(This week, I want to give you a condensed historical/Biblical background of Pentecost which will serve as a set up for my next few posts throughout the coming week. In those upcoming posts, I hope to connect a few dots that had previously been unconnected and paint a more complete picture regarding one of the most significant events in the life of the Christian Church.)
Shavuot. The Feast of Weeks. Pentecost.
First, the name of Shavuot means “weeks,” coming from the seven weeks that were to be counted after Passover. Greek-speaking Jews would have called the feast Pentecoste, meaning “50 days,” which is where we get the English word “Pentecost.” This was all based on God’s command that a special offering of fresh grain was to be made on the 50th day after Passover Sabbath.
On the feast day, special ceremonies (offering of the grain, sacrificing of the animals for forgiveness of sin and for peace, gifts to the priest, etc.) took place after the normal morning temple service and rituals which would have begun at sunrise and ended around mid-morning.
Shavuot was unique, because it was one of only three times per year that all God’s people were to pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, God’s “house.” As God had met the Israelites on the “mountain of God” (Ex. 24:13), on Shavuot he met them on the Temple Mount, “the mountain of the Lord” (Isa. 2:3, 66:20). Temple attendance was required at Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Booths/Tabernacles) and during these feast days, those from around the world who were obedient to Yahweh went Jerusalem.
This means that a great crowd of sojourners would gather in the Temple courts during the morning service at the Temple. While the offerings and sacrifices were being made, portions of the Old Testament were read aloud. According to Jewish tradition, it was Exodus 19-20 (The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai) and Ezekiel 1-2 (Ezekiel’s vision of God appearing in fire and wind).
Why read these passages? Well the Exodus passage seems clearer than the Ezekiel passage. Some time before the birth of Jesus, the rabbis determined that Shavuot was the time when the Torah had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now, the Bible does not specify the time, but there is some biblical basis indicating the rabbis were probably right.
Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Passover in the third month of Sivan. The exiles from Egypt reached Mount Sinai “in the third month” (Ex. 19:1). Since the feasts of Passover and Booths/Tabernacles were linked to the Exodus, it would stand to reason that the third festival that required pilgrimage would as well. At the very least, the giving of the Law occurred in the third month which is when Shavuot was celebrated. What makes me think the rabbis were onto something is a clear teaching in the Torah (and reiterated by Messiah Jesus). God taught that “man does not live on bread alone” (Deut. 8:3). It would make sense to me, during a grain harvest, to simultaneously celebrate the God who not only gave us bread but also His very Word.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the festival, try and think back to that first Shavuot celebrated by the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Remember, Jesus had returned to heaven 40 days after his resurrection, a short 10 days before this feast. Interestingly, he made a point to tell his disciples to obey the Torah by not leaving Jerusalem and in their obedience, he would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit that he promised. The belief in the Spirit of God was not new for the disciples, or any Jew of that day. The Old Testament spoke of the Ruach HaKodesh (literally the “Holy Wind”), which empowered God’s people (Isa. 63:10-12; Ps. 51:7-11). As we know from the accounts of the New Testament, the disciples remained faithful as Jews, meeting continually in the courts of the Temple (Acts 2:46, 5:42). Hearing Jesus affirm their need to stay for the Shavuot celebrations must have fostered great expectations for the upcoming festival. Keep in mind, Jesus had made this a highly irregular feast season. He had died on Passover, had been buried on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and had been raised on the Feast of Firstfruits (all of which have incredible implications if you take the time to study it). It is no accident that those feast days were the times God selected for His great redemptive acts. And on Shavuot, He revealed His presence in a whole new way.