Intro: “I charge thee in the sight of God, who giveth life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession…” (1 Timothy 6:13)
At times, in my Bible study, I find that irony is the most prominent characteristic of Bible events and the people involved. I recently read an article by Paul Earnhart (one of my favorite authors), concerning a well-known Bible character, that reinforced this perception. I will borrow from that article to begin the lesson.
The Roman Empire had thousands of provincial officials in the course of the 500 years of its existence. Few of these men are known by name, and even those are obscure. In the final analysis, only one is easily remembered… Pontius Pilate. Although both Josephus and Philo mention Pilate by name, the vast majority of information we have about him comes from his appearance on the NT gospels.
How can he be characterized? He seemed to be an obscure ruler (6th in a line of Judean Procurators) who was stuck in a job he did not enjoy, trying to make a name for himself. He seems to have had grand ambitions.
He hated the Jews he ruled over. He enraged them by hanging shields with names of pagan gods inscribed on them, in his residence in Jerusalem. He appropriated the Corban money collected by the Jews to build an aqueduct in the city. This initiated a riot, which Pilate quieted by sending soldiers into the crowd with concealed daggers to assassinate both the participants and spectators.
Later, Pilate mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, probably at a feast at Jerusalem, when riots often occurred, and in the temple outer court (Luke 13:1-4). It is possible that the the tower of Siloam was part of the aqueduct work, and its fall was regarded as a judgment from God. Some suggest that the riot and murder for which Barabbas was arrested and convicted was connected with Pilate’s appropriation of the Corban; this would explain the eagerness of the people to release him rather than Jesus. But it is certain that Pilate was a ruler who was hated by his subjects. Yet it was this ruler who would do their bidding in the murder of their own King.
Pilate was a brutal and insensitive man. Yet he recognized the outrageous nature of the case against Jesus. The problem was that the Jews were stubbornly insistent. Their threat to report him to Caesar as one who did not protect the authority of the emperor was disquieting (John 19:12). Philo quotes Herod Agrippa I as saying that the Jews “exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the Emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government – his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine… his cruelty and his continual murders…” (LegatioadGaium, 38).
One voice in Pilate’s head told him to release Jesus (his wife was urging him to have nothing to do with Jesus), but the other voice told him to protect his career and give into the Jews’ request. He attempted to sidestep this choice by offering up Barabbas instead, but that did not work. He had to choose. Would he do what he knew was just, or would he give into the pressure.
At last, when he could not save his job and justice too, he protected his job and shifted blame for his knowing perversion of justice to the Jews. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said, as he symbolically washed his hands, “It is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:24, NIV).
I mentioned irony. The real irony of Pilate’s story is that he was a man seeking a name for himself. He may have envisioned how he would become famous (winning a great victory for the emperor, quelling a rebellion, etc.) For him, Jesus was a minor, if troublesome, inconvenience on his road to fame and fortune. And yet, ironically, Pontius Pilate is remembered in history, not because of his own great achievements, but because of his brief encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.
It is easy to condemn Pilate’s weakness and self-serving. But how do we differ from him? How often do we sell out moral principle, and the Son of God, for own agenda and ambitions?
Every man and woman who turns aside his duty to God, to family, and to others, just to hold on to “follow their dreams” replicates the spirit of Pilate. We often plead the same excuses:
We tried everything. We want to do what is right, but we have no choice. Pilate tried everything to avoid his choice as well.
We can blame our moral and spiritual lapse on the wickedness of others, but so did Pilate.
In the end, we are walking the same path – wanting to make a name for ourselves. We are ambitious for ourselves.
I. How does this selfish ambition look to God? Doesn’t God want us to succeed in life?
A. Read Gen. 11:1-9 – The narrative about the attempted building of the tower of Babel provides an interesting look at the development of what might be called the ambitious human spirit. The flood of Noah was a universal cleansing of the pervasive corruption that had developed since the time of Cain and Abel. Gen. 6:5-6 – Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
1. Despite this cleansing, and a new physical earth, when Noah’s family stepped from the ark they were still faced with the same challenge – living in a world that had been cursed by the presence of sin, and Satan was still on the scene, ready to seduce humans into placing themselves before God.
2. As a result of their common descent from Noah, the world had one common language, and the people were set on doing great things.
B. Why is this story included in the record? There is so much that is not included, why is this story important and what are the lessons for us?
1. Rebellion: God had commanded the descendants of Noah to “increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1), a reiteration of the command originally given to Adam and Eve in Paradise (Gen. 1:28). Although there had obviously been some dispersion, the events at Shinar indicate a failure to follow this command. They had rebelled.
C. The text can be divided into a series of “comes”.
1. v. 3 – Come let us make bricks… v. 4 – Come, let us build… Cooperation and unity are good things. They were ambitious and industrious.
a. But why does God oppose this building project? Their intentions go well beyond a desire for a nicer place to live or a plan toward civilization. God’s command to “fill the earth” seems to be working against their best interest. They proposed to chart their own course. “We know what we need”. When God’s commands conflict with what we want the test begins, and rebellion is born.
b. The city and tower project was a monument to human self-sufficiency and pride… notice the direction of their ambitions… v. 4
1) “Let us build ourselves a city” – There is no mention of God in their plans. This was for them. It was in their interest.
2) “Let us make a name for ourselves” – Their rebellious spirit was evidenced in their desire to construct a place for their own glory, not God’s glory. This was to be the ultimate secular city. It was the desire for reputation but, more than that, also a desire for independence from God. Alfred Edersheim writes on the nature of this proposed undertaking. “for not only would the Divine purpose of peopling the earth have thus been frustrated, but such a world-empire would in the nature of it have been a defiance to God and to the kingdom of God, even as its motive was pride and ambition.
i. Earlier in Genesis, after the death of Cain, and the birth of Seth, another son to Adam and Eve, the test says men began to call on the name of the Lord. That phrase denotes more than praying. It suggests that men were depending on, and obeying God. They were once again submitting to His authority – giving Him the glory.
ii. The people of Babylon wanted none of this. They wanted to establish their own reputation and eliminate God entirely. They saw themselves, their name, as the authority of their lives.
3) A tower “whose top is in the heavens” (that reaches to the heavens – NIV) This is where the famed tower of Babel comes in. Most of our translations speak of a tower that should “reach” to the heavens. Did these ambitious builders actually believe that they could build a tower to heaven? Maybe. They were proud of their building skills.
i. Many commentators indicate that the words “reaches to the heavens” should not be applied to the height alone but rather it denotes this was to be a place of worship.
ii. In the Hebrew text the words “to reach” do not occur. The text speaks of the top of the tower as “in,” “on,” “with,” or “by” the heavens (all four being possible translations of the one Hebrew preposition). This could mean that the top was dedicated to the heavens as a place of worship or even that it had a representation of the heavens (a zodiac, astrology) upon it. The Bible traces all false religions to Babylon, the site of this event. In fact Babylon symbolizes the city of earth, the center of false religion. (Rome in the N.T.)
D. God’s Judgment: v. 5 – But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. God came down to see the building project. This is anthropomorphism, that is, God being described as if He were a man. God did not have to get closer to see. But God uses this language so as to emphasize the puniness of their accomplishments. It was grand in their eyes, but God has to stoop down to see it. It presents perspective. God is above, we, and our works, are beneath. The great pyramids of Egypt even at a low altitude, seem like pimples on the surface of the earth. The twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City looked like miniature dominoes from above.
1. Verse 6 – And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. This is not suggest that if God allowed them to continue, He could not stop them later on. Their solidarity and unity of purpose were not unstoppable by God. But He declares, in the context of the coming judgment, that they will not stop here. This rebellion will lead to more rebellion. When men are convinced that they can do thing without God, they become more bold and selfish. The successes of the industrial revolution and scientific discoveries of our age bred the rebellion of humanism that permeates our world today.
2. Earlier the builders had used the word “come” to call their council: “Come, let’s make bricks…. Come, let us build ourselves a city” (vv. 3, 4). But now God uses these same words as He assembles His heavenly council and moves to confuse their language: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (v. 7). Instead of destruction, God performed a miracle in the minds and vocal cords of the builders. He confused their language so that now, instead of speaking together and working together, their words brought confusion and an inevitable scattering of these people over the earth. God always has the last word.
3. God’s Will is Done: they ceased building the city, the Lord scattered them upon the earth… (vs. 8-9) The curse was the confusion of languages. Could it be said that the division of men and the language barrier stands as an emblem of man’s rebellion and sin? Could the curse of sin ever be removed?
4. The Babylonians wanted a city, but their city was left unfinished. Nimrod’s people wanted a name, but who are they now?
5. Ironically, to those who stand with God and who overcome, God promises both: 3:12,13 – 2 He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name… The blessings come not as a result of our own ingenuity or arrogant accomplishments, but through obedience to God – through Christ.
E. The Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost: If there is a N.T. analogy to the tower of Babel it is found in the events of Pentecost. The name Babel means “gateway to God”, reflective of the desire of those who constructed it. When the resurrected Christ sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles it confirmed that the “stairway to heaven” sought by the ancients had been established. However, this gateway was not accomplished by human initiative or effort but by the supernatural power and grace of God. The timing and purpose were of God’s determination, not of the people. Consider the events.
1. “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! (Acts 2:5-11 NIV). On the day of Pentecost, the language barrier was broken and the confusion was lifted. The disunity initiated by the scattering at the tower of Babel has begun to be reversed and this time God gets the glory:
2. The Apostle Peter preaches in Acts 2:38-47 – 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (NIV) As many as believed were baptized and the Lord added them together (as opposed to scattering them), thus unity was established on God’s terms.
a. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary states… By one miracle of tongues men were ‘scattered abroad on the face of all the earth,’ and gradually fell from true religion. By another, national barriers were broken down, that all men might be brought back to the family of God.
3. God’s final answer to man’s rebellion was not the flood of Noah, or the confusion of language. It was the death and resurrection of Christ. When God offered this remedy, He symbolized it through the unity of language in the power of the Holy Spirit. God used the selfish ambition of an obscure Roman procurator to accomplish His purposes toward the unity of His people.
Conclusion: The story is much more than God indiscriminately interrupting an insignificant building project. It is a standing monument to man’s arrogance and pride, and God’s judgment against sin. Its lesson today is a call to obedience and humility. A unity through God’s initiative.