When I first moved to Romania, I spent my weekends in a village where only a handful of people spoke any English. I had a heart for the teenagers in the village, and I knew that my mission depended in great measure on my diligence and determination to speak Romanian.
Early on, I accumulated enough knowledge to think that I could understand about half of what was being said. Actually, my understanding covered about half of the general ideas of the conversation, and that was true mainly because my years of studying another Latin language (Spanish) were finally paying off.
Once, after preaching at a church, I was met at the door by one of the older ladies. I was with a translator, so I thought couldn’t mess up the conversation too badly. I had met with this lady and her husband in their home a few months before, so I asked her how her husband was doing. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told me he had passed away. But instead of understanding that she had spoken of his death, I understood that she was crying because he was near death. So, I answered back quickly that I would pray for God to do a work! The translator looked at me, stunned, and said in English, “Trevin, she said he’s dead!” Needless to say, I started being more cautious about assuming I understood.
The difficulty of learning another language made me wonder why there are different languages anyway.
Biblically speaking, this question takes us back to the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. There we see people uniting around a common cause – to make a great name for themselves and build a tower up to the heavens. God, however, will have no part of any empire except His own. So He comes down and confuses their languages so that they scatter across the earth.
[On a related note, isn’t it fascinating to see how different languages are a result of our sin, and yet God takes even the effects of our sin and transforms them into something that will give Him praise? At the end of time, God is not going to obliterate all languages. Now He sees the diversity of languages as part of the beauty of His creation. Every tongue, tribe, and nation will praise God. The different languages won’t go away. They’ll all be in service to praising King Jesus. It’s amazing to consider how God will transform even the effects of our sin and somehow put them in service to praising King Jesus!]
Reversal of Babel
On the Day of Pentecost, we see an initial reversal of Babel. God gives everyone understanding so that instead of God’s mighty works being proclaimed in just one language – Hebrew, for example – they can be proclaimed in many languages. O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise!
This is the end of Babel and the beginning of a new humanity.
Instead of people climbing up to God, we testify that God came down to us – not in judgment, but for salvation.
Instead of people gathering in one location to make their own name great, we are now scattering all over the earth to make God’s name great.
Instead of language being a barrier to man’s mission of self-glorification, languages are now redeemed in order for the Triune God’s mission of glorifying Himself to move forward!
Pointers to Pentecost
There are pointers to Pentecost in the Old Testament that we shouldn’t miss.
- This was a celebration of harvest. The crops were ready for harvesting.
- Not only that, the Jews of this time celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses.
At Pentecost, we see the Holy Spirit harvesting hearts, coming into the fields of people’s lives and cutting them to the heart with conviction.
At Pentecost, we don’t receive a new Law on Sinai. We receive the Spirit who will write God’s Law on our hearts.
The Holy Spirit gives us power. These people were filled with the Spirit. They watched as He spoke to ordinary people in their own language.
The beauty of Pentecost is that God wants to receive glory from all kinds of people, and to that end, He ensures that His gospel will be proclaimed in all kinds of languages. It’s easy to stumble over the tribes and nations listed here. It’s a long list of obscure names. But they aren’t unknown to God. He knows every one.
He knows your nation, your city, your town, your neighborhood. The Holy Spirit knows your dialect. He speaks to ordinary people like you and me, prompting us to share our faith, reminding us of what Jesus taught us.
Babel is no match for Pentecost. The nuances of thousands of languages are not enough to capture the glorious nature of salvation through Christ.