Worship

The Church Doesn't Need "Children's Church"

The Church Doesn't Need "Children's Church"

The church has a long and colorful history of shooting itself in the foot. I’m not talking about cringe-worthy mistakes. Installing shag carpet in the sanctuary in the 1960’s—now that was a mistake. Letting families purchase or rent their own private pews—that was plain dumb. We may shake our heads at these blunders, but we can let them pass. It’s not like they un-churched the church.

We All Show up Late for Church

We All Show up Late for Church

The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. Little James would spit up his breakfast all over his church clothes as they strapped him in the car seat. Lindsey would hog the bathroom and delay Garrett’s shower. Tom and Cindy would hit snooze one too many times.

Church in Bed: Why Leave Home on Sunday Morning?

Church in Bed: Why Leave Home on Sunday Morning?

I can experience almost every aspect of church from the comfort of my own bed. I can prop up my pillow, open my laptop, and enter my very own cyber sanctuary. The music of beautiful hymns can reverberate through my computer. I can read the Bible myself or listen to an audio recording of a trained professional narrate the Scriptures for me. Preachers from across the spectrum of Christianity can squeeze their pulpits within my computer screen.

Everything I Know About Worship I Learned from a Prostitute

Everything I Know About Worship I Learned from a Prostitute

I’ve had a handful of unusual teachers in my life. A shrimp of a man who’d been excommunicated from the Amish community for owning a stereo—he taught me how to shingle a roof. A wheelchair-bound country music singer and songwriter who penned one of George Strait’s hits—he taught me the fine art of woodwork. An ex-con with a string of DWI’s—he taught me the ins and outs of the work I did in the oilfield.

Why Christmas Is My Favorite Jewish Holiday

Why Christmas Is My Favorite Jewish Holiday

When I taught in Siberia several years ago, I returned home with a box full of Russian dolls to give as Christmas presents. These famous nesting dolls come in various sizes and colors; they depict everyone from politicians to biblical figures. My favorite was the Virgin Mary. Inside her was another smaller Mary, and inside her another, and still many more. I liked the combination of elaborate colors on this particular doll, but even more I liked the symbolism inherent in the nesting design. 

The Best Time for a Pastor to Yawn During Worship

The Best Time for a Pastor to Yawn During Worship

Let’s sit side-by-side in the pew and observe a pastor for a few minutes. Listen not only to his words but eyeball him. See how he communicates non-verbally, by his actions. He’s standing in the pulpit. He’s folding his hands in prayer. Notice his face, too. He’s smiling as he greets us. He’s earnest as he proclaims the Scriptures. His face compliments his words.

We All Show up Late for Church

We All Show up Late for Church

The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. By the time they piled in the car, broke the speed limit, and pushed open the sanctuary doors, they were anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes late. Every. Single. Sunday.

Everything I Needed to Know About Vocation I Learned at the Lord's Supper

On my mother's Sunday table was a feast fit for a southern king: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, pecan pie, and plenty of other country delicacies. Back then, eating at a Chinese restaurant was about as cross-cultural an experience as I could imagine. Over the years, I've expanded the horizons of my palate to sample everything from Iranian to Indian to Russian cuisine. And most of it, while no match to my momma's cooking, has pleased my palate. However, I do live by a strict rule: when I'm about to try a new cultural restaurant, I never go alone. I take along a food-wise friend. I lean on him for advice about what to order, what combination of foods is best, what drinks complement the entree, and even how to eat (with my fingers? a fork? a piece of bread?). The meal, in addition to a culinary experience, also becomes a learning experience. The meal at which I have learned the most, however, was not at a restaurant but a church. There’s no need for a menu because everyone receives and consumes the same items. The conversation around the table is minimal. I eat, then drink, while on my knees. Outwardly, the meal is spartan, hardly sufficient to ease a man’s hunger or slake his thirst, but inwardly the meal is regal, feeding a man’s hunger with the only food that satisfies, slaking his thirst with a drink that puts to shame the finest of wines. At this meal of meals, the supper of Jesus, He serves me Himself. And in so doing, He also teaches me something profoundly important. As He feeds me His body, as He pours in me His blood, I learn how to be a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a worker. Everything I need to know about vocation I learn at the Lord’s Supper.

Vocation: More Than What We Do For a Living

Let me explain what I mean by first clarifying what I mean by vocation. We usually understand vocation in a very narrow sense; it’s your job, your “calling.” Vocation, however, is not so much what you do for a living but what Christ does through you for the living. It’s a 24/7 calling, not a 9 to 5 occupation. A child’s vocation is to be a son or daughter to parents; a spouse’s vocation is to be a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband. And, of course, if you have a job, that too is a vocation, whether you’re a priest or policeman, carpenter or accountant. In each of these vocations, you have people to love, to serve, to take care of. Yet—and this is of the utmost importance—it is not so much you who serve your neighbor as Christ who serves your neighbor through you. You have been crucified with Jesus on the cross of baptism, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you (Gal 2:20). It is no longer you who are a wife but Jesus who is a wife through you; no longer you who are a teacher, but Jesus who is a teacher through you. Your vocation, as with your identity, is bound up in Him.

Permitting Ourselves to be Eaten and Drunk

Whatever vocation God has given to you, you learn what that calling is all about at the Lord’s Supper. Just as He gives Himself to you in this meal, so He goes on to give Himself through you to your neighbor in your vocation. He pours the blood of His love into your body and then pours Himself through you into others as you faithfully serve in your vocations. Luther puts it this way:

Now this is the fruit [of the Lord’s Supper], that even as we have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Christ the Lord, we in turn permit ourselves to be eaten and drunk, and say the same words to our neighbor, Take, eat and drink…meaning to offer yourself with all your life, even as Christ did with all that he had. (Sermons of Martin Luther; trans. and ed. J. N. Lenker; Grand Rapids: Baker; Volume 2:208)

We eat the Lord by the faith of the Word which the soul consumes and enjoys. In this way my neighbor also eats me: I give him my goods, body, and life and all I have, and let him consume and use it in his want. Likewise I also need my neighbor; I too am poor and afflicted, and suffer him to help and serve me in turn. Thus we are woven one into the other, helping one another even as Christ helped us. (2:213)

Therefore, when I kneel beside my wife at the altar rail, there Christ also shows me how to be a husband to her. Just as Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her, uniting His body with her own in this meal, so I should love my wife as my own body, nourish and cherish our united body, even as Christ does for the church (Eph 5:25, 28-29). When I kneel beside my son and daughter, there Christ shows me how to be a father to them. Just as Jesus feeds and cares for me in this Supper, clothes me with His righteousness, so I in turn care for my children by giving myself wholly to them in my vocation as their dad.

In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord holds nothing back. He gives us His life. He gives us His forgiveness. He gives us Himself. When we return to the pew, then later go out to our cars and drive home, then awake Monday morning to go about our various callings, we still carry Jesus with us. Unlike every other meal, wherein we digest the food and turn it into ourselves, in the Lord’s Supper the food turns us into itself. Jesus transforms our bodies into His. We become as He is. So whatever we do, we do in and through and with Jesus. Or, as I prefer to say it, Jesus does it in and through and with us. We become His lips to speak, His hands to work, His feet to walk. Just as He gave us Himself in the Supper on Sunday, so He gives Himself to others through us in our vocations every day of the week.

The next time you change your baby’s diaper, or make a sales call, or nail a shingle to the roof, remember this: just as Jesus has hidden Himself under those simple forms of bread and wine, so He hides Himself under the simple acts of your vocation. And just as He gave Himself to you in such simple profundity, so He continues to give Himself to others through you in the simple, but profound, acts of your vocation. When all is said and done, everything you need to know about vocation was learned at the Lord’s Supper.

Taking the Road More Traveled By: The Benefit of Tradition in the Church

I grew up over-singing ''Just As I Am'' and watching folks get drenched from head to toe in their baptisms. There was something of a rhythm and rhyme to our Southern Baptist services; it certainly wasn't a charismatic free-for-all. The hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call all fell into place. But it had little akin to what I was to discover in my late teens when I began my pilgrimage into a liturgical church. There, I encountered psalm chanting, creedal confessions, vested clergy, an altar with real wine (!) atop it, worshipers making the sign of the cross, the rare but occasional smoke of incense, and plenty of other practices that sent my non-traditional sensitivities into shock. Some might suppose that, awed by the reverence imbuing the service, wooed by its sacred antiquity, it was love at first sight. But, no, to be honest, I didn't like it, not one little bit.

Twenty five years later, having written a Eucharistic hymn that is sung in the liturgy, presided as celebrant and deacon at various altars in the Lutheran Church, and contributed regularly to a journal devoted to the traditional divine service, I guess you could safely say that my first impressions of traditional worship were not my lasting ones. Like an arranged marriage, it took me years to get to know this heretofore unknown liturgical bride, to delve into her past, learn her eccentricities, and eventually fall in love with her. Now, a quarter century after our initial meeting, I can't imagine life without her.

What Good is Tradition?

Devotees of various faiths, Christian and otherwise, have their distinctive traditions and their reasons for perpetuating them. Some like the way these practices are transhistorical, providing an unbroken ritual link with prior generations of the faithful. Others appreciate how traditions tend to concretize doctrine, embodying religious teachings in religious rites, so that the eyes and ears and other senses participate fully in what a faith teaches, rescuing it from becoming a bloodless religion of the mind. Still others embrace tradition as the communal expression of the faith, the participation of all in a shared rite, thereby bonding them, and avoiding the tyranny of individualism or clerical whim. And there are some who simply enjoy the artistry of religious rites, how they lift the common to new heights of aesthetic beauty. My own gradual appreciation of Christian rites involved all of these. Ultimately, however, I fell in love with traditions—and specifically, traditional worship—for a single, overarching reason: its components, to varying degrees, are all in the service of the Gospel.

Tradition in the Service of the Gospel

What you'll encounter in a traditional worship service is a framework of readings, creeds, confessions, hymns, and prayers that pulsate with the language of Scripture, with Christ Jesus at the heart of it all. By the repetition of these, with new elements circulating every week, truths seep into the hearts and minds of worshipers, steeping them in vivifying words. Every element of worship flows toward, into, and from the altar, where Jesus sits as Lamb, Priest, King, and Man, all rolled into one, giving his blood and body into his people and thereby literally embodying them with God. Cognizant of the fact that Jesus came to save not only the soul, but also the body, the body participates fully in this worship. Knees bow before the regal Lord; hands trace the sign of the saving cross upon themselves; mouths dine at his feast; eyes soak in the portrayal of his Passion in crucifix, icons, stained-glass windows; and noses spell the aromatic incense wafting prayers up toward God's throne. Moreover, just as the world operates according to a calendar, so the church follows a calendar of her own, with seasons and festivals that punctuate the year, each in one way or another preaching the mystery of Christ crucified and resurrected for us.  Though some of the elements of this worship are mandated by Christ--the preaching of his Word, baptism, his Supper--others are not, but are part of the heritage of prior generations, who bequeathed to us rites and ceremonies which glorify God, beautify worship, and work in concert with the Gospel.  All is claimed for Jesus—time, art, movement, architecture, music—so that in everything he may be glorified, and his people receive him and his gifts for their salvation.

Interest in the Traditional Liturgy Among Baptists

Though my own participation in liturgical worship happened after I left the church of my upbringing, I was surprised and delighted to read that in the Baptist church there has recently been a groundswell of interest, especially among young believers, in such worship. In a CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans, writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions– Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.” Whether this is merely a passing fad or a change of more substance and longevity remains to be seen. Needless to say, I hope it is the latter. If so, I pray that their spiritual odyssey may leave them not deeper into tradition but that tradition may leave them deeper into Christ.  For if tradition is not in the service of the Gospel, it is fool's gold, worthless and void.  But if it is in Christ's service, it is gold worthy of becoming a receptacle for heaven's blessings.

The Road More Traveled By

The poet Robert Frost famously spoke of taking "the road less traveled by" when he came to where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Perhaps in some aspects of life, that is sage advice. But when I came to where two roads diverged in the church, I took the road more traveled by, smoothed by the feet of the faithful for centuries, tried and tested by time, a path free of the pitfalls of modernity and the quicksands of fads, which leads always to the God crucified and risen for us. And that has made all the difference.

Please Don’t Say These Six Things at My Funeral

There will come a day, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, when the man in the coffin will be me. They say the dead don’t care, but I’m not dead yet, so as long as I’m still alive, I’d like to have some say in what goes on at my funeral. And, truth be told, I think the dead do care. Not that they will be privy to the details of what happens at their own funerals, but they still care about the world, about their family, about the church. The saints in heaven continue to pray for those who are still on their earthly pilgrimage, so how could they not care about them?

Because I do care now, and will care even after I’m with the Lord, here are some things I hope and pray are not said at my funeral. I care about those who will be there, about what they will hear. I want the truth to be spoken, the truth about sin, the truth about death, and, above all, the truth about the love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, please don’t say…

1. He was a good man. Don’t turn my funeral into a celebration of my moral resume. For one thing, I don’t have one. I’m guilty of far more immoral acts than moral ones. Secondly, even if I were the male equivalent of Mother Teresa, don’t eulogize me. Talk about the goodness of the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us in the true faith. Talk about our good Father who’s made us all His children in baptism. Talk about the good Husband that Christ is to His bride, the church. Don’t say, “He was a good man,” but “our good God loved this sinful man.”

2. Chad...Chad...Chad. I don’t want to be the focus of my own funeral. I was not the center of the liturgy on Sunday mornings, so why should it be any different during my funeral liturgy? If anyone’s name comes up over and over, let it be the name that is above every name—Jesus. He is the one who has conquered death. He is the one in whose arms I will have died. He is the one, the only one, who gives hope to the bereaved. Let me decrease that Christ may increase.

3. God now has another angel. Heaven is not going to de-humanize me. In fact, once I am resurrected on the last day, I will be more human than ever before, for my human soul and human body will finally be in a glorified state that’s free of sin. People don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever. God has enough angels already. All He wants is more of His children in the place Jesus has prepared for them.

4. We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life. So-called “Celebrations of Life” (which I have written against in "The Tragic Death of the Funeral") do a disservice to the mourners for they deny or euphemize death. The gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause. Whatever the apparent reason for my decease may be—a sickness, accident, or old age—the real reason is because I was conceived and born in sin, and I built atop that sinful nature a mountain’s worth of actual sins. The only person’s life to celebrate at a funeral is the Savior conceived of the virgin Mary, who became our sin on the cursed tree that we might become His righteousness in the blessed font, who buried sin and death in the empty tomb He left behind on Easter morning.

5. Chad would not want us to weep. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Those tears betoken a God who’s fully human, who experienced the sadness and grief we all do at the death of those we love. To cry is not to deny that our friend or family member is with the Lord, but to acknowledge that in this vale of tears there is still death, still loss, still suffering. I do want those who mourn my death to weep, not for my sake, but for their own, for it is an integral part of the healing process. But while they weep, let them remember that in the new heavens and new earth, God “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain,” (Revelation 21:4).

6. What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad. What’s in that coffin is the body that was fearfully and wonderfully made when our Father wove me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). What’s in that coffin is the body that Jesus baptized into His own body to make me part of Him. What’s in that coffin is the body that ate the saving body of Jesus, and drank His forgiving blood in the Supper, that I might consume the medicine of immortality. And what’s in that coffin is the body that, when the last trumpet shall sound, will burst from my grave as a body glorified and ready to be reunited with my soul. My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me. And one day I’ll get it back, alive, restored, perfected to be like the resurrected body of Jesus.

Of course, there’s always more that could be added to this list—and perhaps you’d like to add more in the comments below—but I believe these get the point across. I want the beginning of my funeral to be focused on Jesus, as well as the middle, as well as the end, as well as every point in between. I care about those who will attend. Let them hear the good news, especially in the context of this sobering reminder of mortality, that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord, for He is the resurrection and the life.
**Here is a short YouTube video in which I talk about death, so-called "natural death," the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ.

A Catechism on Sacrifice: A Resource for Understanding OT Worship

If you've ever attempted to read the Bible from cover to cover, chances are you made it through Genesis and maybe Exodus. Somewhere in Leviticus, however, your head began to spin. All this stuff about sacrifices, priests, blood, fat, entrails makes it sound like a ritualistic butcher's guide. But it's not. Believe it or not, Leviticus is packed with the Good News of a God who loves His people, and who provides them with the means of grace whereby they can receive Him and His gifts. Leviticus, far from being an esoteric relic from Israel's past, is a Gospel book of the church. It teaches of God's holiness, His love, His sacraments, His worship. It is a book we desperately need to recover. But, yes, it is hard to understand, especially why there is all this focus on sacrifice. Why all these sacrifices? Why all these details about flesh and blood and fat? What's the difference between all these offerings? And, finally, what do they teach us about Christ's sacrifice and the sacraments of the church? To answer these questions, I wrote this Catechism on Sacrifice several years ago. It consists of questions and answers to aid you in your study of Leviticus, as well an any part of the OT that discusses the divine service in Israel.

Read it through. Save it for your next Bible Study. Forward it to your pastor. Use it as you see fit. I offer it as a brief resource for the church.

A CATECHISM ON SACRIFICE

What is sacrifice?

In the liturgy of Israel, sacrifice was the divinely ordained means of grace by which God gave blessings to His people through the things of creation. The sacrifice belonged to God.  He graciously gave it to His people so that they, by faith, might receive the divine gifts communicated therein.  Some sacrifices were also the means whereby Israel gave thanks to God for His gifts to them.

When did sacrifice begin?

Sacrifice began after mankind’s fall into sin (Genesis 3).  “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:21).  Although the killing of these animals to provide coverings for Adam and Eve is not specifically called a sacrifice, it did require the death of animals.  Sinners were covered only by the death of another who was killed in their place.  The first explicit reference to sacrifice is in Genesis 4, where Cain “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground” and Abel “on his part brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions,” (4:3-4).

What kinds of things were sacrificed?

One can divide the various kinds of sacrifices into two main categories:  bloody and unbloody.  Bloody sacrifices were the offerings of animals that were ritually slaughtered.  This ritual slaughter ordinarily took place near an altar, upon which a portion of the animal’s blood would be sprinkled or poured out or smeared.  Not any and every animal could be sacrificed, but only those ordained for slaughter by the Word of God (see question #3).  These animals – which were always domesticated animals – included the following:

Bovine:  bulls, cows, heifers, calves, and oxen.

Sheep/Goats:  he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, lambs

Birds:  turtledoves and pigeons

Unbloody sacrifices were offerings from the agricultural produce of the people of God.  These offering included the following:  wheat, barley, olive oil, and wine.  The unbloody sacrifices were ordinarily offered in conjunction with the bloody sacrifices.

Why could only certain animals be sacrificed?

There were three groupings of animals in the OT:  unclean, clean, and clean plus “sacrificeable”.

  1. Unclean animals were to be avoided totally.  They were not to be sacrificed, eaten, domesticated, or their carcasses touched.  These animals are listed in Leviticus 11.
  2. Clean animals could be domesticated and eaten.
  3. Clean plus “sacrificeable” animals could not only be domesticated and eaten; they were also ordained by God as sacrificial victims.

Various reasons have been put forward to explain these three classifications.  Some of the more common theories are:

  1. ARBITRARY:  The lists, though given by God, are arbitrary.  The classes of animals, and the individual species placed therein, are listed as such by God, but there is no definite and ascertainable reason(s) for why some animals are clean and others unclean.
  2. PAGAN CONNECTION:  The animals deemed unclean represented deities in pagan cultures or were used in pagan sacrifice.  To avoid confusion and possible syncretism, these animals were to be avoided by the Israelites.
  3. ANTI-LIFE:  The animals classified as unclean inhabited locations that were inimical to life, or they were predators or carcass eaters.  Because of the symbolism of death attached to them, they were to be avoided.
  4. HYGIENIC:  The animals were unclean which were common carriers of disease.
  5. ALLEGORICAL:  Positive and negative traits of animals were allegorically applied to people.  Animals whose ways do not exemplify proper conduct were unclean, whereas animals whose ways corresponded to the proper conduct of man were clean.  For example, a cud-chewing animal was clean because the clean and holy man should ruminate on the word of God.
  6. SEPARATION OF ISRAEL:  Just as God chose Israel from all the nations to be a holy people to Him, so He chose certain animals from all the beasts of the earth to be clean animals.  The unclean animals thus represented the Gentiles whose ways, if adopted, would have defiled the people of God.

The last of these theories has OT and NT support to recommend it.  We may first take note of Leviticus 20:24-24, which closely connects Israel’s separation from her pagan neighbors with Israel’s separation of unclean from clean animals:

22 'You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. 23 'Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. 24 'Hence I have said to you, "You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has separated [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] you from the peoples. 25 'You are therefore to make a distinction [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.

Secondly, when the Lord gives St. Peter the vision of unclean animals and commands him to kill and eat them, the primary message is that Peter is to receive Cornelius and the Gentiles into the church (Acts 10:1-48).  The Gentiles (formerly regarded as unclean) are not to be regarded as unclean or common for “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:15).

Only domesticated animals which were both clean and “sacrificeable” were to be offered up on the altar.  They alone were ordained by God to be in the holy space and to be placed upon the holy altar.  Like the priests, they were separated from all other animals by God for this holy purpose and this holy place.  Thus the three categories of animals closely correspond to the three groups of people in the world:  Gentiles, Israelites, and Israelite priests.

  1. Gentiles = Unclean animals
  2. Israelites = Clean animals not used for sacrifice
  3. Priests = Smaller group of clean animals used for sacrifice

What were the primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy?

The primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy were the whole burnt offering (olah), the sin offering (chattath), the guilt offering (asham), the peace offering (shellamim), and the meal offering (minchah).

What was the whole burnt offering (olah)?

The whole burnt offering was the foundational sacrifice of Israel (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13).  Every morning and every evening, a whole burnt offering of a one-year-old lamb was sacrificed at the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 29:38-42).  This was the continual burnt offering.  Similar whole burnt offerings were also sacrificed at other times.  What distinguished this sacrifice is indicated by the name:  the whole burnt offering.  All the parts of the animal which were ritually acceptable for sacrifice were wholly burnt upon the altar.  Its smoke “went up” (olah) to God from the altar.

What was the sin offering (chattath)?

The sin offering was sacrificed by individuals or the whole congregation when they broke the law of God (Leviticus 4-5:13; 6:24-30).  The type of animal offered (bull, he-goat, she-goat, lamb, dove or pigeon) depended upon the social rank of the individual.  The blood of the victim was smeared on the horns of the main altar and poured out at its base.  If it was offered for a priest or for the whole congregation, some blood was also taken into the Holy Place to be sprinkled on the veil and smeared on the horns of the altar of incense.  The flesh of the animal was cooked and eaten by the priests (if offered for a layman’s sin) or burned outside the camp (if offered for a priest or for the whole congregation).

What was the guilt offering (asham)?

The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, though this sacrifice was offered for those sins in which reparation could be made to the offended party (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10).  A ram was the designated victim for the guilt offering.  In addition, if applicable, property was to be restored, plus 20% of its value, to the offended party.  The blood was poured out on the main altar and the cooked flesh of the victim was eaten by the priests in the court of the tabernacle or temple.

What was the peace offering (shellamim)?

The peace offering was the sacrifice in which the worshiper received back a portion of the sacrificial meat to be cooked and eaten in a ritual meal (Leviticus 3; 7:11-36).  A male or female animal from the flock or herd was sacrificed, its blood was poured onto the main altar, its breast and right leg were given to the priest and his family (as part of his income), and the rest of the animal was consumed in a communal meal.  The Israelite(s) thus consumed the very animal who died for his atonement.  It was a preview of the Lord’s Supper, in which we eat the very body of the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed for us on the altar of the cross.  Peace offerings were sacrificed to give thanks to God (praise), to fulfill a vow (votive), or as free-will offerings.

What was the meal offering (minchah)?

The meal offering was a bloodless sacrifice.  It consisted of wheat or barley and was ordinarily accompanied by olive oil, incense, and wine.  It was part of every morning and evening whole burnt offering (Exodus 29:40-41).

Why was blood so significant?

In the sacrificial liturgy, blood was of vast more importance than any other part of the animal.  For example, no part of the animal was ever taken into the Holy Place, much less into the Holy of Holies.  Indeed, no part of the animal – with the sole exception of the blood – was ever taken any closer to the inner sanctum than the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple.  In certain sacrifices, however, the blood was taken into the Holy Place and even into the Holy of Holies.

Leviticus 17:10-11 explains the importance of blood in the sacrificial liturgy:

10 'And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.11 'For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.'

This passage has several noteworthy features.

  1. The life [literally “the soul”] of the flesh is in the blood.  The very life of the animal is located precisely in its blood.  To have the blood is to have the life.  To be touched by the blood is to be touched by the life.  Life is not an abstraction; it is a visible, tangible fluid.  Life is blood and blood is life.  Where there is no blood, there is no life.
  2. I have given it to you.  Blood is a divine gift from the Lord and Giver of life.  This is His institution.  He has given it to His Church that they might have the life that is located in the blood.  Thus the blood not only has life; it conveys life for the Lord has given it for that very purpose.
  3. On the altar.  God gives His Church the life of the blood on the altar.  The altar is not just a place of death but of life for here the life-giving blood is placed.  The life-blood is drained from the victim and placed on the altar.  Because the altar is most holy (Exodus 29:37), the blood, when it touches the altar, becomes most holy.  Therefore, by the Word of God, the blood of the sacrifice is living and holy and bestows life and holiness.  It is life in the animal; it becomes holy on the altar; and it is life-giving and holy-giving to the Church.
  4. To make atonement for your souls.  The life-blood of the victim atones for sinner.  This is its purpose:  it removes sin, it removes death, it removes unholiness.  This happens not just in the killing of the victim, but in the placing of the victim’s blood upon the altar.  No blood is atoning blood unless it touches the holy things of God.  It is sprinkled, poured out, or smeared on God’s altar, God’s priest, or God’s tabernacle.  It is then atoning blood for it has become holy blood by contact with God’s holy thing.  Atoning blood is therefore holy blood, life-giving blood.  It is given for the removal of sin and the bestowal of holiness.

Why was fat so significant?

In addition to the blood of the sacrificial victim, the fat also belonged exclusively to God.  “All fat is the Lord’s.  It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall not eat any fat or any blood,” (Leviticus 3:16-17).  The fat to be removed were the layers of fat beneath the surface of the animal’s skin and around its organs – which can be removed – as opposed to the fat which is inextricably part of the muscle.  No explicit reason is given for the God’s exclusive use of the fat.  Presumably, however, the fat was considered to be the best part of the animal and was therefore reserved for God.  The Hebrew word for fat (cheleb) is often used metaphorically to denote “the best”.  For example, “the cheleb of the land” (Genesis 45:18) and the “cheleb of the wheat” (Deuteronomy 32:14) refers to the best of the land and the best of the wheat.  In the Messianic banquet, the Lord promises to make a feast of fats on His holy mountain (Isaiah 25:6ff).

Who performed the sacrifices?

Leviticus 1:3-5 describes “who does what” in the liturgy of sacrifice:

3 'If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.  4 And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf.  5 And he shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.

Thus, the Israelite who brought the animal for sacrifice would kill it near the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple.  The sinner for whom this animal’s blood would be shed – he was the slayer.  The killing, however, was God’s institution and gift for by it the sinner was accepted before the Lord (Leviticus 1:3).  After the victim was killed, the priests assumed responsibility for the liturgical actions involving the blood (i.e., sprinkling the blood on the altar).

The body of the victim (e.g., in the whole burnt offering) was then skinned and cut into its various pieces by the Israelite who brought the sacrifice.  After the skinning and quartering were completed, the priests would place the sacrificial flesh and fat on the altar to be wholly consumed by the fire of Yahweh in His altar.

6 'He shall then skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Then Aaron's sons, the priests, shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the suet over the wood which is on the fire that is on the altar. 9 Its entrails, however, and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer up in smoke all of it on the altar for a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:6-9)

There were thus specific responsibilities assigned both to the layman and the priest.  Any contact with the altar, however, was reserved exclusively for the priest.

Where were they performed?

Sacrifices were performed near an altar.  The victim was killed near the altar (not on it or over it [except in the case of birds]) and its blood was placed on the altar or smeared on the horns of the altar.  After the institution of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20), almost every sacrifice was performed at the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple (for an exception, see Numbers 19:1-22).  When an Israelite brought a bovine for sacrifice, it would be killed on the east side of the altar, in the forecourt (Leviticus 1:5; 4:4,15).  The slaughter of a sheep or goat took place on the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11; 4:24,29,33).  Doves and pigeons were killed over the altar (as exceptional cases) by the removal of the bird’s head, after which its blood was drained on the side of the altar (Leviticus 1:15).

How were the animals sacrificed?

The OT sacrificial liturgy does not explicitly state how the animal was to be killed (except birds, Leviticus 1:15).  The verb used for the slaughter (shachat), however, does connote the slitting of the throat (cf. 2 Kings 10:7).  This particular manner of slaughter would help in the collection of blood from the animal for placement upon the altar.  The slitting of the throat is also supported by rabbinic tradition.

Why did the Israelite place his hand upon the head of the animal?

The man who brought a sacrificial animal placed his hand upon the head of the animal before he killed it.

And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. (Leviticus 1:4)

A similar action was performed by the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 3:2,8,13; 4:4,15,24,29,33)

Various explanations for this rite have been given:  (1) sin is transferred to the animal; (2) the man is identified with the sacrifice; (3) the man declares his purpose to sacrifice this animal; (4) and that the man owns this animal.

To understand the meaning of the laying on of hand(s), it is necessary to consider the following:

  1. The verbs used for the “laying on” (samak) of the hand implies pressure.  The hand is not merely placed on the head; the Israelite leans on the head of the victim, applying the pressure of his body onto the animal.  The implication is that he is placing himself onto and into this animal.
  2. The laying on of hands is done so that the sacrifice “may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4).  The sacrifice is “for him”; it will die in his place as the ram did for Isaac:  “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son,” (Genesis 22:13).  There is an identification between the man and the animal for the animal is killed in the stead of the sinner.
  3. This killing takes places so that the animal might make “atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4).  His sin is covered by the blood of the one who dies in his place.
  4. The laying of hands (at times) took place in conjunction with the confession of sins.  These two actions took place together on the Day of Atonement:  “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness,” (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 5:5).  By means of the laying on of hands and verbal confession, the sins were transferred onto the animal.  He thus became not only the bearer of the sins, but also the substitute for the sinner.

The four explanations (listed above) for the laying on of hands are thus not mutually exclusive.  The owner of the animal (4) lays his hand on the head of the appointed sacrifice (3), leans on the animal to place himself onto and into this substitutionary victim (2), and confesses his sins to transfer them onto the sacrifice (1).

Did the Israelite confess his sin(s) over the animal?

As noted above, the Israelite did confess his sins in conjunction with some sacrifices.  Confession was done, for example, in connection with the guilt offering:

So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned. He shall also bring his guilt offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin. (Leviticus 5:5-6)

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed over the scapegoat “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins,” (Leviticus 16:21).  The likelihood is great that confession of sins was also a vital part of the ritual of other sacrifices.

Were the sacrifices for God or for man?

Various pagan cults in the ancient world offered sacrifices as food to their gods and goddesses.  This reason for sacrifice is explicitly rejected by God:

[The Lord says,] "I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. I shall take no young bull out of your house, Nor male goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High; And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me," (Psalm 50:8-15).

God had no need of the sacrifices of Israel.  Rather, Israel needed these sacrifices.  God gave the sacrificial liturgy to Israel after giving them the Law so that they might have a divinely ordained means by which they could be cleansed of their transgressions of the Law.  The sacrifices were thus not for God but for man.  The Lord gave His Church the tabernacle, the altar, and the sacrificial animals so that through these means He might dwell among His people, hear their prayers, grant them forgiveness, and be their good and gracious Father.

What benefits were received from the sacrifices?

Through the sacrifices, as through means, God gave the Israelites gifts such as the following:

(1)  Forgiveness of sins

Leviticus 4:20, “So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”

(2)  Blessing and Righteousness

Psalm 24:5, “He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

(3)  Cleansing

Leviticus 12:7, “Then [the priest] shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood.”

(4)  Acceptance

Leviticus 1:3, “He shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.”

Above all else, however, the Lord gave the sacrifices as the chief means by which He directed His people to look for the coming sacrifice of the Messiah.  Every bull, every goat, every lamb, every dove and pigeon was a preview of the Sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Hebrews 8-11).

Is it correct to think of the OT sacrifices as sacraments?

Yes.  The OT sacrifices – especially the bloody sacrifices – were not just plain flesh and plain blood, but flesh and blood included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.  To these physical things, the Lord joined His Word of forgiveness and cleansing.  The Lutheran Confessions speak of “covenant-signs and signs of grace or sacraments, such as circumcision, the many kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and holy Baptism,” (Formula of Concord, SD VII 50).  The flesh and blood of these animal sacrifices were prefigurements of the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  As such, they conveyed to the believers the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation which would be acquired by Christ in His life, death, and resurrection.

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Why Christ Poured out the Spirit on Pentecost: The OT and Rabbinic Roots of Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks

Of the 364 other days of the year upon which Christ could have poured out His Holy Spirit, why did He do so on exactly the fiftieth day after Easter? What was so important about this day? It was, indeed, already a holy day, the OT Feast of Weeks. But why choose this feast day? What makes Weeks so fitting a time for Jesus to give His Holy Spirit to the church? In this post, I'll try to answer that question. We'll look at the OT roots of Pentecost, what the rabbis and other Jewish writers had to say about it, and connect all the dots between the old festival and its new counterpart. What you'll see is that, of the 364 other days of the year, none was more perfectly fitted for the day of the giving of the Spirit than Pentecost.

The OT Feast of Weeks

The second major festival of the Israelite liturgical calendar was Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot [Hebrew]). Such nomenclature is indicative of the temporal connection between this feast and Passover—a connection that expanded over the course of Israelite history. The designation “feast of Weeks” is more exactly the feast of seven weeks, for beginning on the day after Passover (the 16th of Nisan), the Israelites counted forty-nine days, then commenced the celebration of the feast of Weeks on the following day (Lev 23:15-16; Deut 16:9-10). Because it fell on the fiftieth day after Passover, Weeks was also called “Pentecost”, that is, “fiftieth” (e.g., Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8).

Unlike Passover, which is explicitly connected with the salvific activity of YHWH in history, Pentecost is described in the Scriptures almost exclusively as an agricultural festival. During this feast, believers rendered thanks to the Creator for the blessings he had bestowed upon their fields, especially those in which wheat was grown. On the fiftieth day after the seven weeks, believers presented to YHWH two loaves of bread, made from fine flour, and baked with leaven, as the first-fruits of the wheat harvest. In addition to the grain offering, they offered one bull, two rams, seven lambs, along with a sin offering of a male goat, and two male lambs for a peace offering (Lev 23:15-19; Num 28:26-31). Since the first sheaf of the barley harvest was presented to YHWH on the day after Passover (Lev 23:11), and the first sheaf of the wheat harvest was offered fifty days later (23:15), Passover and Pentecost marked the beginning and end of the grain harvest.

Pentecost and the Giving of the Law at Sinai

In the rabbinic period, and probably earlier, Pentecost came to be celebrated as more, much more, than an agricultural festival; it was the anniversary feast of the giving of the Law or the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. The tractate Shabbat (86b) in the Babylonian Talmud records the opinions of teachers from the 2nd and 3rd c. AD (e.g., R. Jose) to this effect. Drawing upon biblical and extra-bibical writings, one can say with some certainty that this tradition linking Pentecost with Sinai predates the NT. Let us examine the evidence.

The chronological association of Passover and the giving of the law is based on the Exodus travel narrative. In Exod 19:1, Moses writes that the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai “in the third month” (i.e., Sivan) after they had left Egypt. Since they left on the day after Passover, in the middle of the first month (Exod 12:2, 6), the fiftieth day after Passover would have fallen within this third month. Although the biblical account does not specify on what day the law as given, when Jews later celebrated Pentecost on the sixth day of Sivan, they understood it as the day on which God spoke the “ten words” to Israel from Sinai.

The rabbinic focus upon Pentecost and the giving of the Sinai covenant is attested both in Jubilees (c. 1st c. BC) and possibly the Scriptures themselves. In the former, the author seems to understand the “feast of Weeks” to be the “feast of oaths,” (6:21). According to Jubilees, Pentecost was celebrated from creation onward in connection with the various covenants made with Adam and the patriarchs. Though forgotten for a time, it was celebrated once more when Moses “renewed it for [the children of Israel] on this mountain [i.e., Sinai],” (6:19). This connection between Pentecost and the covenant in Jubilees finds a possible echo in the historical books. In 2 Chr 15:10-15, the Chronicler describes a celebratory gathering that took place during the reign of Asa: “[10] They assembled in Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of the reign of Asa. [11] On that day, they sacrificed to YHWH seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep from the spoil which they had brought. [12] They entered into the covenant to seek YHWH, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul. [13] But all who would not seek YHWH, the God of Israel, would be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman. [14] They swore an oath to YHWH with a loud voice, with shouting, with trumpets, and with horns. [15] All Judah rejoiced concerning the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart and sought him their whole desire, and he let them find him. So YHWH gave them rest on every side.” This covenant celebration or renewal falls within the month during which Pentecost was celebrated. Indeed, the Targum to Chronicles says expressly that the Israelites gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Weeks. So both in Chronicles as well Jubilees, the feast of Weeks is linked to covenant remembrance. Therefore, although we cannot say with certainty that by the time of the first Christian Pentecost, the Jews had already begun to celebrate the giving of the Sinai covenant during this festival, it seems very probable that they had. At the very least, we know that there were groups with Judaism that understood Pentecost in this light. The importance of this will be explained below.

Pentecost and the Jubilee Year

Before comparing the OT Pentecost with its antitype, one more feature of the festival needs to be noted: the relationship between Pentecost and the Jubilee Year. To understand the theological message of Weeks, it is imperative that one not miss the close connection it has to the year of the Jubilee. The Israelites celebrated the latter during the fiftieth year following every “seven sabbaths of years” or forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55; 27:16-25; Num 36:4). The Hebrew name for the festival is literally “the year of the ram’s horn,” for an instrument made from a ram’s horn was blown on Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year to announce the beginning of the year of release (Lev 25:9). During this year, any ancestral land that Israelites families had sold was given back to them. Also, any Israelite who, induced by poverty, had sold himself (or been sold) into slavery to a fellow Israelite regained his liberty. Not only the people, but the land itself was “freed” from being worked, for no planting or sowing, harvesting or reaping took place during the fiftieth year. Like unto the sabbatical year (every seventh year), the jubilee year was a great sabbath or rest for the people of YHWH and the land that belonged to him. Therefore, because of the Jubilee Year, the number fifty is closely associated with the remission of debts, emancipation of slaves, and rest within God’s protective care.

What connections are there between the OT Pentecost or Weeks and the Jubilee Year? Every Feast of Weeks was a kind of annual preparation for the Feast of Jubilees, just as every Sabbatical Year was a sort of mini-Jubilee. The temporal connection between the two is manifest in the way they are described: Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after “seven sabbaths” of weeks (Lev 23:15) and Jubilee is celebrated on the fiftieth year after “seven sabbaths of years,” (Lev 25:8). Also, every year, at the festival of Weeks, the Israelites gave their first-fruits of the grain harvest to YHWH. This action testified that God was the true owner of the land, as is expressly noted in the laws governing the Jubilee year: “for the land is mine,” God says (Lev 25:23). Pentecost was also a day of rest, for on it people were “to do no laborious work,” (Lev 23:21; Num 28:26). Again, this echoes a major theme of the Jubilee year, in which the Israelites rested from agricultural labors and the land enjoyed a sabbath as well. In Deuteronomy, Moses proclaims that Pentecost was to be a day of rejoicing before God for all the household, including children, servants, Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows (Deut 16:11). Why? He explains in the next verse: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; you shall be careful to observe these statutes,” (16:12). In this admonition we see that a chief function of Pentecost was to recall the fact that God had freed the Israelites from servitude in Egypt, a message that forms the heart of the Jubilee year as well (Lev 25:42-43, 55). Therefore, both calendrically and theologically, Pentecost and Jubilee were kindred festivals. Like the festival held every fifty years, so the festival held every year on the fiftieth day proclaimed the following: (1) God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; (2) he had fulfilled his promise to give them the Holy Land; (3) he provided rest for them from their labors. As we shall see momentarily, this has profound implications for the Christian understanding of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The First Christian Pentecost

Every generation of Israelites, beginning with those who stood alongside Moses at Mt. Sinai, had counted those fifty days that led from Passover to Pentecost. As we see in Acts 2, even those who lived in the Diaspora gathered in Jerusalem for this second major feast of the year. Present were “devout men from every nation under heaven,” for there were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs,” (2:5, 9-10). This throng of pilgrims was unaware, however, that what awaited them that year was not a mere repetition of the ancient liturgies of Pentecost. For as Luke describes, “[1] When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. [2] Suddenly, there came a sound from heaven like the rushing of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. [3] There appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them. [4] They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, just as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The crowds were understandably “bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (2:6) of the magnalia dei, “the mighty acts of God,” (2:10). As inquisitive murmurs arose from the multitude, some asking, “What does this mean?” and others accusing the preachers of being full of different spirits (the intoxicating kind!), the apostle Peter raised his voice to address the assembly (2:12-14). Drawing upon the prophecy of Joel (2:18-32 [H 3:1-5]) and a psalm of David (16:8-11), he declared that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, who, having been crucified and resurrected, had now poured out the Holy Spirit, as he has promised (Acts 2:14-40). Extraordinary was the result of this Pentecost sermon, for on that day “three thousand souls” believed and were baptized “upon the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of [their] sins,” (2:38, 41).

The Christian Pentecost as the Fulfillment of the OT Feast of Weeks

The question is this: Of the 364 other days when Christ could have sent the Spirit, why did he choose to do so on the 50th day after Passover, namely, during the Feast of Weeks? What was it about this Israelite feast day that it made it peculiarly fitting for this outpouring from above? In our discussion above, we have already adumbrated some answers to these questions. Now, let us proceed to explain more fully how the Christian Pentecost is an antitype of the OT Feast of Weeks.

There is, first of all, a thematic connection between the two, namely, that this fifty-day period is one of waiting or anticipation. For the believers under the old covenant, the days between Passover and Pentecost were symbolic of the forty (plus) years of waiting between their departure from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. Only then could they finally offer to God the first-fruits that sprang from the sacred soil of Canaan. For although Passover could be, and was, celebrated in the wilderness (Num 9:5), the Festival of Weeks, properly speaking, could not be, for to be able to sow, reap, and offer the first-fruits of wheat to YHWH, the Israelites had to be settled in the land. Thus, until their wandering years were wrapped up, Canaan conquered, and seed sown into that sacred soil, Pentecost was anticipated but not realized. Similarly, the days between the Passover of Jesus (i.e., his crucifixion and resurrection) and his sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were days of waiting. As Luke records at the beginning of Acts: “[1:1] The first account I wrote, O Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began to do and to teach, [2] until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. [3] To them he presented himself alive, after his suffering, by many proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the matters concerning the kingdom of God. [4] And gathering them together, he commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, “which,” [he said], “you heard from me, [5] for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Similarly, at the end of his gospel, Luke records Jesus instructing his disciples to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” (24:49). Everything was to take place in its proper time. Following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, he would send forth the promise of his Father, the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost. That day would bring to fulfillment the salvific plan of YHWH, in a way analogous to how the entry into the Promised Land brought to fulfillment God’s saving plan for the Israelites. Until the promised Spirit came on that promised day, however, the disciples had to tarry in the city, awaiting the celebration of Pentecost. Then, and only then, would they receive “the first-fruits of the Spirit,” (Rom 8:23).

Speaking of first-fruits, this brings us to another link between the OT and NT Pentecost. This link, however, is one in which the contrast between the two highlights the superior nature of the antitype. Like under the old festival, during which believers presented to YHWH the first-fruits of their wheat, at the new Pentecost first-fruits were presented as well, though these first-fruits were the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, these “fruits” were not man’s offering to God, but Christ’s promised gift to his church. Rather than the fruits of earth being lifted up to heaven, the fruits of heaven are rained down upon the people of earth. The Apostle Paul likens the gift of the Spirit to first-fruits in his epistle to the church in Rome: “Not only this, but also we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we ourselves groan inwardly, eagerly awaiting our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body,” (8:23). Not only does Paul describe the Spirit as first-fruits, this gift is connected with the resurrection, as a sort of guarantee of the “redemption of our body.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks similarly of the Spirit: “[1:13] In [Christ] you also, having heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, in which you also have believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, [14] who is the pledge of our inheritance, until the redemption of [God's] possession, to the praise of his glory,” (cf. 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5). In viewing the first-fruits of the Spirit as a pledge or guarantee of the resurrection, Paul is reflecting the OT understanding of the first-fruits of the field. By offering to YHWH the first-fruits of grain, the believer bore witness that whole field and crop belonged to God, whose continued blessing was importuned through the sacrifice itself. Similarly, Christ places the Spirit within the believer as a pledge that the whole person, body and soul, belongs to him. He will continue to care for that person in whom the first-fruits of the Spirit are present until the “full harvest,” as it were, of the resurrection of the flesh.

As was demonstrated above, one can say with relative certainty that by the time of the fulfillment of Weeks in the pouring out of the Spirit, at least some (if not most) of the Jews had begun to celebrate Weeks as the liturgical commemoration of the institution of the Sinai covenant and the giving of the law. If so, what happened in Acts 2 should be viewed both phenomenologically and theologically in relation to the Sinai theophany.

Let us begin with the phenomenological. When YHWH descended upon Sinai, his presence was visibly and audibly manifested in manifold ways. He appeared in a “thick cloud” (Exod 19:9); at the sound of a “ram’s horn” (19:13); with “thunder and lightning flashes” (19:16); and in “smoke...like the smoke of a furnace,” (19:18). In Deuteronomy, recounting what happened forty years earlier, Moses says that “the mountain was burning with fire unto the heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud, and thick darkness,” (4:11). Then the Lord spoke to the Israelites “from the midst of the fire," (4:12, 15, 33; cf. 5:22-26). He “showed [them] his great fire and [they] heard his words from the midst of the fire,” (4:36). At Jerusalem, on the other hand, there was the “rushing of a violent wind” from heaven (Acts 2:2); “divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them,” (2:3); and the apostolic proclamation(s) of the Gospel in unlearned languages.

Though the theophanic elements at the Jerusalem Pentecost were not as diverse as those at Sinai, there is one prominent commonality between the two: divine speech out of divine fire. As just noted, a prominent refrain in Moses’ description of the Sinai theophany is that YHWH spoke “from the midst of the fire.” Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, when commenting upon this revelation, takes it a step further and explains that God created an invisible sound that gave “shape and tension to the air and changing it to flaming fire, sounded forth like the breath through a trumpet an articulate voice so loud that it appeared to be equally audible to the farthest as well as the nearest,” (Decalogue, 33). Similarly, he comments, “Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them,” (46). Two points of Philo are noteworthy. First, the celestial fire at Sinai was transformed into divine speech. Secondly, this speech was given “in the language familiar to the audience.” This second point was expanded in the early biblical interpretations of the rabbis. Whereas Philo urges that the Sinaitic revelation was uttered in speech recognizable by the Israelites (which, of course, it was), rabbinic tradition held that the revelation was heard by all peoples. In an effort to demonstrate that the law had been offered to the whole world, but only accepted by Israel, the rabbis taught that when YHWH spoke from Sinai, his voice was divided into seventy languages, so that all the nations heard the law spoken in their own tongue, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 88a).

It is possible, indeed probable, that many of the Jews who present in Jerusalem at Pentecost were aware of these traditions recorded by Philo and the rabbis. If so, those who viewed the Sinai theophany as the historic event upon which Pentecost was based, how would they have interpreted the sign of the fiery tongues upon the heads of the preaching apostles? Moreover, what would it have meant for them to hear the proclamation miraculously voiced by the apostles to “every nation under heaven,” (Acts 2:5)? Were not these the theophanic signals that once more God was speaking “from the midst of the fire,” this time truly to all nations, though at this Pentecost uttering a far different message than at Sinai? These questions take us from a phenomenological comparison of the two theophanies to a theological contrast.

At Sinai, YHWH identified himself as the one who had led them out of the land of Egypt, then laid upon them the “ten words” of the covenant. The rest of OT history, however, is, as it were, Israel’s “rap sheet”, divine documentation of how the people repeatedly and oftentimes flagrantly broke this covenant. Indeed, even before they departed from Sinai, they rebelled against the First Commandment by attempting to worship YHWH under a bovine icon, thereby inciting Moses to smash the two tablets of the law (Exodus 32). The Father, however, in his grace, did not reject Israel but promised to establish a new covenant with them, “not like the covenant [he] made with their fathers, when [he] took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, [the] covenant with they broke,” (Jer 31:32). This new covenant Jesus established with his church as he gave them his body to eat and his blood to drink (Luke 22:20). It is the covenant built upon his life, passion, and resurrection; Jesus himself is, in fact, the embodiment of it, as Isaiah prophesied: “I will give you [i.e., the messianic Servant] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” (42:6; cf. 49:8). What the apostles announced in their preaching at Pentecost was this new covenant. Once more, Christ spoke to Israel from the midst of the fire, namely, the fiery tongues resting upon the heads of his apostles. But he laid upon the listeners not the “ten words” for them to fulfill; rather, he proclaimed the fulfillment of the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms in himself (cf. Luke 24:44). Betokening the fact that this Good News was for all people, the Spirit enabled the apostles to preach in languages unlearned by them. Whereas rabbinic tradition held that the law was spoken in every language under heaven at the first Pentecost at Sinai, at the first Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem the fulfillment of the law was truly preached to all those “devout men from every nation under heaven,” (Acts 2:5). Therefore, if for many Jews, Pentecost was the anniversary of the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant, for Christians, Pentecost is the anniversary of the perfect keeping of the law by Jesus and the new covenant established by him with his church.

One final observation is in order regarding the antitypical nature of Weeks. As explained above, there is a very close association between Weeks and the year of Jubilee. Both of them were celebrations of YHWH’s emancipatory deeds, his gift of the holy land, and his provision of rest from the people’s labors. All three of these benefactions were anticipatory of the greater blessings Christ bestowed upon his church through the Spirit at Pentecost. In his Nazareth sermon (Luke 4), Jesus read these words from the prophet Isaiah as descriptive of his ministry: [Luke 4:18] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the Gospel to the poor; he has sent me to preach release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, [19] to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” The Spirit who anointed Jesus to work these deeds is the same Spirit who came upon the apostles at Pentecost. Through their ministry, Christ continued to act and speak. As he had once brought Israel out of Egyptian bondage, so he preaches release to captives who are bound either physically or spiritually or both. As he gave Israel the Promised Land, so the Son of God proclaims the good news of a non-terrestrial kingdom, where the poor are enriched, captives emancipated, blind see, and the oppressed are liberated. This kingdom is both the church and the heavenly fatherland, the antitypes of Canaan. Likewise, as in Jubilee Year (of which Weeks was an annual mini-celebration), debts were forgiven, ancestral property restored, and Israelites in servitude freed, so too in the messianic Jubilee and messianic Pentecost—only better and on a grander scale! For, as Peter admonished the crowds at Pentecost, “[2:38] Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Baptism into Jesus Christ is a washing into the ongoing Jubilee of grace. The debt of sin is forgiven. Man is restored to the image of God. Those in bondage to death are emancipated. All this the Spirit gives to “you and your children and [to] all who are far away,” all who are united with Jesus via the washing of water with the word of God.

As with Passover, so also with Pentecost, the Lord ordained this festival to be celebrated as a foreshadowing of what he was yet to accomplish for his people. The final “Amen” in the liturgy of the Feast of Weeks would not be sounded until that momentous day in Jerusalem when the Spirit came in wind and fire to announce the new covenant of grace to every nation under heaven. The church saw fit to continue the celebration of this OT festival, only now in its perfected, messianic form. So yet today, in Christian churches around the world, fifty days after Easter, the faithful gather not to offer first-fruits to God, but to receive the first-fruits of the Spirit—and with that gift, all the blessings of him who perfected the law for us, emancipated us, and made us citizens of the kingdom of God.