************ Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-12 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 23, 1999
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-12
"Pentecost: Babel Reversed"
I Babel: Man Divided
A As man began to multiply in number they moved eastward from Ararat, the resting place of the ark. "They found a plain in Shinar and settled there" (Gen 11:2). We know that this is the plains of Babylon and Mesopotamia – a plain so big there was more than enough room for them to settle and multiply there for years to come. Here they said to each other,
(Gen 11:3-4) "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly ... (4) ... Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens ..."
Do you know what man was doing here? Here man made an unholy alliance with fellow man. Here man proposed an ungodly covenant. More specifically, we can fault both the motive and the purpose for building the city with its tower.
What was the motive? The motive for building the city with its tower was pride:
(Gen 11:4) Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves ..."Did you catch the motive, the reason, for building the city with its tower? "So that we may make a name for ourselves." The citizens of Babel wanted to build a monument to themselves. They wanted to be able to point to that high tower and say, "Look! Look at what we built – a tower that stretches to the heavens." They wanted to be remembered for years to come for their engineering skill, intelligence, ambition, organization, and administration.
In contrast to this, over and over again in Scripture we are given the message of Micah 6:8 – that man is to walk humbly with his God. Like the psalmist we are to look at the works of God's hands – the sun, moon, stars, and vast reaches of outer space – and ask, "what is man?" (Ps 8:4). Man is transitory, merely a temporary resident of this earth. He is so small, puny, and insignificant against the rest of creation. How does he dare build monuments to himself? Who does he think he is anyway? We are to live and breathe knowing we are nothing next to Almighty God. We are made of dust and to dust we will someday return. Thus we ought to be humble and not proud before the Lord our Maker.
We can also fault the purpose of building this city with its tower that reaches to the heavens. What is the purpose? The purpose or object was outward unity:
(Gen 11:4) "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."Man was afraid of being divided, separated, spread out, of being "scattered over the face of the whole earth." Man, you see, found security in numbers. He felt safe in one big city. He found comfort in the presence of all other men. So he built the city with its high tower. Wherever man was on the plains of Shinar he should be able to see that tower and find his way back to the city. The tower served, then, as a kind of landmark. But more than that, it also gave identity, a sense of belonging, a feeling of security.
The purpose of the city and its tower was outward unity – that man "not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." Yet, at the beginning of time, didn't God say to man,
(Gen 1:28) "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."In fact, God blessed man to do this. God's grace and favor rests upon man so that man will go out and humbly fill and subdue the earth. Man's purpose, then, in building the city and tower was in direct disobedience to the command God gave at the time of man's creation.
B Now, at that time, according to Scripture, "the whole world had one language and a common speech" (Gen 11:1). Can you imagine a time when man was not divided into nations, tribes, peoples, and languages? Can you imagine a time when there existed only one culture, when all people shared a common heritage, history, and even thought patterns?
"Now the whole world had one language and a common speech." This is the way it was in the beginning when God created us. And, it remained this way until the days of Peleg who was born 100 years after the Flood (Gen 11:10-18). Peleg's name means "division." It was "in his time the earth was divided" (Gen 10:25).
C According to Holy Scripture, God knew and saw what man was doing on the plains of Shinar. But, then, God sees and knows everything, even what goes on in the hidden depths of every person's heart. Says Scripture,
(Gen 11:5-6) But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. (6) The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them ..."The unholy alliance and ungodly covenant man was trying to forge at Babel was capable of such fearful things.
Criminals, political action committees, lobbyists, and special interest groups, have learned they are capable of far more and far greater things as a group than as individuals. This is also true for all sin and wickedness: a group is capable of doing far more evil and committing far greater crimes than all the individuals on their own. We saw this with Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. Today we see this with organized crime – the Mafia and Columbian drug lords. And we see it with someone like Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. I repeat, a group is capable of doing far more evil and committing far greater crimes than all the individuals on their own.
In this light, consider what was happening on the plains of Shinar: the godless unity at Babel was a way of organizing sin and evil to include all of mankind; it was capable of the most fearful things. "Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them," says the Lord (Gen 11:6).
God recognized that the common language all men spoke at that time helped to forge the unholy alliance and ungodly covenant. God says, "as people speaking the same language they have begun to do this ..." (Gen 11:6). All men spoke the same language. They all understood each other. They all had a common culture and past. They even shared common thought processes.
Here, in the common language, was a solution to the problem of the unholy alliance and ungodly covenant of Babel. "Come," says the Lord, "let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." So the Lord confused their language. That's why, says our passage, "the place was called Babel (sounds like the Hebrew word for "confused") – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world" (Gen 11:9).
We can well imagine what happened when the Lord did this. The men working on the city and its tower could no longer understand each other. The brick layer would call for bricks and get tar instead. The carpenter asks for a nail and is given a board. The engineer calls for a straight line and is brought a cup of water. A lack of understanding made building impossible. The people were no longer able to work together. So the construction project came to a stop and men scattered over the face of the whole earth.
D In the days of Peleg, says Scripture, "the earth was divided" (Gen 10:25). At the time of Babel man was divided into different languages. This caused man to scatter over the face of the earth. This caused the formation of different cultures. Even thought processes were changed. It was at Babel, then, that man was separated and divided into different languages, tribes, peoples, and nations.
This division was both a curse and a blessing for man. It was a blessing in that man was now obedient to God's command to fill the earth and subdue it. It was a blessing in that the division of mankind made it possible for the many-sided abilities of the human race to come out. It was a blessing in that the division of mankind prevents all of humanity banding together in acts of evil. But, the division of mankind was also a curse in that mankind was no longer one even outwardly. Mankind was now marked by suspicion, estrangement, hostility, and even hatred towards those who were different in either language, race, nationality, or place of residence. It was at Babel, as Scripture says, that "the earth was divided" (Gen 10:25).
II Pentecost: Man United
A Today, as you know, is Pentecost Sunday. Today we celebrate the pouring out of the Spirit upon the church.
What happened on Pentecost?
The coming of the Spirit was heralded by two signs: first, "a sound like the blowing of a violent wind" and second, "what seemed to be tongues of fire." Both the wind and the fire symbolize the presence of the Lord and His power.
With these outward signs came the Holy Spirit as an inward, invisible reality in the life of each believer. Luke uses the word "fill" to describe the experience. The disciples "were filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:4). Even as a cup is filled to the brim, so the Spirit filled the disciples of Jesus that day. They were indwelt with the Spirit.
B Luke mentions the sound as a wind, the tongues like fire, and the indwelling and filling up with the Spirit. But these do not interest him in near the same way as does the result or effect: the speaking in other tongues, which actually means speaking in other languages.
Luke tells us that "there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven." These Jews, representing the nations, cultures, and languages formed at Babel, were amazed at what they heard. What they heard on Pentecost was Galileans declaring the wonders of God in the local languages of the places they came from. Some Galilean fishermen appeared to share between them a command of most of the languages spoken throughout the then known world.
Luke does not seek to explain to us this phenomenon of speaking in other tongues. He does not shed light on how speaking with other tongues took place. He leaves us with many unanswered questions. All he says is that it took place, and that it took place through the enabling of the Spirit. We are not told whether this was a hearing miracle, a speaking miracle, or a hearing and a speaking miracle. We are not told how or whether this differs from the gift of tongues described by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. We are not told whether the miracle involved just human language or whether it was heavenly language with some human phrases thrown in. All that Luke says is that at Pentecost the disciples were heard praising the wonders of God in other tongues or languages.
C Luke's thrust in Acts 2 is to tell us the result of being filled with the Spirit – namely, the speaking in tongues. Why does Luke emphasize this? Luke's intent is to reveal to us that Pentecost is the reversal of the curse of Babel. At Babel the earth was divided; God brought about the formation of different languages and cultures. But on Pentecost the unity of humanity was restored. For, notice what happens when the Spirit is poured out and indwells the disciples: they begin at once to address themselves to people of every nation and every tongue. The Spirit enabled them so to speak that all their listeners understood.
At Babel "the Lord confused the language of the whole world" (Gen 11:9) so that man could no longer understand and communicate with each other. But on Pentecost a new language was spoken, a language they all could understand, a language that united in spite of linguistic, cultural, and racial barriers. According to Scripture, some three thousand "from every nation under heaven" were joined together as part of the church that day (Acts 2:41).
In his book, Pentecost and Missions, Dr. Harry Boer has this to say,
At Babel the nations came into being, the nations in their religious alienation from God, in all their earthly power and achievement, and in all their ultimate and spiritual powerlessness. At Pentecost they began to be resolved into the "people of God" as the message of the gospel was addressed to Jewish representatives of the nations of the world. (Page 138)
D This reminds us that whereas language, culture, and race may divide, it is the Lord, through His Spirit and Word, Who brings us unity.
Within the church of Jesus Christ unity is not based upon similar or like-minded viewpoints. Nor is it based upon issues or feelings. Nor is it based upon ethnic background, social class, or skin color. Rather, all true believers are one in Christ.
Look at Pentecost: three thousand different people of different nations and languages and cultures were drawn together into one church when they heard the disciples declare "the wonders of God" in their own tongues. The language of the Spirit transcended the differences among and between people.
Don't we see the same thing happening today? Consider that our missionary in Honduras, the Rev Ken Vanderwal, is preaching in Spanish; our missionary in the Philippines, Wilson Maloc, is preaching in Filipino; our missionary in Long Beach, Rev Elmer Tandayu in preaching in Filipino; our missionary in Japan, Rev Ted Boswell, is preaching in Japanese; and I am preaching in English. Yet, our congregations all hear the same Gospel and are all one in Christ Jesus and His Spirit.
At Pentecost Babel was reversed. People of every language, tongue, tribe, and nation are now united by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their culture and language may be different but the message they hear is the same – the message of the wonders of God, of salvation in and through Christ. Through the Spirit this message calls upon all men to repent and believe so that sins may be forgiven.
Of course, you all know that our unity as believers in a sin-filled earth leaves so much to be desired. The confusion of Babel continues to exist among us and among the world-wide church of God. Yes, Pentecost has come but we wait with eager longing for the second coming of Christ. For at that time a new language will be spoken: the language of all the redeemed. It is the language of the new heaven and new earth. It is the language spoken when sin with all its consequences is overcome by the power of God's grace in Christ. The prophet Zephaniah speaks of that time. According to the prophet, the Lord says,
(RSV: Zeph 3:9) Yet, at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.Then, finally, there will be true and perfect unity between persons of every nation, tribe, language, and people.
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