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Shavuot—Pentecost

by Tim O'Hearn

Pentecost (Greek for “Fiftieth Day”) is of supreme importance to the Christian church. It was on that day, according to Acts 2, that the Holy Spirit came on the apostles and they preached the first gospel sermon. It is from that day that the church can effectively date its existence. In fact, it is from that day that one major sect of Christians gets their name—Pentecostal. Now I have succeeded in summarizing the average knowledge of Christians about the holiday of Shavuot, also called Pentecost.

God gave His feasts to the Israelites for a purpose. His calendar has meaning to the Jews. Because Christianity has its basis in Judaism it would be of some value for Christians to know some background of this holiday. Perhaps we can gain some valuable insights from this knowledge.

The holiday of Shavuot is commanded in Leviticus 23, along with the other major holidays of the Jewish calendar (not counting the “Rabbinic” holidays such as Purim and Hanukkah). The passage states:

And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord. Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the Lord. And ye shall offer with the bread seven lambs without blemish of the first year, and one young bullock, and two rams: they shall be for a burnt offering unto the Lord, with their meat offering, and their drink offerings, even an offering made ye shall sacrifice one kid of the goats for a sin offering, and two lambs of the first year for a sacrifice of peace offerings. And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits for a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs: they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. And ye shall proclaim on the selfsame day, that it may be an holy convocation unto you: ye shall do no servile work therein: it shall be a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Lev 23:15-23)

Here we see the ordinance of counting fifty days from Passover and the law of the holiday. Because of the nature of the offerings it has also been called the “Feast of Firstfruits” or “Feast of the Harvest” as well as (based on the counting) the “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot, from Shiva–seven) or Pentecost. It is one of the “holy convocations” in which no “servile work” is to be done.

The Offering of Firstfruits

On the surface, the primary significance of this holiday is the offering of firstfruits to the Lord. Thus it is a yearly reminder of God’s providence (providing) for His people. In one very real sense, this was tax day, for the firstfruits were to be brought to provide for the tribe of Levi.

And this is thine; the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel: I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: every one that is clean in thy house shall eat of it. All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the Lord, them have I given thee. And whatsoever is first ripe in the land, which they shall bring unto the Lord, shall be thine; every one that is clean in thine house shall eat of it. (Nu 18:11-13)

Just as God provided for His people, they were obligated to provide for the religious “government.” Pentecost, then, serves as a constant reminder to God’s people that everything comes from Him. It is not our own, and we have an obligation to acknowledge this by offering the first of our “harvest” back to God. God taxes his people, but reminds them that, if it were not for Him they would have nothing to be taxed.

To a Christian, there is additional meaning to the offering of firstfruits. “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming." (1Co 15:20-23) “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (Jas 1:18) The “Feast of Firstfruits” looked forward for centuries to that One who was to be the “firstfruits of them that slept.” It also looked forward to God’s select people, “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” It celebrates the resurrection of life in the harvest, but also the resurrection of Messiah and his followers. What significance from a feast we often forget!

The Season of the Giving of the Law

Perhaps of less understanding, but equal significance to Christians, is another aspect of Shavuot. Jewish tradition holds that Shavuot was also the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Some would say this takes some “creative accounting” to reconcile this with the scriptures. On the other hand, it simply requires an understanding of Jewish time. In the western world we generally consider three days, for instance, as three full days. If something happened on Friday, three days later is probably Monday. To the Jew, however, it is probably Sunday. Thus Jesus was in the grave “three days,” even though it was a total of about 36 hours. The Jewish nation arrived at Sinai “after the third new moon from the time the Israelites went forth out of Egypt.” (Ex 19:1) Most Westerners would think this is more than a hundred days after Passover. However, if you count Ex 12:1 (the new moon before Pesach) as the first new moon (as Jewish accounting would), then there are about fourteen days after Passover, then one full month of 28 days, and the day following (the new moon). That accounts for three new moons, and leaves some eight days after arriving at Sinai before the giving of the Law. So it is entirely possible, even probable, that the Jewish sages are right in attributing the giving of the Torah on the day of Shavuot.

This gives an additional significance to the holiday for Jews and for Christians. For the Jew, Shavuot is a constant reminder of his obligation to keep the Law, an obligation put upon him when his fathers said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Ex 19:8) In so saying, they bound a covenant between themselves (and their descendents) with God. It was a covenant they often broke, but one to which they often returned. Because the Temple has been destroyed, the offering of firstfruits is no longer made, so this aspect of the holiday has become paramount.

This aspect of the holiday is also dominant to the Christian today. Not the aspect of God and the Israelites making a covenant at Sinai specifically, but certainly the idea of the making of a covenant with God. We speak of the New Testament, which is another way of saying a New Covenant. That covenant was made in Jerusalem on Shavuot when men asked “What shall we do?” and were told the terms of entering the covenant. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you.” (Acts 2:38) On that day, over 3000 people entered the covenant, were added to the church. (Acts 2:41, 47) Pentecost, then, should be a constant reminder to Christians of the making of a new covenant—one called by the writer to the Jewish Believers (Hebrews) a better covenant based on better promises. This covenant is not obligatory because of the chance birth into a nation. Each individual enters into the covenant by voluntary birth into the church through obedience.

As Pentecost/Shavuot is celebrated on June 9th this year, we should each remember and renew our covenant with God.