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Black History Month and the gospel of Jesus

As a white American, I’ve heard it a number of times: “Why do we have a ‘Black History Month’? We don’t have a ‘White History Month’”. Perhaps you’ve heard it, too, or even have said or wondered such a thing. Rather than address the issue from the perspective of American history I want to address it from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus. To do this, I must first address what Black History Month is, and then I can speak to its connection to the gospel.

It began in 1926 as “Negro History Week” by Carter G. Woodson. Its aim was to highlight the significant contributions to our history and culture by black Americans. The need for this was the systemic oppression of black folk in our nation, first beginning with slavery and then continued with Jim Crow policies. Because of these policies the various contributions of black men and women have been overlooked by many. In 1976 President Ford made February the official Black History Month in order to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

To put it simply, Black History Month serves to highlight various black folk who inspire others in general, and other black folk in particular. Whether the courage of Ruby Bridges (the first to desegregate an all-white school in 1960), or the creative genius of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who is widely recognized as the “godmother” of rock-and-roll music), or the fearless determination of Jesse Owens (who won four Gold Medals in the Olympics in Berlin, Germany in 1936), or the profound giftedness of Richard Allen (who may be America’s greatest church planter), black men and women have contributed greatly to our history and to our culture. Black History Month provides an opportunity for us all to reflect on these contributions, while also recognizing most of the contributions have come despite systemic oppression against black and brown people.

Anyone reading Scripture should come away with the profound sense that God’s love extends to all nations, and has from the beginning. His promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 culminate in this: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. When God began to rescue Israel from Egypt, part of his purpose was to reveal himself to the entire world. He wanted the Egyptians to know who he is. This is why when the people of Israel finally left Egypt, they were joined by a “mixed multitude” who went with them and became part of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 12:38). We see the nations freely joining the people of Israel in the Conquest when Rahab believes in the God of Israel and she, along with her entire family, is spared. She eventually marries the son of the most-prominent man in the most-prominent tribe, Judah, and becomes an ancestor of Jesus himself (Joshua 6:25; cf., Matthew 1:5).

Throughout Israel’s history the nations were welcomed to join Israel as worshipers of the God of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite woman who was not only welcomed into God’s people but married into God’s people. She and Boaz were direct ancestors of the great king David, and was also an ancestor of Jesus. During David’s day, foreigners were a common part of life in Israel. Uriah was one of David’s “mighty men” and was a Hittite who was welcomed in to the people of God. This welcoming of the nations changed during the Exile. When the people of Judah were suddenly thrust into a foreign culture where many gods were worshiped, they began to withdraw socially and sought to isolate themselves, though God’s intentions for them was to invite the nations to worship him.

This changes significantly with Jesus. God’s plan was always for the nations. While the people of Judah had turned away from the nations, Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Even though God’s plan for salvation would come through one nation, it was always intended to be for all nations.

Throughout the book of Acts we read of the gospel of Jesus being proclaimed among the nations with churches being planted all over the Roman empire. This continues to this day, with followers of Jesus being found in every single country on earth. In the book of Revelation John has a vision in which he sees God’s people in their fullness.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9–10 ESV

Here we see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham! Every family on earth is represented in this countless multitude. What is quite interesting is this multitude that cannot be numbered is not a homogeneous mixture. They remain people “from very nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”. God’s people do not become a melting pot where all ethnic and cultural distinctions disappear. For all of eternity they will remain people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.

At the end of Revelation John sees a vision of the new city coming down out of heaven—the new Jerusalem. On the newly re-created earth, God will dwell with his people forever (Revelation 21:3). No longer will there be need for a temple to worship God for God will be with them forever. John sees this:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22–27 ESV

John sees the nations bringing their glory and honor into the new Jerusalem. The treasures of the nations are brought into the new city. What are these treasures? One thing is clear: it’s not material wealth. Just a few chapters before this John sees judgment against the nations for piling up material wealth. What, then, do the nations bring into the new city? New Testament scholar Vern Poythress explains.

The nations (Rev. 21:24) represent redeemed humanity in all its cultural divisions. The distinctiveness of different cultures and peoples is not simply wiped out, but redeemed, in harmony with the picture in 1 Corinthians 12 of the unity and diversity in the body of Christ (see Isa. 60:3–12; Rev. 5:9). The nations bring in their splendor, that is, all the diversity of riches, whether material, intellectual, artistic, or spiritual (Isa. 60:3–5; Hag. 2:7–9).

Vern Poythress, “The Returning King”

The glory and honor of the nations are the cultural riches that distinct people groups bring. John is alluding to the prophecies in Isaiah 60 (which Poythress cites). Notice what Isaiah says about the wealth of the nations.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.

Isaiah 60:5–6 ESV

The real treasure on the new earth, the glory and honor that the nations will bring in, is the worship of our great God and Savior. The real treasure is the proclamation of the gospel of the Lord Jesus, with his praises rising up forever as his people—that countless multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages—sing to him as one choir of worshipers.

The reality of this world is God is too great, too magnificent, too wonderful to be represented by one distinct culture. One day, when we see what John saw, that great multitude worshiping together and when we see the nations bringing their honor and glory into God’s good world, we will recognize the various ways these distinct and separate nations glorify God through their linguistic and artistic and cultural and technological expressions. These nations, tribes, peoples, and languages will all contribute to the worship of the Lord our God in ways that we in our own particular culture may not recognize. Together, we will see and understand the vastness of God through our distinctive cultural contributions.

In a perfect world we would not need Black History Month to recognize the contributions of black folk. In a perfect world we would not need to be reminded of the contributions to the world by Asian folk or Latinos or Native Americans. We do not live in a perfect world, however. We live in this one that is still fallen and sinful, that oppresses and overlooks entire people groups. On the new earth we will not have Black History Month for the glory and honor of black folk who worship the Lord Jesus will be seen by all his people and will be valued and appreciated for what it is. This will be true of the glory and honor of those from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and nations.

Until that day comes, it is good and right to recognize the unique contributions of people groups today, particularly those who contributed in spite of slavery and oppression. The glory of God in the face of Christ cannot be hidden. It must be proclaimed. One day it will be proclaimed without limitation, without efforts to hide it, without dismissal on the part of others. One day God’s people will stand together in awe as the nations bring their treasures in for the glory of God, our great King of kings and we will worship him in the fullness of our unity in the midst of our very real diversity. The gospel of Jesus demands it.