We have just passed Pentecost Sunday. Just as with Christmas, Easter, and other times on the church calendar, we do not merely remember something that happened in the distant past. Each event continues to change the world to this day and beyond. Final fulfillment will come only when Jesus returns.
When I say Pentecost is every day, I don’t mean that tongues of fire still appear over people’s heads. I don’t mean that 120 people speak in tongues every day and that other people recognized 14 of the languages. But on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit invaded this world and began to take it back from the devil. The church founded on that first Pentecost has spread all over the world.
What Pentecost means, among other things, is the reversal of what happened with the Tower of Babel. That, too, continues, and it’s more than just the confusion of language.
What was Babel?
Genesis 11 begins with people coming to the land of Shinar and saying, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top will reach into heaven. And let us make for ourselves a name; otherwise, we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4 NASB).
But in Genesis 9:1, God had commanded Noah and his family to fill the earth. That is, not to concentrate themselves in one place.
Shinar is a treeless plain. It has no mountains, but many cities built there later built towers called ziggurats where people worshiped the gods. In building something to reach into the heavens, the people of Shinar attempted to build their own mountain. In using bricks, they attempted to build it with man-made building materials.
Pagans worshiped on high places supposing that they would be closer to the gods. The people of Shinar may have built their mountain so God would meet them in a place and manner of their choosing. Or maybe they thought if they built it high enough, they could storm the heavens and take over.
So the whole concept of building a city was conceived in disobedience and rebellion.
God came down, all right, but not according to their script. He confused their languages. Since they couldn’t understand each other, they couldn’t finish the tower. Was it a fit of jealousy? Hardly. Their puny efforts could never succeed. By forcing them to abandon their foolish project, he gave them a chance to lay down their arms and return to him.
Some generations later, God freely chose to give Abraham what the people of Shinar had tried to take from him by force. He has been reversing Babel little by little ever since.
Here’s where the rebellion all started:
Now Cush [Noah’s grandson through Ham] became the father of Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Caineh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Cala, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. (Genesis 10:8-12)
The name “Nimrod” means “rebel.” I doubt if that’s what Cush named him. He founded Babel, later known as Babylon. And throughout Scripture, Babylon signifies opposition to God. In setting himself up as king, Nimrod set himself in opposition to God.
God had given the human race care of animals. Nimrod chose to hunt them. For more than a thousand years, the various kings in that part of the world proved their prowess by hunting lions. They claimed royal authority in the name of a whole pantheon of gods they forced others to worship. They ruled as tyrants and conducted wars of conquest.
The ancient Epic of Gilgamesh describes a king like Nimrod. Gilgamesh even claimed to have killed the god who caused the flood.
So Nimrod and his people decided to build a city and tower in defiance of God. That never works. Before they could finish the project, God destroyed their unity of language. So they scattered.
I wonder if some people became powerful enough to drive Nimrod out of Babel. After all, he left to start another kingdom. He never repented of his rebellion. And, apparently, neither did anyone else, except maybe a small remnant.
What is Babel now?
It doesn’t take much of a historical survey to see that Babel is still with us. Earth’s people speak hundreds of languages. We make wars on each other. We fight and squabble within our own societies.
And it doesn’t take different languages to make communication impossible.
As I write this, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can’t agree on what to do about it and hurl hateful rhetoric at each other.
At the same time, demonstrations have erupted all over the US to protest the police murder of George Floyd. Except that some people care nothing about justice or black lives. They hijack demonstrations to turn them into riots.
In the United States, most of us speak English, but too often we don’t talk to each other. Instead, we shout past each other. For some people, the very thought of Donald Trump sends them into a mindless rage. For other people, the very thought of Barak Obama also accomplishes the same thing.
What we have here is not a failure to communicate. It amounts to refusal. That’s Babel.
In one form or another, people have been more eager to fight and divide than cooperate for millennia now. Fifty years from now, today’s issues will have given way to new ones. People may or may not be nicer in dealing with them, but one group of people will find ways to despise some other group of people and refuse to communicate.
What was Pentecost?
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:1-11).
Some thoughts on its meaning
In part, Pentecost marks the beginning of the reversal of Babylon.
- The Holy Spirit descended on a prayer meeting attended by 120 people, accompanied by a supernatural sound and appearance.
- The meeting took place in a house, but the rest of the scene appears to take place at the temple.
- Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, those 120 people began to speak in other tongues. Some people in the crowd recognized their native languages.
- Peter preached—in a language known to all, not in tongues! And 3,000 people responded to his message and believed in the risen Lord.
At Babel, God created new languages to divide people. People spoke languages they understood but that others didn’t.
At Pentecost, people spoke languages they didn’t understand but that others did.
What is Pentecost now?
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). His work is less evident than the ordinary ways of the world but more powerful. He will return someday to complete the job. It will not be pleasant for those who remain after God’s own people experience rapture.
In the meantime, the church universal has both unified and divided every society it has touched. It unifies people from every nation and language who acknowledge Jesus’ lordship. It divides God’s people from those who remain in rebellion.
Disunity came to the church while the original apostles still lived and taught. Now, it is divided into many denominations. Divisions continue. The “United” Methodist Church is in the process of dividing!
But the Holy Spirit is still in the business of uniting his people.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Pentecostal movement began. At first, it appeared as just another division. But then the Charismatic movement invaded established denominations. Catholic and Protestant charismatics now had something in common that they didn’t with non-charismatics of the same denomination. Centuries-old divisions began to heal.
God continues to divide his people from those who are not his people. But let’s not try to define which is which. After all, that only leads to more division. Instead, let’s draw near to God and be sure that we are among his people. Then seek as much unity as possible with those on the other side of various man-made (devil-made) divisions.
Christians need to speak to one another––and the world––in love, not shout past each other as the world does. We need to strive to be a part of the Holy Spirit’s plan. Instead of participating in Babel, we need to allow ourselves to be vessels to reverse it.