Babble On: The Impossible Transformation of the Spirit

Fifth in a series.

We have seen that the biblical epic of Babel does not end with the original Babel account, but is central to the call of Abram and the agony of exile. And we have seen that the epic of Babel has much to say about our daily work:

  • Good work done well is a temptation to pride and fear.
  • That’s because the power of our work is enormous, especially when we collaborate.
  • God’s people are called to bless God’s rebellious and unholy world with our work.
  • We don’t do that, because we are also rebellious and unholy.

It’s a story of bad news, but one that points to the New Testament story of good news. The epic of Babel erupts in the book of Acts in a shockingly inverted form. Babel is not just reversed, but reversed in a way that we could never have expected and that has enormous implications for our daily work.

The Christ event is, of course, the central event in the epic of Babel. It’s the central event in all the narrative strands that run through the Bible.

This is somewhat concealed from immediate view because the gospel story takes place in Israel, with the climax in Jerusalem. But we can see the epic of Babel in the Christ event in two ways.

Recent Bible scholarship has emphasized an important subtext that runs through the Old Testament literature on the return to Jerusalem. The subtext is that the exile has not fully ended. God’s people are back in Jerusalem, yet at the same time, are sort of still in exile. They don’t rule themselves in Israel. Equally important, they don’t get the land back (hence the emphasis in the New Testament on the evils of the rich landowners – they are foreigners holding the land of God’s people by conquest).

The place where Christ comes is Israel – but it is also Babylon (i.e. Babel).

The really clear connection to Babel, though, is at Pentecost. The Pentecost account is a reversal of the original Babel account in Genesis 11. But not in the way we would expect.

God made the human race all one nation, speaking one language. At Babel, he confused their language as a remedy for the effects of sin. The great power of human work, which was being abused for sin, lay in collaboration, so confusing the languages (and thus creating the multiple nations, since language is the storehouse of culture) prevented human collaboration and thus strictly limited the power of our work.

So if God is removing the sin problem, and will thus reverse the curse of Babel, what will he do? He’ll remove the multiplicity of languages. Right?

The miracle that shows the pouring out of the Holy Spirit from the ascended Christ, marking the founding of the New Testament church as a new kind of community, will be everyone miraculously speaking the same language. Presumably Hebrew. Right?

Wrong. God’s pattern is to take things that were introduced because of sin and redeem them rather than remove them. God’s people demand a human king, and at that moment, God says to Samuel, “they’re rejecting me from being king over them.” But when Christ comes, he doesn’t eliminate the Davidic (i.e. human) kingship, he inherits it and occupies it eternally.

When Christ rises, he rises with the five wounds still in his body.

The differences among nations introduced to prevent them from collaborating will now, among those sanctified by the Holy Spirit, become bridges over which we can collaborate. We glorify God by overcoming our estrangement and working together with those who are different.

Cultural differences are even lenses through which we can see God in different ways. Christians have always had to use the structures of their cultures, mental and material, as raw material for understanding and following God. More cultures means more material. The Greco-Roman church used Aristotle’s philosophical concepts to describe the Trinity. I wonder what new insights the Confucian cultures will give us. The Nicene Creed is true, but some other creed couched in Confucian terms could be equally true, and reveal new facets of God for our consideration.

And if that goes for theological ideas, it goes double for Christian work. All work is done within a culture, using the tools of that culture to understand the work and to do it. If Abram shows us that God’s people are called to bless the nations with our work, Pentecost shows that we are going to do it by working within every culture and across cultures.

The growing pains of the multicultural church were severe, as the epistles attest. Not everyone was ready to wrap their heads around the new reality, where you could follow God without being Jewish. Christ broke down the dividing wall, yet in another sense, we all have to break it down (by his power) in our own lives. And it’s not easy.

The Bible’s main emphasis about the new pouring out of the Spirit on the church in the New Testament is that it makes us able to obey God much more fully, sanctifying us to a much greater extent. The miracle of tongues that accompanied that pouring-out, reversing Babel, shows that as we are made able to follow God, we are made able to work together across cultural differences.

But this is only true of those who actually receive the Spirit’s power. Between the first coming of Christ and the second, we live and work among people who aren’t being regenerated for collaboration. It’s hard enough to break down the walls in our lives; it’s harder when we live in a world that doesn’t want them broken down.

In the next and final installment of this series, we’ll look at the conclusion of the epic of Babel, which our present struggles point toward.

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