The Spirit of Pentecost

When you look at biblical events in the Old Testament that are adopted thematically in the New Testament what first comes are the events of Exodus. It is so littered with Exodus references, the most obvious being Jesus death on Passover. After the resurrection, the next important event in the New Testament is Pentecost when the Spirit of God was poured out. None of the gospels record the event but all of them anticipate the coming of the Spirit. As significant as what happened on the day of Pentecost 2000 years ago for Christians was and is, Pentecost does not seem to have nearly the same thematic weight in the New Testament text as the Exodus events. When you consider how prominent the Spirit of God is to New Testament theology, praxis and ethics, it is quite strange that Pentecost does not enjoy greater importance as a New Testament motif. With this observation in mind, I began to look more closely at the New Testament to see if there are theologically significant references to Pentecost beyond Acts.

Acts 2 has a lot of resonances with the Old Testament. The Spirit being poured out on Pentecost is the most obvious as Luke clearly indicates which tells us it was not mere coincidence it happened that particular day. Today, especially among non-Jews, it is one of the lesser known Jewish festivals, but in the Old Testament it was mandatory and in the time of Jesus it seems it was well attended. Pentecost was one of the three major pilgrimage festivals in Judaism which they journeyed to Jerusalem to observe (Exodus 23:14-17.) Ancient Israel was an agrarian society and so these three major festivals were also agricultural festivals which ran through the entire agricultural calendar.

[1]The first festival was Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) which marked the beginning of the barley harvest, then Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, for the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22) and many months later there was Sukkot, the Feast of Booths also known as the Feast of Ingathering for the fruit harvest which concluded the agricultural year. Pentecost, as you probably already know, is a Greek word for the 50th day and that is how many days after Passover the festival begins. It is known as Shavuot in Hebrew meaning seventh because counting from the day after Passover, it happens in exactly seven weeks (Leviticus 23:16.) Barley and wheat are both grains so together they constituted the grain harvest which was the first type of produce in the agricultural cycle so Shavuot was known as the Day of Firstfruits (Numbers 28:26.) They were not allowed to consume the produce until they gave the firstfruits offering (Leviticus 23:14) which was a sign of their gratitude for God’s provision and also a way of ensuring his continued provision by acknowledging the true source of their blessings (Proverbs 3:9-10.) The term firstfruits was not only used for agricultural produce but could even be used of the firstborn of humans (Genesis 49:3) So it was a term that indicated the first of something which was a sign of more to come.

The term ‘firstfruits’ meaning the first of a kind appears a few times in the New Testament and is used in a number of ways. It is used to refer to Christians as the first examples of new creation (James 1:18), the first converts in an area (1 Corinthians 16:15) or Jesus as the first to be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20.) However, there is a fourth way in which this is used which matters in this study.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. – Romans 8:22-23 ESV

Paul could not have meant the first people to receive the Holy Spirit when he said “firstfruits of the Spirit” because it was a letter to the Romans. Firstfruits of the Spirit was therefore being used in a generic sense to refer to all Christian, the people in whom God’s spirit dwells. The only other time in the New Testament where the firstfruits and the Spirit come together is on Pentecost, the Day of Firstfruits, where God’s spirit was poured out on not only the 120 but was a gift given to all who believed in the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38-39.)

While the Shavuot regulation was given at Sinai the actual observance of the event did not happen until they reached the Promised Land because they were journeying through the wilderness. Now a post-biblical tradition emerged that the 10 commandments was given on the day of Pentecost as an attempt to connect it with the historical Exodus event, though there is no evidence of it in scripture. Interestingly though, Luke describes the giving of God’s Spirit with imagery that invokes the giving of the Law on Sinai. It is clear that Luke was not confirming a much later tradition that would of course be unknown to him. The symbolism of the event served another theological purpose. Thematically it did not fit placing Pentecost within Exodus-Sinai however there was continuity with the event through the grain festivals they celebrated. Sinai was not their final destination even though it was the climax of their Exodus from Egypt. They had to journey through the wilderness to the fertile land God promised them as a covenant with their patriarchs.

When they entered the land, on the Day of Firstfruits, they brought the first of their agricultural produce before the Lord as an offering. It was the sign of God’s faithfulness, having fulfilled his covenant promise and the reason to celebrate his abundant. With the harvest they had entered a new season in their nation’s history which they had only just begun to enjoy. Similarly, the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost on those who believed in the Messiah Jesus meant they were already participating in the new age which had begun to unfold.

When Paul spoke of the firstfruits of the Spirit it was in the context of the restoration of all creation which he described in Exodus terms as release from bondage to death and decay. He was thematically connecting Passover with Pentecost as separate but intimately related events just as we see in the Torah but in a new and greater cosmic sense. Paul was talking about a new creation which is often described as a new Exodus in the New Testament. The idea comes from the Old Testament prophets who described the return of Israel from exile after and the restoration of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC as a new Exodus. If the point of the first Exodus was to deliver the people of God from slavery so they could go to the Promised Land, a new Pentecost would mean they were enjoying the blessings of their renewed covenant status, having returned to their homeland out of exile in a new Exodus. Since Israel was called to save the world (John 4:22), their restoration had cosmic consequences (Romans 11:15) so the prophets described the new Exodus as the renewal of all creation. So Jewish restoration would be the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they 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… But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

 “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” – Acts 21-4,16-18 ESV

Peter considered the outpouring of the Spirit an eschatological (end time) event. It meant not only was the old world coming to an end but that the new age had begun and believers in the Messiah were already participating in it and there was more on the way. Many Jews at the time believed at the end of time the righteous would be resurrected ushering in this new age of eternal life. So eternal life and resurrection were all ways of talking about the world to come. Jesus’ resurrection in “the middle of time” meant the time table of the eschaton (Greek for last days) had been significantly advanced. The new world was already bursting through the old just as the prophets said would happen (Isaiah 43:18-19.)

Luke observed and indicated the Spirit being poured out on the Day of Firstfruits was no mere coincidence. Like Paul, he connected Passover with Pentecost however redefined in the Messiah Jesus in terms of new creation. Just as the Passover event started Jewish national history, the resurrection of Jesus our Paschal lamb inaugurated ahead of time the new age. Therefore, the gift of the Spirit was a new Pentecost event, which granted advanced participation in the new age to all those who believed in the Messiah Jesus. Paul in described the Spirit as an advanced payment of our inheritance in God which is eternal life (Ephesians 1:13-14.) Receiving the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead guaranteed you would be raised from the dead, just as the Messiah was, in a renewed creation. (Romans 8:11, 23.)

In the gospels all of history, carried forward through the story of Abraham’s family, comes to a rousing climax in the death and exaltation of Jesus. Though the gospels conclude at that point they all anticipate the coming of the Spirit. The coming of the Spirit was the outcome of those climactic world changing events. Therefore, Luke begins an entirely new account since a new phase in human history had begun in earnest and the Spirit was how this new world order was being implemented. Just as God provided his own lamb for Passover, on Pentecost God gave us the firstfruits of his spirit.  All these festivals the Law prescribed foreshadowed and even greater future reality that was fulfilled in the Messiah. Just as Passover occurred so that eventually Pentecost could happen, so did the Paschal Lamb give us the Pentecostal Spirit through whom our inheritance in a faithful God is secured to his glory.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. – John 16:7, 13-15 ESV

 

[1] Barry L. Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament, 4 ed., p. 157, Wadsworth – Cengage Learning, 2009.

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