National, Ethnic, Geographic Separation? (Acts 17:26)

National, Ethnic, Geographic Separation?

Acts 17:26

Richard Hollerman

Question

“Does Acts 17:26 give some Biblical evidence for an attitude of separation of the nations?”

Answer

Let’s quote this passage to get it before us:

He [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:26).

Does this passage suggest that God wants certain nations to rise or fall, according to the age or time in which they live? Does it indicate that people should be content to remain in “the boundaries” where God has placed them at birth? Are we ever justified in moving to other locations?

What kind of explanations have been offered for this text? One author that it simply refers to the fact that God is Lord over the histories of nations (ESV Study Bible note). There is probably some truth to this. Dennis Gaertner says that God “involves himself in human history.” He refers to “God’s providential hand as it moves in history. He made every nation ‘from one man,’ meaning Adam, and he ‘determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’” The reference to “times” “describes periods in which nations rise or fall, as well as what territories they might occupy” (The College Press NIV Commentary: Acts, pp. 277-278).

F. Bruce adds this: “All mankind was one in origin—all created by God and all descended from one common ancestor. This removed all imagined justification for the belief that Greeks were innately superior to barbarians, as it removes all imagined justification for parallel beliefs to-day. Neither in nature nor in grace—neither in the old creation nor in the new—is there any room for ideas of racial superiority” (The Book of Acts, p. 358). Although Paul’s comments here, directed to the sophisticated philosophers of the Areopagus, show that the Greeks are not innately superior to any other ethnic stock, we can apply it to today: Blacks and whites are from the same ancestor, Adam, and even Noah. Furthermore, Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans are all from the same ancestor. Thus, we can’t claim ethnic superiority, as did Hitler.

God is the One who causes nations to rise or fall, according to His timetable. He is the One who has determined that some people are born and live in Mongolia, others in the Congo, still others in Poland, and others yet in South America. There is no room for pride. Bruce says, “It is not so probable that Paul has in mind the ‘living space’ allocated by God to each individual nation; there are many factors which enter into the delimitation of national frontiers” (Ibid.).

Kenneth O. Gangel offers a comment that speaks to this issue directly: “Some have taken verse 26 to erect discriminatory boundaries between races, but, of course, that was hardly Paul’s intent. In the words of Barnhouse, ‘What Paul is saying here is that it is God who determines how long a nation shall exist—the time of its ascendancy, popularity, and decline. No nation decides this by itself; God is in control. Like Daniel said, “He (God) removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:21). God decides not only how long a nation stays on the map, but also how far it will reach before it is sent into decline by God. He determined how far the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, or Hitler’s Third Reich would go before it came to an end. This is what Paul had in mind’ (Barnhouse, 151)” (Holman New Testament Commentary: Acts, p. 290).

We might also observe that Paul doesn’t mean that there are no differences between nations. Certain nations may be more ambitious than others. Some may be more resourceful, or more disciplined, or more thrifty, or more honest than others. Further, some nations live in a more productive land than others, with fertile fields and an abundance of raw materials. Others may be deserted wastelands or frigid areas of snow and ice. Thus, there are vast differences between nations. We might even go so far as to say that some nations are more “Christian” in orientation than others, while others may be atheistic, humanistic, or may be dominated by false religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the like.

It would be good to point out that people traveled a lot in the first century world, as reflected in the New Testament. They didn’t just stay in their own locations in the Roman world or elsewhere. For instance, Aquila and Priscilla were from Pontus, then traveled to Rome in Italy, then moved to Corinth in Achaia, then moved to Ephesus in Asia Minor—and later moved to Rome again (see Acts 18:2, 18-28; Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). Paul himself, was from Tarsus in Cilicia, was raised in Jerusalem of Judea, then moved back to Tarsus and on to Antioch of Syria. However, he traveled all across Cilicia, Asia, Macedonia, Achaia, and even went to Rome. (Some think that he eventually reached Spain!)

Probably the other apostles also traveled far and wide in the Mediterranean world and beyond (in obedience to Christ’s “great commission,” Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8). Just looking at these examples shows that they didn’t understand Paul’s reference to the “appointed times” and “the boundaries of their habitation” to mean that the inhabitants of a given area were to remain in that area for life. No, they were free to move, to travel, or to find other locations to live.

This may offer a caution to us that we might not “read into” Scripture something that was not put into it by the original writer or by the Holy Spirit who inspired the writings (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). We must seek to understand a given passage according to the context and according to other verses bearing on it. May God help us to do this.

 

 

 

 

 

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