Summary: 3rd in series on what Pentecost means. Here Babel is contrasted with Pentecost, from judgement to mercy
A few years before John Newton, the writer of the song “Amazing Grace”, died, a friend was having breakfast with him. Their custom was to read from the Bible after the meal. Because old John’s eyes were growing dim, his friend would read, then John would make a brief comment on the passage.
One day, the selection was from 1 Corinthians 15. When the words “by the grace of God I am what I am” were read, John was silent for several minutes. Then he said, “I am not what I ought to be. How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and would cleave to what is good. I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall put off mortality, and with it all sin. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!”
That is the hope of the believer. I am not what I once was. We believe that we can be changed. We do not have to be slaves to the same habits and patterns that we once had. We can have clean consciences, clean thoughts, clean hands, and clean hearts. And the very fact that we can be changed – or rather, that God can change us – rests in the theme of the celebration of Pentecost in Acts 2. The theme, the essence, the meaning of the Acts 2 Pentecost was that God was doing something new. He was bringing in sweeping changes. He was undoing what had been done. He was breaking a curse that had been in effect for generations. Let’s read Gen.11:1-11 to understand the background.
You could look at the history of the world in 7 stages: creation, corruption (sin), catastrophe (the flood), confusion (Babel), Christ (Jesus entering the world), the cross (His sacrifice) and consummation (the end of all things). Babel was a significant event in the earth’s history. All people spoke one language up until then. Not only one language, but they understood each other too. V1 says they had one language, but it also says they had common speech. What’s the difference? Well, for example, for many years, the word “wicked” only had one meaning: evil. Now, over the last 20, it has also come to mean “eye-catching”, “interesting” or “very”. So, a teen calling something “wicked” can mean something very different from an 80-year-old calling something wicked. So, you can see that even though we have one language called English, things can be very different, and so be confusing to one another. Up until Babel this didn’t happen.
So, why did God do this? Because of judgement. Because of what the people were trying to accomplish. They were increasing in ingenuity and intelligence. They were trying new things, constructing new buildings. They discovered techniques for making bricks, fitting them tightly together, instead of haphazard stonework. And as they continued to progress, they began to think bigger and bigger. They wanted to build an impressive city with a tower that reached all the way to the heavens.
Now, that is not to say that we can’t try or do great things. God’s judgement is not upon forward thinking or innovations in technology. No, God’s judgement came because of their motives – v4. The KJV simply says, “Let us make a name.” The NLT puts it this way: “Let’s build a great city with a tower that reaches to the skies—a monument to our greatness!” And the Living Bible puts it even more vividly: “great city, with a temple-tower reaching to the skies—a proud, eternal monument to themselves.” In essence, they wanted to be famous. They wanted the applause of men. As a bigger picture, these people who moved to the plains of Shinar, that is, Babylonia, felt that through knowledge and self-effort they could get to heaven. Simply by trying hard enough, they could get to God. They could be great in the eyes of others, in fact, even as great as God.
But their success rested on their common language. If they could work together, they could do anything. Even God was aware of this. He looked down and said, “I see that they have one language, and they have a ton of pride too. I need to humble them." So He confused them. He gave them different speaking languages, and they couldn’t finish the building. And He scattered them abroad.
Now, the irony of this thing is that they got a name for themselves. They wanted a famous name, but what they got was Babel, which means “confused”. They wanted to be famous, and they wanted to remain strong together. But the Lord didn’t want fame for them or unity for them. He wanted them to be humble and confident in God’s strength, not theirs. And despite their best efforts, they were scattered anyway. The very thing they didn’t want was what God gave them.