the shape of leadership

Adam, Abraham, and the Apocalypse

A biblical theology of race

Race is an explosive topic in the United States. It challenges us to think about ourselves, our identity, and the experiences of marginalized communities.

Racial violence reminds us America still has a race problem. In 2020, we witnessed a public outcry through marches, protests and vigils. There was a desire to expose racism in all its forms and build a more inclusive and equitable society.

For many people like me, race is identity shaping. Certainly, I am also a child of God and a Pentecostal believer. I am born of the Spirit and connected to the family of God that transcends national and racial boundaries.

But I also live in a world where people cannot see my Pentecostal identity in the same way they see my racial identity. Race emerges every time I drive my car, walk down the street, or enter a store. Race is all around me. This inescapable reality is part of my daily life as a minority in America.

As a New Testament scholar who specializes in race and ethnicity in antiquity, I know the Bible has a lot to say about these subjects. The Bible is a long conversation about the redemptive gospel for all races.

Today, the word “race” evokes phenotypes, such as skin color or hair. In ancient times, people more commonly understood race in terms of one’s homeland, culture, genealogy, language and even religion.

But what does the Bible say about race and ethnicity? What guidance can we find in Scripture for navigating the racial justice challenges we face today? To answer these questions, we need to start at the beginning.

Race and Creation

The creation narrative not only describes the beginning of the universe, but also our common humanity and origins.

Every person of every race has the image of God embedded within his or her being (Genesis 1:26–27). The Bible teaches inherent human worth, regardless of skin color or culture.

Soon after creation, racial differences and diverse groups appeared. This is not a bad thing, as if racial diversity is something to avoid. It has always been God’s plan for humanity.

The first commandment God gave Adam and Eve was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). In other words, humans were to establish families, communities and nations.

So, even though we are racially different, we are all descendants of the same human family, and our differences are part of God’s created order.

After Adam, nations did develop and spread throughout the earth (Genesis 5:1–32; 10:32). Today, we don’t always view biblical genealogies with interest. But in ancient times, genealogies helped God’s people understand their identity.

Genealogies preserved the history of people groups and solidified the rights and inheritances of individuals. They made people think about their racial boundaries, while also recognizing their common identity as descendants.

From Genesis forward, the Bible is clear that all people are part of God’s creation. Unfortunately, some have used genealogies to propagate false theories about the inferiority of certain racial and ethnic groups.

For example, George Best, a 16th-century English sea captain, cited the curse of Canaan and his descendants in Genesis 9:20–27 to promote racist and unbiblical ideas about the people of Africa. Tragically, such arguments became popular among those seeking to justify the evils of slavery.

The failure to recognize diversity as part of God’s plan leads to serious error. There are many racial groups throughout the world, each with its own customs and language. This testifies to the beauty of God’s creation and the value of differences.

Since we all have the same Creator, this also means God loves and cares for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or other differences (Ephesians 4:6). This conviction drove Paul’s missionary zeal. In his speech to the Athenians, Paul said, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth ... ” (Acts 17:26).

The Bible, then, affirms our common connection through creation, and should drive our concern for others.

Racism and the Fall

Of course, Genesis tells us sin entered the world and marred God’s creation (Genesis 3:1–24). The first sin fractured relationships within the first family, leading to the first death.

This is what sin does. It distorts our relations and leads to dehumanizing activities.

The Book of Exodus records an early expression of sin in relation to race and ethnicity. Here we see systemic policies targeting specific groups on the basis of their identity.

The people of Israel were a distinct ethnic group. As Israelites, they became fruitful and multiplied in Egypt, fulfilling God’s creation mandate (Exodus 1:7). Their growth captured the attention of Egyptian rulers. The Egyptians believed the Israelites would eventually turn on them. To prevent this, Pharaoh devised a plan to oppress them with forced labor (Exodus 1:8–14).

In this story, fear of the “other” motivated cruelty, injustice and even genocide. An Egyptian policy targeted all newborn Hebrew boys and demanded their deaths (Exodus 1:15–22).

Racial and ethnic animosity also made an appearance when Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses for having a wife of African ancestry (Numbers 12:1–16). Cush, translated “Ethiopia” in the King James Version, was an area south of Egypt. The Cushite people were known for their dark skin.

The failure to recognize diversity as part of God’s plan leads to serious error.

God did not appreciate this attack on Moses and his family. The Lord called out the murmuring and turned Miriam’s skin leprous white. In this story, white skin was a punishment, a visible sign and distinct difference to the black skin of Moses’ Cushite wife, whom God had accepted and defended.

And how did God respond to the oppression of the Hebrew people in Egypt? What did He do about the racial genocide that targeted the Hebrew people? God sent Moses to lead His people to the Promised Land. He granted them freedom in a land where they would no longer experience such injustice or oppression.

Today, we read these stories and agree that the experience of the Hebrew people was unjust. Racism is a sin of injustice.

Racism treats people unjustly for no reason other than racial or ethnic differences. It actively surfaces in gestures, language and behaviors. It passively appears in silence and complicity in the face of injustice. And it is socially instituted in laws and policies that disenfranchise entire people groups.

Redemption of All

The calling of Abraham to leave his homeland and venture to a new land cannot be understood apart from sin and the problems that had emerged since Adam. God promised Abraham He would bless him and his family. In addition, God said He would bless “all peoples on earth” through Abraham (Genesis 12:3).

It has always been God’s plan to redeem all of humanity — people of all colors, nationalities and languages. God did not intend the promise exclusively for Abraham and his descendants. God’s plan has always been to bring salvation to all people.

Throughout the Old Testament, the hope of salvation for other nations remained in view. King Solomon prayed on behalf of foreigners at the dedication of the Temple. He asked God to hear their prayers so that all people might know and fear the Lord (2 Chronicles 6:33).

When the people of Judah were in exile, the prophet Isaiah not only prophesied for their restoration, but he also hoped for the salvation of all. Isaiah anticipated a future city that would be a place where people of different races would come and learn God’s ways (Isaiah 2:1–4).

Isaiah prophesied of a great banquet where all peoples would celebrate (Isaiah 25:6–8). And his hope for the future Messiah included the expectation that He would be anointed with the Spirit, gather the exiles of Israel, and bring salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 11:1–12; 42:6; 49:6).

Salvation was always a global mission. When Jesus appeared in the Gospels, this global mission was not lost. Simon the prophet announced that the infant Jesus would become a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:30–32). When Jesus began His ministry, John the Baptist described Him as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Although Jesus ministered primarily among the Jewish people, He also reached out to Gentiles. Jesus revealed His identity to a Samaritan woman (John 4:4–26). He healed a centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1–10). And perhaps most notably, Jesus cleansed the court of the Gentiles in the temple, quoting Isaiah 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

We know the redemptive mission of God is racially inclusive. When the apostle John received a revelation of heaven, he did not see a homogenous group of people. This is his report:

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. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9–10, emphasis added).

As Pentecostals, we affirm that Jesus is our Savior, and that He sent His Holy Spirit to empower us for the work of reaching all people with the gospel (Acts 1:8). Jesus is not a tribal deity who has no concern for people outside the Jewish race.

The universal mission of the gospel ought to influence and shape our view of race. Since God so loved the world that He gave His Son to save the world, no one in the world should be outside the boundaries or beyond the borders of our love, compassion, and missional concern (John 3:16).

Reflecting God’s Plan

What can we learn by looking at the biblical story through the prism of race? There is nothing wrong with a racial identity. Racial diversity has always been part of God’s plan for humanity.

We sin against neighbors who bear God’s image when we use racial or ethnic differences to perpetuate structures, actions or beliefs that harm others.

This was the injustice the Hebrew people experienced. It is also part of the transgression from which Jesus came to save us. His desire is for all to experience reconciliation with God and one another.

Although Jesus has overcome the world, we still live in this world and must continue to struggle against the legacy of racism that has shaped many hearts and minds. The Church today, and especially people of the Spirit, must aggressively fight against racism, racist ideologies, and social policies that dehumanize and oppress people.

We must overcome the things that divide us, including suspicion and fear of people who do not look like us or share our cultural experiences. The Church should lead the way in promoting equity and justice as we take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

To see the diversity of humanity is to catch a glimpse of heaven. May we continue to work toward building a community that is reflective of this reality — a place where all people can stand together — in unity, peace and equality — and worship our Lord.

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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