So What Really Happened on the Day of Pentecost?
For a good many years I approached Pentecost Sunday with some apprehension. As a pastor I was obligated to say something about the day that commemorated the granting of the Holy Spirit to the church. In the 1960’s and 70’s, however, there was so much furor about the very name “Pentecost” that there came a strange reluctance to touch the theme. As we begin the 3rd millennium, however, the fever has subsided. The fuss has been defused. It is now possible to celebrate the day without reviving old fights. Thanks be to God!
Would you allow me then, in these less argumentative days, to re-introduce us to the significance of the Day of Pentecost?
The feast of Pentecost is a very ancient festival. The celebration of this day is much older than that celebrated by the Christian church. In Palestine, long before the exodus from Egypt, the Day of Pentecost was celebrated by the Canaanites. Fifty days after the beginning of the barley harvest, the wheat harvest was ready for gathering. On that day the Canaanites would bring the first fruits of the harvest, to offer in an act of gratitude. It was their annual Thanksgiving Day.
When Israel entered the Promised Land, they took the festival over from their pagan neighbors. They were not satisfied, however, to have it remind them only of the recent harvest. They also wanted to offer thanks to God for his saving deeds in their history as a people.
Two pivotal events were remembered on the Jewish Day of Pentecost. They remembered the covenant God had made with Noah when He saved humankind from total annihilation in the great flood and offered the world a new beginning. On this same day they celebrated the marvelous events that had transpired on Mount Sinai. There God had entered into a new covenant with his people. He had adopted Israel as His people, and had granted a new law to guide them in the living of life.
The Christian Celebration
So what does this have to do with the Christian celebration of this momentous day? When Jesus was prepared to leave his disciples he told them to “wait in Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.” They may not have known when God would fulfill that promise, but it seems that God had a very specific date in mind. He timed the giving of the Holy Spirit to coincide with the celebration of his other great activities in the past. To understand the significance of the Christian celebration of the Day of Pentecost it might be useful to read the minds of those who had gathered for that day’s great celebration.
Events at Mount Sinai
It was at Mount Sinai that Israel entered into covenant with God. They had been rescued from Egypt by God’s own direct intervention and then at Mount Sinai they had become the people of God. A new age of the world had begun. A people, who had not been God’s people, now came into being.
On the Day of Pentecost described in Acts chapter 2, the very same thing took place. It too was a new beginning for the people of God. That which the prophets had looked for came imploding into history. The church was born. What had happened in the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension of our Lord had all been leading up to this momentous event. God was creating a new people, composed of all nations and races of the world. At Mount Sinai one nation was chosen to be the people of God. On this new day of Pentecost, persons from all races were chosen to be the people of God. It was the birthday of the church as Sinai had been the birthday of Israel.
There are ancient fairy stories in the mythology of the world that when a baby was born the gods gave gifts to the child that were wondrous and useful for the child’s journey through life. Even today when a baby is born we shower that baby with gifts that are both beautiful & useful. God himself may well have been the originator of that tradition.
On mount Sinai, God not only chose a people, but he engifted the new child with the gift of wisdom encapsulated in the law. This law gave them directions for life. This law gave them God’s wisdom and His counsel. On the Christian Day of Pentecost, when God inaugurated his church, He also gave them a gift; a gift that would provide wisdom and counsel for His newly born church. He gave them the greatest gift he could give. He gave Himself to the church. He gave Himself in the Holy Spirit to be the guide within.
The Covenant with Noah
The same message is reinforced when we look back at the covenant with Noah. An old age was passing away. The world stood under the judgement of God, but Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord and an ark was built to the saving of his household. Eight persons were to be the new beginning of the human race.
On the new Day of Pentecost a new beginning for the human race was also initiated. 120 persons found grace in the eyes of the Lord and an ark of safety was built that would be used by God to rescue, not eight persons only, but thousands, then multiplied millions. He created an ark large enough to include the entire human race.
The Canaanite day of Pentecost was a festival of thanksgiving. It should be Thanksgiving Day for us too.
When St. Matthew records the words of Jesus on the issue of prayer, he writes, “How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him.” (Matt 7:11) But St. Luke changes a word in that phrase to highlight the greatest of all “the good things” that God gives us. He writes, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” As we come to the celebration of this day there are only two fitting responses: a prayer than invites, and a prayer that offers thanks!
Think it through
When the Day of Pentecost came it came with the sound of great wind. “Wind”, “breath” and “Spirit” are the same word in the Hebrew and Greek languages.
Do the following passages from Genesis shed any light on this unusual occurrence? Genesis 1:2 The “wind” that blew before the first day of creation
Genesis 2:7 God “breathed” into Adam the “breath” of life
When the Holy Spirit came, flames of fire appeared and tongues of fire rested on the head of each one gathered.
Do the following passages from the Book of Exodus shed any light on the significance of the day?
Exodus 3. Moses meets God in the burning bush
Exodus 13. God was in the pillar of fire that led Israel through the wilderness.
Exodus 19. God descends upon Mount Sinai in fire.
Exodus 25. God appears as a flame of fire between the wings of the Cherubim
What prayers do you need to offer to God today?
- A prayer of request, “Come Holy Spirit, I need you…”
- A Prayer of gratitude, “The Comforter has come!”
What response do we make to such a gift?
David Livingstone wrote in his diary on his final birthday,
“My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All. I again dedicate my whole self to Thee.”
For the Small group Leader
Discuss why some people are afraid of the Holy Spirit. Explore the reasons for apprehension. Then discuss why the gift of God giving Himself to be our constant companion is the greatest gift anyone could ever give.
Published in Light and Life , May-June, 2000.