“Excuse me, but I just had to ask — Are you guys fighters?”
My two roommates and I were eating wings and watching football when the woman approached our table, puzzled and a little nervous. Of the three of us, I was easily the most flattered by the idea. No one had ever mistaken me for a combat athlete.
“Umm, no, we’re not.” I looked to my roommates while I spoke, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. By the look on their faces, you would have thought she was speaking in Swedish.
“Oh,” she responded, disappointed and searching. “So are you actors?” When one roommate slowly shook his head, she finally asked, “Well, what are you, then?”
The answer really was simple, but it suddenly didn’t feel all that simple anymore. What my other roommate said next confused her even more. And yet he answered perfectly: “Well, we love Jesus.”
“Huh. My husband and I were over there trying to figure out how you three knew each other.” What had mystified this couple so deeply? A white man, a black man, and a Filipino man eating wings and watching football together.
‘Lest We Be Dispersed’
As we watched that woman walk away, we tasted something of what happened when God judged the world at Babel — when he made the people into peoples and, for the first time, alienated them from each other.
To be sure, the world had known division and hostility before Babel, even murderous hostility (Genesis 4:8), but apparently it had not yet experienced racial or ethnic hostility. Families and generations had multiplied from Adam to Noah, and then for 350 years after the flood, from Noah until Babel. And still, after nearly four centuries of being fruitful and multiplying, “The whole earth had one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1).
Because the flood had not washed away their sin, however, their unity did not produce deep thanksgiving, but only accelerated their defiance. Instead of seeing the awesome image of God in themselves, they thought they saw something better than God.
Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:4)
Do you hear the ignorance and insurrection? Lest we be dispersed. And who, we might ask them, would disperse you? The God they thought they could eclipse and dethrone. And so, God does what any jealous and loving God would do: he brings “to nothing things that are” — like towers, and governments, and our own illusions of wisdom, power, and control — “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28–29).
Walls of Our Pride
God came down to see their city and their tower, saying, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7). Then God did precisely what they thought they could prevent:
The Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:8–9)
Why did God divide and disperse them? Why insert the reality of ethnicity and alienate the unity of humanity? Because their oneness had begun to serve their pride, throwing gasoline on the sin that had ruined the garden (Genesis 3:5). What God did at Babel was an act of holy war against the sin under every other sin. He humbled the whole world, not because his sovereignty or glory was truly threatened — he has no rivals (Job 42:2) — but because if he let us build towers to ourselves, they would bury us deeper in rebellion and destruction.
Any complexity and difficulty in ethnic diversity, from Babel to today, is a blessed thorn meant to immerse us, all the more, in grace (2 Corinthians 12:7–9) — if we humble ourselves, repent, and focus on building his kingdom and church.
A People for All Peoples
Make no mistake: ethnic diversity is ultimately a blessing, not a curse, because humility is a blessing, not a curse. Like so much of the pain and groaning in history, it may have seemed like the hostilities were in Satan’s hands (and he certainly delighted in much of them), but we find out, just a few verses later, what God was really doing, at a far deeper and wiser level, when he confused and dispersed the peoples. Babel was about humbling humanity, but it was not finally about our humility; it was about his glory.
In the very next chapter, God chooses Abraham, out of all the people and ethnicities in the world, and births the new people of Israel. But before Abraham could take even the first step, before he built that first altar in the land of Canaan, God told him this was not about one nation, one people, one language, but about God having the whole world as his treasured possession:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2–3)
God did set Israel against many nations of the world, for long and devastating centuries, but any wars they made were meant to ultimately bring the nations — all the nations — home.
Truly Together, Undeniably Different
That great ingathering really does begin, here and there, throughout the Old Testament. As Daniel Hays traces so well, ancient Israel was not as homogeneous as we might assume — from the “mixed multitude” coming out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38), to Moses’s African wife from Cush (Numbers 12:1, 8), through the “all the peoples” messages in the Psalms and Prophets.
But the flood walls really begin to break at Pentecost. Do you see the shadows of Babel’s tower in that terrifying and wonderful scene? As the winds and fire of heaven descend and surround them, Luke says,
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:5–6)
What’s particularly striking about Pentecost, and perhaps surprising, is that God did not remove all the languages. Instead, he finally harmonized them at the deepest level. Each man kept his own language, and yet they suddenly understood one another. Across the barriers of distinct languages, and hostile cultures, and horrible histories, they were together again, by faith in Jesus and the indwelling of his Spirit — not wholly or pervasively yet, but truly and deeply. In Christ, God had finally remarried the peoples — to build not a tower, but a church (1 Peter 2:4–5).
Pentecost confirms, in bold colors, what God had said to Abraham: the dispersing at Babel was not mainly or ultimately a judgment, but a preparation, over thousands and thousands of years, for unparalleled glory. God had multiplied ethnicities, exponentially and across generations and continents, to do greater justice to the beauty, worth, and sacrifice of his Son.
One Is Not Enough
The beauty and worth of his sacrifice, however, will come into full definition only in the world to come. Then we finally will hear the melody of the song we have waited for:
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth. (Revelation 5:9–10)
One tribe could never say enough about this Christ. One language would never have enough words and nuances. One nation would never last long enough to see what many nations over many centuries could. Everything truly great and beautiful about every people group in history will be gathered and lifted before the throne, trying to capture just something of who this Lamb is. And though we will never fully capture him, we will capture far more because we are not the same.
Heaven proves that, in the wisdom, imagination, and creativity of God, diversity is vital to the supremacy of Jesus. If it did not reveal and exalt more of him, why would it be there?
At one level, then, our experience of the beauty and supremacy of Christ will always depend on the diversity of our fellowship. That doesn’t mean our more homogeneous communities are necessarily in sin (especially if our wider context is more homogeneous), but it does mean that for now we are missing out on something precious and eternal.
As long as everyone we know and love lives with our perspective, shares our background, and speaks our “language,” we see Christ mainly through that one window, that one angle, that one set of eyes and experiences. Our slice of the surpassing worth of Jesus is smaller, at least until we join in the explosively diverse choir and joy of heaven.
Treasure of the Nations
Our ethnic diversity is not an accident, nor merely a consequence of sin. God did disperse the peoples at Babel in order to humble each and every people (and ultimately Israel more than any other), but the humbling of God was meant to lead us into the hands of mercy, the wounds of his Son, and the hope of heaven. Anything different about those of us joined in Christ serves to show just how great a Lord, Redeemer, and Treasure he really is.
As my roommates and I watched that woman walk away from our table, we did experience some of the humbling, even maddening harshness of Babel, that birthplace of all racial tension and prejudice. But we also tasted, over wings and football, something of what heaven will be like. And something of how powerful and captivating Jesus really is. As different as we may seem to some, friendship has never been easier or sweeter or deeper, because we found each other in Christ.