Pentecost: Christian or Jewish?
By Susan Fiedler
What a delight to celebrate the “Jewish” holiday of Shavuot tomorrow (5/20/18) along with our mainstream Christian brethren! Of course, it’s not really Jewish. And almost none of the Christians celebrating it would truly understand its origins. But tomorrow mainstream churches will be celebrating Pentecost. Their name for the holiday comes from the Greek for “count fifty”. Messianic believers will also be celebrating Pentecost, but they will call it Shavuot, or “weeks” in Hebrew. And traditional Jews will also be celebrating Shavuot on the same day.
Usually there are two or three different dates for this celebration, but this year they all coincide. The reason for the differences gets rather technical. Even so, almost every believer can be edified and inspired by the way Shavuot is calculated. In addition, you may even be astonished at the history of the varying methods of calculation.
And, just while we’re at it, we can address whether tomorrow really is the roughly two thousandth anniversary of the founding of the Christian church. Where does Shavuot come from? The feasts or festivals “of the Lord”are listed and described in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. Note that they are not exclusively Jewish feasts, but rather are the Lord’sfeasts. These feasts have far more meaning than mere harvest festivals of an agrarian people. Read on to find out why!
Instructions for determining the dates of all the festivals are laid out in Lev. 23, except for Shavuot/Pentecost. All of the other festivals occur on recurring dates on the Hebrew calendar. But there is no date given for Shavuot. Instead, in Lev. 23:11 the priests are told to cut and wave a sheaf of barley before the Lord “…on the morrow after the sabbath ….” (KJV) This is somewhat confusing, especially if you are not in the custom of observing the Sabbath and the other “feasts of the Lord” (v. 2).
But any high holy day was called a sabbath, whether it was a weekly Sabbath or an annual one. And there are three Sabbaths during Unleavened Bread. So, how do we know which sabbath it is referring to? Traditional Judaism counts the date from the day after the first Holy Day during Unleavened Bread. But if that were God’s intent, why didn’t He tell us to calculate the date just like the other festivals?
Messianic Jewish believers (by and large) know it must be the weekly Sabbath, because the Israelites had to count Shavuot/Pentecost for themselves every year. It is clear from the other high holy days that they knew how to calculate dates on their calendar. Only this was to be on the same day of the week but on a different date from year to year.
Each year the date had to be counted from the day after the weekly Sabbath during the days of unleavened bread. Lev. 23:16 says to “number fifty days” from the Sunday during Passover. That’s where the name “Pentecost” comes from. The book of Acts was translated from the Greek. “Count fifty” in Greek is the name for the Holy Day.
But the original name is “Shavuot”, or “weeks”. In Deut. 16:9 the Israelites were commanded to count seven weeksfrom that Sunday during Passover.
In order to determine the actual date year-to-year, mainstream Christianity follows the Catholic commandment. They have a specific way to determine the date for Easter, which then determines the date for Pentecost/Pesach.
While sometimes the mainstream Christian date and the biblical date coincide by coincidence, they count the date very differently.
In fact, if you want to learn more, look up the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. (or A.D.). The Catholic Church through Emperor Constantine not only set this new way of counting Shavuot, they also outlawedobserving Passover/Pesach!
This marked the real beginning of the separation of the majority of the church from their Hebraic roots. No wonder mainstream Christians can be confused. Jesus was crucified on Passover, but the church no longer recognized it. They thought they had a better pattern of worship. Better than God’s way? How sad.
No matter how a believer calculates Shavuot/Pentecost, the real meaning of the day is the same, regardless of the origin of the date or of the language spoken.
Why isn’t this just a “Jewish” holiday? Besides the fact that all of the feasts listed in Lev. 23 and Deut. 16 are “Feasts of the Lord”, not “of the Jews”, the first believers in the “Jewish” Messiah hung around Jerusalem, anticipating this feast.
Jesus had been sacrificed on the first day of Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew. His disciples were devastated and didn’t know what to do. But just three days later, on the day of the Wavesheaf offering, or Firstfruits, He arose from the grave and ascended to the Father to be accepted as the sacrifice for all believers.
By doing that, He abolished the penaltyof breaking the law. We believers no longer are condemned to death because He paid the price of our sins.
Once Jesus arose, the whole mindset of the disciples changed. They were no longer moping without purpose. Instead, they were charged with spiritual fervor. They visited one another, praying, and singing Psalms, while waiting to hear more from Jesus.
Jesus appeared to various disciples for forty days. At the end of those forty days, He told them to wait in Jerusalem. (Acts 1:4-5)
Wait for what? He told them that they would be baptized of the Holy Spirit soon. How soon? In ten days! They were very aware of the timing of His death and resurrection. It was easy enough to do the math and to meet together expectantly on Shavuot.
The Jewish priests taught that the covenant at Mt. Sinai was made on Shavuot. What must have been going through their minds as they awaited what God would do!
So in Acts 2 we are shown what happened. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit! (Acts 2:4) We know that they began to speak in the various tongues of the observant Jews from the diaspora who had come to Jerusalem. Why were they all there? To celebrate Shavuot, one of the three “pilgrim feasts”. (Ex. 23:14-17 and Acts 2:6)
That’s why there were so many Jews who spoke foreign tongues in Jerusalem when this outpouring happened. They were obeying the commandment in Leviticus and Deuteronomy about this pilgrim feast.
So we come to the event that most believers understandably call the beginning of the church.
But that’s not entirely accurate.
We need to check the Hebrew.
When God rescued Israel from Egypt, He killed the firstborn sons of Egypt. The Israelites and a mixed multitude left Israel in high spirits (Ex. 12:38). This is commemorated in Pesach/Passover. It was pretty easy for those disciples to see that Jesus’ death was like the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt, except that He was the one and only firstborn son of God’s.
His blood was on the “doorposts of our hearts” to redeem us from death.
In Exodus 15, Moses and the children of Israel sang songs about the defeat of Egypt. How exciting to commemorate this victory during those days of unleavened bread, singing Micha Mocha (Who is like Thee? from Exodus 15:11).
Then, when the children of Israel came close to Mt. Sinai, something interesting happens to the narrative in Hebrew.
The word in Hebrew for “congregation” changes from a word meaning an assemblage of a bunch of people (plural in Ex. 17:1) to a group of people (singular in Ex. 27:21). In God’s eyes they change from a bunch of individuals to a singular group with a specific purpose.
They become God’s congregation.
You see, the real beginning of the church had happened many hundreds of years before the events of Shavuot in Acts.
Does it make any difference? To find out, we first need to review some more recent history.
When King James assembled scholars to translate the King James Version of the Bible, he gave them instructions to follow so that the translation would align with his understanding of certain doctrines. He specifically focused on teachings about church organization and authority.
He wanted to make sure the translation supported his concepts about the Church of England. (Unfortunately, his approach was exactly backwards. We learn from honest reading of scripture what to do. We are not to contort God’s word to fit our own beliefs.One specific instruction the King gave regarded words that should have been translated as “congregation”. These the King required to be translated most often as “church”.(The translators also decided to honor the king by naming a New Testament book after him. The book they called “James” was originally “Jacob”.)
Using the word “church” brought in some ambiguity of meaning when the clearest translation was “assemblage” or “congregation”.
But in the original language, the change from the plural to the singular congregation of the Lord began at Mt. Sinai. God made His covenant at Sinai with a specific group—His congregation. There He gave them His instructions for celebrating His Feast days—including Shavuot.
Then, elsewhere in scripture, He described what would eventually happen on a future day of Shavuot. Joel 2:28, quoted in Acts 2:17, says, “…I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”
The Torah was no longer merely rules inscribed on a rock; now God’s instructions were written on the hearts of His followers. (Rom. 2:15)
The church reallybegan at Mt. Sinai and was filled full beginning in Acts 2.
This was not the foundation of a new religion! This was the expansion of the original religion given by God. It confirms what God had previously given to Israel. The events of Jesus’ crucifixion and Shavuot were the beginning of great miracles showing that the original religion God gave was designed for all people.
Studying the Old Testament commandments about the feasts with a New Testament revelation leads to an ever-broadening understanding of the meaning and purpose of New Testament events fulfilled on dates given in the Old Testament.
I’d love to explain some of the commandments regarding Shavuot. The two loaves waved before the altar were leavened.Hmmm, leavening pictures sin (Matt. 16:11-12). How can such “contaminated” loaves be there? (Lev. 23:17) But that will have to await a future article.
Suffice it to say that there is no need to artificially separate ourselves from biblical Judaism. There is also no need to become a Jew in the flesh. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit continues on to include non-Jews of faith as well. (Begin in Acts 10)
God created a glorious plan! These Feasts of the Lord present a gorgeous picture of this plan of God’s!
Rom. 10:12-13 reads, “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. (13) For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (KJV)
The Jews at the time believed that one must convert to Judaism in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). God cleared that misunderstanding up by Peter’s vision and by the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the first non-Jews who accepted Jesus.
Acts 10:34-35 tells us, “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: (35) But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”
And James (actually, Jacob), Jesus’ brother and leader of the apostles in Jerusalem, said, “And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, (16) After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: (17) That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.” (Acts 15:15-17, KJV)
He clearly tied together the giving of the Holy Spirit to all men with God’s plan revealed in the Old Testament.
Whoever you are, whether a non-Jew coming to faith through other believers or a Jew coming to faith by seeing the fulfillment of scripture, we are both part of a congregation unified through the blood of Messiah. His prayer before He was crucified said in part “…that they all may be one ….” (John 17:20-21, KJV)
This was God’s original plan, brought to fruition through His fulfillment of Old Testament scripture and the religion Jesus observed throughout His life in the flesh.
Has God thrown away the Jews and started a new religion with non-Jewish believers?
Rom. 11:1-2 says “…Has God cast away his people? God forbid…. (2) God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew ….” (KJV)
Instead, we are both grafted into the identical root. (Rom. 11:16-27)
While an understanding of the role of Israel and the Old Testament is not required for salvation (see Acts 15:27-29), it does deeply enrich our walk in the faith.
Shavuot/Pentecost is not just Jewish. It’s also not just Christian.
Shavuot is a feast of the Lord, given in His original covenant with the congregation of Israel and emphatically confirmed to His New Testament believers.
May we all celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of the Lord, in His unity!