Most Christians know the story of Pentecost in Acts chapter two: the mighty wind, the tongues of fire, Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) and the speaking in every language. Very few, however, are aware of the Torah background behind this event.
As believers become aware of the observance of the festivals, they are always blessed and delighted by Shavuot. The church holiday they once knew only as a remembrance of Acts chapter two is actually a biblical appointment filled with a wealth of meaning and symbolism.
From the Barley Harvest to the Wheat Harvest
The Torah commands us to count the days of the Omer. On the day after the Sabbath during the week of the Festival of Unleavened Bread—the day on which the first fruits of the barley were harvested and offered up in the Temple—we are commanded to begin a countdown to the next festival.1 We are told to count forty-nine days, and upon their completion, the fiftieth day is the appointed time of the Festival of Pentecost. Both the English and Hebrew names for the festival reflect this counting. The English name, Pentecost, is from the Greek equivalent of ‘fiftieth day.’ The Hebrew name for the festival is Shavuot, which means weeks. It is so named because of the seven full weeks (forty-nine days) of counting. The counting is a chain that links the Festival of Unleavened Bread to Shavuot. In this sense, Shavuot concludes the festival season that began with Passover.
Shavuot is a harvest festival. Just as the week of Unleavened Bread celebrates the ripening of the barley crop, in a similar way, Shavuot celebrates the ripening of the wheat crop. At Shavuot, the first fruits of the wheat harvest were brought to the Temple and baked into two loaves of leavened bread. The interim forty-nine days of counting are called "the counting of the Omer" because day one begins the harvest of a single barley sheaf (omer) and day forty-nine concludes the harvest of the wheat sheaves. In addition to wheat, the pilgrims celebrating Shavuot brought with them the first fruits of all their crops and offered them before the altar.2
The Mishnah describes a pilgrimage of Israelites bringing their first fruits to the Temple: "The worshippers converged on Jerusalem from all over the land of Israel. In their hands they carried baskets of the first fruits of their produce. The wealthy among them carried baskets overlaid with silver and gold while the poor carried wicker baskets made from peeled willow branches. Those who lived near Jerusalem brought fresh figs and grapes; those from a distance brought dried figs and raisins instead. Turtle doves, destined for the altar, were tied to the baskets. A sacrificial ox with its horns bedecked with gold and its head crowned with olive leaves led the procession to the Temple. Walking in front of the ox, a flute player played the melodies of the psalms while the pilgrims sang along." 3
We can imagine the disciples and followers of Yeshua of Acts chapter two joining into this First Fruits procession. The Shavuot festival already carried particular significance for them because it was exactly fifty days after the Messiah had resurrected. He was the First Fruits of the Resurrection.4 In fact, the disciples and followers of Yeshua were themselves the First Fruits of Messiah’s ministry. On Shavuot, 3,000 more were added to their number, and the great harvest of souls began.
A Remembrance of Mount Sinai
As with Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot is a memorial of an Exodus event. Pesach is a remembrance of the slaying of the Paschal Lamb; the first day of Unleavened Bread is a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt and Shavuot is a remembrance of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Likewise, Jewish tradition has sought to attach significance to the other Spring Festival dates. The seventh day of Passover, according to these traditions, remembers the crossing of the Red Sea. The Counting of the Omer is regarded as a remembrance of the intervening days between the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. Therefore, Shavuot became known as the anniversary of God’s appearance at Mount Sinai. It is thus celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and in Hebrew is also called the festival of Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). The principal Torah readings in the synagogue on Shavuot are Exodus 19 and 20—the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Covenant at Sinai.
As the disciples of the risen Messiah gathered to celebrate Shavuot in Jerusalem, they were also gathering to celebrate the anniversary of the Giving of the Living Torah.
Midrash and Mystery
On the first Pentecost, signs and wonders accompanied the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.5 There was smoke, fire, and cloud on the mountain. The mountain trembled and the blast of a shofar sounded louder and louder. The voice of God was audibly heard by the entire nation. According to Midrash,6 the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was accompanied by additional wonders, two of which are significant to our reading of Acts chapter two.
The Midrash speaks of flames of fire which came to each individual at Sinai: "On the occasion of the giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel not only heard the LORD’s Voice, but actually saw the sound waves as they emerged from the LORD’s mouth. They visualized them as a fiery substance. Each commandment that left the LORD’s mouth traveled around the entire camp and then came back to every Jew individually."7
The second miracle the Midrash preserves is the voice of God speaking in every language known to man.8 It says:
"And all the people witnessed the thunderings" (Exodus 20:15). Note that it does not say "the thunder," but "the thunderings"; wherefore R. Johanan said that God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into seventy voices, in seventy languages, so that all the nations should understand.9
Whether or not these traditions preserve actual historical memories of the Mount Sinai experience is not important. What is important to remember is that the disciples and followers of Yeshua were all well aware of these Shavuot midrashim. They knew the story of the giving of the Torah at Shavuot. They knew the story of the words of fire resting on each individual at Shavuot. They knew the story of God’s voice speaking to all mankind in every language at Shavuot. Therefore, the miracles and signs and wonders they experienced in Acts chapter two, carried deep significance and prophetic fulfillment. The tongues of fire and the speaking in every tongue were both direct allusions to the Mount Sinai experience and to the receiving of the Torah. God was underscoring a connection between Ruach HaKodesh and His Holy Torah!
The Spirit and the Torah
Shavuot draws a line of connection between Exodus 19 and Acts chapter 2. The festival unites the giving of the Torah at Sinai with the giving of the Spirit in Jerusalem. The two events are forever inseparably linked. This link creates a profound theological implication for believers. The Torah and Ruach HaKodesh are substantially of the same essence. Jeremiah the prophet foresaw this when God declared through him, "Behold, I will make a New Covenant… I will put My Torah within them and on their heart I will write it, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."10 Ezekiel the prophet also foretold by the Spirit of God: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances."11
According to these prophets, Ruach HaKodesh was given in order to place the Torah within the believer’s heart. If that is true, then the Spirit within us and the Torah of God must agree. It can then be asserted that the purpose for the presence of Ruach HaKodesh in the lives of believers is to enable us to walk in the statutes and to observe the ordinances of Torah. The Spirit and the Torah are not, God forbid, opposed to each other! Instead, as Paul says in Galatians, "Opposed to the fruit of the Spirit there is no Torah."12 Ruach HaKodesh originates from the same essence as the Torah: the full expression of God, dwelling within human hearts, so that He might be our God, and we might be His people. That was the stated purpose of the first Shavuot at Mount Sinai. It was the purpose of the Shavuot recorded in Acts chapter two, and it remains the same purpose for which we participate in Shavuot celebrations annually to this day. We have been created anew. We have the gift of the Spirit of God dwelling within us, and are now enabled to walk in the statues and to observe the ordinances of Torah!
- Leviticus 23:9-21
- Deuteronomy 26:1-11
- Bikkurim 3:1-8
- 1 Corinthians 15:20
- Exodus 19
- Midrash is a traditional Jewish interpretation of Scripture.
- Weissman, Moshe, The Midrash Says: Shemot, Brooklyn: Bnay Yakov Publications, 1995.
- In Rabbinic lore, there are 70 mother languages.
- Shemot Midrash Rabbah 5:9
- Jeremiah 31:33
- Ezekiel 36:27
- Galatians 5:23