Perhaps no other event on the church calendar takes more abuse or is more misunderstood than Pentecost. Multiple groups confess and would have us believe that Pentecost, or rather the rushing of the Holy Spirit and subsequent speaking in tongues, is the definitive Christian experience. Many believe that what happened that first Pentecost in Jerusalem is paradigmatic for all Christians to demonstrate an authentic, Spirit-filled, committed Christian life.
But that would not only divorce Pentecost from its immediate context but from its historical context as well. To understand what is going on in Acts 2, one has to travel all the way back to Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel.
Babel is where the post-flood world really goes off the rails. This early civilization’s true colors show up in verse four: “And let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” The people of Babel present themselves as evidence for God’s declaration that nothing has changed about human nature after the flood (cf. Gen. 6:5 & 8:21).
First off, this gathering seems to be an intentional and direct violation of God’s directive in Gen. 9:1 to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth.” They aren’t filling the earth. They’re huddling together. But beyond this it’s the reasoning that is really damning. “Let us make a name for ourselves.”
The citizens of Babel commit the sin of the Garden of Eden all over again. It echoes the deception of Satan: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Gen. 3:4-5). The sin of self-reliance at Babel is the exact same sin of pride Adam and Eve committed when they saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” (Gen. 3:6).
This is human nature in a nutshell. All that we are able to accomplish, on our own, apart from the grace of God in Christ Jesus, is idolatry of self. We are always addicted to ourselves, always chasing after our own accomplishments, always holding up our own mighty works. We are always trying to usurp God’s place of authority over ourselves and creation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when God comes down to check out what’s going on at Babel, he responds with judgment. This isn’t a cruel and capricious God halting human progress and achievement, pushing us down when we’re just learning to walk all over again. This is a wise, good, and gracious God saving us from ourselves. He scatters humanity to destroy our dependence on ourselves.
He is constantly doing this with the preaching of the Law – showing us just how miserable we are if we’re left to our own devices. We need to know that we cannot save ourselves. When we come face to face with a holy God, what we are left with is the ruins of Babel – shame and fear.
This takes us back to Jerusalem, circa 33 A.D. Jesus Christ has been born, lived, taught, healed, calmed storms, raised the dead, and lived a perfectly sinless life. He has been arrested, tried, mocked, and crucified. He has risen again, appeared to the disciples, and ascended into heaven. And now the church is all on its own for the first time. The church, too, is huddling together in one place.
And just like at Babel, God came down. But this time he doesn’t judge and scatter. He doesn't force us to shame and confusion. He gathers together and saves. This is the message, the point, and the significance of Pentecost. God scatters at Babel to save us from ourselves. God gathers at Pentecost through the preaching of the Gospel to save us for all eternity. The Holy Spirit isn’t the evidence of a super-spiritual Christian life. He is the evidence of God’s good and gracious will to save humanity.
The languages that the people heard on that fateful day in Jerusalem weren’t ecstatic, spiritual gibberish. They were known, identifiable, understandable, extant languages. And even then, the focus wasn’t on the disciples miraculously speaking in these languages (when the focus does turn to the disciples, they’re accused of drunkenness). The focus is on the “mighty works of God.”
The point of Pentecost always, only, and ever has been the preaching of the Gospel to the nations. The focus has always been on God’s mighty work of salvation. And that’s why it is so relevant for the church today. In an age of tension – along racial, economic, and gender lines – the Gospel unites. It gathers together.
The church hasn’t been so great at this uniting and gathering together, especially in our recent history. This, I am convinced more than any other reason, is responsible for the rise of the “social Gospel”. We have shunned and alienated those who are different than us in favor of gathering together in echo chambers that are not united around a common confession, but rather a common political identity, socio-economic status, or even (God forbid) skin color.
But if we can successfully re-connect Babel to Pentecost, we will be forced to acknowledge that we aren’t some special class of super human whose piety, significance, and moral high ground transcends that of the mere mortals around us. Rather the opposite is true. We are the Parthians, the Medes, the Elamites, the Mesopotamians, and the Judeans. We come from Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, from Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, and Rome. We are the pagan nations that have been called, gathered, and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. We are the usurping sinners who have been forgiven and reconciled to the God we have rebelled against and obstinately refused to obey. There's nothing special about us. The only thing we're ever bringing to the table is sin.
So, where do we go from here? We go to church. We hear the Gospel. We are gathered together and forgiven. And then we go out and love our neighbor no matter what color, ethnicity, or gender they may be. We care for them whether they are rich or poor. We don’t need social justice to replace the Gospel. We need the Gospel to free us to be socially just.
This is the personal blog of Pastor Jason Gudim.