PENTECOST IN JEWISH

 

AND CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS

 

by Doug Ward



The Feast of Pentecost has several rich layers of meaning in Jewish tradition. It is the Feast of Firstfruits, a festival of the spring harvest in Israel. It is the culmination of a special period of seven weeks, the completion, in a sense, of the Passover season. Finally, it is a celebration of God's covenant with His people and His revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai.

Significantly, all of these layers of meaning are carried forward and developed further in Christian theology and tradition. In this article, I will discuss the wonderful ways in which Israel's Pentecost finds fulfillment in Christ and the renewed covenant, as understood by our spiritual forefathers from the early centuries of Christianity.

 

The Firstfruits of Salvation



The most familiar Hebrew name for Pentecost is Shavuot, which means ``weeks.'' This name refers to the period of seven weeks that began with the wavesheaf offering at the beginning of Israel's barley harvest and ended on the day of Pentecost, when an offering from the firstfruits of the wheat harvest was given (Lev. 23:15-17). The wavesheaf offering (called the omer in Hebrew) expressed thanksgiving for the upcoming spring harvest and consecrated that harvest to God.

These traditions have great symbolic significance. Throughout the Bible, mankind is pictured as a spiritual harvest. We read in Jer. 2:3, for example, that ``Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest'' (NIV). Israel was set apart for a special purpose, like the wavesheaf offering. Through Israel, the whole harvest of mankind was to be blessed (Gen. 12:3).

The fullness of that blessing became possible in Jesus Christ, whose resurrection on the day of the wavesheaf offering paved the way for our future resurrection. In [1, p. 173], Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi explains, ``As the first sheaf was a pledge and assurance of the ingathering of the entire harvest, so the resurrection of Christ is a pledge that all who put their trust in Him will be raised from the dead.'' Jesus is referred to as ``the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep'' in I Cor. 15:20 (see also v. 23); and the Church, which was empowered to evangelize the world beginning on one remarkable day of Pentecost, is described in several New Testament passages as the firstfruits of a worldwide harvest (Rom. 8:23; James 1:18; Rev. 14:4).

Throughout the last two thousand years, Christians have recognized the wavesheaf offering as a prophetic type of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. This theme is developed, for example, by Cyril of Alexandria (c. 373-444 A.D.) in De Adoratione in spiritu et veritate [2, pp. 322-323]. Commenting on Num. 28:26-31, Cyril writes, ``We say that it is the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord which is signified by the feast of the firstfruits. For indeed it is in Christ that human nature first flowered anew, henceforth doing away with corruption and rejecting the old age of sin.'' Cyril goes on to say that

``Christ is prefigured here in the symbol of the sheaf, considered as the firstfruit of the ears of grain and as the new fruit: He is indeed the firstborn from among the dead, the way which opens to us the Resurrection, He Who makes all things new. The old things have passed away, now everything has become new, says Holy Scripture. The sheaf is presented before the face of the Lord: so Emmanuel, risen from the dead, the new and incorruptible fruit of the human race, ascended to heaven to present Himself henceforth for us before the face of the Father.''

 

A Mission from God



The seven weeks after the day of the wavesheaf offering link together the Passover season and Pentecost. The connection between the two is reflected in another Hebrew name for Pentecost- Atsereth Pesach, which means ``the completion of Passover.'' For both Jews and Christians, Passover is indeed incomplete without Pentecost. (For an excellent discussion of this point, see [3, Chapter 9].)

The first Passover marked the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. But for what purpose did God free the Israelites? That purpose was revealed seven weeks later at Mount Sinai, when God said to Moses,

 

``This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.''' (Ex. 19:6)

 

Up to that point, the Israelites had been a ragtag collection of twelve tribes. At Sinai, Israel became a nation with a special calling: to proclaim the one God and exemplify His way of life before all the other peoples of the world. God ``brought the Israelites to himself'' so that He could establish a close relationship with them. He expresses this purpose in Exodus 29:45-46:

 

``Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.''

 

We Christians view Israel's experience as a forerunner and type of our own. Through the Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), we are delivered from slavery to sin and death. And God has liberated us for a special purpose as well. He desires to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:22), enabling us to walk closely with Him and glorify Him in our lives. Just as Pentecost at Sinai was a defining moment for Israel, Pentecost at the Temple in Jerusalem turned Jesus' disciples, initially just a mere handful of people, into a powerful force to bring the gospel to the world.

 

``...a most joyous space....''



It is no wonder, then, that both Jews and Christians look forward to Pentecost each year with great anticipation. Jews traditionally count the days from the omer to Pentecost. Commenting on this custom, the great philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 A.D.) wrote,

 

``Just as one who is expecting the most faithful of his friends is wont to count the days and hours to his arrival, so we also count from the omer of the day of our Exodus from Egypt to that of the giving of the Law, which was the object of our Exodus, as it is said: `I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.'''

 

On the eve of Pentecost, observant Jews stay up all night, engaged in serious study and discussion of Torah. Then at synagogue services on Pentecost, congregations stand for the reading of the Decalogue, as if they themselves were standing at the base of Mount Sinai, personally receiving the words from Yahweh. In addition, five-year old children begin their own formal study of Torah on this day. Understanding that true freedom is achieved only through submission and obedience to the one true God, the house of Judah has much to celebrate during the Pentecost season.

Likewise in Christian tradition, the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost have always been a period of great rejoicing. During the momentous seven weeks following His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ appeared often to His disciples and taught them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). He then ascended to His Father, leaving them with a twofold promise: He would be with them again soon through the Holy Spirit, and in due time He would return to reign over all the earth.

Christians in the early centuries of the church had some interesting ways of commemorating these wonderful events. For example, it became customary to refrain from fasting during the weeks before Pentecost, since this was a season for rejoicing rather than mourning. In addition, Christians often prayed in a standing rather than a kneeling position during the Pentecost season, in honor of the resurrection [1, pp. 213-214]. These seven weeks were also considered to be a very appropriate time for baptisms. In chapter 19 of his treatise On Baptism, the early church father Tertullian (ca. 160-225 A.D.) commented,

 

``...Pentecost is a most joyous space for conferring baptisms; wherein, too, the resurrection of the Lord was repeatedly proved among the disciples, and the hope of the advent of the Lord indirectly pointed to, in that, at that time, when He had been received back into the heavens, the angels told the apostles that `He would so come, as He had withal ascended into the heavens;' at Pentecost, of course.''

 

Beautiful Parallels



Both Jewish and Christian thinkers have pondered the possible significance of the number fifty in relation to Pentecost [2, pp. 325-327]. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo called fifty ``the sacred number of the remission'' because of its connection with the Year of Jubilee, a time of remission of debts that was to occur every fifty years in Israel (Lev. 25). Early Christian theologians Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius also saw this connection and associated the number fifty in the counting of Pentecost with remission of sins. The fifty days of the Pentecost season follow shortly after Passover, the day of Jesus' sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, so this association is a natural one.

Another link with the Year of Jubilee also is worth considering. The Year of Jubilee was a time to ``proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants'' (Lev. 25:10). On Pentecost at Mt. Sinai, God proclaimed His ``perfect law that gives freedom,'' to use the words of James 1:25. Then on Pentecost in the year of Christ's resurrection, that law was written on the hearts of the first Christians by the Holy Spirit.

The parallel between the writing of the law with God's finger at Sinai and the granting of His Spirit was discussed by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) in his Letter to Januarius [2, pp. 331-332]. There Augustine observed,

 

``It is very clearly stated in the books of the Gospels that the finger of God signifies the Holy Spirit. Indeed one of the evangelists has said: `It is by the finger of God that I drive out demons' (Luke 11:20), another expresses the same thing, saying: `It is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons''' (Matt. 12:28).

 

This parallel caused Augustine to marvel at the unity and harmony of the scriptures. Later in the same letter, he commented,

 

``Is it not as if, like the two seraphim, they answer one another in singing the praises of God: `Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, the God of hosts!' So the two Testaments in faithful harmony together sing the holy truth.''

 

Developing his comparison further, he added,

 

``The Law placed in the Ark is holiness in the body of the Lord. It is by His Resurrection that future rest is promised to us. And it is in view of participation in this Resurrection that charity is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit.''

 

In considering the many connections and parallels between the Old and New Testament Pentecosts, and between Jewish and Christian Pentecost traditions, I rejoice along with Augustine in their richness and beauty. Keeping these connections in mind will enrich our celebration of Pentecost each year.

 

References:

 

1.  Samuele Bacchiocchi, God's Festivals in Scripture and History, Part 1: the Spring Festivals, Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, MI, 1995.



2.  Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1956.



3.  Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1999.


Issue 8

 

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