How the Bible Talks about Race and Ethnicity

Excerpted From
How to Fight Racism
By Jemar Tisby

The Bible has something to say about race and racism. But looking to the Bible for explicit racial terms such as Black and white will likely leave you confused. The Bible, written over the course of centuries by dozens of different authors in various cultures and contexts, does not speak of race in the same terms as people in the United States in the 21st century. When Bible translations use the word race, they generally mean it in one of two ways. The first is in reference to the “human race,” and this is usually to emphasize the unified origins of our common humanity. For instance, some Bibles translate the Hebrew word adam as “human race.” “And he said to the human race, ‘The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’” (Job 28:28). In this context, race refers to all human beings without exception. Wisdom, defined in this passage as “the fear of the Lord,” is something for the entire human race—no matter what their ethnicity or skin color might be.

English translations of the Bible also use the term race to indicate the difference between those who believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and those who do not. The first epistle of Peter reads:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” —1 Peter 2:9

In this instance, the term race, from the Greek word genos, does not refer to a person’s skin color or other physical features. The word simply designates people who are part of God’s new holy nation, the church, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Even though the Bible does not talk about race in the same way we commonly use it today, it still has plenty to say about how people should relate to one another across cultural and ethnic differences. It is important to remember that the individuals and groups discussed in the Bible came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. There are Egyptians, Israelites, Hittites, Cushites and Jebusites, just to name a few. In the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost those who were gathered spoke in languages representing more than a dozen different nations and people groups including Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians and Cretans (Acts 2:9–11). So even though the Bible does not use our modern racial categories, it regularly records interactions between different people groups.

When the Bible describes the many different people groups of the ancient world, frequently it is speaking in terms of what we refer to as ethnicity rather than race. As J. Daniel Hays points out in his book From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, the term ethnicity is flexible enough to encompass language, nation of origin and religion. Ethnicity could include physical appearance, but physical features that may have distinguished one ethnic group from another were far from the only or even the most important differences.

A Brief Biblical Theology of Race

Throughout Scripture God reveals an unfolding plan for ethnic diversity that expands in scope from Genesis to Revelation. As we will see below, passages in Genesis 1 explain the doctrine of the image of God and provide the foundation for a belief in the basic equality of all peoples. Theologians call Genesis 3:15 the protoevangelion, or “first gospel,” because God pronounces a curse on the serpent but promises deliverance for the people of God. He says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” There is no indication in this passage that salvation will be permanently limited or differently applied to any particular ethnic group. Indeed, the passage implies that since Eve would become the “mother of all the living,” the promise of salvation will be open to any of her children, people of all future ethnic groups (Gen. 3:20).

Further along, in Genesis 12, God expands the scope of the promised deliverance. When God speaks to Abram, God makes a promise: “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” (Gen. 12:3). In these verses, God vows that through Abram’s offspring he will bless all the families of the earth, an allusion to the international and interethnic frame of God’s salvation. Other passages in the Old Testament point to the global character of God’s deliverance. Isaiah 2:2 says, “The mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” Again, it is clear that the good news is for all nations and not just one particular ethnic or racial group. Numerous other passages from the Old Testament suggest the same reality, including Isaiah 11:10–12; Psalms 67, 68 and 117; and many more. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s plan for salvation is built on the presumption of human equality and dignity and always assumes a multiethnic character.

In the gospel of Luke, we meet a man named Simeon who is waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” When Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple, and Simeon sees Jesus and says, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30–32). In the era in which Jesus was born, the religious and traditional divides between Jews and Gentiles could hardly have been more rigid. Yet Simeon recognizes Jesus as the Messiah whose deliverance would transcend the historical boundaries between nations and people groups.

Jesus himself, in his parting words to his disciples before his ascension into heaven, says to them, “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” (Acts 1:8). Jesus commands his followers to share the good news of liberation in ever-expanding circles extending from the Jewish capital to far away nations and people of every ethnicity. In Ephesians 3:6, the apostle Paul explains that the glorious mystery of Christ, a climactic unveiling of a truth hidden for ages but now revealed in the coming of the Son of God, is that “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). The good news of salvation in Christ was never intended simply for those who were ethnically or culturally Jewish. Rather, the promise of deliverance is for people of any race or ethnicity who would believe that Jesus is the Messiah. In this way, God forms a multiracial, multiethnic community of worshipers who will share in eternal communion with God and each other.

And in the last book of the Bible, Jesus offers his disciple John a glimpse of the goal of it all—the heavenly assembly:

“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.” —Revelation 7:9

The Christian picture of eternity is a multihued, multilingual, multinational, multiethnic fellowship with others in never-ending worship of the triune God.

From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, God has planned for a racially and ethnically diverse church. This heterogeneity is not a mistake or a backup plan. Diversity is God’s “Plan A” for the church. In order to fight racism, people who advocate for racial justice must become aware of the scope of God’s deliverance and the Lord’s all-encompassing love for all peoples.

Being made in the image and likeness of God means that human beings hold certain similarities with God. It means “that we all bear, in a limited way, characteristics of God’s image: qualities such as morality, personality, rationality and spirituality that make us distinct from the rest of God’s creation.” We can reason and think. We have emotions and compassion. We can make moral choices and have stewardship over the earth. Some of God’s attributes such as God’s omniscience and omnipotence do not extend to human beings, but God has crowned human beings with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5). As God’s image-bearers, all people have innate dignity and worth.

God’s fingerprints rest upon every single person without restriction. The image of God extends to Black and white people, men and women, rich and poor, incarcerated and free, queer and straight, documented and undocumented nondisabled and disabled, powerful and oppressed. All people equally bear the likeness of God and thus possess incalculable and inviolable value.

Human beings do not simply have the image of God; we are the image of God, thoroughly and holistically. Theologian Herman Bavinck described the image of God when he wrote:

“This image extends to the whole person While all creatures display vestiges of God, only a human being is the image of God and is such totally, in soul and body, in all his faculties and powers, in all conditions and relations.”

No part of ourselves is separate from our image bearing.

If human beings are the image of God, then that image includes our skin color. The doctrine of the image of God teaches us that Black people and other people of color do not have to “become white” in any sense in order to be treated with respect. Too often in our society racial and ethnic minorities are forced to change important aspects of their identity in order to gain access to the opportunities others have. Whether it is one’s pattern of speech, clothing, hairstyle, ZIP code, schooling or interests, the subtle and sometimes overt message to people of color is, “In order for us to accept you, your color and your culture must go. You must become white.” But the image of God teaches that no part of the way God created us has to be abandoned in order to gain the respect of other image bearers. God does not mistake unity for uniformity. God celebrates diversity.

In our Western culture, which tends to prize individuality, we can miss an important application of the image of God doctrine. Human beings do not simply bear God’s image individually but collectively as well. Each people group with their various languages, dress, foods, clothing and customs reveals a finite facet of God’s infinite diversity. The kingdom of God is described as a banquet to which all, especially those on society’s margins, are invited (Luke 14). Perhaps this banquet will be a potluck. Ethiopians will bring injera, Nigerians jollof, Jamaicans goat curry and Koreans kimchi. Like a communal banquet that highlights the best aspects of different cultures, the heavenly congregation will put on display the magnificent diversity of God’s people.

No single people group can adequately reflect the glory of God. Rather, we need the diversity present in the multiplicity of nations and tribes to paint a more complete portrait of God’s splendor. But the sad reality is that the image of God has been denigrated in certain people groups. Historically, people of African descent have frequently been subjected to dehumanizing tropes and treatment by those who believe themselves to be superior.

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Excerpted from How to Fight Racism by Jemar Tisby. Copyright © 2021 by Jemar Tisby. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Jemar Tisby
Jemar Tisby

Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass The Mic podcast.