The Feast of Shavuot, or Pentecost, was celebrated this year during the third weekend of May. It marks both the anniversary of the giving of the Law to the Jewish nation and the giving of the Spirit to the Jewish believers; a celebration of both the theophany at Mount Sinai and of the indwelling at Mount Moriah. Yet, surprisingly, this holiday is often overlooked.
Pentecost is one of the “big three” pilgrimage festivals, when, as during Passover and Tabernacles, every Jewish male is commanded to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. In Deut. 16:9-10, the holiday is designated Hag Hashavuot – The festival of weeks. It is so named because seven weeks, or fifty days, are counted down from the week of Passover. Fifty days later, each family brought an offering of wheat bread baked from the firstfruits of the harvest.
Lev. 23:15-22 lists the specific requirements for Pentecost worship. In addition to various animal sacrifices, each family brought two loaves of leavened bread, baked from the best wheat, and had them waved before the altar of the Lord. Throughout the year there is a staunch prohibition against leaven ever being offered on the Temple altar. These Pentecost loaves, however, are neither burned nor offered on the altar; they are merely waved before it, so the prohibition is not violated. Since leaven symbolizes sin, leavened bread represented the worshippers’ sinfulness.
Although not specified in Scripture, Pentecost also came to be understood as the day on which the Torah was given to Israel. In fact, the central Scripture reading for this holiday is Exodus 19–20. On Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to tell Israel that He has chosen them to be His people and to enter into covenant with Him. They are to be a holy nation of priests (Ex. 19:4-6).
A priest, by definition, is someone who has special access to God, an intermediary between God and man. A whole kingdom of priests makes intercession not for one individual, but on behalf of entire nations. Israel was called to be a nation of priests and to minister to the other nations, the Gentiles.
In Ex. 19:9, God visibly manifested Himself on Sinai and communicated to Moses from within a dense cloud. This publicly established Moses as the intercessor between God and the nation of Israel. Moses was to be the only one who could speak to God face to face. The people needed to have confidence in their intercessor. To that end, the Lord firmly validated Moses’ authority in the eyes of Israel.
Following the dramatic, awesome manifestation of God’s presence on Sinai as He thundered the Ten Commandments to His people, with accompanying lightning, smoke, fire-flashes, supernatural shofar blowing, and earth quaking, the people of Israel were a little shaken themselves. They told Moses that they had experienced all of God’s manifest presence they could stand! Hearing from God proved to be too intense an experience; they feared sensory and emotional overload and asked Moses to be God’s spokesman, to be a “middleman” between God and Israel (Ex. 20:18-19). Moses ascended the mountain to commune with God and disappeared in the midst of the thick, dark cloud which was God’s manifest presence.
But Moses disappeared for forty days, and no one had heard from him since he had disappeared within the dense fog. In their fear, the people built themselves a more tangible, far less traumatic representation to worship — a golden calf.
When Moses returned, he condemned the nation for their grievous sin. Moses, in holy indignation, destroyed the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. He instructed his own tribe, the Levites, to kill the idolaters. The Levites struck down 3,000 Israelites before God mercifully restrained them from decimating the nascent nation.
As discussed in the pages of Acts, God directed the sequel to the events of Exodus some 1500 years after Sinai.
At about nine in the morning on Pentecost, 33 A.D., we find the twelve apostles, like all Jews in Jerusalem, in the Temple courts awaiting a wonderful communal festival meal, an international Jewish picnic. Acts 2:2-4 describes strange, supernatural manifestations that suddenly envelop the disciples. The Spirit’s presence was marked by three similar signs also experienced at Sinai: violent wind, fire, and supernatural sounds. The Holy Spirit, the Ruach Hakodesh, had dramatically arrived.
For the Holy Spirit to be given on Pentecost would have been appreciated by a Jewish audience. The anniversary of the divine gift of Torah is the most eloquent of moments for the revelation of the divine Spirit. This is the logical sequel to the Sinai experience. ¬¬¬¬The God who came near on Sinai has now come ultimately near as He indwells believers with His Spirit.
This is a direct fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prophecy (Matt 3:11) when he proclaimed that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit as well as with fire. And it was just some seven weeks earlier that Jesus, on Passover at the Last Supper, promised his disciples that He would send to them the Comforter, the Teacher (John 14:26).
An ancient rabbinic tradition exists that as God spoke at Sinai, all nations throughout the world simultaneously heard God’s voice in their own languages. On Mt. Moriah that morning, as Peter and the apostles preached, Jews from all the nations heard, in their own languages, the word of the Lord.
The response to these manifestations and to Peter’s powerful message was that 3,000 Jewish people came to faith that morning. While we should not imply that God uses a “holy calculator,” it does seem that He’s balanced the book of life pretty nicely. Three thousand Jews were killed in judgment at the Sinai rebellion when the Law was given; in that case the Law literally killed. But here, 1500 years later, the Spirit gave life. God restored the three thousand Israelites removed from the equation following the gift of the Torah.
This sequel to Sinai was necessary because Exodus 19-20 leaves no doubt that external experiences – even the most awesome ones such as the miraculous escape from Egypt and the thunderous voice of God himself shaking Mt Sinai – ultimately do not change lives. Lives can only be transformed from the inside out.
Ultimate life change which results in obedience can only be accomplished by the Lord taking up residence in His temple. Not the temple in Jerusalem, which no longer stands, but that temple that is each one of us frail, imperfect men, women and children. Individual Jews and Gentiles alike are transformed into a community of saints by the receipt of a gift – the indwelling Torah.
This brings us to the two leavened loaves presented on Pentecost. These leavened loaves prefigure the church, a church created of two loaves, Jews and Gentiles, both of whom are leavened, sinful, both of whom desperately need the indwelling Torah, the Spirit, in order to be pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight.
Pentecost reminds us that God has personally engraved His righteous standards on our hearts (Jer. 31:31) by His Spirit. He has given His Spirit to permanently indwell us, enabling immediate and direct access to the Father. He has provided the perfect Intercessor: a great High Priest, Jesus, the incarnation of Torah (John 1:1). Unlike Moses or the Levitical priests, this intermediary is no mere “middleman”; He is the “Godman!” God’s presence was manifest on Sinai within an ominous and distant cloud. On Pentecost, God gave us His Spirit so that His presence can be more intimate than the very air we breathe. We now have the eternal, abiding presence of Immanuel, God with us.