The Joy of Shavuot

Shalom, friends!

We are looking ahead with anticipation of what our life will be like after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. With Passover and Easter behind us, we now find ourselves also looking forward to the celebration of Pentecost (Shavuot in Hebrew).

Shavuot (Hebrew for “weeks”) is known to Christians as Pentecost. It is one of three pilgrimage feasts found in the Hebrew Scriptures when God commands the Jewish people to go up to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple, and the last of the spring festivals. The festivals of Israel were designed by God to focus the hearts and minds of the Jewish people on God’s redemptive message.

The Spring Festivals

The Spring festivals listed in Leviticus 23 are Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The offering of firstfruits is mentioned in Leviticus 23:9–13. Each of these observances points to the Messiah in different ways. Passover is a prophetic portrait of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The celebration of unleavened bread reminds us of the sinless nature of the Savior. The offering of the firstfruits points to a Messiah who would rise as the first fruit from among the dead.

The final Spring celebration is Shavuot, literally “weeks” in Hebrew, from the root word for “seven.” The Lord commanded Israel to count seven weeks from the day of the firstfruit offering (Leviticus 23:15) until the fiftieth day, at which point they observed Shavuot. In Christian tradition, this same festival is called Pentecost, which is the Greek term for “fifty.”

There are many Jewish traditions associated with Shavuot, such as reading the Book of Ruth, spending the entire night studying the Torah, chanting the Ten Commandments, decorating synagogues and homes with aromatic spices, and partaking of a dairy meal.

We read the Book of Ruth because Shavuot is a harvest-time account of Ruth, a Gentile, who identifies with the Jewish people and by following after herself to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, and her God. Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David and part of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5), which speaks of God’s intention to include Gentiles in the outpouring of His messianic blessings.

The Foods of Shavuot

No Jewish holiday is complete without its signature cuisine! According to long-standing custom, dairy foods such as cheese, cheesecake, and cheese blintzes (a delicious sweet cheese-filled crepe) are eaten on Shavuot. This tradition may be based on a passage in Song of Songs: “Your lips, my bride, drip honey; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon” (Song of Songs 4:11).

This association compares the Bible to the sweetness of milk and honey. In some European cities, Jewish children are introduced to Bible study on Shavuot by eating honey cakes with passages from the Bible written on them.

The Messianic Fulfillment of the Festival

Now, if Passover was fulfilled in the death of the Lamb of God, the Feast of Unleavened Bread in His sinless character, and the first fruits offering in His resurrection, then we must ask ourselves: How did the first coming of Jesus fulfill the Day of Pentecost? It is no coincidence that God selected this Jewish festival as the day when he would send His Holy Spirit.

The Promise of the Spirit

According to Acts 1:15, there were 120 Jewish believers in one place, of one mind, praying and focusing on God’s work. They were waiting in obedience to the command of Jesus (Acts 1:4–5) and were observing the laws of Shavuot regarding “no work” (Leviticus 23:21). Many were pilgrims who had left their homes in other places to be part of this festival, as Pentecost was one of the three festivals when Jewish people were commanded to “go up to Jerusalem” to worship. These worshippers probably remained in Jerusalem between Passover and Pentecost and were, therefore, away from home for two months. God would bless their obedience now in a powerful way.

After many days of patient waiting, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples on the fiftieth day after Passover. It was a new revelation given on Shavuot/Pentecost! The giving of the Torah by Moses at Mount Sinai had come with signs and wonders, as seen in Exodus 19.

So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. (Exodus 19:16–19)

There were signs and wonders in the Upper Room, marking this transformed Pentecost, as well. It was the birthday of a new revelation and the fulfillment of God’s promises to pour out His Spirit in the last days!

The Tradition of All Israel Being Present at Sinai

According to Jewish tradition, our sages taught that every Jew who would ever live was at Mount Sinai, pledging their obedience to the Law. The rationale for this is that every Jewish person at that moment agreed to keep the Torah. The verse used to teach this is in Exodus 24:7: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!’”

This Jewish tradition avers that every Jewish person standing at the foot of Mount Sinai that day heard the giving of the Law in their native tongue so that they could understand what they were hearing and obey. Now, this is a tradition; we do not believe this actually took place. But this custom is ancient and may have been known by Jesus and His disciples.

This new Pentecost took place fifty days after Jesus, the Lamb of God, died for our sins. There were signs and wonders accompanying the pouring out of the Spirit, just like at Mount Sinai, and those who listened to the disciples preaching heard this new revelation in their native tongue. The giving of the Spirit had come in a similar powerful manner as the giving of the Law at Sinai and therefore had great authority for the disciples and the Jewish people gathered who also witnessed this event.

How gracious of God to use our culture and human understanding to communicate His truth to us! He communicates with us in ways we can understand: God could make His point otherwise, but He often reveals Himself and His truth in ways that humans can understand.

Perhaps the best example of this is when the Son of God Himself took on flesh to communicate with you and me and help us better understand the Father.

Counting the Days

We do not know when the pandemic will end, and therefore we are unable to count the days until this challenging time is finished! We do know, however, that God is at work in the waiting. That is one of the lessons of Pentecost, which is clearly stated in the Psalms, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

May you be blessed in your waiting!
Your brother in Messiah,

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