The Miracle of Pentecost
by Doug Ward
Each year during the Pentecost season, Christians recall the awesome miracle that marked the beginning of the
``And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.'' (Acts 2:1-4, KJV)
When we read this passage today, it is interesting to contemplate the significance that the appearance of the ``cloven tongues like as of fire'' might have had for those 120 disciples of Jesus who assembled at the Temple in Jerusalem just seven weeks after their Teacher's astonishing resurrection from the dead. Was there a reason for God to send that particular miracle on that precise day? What message did it convey to the first Christians, and what does it teach us today? The aim of this article is to show that when we view the events of Acts 2 in light of the Jewish beliefs and traditions of that era, we can gain valuable insight into the answers to these questions.
Pentecost and Sinai
The Feast of Pentecost is described in the Pentateuch as a harvest festival, a celebration of the firstfruits of the spring harvest (Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:15-22; Deut. 16:9-12). Along with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, it was one of the three great festival seasons of
Over the course of the history of
Scholars have debated the question of when Pentecost first became a celebration of the covenant and the giving of Torah. In particular, had this tradition developed by the time of Christ? Today many scholars believe that the association of Pentecost and Sinai dates back to at least 150 years before Christ. One key source of information on this question is the Book of Jubilees, a retelling of the narrative of Gen. 1-Ex. 16 (with a number of details added!) which was written in Hebrew by a Jewish writer in about 165-150 B.C.  Although Jubilees is not a canonical book, it does give us a fascinating look at what some Jews believed and practiced in the second century B.C. Fragments of fifteen copies of this book are among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating its importance to the ancient Essene community at Qumran.
In the Book of Jubilees, Pentecost signifies covenant renewal and is the most important of the annual festivals. Jubilees 6:18-19 states that Pentecost was observed in heaven from creation until the time of God's covenant with Noah, then was kept by Noah and the patriarchs (see [4, p. 36]). According to Jubilees ,
``... it is ordained and written on the heavenly tablets, that they should celebrate the feast of weeks in this month once a year, to renew the covenant every year.''
Jubilees also dates both Pentecost and the giving of Torah in the middle of the third month (Jubilees 1:1; 15:1-2), indicating that the connection between the two was recognized in the second century B.C.
There is ample reason, then, to believe that when the disciples of Jesus
experienced the great Pentecost miracle in
Parallels between Sinai and
There are a number of instructive parallels between the two pivotal Pentecost miracles. Observe first that both were preceded by a period of spiritual preparation and purification. The ancient Israelites at Sinai were instructed to wash their clothes and abstain from sexual relations for three days in preparation for God's descent to the top of the mountain (Ex. 19:10-11, 14-15). Similarly, Jesus told His disciples to be ready for the Comforter that He had promised to send after His ascension:
``And, behold, I send the promise
of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of
According to Jewish tradition, an important factor in
Both miracles included striking visual and auditory manifestations of God's
power. At Sinai, there were thunder and lightning, the sound of heavenly
trumpet blasts, and displays of smoke and fire (Ex. -19). Moses makes mention of fire several
times in his recounting of these events in Deut. 4-5 (; 5:4, 5, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26). In
A study of the Jewish traditions surrounding God's appearance at Sinai reveals that there are actually more similarities between the two miracles than are initially apparent. One verse from the Sinai account that intrigued Jewish interpreters was Exodus , which in the KJV states that ``all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings....'' However, a literal translation of the Hebrew would say that ``all the people saw the voices and the flames....'' [3, p. 135] The wording of Ex. raises two questions: (1) How could people ``see voices''? (2) How did more than one voice come from God?
In answer to the first question, a tradition arose that God's words at Sinai were visible in the form of flames. Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher, describes the scene as follows (quoted in [5, p. 29]):
``Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see them rather than hear them.''
A parallel rabbinic tradition, recorded in the Babylonian
Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 88b), answers the second question by saying that the
flames of God's words divided into smaller sparks that traveled in all
directions, proclaiming Torah in all the languages of the world [3, p.
135; 5, p. 28]. Two other scriptures were advanced in support of this scenario.
One was Psalm 68:11: ``The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those
that published it.'' (According to this interpretation, the ``great company''
of Ps. 68:11 were the sparks that spread the word in many languages.) The other
was Jer. 23:29, which was seen as a reference to God's words splitting into
smaller pieces: ``Is not my word like as a fire? saith
the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in
pieces?'' A further tradition asserted that when God's word was announced in
the languages of the world, Torah was being offered in some sense to all
nations. However, only
In light of these traditions, it is interesting to look again at Acts 2,
where the disciples declared the wonderful works of God in the languages of the
world (Acts 2:4-11). At Sinai, God spoke to
As we celebrate Pentecost today, rejoicing in the gift of Torah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there is much for us to learn from the miracles at Sinai and
We should also remember the great calling and commission we have been given
to announce ``the wonderful works of God'' to all nations. Both ancient
In contrast, the first Christians embraced their calling and began to spread the gospel. On that Pentecost in Jerusalem three thousand were baptized (Acts ), beginning a dynamic movement that ``turned the world upside down.'' (Acts 17:6) Following their example, let us resolve to follow the lead of God's Spirit and walk in a manner worthy of our calling. As Paul wrote in Gal. , ``If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.''
Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of
the Old Testament in English, Clarendon Press,
2. John D. Garr, “Fire on the Mountain: A Fresh Summons to Pentecost,” Restore!,
Spring 1999, pp. 6-9.
3. Göran Larsson, Bound
for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions,
4. James C. Vanderkam, ``Jubilees: How it Rewrote the Bible,'' Bible Review, December 1992, pp. 33-39, 60, 62.
5. Brad H. Young, “Pentecost for the Jewish and Christian Faiths,” Restore!, Spring, 1999, pp. 26-29.
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