Destroying the “wall of hostility” — multiculturalism & the kingdom of God

It’s only in the past few years that Hollywood has finally become truly multicultural, with entire casts featuring lead and supporting actors who aren’t mostly white. And what’s been so great is that it hasn’t felt forced. This is our new normal, and we like it this way.

But multiculturalism isn’t so widely embraced outside of our American melting pot. Even though she was named TIME’s Person of the Year in part for her welcome of Syrian refugees, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear that she doesn’t see multiculturalism working in Germany and is moving to reduce the number of foreigners entering the country. She has called multiculturalism a sham and an utter failure.

The biblical view of multiculturalism is that it is the very nature of the kingdom of God.

Genesis 10 lists the nations of the world, thought to be 70 at the time. These are the nations that the descendants of Abraham are to bless, when the Abrahamic covenant is outlined in Genesis 12:2-3.

I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.

The summary of God’s dream and our mission — “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” — is echoed throughout the Scriptures.

When David’s “mighty men” are listed in 2 Samuel 23:8-39, they are a remarkably multicultural bunch, including his top three: Josheb-Basshebeth a Tahkemonite, Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite, and Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. Among the rest are Shammah the Harodite, Elika the Harodite, Helez the Paltite, Sibbekai the Hushathite, Zalmon the Ahohite, Maharai the Netophathite, Heled son of Baanah the Netophathite, Benaiah the Pirathonite, Abi-Albon the Arbathite, Azmaveth the Barhumite, Eliahba the Shaalbonite, Jonathan son of Shammah the Hararite, Ahiam son of Sharar the Hararite, Eliphelet son of Ahasbai the Maakathite, Eliam son of Ahithophel the Gilsonite, Hezro the Carmelite, Paarai the Arbite, Zelek the Ammonite, Naharai the Beerothite, Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite, and Uriah the Hittite.

All those -ites refer to nationalities. And I am truly floored by how wide-ranging David’s most important men were in their ethnicities. Sure, it’s probable that they were mercenaries, but that’s not necessarily the case. And the fact that they were the ones closest to him, rather than relatives from the tribe of Judah, says something about both David and the men who served him.

And not only was David a paragon of multiethnic embrace, but we see this desire for all nations to pour into Jerusalem throughout the Psalms and prophets. My favorite is Psalm 87:

I will record Rahab and Babylon
    among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
    and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’

I love that the ancient enemies of Israel — Rahab (i.e. Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush — are listed among those who acknowledge God and who are “born in Zion.” That last part is shocking. Even though these people retain the nationalities of their births, they are now treated as if they’d been born in the holiest place among the people of God. You can’t get any more Israelite than that!

When we get to Jesus, he sends out 70 disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God. Does that number 70 sound familiar? Jesus was intentionally matching the number of nations. He was showing his intent to fulfill the covenant with Abraham to bless all peoples of the earth.

Jesus makes this echo of Abraham even more plain in what is called the Great Commission, when he sends his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). (This echo shouldn’t surprise us, since Jesus was tied to Abraham from the very first verse of Matthew’s gospel.)

When we get to the book of Acts, we see something fascinating take place. The scattering and confusing of the languages caused at the tower of Babel is reversed in the gathering and proclamation of the gospel to a wide range of nationalities on Pentecost.

What interests me is that the nationalities aren’t erased on Pentecost and neither are their distinctive languages. Rather, those who are filled with God’s Spirit speak in the languages of those who have gathered in Jerusalem. God’s people, filled with God’s Spirit, are barrier-crossers.

Following this, the book of Acts very methodically begins its progression outlined in Acts 1:8 — “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This starts in Acts 3 when Peter and John heal a man who is as close to the temple as he can get without actually be allowed inside, because he is not physically whole. In Acts 7, when Stephen tells the story of the people of God, all of it takes place outside of Jerusalem and the temple and almost all of it outside of the land of Israel. In Acts 8, the believers are scattered outside of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and an Ethiopian eunuch comes to faith in Jesus. As someone who is reading the Isaiah scroll, he has Jewish faith. But as someone who is a eunuch and an Ethiopian, he is barred from the temple and of a different ethnicity. The circle is getting wider.

The Jewish circle is at its widest at the end of Acts 9, with Simon the tanner. His profession would have kept him perpetually unclean, since he would have worked with dead animal skins on a daily basis.

In Acts 10, we are introduced to a Gentile, Cornelius the Italian, who is about as close to being Jewish without actually converting. He is devout and God-fearing, meaning he has taken on faith in Yahweh without being circumcised. He is generous with the poor and prays regularly, meaning his lives this biblical faith.

From Simon who was barely in the Jewish circle to Cornelius who was barely outside of the circle, we see that circle getting wider and wider throughout the rest of Acts. Finally, the book concludes in Rome, the city that was the antithesis of Jerusalem. Although Romans considered Rome to be the center of the world, spiritually it was the “ends of the earth.”

The kingdom of God now touches every kingdom on earth.

The coming together of the nations is an undercurrent throughout the rest of the New Testament. Paul spends significant amount of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians on the theme of the unity of the people of God across the previous Jew-Gentile barrier. In Ephesians 2:14, he declares the “wall of hostility” between ethnicities to be destroyed in Jesus.

And finally, the Revelation sees representatives from all of humanity gathered together and united in worship:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9)

And in the final chapter of the Bible, we are reintroduced to the Tree of Life.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:2)

Not only is the wall of hostility torn down, but the nations are healed and joined together in worship.

And what I find amazing is the process.

The division of the nations takes place as people reject God and what it means to live as true humans. Murder and war arise. Ethnic languages and loyalties turn people inward and away from others, who are now known as foreigners.

From Abraham on, we see God’s dream for the world. It’s one of blessing and unity, but it’s not one of uniformity. The different flavors and colors of humanity that come from our division aren’t erased when we are reunited. God preserves uniqueness while creating unity.

There is no McDonaldization of the earth. There is no flattening of humanity into one size, one flavor, one color, one ethnicity. The nations flow into Zion, but they retain their distinctiveness. They worship the same Lord, but they do so in different tongues.

This is because the God who created and saved them is himself a unity made up of three unique Persons. Within the Trinity, both oneness and manyness exist at the same time.

God is himself multicultural.

As the people of God, we are to be the ones who follow Jesus and tear down the walls of hostility that arise from time to time. We are to be the ones who reach for the leaves of the Tree of Life to seek the healing of the nations. We are to be the ones who together in many languages and in every corner of the world declare the praises of the God who is One and Three at the same time.

And so we reject fear of the outsider. And in the process, we discover that not only are Samaritans our neighbors, but so too are Syrians and Iraqis and Russians and Chinese and Turks and Germans and Israelis and Saudis and French and Americans and, well, you get the picture.

We humans treat walls as if they’re solutions to out divisions. They’ve never worked.

The Great Wall to keep out Mongols marauders. Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the scary Scots. The Berlin Wall to keep in the East Germans. The Israeli West Bank Wall to keep out Palestinian terrorists. The walls between the United States and Mexico, between Greece and Turkey, between the two halves of Cyprus, between India and Pakistan, between Iraq and Kuwait, between Malaysia and Thailand, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen … all of them emphasize our brokenness and our need for reconciliation to take place at a deep level, a heart level.

I love that Christians have been a significant part of the conversations about tearing down the 100+ walls that divide in Northern Ireland, the walls which started going up “temporarily” in 1969.

May we see the walls around us for what they really are and get busy tearing down, healing, and worshiping our Triune together.

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