And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
“And how hear we, every man in our own language wherein we were born…we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:8, 11b).
God created humans with an expectation that they should strive and work (Genesis 2:15). After humans sinned such striving and effort was cursed with futility (Genesis 3:17-19, Ecclesiastes 2:17-26, Romans 8:20-22). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are able to overcome sin and death, and our striving and effort can have eternal meaning and value (Romans 8:1-15, 1 Corinthians 15:58). Yet to what end do we strive and toil? In Scripture two possible purposes are set forth, illustrated by Babel and Pentecost.
At Babel humanity spoke one language and was gathered together as one people (Genesis 11:1). They proved willing to collaborate on a major undertaking, a large tower; they successfully planned and began executing that project (Genesis 11:2-3). And yet their sinfulness proved evident, for their construction project was not for God’s glory, but for their own (Genesis 11:4): they built the tower to make a name for themselves, to resist God’s purposes for them, and to seek to find meaning and value in life on their own terms. On account of this God confused human language so people could not understand each other, for the earth cannot sustain the scale of self-glorifying projects concocted by human imagination (Genesis 11:6-9).
At Pentecost the people of God throughout the known world had gathered together in Jerusalem to honor YHWH their Creator God (Acts 2:5). Jesus’ disciples, who had followed Jesus and learned from Him, remained together as they had been commanded (Acts 1:4-8); God poured out upon them the Holy Spirit as He had promised through Joel and Jesus (Acts 2:1-4, 16-21). The gathered Jewish people were amazed, for they heard the Apostles speak to them in their native languages about the mighty works which God accomplished in Jesus (Acts 2:6-11). At Pentecost and in Christ God undid what He had done at Babel, for God empowered Christ’s disciples to proclaim His mighty works and give Him all the glory.
To this day God calls mankind to find redemption from sin and victory over death through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:53-57). Human labor is only not in vain when accomplished in Christ to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 15:58). We remain tempted to strive and work as our ancestors did at Babel, to make a name for ourselves and to attempt to find meaning and purpose on our own terms outside of what God has established for us (Genesis 11:1-9).
As servants of the Lord Jesus we do well to see the world and its striving for what it is: various projects that will all have the same end as Babel. In every discipline and field, from sports to science, from relationships to politics, those who remain in the world strive as they do in order to make a name for themselves. They want life to have meaning but look for it in the wrong places. It will all be for naught; they will all perish, they will be forgotten, and their striving and effort will be as the grass and flower of the field (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 11, Isaiah 40:6-8).
As servants of the Lord Jesus our striving and effort need not be in vain if it is done to God’s glory and not our own. The most mundane tasks in life can still glorify God and have an eternal legacy (Matthew 6:19-21). And yet we are still tempted to strive and labor as the world does, to make a name for ourselves even though we profess to want to glorify God. If we do so we have received our reward and will find little stored up in heaven. May we root ourselves in Christ Jesus and do all things to the glory of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry