The Bible introduces the Day of Pentecost as a harvest festival. At the start of the spring barley reaping in Israel, a sheaf of the crop's first fruits was waved before God on the day after the Sabbath, thanking him for his provision and rededicating themselves to his care (Lev 23:9-14). Pentecost, also known as the Feast of Weeks or Feast of Harvest, came seven weeks later at the beginning of the wheat harvest (Lev 23:15-17; Ex 23:16; 34:22).
Pentecost falls early in the third month of the biblical calendar.
It came to be associated with the events that occurred at Mount Sinai during the Exodus, including the revelation of the Decalogue and the ratification of the Mosaic covenant. One reason for this association is the reference in Exodus 19:1 to Israel's arrival at Sinai in the third month. Another is a play on words between Shavuot, the Hebrew word for Pentecost, and shevuot, a word for "oath." Israel made covenant oaths at around the time of Pentecost.(1)
Covenant oaths were also made during the fifteenth year of King Asa of Judah (c. 896 BC). Asa had determined to remove idolatry from the land, and he convened an assembly in the third month for the purpose of rededicating the nation to God. The people made an oath to seek God in a renewal of the covenant (2 Ch 15:8-15).
Pentecost is portrayed as a time of divine revelation and covenant renewal in the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish work from the second century BC. In retelling the narrative from the books of Genesis and Exodus, Jubilees places the making of the covenants with Moses, Noah, and Abraham (chapters 1, 6, 15) at the time of Pentecost. It also claims that the material in the book was revealed to Moses at Sinai.
The themes of thanksgiving for the harvest, divine power and revelation, the making and renewal of covenants, and forsaking idolatry are prominent in the Scripture readings that became associated with the season of Pentecost. These readings include the book of Ruth, which is set during a grain harvest; Exodus 19-20, which describes the great theophany and revelation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai; and the prayer of Habakkuk 3, where the prophet recalls God's powerful presence at Sinai.
Habakkuk's prayer, in particular, was a source of solace for Jews who suffered under the domination of pagan empires.
When God told Habakkuk that he was sending the cruel Babylonians to punish the kingdom of Judah, Habakkuk was chagrined. But when Habakkuk reflected on God's mighty works on behalf of Israel, he saw these miracles as a basis for firm faith in the Creator and Ruler of the Universe.
He concluded, Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (Hab 3:17-18).
A later Targum (Aramaic paraphrase) on this passage expands upon Habakkuk's affirmation, adding: "For the kingdom of Babel will not endure; it will not exercise its power over Israel. The kings of the Medes will be killed; the powerful rulers of Greece will not prosper; the Romans will be destroyed; they will not gather the remaining bits of Jerusalem."(2)
The imagery and themes of Pentecost figure prominently in the visions described by the apostle John in the book of Revelation.
The day of Pentecost comes at the end of a count of seven seven-day weeks, and Revelation is full of sevens (Rev 1:4,11,12,13,16,20; 5:1,5,6; 8:2,6; 10:3-4; 12:3; 13:1; 15:1,6-8; 17:1,3,7,9-11; 21:9). The theme of harvest is featured, with the 144,000 who follow the Lamb described as firstfruits for God and the Lamb (Rev 14:4), while a harvest of the earth is imminent (vv 14-20).
In describing the salvation and judgment of mankind in terms of a harvest, John is consistent with other New Testament writers. Jesus, of course, spoke of the mission field of the world in this way (Mt 9:37-38; 13:30, 39; Jn 4:35). The resurrection of Jesus, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Co 15:20), is foreshadowed by the wave-sheaf offering of Leviticus 23:9-14, while Christians belong to a category of firstfruits (Ro 8:23; 11:16; 2 Th 2:13; Jas 1:18) analogous to the offerings of Pentecost (Lev 23:15-21).
John's visions have many points of contact with the events at Mount Sinai related in Exodus 19-20.
Thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke frequently appear in these visions (Rev 4:5; 6:1; 8;5; 9:2; 11:19; 14:2; 16:18; 19:6) as they did at Sinai (Ex 19:19; 20:18). Christians are a kingdom of priests (Rev 1:6; 5:10) with garments washed white (7:14), in analogy with the Israelites at Sinai (Ex 19:5-6, 14).
The Pentecost imagery in the Book of Revelation encourages Christians to stand strong in faith, even in the face of persecution. Washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14) and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), we are called to walk in covenant faithfulness. We serve the great Creator and Ruler of the Universe, the one whose voice thundered at Sinai.
As Habakkuk understood, God is more powerful than any human empire, and we can place our trust in him. There is nothing to fear from the Beast, and there is a wonderful reward ahead for those who do not follow this false god (Rev 20:4). Jesus, the firstborn of the dead (Rev 1:5), is the firstfruits of a tremendous harvest. God, who blessed the harvests of Israel, will surely bring this harvest to a glorious completion.
(1) See Daniel F. Stramara, Jr., God's Timetable: The Book of Revelation and the Feast of Seven Weeks, Pickwick Publications, 2011, Chapter 3.
(2) Stramara, chapter 4.
Want to go deeper? Click here to explore audio seminars by Dwight A. Pryor.
Interested in taking one of our dynamic online courses? Click here.