Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top (will reach) into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:4)
Failure and judgment are the themes of this passage, but there is also a wonderful balance to this event in the book of Acts. If we bring the entire biblical record into the picture we see how all people of the earth are united in Christ. But first let’s examine this event.
The failure of human government: This project was a government project for that day. The government of humanity, such as it was, determined what was best for society and that they would solidify their power through this project and in its completion, as a matter of grandeur. Homes became secondary, personal rights and goals became insignificant, instead they worked for the grandeur of the project. Whenever government replaces the family, society is in danger.
The failure of human religion: The project combined government with religion. The issue of pride, assuming that they could ascend into heaven, is one interpretation. Another possibility is that this was a tower built to worship other gods, and not the LORD. God had blocked the entrance back into the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24), but this was an effort to go around the limitations, to disperse with sacrifice, to find divinity without God. Whenever religion is mandated and controlled, whenever the cross is neglected but access to divinity is claimed, faith is in danger.
The judgment of God: God saw the evil for what it was: an oppressive, one-party religious system, whose goals and doctrine would be determined by only a few. In the name of religion and in a lust for power and grandeur, they presumed they had all the answers. We have seen such systems on earth often, and they are always abusive, persecuting the innocent and depriving anyone of the right of free thought who they feel might threaten them. In one way, whether through direct intervention, or another, by indirectly letting pride divide up the people as it always does, God took credit for dispersing them.
God preferred to confuse and disperse them, for their false belief would bind all people to spiritual blindness and enslavement and judgment. From God’s perspective it is better to allow for freedom and the possibility of belief in some, than for oppressive order and the certain deception of all. I sat with a Roman Catholic not long ago who held his rosary beads and moved his lips as he pushed them through his fingers. The conversation later came around as to why there are so many protestant churches, and I saw in his questions the remnant of the thinking of the builders of the Tower of Babel.
In history the Roman Catholic Church became the Pontiffs’ church, not the people’s church, and the leadership preferred a monopolized religion of complete control, in which dissenters were ruthlessly persecuted. The Pontiffs and Bishops preferred a unified closed system, and in that system, with no accountability to anyone, they had replaced the gospel with the sacraments, Christ with Mary, repentance and faith with good works and acts of penance, and closed the Bible to the people. That the Catholic Church has changed in recent years is some good and encouraging news, but it changed as a result of the influence of the Protestant Reformation. On their own, with no outside influences, closed and oppressive systems do not change – North Korean and Burma are cases in point.
The redemption through Christ: Contrast the tower builders with Noah’s and Abel’s worship. They humbly bowed before God and offered sacrifices for their sins, prefiguring the sacrifice of Christ. We must let God save us His way, and not seek our own way. But in Christ what pride had separated, God brings together. In Acts 2 we have the historical account of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church on the Day of Pentecost. The languages that were confused at Babel are now united in Christ. At Pentecost a multilingual crowd all understood the gospel, and I believe it was a miracle of having one language again, miraculously given by the Spirit (Acts 2:8). And in Acts we read that the disciples were not afraid to be dispersed, rather in obedience to the Lord’s command they went out into the whole world to tell the story of salvation.
The application of this passage for us is that we must come to God through Christ and only through Him. But in Him is the power of God to bring humanity together again, united under His Headship. We come to Him through our individual faith, free-willingly, not forced, coerced, or because it is politically mandated. As Isaac Watts wrote in When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: “Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.”
What makes a church great, or a Christian movement great, is not the size and number of its adherents, not the pomp and grandeur of its buildings, and not the beauty and impressiveness of its public meetings, whether speakers, musicians, or rituals, and certainly not its power over others. Our greatness is only found in Christ, and bowing our hearts to worship Him, humbly repenting of our sins, serving Him in the world, that is what makes a church great.