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.