This Wednesday May 15, 2013 commemorates a very significant day for all disciples of Jesus. If you don't know, this is the day the church, the human representation of the kingdom of God, was established in Jerusalem approximately 2,000 years ago. This was prophesied in Daniel 2:44-45 as well as in other texts. An exciting yet under appreciated truth is that the context of Acts 2, often referred to as the Day of Pentecost, was in actuality a Jewish holiday known as Shavuot. ("weeks" in Hebrew). Although Rabbinic Judaism associates this holiday as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, there is no Biblical support for this interpretation. Biblically, according to Lev 23, Shavuot was a harvest festival celebration occuring 7 weeks after Passover. Jews were directed to count off 49 days from Passover until Shavuot. The celebration was directly related to the agrarian culture of the Israelite people who worshipped God by bringing the first fruits of the harvest of the Spring season.
Corresponding to this celebration of first fruits, in Acts 2 we read about the phenomenon of 3,000 Jewish men coming to their Messiah by
acknowledging Yeshua of Nazareth as the Messiah, repenting of sin, and being immersed in his name and thus the first fruits of the spiritual
harvest began. For further study and a deeper understanding of the significance of this upcoming Jewish holiday and its relevance for disciples today I encourage those interested to consider this following essay:
Acts 2:1 states that ”When the day of Pentecost came .”’ Disciples today read that without a clue as to the significance of that day from a Jewish perspective. This article is written to explain what this eventful day meant in the Torah and its relevance to our lives as believers in Messiah. Along with the crucifixion and resurrection, it is another extremely significant pivotal day. On this day the promised messianic kingdom was revealed, an event of central importance Biblically . For both Jews and Gentiles it was a day which saw the fulfillment of many prophecies (Isaiah 2:1-4; Daniel 2:44-45; Joel 2 ).
Shavuot and the Beginning of the Church
When we begin to understand the connection of Shavuot with idea of a harvest celebration it becomes obvious why God chose the feast of Shavuot on which to have the historic day of the beginning of the church take place. It was no coincidence that fifty days after Messiah’s death on Passover another major event would happen.
Pentecost is simply the Greek name given for this Jewish holiday of Shavout which is the Hebrew word for weeks . On the Jewish calendar this was the central celebration of the springtime harvest and what a harvest it was! On this day about 3,000 Jews accepted their long awaited Messiah, beginning a movement that would soon grow and spread throughout the world. A careful reading of the entire chapter of Acts 2 will unfold the amazing series of events that rocked the Jewish world. This article will look at Shavuot in the Torah (the 5 books of Moses), then as it is in Jewish Tradition, and finally we’ll see its fulfillment in the New Testament.
One of God’s Appointed Times
Looking back into the Torah we find Leviticus chapter 23 discusses seven appointed times for the people of Israel. These were times when Israel was to stop all they were doing, and especially focus on God. The first appointed time was the Sabbath, which was a weekly reminder to cease from work and reflect upon God. Then came the three Spring Feasts, Passover (including the Feast of Unleavened bread), the feast of First Fruits and the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. The Hebrew word for these three celebrations were Pesach, Ha Bikkurim, and Shavuot. After these three feasts in the Spring came the three Fall Feasts: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Whether we are Jewish or not, believers should be familiar with each of these special times and not underestimate the importance of the feast calendar. Each appointed time is filled with rich Messianic implications.
An overview of the Jewish calendar
It was the eve of Passover, when Jesus (Y’shua) had a traditional Passover seder (meal) with his disciples that people call the “Last Supper”. This was just before he was crucified. It was on the Feast of First fruits that he rose from the dead, and it was on Shavuot that the Holy Spirit was given. These feasts were not merely Jewish holidays born out of historic events. They were foreshadows of future historic events pointing to God’s ultimate redemption plan to be fulfilled in His Anointed One.
Passover celebrated God’s interventions when the Israelites in Egypt were commanded to slay a spotless lamb and put its blood on the door posts of their homes. When the angel of death passed over their homes their first born males were spared because of the blood (Exodus 12:12-14). 1,400 years later, Y'shua, while celebrating the meal, took the traditional elements of that Passover meal of remembrance of God's deliverance and made the connection with his sacrifice. He was about to give up his life like the Passover lamb. His blood would provide for our redemption. In fulfillment of Exodus 12, Isaiah 53 he died as the human lamb of God coincidentally on Passover.
Two days later was the celebration of First fruits. As described in Leviticus 23:9-14 on this day the Israelites were to go out and pick the first of the harvest of the year, which most likely would be a barley sheaf. They would take the sheaf to the priest to wave before the Lord. They were acknowledging that the Lord had given them the harvest that was before them, so the very first bit they brought to him would be an indication of what was to come. It was on that day, that Y'shua rose from dead, first fruits from the dead as Paul says (I Corinthians 15:20). The very first of the Harvest, and a promise of the rest of the harvest to come, of the resurrection of all of God's people . Paul says because God raised him from the dead, we know he will raise us up also. Was it merely coincidence that his resurrection coincided with the first fruit holiday?
Now we come to the central holiday focused on in this article: Shavuot. Let's turn to Leviticus 23:15-21
From the Barley Harvest to the Wheat Harvest
The Torah commanded the Israelites to remember this day by counting. On the Day after the Sabbath during the week of Unleavened Bread, that is on the day on which the First Fruits of the Barley were harvested and offered up in the Temple, they were commanded to begin a countdown to the next festival. Count off 49 days. After the 49 days are completed, the 50th day is the appointed time of the Festival of Pentecost. Both the English and Hebrew names for the festival reflect the counting. The English name is Pentecost. It is from the Greek for "Fiftieth Day ." The Hebrew name for the festival is Shavuot. Shavuot means "weeks" and is so named because of the seven full weeks (49 days) of the counting. The counting is a chain that links Shavuot to the Festival of Unleavened Bread. In this sense, Shavuot concludes the festival season begun with Passover. It was impossible to think about Shavuot without first thinking about Passover.
According to the Law, Shavuot was a harvest festival. The First Fruits of the Barley , which occurred during the week of unleavened bread, celebrated the ripening of the barley crop. In a similar way Shavuot celebrates the ripening of the wheat crop. At Shavuot, the first fruits of the wheat harvest were brought to the Temple and baked into two loaves of leavened bread. The 49 days of counting are called the counting of the Omer because it was begun with the harvest of a single barley sheaf (omer) and concludes with the harvest of the wheat sheaves.
In addition to the wheat, the pilgrims celebrating Shavuot brought with them the First Fruits of all their crops and offered them before the altar. Early Jewish writings describe a pilgrimage of Israelites bringing their first fruits to the Temple. They converged on Jerusalem from all over the land of Israel. In their hands they carried baskets of the first fruits of their produce. The wealthy among them carried baskets overlaid with silver and gold while the poor carried wicker baskets made from peeled willow branches. Those who lived near Jerusalem brought fresh figs and grapes; those from a distance brought dried figs and raisins instead. Turtle doves destined for the altar were tied to the baskets. A sacrificial ox with its horns bedecked with gold and its head crowned with olive leaves led the procession to the Temple. Walking in front of the ox, a flute player played the melodies of the psalms while the pilgrims sang along.
Giving God our Best
In principle, the worship of bringing first fruits was an act of trust and promise in the harvest to come and recognition of who brought the harvest. The people would bring the first and best of the crop before God. That's a great example for us as believers today.
Shavuot In Tradition
Now that we’ve seen the meaning and emphasis of Shavuot in the Torah, we shall look at it from Jewish tradition. There we will discover that it takes a very different emphasis.
Shavuot was always traditionally the day of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai as we read in Exodus 19. While that is not stated in the Bible anywhere, Exodus 19 did occur in the third month, so the timing would be off by only about a month.
This traditional emphasis that celebrated the giving of the Law and the study of the Torah on Shavuot really took off after the destruction of the Temple and the final revolt in 132 C.E. with Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kochba. That was actually the last attempt to regain Jerusalem and then rebuild the Temple. Afterwards, the Sanhedrin convened in 140 C.E., and moved the emphasis of Shavuot from the temple and agricultural offerings, to the historical event of the giving of the Law. So while Shavuot had already been the traditional day of the giving of the Law even at the time of Y'shua, much of this unique emphasis did not come until later.
Many orthodox Jews celebrate a tradition which began in the 16th Century of staying up all night to read Torah, taking breaks for cheesecake in keeping with the tradition to eat dairy products on the holiday. We could equate this with the spiritual encouragement to consume the milk of the Word. There is also the tradition of reading the book of Ruth, because the story of Ruth occurs in conjunction with the barely harvest.
The Similarities of Passover and Shavuot
As with Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot is a memorial of the Exodus event. Passover is a remembrance of the slaying of the Passover Lamb anc the first day of Unleavened Bread is a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. Traditionally Pentecost came to be seen as a remembrance of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Jewish Tradition sought to attach similar significance to the other Spring Festival dates. The seventh day of Passover, according to these traditions, remembers the crossing of the Red Sea. The Counting of the Omer was regarded as a remembrance of the intervening days between the Exodus from Egypt and the epiphany at Sinai. Shavuot became known as the anniversary of God's descent onto Mount Sinai. Therefore it is celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. For that reason, Shavuot is called the festival of Mattan Torah, the "Giving of the Torah." Exodus 19 and 20, the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments and the covenant at Sinai, are the principal Torah readings in the synagogue on Shavuot.
At time of Jesus At the time of Y'shua, Jews were already scattered around the known world of that day. Since Shavuot was one of the three pilgrim festivals, Jewish pilgrims from around the globe would descend on Jerusalem. The fields had been reaped; the harvest had been brought in. The people had finished with the hard work and now could rejoice and give thanks to God for all He had given them. They were now ready for the great festival of Shavuot to be shared with their brothers making pilgrimage from around the world.
In the Temple
This feast would begin with hearing priests blast the trumpets commemorating the feast. Then people would flock to the temple courts trying to get approval for their freewill offerings. Were they good enough? Then announcements would come. The morning glow had reached Hebron, its time for the daily morning offerings, and the inspection process came to an end. Listen to how Alfred Edersheim describes what happens after the morning offerings:
The Levites were now chanting Hallel (or praise) to the accompanying music of a single flute, which began and ended each song, so as to give it a sort of soft sweetness. The round, ringing treble of selected voices from the children of the Levites, who stood below their fathers, gave richness and melody to the Hymn, while the people either repeated or responded. - Edersheim - the Temple
Then came the peculiar offering of the day - the 2 loaves were brought forth with the accompanying sin and peace offerings. The priest would take these rather large loaves, (the Misnah (Jewish Oral Traditions) said that each loaf of bread would be about 10 inches wide, 18 inches long, and a 3 inches high, and weigh about 5 pounds each.) He would wave these in all directions; After , this high point of the ceremony, this climatic special offering by the priest, the people then offered their free will fellowship offerings to God. There were so many people offering so much that it is said there would be feasting for as much as a week after.
The Jewishness of Acts 2
So now we come to Acts 2. There in verse 14, it says it is the third hour of the day. So it was probably following all these offerings, it says they were together in one place, obviously a huge group Peter was preaching to, if not in the temple then very near by . Basking in God's abundant provision, all he had provided, feasting in fellowship with God. The offerings of the day happened. Then here is what it says in Acts 2: starting in verse 2 -
"Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
4 all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven
6 when they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
7 Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?
8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?
11 ... we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!"
12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"
Then Peter stands up and says essentially as God has promised, so he has done, he has poured out his spirit, he has fulfilled his promises, he has sent the Messiah. He even quotes Psalm 16, in saying Y'shua's resurrection is a fulfillment of that , for we know David was not speaking of himself, because he is dead and buried here in Jerusalem, an interesting allusion on a day traditionally held to be the anniversary of David's death.
Then 3000 of the crowd responded. And with God's perfect timing, not only the 3,000 but all who had witnessed the events in Jerusalem; all the pilgrims would then return to the nations they had come from bearing witness to all that they had seen. You could not have picked a better time. It is clear that from the beginning God had chosen to pour out his spirit and birth the church, the body of Messiah on this day.
The Correlation between the events at Pentecost and the events at Mount Sinai
One can see an illusion to Exodus 19 in the first verses of Acts chapter 2. Here it says there came from heaven, a noise, like a violent rushing wind and it filled the whole house. You feel like you are at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where there was thunder and lightning. However, rather than the Lord descending on the Mountain in fire, it says in Acts 2, that the fire appeared in tongues descending on the heads of individuals as the Holy Spirit was poured out onto them.
But as powerful an image as that is, there is also another picture presented especially as you think of the harvest picture in Leviticus 23. On the day of Passover, Y'shua was crucified, then at first fruits he was raised from the dead, as Paul says, first fruits from the dead. The very first bit of the Harvest . He was the hint of a harvest to come. Now with Shavuot, the harvest has just begun to come in.
First Fruits of Souls
And down in verse 41, it says that day three thousand souls were added.
The beginning harvest of souls was there, the early first fruits was Jesus, but now the later first fruits of Shavuot, were the beginnings of the church. It is as if Peter put in the sickle and 3000 souls were harvested and were offered to God as a wave offering, and a promise of an even greater harvest to come.
We can imagine the disciples and followers of Y’shua in Acts 2 joining in the midst of this First Fruits procession. The Shavuot festival already carried extra significance for them because it was exactly 50 days after the Messiah was resurrected. He was the First Fruits of the Resurrection.4 In fact, the disciples and followers of Y’shua were themselves the First Fruits of Messiah's ministry. On Shavuot, 3,000 were added to their number and the great harvest of souls was begun. Interestingly at Mt. Sinai 3,000 people died as a result of their sin at the time of the giving of the law. In contrast, on this day of Shavuot, 3,000 were saved !
As the disciples of the risen Messiah gathered to celebrate Shavuot in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles in a way that gave them to the ability to boldly proclaim God's word in foreign languages. Jerusalem was packed with Jews from all over the world. The fact that these uneducated Galilean men were able to speak about God in foreign languages was utterly astounding. The visitors to Jerusalem recognized something extraordinary was taking place. Simon Peter, the transformed impulsive fisherman, stood up as the spokesman of the apostles to explain the significance of the moment. Keep in mind this is the same Peter who 50 days earlier had denied he even knew Jesus out of fear and intimidation. This was before the resurrection took place and before the Spirit came to empower him. He is now boldly proclaiming the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed their promised Messiah and in spite of their mistake in executing Jesus, God made him Messiah, rose him from death, sent him to bless the Jewish nation and was still reaching out to them in love. His fearless speech was filled with references from the Hebrew prophets. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter’s preaching convicted the Jews listening to his messag, just as Jesus had predicted,
" But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment."
We see this clearly fulfilled on the day of Pentecost as described in the second chapter of Acts. The Spirit came and as predicted, the Kingdom came with power beginning in Jerusalem.
" Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him as you yourselves know.... This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men , put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him For David said about him: ”I saw the Lord always before me Because he is at my right hand I will not be shaken...Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay... - Peter quotes from Psalms 16:10
Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ (Messiah), that he was not abandoned to the grave nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life,and we are all witnesses of the fact.. - (Acts 2:22-32)
"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, Brother what shall we do?"
Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call, "With many other words he warned then and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.' (Acts 2:36-41)
Sometimes believers have heard or read this so often they take for granted the enormous significance of this event. The church began in Jerusalem with 3,000 Jews! The logistics of baptizing so many is hard to conceptualize . It must have been an incredible sight to witness. The pools throughout Jerusalem were no doubt being used to maximum capacity. The influence of seeing so many Jews accept their Messiah must have had a profound effect on the city of Jerusalem. As we read on, we learn what happened to the believers after their baptism.
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
The unity and harmony of so many Jews from so many countries sharing their common hope in the Messiah made for a vibrant community. Later that same spirit of unity and faith would embrace Gentiles as well. Ultimately the movement would comprise both Jews and Gentiles worshiping together (an unheard of phenomenon in the first century). This community of believers was a realization of all the Messianic promises. (Ephesians 2:11-14; 3:4-13)
Shavuot for Today
On this holiday in our day Jews around the world will meet together to celebrate Shavuot, not as a harvest festival but as a memorial to the giving of the ten commandments . Sadly, they will miss the more significant emphasis of a harvest celebration, and especially the spiritual one, that occurred two thousand years ago with the harvest of three thousand Jewish men that pointed to an even greater harvest to come. To that end we strive to proclaim that Messiah has come, the first fruits of those risen from the dead (I Corinthians 15:20).
The Relevance of the Agricultural Elements
Some of us have trouble relating to all the agricultural feasts and why they were so important in the Bible. Consider for a moment climbing into a mindset of total orientation around the harvest. Our ability to live would be based on whether grain came in or not. If food went bad in the fridge, imagine there were no supermarkets around the corner. It was obvious that everyone was totally reliant on God for the harvest to come in. Will we be able to eat this year? Will I be able to feed my family? When you are willing to try anything, pray to anything, to make the crops come in or to have proper weather you can appreciate the temptation and commonness of Idolatry and fertility worship.
The Lord was always trying to show them that it was only He that provided. That is why the first fruits must be brought to Him. Today we are often deceived by the ease with which we can have materials and food. We are deceived into thinking we are not totally dependent on God. God used the harvest and agricultural feasts to teach us spiritual realities about Himself. Therefore it made sense that whenever there was a harvest, God specifically made sure that all came to give thanks and recognition to Him.
The Shavuot /Passover Connection
One concluding point worth mentioning is that the time of celebration of Shavuot is always connected to the time of Passover. It was called the feast of weeks because that is how you knew when to celebrate it. Unlike Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, Shavuot was dateless. The Israelites were forced to always consider Passover on the calendar in order to figure out when Shavuot would be celebrated. It was a constant reminder of their deliverance by God, their redemption by the blood of the Passover Lamb. Celebrating the joy of the harvest could not be separated from the remembrance of God’s deliverance.
From a Messianic perspective, every Shavuot, believers are likewise compelled to remember Passover, and the Passover Lamb, Y’shua. Though Pentecost is the ‘birthday of the church and when the Holy Spirit came, we are never to look to the church or the Holy Spirit as the foundation of our faith. Our security is experienced when we look to Y’shua and realize he is the foundation of our hope and confidence (John 3:14-16) Our security is in God’s Anointed One. The one who was anointed prophet, priest, and king (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Hopefully these notes have shed some light on this ancient Jewish holiday so richly connected with the coming of Messiah’s Kingdom and so you can more fully appreciate its significance. May this help you to share some of these insights with your Jewish co-workers, and friends. Certainly our God is an awesome God and his Word is incredible in the way it all fits together. Let us continue to pray that many will see these marvelous connections that point to the evidence that the Jewish Messiah has come and that all of God’s promises are “Yes” in Him.
--- Phillip Lester 5/15/13