by Athol Walter
The Day of Pentecost is celebrated in different ways in many Christian denominations. But many Christians have lost sight of the fact that Pentecost is a Jewish feast, not a Christian one. As a result, the significance of Pentecost has been largely lost, to the detriment of our Scriptural understanding.
The word Pentecost, of course, comes from the Greek word Pentecoste, which means fiftieth. More important, however, is the Hebrew name for this feast, that is, the Feast of Weeks. So what is the place and the significance of Pentecost? For this we must turn to Leviticus 23:1–22, and I urge you to read this passage before going on with this study.
Firstly, notice how these sacred ceremonies start with Passover. The Passover lambs were to be killed on the 14th of the month Nisan. That evening, which in Jewish time is the fifteenth, Israel ate the Passover meal. The fifteenth marked the commencement of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted for seven days, during which time they ate nothing with leaven in it, and leaven was banished from their homes for the duration of the Feast. Leaven, of course, is what we call yeast.
On the day after the beginning of Unleavened Bread, seven weeks plus one day were counted off, and on that fiftieth day, the people of Israel were to bring special offerings and sacrifices. That fiftieth day is called the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost in our terminology.
Now, in contrast to the offerings of Unleavened Bread, on the Day of Pentecost, there was an offering of two loaves of bread made with leaven. We’ll come to those things shortly, but now, a little sidetrack. In Acts 20:6 and 7 we read: ‘Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread…’ So that means Sunday, doesn’t it? No, for the Greek says literally, on the first of Weeks. It was the first day of the fifty days to Pentecost. Notice that the preceding verse speaks of the Days of Unleavened Bread, and then in verse 16 we read that Paul was hurrying to get to Jerusalem by the day of Pentecost. That journey would take many days.
Each Gospel has a reference to ‘the first of Weeks’, which has been incorrectly translated in our versions as ‘the first day of the week’. We will look at one only, Luke 24:1: ‘Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women came to the tomb…’ Now in this case, it probably was Sunday, but that is not the meaning of the verse. It was on the first of Weeks, in other words, it was ‘Day One’ of those fifty days that finished on the Day of Pentecost.
One other reference is 1 Corinthians 16:2: ‘On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside… so that there will be no collections when I come.’ The Greek in this verse is slightly different, but The Companion Bible note says that it does mean ‘on the first of Weeks’. Paul was not telling these Corinthians to put money aside every Sunday, but rather to have a special collection on that first of the fifty days.
If we are to see, then, the significance of Pentecost, we must set it in its place amongst Israel’s sacred feasts. I will leave aside the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbatical year, and the year of Jubilee, not because they are unimportant, but to keep this study as simple as possible.
Israel’s Sacred Feasts, Leviticus 23
The Feasts provide a spiritual and prophetic picture of Israel’s history, some parts of which have been fulfilled, while other parts await fulfilment. There are many lessons for us Gentiles to learn from these events, but we must ever remember the principle of correctly apportioning the Word of Truth, and not take for ourselves things that belong exclusively to Israel.
The Passover – verse 4
The annual celebration of the departure from Egypt. The Passover redeemed Israel from Egypt, the place of bondage and death. Now while we are not Israel, we, and indeed all sinners, have to start at the Passover, or, in other words, at the Cross. Now we know of course, that Passover was on the fourteenth day of the first month, and the next day was –
Unleavened Bread – verse 6
Both Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits are closely linked with the Passover, and in one sense they are three parts of the one Feast, which lasted seven days from the fifteenth. Leaven stands for sin, so unleavened bread shows the sinless character of God’s Lamb, who would take all their sins away. 1 Corinthians 5:7,8
Firstfruits – verse 10
Two sheaves of early ripening barley were to be waved before the Lord as a thank-offering for all the Lord had provided. It also pictured the resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15:20. These first three feasts, which occurred in the first month of Israel’s sacred year, have been fulfilled.
Pentecost – verse 15
Also called the Feast of Weeks, it occurred fifty days from the day after Passover, so it falls in the third month of the year. Pentecost marked the beginning of the main harvest. The prophetic meaning of Pentecost is the beginning of the harvesting or re-gathering of the scattered people of Israel to their own, long-promised land. The fulfilment came when, at Pentecost in Acts 2, 3000 Jews believed. The final ingathering, the completion of the harvest, awaits the Lord’s Return.
Feast of Trumpets – verse 23
After Pentecost, there is a gap of four months till Trumpets. Trumpets comes on the first day of the seventh month and prepared Israel for the next two feasts, which point to the climax of Israel’s part in God’s purposes. Trumpets figure in Revelation and is strongly connected with the time both before and at the Lord’s return to set up the Kingdom, or in other words, with the Day of the Lord. Then closely following Trumpets we have –
The Day of Atonement – verse 27
This was the day when the high priest made atonement for the sins of the whole nation during the preceding year. While the Lord’s sacrifice included what the Day of Atonement stands for, the part that the people played in the ritual of the Day, that is, repentance, confession of sin, and mourning for their transgressions, is to be fulfilled at the return of the Lord Jesus, when the mourning of Israel will be great indeed, Zechariah 12:11. I want to make a point here without staying to explain it. Passover is when the sinner is forgiven and is thereby made a child of God. The Day of Atonement is not a repeat of Passover. It does not bring a sinner into a relationship with God. Rather, it deals with the sins that the child of God commits, while a child of God, thus maintaining the relationship already established. So don’t confuse those two aspects of the Lord’s work on our behalf. But here we have the reason why the two loaves offered on the Feast of Weeks were baked with leaven, for those loaves refer not to the sinless sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, but to the work and witness of men and women of God, who though saved and sanctified by the work of Christ, nevertheless, still have the leaven of the sinful nature in their bodies.
Tabernacles/Booths or Ingathering – verse 34
This last feast was held when the harvest was complete. It is more often called ‘Ingathering’ than ‘Booths’, and the title of ‘Ingathering’ helps us understand its significance. The booths hark back to the Exodus time, when Israel dwelt in makeshift dwellings in the wilderness. The prophetic import is that, as the ‘harvesting’ or ‘ingathering’ of Israel that was started at Pentecost in Acts two is now complete, and the rule of their Messiah-King established, they will then be able to dwell in safety, even in tents.
More about Pentecost Itself
We must keep the Day of Pentecost in its proper place in God’s calendar, as we now turn to Acts 1. If you have ever compared the closing section of Luke’s Gospel with the opening verses of Acts 1, you will know that, between His resurrection and ascension, the Lord opened the disciples’ understanding concerning the Scriptures, and gave them detailed instructions from the law and prophets about the Kingdom of God. The disciples then had but one question, which is in verse 6: ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?’ Many say this question missed the mark completely, but I believe they were right on target. In answering their question, the Lord did not rebuke the disciples, but told them that the timing of that restoration was not their concern. They had a job to do, and they were to wait in Jerusalem until they were given the necessary resources to do it.
Now to what I think is an important point: we often equate the Day of Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, but I think that is not quite correct. Certainly, the power and associated tongues of fire are connected with the harvest in some prophetic writings, but we tend to miss the point by being dazzled by the power aspect. The disciples certainly needed that power to carry out their special task. However, the true significance of Pentecost lies in what occurred later in the day, when, after the phenomenon of the speaking in foreign languages had brought a crowd together and Peter addressed them, 3000 of them believed and accepted Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. Those 3000, together with all those converted during the Acts ministry, were the beginning of the harvest of Israel, which the Feast of Weeks typified.
Don’t forget that what Peter said that day was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Note first of all, in Acts 2:5, that he was speaking only to Jews: ‘And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven’, and in verse 10: ‘Jews and proselytes’. You have it twice. The crowd was composed of Jews and proselytes, a proselyte being a Gentile who has converted completely to Judaism, even to the point of circumcision.
Then note how Peter addresses the assembled crowd in verse 14: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem’; verse 22: ‘Men of Israel’; verse 29: ‘Men and brethren’. He wasn’t just being polite. He was addressing his fellow Jews. Verse 36 says: ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ If this was the beginning of the Christian Church, what has it got to do with the house of Israel? And who crucified the Lord? Israel.
But then we come to Peter’s quotation from Joel. Speaking of the amazing things the crowd was witnessing that day, he says most emphatically, ‘This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel…’ I hope you have read Joel, for you will see very clearly that Joel is not speaking of the Christian Church, but the nation of Judah. The thought of the restoration of Israel not only permeates the Book of Joel, but is to the forefront in these opening chapters of Acts, and I am not referring only to Peter’s address. Note these verses: 1:6 ‘Will you RESTORE the Kingdom to Israel at this time?’ Then, in 3:19, after the healing of the lame man, ‘Repent… so that TIMES OF REFRESHING may come’, and 20,21, ‘…that He may send Jesus Christ, whom the heavens must receive until the TIMES OF RESTORATION of all things…’
If we can let Peter speak for himself without putting our preconceived ideas onto his words, we will see that he has the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, based on the promises of God to their forefathers, firmly in mind. You can charge him with having missed the point entirely if you wish, but you cannot say that his words have nothing to do with Israel and the filling up of her destiny in God’s plans.
Come back to Acts 2. The verses Peter quotes are from Joel 2:28–31. PLEASE READ THEM NOW. Note that Peter stopped his quotation halfway through the last verse, but look at what that last part said. Don’t miss the mention of the REMNANT, for that is what those who believed on that day and succeeding days became – part of the Remnant of Israel.
They were the beginning of the harvest, and like the two loaves baked from the first grain of the main harvest, they were a guarantee that the complete INGATHERING of the nation from the four corners of the earth would indeed take place. It depended on one thing – the repentance of the nation who had murdered their Messiah.
Now some final points: Peter’s quote from Joel is in two parts. The first part is Acts 2:17 and 18. The things foretold in those verses – the Spirit being poured out, the prophesying and the visions – happened on that very day and continued till the end of Acts. The second part, verses 19 and 20 – the signs and wonders in heaven and earth – is reserved for the future Day of the Lord, and we find this in Revelation. Verse 21: ‘that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’, applied then in the Acts period, and will apply also in the future period.
Also, don’t miss Peter’s focus on David. This is important. Peter reminds them that David died and his tomb was still there in Jerusalem. But David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and believing the promises God had made to him – especially that God would raise up his greater Son to sit on his throne – foretold the resurrection of that greater Son, the Messiah.
I have mentioned Israel’s destiny several times in this study. It is important to know that Israel’s destiny is to be a nation of priests for God. Just listen to these few verses out of many: Exodus 19:6: ‘And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.’ Isaiah 61:6: ‘But you shall be named the priests of the Lord, They shall call you the servants of our God. You shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory you shall boast.’ Revelation 20:6: ‘Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such, the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.’
I trust that this study has given you a better understanding of the place of the Feast of Weeks, also known as Pentecost, which is the beginning of the harvest of God’s people of Israel. In spite of what some hymns say, Pentecost has nothing to do with the Church Which Is His Body.