Babel Undone

Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565)

On the Day of Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit breathed life into the church, just as he had done at creation when God breathed the breath of life into man. When Jesus had appeared in his resurrected state, they could see him and touch him. But when the Spirit showed up, they couldn’t see him. He was invisible. But they could hear him. The Holy Spirit blew in with the sound of a hurricane, only there wasn’t any storm. I imagine the windows and doors banging open and the disciples looking around frantically. Then flames shaped liked forked tongues appeared and danced above each disciple’s head, not just the apostles’. Wind and fire. These were the auditory and visual signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The sound of rushing wind gave way to the sound of human speech, a cascade of strange syllables flowing from their mouths. Jews from all over the Mediterranean and Near East, who were visiting Jerusalem, rushed in to see what all the commotion was. They were gob-smacked when they heard these Galileans speaking in their own mother tongues. This was no gibberish or ecstatic speech. It was real language. Their language.

The miracle of Pentecost represents a reversal of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The people in Genesis wanted to build a tall tower for two reasons: for pride and permanence. The Bible says they wanted to make a name for themselves and they didn’t want to be scattered all over the world. They came together for a selfish purpose. But the Jews in Acts 2 came together for an unselfish purpose: they gathered in Jerusalem to worship God and celebrate the Feast of Weeks.

God punished the builders of the Tower of Babel by confusing their speech. On Pentecost God reversed this curse by allowing people from many nations to hear the disciples speak in their own languages. And instead of divine punishment, God’s blessing was poured out—not to keep people from a task, but to empower them for the most important task: spreading the Gospel to the uttermost part of the Earth. But the reversal of the confusion of languages on the day of Pentecost was temporary and limited. The gift of tongues wasn’t meant to become a universal translator, an evangelical Esperanto.

This motif of Babel reversed raises some interesting questions. God punished the builders for coming together for a selfish purpose. “What if humanity came together in the light and spirit poured out at Pentecost?” as Seraphim Sigrist asks in his book A Life Together. Might it be possible to become of one heart and mind and repair the fragmentation of humanity? Maybe, just maybe, God is hinting to us that in the Spirit we can come together to do great things, to reverse God’s curse on sin and to bring about a new world order . . . to bring about the kingdom of God. Maybe we should do more than just pray the words, “Thy kingdom come.”  Maybe we should also work for God’s kingdom to come. Work for a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Work for a world where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid in peace and safety. Work for a world where there’s a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Maybe God didn’t give us prophetic visions in the Bible just to whet our appetite for a remote future world but also to give us a blueprint for how we should be working to remodel our current world into a place of God’s justice, peace, and healing.


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