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The Essence of Pentecost: Tracing the Jewish and Christian Roots of the Feast

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Our Jewish and Christian Roots Connect at Pentecost

An intrinsic connection exists between this Pentecost and the Pentecost of the Old Testament.As the people watched, God began to write His law upon the hearts of Jesus' followers and took up His dwelling in them, as He had said He would do back on Mt. Sinai centuries before. 


By Randy Sly
Catholic Online (
6/13/2011 (1 decade ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Pentecost, Holy Spirit, Jewish, Judaism, Randy Sly

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Today is Pentecost, a very important day for the Body of Christ. It is called the "birthday of the church" because the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to His apostles, came upon them that day and empowered them to take his message to the ends of the earth. There is an intrinsic connection between this Pentecost and the Pentecost of the Old Testament.

The Hebrew people had a unique view of time that had come from their encounters with the Living God even prior to Abraham. He had taught them to live from event to event, from holy act to holy act. He called them to remember His great works in history and set a yearly cyclical pattern of remembrance that affected every part of their life.

Each day was seen as a journey of devotion from evening prayer at sunset until the next evening. Each part of the day was punctuated with special points of devotion where the Jews ceased their labors and other activities and prayed. Their week was the same, always proceeding toward a Sabbath rest just as their Lord did in creation. In addition, special historic events were also established as holy days or seasons by divine mandate.

The Jews were called to three major feasts by the Lord each year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Unique among the other feasts, these were specifically set aside as special days of devotion where the nation of Israel was called to assemble together as one people. They were originally based on an agricultural cycle but later took on additional meanings as given by the Lord. Passover was, at first, the feast of Unleavened Bread at the time of the early barley harvest; Pentecost, called "Shavuot" (which means "Weeks"), celebrated the first fruits of harvest. Then the Feast of Tabernacles focused upon the final in-gathering of the produce of the land.

The Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, took place 50 days after Passover. That's where we get the term "Pentecost," which is Greek for "fiftieth." This was quite a celebration. The people who lived outside of  Jerusalem would ready themselves for the great pilgrimage to the city, where they would offer the first fruits of their harvest to the Lord who had provided so abundantly for them.

As farmers gathered in villages, they would place their first fruits in decorated baskets. Some of the wealthier people would layer their baskets with gold or silver, while the poor would bring their offerings in plain wicker containers made from peeled willow branches. In the baskets: wheat, including two loaves of leavened bread; barley; grapes; pomegranates; figs; olive oil; dates; and honey were brought.. An ox, with horns decorated with gold and having an olive wreath crown on its head, led the way. Then, a flutist would march before the people, playing as they walked and sang psalms on the way to the Holy City.

The people would be welcomed by dignitaries and others at the city gates and greeted by the songs of the Levitical choir as they entered the temple. The choir would sing, "I will extol you, O Lord, for you have raised me up," taken from Psalm 30. Priests would then receive the offerings and bring them before the Lord, a "wave offering."

Shavuot was a time of feasting and jubilation for the entire nation! There was singing and dancing, laughter and rejoicing, but God always remained the focus of this holy convocation.

Not only did individual families have opportunity to celebrate, but the entire nation had come together for this event. Rich and poor alike gathered to give thanks to the Lord for His great provision.

It comes as little surprise that the historic acts of God tied to these festivals actually became the dominant themes. Not only had God acted profoundly on behalf of the nation, but there appeared in the teachings of Israel the three dominant themes of His activity that focused on these holy days: His Creation, His Redemption, and His Revelation.

Passover, of course, was the celebration of God's deliverance of the nation out of their bondage in Egypt. He redeemed them from slavery. The blood of the Passover Lamb was placed on the doorposts of every Israelite household that the death angel would pass over them as God's judgment fell upon the land.

While Passover celebrated the Redemption of a nation; Pentecost focused upon God's Revelation, and, as He has always done, God chose a human being as the spokesman for the revelation. Moses had spent 40 years in the wilderness after fleeing from Egypt but at the appointed time, God revealed Himself to this unlikely servant.

Through Moses, God brought the nation of Israel out of bondage for a purpose. According to Rabbinical teaching, fifty days after the first Passover in Egypt, Israel landed at the foot of Mt. Sinai. There God gave them the Law, the Torah. In it, He was not just setting down "do's" and "don'ts." He was imparting to them the instructions for life, the guidance they would need to truly become His people. You see, the issue for God was covenant. He led them out of Egypt for one reason: to come to Sinai and become His that He might be their God in a way that far exceeded anything they had previously experienced.

He told Moses about His plan. "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself. 'Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. 'And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel." (Exodus 19:3-6)

God's heart was to bring forth a kingdom of priests, or more specifically, a nation of people who were able to draw close to Him as friends... friends in covenant. God was literally building a nation under His own divine direction. In fact, people have characteristically celebrated Pentecost as the birthday of Israel.

The Torah became a key element to the celebration of Shavuot. In fact, it became customary to stay up all night before Shavuot morning to read and study the Scriptures, which included the Law and the Prophets as well as writings based on the Law from the Talmud.

At the Feast, Exodus Chapters 19 and 20 were read aloud. While God's covenant with Israel was born of love, it was based on His teachings. After the singing of a special liturgical hymn called Akdamut, the reading would begin. As the 10 Commandments were read, all would stand in awe as if they were, once again, hearing the Voice from atop Mt. Sinai declaring these immortal words.

A reading from the prophets also took place during the festival, from the first part of Ezekiel. While the readings from Exodus reminded the Jews that God has spoken to a nation, the prophet Ezekiel shows us that God continues to reveal Himself to men in unique ways. He speaks in precepts and mysteries alike.

When the Law of God was read, it gave man an understanding of the Lord's holiness while illuminating their own sin. As each of the laws was declared, an area of His righteousness set a new standard and made the nation aware of their rebellion against their God. Now in the reading from Ezekiel, the manifest glory of the Lord was revealed, then the prophet receives an invitation from on-high: eat His word and speaks its truth to his own people; call them to repentance, for the Lord desires to fellowship with them.

The Jews often compared the feeding they received from the Word of God with the feeding they received from natural food. Scripture is seen as "Sweeter than honey and the honeycomb," (Ps. 19:10) and "sweeter than honey to my mouth." (Ps. 119:103) Ezekiel ate the scroll of God which he found to be "sweet like honey," (Ez. 3:3) and Jeremiah said, "Thy words were found and I ate them, and Thy words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart." Yet, all who love God's Word recognize, as did Ezekiel, that the Word when spoken to those in rebellion will not seem sweet to them!

It became customary in the observing of Pentecost to bake "Mt. Sinai Cakes," special sweet honey cakes that were filled with almonds and raisins. Truly Israel was being reminded each Feast to "taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Ps. 34:8)

The celebration of Shavuot is not only focused on the Law but on love. We must always remember that the beginning and ending of God's covenants is always His love. True, He established guidelines that He declared must be followed. He set up limitations and admonitions concerning the way He desired Israel to approach Him. On Mt. Sinai, He also revealed His power and glory with such special grandeur that even Steven Spielberg would be hard pressed to capture the reality of the event. But it's God's love keeps going and going and going and going...

Covenant love extends beyond normal boundaries. It defies the doors of death and stretches farther than the generations. Rather than end the feast with a warning of what happens to those who break covenant, the nation listens, instead, to a love story... an account of one whose life was given radically to a covenantal commitment.
The Jews read the Book of Ruth. The account of this humble Moabite woman touches the very fabric of covenant love. It hints of the breadth of God's love for the whole world, and reminds Israel that, in the Lord's plan for a deliverer through the line of David, this was a Gentile line as well!

What a time for the Holy Spirit to descend on the church! Can you imagine the activity... the intensity... the emotional pitch of a city getting ready for one of its largest festivals? Even the population of Jerusalem swells due to the large influx of Pentecost pilgrims gathering from more than 70 nations of the known world. Vendors have begun their work early, hawking their wares to those who filter through the streets of the Holy City; the Levites are busy getting the temple site ready; people, anticipating the time of feast, are already gathering to pray, read, and argue about the Torah.

Yet, in another part of the city, a group has gathered with more than just Pentecost on their minds. They are waiting. They had seen their Lord ascend into the heavens, but just before He went, He told them to remain in Jerusalem until they receive what God had promised. Jesus said to them, "...for you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now... You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."

So, assembled with one purpose in mind -- that of waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit -- the first fruits of the Body of Christ filled the upper room where they were waiting amidst the sounds of prayer and worship.

You see, by Pentecost, nothing had happened, and they were facing a dilemma. What about the feast? Shavuot must be observed. So in Acts 2 we see the disciples all in one accord -- still waiting for the Holy Spirit, still giving praise to God for the risen Christ, still thankful for forgiving their sin, and now this day, placing a wave offering before the Lord.

While the disciples were in one place and in one accord, a sound like a rushing mighty wind began in the distance, but it wasn't coming from the horizon, it came from above. It filled the whole place where they were sitting.

Just like Sinai, the people beheld the manifest presence of God through wind and fire, which sat upon the disciples like golden tongues; and through the revelation of God, which they heard as foreign words coming out of Jewish mouths. As the people watched, God began to write His law upon the hearts of Jesus' followers and took up His dwelling in them, as He had said He would do back on Mt. Sinai centuries before.  He also initiated their witness, as each person present heard the wonderful works of God declared in His own tongue.

The Lord had truly come upon His people. In the spirit of the Feast of Pentecost, waves of the Holy Spirit filled the area, bringing forth awe, wonder, and another birthday... the Birthday of the Body of Christ!

And talk about a change! St. Peter stood boldly before those who were witnessing this incredible event and preached with such power, such anointing, and such authority, that the people, many of whom fifty days before condemned Jesus to death, were "cut to the heart" by the message of the cross and desired to follow the Lord. In this one day the church grew, as over three thousand new souls were added to the roles of the kingdom.

The whole church began live out what many have called a spiritual "rhythm of life." They would gather together to hear the Apostles' teaching and find fellowship with each other under the Apostles' guidance and direction. They celebrated the Lord's Supper regularly and spent large amounts of time in prayer. The impact not only on the church but upon the whole city was profound.

"Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:43-47)

All of Jesus' followers were transformed by this one dramatic event. Each one found new power and a new presence going with them. And from this early band of followers the whole world eventually would be touched. Each time they prayed, God moved upon them, giving them boldness in their word and witness.

By the laying on of hands through the first apostles, those who were to carry on the message and the faith gave leadership to the next and then subsequent generations of the church. Through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit nations that had never heard of Jesus Christ received the message of the Gospel.


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