For many years I had understood and taught that the day of Pentecost, Acts 2, where everyone heard the gospel in their own language was a reversal of the curse of Babel, Genesis 11, where God scattered the people across the whole earth, with separate languages because they wanted to be like God.
However, I recently came across a different compelling argument explaining the relationship between Babel and Pentecost. These thoughts are found in Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission (McCullough, Andy) which I have spoken about in previous blogs and would encourage you to read.
It goes as follows, in Genesis 11:1, all the people had one language and the same vocabulary, we ask, ‘What happened?’ In chapter 10 each nation had their own language, but now there is one common language! Nimrod is described in Genesis 10v8-12 as a mighty warrior who creates a massive Empire which included Babylon, Assyria and many great cities. He had also done what so many tyrants after him through history chose to do: he has implemented one state language, quashing tribal expression and sentiment, outlawing the indigenous.
Multiplicity of languages, then – and this is the important point here – is a blessing, not a curse.
The story moves on, Nimrod sought to make a name for himself (11:4), God promised Abram that he would make a name for him (12:2).
At Pentecost, as at Babel, God actively came down to reinstate plurality of language. Humankind’s tendency is still, like Nimrod, to seek to gather to one centre, to build, to homogenise, and the Spirit’s tendency is still to scatter, to diversify.
This is an important, and powerful reading of these passages with significant implications.
In the multicultural cities and towns of Europe the same dynamic is true. In Luton we have a massive plurality of languages and cultures. Our tendency is to want everyone to be the same, the Spirit wants to celebrate the diversity. We need to acknowledge that there are many in our town who will never come to our church, the geographic, linguistic, cultural barriers are too many despite our best efforts. We may think our church is accessible because it has a good website and a wheelchair ramp, but what about emotional and cultural accessibility? Instead, we must go to them! Which is what we are doing with our 4pm service, but I would love to see us and other churches launching other initiatives that reaches people in ways that celebrate their diversity.
Humans keep wanting to get their identity and honour from being part of something big, something visible, some tangible measures of success, yet God keeps calling us to leave those things behind and trust him for honour and a name.
This has such profound implications for the types of churches we want to build!
Written by Tony Thompson