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From Sinai to Zion: The Meaning of Pentecost (part 1)

Title: The Birthday of Christianity

I want to share a fascinating study in the Word of God and show you an important principle that carries over into the book of Acts and the early church.

The principle is this; there is a powerful connection between the Spring festivals of Passover and Pentecost. They are not unrelated events—there is a relationship. From a Hebraic perspective, Jewish tradition ties them together by counting.

You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf [omer] of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. - Leviticus 23:15-16

The ancient rabbis took the day after the Sabbath to mean the Sabbath of Passover, not a Sabbath in the sense of a Saturday. So the counting begins on the second day of Pesach (Passover). You count seven weeks and seven Sabbaths—and then you come to Shavuot (Pentecost) on the fiftieth day. Pente in Greek means fifty, so Pentecost is the festival of fifty days.

Shavua is the Hebrew word for the week and shavuot is the plural form. It is known as the Festival of Weeks (Dt 16:9). This period between the spring feasts of Passover and Pentecost is a period of anticipating and counting, but also a period of serious reflection.

The great Jewish commentator Maimonides said, "Just as one who is expecting the most faithful of his friends is wont to count the days and hours until his arrival, so also we count the omer from the day of Exodus [Passover] to the day of giving of Torah at Sinai [Pentecost] which was the object of our exodus."

The lesson we want to learn from this connection is that there is no true freedom apart from responsibility.

Passover speaks of our freedom while Pentecost speaks of our responsibility. Deliverance must lead to discipline. In order for freedom to be real, complete, and authentic, it must be accompanied by obedience.

The big picture that we are overviewing here begins with the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. When these redeeming events had finally delivered the Israelites, they had passed through the Red Sea. It is there we witness the prophetic song of Moses in Exodus 15 with its stirring conclusion in verse 18, The LORD reigns for ever and ever.

That is the first mention in the Hebrew Bible of the concept of the kingdom of God. The Hebrew word yimloch (he shall reign) is the same root as melech (king), or malchut (kingdom). It is only because the LORD has redeemed his people that he now has the right to rule his people. Do you see the pattern? First comes redemption (our liberty), then comes ruling (our responsibility).

Judaism, unlike Christianity, is not so much noted for its dogmas, it is noted for its demands. Christian tradition has placed a great emphasis on dogma, meaning what we believe. But the faith of his chosen people Israel was a religion that stressed our response to God as our Savior (Ps 68:19).

He redeemed us; therefore, what are the demands on us, and what is our obligation? He made that clear at Pentecost on Mount Sinai.

In early spring came Passover and the first barley harvest. During this seven-week period, the people would come up to the Jerusalem Temple each day and bring sheaves of barley to the priest. The priest would accept them and bless them. Fifty days later at Pentecost begins the first of the wheat harvest, and really the harvest of all agricultural products in Israel.

You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the LORD. - Leviticus 23:17

This is an interesting time from several points of view. Frankly, it is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, there is an enormous appreciation for the harvest. I dare say we have totally lost our sense of awe at nature. We can go to the local market and get whatever we need, whenever we need it.

But if you live in an agricultural society—as it was in the first century—Spring was an anxious time because your stores of food from the previous season's harvest were coming to an end. So you were, quite literally, totally dependent on the coming crops.

Hopefully, there has been a sufficient outpouring of rain, even the latter rains late into February. The crops are coming up, and your life's sustenance depends on good crops. As you can imagine, there is a solemnity, awesomeness, and a certain holy reverence for this time because you are totally dependent on the God who provides to make a way for nature to provide its bounty. And you, in partnership with God, can reap what the earth yields.

On the other hand, you bring the first fruits of your first harvest to the LORD to celebrate. You always put God first in your life, even agriculturally, even when you are uncertain. When the harvest begins, you take the first fruits to the temple with a sense of expectance, hope, and even a seriousness that this will be a significant harvest because you are depending on it.

This tradition is carried through in Judaism even to this day. During this period, Jewish people do not have weddings. Only on the 33rd day of counting the omer is it permissible to have a wedding or any party. I won't go into detail here because I want you to feel the seriousness. They are weighing the responsibility that their freedom has brought them.

Consider this festival from the point of view of Israel. It had many names, the principal being Shavuot. It is also called HaKatzir (festival of grain harvest) and Yom HaBikkurim (the day of the first fruit). In rabbinic circles, it is called Atzeret because they consider Pentecost the closing or end of Passover.

This title emphasizes the intimate connection between them. One is incomplete without the other; each illuminates and clarifies the purposes of the other.

In Exodus 19, we witness a momentous occasion in the history of Israel and of all mankind. It is a principle that is beautifully illuminated in the New Testament. One that has a direct bearing on who you are in Jesus, and what our mission is as his church.

Exodus 19: tells the story of the events immediately following the redemption from Egypt. On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. According to the sages of Israel, who calculated these matters, it was commonly held in Jesus' day that it was precisely fifty days after the Exodus that they arrived at Sinai. And it is here, at Sinai, that God gives them the Torah (Law).

For Judaism, the festival of Pentecost is their birthday; it celebrates the giving of Torah.

Not only was theirs a physical redemption out of Egypt; it was also a spiritual one. Pentecost is the birthday of Judaism. And it is no coincidence that it is the birthday of Christianity.

Read more: Next Post


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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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