The account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. In it, we learn that everyone at that time spoke the same language. In their pride, a group of people decided to build a tower that stretched all the way to the heavens. As they were building it, God struck them down, and in the process, confused their language, which caused them to scatter throughout the world. Seems pretty straightforward. But a closer reading of the passage reveals some important lessons about unity.
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”
In verse 1, we see both a statement of unity and the basis of that unity. There was one common language. This is exactly what natural unity looks like. There’s some external characteristic that brings people together. In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing. Speaking the same language is essential to effective communication. However, there is nothing supernatural about this kind of unity. It’s natural unity. You don’t need the Spirit of God to be united because you all speak the same language.
People unite around all kinds of things. Music is a big one. We’ve all either seen video or perhaps we’ve been to a packed arena filled with people united around their love for a certain artist. Sports is another one. I remember taking a trip to London a few years ago. It just so happens that I was there the same weekend that my hometown team, the Philadelphia Eagles (no jokes, please), was playing there. Thousands of fans had crossed the Atlantic on a pilgrimage to watch their team. (As fans, we’re not as bad as our reputation. We’re worse.) At the airport in Philly, I happened to have on my Eagles sweatshirt. As I walked through the concourse, an elderly White woman who looked to be in her seventies silently smiled and with great intensity and earnestness, she gave me the thumbs-up sign. In that moment two people who differed in age, ethnicity, and gender had a brief moment of unity.
When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in February 2018 and had the parade in Philly, one thing that people pointed out more than anything else is how diverse the crowd was. Young and old. Kids and parents. Rich and poor. Police and civilians. On that day, Black and White didn’t matter. The only color that mattered was green—the Eagles’ colors that flooded Broad Street that day. Everybody was happy. There was no violence or arrests, just celebration. For some of the Christians who were there, it was bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s nice to see unity. On the other hand, we know that, ultimately, it was fleeting. But it did leave people wondering why it seems to be so rare that we see this kind of thing in the church, where the basis of our unity is much deeper than language or a sports team.
In Genesis 11, we see a group of people with natural unity. And we also see the outcome of natural unity when it’s not accompanied by faith. Ultimately, it’s a unity that is opposed to God.
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.”
When God looked at the people of Babel, He saw a unity that was in opposition to Him. He recognized the destructive power of this godless unity, and He swiftly dealt with it. Here we see God’s sovereign power on display. He shows that He’s active in this world. He’s not an absentee God. He’s aware of everything, and “it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Prov. 19:21).
“Only one institution will survive judgment day and continue into the age to come—the church”
Can you imagine being on that construction site? Imagine the person you were just talking with seconds ago begins to speak, but all you hear is “Wah Wah Wah” like Charlie Brown’s teacher! How long did it take before they realized the person was speaking another language? Did they have a meeting where only some people understood some and others understood others? How do you have a meeting when you can’t communicate?
You see what God does? He takes away the basis of the natural unity when it’s opposed to Him. This is why every fallen, earthly institution and group and society will eventually perish. Death has a way of doing that. Only one institution will survive judgment day and continue into the age to come—the church. The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 16:18,
“ . . . I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (CSB)
The point there is that Hades is the realm of death. All human institutions are eventually brought to an end when the people that created them die off. Not so with the church. Even though individual believers may die, God will preserve a people for His name’s sake until He returns.
Any unity that is not of God will ultimately be thwarted by God. Unity that is of God will be blessed by God. This is why the church should be at the forefront of displaying what it means for diverse people to come together in the name of Christ and showing off the beauty of God by the way we love each other. Sadly, this has often not been the case, either historically or today. One of Satan’s tricks is to take natural unity but dress it up in Christian disguise.
One tragic historical example of this are those who united around the transatlantic slave trade, both the European slave traders and the African chiefs who sold their people. That was natural, sinful unity based on ethnic pride, ethnic hatred, and greed. That’s the very definition of unity in opposition to God. Some even went so far as to seek religious justification for it with bad interpretations of biblical texts. This is how professing Christians participated in chattel slavery. Frederick Douglass recognized this and wrote about it in scathing terms:
Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity.1Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Boston: published at the Anti-Slavery Office, No. 25, Cornhill, 1849), 118.
As we saw earlier, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed by people who defended pastors and missionaries being slave owners. When you look into most of the older religious denominations you find similar compromises. This is what the fall has done. It takes that which should glorify God and turns it into an opportunity to divide, hate, marginalize, and oppress, even in the name of Christ.
But consider those who did this back then. Where are they now? The transatlantic slave trade? Where is it? It’s gone, praise be to God! God thwarted that unity. But guess what is still here? That’s right. The church.
It’s no accident that immediately following the account of the Tower of Babel, in the very next chapter we get introduced to Abraham. Through Babel, God scattered people throughout the nations. But it wasn’t to leave them there without hope and without God in the world. Through Abraham’s seed, God had a plan to bring them back and unite all ethnic groups to demonstrate that what the people of Babel meant for evil, God meant for good.
by Shai Linne
In the sixteenth century, the church faced a doctrinal crisis. Today, the crisis is race. We all know that racial unity is important. But...
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