May 16, 2009

How Much Does Pentecost?

By David Brickner

Pentecost. Is it a denomination? A supernatural experience? A date on a liturgical church calendar? Perhaps it is the surname of a beloved Bible scholar? Actually, Pentecost is first and foremost one of the most important and least appreciated Jewish festivals in the Bible. And since it is coming up in just 2 weeks, May 28, I think it would be helpful for us to become better acquainted with this Feast of the Lord.

The Hebrew Bible gives three names for this holiday; each is significant because each reminds us of a truth God wants us to understand.

Pentecost is best known by the name, Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks:
"And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest" (Exodus 34:22).
The Hebrew word "Shavuot" means "sevens" or "weeks." The name of the holiday does not describe its duration: it is not celebrated for weeks — or even one week. It is actually a one-day festival. Shavuot refers to the amount of time between Passover and this holiday. God commanded the Israelites to count seven weeks from the day after Passover until this particular holiday.

Pentecost is Greek for "the 50th day," describing that same period of time.
"And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD" (Leviticus 23:15-16; see also Deuteronomy 16:9).
Whether you count in Hebrew or Greek weeks, or days — the countdown is the same, and begins the day after Passover. This process of counting the days emphasizes the theme of godly anticipation that is unique to this holiday. The sense of anticipation this holiday raises cannot be overstated.

Have you ever talked to a bride or groom-to-be who is counting the days and hours until the wedding? Or to a student who is counting the days until summer vacation — perhaps even graduation? All of life's activities begin to organize themselves around one special event and as anticipation grows, the countdown intensifies.

The Feast of Weeks points to a principal: God wants us to eagerly anticipate the celebration of time spent with Him, to look forward to fellowship with Him and with those who love Him. No doubt this principle applies to our hope of heaven, but we should anticipate the times we set aside here and now to be in His presence and to worship Him with His saints.

A second biblical name for the holiday is "Hag ha bikurim." "Hag" means festival or pilgrimage and "ha bikurim" is Hebrew for the first fruits:
"Also on the day of the firstfruits, when you bring a new grain offering to the LORD at your [Feast of] Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work" (Numbers 28:26).
The Hebrew word "bikurim" is related to the root word "bekhor," which means first-born. The connection between first fruits and the firstborn is important because the Bible tells us that the firstborn, both humans and beasts, belong to God.
"Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, [both] of man and beast; it is Mine" (Exodus 13:2).
The Jewish tradition of "pidyon ha ben" (the redemption of the first-born), is based on God's claim in the above Scripture. In Numbers 3:40-51, we see that, after the Exodus, God required a census be taken and a price paid for every firstborn male of the children of Israel. This was a practical demonstration of His claim, helping His people understand what they owed Him, and what He was willing to accept, by grace, instead. We see this in the New Testament as Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to dedicate Him in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the same way as God claims the firstborn, He tells His people that the first fruits of the ground also belong to Him. Thus this festival of hag ha bikurim—the festival of first fruits—speaks to us of the importance of dedicating our first and our best to the glory of God.

Scripture promises a direct connection between our dedication and God's provision.
"Honor the LORD with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine" (Proverbs 3:9-10).
This passage and the principle it expounds should not be abused to raise false hopes that prosperity is attainable in proportion to what we give. It would be foolish to calculate one's giving according to what one expects to receive in return. That is not giving at all. The key to this verse is to honor the Lord. When we recognize that all we have belongs to God, we honor Him. When we dedicate ourselves and the first fruits of what He provides for His use, we honor Him. When we trust that giving our first fruits for His special use will not leave us destitute, we honor the Lord. This leads to His blessing. He blesses us because we acknowledge that we and all we have are rightfully His, and He blesses us because in giving back first fruits, we demonstrate our trust that He will continue to provide for us. So how much does Pente cost? It costs our first and our very best.

A third biblical name for the Feast of Pentecost is "Hag ha kazir," which simply means the festival of the harvest. This is likely the first name given to the holiday. (See Exodus 23:14-16)

Most of us are far removed from the kind of agrarian society that the Israelites experienced during Bible times. Almost everything we eat has been at least partially prepared by someone else. We may be somewhat affected when a drought or flood ruins a harvest in one part of the world, raising prices for that particular commodity, yet we still manage, at least in this country, to have food simply by purchasing it. But in ancient Israel the cycle of sowing and reaping was absolutely central to the existence of the Jewish people; it was part of the day in, day out rhythm of life. The feast of Pentecost is an important juncture in that cycle. It commemorated the ending of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest in the land.

This harvest festival emphasizes the themes of God's provision and our gratitude to Him for His covenant faithfulness. But there is a strong connection to Passover — a link created by counting the days. This reminds us that had God not redeemed the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, there would be no land, no crops, no rejoicing over God's provision. According to tradition, it also marks the day when God gave the great gift of the Torah to Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Law was to show God's redeemed people how He wanted them to relate to Him, and to one another.

For Christians, the Jewish Feast of Pentecost is an historic milestone in the history of Jesus' followers. It is the day that God chose to send His Holy Spirit, which far surpasses the Law. God's Spirit not only instructs us but also empowers us in our relationships with God and one another.

Through that Spirit, God continues to produce in us a harvest of righteousness in good times and in bad. His righteousness is a wealth of truth and wisdom and blessing to all who heed its instruction. In a season when many have faced a loss of wealth, a loss of employment or a whole host of other kinds of economic uncertainties, we can remember that the Lord of the Harvest promises to continue to faithfully bless us with every good and perfect gift, to provide "all our needs according to His riches and glory by Christ Jesus." That is a comforting thought indeed.