This is the week that the Christian church recognizes and celebrates Pentecost (or “puts up with it” for my cessationist friends). The church calendar tags this coming Sunday, 9 June, as the day when the faithful Jesus followers in the Upper Room were baptized in the Holy Spirit, saw themselves surrounded by images of fire and then spoke in tongues as a witness to the crowds in the streets of Jerusalem.
But before we start feeling tingly and thinking Pentecost is about fire and tongues it should be noted that at its core it is about the restoration of a community.
The story in Acts 2, where the apostle Peter’s post-Upper Room sermon moves thousands to accept Jesus Christ, is a conspicuous picture of an Old Testament text. In Genesis 11 there are two verses that explain the odd scene of the story set at the Tower of Babel:
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confuseda]”>[a] the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11.1, 7-9
In these verses the story is told of a people who were unified in language. However without leadership and with a drift in purpose they had adopted the same mindset that had expelled humanity from the Garden of Eden.
The desire to be God is strong for us as individuals, we see it in leaders and neighbors. But once-upon-a-time, Genesis tells us, that desire was actually a group project, not an individual one. So, instead of Adolf Hitler being an evil mastermind who influenced a nation, there is an entire group of people, just as ruthless and cunning, but all unified in attaining the same goal – this scenario is frightening but it is what we are reading in Genesis 11.
So, as a response to this potential catastrophe, God divides the people by separating their language. Because of this particular division, we then we see them drift apart geographically, ideologically, vocationally and spiritually. Language is a crucial aspect of unity because communication is an essential, not peripheral, aspect of human existence.
Now, slide forward 4,000 years (give or take), and we see something remarkable happening: the same God who had confused the languages at Babel does something incredible in Jerusalem:
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?
Tongues were not, it seems, simply a way for good church folk to have an energetic or emotionally satisfying worship experience. No, tongues had a unique purpose: to signify the reunification of the languages that had been confused at Babel.
This is the purpose of Pentecost, to bring back what had been scattered. Pentecost is also known as the Festival of Harvest, based on when it falls in the calendar. This is a time when the separated things are brought back together. We find the Bible’s understanding of Pentecost to be about the restoration of something, not the emotionalization of something. Though it should be noted that we rarely ever see a long-separated family reunited without emotion.
Curiously, a passage I was reading recently in an Old Testament book not usually associated with Pentecost, was what awakened this line of thinking in my mind. In Nehemiah, while the wall around Jerusalem is being rebuilt, there was opposition from outsiders. First they simply marginalized the work of the Hebrews, saying that the wall would fall if any small animals were to walk on it. But then, as they realized that the people were closing gaps and actually getting the work done the enemies of Israel began to gather an army.
So Nehemiah, not one to quit the job before it was done, said, that’s fine, we will work with shovels in one hand and swords in the other. This is, by the way, one of the most Clint Eastwood chapters in the entire Bible if you were wondering.
But Nehemiah recognized that the sheer distance of the wall, combined with the short-staffed construction crew, meant that if they were attacked they would be easily isolated from the group and so in their current situation they were a collection of soft-targets. In response, the civil engineer pulled a trumpet player from the crowd to stay with him, and told the people this:
The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.
Notice the language.
When they were gathered, united, in community…you could say “all in one accord”…something happened: God became their strength.
Unity does make us stronger, but the real strength in numbers is found in the God who works and fights for those who are gathered together in His name.
This is the power of Pentecost.
Where the Spirit of God truly moves, people of great differences will be united and the power of God will move in incredible and inexplicable ways among them. This was God’s concern at Babel. God said if the people could be united there was nothing that they couldn’t accomplish. The Spirit was sent in Acts 2 to make that statement a reality.
The truth of the kingdom will only be seen on earth as it is in heaven when we find THIS power of Pentecost. Tongues is not our goal, it is a sign of what God is trying to do in our communities of faith: He is bringing us together so He can fight for us and allow us to do the mighty and miraculous works that He has been planning for us all along.