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Yeshua Explored

Where does Pentecost come from?

todaySeptember 13, 2012 63

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Back to the Exodus. The Jews, led by Moses, streamed out of Egypt. We should know the story of the parting of the Red Sea and the provisions in the wilderness. The next big event was going to seal them together as a nation and the days were being counted …

The countdown started on the second day of Passover, near the start of the long march eastwards. For the Jews leaving Egypt it is going to be seven weeks before they reach Mount Sinai. This period of time is known as the omer and it takes us from the barley harvest to the grain harvest. The countdown ends at the next major Jewish festival, Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks. Christians know it as Pentecost. Interestingly the linking factor between these names is the number seven, the Biblically “perfect” number. Shavuot means “weeks” and, of course a week has seven days. Pentecost means “the fiftieth day”, which is derived from counting these seven weeks, inclusively.

Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing corn. Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 16:9-10)

3 … 2 … 1 … blast-off. We are at Sinai, it is Shavuot and we are in a new month, Sivan, though, curiously, not on a fixed day. Shavuot is always seen in relative terms, as the day that is seven weeks after Passover. The clue is in the name. It’s strange if you think about it, a festival, classed as one of the big three in the Jewish year (the other two being Pesach – Passover – and Sukkot) having a name that is fundamentally meaningless. To give meaning to it, the Rabbis just counted the days and worked out what historical event came seven weeks after Passover …

While the impatient and unruly ex-slaves stood around fidgeting, Moses climbed the mountain for a one-to-one with God Himself, receiving God’s instructions for life and the Ten Commandments, inscribed by the finger of God on stone tablets. This was Shavuot and Moses was to spend 40 days and nights in the presence of God.

Shavuot became the Time of the Giving of our Torah. It celebrated the giving of the Torah, the teachings. In synagogues today it is not just the account in the Book of Exodus that is read out, but there are also readings from the Book of Ruth. There are intriguing connections. The story of Ruth also has an agricultural setting, at harvest time, but there’s a spiritual connection too. Gentile Ruth’s acceptance of the faith of Boaz the Israelite is seen as a parallel to the Children of Israel’s acceptance of the covenant of God at Mount Sinai.

Now for something curious. Let us read what it says in Leviticus 23, in the instructions for subsequent generations to celebrate Shavuot.

From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD. (Lev 23:17)

We already heard that leaven symbolises sin, a bad thing and that the Feast of Unleavened Bread drove that point home. But here we are, 50 days later, at Shavuot and the first thing we do is offer two leaven loaves to God.

An interpretation has been given, but not from Rabbinic Jewish sources and not explicitly Biblical, so I can’t pretend that any great authority is assumed. But it’s a neat idea so I will mention it. The two leaven loaves are to represent sinful mankind, Jew and Gentile, two distinct groups but one single offering. It is a picture of our “One New Man”.

 … by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, (Eph 2:15)

So what have Gentiles got to do with Shavuot? Well, nothing directly but, after all, Shavuot was the time when the Church was born.

It is 33AD (approximately, though some would say earlier) and Jerusalem is jam packed and overflowing with people. They are there because it is festival season, one of the three times a year that pilgrimages are made to Jerusalem. It is Shavuot, in this context you know it better as Pentecost and the Book of Acts tells us of the drama that ensued at that particular time.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. (Acts 2:1-5)

On that day, as a result of the preaching of Simon Peter, three thousand Jews were ushered into the Kingdom of God. So, for believers in Jesus, Shavuot has two themes, commemorating two birthdays, the Law at Sinai and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Jerusalem. No ordinary day, this one!

Shavuot brings to a close the spring festivals of the Bible. As you have seen, as well as celebrating the harvest and telling the story of the Exodus and the birth of the nation of Israel, they illustrate and teach us about the redemptive acts of Jesus and the birth of the Church. They tell a Biblical story in a way that the festivals of the Christian calendar never can. In contrast, Easter, with its pagan origin and moveable schedule, is bound by traditions divorced from the Bible and Pentecost is so stripped from its Jewish context that it may as well have landed from outer space.

Steve Maltz
September 2012

What is the origin of the Pentecost festival?

Written by: Miriam Emenike

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