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Why we cannot be united

Xenophobia. Racism. Nationalism. Culture wars. Our children are growing up in a country deeply divided, and we have come to the point of realizing that the politicians can’t save us. Which we should’ve known a long time ago… I’m surprised that anyone expected that they ever could. The truth is that the unity we want is way beyond their power to provide. In fact, it’s beyond the power of any of us. Because God has made sure of that.

Yes that’s right… God has ensured our ongoing disunity. That’s what the account of Babel in Genesis 11 is in the bible to teach us. And it’s only when we actually understand why God caused our disunity in the first place, that we’ll have any hope of finding the one and only way that unity and restoration of our society can ever happen.

In short, the story of Babel describes what happens when human beings try to find significance and identity apart from… and without reference to… the God who designed and made them.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” – Gen 11:4

In this verse, we discover that human beings not only had a different objective than God’s creation mandate for them (God told them to spread upon the earth and rule it – Gen 9:1), but they also wanted to make a ‘name’ for themselves, thinking that they could even perhaps reach heaven and take God’s place. This is, of course, the same human sin we see every day today: people living seeking to make their place in the world without reference to God, or any consideration of the purpose he put them in the world – even to the point of themselves playing God by redefining what is good and evil.

Given that this sin at Babel is indicative of the sin of every age, it’s important to see how God responds to it: He comes down and breaks down the very source of human strength – our unity.

“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” – Gen 11:9

This may at first seem unfair. But it was in fact an act of mercy. Yes, while this one act of God is the cause of so many cultural, racial, and national conflicts that we see today… our divided situation is still better than the alternative, which would’ve been: humanity united in their rebellion against God. There would’ve been no hope for us then, because God always crushes those who harden themselves against him. So, to divide us was actually to spare us, despite how many wars and deaths may have resulted. Because this way, we’ve still got a chance at salvation and life.

What’s more, God did not leave the situation like that. Despite the sad story at Babel, God still had a plan to continue his good plans for this world – and for humanity. Not, however, through us making a name for ourselves. Rather, by God giving us a name and significance that we could never get for ourselves. We see this in the very next chapter of the bible:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great.” – Gen 12:2

Here God promises a random goat herder with no name and no future to speak of, that He is going to give him and his descendants a great name and a great future. The rest of the bible is the story of how God carries out this promise, and how people from every nation can be blessed through the Son of Abram – his descendant Jesus Christ. Because the whole problem keeping us from God and his good plans for this world is our own sin. Therefore, to have any hope a world working like it should, our sin needs to be dealt with – which is exactly what Jesus achieved on the cross for all who repent and believe in his name.

Then, after he rose from the dead and ascended to the place the builders of Babel could never reach, something fascinating happened back on earth amongst his disciples:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. – Acts 2:1-4

While at Babel, God came down in judgment and divided the languages of men; at Pentecost, God came down again, but this time to bring grace and unite humanity once more. But why? What had changed? Well, this time, the people involved were no longer seeking to make their own name great, but to make great the name of Jesus their Lord.

So this is the lesson Babel teaches us: as long as we are trying to make a name for ourselves without reference to God, he will always actively oppose that from happening, and disunity will always remain in our world. The only hope, therefore, of any unity between human beings is that which is found under the name which God has given us: the name of Jesus Christ. His plan has always been to unite us in Christ Jesus – people from diverse cultures and languages and backgrounds – so that we can be members of his kingdom and so continue to bring about his good purposes for his world. Which also means, however, that any attempt to unite and carry out the human project outside of submission to Christ will ultimately be doomed to failure, as history has proven time and time again.

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About Nick

Nick is the Pastor of St Mark's church in Plumstead, a suburb of Cape Town.

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