No wonder God chose this, of all days, to pour out his Spirit.
Pentecost, or Shevuot in Hebrew, was a Jewish harvest festival often referred to as the “Festival of Weeks” in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10). Traditionally celebrated on the 50th day after Passover, the day was one of giving thanks and joyous celebration. The focus of the celebration centered around 2 ideas:
1. Commemoration of God giving the 10 Commandments on Sinai
For Israel, Torah was life. The rules given to them on stone tablets were not just hoops to jump through. They were the foundation upon which both their world and identity was built. Yahweh had provided guidelines that helped them navigate the world differently than the rest of the tribes around them. Torah helped them live the proper way. Torah made them holy. Torah separated them from everyone else.
2. Thanksgiving for the blessing of the harvest
There were several harvest times in Israel for different crops grown in the region. Pentecost occurred during the spring harvest when the Jews were completing the harvest of grains like barley and wheat. A main portion of Pentecost was an offering of the first portions of grain that was reaped in order to honor the God who provided a good harvest.
These themes would have been on the minds of the people that Pentecost day in Acts. This is the day God chose to come and do something new and dramatic among them. And when we look at what the Holy Spirit does among us, it makes perfect sense that God chose Pentecost to show us what this new thing was all about —
1. Where the Torah divided, the Holy Spirit unites
The Torah divided naturally. Israel reveled being under the cover of Torah because it divided life out so easily for them. This way clean and that was unclean. This was acceptable and that was not. Torah helped make sense of life for them. They could revel in it because they were always on the inside. As long as they followed its guidelines, they were safely inside God’s favor.
But Torah did not just divide life’s details, it divided people. Jews and Gentiles. Men and women. Slaves and free people. This is why when Luke tells the story of the appearance of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, he recalls the prophesy of the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants—men and women alike—
and they will prophesy. (Joel 2:28-32)
What the Torah divided out, the Holy Spirit brings together. The Spirit is poured out regardless or race or age or class or socio-economics. Where the Law built walls, the Holy Spirit tore them down. And now the life that the Torah made possible — one where we can understand and navigate the world — is available to everyone.
2. The Holy Spirit creates a harvest not of grain, but of people
The tongues of fire and speaking of new languages were not just some parlor trick to show God’s power. It was a message of unit and inclusion. People from all over who spoke different languages could hear the good news of Jesus in their native tongue. This miracle had a purpose.
It’s a theme we see throughout the New Testament when dealing with the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit gives gifts – sometimes miraculous ones – they are not given to make us special or to stand out. The Spirit is always at work in us for the benefit of someone else. Paul points this out in his letter to the Corinthians:
A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. (1Cor 12:7-11)
The same God who brought together a harvest of wheat gives the Spirit to his people as a way of drawing all people to himself. The gifts that the Spirit brings forth within us are given so that others may be drawn to him — a harvest of people to a loving Father.
On that Pentecost day in Acts, God was turning a page. Where his people once defined themselves by Torah — law, rules and guidelines — they are now to be defined by the Spirit. He was calling them to live now as Pentecost people.
Living as Pentecost people means imagining that a new world is possible. It means celebrating that each person has a place. Tearing down walls instead of building them. Welcoming and including people no matter if they are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, young or old, male or female. It means making the world a place where we can all be one in Christ. And using the gifts we have been given to benefit one another.
This is the meaning of Pentecost. This is the work of the Spirit.
Let’s all live as Pentecost people.