Summary: Why did God send his Spirit on that day (Shavuot) in particular, and why is it important for us today?
I’m going to ask and briefly answer three questions: Why were there ‘God-fearing Jews from every nation’ staying in Jerusalem (1:5) on the day of Pentecost (1:1)? Why did God choose that day to fill those first Jewish believers in Jesus with the Holy Spirit (1:4)? And what do those events mean for us today?
So, why were there ‘God-fearing Jews from every nation’ staying in Jerusalem (1:5) at Pentecost (1:1)? They were there to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Shavuot. Shavuot comes 50 days after the Feast of Passover and Shavuot is celebrated for two reasons. First of all it is a thanksgiving for the Harvest – one of three harvest festivals that Jewish people celebrate during the year, compared to our one celebration each autumn. It is a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Lev 23:17), and Jewish people from the known world had gathered in Jerusalem for this Festival of thanks and praise to God.
But there was and still is another important aspect to Shavuot for Jewish people. Tradition has it that Moses received the Law, the Torah – teaching from God – at Shavuot; so there were ‘God-fearing Jews from every nation’ staying in Jerusalem because they were there to celebrate Shavuot – thanking God for the wheat harvest and thanking God for giving them his Torah – the first 5 books of the Bible containing amongst other things the 10 Commandments, or more accurately the 10 Words from God. ‘Pentecost’ derives from a Greek word meaning ‘50’ and it is simply the Greek word used to describe the Jewish feast of Shavuot, 50 days after the start of Passover.
Why did God choose that day to fill those first Jewish believers in Jesus with the Holy Spirit (1:4)?
Jesus regularly said the right thing at the right time; and whilst he had ascended into heaven, this event and its significance also came at just the right time.
A key element in Shavuot – which has become known as Pentecost in the Church – a key element in Shavuot is God’s revelation of himself and his Torah, his teaching, to his people, as told in Exodus chapters 19 and 20. In that revelation God delivered his teaching to Moses on Mount Sinai – an event that was accompanied by thunder and lightning, a trumpet blast, the Lord descending upon the mountain in fire, and the voice of the Lord calling to Moses (Exodus 19: 16-19) – an event that was witnessed not only by Israelites, but also by ‘many other people’. Exodus 12:38 refers to ‘many other people’ – literally a mixed multitude - accompanying the Israelites on their journey, a small verse easily missed but suggesting that the saved community was not only Israelites, but also others who were following Israel’s God.
OK, so what’s all this got to do with the day we know as Pentecost? Well, for those of you who know the story, there are several things in common.
And the things that the two events have in common are no mere co-incidence, because just as Jesus frequently said exactly the right thing at the right time, here we have God acting in a powerful way at precisely the right time to get the attention of his people. When he revealed his teaching to Moses there was thunder and a loud trumpet. When the Holy Spirit of God came upon those first Jewish believers in Jesus ‘a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’ (Acts 2:2). On Mount Sinai when God revealed his teaching to Moses the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire. When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost the believers ‘saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’ (Acts 2:3). The mountainside was surrounded not only by Israelites but also a mixed multitude. On the day of Pentecost there were God-fearing Jews from every known nation. On the mountain God delivered his Torah – his teaching.
On the day of Pentecost – Shavuot, c3300 years ago – God had originally given his Teaching. On Shavuot c2000 years ago God was giving his Holy Spirit, and one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to be our Teacher. On the night he was betrayed Jesus spoke to his disciples and whilst teaching them he said: “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
I get excited when I consider the similarities and the parallels between these two events because they speak to me of a God whose timing is perfect. At the Feast of Shavuot Jewish people today, as in the time of Jesus, present two loaves of bread to the Lord (Lev 23:17) and it is no coincidence that Jesus had referred to himself as the bread of life (John 6:35).