Genesis. 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31
And that’s what Pentecost Day is all about too. It’s one thing to know the story of and about Jesus and His dying and rising. It’s quite another thing to have that good news given to you so that you trust it and cling to it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He teaches you to say, “What does this mean?” to the wonders of God’s salvation in Jesus.
The Tower of Babel: What Does This Mean?
If we want to get a handle on Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back in time. It happened about 100 years after Noah navigated the Flood, after the water had receded and the dry land appeared once again. Off in a plain called Shinar, a region called Babylon—today we call it Iraq—they built a tower. Who is “they”? Ambitious people; people trying to find purpose and meaning in life; people just like us. They had great technology; they had great man-power; they had great ingenuity. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.” A skyscraper into the heavens. A temple shrine for a top floor suite. An architect’s dream. A contractor’s masterpiece.
But there was one problem. Why did they build it? They said with their own lips: “let us make a name for ourselves.” Just like you and I, they wanted to protect their reputations. Just like you and I, they wanted to be known for their accomplishments. Just like you and I, they thought they knew best how to be their own gods or how best to get to God. But, you see, they could never get to God. No tower can go high enough. No person can get religious enough. But God came down to them! “Look what they can do,” God said. “They can use all their technology, all of their modern ways, to make a name for themselves. They like to rely on themselves. They like to crowd Me out of their lives and their daily activities.” Just like you and I! So, God confused their language and scattered them. For the people of Babel, talking turned to babble. They went their different ways. They talked their different tongues.
What does this mean? Their self-seeking sin separated them from God and from each other. They refused to trust God. Now how would He talk to them? What language would He use? Now they couldn’t even talk to—let alone trust—each other. Just like you and I!
Jesus’ Words on the Spirit: What Does This Mean?
Many centuries later, God would come down yet again to deal with the people of planet earth. This time He would come for a different purpose: to rescue them from their self-seeking sin, to bring them back to Himself, to reunite them with each other. God came down in Jesus, first a baby, then a toddler, then a teenager, then an adult—just like you and me. The night before He would die on the bloody cross, Jesus consoled His grieving disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
What does this mean? Jesus was about to leave. Someone else would come. That Someone Else would be the Holy Spirit. What would He do? He would comfort Jesus’ disciples by reminding them of everything Jesus said and did. Jesus also said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.” Jesus gives and delivers His cross-won peace through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther proclaimed it this way in 1532: “This is surely a most excellent comfort, so that no Christian need ever wonder—whether he’s from Jerusalem, Rome, or wherever on earth, outside in the field or in the house—how he will ascend into heaven, for it will be so. God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desires to be with him and make their abode with him. This promise we have here on earth in the Word and experience it in our hearts through faith; but in the life to come it will also finally be fulfilled.” (II:38-39) And what does this mean for your day-to-day life now? Luther continues: “Now, to have God dwelling with us here on earth means nothing else than that all we do, speak, think, and endure will be God pleasing, whether we eat, drink, work, rise up, go to bed, or pray, study, sing, or read; it will all be pleasing to him…. When God dwells with a person, that individual becomes mightier than death, devil, hell, thunder and lightning, and all evil. That is not only a precious comfort but also a wondrous delight and glory” (House Postils, 2:180-81).
Pentecost Day: What Does This Mean?
Now, all this leads up to Pentecost Day. The Lord Jesus had left His Eleven apostles 10 days earlier. In those ten days they had chosen a replacement for Judas. Matthias got their number back to Twelve. Then came the big day: Pentecost—the Fiftieth Day. A loud wind sounded. In the Scriptures “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word. And then came the tongues, tongues of fire. But tongues don’t belong on top of the head. Tongues belong in the mouth. Tongues are for speaking. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Many nationalities and many languages were there. But “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Holy Spirit and speaking and hearing—they all go hand in hand.
What does this mean? Blessed Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel. They exclaimed, “‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’” No matter what tongue they spoke, they heard the universal language. What universal language is that? The wonders of God, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The languages coming from the Babel curse would now be used for Gospel blessings! Blessed Pentecost also fulfills the promise of the coming Holy Spirit. God promised it centuries earlier through the prophet Joel (2:28): “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Jesus promised the Spirit to His disciples before He went to the cross: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about Me” (Jn. 15:26).
What does this mean? The Holy Spirit has come and still comes for you. Don’t look for the spectacular, spooky “Holy Ghost” that the Charismatics and Pentecostals portray. And don’t look for the speaking in strange-sounding tongues that the Charismatics and Pentecostals preach so loudly. If anything, that sounds more like Babel that disunites, rather than Pentecost that unites. No, look for the testimony of Jesus. That’s what unites us. He’s your Savior. The wonders of God are Jesus’ perfect life, His innocent suffering, His cruel death, His glorious resurrection and His victorious ascension. God’s wonders in Jesus are your wonderful confidence.
An unknown African preacher in the 6th century gives us a good way to receive the “speaking in tongues”:
Now the love of God was to gather together the Church all over the world. Consequently, while a single man, if he received the Holy Spirit, could speak in every tongue, now the one Church in its unity, which is established by the Holy Spirit, speaks in every tongue.The Holy Spirit has a simple and singular job: He delivers Christ Jesus to you. When Christ is preached for your forgiveness, the Holy Spirit is doing His job. When you are baptized, the Holy Spirit washes you into Christ’s death and resurrection. When you confess your sins and hear spoken forgiveness, the Holy Spirit enlivens you with the Word. When you eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, the Holy Spirit sanctifies your mouth and body with Jesus’ perfect life and soothing forgiveness. When the Holy Spirit is doing His work, you won’t focus on Him, but on Savior Jesus.
And so if anyone says to one of us: “You have received the Holy Spirit; why do you not speak in tongues?” he should reply: “I do speak in every tongue. For I am in the body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue. For what did God signify by the presence of the Holy Spirit if it was not that his Church would speak in every tongue?” (For All the Saints, vol. II, p. 187)
What does all of this mean? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Amen.