Pentecost Sunday tends to get overlooked on our twenty-first century, non-traditional church calendars. The seventh Sunday after Easter is more often filled with graduation parties and summer vacation plans than with remembering the day God’s Spirit was poured out into the hearts and onto the mouths of those first-century followers of Jesus waiting in Jerusalem. But I’d love to invite you to join me in giving it a place on our calendars again.
This blog post is not much of a heads-up, since Pentecost Sunday is tomorrow (or today, depending on when you’re reading this). Maybe we can plan ahead better next year. If you’re following along in the True Story Project, we are set to read the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 next Saturday, June 10th. A few months ago, at the beginning of our sermon series on Acts, our pastors, Riccardo Stewart and Jim Mullins taught through this story. (You might want to take the time to listen if you missed them, or listen again!)
Pentecost was a Jewish feast day long before the Holy Spirit came to empower the church to fulfill God’s mission in the world. The Old Testament often referred to this day as The Feast of Weeks, or sometimes The Feast of First Fruits. When God gave Moses the law, he instructed the Jewish people to keep three annual feasts: Passover, The Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Once they were settled in the promised land, the middle feast was to be celebrated fifty days after Passover (or seven weeks after the second day of Passover) and was instituted to remind Israel that everything that grew in their fields was a gift from God. The word Pentecost comes from a Greek word, πεντηκοστή (pentēkostḗ), meaning “fiftieth.” The Israelites were instructed to come from wherever they lived, whether near or far, to the place where sacrifices were offered, with two big loaves of bread made from the first fruits of their spring harvest. This Feast of First Fruits was a way of honoring God with the first produce of their crops. It also served as an annual reminder to leave a little bit of the crop behind by not gleaning all the way to the edge of the fields, so that the poor and the sojourner would have something to eat (See Leviticus 23:15-22).
Even though the primary focus of the day was to honor God with grateful hearts for the first fruits of their harvest, it was also a day that required sacrifices for atonement. The instructions in Leviticus 23 state that along with the two loaves of bread, the people of God were to sacrifice “seven lambs a year old without blemish, and one bull from the herd and two rams.” These ten animals were to be a “burnt offering” to the LORD, an atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. In addition to the animals, every offering required a corresponding grain and drink offering given in worship of and gratitude unto God. A male goat was also required as a sin offering for unintentional sins—just in case. Lastly, along with the two loaves of bread that were waved in thanksgiving before God, two male lambs were sacrificed as a peace offering, an offering of shalom.
That sequence: burnt offerings and sin offerings for atonement, grain offerings and drink offerings of worship and thanksgiving, ending with peace offerings (sometimes called fellowship offerings) with God, was a repeated pattern throughout the Old Testament. The long and specific work of atonement, followed by the sacrifices of worship and thanksgiving, always preceded true fellowship and shalom with God.
For some fifteen hundred years, on the Feast of Weeks, the Hebrew people brought freshly made loaves of bread from their hometowns all the way to either the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem in order to give thanks to God for his bountiful provision. The loaves were specified to be made from two-tenths of an ephah of flour, around three-and-a-half pounds of flour per loaf. (Our average-sized loaf of bread is made from about one pound of flour.) The city must have smelled amazing!
Everyone knew that the bread would not be offered to God until after all of the sacrifices had been made. The bleating and whinnying of all of those extra animals in the temple courts must have made it hard for one to think. If everyone who brought bread was required to bring thirteen animals to sacrifice, it hardly seems possible that they could have gotten the work of atonement done by the end of the day.
It is pretty cool that when God gave Moses the feast instructions on Mount Sinai, he knew that a millennium and a half later, he was going to want to have a way to get everyone back to the city of Jerusalem to witness the coming of the Holy Spirit. By 33 AD, everyone knew the schedule: Passover in the first month of the year, Pentecost in the third month. It was what they did. Every year.
That year, there were one hundred twenty followers of Jesus who knew that the cross and resurrection of Jesus was changing everything. While most all other Jews went home after Passover, those one hundred twenty believers stayed in Jerusalem. They had breakfast picnics on the beach with Jesus, and he told them more about his Father’s kingdom. They were more convinced than ever that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah. Just before Jesus went back to heaven, he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit would come to them, “not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5).
Meanwhile, thousands of devout Jews had gone back to their own countries and back to their fields to gather the first sheaves of their spring harvests. They prepared to come back to Jerusalem with their bread and their lambs and goats for the Feast of Pentecost. They would come with every intention to offer their atoning sacrifices and to observe while the priests slaughtered animals and sprinkled blood and did the work of atonement. And at the end of the day, after the cries of the animals had been silenced and the blood had been shed for their sins, these God-fearing Jews would offer their loaves to God and participate in the fellowship offerings as the sun set on another feast day.
But that is not at all what happened that year.
It was still morning on the day of Pentecost, and those believers waiting for the promised Spirit of God were together in one place.
“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance”” (Acts 2:2-4).
The foreigners in the city who had come to offer their loaves of bread were dumbfounded. The Galileans who had been in the house with the tornado-like wind sounded to the foreigners as if they had studied several languages. Everyone heard the disciples of Jesus speaking in the familiar tongues of their own distant countries. How could this be?
Others, who couldn’t make out what the disciples were saying, accused them of drunken babbling.
It never occurred to anyone listening that the wind and the power and the language could have been an act of God.
For one thing, fellowship with God only comes after atoning sacrifices, not before. It was only 9:00 in the morning, and as far as anyone could tell, the disciples hadn’t made their way to the temple and back already.
Having everyone’s attention, Peter got up to speak. It is the movement of God, he told them. As the prophet Joel said, God is pouring out his Spirit. He told them about Jesus and how his death and resurrection verified that he was the Messiah and is the forgiver of sins (Acts 2:14-36).
The work of the cross and the triumph of the resurrection ended the need for any kind of atoning sacrifice ever again.
I wonder if the women who had stood at the foot of the cross remembered again Jesus’ words, ‘It is finished,’ and if that phrase began to take on a new meaning for them.
Did John think that someday he needed to write down for the church that the reason we have fellowship with one another and with God is “because the blood of Jesus Christ, his son, cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:3,7)?
The pouring out of the Holy Spirit did not happen after the blood of lambs and rams was shed that day. Seven weeks earlier, the Lamb of God finished the work of atonement on the cross and instead of getting in line to sacrifice animals, three thousand people stood in line to get baptized because they believed that Jesus was the atoning sacrifice and forgiver of their sins. Forever.
The lambs and the bulls and the rams and the goats got to go home.
Those new believers, the first fruits of the gospel, stepped into the community of believers, and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, joined the mission of God’s redemptive work in the world.
That is a day worth celebrating.