It hardly bears saying but the 9 days have been a truly sad, frustrating week for all Americans who hope to see a measure of peace and mutual understanding. A Minneapolis police officer, whose actions have been universally denounced by other police officers across the country, used, for nearly 9 minutes, an aggressive restraint technique on a George Floyd, who was already in handcuffs. Floyd died while in police custody. As I write, both the county coroner and an independent examiner agree that the compression of Floyd’s neck by the officer did contribute to his death. The officer has been arrested and charged with wanton disregard for human life (murder in the 3rd degree) and manslaughter. Other officers, who stood by during the incident, may yet be charged.
Understandably there have been peaceful protests against across the nation. Many of these protests, however, appear to have been hijacked by anarchists and other criminals bent on sowing discord, using violence, and creating chaos. Others have taken advantage of the chaos by smashing and looting businesses in cities all over the USA. Countless buildings and businesses have been looted and burned to the ground. Video from several major cities makes them look like a war zone. More than a few police officers have been shot or otherwise attacked. As I write, a Las Vegas police officer is fighting for his life after a criminal attempted to assassinate him by shooting him point blank, in the back of the head, as the officer was attempting to subdue another subject. A retired St Louis police captain was murdered while defending a pawn shop there. A federal officer has been murdered in Oakland. Other St Louis police officers were shot. Police officers in Buffalo, NY were nearly killed when a car rammed their line. Many American cities were on fire last night and it seems as if it may happen again tonight.
Meanwhile, in the City of God, on the church calendar, this past Lord’s Day was Pentecost, which we will consider more fully below. In order to understand Pentecost, however, we need to understand it was the answer and counterpoint to an earlier, destructive episode the consequences of which we are seeing played out in the streets. In Genesis 11 God’s Word records one of the effects of the fall: an attempt to build a pagan “temple-tower” to climb up to God. Scripture says:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
According to Marc Z. Brettler, they sought to build a “ziggurat.” This was, as he aptly describes it, a “temple tower” in which there was a holy place at the bottom and a holy place at the top. The pagans thought that a god would appear in the holy place at the top of the tower temple.l The point of the ziggurat is to enable humans to climb a ladder up to the gods.
The language attributed to humans in in the first few verses of Genesis 11 reflects this background. The clause “let us make a name for ourselves” is cryptic but it is not innocent. In the flow of the narrative, this is the post-flood (post-diluvian) world. The common grace covenant has already been instituted (Gen 9:7–17):
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth (ESV).
Nevertheless, despite God’s grace in saving that little church in the midst of the flood waters, Genesis 3 is playing itself out all over again. Humans have said to themselves, “you shall be as God” (Gen 3:5) but God has something to say too:
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth (Gen 11:1-9; ESV).
The Lord has issued yet another judgment against our idolatry. If rebellious, idolatrous humans will become as God, the righteous and holy God, the “I AM” (Ex 3:14), who spoke creation into existence, who formed the first humans from the dust of the earth, who gave them life, will thwart their ambition and do just what they feared: scatter and divide them.
The confusion we are seeing now is the natural consequence of an unnatural act: sin. That transgression of God’s holy law by creatures made good (Gen 1:26), holy, and able to obey introduced all the death and destruction we see around us. It can be difficult to learn a few other languages and it is impossible to learn them all. The evidence of the effect of the fall is all round us. We can hardly understand each other when we speak the same language. If you doubt this claim you I suspect that you have not spent much time on social media.
Under the Old Covenant (Moses), God instituted the “Feast of Weeks” (Ex 43:22; Nu 28:26).2 It was one of three times when all Jewish males were to appear in Jerusalem. It is called “Pentecost” (Greek, πεντηκοστή) because it occurs 50 days after Passover. As Israelites gathered in Jerusalem, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles. The Apostle Peter preached one of the inaugural sermons of the New Covenant church, announcing that the very same Jesus, whom the men of Jerusalem had crucified, God had raised (Acts 2:22–25). Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah (2:33), the anointed one. It was from him that the Holy Spirit had been poured out. The book of Acts is the record of the application of the saving work of Christ in Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Here is the reversal of Babel:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:4–13; ESV).
The Jewish men, who had gathered in Jerusalem, cam from all over. They all spoke different languages. They were living with the reality of the curse of Babel, with the consequences of the fall. If you have ever traveled where you needed one language to order breakfast, another to order lunch, and still another to order dinner, you know what I mean. Endowed with the Holy Spirit, each of the apostles was able to preach in a known language. The gathered assembly were able to hear the gospel preached in their own language. They Jews were incredulous. They thought that the Apostles must be drunk but they were not filled with wine but with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18; Acts 2:18). They were not telling bawdy jokes but proclaiming the reality of the resurrection.
The Apostles were the living embodiment of the reversal of Babel. The prophecy of Joel 2:28–32 was being fulfilled before their eyes and ears. Through Joel the Lord had promised the reversal of Babel and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. God said to Abraham, I will be a God to you and to your children (Gen 17:7). In the history of Israel this is the promise (Deut 29:12–14; Jer 7:23; 30:22; passim). Joel was just one iteration of the promise, cast in prophetic idiom (hyperbole). Where the Abrahamic promise is often repeated relative to the land, in Joel it is relative to his presence with them by his Holy Spirit. The essence of the promise was never the land. It was always Yahweh’s covenantal presence with his people.
Among his people the Spirit has been poured out. The things that divided them would begin to be turned back. Within the people of God the Babel effect would begin to be overcome. The silence of centuries was was broken by the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit. Where prophets had been few and far between, there would an abundance of prophets and revelation from the Lord. Most importantly, there would be salvation: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:32; ESV).
And so it was. After Peter preached the law, whereby the elect among the hearers was convicted, he preached the gospel of free salvation in Christ. The believers cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39; ESV).
The early post-diluvian world said, “Let us go up to God” but the triune God said, “Let us go down and confuse their language” (Gen 11:7). Now that same triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has said, “Let us go down and save them.” Salvation always comes down to us sinners. It unites the scattered. It delivers the elect from the wrath of God and heals their wounds.
The Jerusalem Above
What we are seeing in our streets is the effect of the fall: from the killing of George Floyd, to the rioting, burning, and murder of citizens and cops. Caesar is overwhelmed. Even when he restores order he cannot change the human heart. Only God the Holy Spirit can make a dead heart new and blind eyes to see. The city of man needs order but salvation is found only in the city of God. Unity between peoples is found in Christ, in his gospel, and in his church. The world loves self-righteous anger, bitterness, and division. Only the Holy Spirit of Christ is able to bring new life, forgiveness, and healing.
Occasionally, in his mysterious providence, God lifts his restraining hand just a bit so that we can see what might be should he remove his restraining mercies altogether. What we see is a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, where life is, as he warned, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He prescribed the Leviathan, a powerful centralized state to control behavior and prevent chaos. We have that Leviathan and it is overmatched.
The mob is no match for the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit. We Christians have resources the likes of which Hobbes did not understand. We can petition the God who broke the ziggurat, who scattered the peoples and he answers prayers and saves his elect. Let us ask him to restrain evil and violence but let ask him just as fervently to grant new life, to soften hearts, and to create in the midst of the rage and bitterness, citizens of the heavenly city who might be a light to the nations even as they rage.
1. My account of the ziggurat follows Marc Z. Brettler, “Ziggurat,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), s.v., “Ziggurat,” (pp. 1129–31).
2. So A. F. Glasser, “Pentecost,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–88), 757.