19 May 2024


Pentecost is the Christian name for the Feast of Weeks, or שָׁבֻעֹת֙/Šavuót: Seven weeks after Passover, at which time the ancient Hebrews harvested their wheat. Ex 34.22 On 6 Sivan in the Hebrew calendar, the 50th day after Passover, they were expected to come to temple and present a grain offerng to the LORD. Dt 16.9-12 Oh, and tithe a tenth of it to celebrate with—and every third year, put that tithe in the community granary.

Our word comes from the Greek τὴν ἡμέραν τῆς πεντηκοστῆς/tin iméran tis pentikostís, “the 50th day” Ac 2.1 —the Greek term for Šavuót.

Why do Christians celebrate a Hebrew harvest festival? (And have separate “harvest parties” in October?) Well we don’t celebrate it Hebrew-style: We consider it the last day of Easter, and we celebrate it for a whole other reason. In the year 33—the year Jesus died, rose, and was raptured—the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’s new church on Pentecost. Happened like so:

Acts 2.1-4 NRSVue
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The speaking-in-tongues part is why the 20th century Christian movement which has a lot of tongues-speaking in it, is called Pentecostalism. Weirdly, a lot of us Pentecostals never bother to keep track of when Pentecost rolls around. I don’t get it. I blame anti-Catholicism a little. Anyway, Luke goes on:

Acts 2.5-13 NRSVue
5Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Christians like to call this “the first Pentecost.” Obviously it wasn’t; the first Pentecost, or Šavuót, or Feast of Weeks, was after the Exodus. It’s when every devout Jew on earth was bringing their grain offerings to temple on that very day, 25 May 33. And suddenly a house full of Galileans broke out in every language they knew—spoken to as if to them personally.

Got their attention.

Peter’s sermon.

Simon Peter followed up with an explanation: This baptism of the Holy Spirit is a prophetic last-days event which God had always intended.

Acts 2.14-21 NRSVue
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Jl 2.28-32

Christians like to claim that before this Pentecost, the Holy Spirit never indwelt people. At most he only “came upon them” to give ’em prophecy, strength, or some other miraculous power. But they figure this was temporary; he always left because Jesus hadn’t yet died for the world’s sins, so humanity was too sinful for the Spirit indwell too long. As if sin, not the Holy Spirit, is Almighty.

Of course I disagree with these Christians. When you read the scriptures, you can see the Holy Spirit’s power might have come and gone, same as it does nowadays. But the Holy Spirit himself didn’t leave. Becuase he doesn’t. He 13.5 That’s not who God is. We quit him; he doesn’t quit us.

What is different between the Old Testament times and today, is the Spirit didn’t indwell every believer; just the prophets. They had the Holy Spirit within them, permanently—for the same reason the Holy Spirit’s in us, permanently: He’s evidence of our relationship with God, Ep 1.13 enabling us to hear him… and enabling us to prophesy. If we can hear God, we can tell others what he says. And that is what Joel’s prophecy is all about: In the last days, God’s pouring out his Holy Spirit to everyone—and we shall prophesy. Jl 2.28, Ac 2.18 God has come near! So has his kingdom.

Acts 2.22-36 NRSVue
22“Fellow Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having released him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.
25“For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ Ps 16.8-11
29“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ Ps 16.27
32“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you see and hear. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
35until I make your enemies your footstool.”Ps 110.1
36“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Upon hearing this, the listeners were κατενύγησαν τὴν καρδίαν/katenýghisan tin kardían, “stabbed in the heart.” Ac 2.28 No, not literally. But they wanted to know what to do next, and Peter had ’em turn to Jesus. That day, Jesus’s new church grew from about 120 people Ac 1.15 to 3,000. Ac 2.41 And over the past 20 centuries, we’ve grown to 2.4 billion of the earth’s 8.1 billion people. Three out of ten humans are Christian. Plenty of room for more!

How Jews have celebrated Pentecost since.

After the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70, there was nowhere for the Jews to gather every year for the Feast of Weeks; no temple where they can offer their grain. Hence the rabbis invented alternate customs for the day.

Over the centuries, Weeks evolved from a harvest festival, to honoring the day God gave the Law to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. ’Cause the Hebrews arrived at Sinai on 1 Sivan Ex 19.1 and a few days later God handed down the 10 Commandments. The dates coincide.

This idea was developed further in the Sefer ha-Khinúkh, “Book of Education,” a 13th-century Spanish commentary on the Law. Nowadays, certain devout Jews observe Weeks by reading through all the commands (including commentary) on an overnight binge. Some clever folks try to tie harvest and Law together, by pointing out the bible is our daily bread.

Various Christians assume medieval Judaism and Pharisaism are the same thing. Nope; one descended from the other. But these folks claim the Jews of Jesus’s day also celebrated the giving of the Law during Weeks. There’s no evidence of this from contemporary sources. Yeah, medieval rabbis claimed they totally did, but like most humans, the medieval rabbis had the annoying habit of trying to rewrite history to match their beliefs. That’s why we gotta go to contemporary sources whenever possible.

Regardless, the original purpose of Weeks was to thank and honor God for the harvest. And check out the fun parallel: Jesus was “planted,” so to speak (and pardon the crudity), into the earth for Passover… and look at the harvest of 3,000 people whom the Holy Spirit produced for Pentecost.

The reason the Spirit empowers us is because the fields are ripe for harvest. Jn 4.35 More than just pray for workers to harvest it, Lk 10.2 we need to be the answers to these prayers. This is why he empowers us after all. To prophesy, to produce signs and wonders, and to harvest.

How Christians do Pentecost.

Because of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the start of Jesus’s church, Christians quickly began to put a different spin on Pentecost, as we can see in Paul’s special observance of it. Ac 20.16, 1Co 16.8 Many Christians observe it as the birthday of the church. Others figure Jesus technically started his church with his Twelve, and only look at Pentecost as the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the church. Either way, it’s a relevant day.

Churches celebrate Pentecost in all sorts of ways. Lots of us do prayer vigils, to remember how the apostles prayed for the Holy Spirit to come. Lots of symbols are used to represent the Spirit: Birds, red to represent his fire, flags or trumpets to represent his rushing wind. Sometimes the scriptures are read in multiple languages, reminding us of the many languages the Spirit enabled the apostles to speak. Pentecost is also a great day for baptisms.

And, like I griped at the beginning of this piece, some churches give it a miss altogether. Too traditional, too liturgical, too old-school for their taste. In the United States, since it often falls near other holidays (like Mother’s Day or Memorial Day) the secular holiday tends to take precedence.

Some churches make Pentecost Monday into a holiday. But beyond that, Eastertime is over, and we go back to “ordinary time”—the days between Easter and Christmas, when there are no major Christian holidays. But we should still strive to make these days more than ordinary—by making good use of the Spirit’s empowerment at Pentecost.