“From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:15-16).
Background to the Feast of Pentecost
Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, is so named because it is calculated by counting a period of seven weeks from the Sabbath after the Passover to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Thus Pentecost always falls on the first day of the eighth week (i.e. on a Sunday) . 1
The Festival celebrates the beginning of the wheat harvest by bringing the firstfruits of the crop as an offering to the Lord along with the sacrifices prescribed in the Law. The giving of the firstfruits to the Lord, which were representative of the whole harvest, was an acknowledgement that everything comes from God and his people were completely dependent upon Him for their sustenance. Unlike the unleavened bread of the Passover festival, which represented the bread of affliction and poverty, the bread for the offering at Pentecost was leavened, symbolising an abundant harvest to come. It also embodied the truth that as a collective thank-offering for the people of Israel it was leavened with the imperfection of sin and had thus to be accompanied by the sacrifices of the sin offerings.
Although its primary designation, according to the Scriptures, was a harvest festival, Pentecost, according to Jewish tradition at the time of Christ was universally accepted as the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Although not explicitly stated in Scripture, this was derived by calculating the interval from the first Passover when the Israelites were delivered from their bondage in Egypt on the fourteenth day of Nisan, to the time that Scripture records Moses going up to God on Mount Sinai, in the third month, Sivan, an interval of fifty days (Exodus 19:1). Both aspects, the giving of the firstfruits and the receiving of the Law, have rich significance to the events that took place on the day of Pentecost described in the book of Acts.
The Spiritual Significance of the Feast of Pentecost
The story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery and her subsequent sojourn in the desert before entering the Promised Land prefigured the universal redemption that God had promised through His Messiah. The period between Passover and Pentecost reveals some important spiritual lessons. Passover represents the miraculous deliverance by a mighty act of God. This deliverance was not simply to set the people free to do as they pleased, but that they might worship God.
Having been delivered from their bondage, the Law was given in preparation for the Israelites to take possession of the Promised Land. This was preceded by a period of consecration in preparation for receiving the Law (Ex 19:14). The scene described in Exodus at the giving of the Law was one of great fear and trembling amid loud trumpet blasts as the Lord descended in fire upon the mountain. Despite the great awe and reverence accompanying the giving of the Law, it was never intended to be an end in itself. Rather it was a stage in the unfolding revelation of God that was meant to point men to the Messiah. The Law of Moses was merely put in charge until the final atonement was made that would sanctify the people so that the Holy Spirit could make His dwelling within them and write his Law, not upon tablets of stone, but upon the hearts of his people. The giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai was, in effect, a kind of firstfruits, guaranteeing what was yet to come on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the believers. The real goal of the Law is Jesus the Messiah to whom Moses and the prophets testify (cf. Romans 10:4).
Unfortunately, instead of realising that the Law merely revealed more starkly the sinful condition of man, many began to see it as an end in itself and forgot their need of a Redeemer. The Lord subsequently began to reveal his plan of redemption through the word of the Hebrew prophets. The banishment from the Garden of Eden, representing God’s presence, was figuratively re-enacted when Israel was banished from the land of Canaan and sent into exile in Babylon for seventy years. In the exile the Lord reiterated his promise to redeem his people through his Messiah.
In exile Daniel identified the principal enemy of God’s people. This enemy was not the Syrians, nor the Babylonians, nor any other hostile nation that would yet emerge, such as the Greeks or Romans. The real enemy is sin through which the deceiver and accuser gains a stronghold over the people. Daniel confessed,
“All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgements written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favour of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The LORD did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him” (Daniel 9:11-14).
While Israel was in exile in Babylon, the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, promising to redeem them and restore them to the land. The Lord also promised through the prophets;
“…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
“…afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).
Many expected that the restoration would be accompanied by the destruction of Israel’s physical enemies, but this only showed that they had not yet, even after their humiliation in Babylon, identified their real enemy. The Lord said through Zechariah that their redemption would be wrought: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6).
Although God had delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt they remained enslaved to sin, awaiting the Deliverer who would set them free to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. It is most appropriate that the Feast of Weeks follows immediately after Passover. The Lord sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me…” Before they could accept the yoke of the Law they had to be delivered from the yoke of bondage in Egypt. Just as they were first delivered from their slavery in Egypt before receiving the Law at Mount Sinai, so too, provision was first to be made by which they could be set free from their slavery to sin before they could receive the promised Holy Spirit who would write His law upon their hearts. Jesus told those who were confident in their own righteousness and had no perception that they were enslaved to sin, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). The Apostle Paul reiterated this truth in his letter to the Romans: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14).
Fulfilment of Pentecost
Through Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the great mystery and promise of redemption is revealed. Jesus was sacrificed at Passover. The Passover lamb was symbolic of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and the blood applied upon the doorposts of the houses was symbolic of the atoning blood of Jesus. He was raised to life after three days, on the first day of the week, the day following the Sabbath. This was the same day that the first sheaf (literally omer) of the barley harvest was presented by the priest as a wave offering to the Lord (see Lev. 23:10-15) 2. From this day the counting of the weeks to Pentecost began.
The dedication of the harvest, which began with the presentation of the first omer, was completed with the thank-offering of the two wave-loaves at Pentecost, so that the memorial of Israel’s deliverance appropriately terminated in that of the giving of the Law 3. Jesus presented himself as the Passover sacrifice for our sin, being raised on the third day as the firstfruits of the resurrection. This was completed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the believers on the day of Pentecost, the firstfruits of the redeemed nation. The Spirit is God’s seal of ownership on His people, given as a deposit guaranteeing our redemption (2 Cor. 1:22). The Apostle Paul links the analogy of firstfruits with the resurrection of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus himself used a similar analogy when he said: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
The practice of counting the weeks from the presentation of the first omer to the day of Pentecost created a sense of anticipation in the minds of pious Jews, as one might count the days to the arrival of a special visitor or occasion. After Jesus was raised from the dead he instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had received the promised Holy Spirit who would empower them to be his witnesses. This period of waiting coincided exactly with the counting of the weeks to the day of Pentecost. During this time the disciples spent their time constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14). Just as the Israelites had to wash their clothes and consecrate themselves in anticipation of receiving God’s Law, this was a period of consecration and waiting patiently on the Lord in eager anticipation of the fulfilment of the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The events on the day of Pentecost clearly recall the solemn occasion of the giving of the Law. Just as Jewish tradition connected this festival with the fearful and awesome events at Mt. Sinai when the Lord descended on it in fire to the sound of trumpet blasts, the sound of a mighty rushing wind filled the whole house and tongues of fire rested upon the disciples. The sound of the rushing wind was clearly associated with the Spirit as the same word ruach is used in Hebrew for wind and for Spirit. Fire symbolised the holy presence of God as associated with the fire on the mountain and the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in their sojourn through the wilderness.
The setting of this momentous event was almost certainly within the temple courts. The “house” mentioned in Acts 2 is likely a reference to the holy house as the temple was known, and not to some private house. This is where the Jews who had come up to Jerusalem for the festival would have been gathered. The writer to the Hebrews compares the two covenants saying, “But you have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). This is indeed the better covenant in which the Law is written, not upon stone tablets, but upon tablets of the heart with the Spirit of the living God.
The tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each one of them, indicating that the time had come for God to make his dwelling with men. “Dwell” in the Old Testament is frequently rendered shakhan, derived from the same root as Shekinah, indicating the abiding presence of God. But God cannot dwell with that which is defiled and unholy. This is why God had to first make a final atonement for the sins of the world in order to sanctify a people for himself in whom he would dwell by his Spirit. At the same time the gift of the Holy Spirit is not given indiscriminately without repentance from sin.
Jewish tradition states that on Shavous (Pentecost) night: “an exceedingly sublime heavenly light will be commanded to leave its upper world in order to descend and elevate those whom can contain it.” Rashi taught that this light cannot be received by evil people.
The apostle Paul wrote, “…God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Another term by which this feast is designated, and which is particularly apt, is Chag Ha Azereth or feast of the conclusion. This was indeed the glorious conclusion of God’s purpose in sending his Son as the Passover Lamb and the conclusion of all that the Law and the prophets were pointing to.
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).
Jesus invites all:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).
True freedom is found in complete and willing subjection to the one who created us for His own will and purpose. When we accept the yoke of Jesus we find the true freedom for which the Son of God has set us free.
1. This was based on calculating the date from the literal Sabbath after Passover, as was in use during the Temple era by the Sadducees. The Pharisees took the “Sabbath” as referring to the Passover itself so that Shavuot would fall on a different day each year.
2. As previously mentioned there were differences of interpretation between the Sadducees and Pharisees concerning the meaning of Sabbath in this instance.
3. Alfred Edersheim – The Temple: Its Ministry and Services p. 206