From Confusion to Clarity
Last summer, I was stuck in an airport in South Korea, waiting for a plane to take my team on to Thailand for a mission trip. Above us hung signs written in several languages, none of which we understood. Fellow passengers chatted quietly, their strange words a hopeless tangle to our ears. Then two men came and stood behind our group. Suddenly they burst into grins. “It’s so good to hear English!” they exclaimed. “Where are you from?”
The men stayed with our group as we waited to board. They spoke of their lives, families, and businesses, and we shared about our mission work and plans. Our common language was a warm welcome to these lonesome travelers. After all, to be heard and understood is a desire common to all people throughout the world and its history. A shared language creates an immediate connection. Unfamiliar speech erects an invisible barrier, separating “us” from “them.” Even the disciples faced this obstacle, until God chose to intervene one spring day, long ago in the city of Jerusalem.
The streets were bustling with activity and noise. Jews from many nations had gathered to celebrate Pentecost—one of the major “pilgrimage” feasts that required Jews to travel to Jerusalem every year. Visitors flooded the city, each speaking a different language, but all with the same heart: to celebrate a feast commanded by the Lord.
Jews returned to Jerusalem every year to celebrate three feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The observance of Pentecost was commanded by God for the purpose of offering thanks and praise for the harvest. Held 50 days after Passover, it was originally known as the Feast of Weeks. But in the New Testament, the observance is called Pentecost, from the Greek word for “fiftieth.” During His time on earth, Jesus also traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost.
Pentecost was meant to be a joyous time, but surely there were also whispers and doubts as the crowds moved through the streets. Jesus of Nazareth had been put to death recently, and some said He had risen back to life. Eyewitnesses to the risen Christ were all over the city, but could the news be true? If it was, what did this mean for Jews around the world?
Before there could be answers, however, there had to be understanding. The many visitors had no common form of communication, except perhaps charades. A traveler might be able to gesture to an innkeeper and get a room or a meal, but who could communicate the truth about recent events, and the reality of the risen Christ? Even the disciples spoke only one language, a distinct Galilean dialect. This barrier of words prevented visitors from understanding the Twelve and hearing the good news. How had language—that beautiful, useful tool—become such a difficult mess?
To find the answer, we have to travel even further back in time, to the ancient city of Shinar, a Babylonian city located near modern-day Iraq and Iran. Known for its lovely pottery, Shinar boasted many skilled workers who also excelled at creating impressive ziggurats, a feat that fueled the ambition of residents to create a lasting name for themselves.
A ziggurat was a Babylonian tower, constructed in the shape of a layered pyramid, with a winding staircase on the outside. Each brick was handmade, and the structure was built with staggered layers that were completely solid. The tower was meant to be the highest focal point of the city.
The people of Shinar had ambition, skill, and most unfortunately, a wicked dose of pride. The historian Josephus tells us that the Babylonian ruler Nimrod encouraged them in this sin: “He said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach!” Nimrod wanted the people to build their way around God’s judgments.
In Genesis 11:6-7, God considered the project underway and said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” In a master stroke of correction, the Lord took away their ability to communicate with each other. Like a deliberate tap on a delicate house of cards, the community collapsed. The people scattered across the world, taking their many languages with them.
In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon associated many of life’s disasters with the sin of pride. See Proverbs 11:2, 13:10, and 16:18.
Thousands of years later, in an upper room in the city of Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples were gathered together just before the Feast of Pentecost. With them were Jesus’ mother, many other women, and assorted followers of Christ. The disciples had already confronted the worst in themselves and each other, having seen their Master beaten and hung to die, betrayed by His friends and ridiculed by His enemies. They had witnessed the resurrected Christ and watched Him ascend to heaven. But now they faced a new challenge: waiting.
Before ascending, Jesus had “commanded them . . . to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5). The disciples chose to wait together and pray. And then, as the day of Pentecost arrived, “suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:1-4).
Fire is often used in the Bible as a symbol of the Lord:
- The Lord led the people by a pillar of fire at night (Ex. 13:21).
- The Lord described Himself as a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29).
- His Words are like fire (Jer.23:29).
- Jesus will one day be revealed with His angels in flaming fire (2 Thess. 1:7-8).
The disciples were suddenly speaking in foreign languages, and soon visitors in the city heard their own dialect clearly spoken. How comforting the sound must have been to a weary, homesick traveler. The same God who had confused the language of the prideful Babylonians now used language to draw His children to Himself and proclaim the risen Christ. After Peter stood to address the crowd, about 3,000 people accepted the gospel message. This miracle of Pentecost wasn’t only that a great number of people were saved or that many different languages were spoken. It was also a reminder that God had removed every barrier to His grace. The offer of salvation was shouted into the chaos of the crowded streets: His gift of total forgiveness extended to every hurting heart and wandering soul.
The lessons of Pentecost still speak to us today. First, remember that the disciples waited together. Isolation can bring temptation and cause us to doubt what we know is true, but there is strength in numbers (Eccl. 4:12). When we must wait on God, we would be wise to surround ourselves with like-minded believers.
This miracle of Pentecost was a reminder that God had removed every barrier to His grace.
Second, recall that the disciples devoted themselves to prayer. Waiting stirs many emotions, but through prayer with thanksgiving comes the assurance that “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Waiting together and praying together helped set the stage for the miracle of Pentecost.
Sometimes we face circumstances that are unlikely to change rapidly, such as a long season of grief or a physical disability. If we pray only for circumstances to change, we can grow discouraged or frustrated as we wait. Instead of focusing your prayers exclusively on circumstances, ask God for the fellowship that strengthens faith.
Long ago, pride toppled a tower, and confusion created a barrier between the nations. But when a faithful people gathered to worship the Lord, He used the obstacle of their diverse languages to open their hearts to His message. To you, today, the message is the same: No matter how far you are from home, no matter how low you’ve fallen or how high you’ve climbed, God is calling to you, and He speaks your language.
The article was selected from In Touch magazine.
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