Do you know what it’s like when you try to say something to someone but they completely misunderstand what you’ve said?
For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked me for a message I’ve given in worship, and then told me something they heard which I didn’t think I’d said. I don’t read from a manuscript when I preach so it is possible that I said something I didn’t intend to. However, it is also possible that they heard something I didn’t actually say.
There is a branch of philosophy which looks at human language and why messages we try to give aren’t always the same messages which are received. There are a lot of factors which shape meaning which is why messages can be misinterpreted and communication is often confused. I think all of us would have experienced it in one way or another. Either we intend to communicate an idea which is understood in a different way, or we hear people say things they didn’t mean.
When this happens, I go back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. This story gives us the ancient Hebrew understanding of why different languages exist and how people were dispersed to different parts of the world after the Great Flood. It also tells us why it can be hard to communicate clearly and why we often misunderstand each other. Not only was human language confused, but people of the same language group can also find it hard to understand and cooperate with each other.
This story is often connected with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 in which God gave his Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. We read that when they received the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages so that people from different parts of the Roman Empire could understand what they were saying. The disciples were able to tell people about the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, calling them to repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, in languages they could understand. The result was that about 3,000 people were baptised (Acts 2:41).
One way in which we can understand the story of Pentecost is that the confusion of Babel was overcome as people heard the gospel in their own language and were brought together into a new community of one people in Christ. The divisions and confusion between language groups of Babel are undone as the Holy Spirit did two main things. Firstly, the Spirit miraculously gave Jesus’ followers the ability to speak the gospel in languages that people from other nations could understand. Secondly, the Spirit also gave the hearers of their message the ability to understand what they were saying and to believe the good news. All of this – the message of the gospel itself, as well as the ability to speak, hear, understand and trust the message – all come from the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost.
I pray that God would pour out his Spirit on the church today just like he did at Pentecost. In so many ways, God’s church is confused and divided because of our inability to hear and understand each other. in our own congregation, we have been working towards having a much more intentional discipling focus through connecting, growing, equipping and sending God’s people to participate in his mission in the world. We have also been looking at how we faithfully and effectively pass the faith on to our young people. Both of these emphases involve cultural change in our congregation. However, every now and then someone will ask me how my outreach or youth program is going. So I sigh, say a little prayer, and then begin trying to explain again that we’re looking at growing a church culture in which everyone is involved, not running a program for a just few people.
It’s obvious sometimes that the messages I’m trying to communicate are not the messages people are receiving. Maybe I’m not communicating them effectively. Maybe people aren’t ready or able to hear what I’m saying. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the case may be, the Tower of Babel still casts its shadow over our church as there is confusion of language and divided opinions.
At the heart of both our discipling plan and our ministry with young people is the gospel of Jesus. They both grow out of and are oriented towards communicating the good news of Jesus. Our discipling plan is about connecting people with the gospel, growing together in faith, being equipped for ministry and sending out to live as the presence of the living Christ in the world. Our work with young people is about embracing them in the grace of Jesus through our church community so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose in him and grow to maturity as children of the living God. All of this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new life in Jesus, words of grace and truth to speak to each other, the ability to hear and understand the gospel, and trust in the good news of Jesus through a living and active faith. We can put all the plans, strategies, programs and processes in our church that we like, but in the end we rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the gospel to speak in ways that others can hear and understand, and create the faith we need to receive and trust in the good news of Jesus.
When I gave this message on Sunday I wondered what messages people would take from what I said. That’s the problem with language which began at Babel – the messages we intend to give are not always the messages people receive. I’m so thankful for the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to speak the gospel of Jesus in ways that people can understand, and gives us the ability to hear it, understand it and receive it in faith.
More to think about:
- Has there been a time when someone has misunderstood something you’ve said? Explain what happened…
- Has there been a time when you have misunderstood something someone else has been saying? Describe what happened…
- How can the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 help us understand why we can find it hard to understand each other?
- How do you see God undoing the confusion of Babel when he gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers at Pentecost (Acts 2)?
- Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to help you hear the good news of Jesus in a way that you can understand and believe? What might happen if you did?
- When was the last time you asked the Holy Spirit to help you speak the good news of Jesus to someone? Who do you know who needs to hear the gospel in their life?
- What do you think might happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to help us understand other people better, especially our sisters and brothers in the church?