On Babel, Pentecost and Tongues
The Bible has much to say about tongues and words and language. Adam was able to supernaturally speak and understand a full-blown language as soon as he was created. That was the very first gift of tongues. It enabled the first human being to fellowship with his God. The second gift of tongues was to Eve, enabling two people to commune with each other. Language is a reflection of our having been made in God’s image. Though chimpanzees have learned to “speak” with vocabularies as large as a two or three year old child’s, that is a far cry from man’s ability to ponder the universe, devise mathematical systems, or write a novel. And none of these things can happen without language. Helen Keller, who could remember the dark abyss of life before words, said that she was like an animal, living without thoughts, existing by instinct. Language is the apparatus we must use to think. Yet, language is so much more than cognitive ability. Life itself is embedded in the singular ability to form relationships, and to do that, we must have language. God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit – the three-in-one relationship– is the essence of who God is and, therefore, the essence of reality. As creatures in His likeness, we must relate to feel alive; we must communicate: Adam and God, Adam and Eve, Adam and Abel.
In contrast, sin is the breakdown of relationship, of true communing. At the Tower of Babel, the division of mankind into different languages stands as a symbol of communication breakdown. And that tower is a perfect metaphor for sin. When we build a tower in our own hearts, a tower of self-centeredness or arrogance – to “make a name for themselves” as it says in Genesis—immediately relationships begin to crumble, to decay toward Babel. Oddly, the Tower also represents a type of unity, a unity of purpose. But then unity and intimacy are two different things. Men have always been able to unite for mutually evil designs. Unity thus achieved may be powerful, yet it is also shallow and short-lived. Evil purposes unite evil men who cannot fully trust each other and often end of stabbing each other in the back. So, the Tower of Babel was doomed from its inception. The camaraderie eventually would have degenerated into power brokering and politics at some point, and the initial unity would have crumbled under the inevitable struggle for ultimate rule. In a way, God just sped up the natural process by confusing the languages.
God’s Idea of Unity
God had a very different kind of unity in mind for man. His plan would not be fully revealed until several millennia later, but His idea was for us to unite in a fellowship of love. Thousands of years went by, then “in the fullness of time” as John puts it, He sent his son to the cross to put to death the heart-breaking division —the Babel— between man and God. He healed the cataclysmic wound in our communication with Him that had occurred in Eden. Next, He unleashed a force that could reverse Babel itself. He did this by jumpstarting a true Fellowship, the Church, at that great event known as Pentecost. Fiery tongues… supernatural languages… the spiritual-gift of anti-Babel. At Pentecost God was saying, “I am doing it today with a miracle, but you must not allow this miracle to stop. I want you to keep it going. I want you to commune with each other, to truly speak each other’s language. And I want you to communicate the gospel in all the languages of the world.”
For many years that’s what the new Fellowship did. Close relationships were forged in house churches. Small fellowships united in love as well as in a common purpose. And missionaries went out, scores and scores of missionaries, all with the intent of putting the gospel in the everyday language of everyday people. The gospel was translated into vulgate (common) Latin for the common Roman, into Coptic for the Egyptians, and into Syrian, Indian, Cyrillic, and on and on. And, of course, it was already in the Koine’ Greek, the commoner’s Greek, not the classical Greek of the elite, but rather the plain trade-language of the Mediterranean world.
But somehow this part of the lesson got completely lost. Over the centuries that followed, all the countries of western Europe gradually lost the Bible in their own tongue. The educated elite took over during the Middle Ages and incarcerated the Word of God, trapping it in what had become by then a dead language— Latin. So the common man no longer had God’s Word available in his own tongue. The mandate of Pentecost seemed lost.
The entire Reformation hinged on the breaking of this evil “spell.” Can we modern Christians even begin to comprehend the struggle of those years? People dying—just to give us a Bible in English. Now, English versions abound in every Christian home, and there are Bible translations in languages from all over the globe. From the Motilones in Peru to the Falopa people of Papua New Guinea, the curse of Babel has finally given way to the power of Pentecost. Never before have so many people been able to hear the Gospel and read God’s Word in their native tongue.
A Gift of Tongues
So, what does it actually mean to say a particular language is someone’s “native tongue”? In recent years it was discovered that if you learn a language before the age of puberty, you learn it in an altogether different part of your brain. In fact, researchers have found that unless you learn a language as a child and, therefore, in that other brain compartment, you will never be able to speak it without an accent. The language you learn as a small child is the one in which you call out when you are afraid, the one in which you holler when you lose your temper, the one in which you pray. It is the language of your heart.
Most of the Jews who gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost actually knew at least one of the two multi-cultural languages used in the city at that time – either Hebrew or Greek. When Peter stepped out on the balcony and preached in a common language (not in supernatural tongues), most of the people understood what he said. So, communication was possible without the supernatural languages. God could communicate with this crowd without a miracle. But God chose the miracle for, if God is nothing else, He is personal. And His message at the birthing of His church was, “I know who you are, I love you personally, and I speak your language, the language of your heart.” His church was born in the flaming tongues of that personal love.
We are all truly called to speak in tongues, and, at a minimum, that means to get out of our own world, our own heads, to lay down our defenses for a moment and make the sacrifice to genuinely communicate. The spreading of the gospel was never meant to be mere vocalized doctrines, no matter how true, but rather words creatively and sensitively chosen with love. Speaking to the heart means actively working against the curse of Babel and toward the miracle of Pentecost. Any true gift of tongues, whatever else it may be, is a special and miraculous gift of heart-to-heart language. It is intimacy. It is love. That is how God spoke to Adam. That is how He speaks to you. That is how we must speak to Him and to each other. That is the true miracle of all languages. That is the miracle of Pentecost.