judge just one nation.  He will judge everyone. If you are from China or India or Japan, you will stand before Jesus.  If you are Jewish, you must someday answer to Jesus the Messiah.  If you are from Canada or Africa or South America, you will answer to Jesus.  We all have the same appointment with the same divine judge.

If you persist in your sins and are not washed clean by Jesus’ blood, you will not be able to remain in the presence of the judge.  You will be driven away from Christ forever.

But if you have been saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection, you can rejoice that you will someday meet the Lord face to face.  Your judge is also your Savior.  No matter who you are, if you belong to Christ, you are going to be part of that great multitude who will see the smile of approval on Jesus’ face and join him to live forever in heaven.

The reality of the final judgment should strike the final blow to racial prejudice.  Jesus judges without regard to skin color or national origin, so I had better not discriminate.  I’d better be very careful not to insult or turn my back on people that Jesus will approve and accept on that great day.  If the divine judge embraces such people, who am I to turn up my nose at them?  I must get in tune with Jesus.  Besides, in heaven I’m going to be living with the people Jesus redeemed from every tribe and language and people and nation.  If I’m going spend eternity with such a variety of people, I might as well start learning to enjoy the All Nations Heritage of the church right now.

PRAYER

Father, thank you for revealing what we have in common with all other people.  Replace our prejudice with respect and love.  Thank you, Jesus, for redeeming people from every tribe and language and people and nation.  We praise you for the amazing things you are doing among Hispanic people.  By your Holy Spirit, continue bringing people into your church and into a living relationship with yourself.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.