By Ed Vasicek
Studying the Levitical Feasts can be absolutely fascinating. Many students of the Word believe that the Feasts are both literal and rich in “shadows.” Hebrews 10:1a offers us a hermeneutical license to investigate these shadows: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”
When it comes to shadows, the Feast of Pentecost is no exception. In my understanding, Passover foreshadowed that Christ would die for our sins; Unleavened Bread defined one result of His death, namely, to make us holy; Firstfruits anticipated His Resurrection as the “first fruits of them that sleep,” so Pentecost foreshadows the coming of the Spirit –and resultant harvest — as seen in Acts 2.
The first three feasts occurred within an 8 day period: I believe that Christ died on Passover day, was buried before the first day of Unleavend Bread, and arose on Firstfruits morning. Pentecost (aka, “Weeks”) was celebrated 50 days (hence the prefix “pente”) after Firstfruits, during the month of Sivan (May/June).
Pentecost foreshadows the truth that a new phase in God’s program has emerged: Jewish and Gentile believers are united in one body through the Holy Spirit — and God uses New Covenant believers to serve as laborers in his fields.
In the Old Testament (Lev. 23:15-23), Pentecost was considered the primary harvest celebration, reminding us of the Savior’s words in Matthew 9:37-38, “‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”
Firstfruits celebrated the barley harvest, but Pentecost celebrated the wheat harvest, the main staple. In addition to offering a sheep, two loaves of bread were offered before the Lord. The Jews understood God’s description of Israel as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey” an impetus to offer these other foods as well (Deut. 8:8).
Bruce Scott, in his book, “The Feasts of Israel,” describes the celebration:
“As they traveled onward, the holiday pilgrims journeyed up to Jerusalem. During the day they sang songs of praise to God and rejoiced in His goodness. At night they slept in the squares of the towns through which they passed. Preceding their procession was an ox, its horns covered in gold and its head adorned with a wreath of olive leaves. A flute player also preceded the group, playing his instrument all the way into the city of Jerusalem. Once near their destination, the excited pilgrims sent word ahead of their imminent arrival. The chief priests and officers of the Temple came out to greet them….
“…They then took the baskets off their shoulders and held them at the top as the priests held them underneath. Together the priests and worshippers waved the … fruits before the Lord….The worshippers…repeated a portion of Scripture….and left their baskets….next to the altar. The priests could them consume the…fruits.” (p. 65).
Although Jews at the time of Christ recognized the giving of the Torah (Law) as having occurred at Pentecost (Shavu’ot), this became the emphasis of the holiday after the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Modern Jews describe the holiday this way: “Passover freed us physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality” (source:www.bus.ualberta.ca/yreshef/pesach/shavuintro.html).
According to pre-Christian Jewish tradition, when God spoke the Law, He spoke it in the 70 languages of the world, and, if you study Exodus 19 and 20, you might agree that He did so on Pentecost! Of course we have no way of knowing whether the 70 languages tradition is accurate or not, but it educates us as to how first century Jews would have understood the “tongues” event of Acts 2.
In Acts 2, Pentecost was the day in which the Spirit came in a unique way and spiritually baptized believers into one body, the Body of Christ. Yet there are many incorrect assumptions and controversies about this special day.
First, Pentecost was a timed event. The gathered believers were praying together as they were waiting for the Spirit to empower them. If they had not prayed at all, the Spirit would have come at Pentecost anyway. Contrary to countless hymns and sermons, their prayers did not bring the Spirit’s power.
Second, the 3,000 people who came to Christ on Pentecost had been prepared (many of them for years) to accept Christ. They were fluent in the Old Testament (more so than most pastors), many of them had heard the preaching of John the Baptist, and all of them would have heard something about Jesus. When Paul preached to the gentiles later in Acts, for example, smaller numbers responded. It is not that the church has lost the Holy Spirit’s power; it is, rather, a matter of God preparing or not preparing hearts.
Third, it is reasonable to believe the languages spoken on Pentecost were real earthly languages, not miracles of “hearing.” The Jewish tradition that God spoke the Law in the 70 languages is crucial to our understanding of Acts 2. In other words, Pentecost was at least as important as the giving of the Law, as verified by tongues and fire (in this case, tongues of “friendly” fire as opposed to the harsh fire of Mount Sinai).
Additionally, Pentecost contrasts nicely with the giving of the Law. On Pentecost, 3,000 came to spiritual life. When the Law was given, 3,000 died (Exodus 32:28).
On Pentecost, two loaves were presented before the Lord, probably representing two castes of believers: believing Jews and believing gentiles. Through the baptizing work of the Spirit, both people groups were united into one single body (I Cor. 12:13). The Law’s barrier that distinguished between believing Jews and believing gentiles has been torn down (Eph. 2:13-15). The Age of the Torah has been replaced – or at least altered — by the Age of the Spirit.
The Old Covenant was initiated at Passover but formalized at Pentecost (when the Law was given). The New Covenant was initiated at Passover (Good Friday) and formalized at Pentecost.
When we look at Old Testament shadows in light of the new, we must watch out for shaky ground; that is why we need to keep our excavations near the surface and address the obvious parallels and contrasts, truths that cannot be mere coincidence. Yet even at the surface level, we are awestruck by our ingenious God, the God Who knows the beginning from the end, the Sovereign God who has a plan and had it all the time!