The Holy Spirit Comes to the Harvest Festival for You
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Our text, Acts 2:1-21, is the start of something big, and it happens on the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the Greek name for the Old Testament Feast of Weeks that God required the Israelites to celebrate each year seven weeks after the Passover—thus it was called the Feast of Weeks because it took place a “week of weeks” after the Paschal Feast. That means the feast was celebrated on the fiftieth day—that’s the “Pente” in Pentecost.
The feast of Pentecost was a day of rest when all the men of Israel were to appear before the Lord and offer appropriate sacrifices. Each farmer was to come into the temple courts, bringing a basket with his first sheaf of the year’s wheat harvest. At his turn, the farmer would step forward and say the liturgy of recitation: “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” The priest would take hold of the basket, and the two of them would sway it back and forth as a “wave offering.”
Then the farmer would recite in Hebrew, “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:5–10). He would leave the basket, bow before the Lord, and make way for the next farmer.
Over time, in addition to being a spring harvest festival, Pentecost also came to be celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Law, the establishment of the covenant at Mt. Sinai. This is attested in Jewish writings such as Jubilees and the Babylonian Talmud, but there are also hints of this in the Old Testament. In Exodus 19:1, Moses writes that the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai “in the third month” after they had left Egypt. Since they left on the day after Passover, the fiftieth day after Passover would have fallen within this third month. Also, in 2 Chronicles 15:10-15, the author describes a gathering in Jerusalem during the third month where the covenant was celebrated and renewed. A later Aramaic paraphrase of Chronicles, called a Targum, says expressly that the Israelites gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Weeks. And so Pentecost came to be a day that celebrated the covenant the Lord made with His people, the promise of a productive land and a prosperous nation. For the Jewish people, Pentecost was kind of like Independence Day and Thanksgiving rolled into one.
For nearly 15 centuries, every generation of Israelites had gathered for the second major feast of the year. As we see in Acts 2, even those scattered in the Diaspora came to Jerusalem if at all possible. Present that Pentecost were “devout men from every nation under heaven… Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:5, 9-10).
These pilgrims didn’t realize this year would be different. “When the day of Pentecost arrived, [Jesus’ disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Act 2:1-4).
The crowds were understandably “amazed and astonished” to hear the apostles “telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:10). Some asked, “What does this mean?” Others accused the preachers of a little “day drinking.” Peter preached a powerful sermon. Drawing upon the prophecy of Joel (2:18-32) 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 had promised (Acts 2:14-40). The result was extraordinary, for on that day “three thousand souls” received his word and were baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of [their] sins” (Acts 2:38, 41). It was quite a day!
The question is this: 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? It was, indeed, already a holy day, the Old Testament Feast of Weeks. But why choose this feast day? What makes Pentecost so fitting a time for Jesus to give His Holy Spirit to the Church? But perhaps an even more important question is the one the crowds asked that day: What does this mean? What does all of this mean to you and me and our salvation?
There is, first of all, a common theme 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 years of waiting between their departure from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. Only then could they finally offer to God the firstfruits that sprang from the sacred soil of Canaan. For although Passover could be, and was, celebrated in the wilderness (Numbers 9:5), Pentecost could not be, for to be able to sow, reap, and offer the firstfruits of wheat to the Lord, the Israelites had to be settled in their own land. Thus, until their wandering was wrapped up, Canaan conquered, and seed sown into that sacred soil, they waited. Pentecost was anticipated but not yet realized.
Similarly, the days between the Passover of Jesus (that is, His crucifixion and resurrection) and His sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were days of waiting. As Luke tells us in Acts, Jesus appeared to His disciples prior to His ascension offering many proofs of His resurrection and speaking about the kingdom of God. He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, He said, ‘you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (1:1–5). Similarly, at the end of his Gospel, Luke records Jesus instructing His disciples, “And behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
Everything was to take place in its proper time. Following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, Jesus would send forth the promise of His Father, the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost. That day would bring to fulfillment the saving plan of the Lord, in a way similar 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 wait in the city. Then, and only then, would they receive “the firstfruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23).
Speaking of firstfruits, this brings us to a second link between the Old and New Testament Pentecosts. As the Israelites celebrated Pentecost, they offered to God the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, but at the new Pentecost, God offered to His Church the firstfruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23; Ephesians 1:13–14). By offering to the Lord the firstfruits of grain, the believer bore witness that the whole field and crop belonged to God, whose continued blessing was demanded 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 firstfruits of the Spirit are present until the “full harvest,” that is, the day of the resurrection of the flesh.
As I already mentioned, by the time of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, at least some (if not most) of the Jews had begun to commemorate Pentecost as the institution of the Sinai covenant and the giving of the Law. If so, what happened in Acts 2 should be viewed in relation to the appearance of God at Sinai.
When the Lord descended upon Sinai, His presence was visibly and audibly revealed in fire. In Deuteronomy, 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). At Jerusalem, there was the “divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them” (Acts 2:3); and the proclamation of the Gospel in unlearned languages. In both cases, there was divine speech connected with divine fire, but the message could not have been more different.
At Sinai, the Lord identified Himself as the one who had led them out of the land of Egypt, then laid upon them the Decalogue, the “ten words” of the covenant. The rest of Old Testament history, however, is Israel’s “rap sheet,” divine documentation of how the people repeatedly and often flagrantly broke this covenant. Indeed, even before they departed from Sinai, they rebelled against the First Commandment by attempting to worship the Lord under a golden calf.
The Father, in His grace, did not reject Israel but promised to establish a new covenant with them, “not like the covenant that [He] made with their fathers on the day when [He] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, [the] covenant that they broke” (Jeremiah 31:32). This new covenant Jesus established with His Church as He gave His body and blood to eat and drink (Luke 22:20). It is the covenant built upon His life, death, and resurrection.
The apostles announced this new covenant in their preaching at Pentecost. 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 in Himself (cf. Luke 24:44). The Lord had commanded Passover and Pentecost so that His people might remember His deliverance and provision. But more than that, He commanded these feasts to point to Jesus.
It is no coincidence that Jesus was crucified at the Passover, because He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And it’s no coincidence that the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost: it is time for the apostles to sow the seed of His Word. It is time to ready for the harvest.
Pastor Bill Cwirla writes: “Fifty days after the Passover, on the day the people celebrated the firstfruits of their wheat harvest, the crucified, risen and reigning Lord Jesus swings His sickle over the fields ripe for harvest and gathers into His barn the firstfruits of His resurrection. Three thousand people who heard the Gospel that day were baptized into the death of Jesus. They were the firstfruits of a harvest that’s been going on for two thousand years, that reached us in our baptism, and will continue to the end.”
Pentecost is a miracle of both speaking and hearing that continues even today. The Holy Spirit works both through the mouth of the preacher and through the ear of the hearer to convey the Word of God. That’s why two people can get two different things from the same sermon, or react in two different ways. That’s something that I’ve learned over the years. No two people hear the same sermon the same way. And sometimes what I plan to say and what is said are two different things as well. Nevertheless, God’s Word does not return to Him empty, but yields His intended harvest. I believe, on the basis of Pentecost, that this is precisely how the Holy Spirit works. He always works subtly, hidden in the background, through humble, rather ordinary, means—in this case, words. Even the fumbling, mumbling words of this mediocre preacher.
The Holy Spirit is at work here among us. Not in wind and fire, but in the Word. Sowing the seed and reaping a harvest of righteousness. Calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying you and the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeping it and you with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives your sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise you and all the dead, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.Much of the information on the relation of the Old and New Testament Pentecost comes from an article by Chad L. Bird on his blog: https://chadbird.squarespace.com/blog/2016/5/11/ot-and-nt-pentecost-why-did-jesus-pour-out-his-spirit-on-this-particular-day