The first eleven chapters of Genesis concern God’s work with the whole of God’s creation and with all of humankind. Though God created the world to be unified and good, the selfish actions of human beings fragment that unity and introduce evil. The culminating story of that pre-history is the story of the Tower of Babel, in which the human beings build a monument to their own greatness and glory and to which God responds by confusing their languages and scattering them across the earth. From that point on, Scripture shifts its focus away from God’s universal work and concentrates on the story of God’s redeeming work among the descendants of Abraham. Other nations and peoples are mentioned, but usually only when their story intersects the story of Israel.
Until one comes to the second chapter of Acts.
The setting is the Jewish harvest festival called Pentecost. Set at a “perfectly complete” time after Passover (following seven weeks of seven days each), the feast was also called the Feast of Weeks. Given that it was one of the great feasts in the Jewish calendar, Jerusalem was filled with faithful Jews from all over the Roman Empire. Milling about in the city at the start of the festival day, they had come to their most sacred place in order worship their God. They had little idea that their God was about to show up in an unprecedented way. Gathered together away from the crowd, however, a small group of Jews—followers of Jesus of Nazarene as the Messiah—were praying and waiting for just such an event, just as Jesus had instructed them.
You can almost feel Luke struggling to find the right words to describe what happens next. There’s a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” It’s not a wind, but that’s the closest analogy he can draw. It’s a hint, however, that his Jewish readers would have picked up on immediately, however, because in the Hebrew language, the ideas of wind and breath and spirit are all expressed with the same word. This spirit-breath-wind is the same one that hovered over the waters in Creation, and it fills the entire house where the disciples were. It is followed by another odd sign. Something that “seemed to be tongues of fire”—again with the tentative language—came to rest on each of them. Fire was also a sign of the divine presence, but unlike Moses’s encounter with God, this divine presence is found in people and not in a burning bush. This divine presence then expresses itself in words, lots of words, words from lots of different languages. And so the curse of Babel begins to unravel, and God’s redeeming work now explicitly reaches beyond the children of Abraham.
This babble that is the undoing of Babel apparently starts to attract attention. If you’ve ever been in a foreign country where they do not speak your language and you suddenly hear your native language being spoken, you know exactly how that flash of recognition feels. So, people naturally come to investigate, and what they find baffles them. “Aren’t these who are speaking Galileans?” they ask. Galileans were known as backwater countryfolk and not known for their cosmopolitan gifts. And yet, “each of us hears them in our native language.” How do fishermen from upcountry Galilee learn the languages of Arabia and Iran (the “Medes”) and Egypt? Is it because they are drunk? Hardly. It is because God speaks those languages, and God’s Spirit is empowering God’s followers to connect God’s life to all people.
It is important to note about the varieties of languages spoken at Pentecost that there were all explicitly known language. The miracle of Pentecost is that “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues.” Sometimes the word “Pentecostal” is used to talk about the use of unknown languages that need interpretation in worship services, but that phenomenon—whatever one thinks about it—is completely separate from what is going on here. Here the miracle is understanding. Here it is God reaching across barriers to extend the work of salvation to all people.
Peter makes that explicit when he preaches that first Pentecostal sermon. Using the prophecy of Joel, Peter explains to all those listening that God is doing a new work. These are, in a sense, the “end times,” “the last days.” God is fulfilling God’s work in history by pouring out God’s spirit on all people. It doesn’t matter where they are from. It doesn’t matter what their gender is or their age, check out https://masterpaving.ie/. It doesn’t matter what their social rank is. God fills God’s followers with God’s own life, God’s own spirit, and that is what enables them to speak God’s words (“prophesy”) and to do God’s work.
This great obliteration of differences means that there are now no barriers to God’s redeeming work. “The great and glorious day of the Lord” for Joel was not primarily a day of judgement but a day of deliverance. God’s Spirit is reaching out through God’s followers to extend God’s offer of salvation to anyone who would hear it. “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” This group of saved and saving ones has a special name in the New Testament, and the rest of the book of Acts will be devoted to following its growth. It is a called “the Church.”