Babel Undone

Text: Genesis 11:1-9

Today, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost, which means “Fifty,” used to be called the Feast of Weeks in the Old Testament. It was a harvest festival where, fifty days after the Passover, the children of Israel would present an offering of new grain to the Lord.[1] Pentecost as we know it, received a new meaning in the New Testament; it has sort of become the Lord’s harvest festival. Fifty days after the Passover – which is the day our Lord died on the cross to win for the world the forgiveness of sins – the Lord poured out His Holy Spirit on the Apostles, and the saving Gospel of Christ was spoken in many languages. Men from all corners of the known world heard the Apostles speaking in their own languages and received the gift of faith.

At Pentecost, God worked a reversal of the Tower of Babel. After the Flood, mankind supposed to spread over the ends of the earth and populate it with faithful children of God. Instead, they all gathered in one place – not to worship, but to make a name for themselves. To punish their sin, the Lord confused the languages of mankind and scattered them all over the earth. At Pentecost, the Lord once again united all mankind again – this time, in the faith. Though now we remain separated by language and geography, by sending the Gospel out into many languages the Lord has created a unity which is pleasing to Him – unity in the faith. Today we celebrate the reversal of Babel by the outpouring of the Spirit, who unites us together in Christ.

I.

The account of the Tower of Babel is a brief one, but there are many lessons to be learned from it. After mankind was expelled from Eden as result of our first parents’ sin, humans began to spread over the earth. As they spread, the hope and faith in the Messiah promised first to Adam and Eve grew more and more dim. The world became such that the thoughts of all mankind were only evil continually, and the Lord was sorry He had created man. Yet, Noah and his family trusted in the Lord, and the He preserved them in the ark while the rest of the world perished in the Flood.

When the waters receded, and dry land appeared again, the Lord gave them the same instructions He gave before, “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”[2] The Lord again desired that the world be filled with His faithful children and that all over the world, people would know to call on and be called by His name. But, instead, we heard in the text, “the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”[3] As Noah’s descendants spread out across the earth, they eventually stopped. They found a plain and settled there for this purpose: they said, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”[4]

Rather than listen to God’s Word and call upon His name, while Noah was probably still alive, His own descendants decided to do things their own way. To prevent God’s will from happening – He had told them to spread – they made a city for themselves and built a tower with its top in the heavens. In their arrogance, they sought to set aside God’s name and will and be known by their own. But, isn’t that what sin is? Every sin is claiming that we know better than God.

They sought to build a tower to heaven, but evidently, they didn’t quite make it. The Lord came down from heaven to look at the tower, you see. Rather than living in the unity that God had desired, living together in the one true faith, mankind created a unity of its own – a unity of sin and arrogance. The Lord saw this sinful unity and knew that there would be no end to mankind’s pursuit of sin. So, in judgment – yet, perhaps also in mercy – the Lord confused their language so that they would not understand each other and, “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth.”[5]

II.

Let’s shift, now, to Pentecost. As our Lord prepared to ascend to the right hand of the Father, He instructed His disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they were clothed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all the things Jesus said and did and would cause them also to bear witness. Ten days after the Ascension – and fifty days since Passover – the disciples were together in one place.

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.[6]

Now, Pentecost was a festival that brought many people to Jerusalem, people from many different countries and languages. When they heard the sound of the Spirit descending on the disciples, they all came to see what had happened. When they got there, they found the disciples speaking in many different languages. Men who were by birth Galileans, were speaking in languages they had not previously known. And what were they speaking? The Good News of Jesus Christ. The disciples were speaking in all those different languages the Good News that Jesus had suffered, died, and rose for the forgiveness of sins. Where, once, all these people were divided before by language, now they were being united in the Gospel of Christ.

So, Pentecost is like a reverse of Babel. Mankind tried to create its own unity by making a name for itself, a unity of sin and arrogance. The result was separation. At Pentecost, God created a holy unity by sending the Gospel out in so many languages. At Pentecost, God sent out the Holy Spirit to unite all mankind in this truth: Jesus Christ, both God and man, suffered on the cross for the sins of the whole world. Though in our lives we experience no end of heartache and trial, Jesus has won for us peace with God and eternal life with Him in heaven. All who were once united by sin and death, may now be united in faith and life. Pentecost is like a reversal of the Tower of Babel. Whereas mankind’s language was confused as a punishment for sin, now God sends out the Good News in all languages, so that we may be united again – this time, in Christ.

Pentecost is a fitting day for our congregations to have confirmation, as well. As our Lord has sent His Gospel out into all the world, uniting men and women all over in the one truth faith, so also has the Gospel been delivered to us. We have one in our presence now, who desires to confess the faith we share and so receive the Lord’s Supper in our fellowship. For this, we thank and praise God. Whereas of Pentecost of old, man brought in a harvest offering, now we celebrate Pentecost as God’s harvest festival. Though mankind was separated as a result of sin, now God has brought all mankind together in the confession of Christ’s name. At Pentecost, God undid Babel. Thanks be to God.


[1] Lev. 23:16, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 9:7

[3] Gen. 11:1-2.

[4] Gen. 11:4.

[5] Gen. 11:8.

[6] Acts 2:2-4.

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