Once, when I was talking to a friend about the Christian doctrine of salvation, he told me he didn’t feel like he needed to be “saved”. “I’ve never done anything seriously bad, like stealing or murdering. And whenever I’ve hurt anyone, I’ve always apologized and made amends. No one needs to die for my sins.” This attitude is fairly common. Lots of people don’t think of themselves as “sinful” because they equate sin with specific anti-social or criminal acts.
To their way of thinking, sin is bad because it violates moral or civil standards of behavior. So, if they are responsible members of their community, living according to the civilized rules of society, they don’t see themselves as sinful. This attitude fits nicely into relativism. If moral and civil standards are subject to change, according to how society evolves, then concepts such as good and evil are equally subject to change. A sin in one society or culture may or may not be identified as sin in another society or culture.
Often, those who equate sin with specific sinful acts (transgressions of the law) point to various Old Testament laws against acts that are no longer considered sinful by most people today (such as the eating of certain “unclean” foods). If those things are no longer “sins” (they argue) then the Biblical standard for sin is obsolete — not absolute, as Christians argue.
But this thinking does not reveal the Biblical concept of sin. The Pharisees were an ancient Jewish sect who were known for their strict (legalistic) obedience to all the Jewish laws (about 613 of them). As a result, they had a reputation for being the most righteous Jews. But Jesus pointed out that sinlessness wasn’t a matter of perfect legal or religious behavior. “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Notice Jesus said that even if those sins are dealt with satisfactorily (as in the case of the scribes and Pharisees) a person still won’t be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s not only a person’s sins that will keep him from going to heaven, but his sinfulness — the intrinsic sinful nature we all share, which separates us from God. If we hope to ever be with God, we must be holy, because God is holy. This message appears several times in the book of Leviticus and is repeated in 1 Peter 1:16.
Someone reading this might be thinking, “No one’s perfect. God should know. He made us this way.” But that’s only half-true. Yes, no one’s perfect. But though we were made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), we chose to rebel against God. We chose to sin. On hearing this, a lot of people get bent out of shape. “I’m not evil!”, they insist. “I’m not doing anything wrong!” Maybe it would help to examine a Bible story about pride. God considered this particular sin so egregious that he divided the “one people” of the earth into many peoples — each with its own language. They were forced into being separated and going their own ways — a pretty extreme measure.
The story of the tower of Babel is considered a myth by those who choose not to believe it. And if that includes the reader, I ask that you suspend your disbelief long enough to grasp the Biblical concept of sin, as it is illustrated in this story. First of all, for some historical perspective, the destruction of the tower of Babel occurred during the lifetime of Peleg (“in his days the earth was divided”, Genesis 10:25). According to my computations based on Genesis 11:10-18, I determined that Peleg was born 101 years after the flood and that when he was 30, his son Reu was born. That means the destruction of the tower of Babel occurred sometime between 101 and 131 years after the flood. (If it had occurred after Reu was born, the Scripture would say that the world was divided in Reu’s lifetime, not Peleg’s.)
This means that Noah was still alive at the time, because Genesis 9:28 tells us Noah lived another 350 years after the flood. The significance of this is that those who decided to build the tower of Babel apparently ignored the option of consulting the wise counsel of the oldest man living — a man who had “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Granted, there was migration to take into account, but we also know that traveling great distances was not unknown in Biblical times. Also, as cited later, God called them “one people”, which implies at the very least a familiarity with Noah and the story of the flood. Surely those who had survived the flood would have remembered God’s judgement against the wickedness of Man and would have advised against the hubris that motivated the builders of the tower of Babel.
Noah was Peleg’s great, great, great-grandfather (Noah – Shem – Arpachshad – Shelah – Eber – Peleg). In Peleg’s day, the story of the flood had apparently lost its freshness. It was yesterday’s news, old and irrelevant. As always, for the younger generation, “that was then, this is now”. They had big plans. In Genesis 11:4 they said, “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…”. They weren’t just aspiring to greatness. Their aim in building their tower was to create a reputation — a name — that would put them above all others. We see their focus in a repeated phrase: “let us build for ourselves…let us make for ourselves“.
At that time Noah’s name and reputation would have still been large. Also, Nimrod had a big name: “a mighty hunter before the LORD” (Genesis 10:9). But even Nimrod was older than Peleg’s generation. He was only three generations removed from Noah (Ham – Cush – Nimrod). The younger folks who conspired to build the tower of Babel wanted to make a new big name — a name for themselves and for their generation. They wanted to leave names like Noah and Nimrod far behind them and reach even higher heights.
So, why was that a bad thing? Wasn’t it nothing more than the desire to excel and achieve? To answer that you have to know what was in their hearts. What motivated them is the issue. The act itself of building a tower wasn’t sinful at all. But the desire of their hearts was. After God sized up what they were doing, he said in Genesis 11:6, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” God saw their unity (“they are one people”) and knew that together they could achieve whatever they wanted. Again, God did not see this as a good thing because they were doing it for no other reason than to exalt themselves.
God is not opposed to progress, excellence or achievement. He is opposed to rebellion against him. The building of the tower of Babel was nothing short of rebellion against God. When God said, “this is what they began to do”, he was referring to making a tower for themselves that “reached into heaven” as if to say they were gods themselves. They literally wanted to put themselves in the place of God, using all the resources of their unity to achieve a goal that fed their own self-interest. This is clearly understood because had their plans been intended to glorify God, they would have made that clear. What they did make clear is that they were doing it for themselves.
Because of our sinful nature, exalting our self-interest is rebellion against God. Looking at self-interest in this way helps us to understand verses like 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” What this means is that we are to love God more than the world, more than our self- interests. It’s all about our priorities, because when we consider God and his purposes above our self-interest, he supplies us with all the blessings of life. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). So, even though we deny ourselves (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) we receive abundant life from God (John 10:10).
Life from God’s perspective is putting him first, last and always. Death is the consequence of not doing so. And that is what Eve doubted when the serpent lied, “You will surely not die. For God knows that when you eat of it” [the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden] “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4, 5). There was just enough truth in the serpent’s lie to deceive the unwary Eve. Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did indeed open her eyes, but as God had warned, it also brought death. Why? Because the knowledge of good and evil can only be handled by an infinitely perfect, eternal, holy, righteous God, not a disobedient humanity, looking to satisfy its own self-interests.
But, the good news is that just as self-interest is turning away from God, repentance is turning back to God. Maybe you see yourself like those builders of the tower of Babel. Maybe you’ve got your own project, your own castle in the air, your own self-interest. Take an honest moment to consider. Is it self-serving or God-serving? If your way isn’t God’s way, it’s rebellion against God, even if it doesn’t seem wrong at the time. But you aren’t the judge, nor am I. God is our judge, and his word tells us what sin is. Don’t let pride get in the way. If there is any meaning to the phrase “give back”, then consider giving back your heart and life to the One who gave it to you in the first place. Give your life to God and you will not lose it, you will find it (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24).