History of Pentecost
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The first scriptural account of the institution of Shavuot is in Exodus 23:16 when the nation was first given their constitution for their covenant with Yahweh, but we have an account in the Jewish Book of Jubilees which states that not only did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob keep the feasts, but also those before them, going right back to Noah and to Shem who was a contemporary of Abraham. The Torah given on Sinai was but a written codification of the verbal commandments given in the Abrahamic covenant, the precepts of which was also practised by the patriarchs back to Adam. Yahweh gave to them there in the garden the promise of the Redeemer and the way of Atonement by means of sacrifice. The feasts are symbolic types and patterns of the plan of salvation, which by the practice of keeping them, they expressed their faith and personal hope in their fulfillment. (Jubilees 6:17-22; 16:13; 22: 1-4; 44: 1-4)
Yahweh said to them at Sinai, "Three times you shall keep a Feast to Me in the year. You shall keep the feast of Unleavened Bread .. .. .. and the Feast of Harvest the firstfruits of your labours which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering in the end of the year .. .. Three times in a year shall your males appear before Yahweh God." Exodus 23:14-17
In Leviticus 23 the details of how they were to keep these feast were given to them. In verses 15 to 22, the instructions are given for the 'Feast of Weeks' and how to count it from the first day after the Sabbath that falls in the Feast of Unleavened Bread. They were to come with offerings from their grain harvest and their flocks and bring them to the priest who would wave them before Yahweh, after which they would partake together of a sacrificial feast from the things which they had brought. Some of their fields were to be left unharvested for the provision of the poor who were to be remembered at this time. It was to be a "holy convocation" (a formal assembly) in which no 'customary' work was to be done.
In Deuteronomy 16 in verses 10-12, there were three requirement for the Feast -
- To appear before Yahweh and in a worthy manner - in bringing a freewill offering
- To rejoice before Yahweh
- To remember their deliverance from slavery
The Pattern Established at Sinai
The arrival at Sinai was the goal of their exodus from Egypt. It was the meeting place with Yahweh to which He had called them. The time at Sinai was the establishment of the people who came out of Egyptian slavery into a nation under God, the time that He took them unto Himself, gave them a revelation of His will and entered into covenant with them. A pattern for worship and government was established, and they were given a purpose and a destiny.
The two notable historical events which took place were -
- They consecrated and sanctified themselves and presented themselves before Yahweh
- Yahweh came and met with them and gave them the contract of His covenant outlined in His instructions for them
Israel came to Mount Sinai in the third month (Exodus 19:1), exactly 50 days from the crossing of the Red Sea. Paul likens the crossing of the Red Sea to Baptism (1 Corinthians 10: 1-3). It was the day of their birth as a free people, everything of the old life and all its bondage had been washed away by the Red Sea.
This first day became the beginning of their count for marking off the days for the celebration of their arrival at Sinai and all it signified, which became the Feast of Weeks. The fifty day trek was the journey of a liberated people toward their destination.
The Feast of Weeks was the commemoration and celebration of their liberation and expectant arrival for their betrothal with God. Therefore it was a time of thanksgiving offerings, rejoicing and renewal of the original covenant. It was therefore seen as the conclusion to their exodus and completing it. Pentecost (Shavuot) is referred to in the rabbinic tradition as Atzeret. The word atzeret in Hebrew means "conclusion." The word atzeret is used in the Bible with implication of remaining another day (Numbers 29:35). In this sense, Shavuot (Pentecost) is seen as the conclusion to the Passover (Pesach) season, and the completion of this season of joy in their deliverance. Counting the fifty days of the Omer linked Passover and Pentecost together as one festal season.
The Old Covenant Observance of the Feast
The Mishnah, in Tractate Bikkurim, paints a lively picture of what it was like to travel to the Temple for the holiday of Shavuot: In the early morning an official would say - "Rise and let us go up to Zion to the House of Yahweh our God.” An ox walked before them, its horns covered in gold, and with an olive crown in its head. The challil, (flute) was played before them until they reached the vicinity of Jerusalem. Upon coming close to Jerusalem, they sent word ahead and decorated their bikkurim (offering). The important officials went out to meet them… and all the tradesmen in Jerusalem stood before them and greeted them: “Our brothers, the men of such and such a place, you have come in peace.”
The flute was played before them till they reached the Temple Mount. Even King Agripas took the basket on his shoulders and carried it until he reached the courtyard. When the pilgrims reached the courtyard, the Levites sang: “I will exalt You, O God, for You have saved me and You have not rejoiced my enemies before me.”
With the basket still on his shoulder, the Israelite read a Parsha, or chapter, from the Torah: “I have told Yahweh your God this day, that I have come to his land which swore to our fathers to give us. My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there and he became there a great, mighty and numerous people. And the Egyptians harmed us, and they afflicted us and they put hard labor upon us, and we cried out to Yahweh, the God of our fathers and heard our voice, and took us from Egypt with a strong hand… and God brought us to this place, and God gave us this land, and a land flowing with milk an honey. And now, I bring the first fruits of the land which You have given me, O God.”
After completing the entire parsha, the Jew placed the bikkurim basket by the side of the altar, bowed and departed. The High Priest then acted on behalf of the people as a whole, presenting before the altar the special Shavuot wave-offering – two loaves of bread made of wheat, the first products of the Spring wheat harvest that begins just as the barley harvest comes to an end. Thus, Shavuot in the days of the Temple celebrated the bounty of the spring harvest season.
Present day scholars acknowledge that the "Festival of Weeks" bears the marks of an pre-Exodus agricultural festival. Both the first and the last days are a consecrated wave offering of the season's grain. In the first season it was the offering of the first sheaves of the barley season and on the last day, the feast of Shavuot, it was two loaves of bread made from the wheat.
As well as being an offering of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, an offering was also made of seven lambs , one bullock, two rams for burnt offerings, as well as food and drink offerings and a fire offering of sweet fragrances, and these were also waved before Yahweh. Philo says that it was a sample offering of the best of the food and grain of the season. (Philo Spec. 2:30 - 179) Philo gives the understanding that "the firstfruits of your reaping are not of the land but of ourselves".
A focus in the ritual procession going up to the temple, was the wedding theme. The ox whose horns have been painted gold and decorated with olive branches represented the sin offering of the Feast bedecked in the glory and grace of divine favour. The gold representing the divine nature and the olive branches divine favour and peace. Musicians followed leading the people in praises to God and they, in turn, are followed by children wearing white gowns and flower headbands. The children in white gowns represent purity, Israel, purified as a virgin bride ready for her wedding. The whole ritual then being an endtime portrayal of the presentation of the Bride adorned for her husband with all His glory and virtue resting upon her.
The New Covenant Observance of the Feast
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the feast day of Shavuot/Pentecost gave strong validity to its observance in the early Church which no one disputed, regardless of what system of Passover observance they kept, and it's observance continued for many centuries past the time of Constantine. They understood that the outpouring of the Spirit in the tongues of fire was a new covenant manifestation of what happened at Sinai, with the difference being that instead of the tongues of fire being manifested from the mountain in seventy languages at that time, now they were manifested upon and through the human vessels present in the upper room. Being then the 'birth' of the new covenant, and having strong scriptural authority, it retained its importance and observance in the early Church.
In the Epistula Apostolorum (Letter of the Apostles) the keeping of the Feast of Pentecost is obviously firmly established as being part of the Church system. It is mentioned in the Acts of Paul (180 C.E.) and by Irenaius (Frag 7 Ps. Justin, 115), Tertullian (de Cor. 3., De Bapt., 19) and by Origen. (Origen, Celsus 8:22)
The early believers regarded the First day of Firstfruits on which the offering of the sheaves was presented, as the commemoration of Yeshua's resurrection and the last day of Shavuot as the end of the festival period. Clement of Alexandria (end 2nd century) writes, "Yeshua arose from the dead on the first day of the weeks of harvest, on which the priest offered the first 'omer' according to the Torah" (Chron. Paschale 1 p.15)
The offering of the 'omer' - the Firstfruits, was made the day after the Sabbath, Sunday on the Roman calendar, therefore the specific day of Pentecost fifty days later was also on a Sunday.
The early believers referred to the day of His resurrection as the "Lord's Day". The Apostolic Constitutions and the Didache instructed the believers to gather on the "Lords Day" and "Break Bread". This "Lord's Day" was a once-a-year event on the anniversary of Messiah's resurrection until the end of the first century. The change came from the Roman and Alexandrian assemblies making it into a weekly first day of the week celebration, and the term the "Lord's Day" was then used for Sunday.
The early believers saw His resurrection as the presentation of the Firstfruit offering before Yahweh - the first mature Son of the earth's harvest. Epiphanius, in commenting on Deuteronomy says that the omer wave offering came on the third day after the Phasekh lamb was slaughtered because it foreshadowed that "blessed omer who has been raised from the dead and is offered from the earth on the third day" (Ephanius Pan. 51:31)
A Festal Season
The entire fifty days were celebrated with special emphasis on the first and last days. J. Van Goudoever says, "The primitive Christian Church kept not only the Passover but also the seven weeks or fifty days of Pentecost" (B Cal p.164)
While Passover was a celebration of our redemption, the celebration of Pentecost is a celebration of our future glorification and therefore a time of great expectation in the days preceding it. (Raniero Cantalamessa EE> p.21) The whole period from the day of the resurrection, (the offering of the Firstfruit Omer) until the day of Pentecost, was kept as a time of continual rejoicing. Tertullian said, "we rejoice from Phasekh to Pentecost day" saying that the whole period from Phasekh to Pentecost was one long festal period - "50 days of pure exultation" (Tertullian de Cor. 3; de Bapt. 19; de Jujun 14)
In the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions, instruction was given that it was forbidden to fast, or to mourn or to kneel in worship during the Shavuot/Pentecost festive season. (Didas., Apost., 21: 5: 13; Apostolic Constitutions 5:13)
Irenaeus also recorded in his writing 'On Phasekh' that it was a custom that began in apostolic times, because of the connection between Pentecost and the resurrection when they were freed from their sins. (Quoted by Justin 115)
Eusebius (4th century) says, "after the Phasekh, we celebrate the Pentecost for seven complete weeks, ... .... ... ... succeeded by the second festival, seven weeks long, with an increase of repose for us, symbolised by the number seven. But the number of Pentecost is not constituted by these seven weeks: going one day beyond, it seals them on the first day with the solemnity of Messiah's Assumption. In these days of the sacred Pentecost we are right to represent our future refreshment by rejoicing our lives and resting the body as though we were already united to the Bridegroom and incapable of fasting " (Eusebius Pas., 5, 6)
For the Jews and hence the early believers, the celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost was regarded as an important part of, and conclusion of the fifty-days of the Firstfuits offering, of which Yeshua was the fulfillment. They called it the "Asartha" or 'closing assembly' (Hebrew - "atzeret") of the Passover festival season and was not independent from it. Epiphanius cited Paul as an example of this custom. (Epiphanius Pan. 65: 6: 1) Eusebius, the Church historian, also connected the two as being one. (Eusebius Pas., 4)
A Type of the Jubilee
Regarding the counting of the Omer Athanasius says, "From this sacred day (the first day- Firsfruits) we count one by one seven more weeks and celebrate the day of Pentecost. This was formerly foreshadowed among the Jews under the name of the Feast of Weeks. It was the time for freeing and forgiving debts, in sum, it was a day of all kinds of freedom. Since that time is for us a symbol of the world to come, we shall celebrate the Great Sunday, enjoying here the first instalment of that eternal life. But when we depart hence we shall celebrate the full festival with the Messiah." (Athanasius Fest. Lett. 1:10)
Athanasius also exhorts his fellow believers "Let us keep the sacred feast of Phasekh .. .. adding day by day the sacred Pentecost, which we regard as festival upon festival, we shall keep the festival of the 'ruah' (Spirit) who is already near by the Messiah Yeshua " (Athanasius Fest. Let. 14:6) It was a celebration of the present outpouring of the Spirit, as well as an expectation of the fullness in the age to come.
Didymus of Alexandria (387 C.E.) says "After this solemnity (Phasekh/Passover) we shall also celebrate the Feast of Weeks called Pentecost, on which we shall reap as perfect sheaves and fullest ears that which flowered in the Spring" (5:88) - Passover Also, Ambrose of Milan (389 C.E.) says, "In the Spring we have the Phasekh, when I am saved, when we celebrate the glory of the resurrection after the manner of the age to come." (Ambrose Exp. Lux. 10: 34)
The whole fifty days are a prophetic period, a type of being risen from the dead where we rejoice that we are seated with Him in heavenly places which is at present in the spirit, but will one day become a physical reality.
Origen refers to the period as leaving the affairs of this life and hastening toward the city of God. (Origen Celsus 8:22)
The harvest aspect is a type of our future resurrection, a jubilee celebration of what awaits us by Him being a Forerunner for us.
Identification with the Covenant at Sinai
Augustine writes (400 AD), "In former times Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai and he proclaimed the commandments of Yahweh before the people. There the deity came down to the mountain, here the sacred 'ruah' came to be visible in tongues of fire." (Augustine Serm 186) Also Chrysostum writes - "the 'ruach' which had Moses deliver the Torah to the Hebrews, now came down for the salvation of all people" (P.G.64 p. 420)
"On that day the Torah was given according to the old covenant, on the same day the 'ruach' (Spirit) came according to the new grace; on that day Moses received the Tablets of the Torah, on the same day the choir of apostles received the 'ruach' (Spirit) coming down, instead of the tablets which were given to Moses" (P.G. 63 p. 933)
In poetic verse we have recorded, "Yet the whole world with equal devotion everywhere venerated this lofty mystery of great love toward humankind in a particular month each year, when it celebrated the king risen with a restored body. After this solemn festival (Passover), we count seven weeks before this sacred day comes around for mortals - comes on the day on which the sacred 'ruach' was of old sent down from the heights of heaven in parted tongues of fiery light." (Paulinus of Nola Poem 27)
A Quality Offering
Only the very best of the wheat which had been sieved many times to remove impurities was offered on the Day of Shavuot/Pentecost. Seven times seven (days of the festal season), is a type of ultimate perfection and what is required for our final presentation before the throne of the His Majesty. Origen says of this period that it is a time of supplication and prayer, "so as to become worthy of the mighty rushing wind from heaven, which impels the evil in mortals and its consequences to disappear, and so that one becomes worthy also of some share in the fiery tongue of fire given by the deity" (Origen Celsus 8:22)
Theophilus of Alexandria speaks of keeping the festivity of Pentecost and of being able to "present ourselves worthy of the communion of body and blood of Messiah" (Theophilus Alex. 24).
The early believers honoured the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) by spending the ten days prior to the final day by seeking God for a fresh infilling of the Spirit, as the original disciples in the Upper Room.
Support for the observance of Pentecost was so strong in the early Church that failure to keep it was to be condemned as a heretic. This was convened at the Council of Elvera in (303-306 C.E.) (Syn. Elvira Can. 43 - some were only celebrating the 40th day of Messiah's Ascension and not the 50th day of Shavuot. - Codex Totelanus 1)
Augustine says that "Phasekh and Pentecost are festivals with the strongest scriptural authority" Augustine Epistles 55.178| 32
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD the non-Messianic Jews began to place more emphasis on the traditions associated with the Feast and developed these to compensate for the loss of the Temple ritual. Without the Temple, neither of the two agricultural rites of Shavuot could be observed. Instead, references to Shavuot Temple offerings were limited to prayers made in the Synagogue’s Shavuot services. For the Messianic believers however the Feast had come to its full significance and realisation in their lives and ritual was replaced with reality.
The identification with the giving of the Torah on Sinai became the main theme of the Feast for the Jewish people with an emphasis on the reading of the Torah in an all night vigil, this is a kabbalistic custom known as tikkun leil Shavuot.
In the synagogue, some of the original significance of the Feast is retained, the rabbis recount the story of saints in heaven watching the spectacle of the final battle: the destruction of Leviathan, Behemoth, and Rahab the Sea Monster (the unholy trinity). To a reader of the New Testament, this should call to mind the saints described in Revelation 7: 9-17.
Also a book called Akdamot, is sometimes read or other Jewish classics, the emphasis being on recounting the story from creation to the fulfillment of God's purposes in the world to come and what life shall be like then.
Today in Jewish synagogues, Ruth’s story is also read on Shavuot because it took place during the barley and wheat harvests of Judea, and this ties in with the agricultural nature of Shavuot. Also Ruth as a Gentile was grafted into the family of Israel through the very provision made in the Feast, of not reaping the corners of the field, but leaving them for the poor. Families make it a point to serve dairy foods on the holiday, a symbol of the land of Israel flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8), and some communities decorate synagogues and homes with branches, plants and flowers, reminiscent of the flowering and greenery on Mt. Sinai before Matan Torah. (Exodus 34:3) This time is also used to either commence a child's education, or else for confirmation classes, just as the early Church used this time for baptising new believers as appropriate with the original birthing of believers into the kingdom in Acts 2.