Fifty days after the resurrection of the Master, God poured the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. Many believe that this was the day the church was born.
It is commemorated seriously in the liturgical churches and with somewhat less rigor in most evangelical and independent churches. Every church calls it by the same name taken from Acts 2:1. No matter which English translation of the New Testament you read, it will almost certainly identify this day as “Pentecost.”
If you search these same Bibles for the word “Pentecost,” you’ll find that it appears first in Acts 2, with no explanation. That’s confusing. What was Pentecost? Where did it come from? Why was it special? Luke nonchalantly drops this word, apparently expecting us to know what he’s talking about.
Maybe Pentecost is special because, well, it’s Pentecost. Maybe it’s significant because of what happened in Acts 2. That’s an easy assumption to make, and most Christians celebrate Pentecost solely because of what happened on this “first” Pentecost mentioned in their English Bibles. In so doing they miss a valuable chance to see just how important this day already was to the followers of Yeshua—Jesus—before they ever gathered in Jerusalem to await God’s direction.
Christian theology tends to portray the beginning of the Yeshua movement as something completely new. The church was new. Being filled with the Holy Spirit was new. The holidays were new. The laws were new. The theology asserts that hardly anything was carried over in practice from the “old” religion of Judaism. Maybe that’s why Bible translators almost universally choose to use a brand-new word in the New Testament for a holiday that has roots deep in the Old. (I’m not judging them, although it’s possible that I am, a little bit.)
To read the Scripture through this “all things new” lens is to take a razor blade to the continuity of God’s dealings with his people, dividing law from grace, dividing covenant from promise. This theology, followed to its logical conclusion, makes a joke out of the unique role and calling of the Jewish people and hamstrings any effort to make sense of Yeshua, Paul, and the rest of the apostles, all of whom were devout Jews.
If we make an effort to dig a little deeper into the history and practice of the Jewish people, we will often find our understanding of the New Testament illuminated; this case is no exception. In fact, Pentecost was not new. Pentecost, at the time of the outpouring of the Spirit, was fifteen hundred years old. It was given by God to Israel through Moses as one of three mandatory pilgrimage festivals along with Passover and the Festival of Tabernacles.
Observant Jews still celebrate it today. It’s called Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, because it occurs after the counting of seven weeks from Passover. It’s also called “Pentecost” after the Greek word for “fiftieth” because it occurs on the fiftieth day after Passover. It’s sort of like calling Sunday “first day,” Monday “second day,” and so forth, which is, incidentally, what the days of the week are called in Hebrew.
Shavu’ot, like Passover, commemorates a specific event in the history of the Jewish people, recorded in Exodus 19 and 20, during which God’s presence descended on Mount Sinai in a mysterious yet tangible way. The children of Israel heard God’s voice and were justly afraid for their lives. God gave them the Ten Commandments and began the process of communicating to Moses the rest of his Law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
This event carries unique significance in Jewish theology for a multitude of reasons. Just as Christians point to the resurrection of Yeshua as demonstrable proof to his generation that his claims were correct, Judaism points to the testimony of the voice coming from the midst of the fire and the cloud as evidence that the generation that saw these events had no doubt in their minds that God existed, that there was only one God, that God created the world, and that God had made a unique covenant with the Jewish people.
On Passover the Jewish people were redeemed from slavery; on Shavu’ot their relationship with God was consummated by a solemn covenant. The Jewish people emerged from Egypt as a betrothed bride; they left Sinai as a full-fledged wife. They received the Law of God, the Torah, a profound revelation from the Creator, which taught them how to be righteous and holy. It convicted them of sin and warned them of judgment. It revealed the perfect will of God and even promised their eventual redemption in case of exile.
The giving of the Spirit on the anniversary of the giving of the Torah tells us that there is an unbreakable connection between the two. Each must be seen in light of the other.