The True Joy of Pentecost

The Feast of Pentecost, known by the Jewish people as Shavuot, or the ‘Feast of Weeks’, is a festival of joy and thanksgiving which celebrates the completion of the grain harvest. The feast, which occurs fifty days after Passover, was one of the major holidays of the Old Testament and the second feast in which all able-bodied Jewish males were required to attend the temple. It was celebrated as a sabbath with rest from ordinary labours and the calling of a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:21; Numbers 28:26). In Exodus 34:24 God promised to protect his people and their possessions during the feasts, when all the men left their homes unprotected and went to Jerusalem: ‘For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year.’ Interestingly, there is no record, biblical or otherwise, of an attack on Israel having ever occurred during any of the three pilgrim feasts.

Pentecost marked the receiving of the Law of God at Mount Sinai, through the prophet Moses, when the Jewish people were liberated from Egypt and entered into alliance with God nearly fourteen hundred years before Jesus’ birth. At that time the Jews promised to be obedient to God, while he promised them his mercy and blessings through salvation by the Messiah who was yet to come.


Because the Feast of Pentecost was a celebration of the harvest season, it was celebrated with great joy. During New Testament times many Jews, scattered over various parts of the vast Roman Empire, hurried to Jerusalem to participate in this feast. Having been born and grown up in different countries, most of them could hardly understand their mother tongue. However, they made an effort to observe their national and religious traditions and, from time to time, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.


After the temple was destroyed it was impossible to practise the rituals of this feast and so they were changed. The Sanhedrin convened in AD 140 in the village of Usha near modern day Haifa and decided to change the meaning of Pentecost. Instead of being focused on the harvest, the feast became associated with the giving of God’s Law to the people at Mount Sinai.


Pentecost therefore came to celebrate the giving of the Torah, the guide for how God’s people are to live in this world. The Law is the spelling out of the details of the Covenant which, while initiated by the events of the Exodus, was agreed upon and sealed at Mount Sinai. This event is central to the belief and practice of the Jewish faith. When they made this change in emphasis, the Jewish people became ‘the people of the book’; they maintained their identity and distinctiveness through their adherence to the Scripture’s laws. In addition, Pentecost is the day the Jewish people remember that God met them at Mount Sinai and they celebrate the fact that this was the time and place of the birth of the nation of Israel.


For Christians the Feast of Pentecost is the biblical festival that points to the coming of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus rose from the grave on the Feast of First Fruits at Passover he spent forty days with His disciples in post-resurrection ministry (Acts 1:3). Immediately after the forty days, Jesus informed them that it was necessary for him to leave them and ascend to his Father in heaven in order to apply the benefits of his once-and-for-all sacrifice. However, he told His disciples, they would not be left abandoned and comfortless. In his absence he would send them his Holy Spirit, the ‘Comforter’, who would come alongside to help them experience and live in the salvation he had accomplished for them, until his return (John 14:16-17).


At Pentecost the Holy Spirit gave each of the gathered disciples and followers of Jesus the ability to speak ‘the wonderful works of God’ in the languages of those who had come from near and far. The coming of the Scriptures, the birthday of the nation of Israel, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel so that all can understand. May God give us all the ability to celebrate and proclaim the Pentecostal joy of saving faith through Jesus alone!


Michael Saunders

This article first appeared in the summer Herald 2014

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