Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Festival of Pentecost

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Holy Spirit

Photo: “The seven Species of the Land of Israel are listed in the biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:8: a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey.” WikiMedia Commons רוליג

Often when we hear the word “Pentecost” we immediately jump to the episode with the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost, however, was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian event.

Leviticus 23:15-22 describes the appointed festival: 15 And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. 16 You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. 19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. 21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations. 22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival known as Shavuot. Shavuot was “one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach [Passover] and Sukkot [Booths]) that attracted many Jews to Jerusalem” (Gary Gilbert, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 201). Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks because you had to count seven weeks, took place 50 days after Passover and was a celebration for the wheat harvest. Later it came to be associated with the giving of God’s covenants: the covenant with Noah, but especially the Torah as given through Moses.

Here is an description of how some Jews celebrate the feast of Shavuot today:

How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the Pentecost scene of Acts 2? Similar to how Jesus reinterprets Passover at the last supper in the gospel of Luke, now Peter is reinterpreting Shavuot for the church. Shavuot was meant to foster an attitude of thanksgiving at the time of harvest. “Then you shall keep the festival of weeks to the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:10). The gratitude for harvest was meant to overflow to the most vulnerable members of Israel’s society (see Leviticus 23:22 above). Prompted by Peter’s speech at Pentecost, the new converts fulfill the purpose of Shavuot: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Everyone had enough because of the just and equitable distribution of goods.

The scene in Acts 2 can also be interpreted in another way connected with the history of Israel: the reversal of the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At Babel God confused the language of the people because of pride in their technological advancements. In Acts 2 the people that God scattered are reunited and able to understand in their own languages. God was doing a new thing connected to a very old thing.

Here is a reenactment of Shavuot from a Jewish group in Jerusalem:

For further study check out:

 

 

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Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Holy Spirit

 

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(Photo: Andreas Praefcke, WikiMedia Commons)

Read the Introduction

One of the most well known events detailed in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost episode and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. It continues to be a major festival day in the life of the church nearly 2,000 years later. Do you ever wish that you could have your own personal Pentecost…

In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit moved and empowered the words of the disciples on Pentecost, was God doing a new thing or continuing an old thing? If we think that the movement of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was only a new thing we put ourselves in a potentially dangerous theological position. The Holy Spirit can be thought of as a version of God that doesn’t show up until the New Testament. That can lead us to thinking God the Father was present with the Israelites in the Old Testament, then God the Son came to in first century Palestine as Jesus, and after that the church received God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Unfortunately that idea dabbles in Marcionism.

God the Holy Spirit is mentioned often in Acts as the acting presence of God. The Holy Spirit, however, is not a new thing God does in the Book of Acts. It is a continuation of God’s presence from the very beginning. Throughout the Old Testament we have references to God’s Spirit, breath, and wind (ruach in Hebrew). These references are all connected to God the Holy Spirit that empowers the disciples at Pentecost. Our impression of the Holy Spirit becomes richer and more complex through the Book of Acts, adding layers of descriptions to our understanding.

The Spirit was at creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).

The Spirit was at the anointing of King David. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).

The Spirit was the theme of Israel’s ancient songs. “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:11-12).

The Spirit was with the voice of the prophets. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

“Over 25% of references in scripture to the divine Spirit (Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, etc.) appear in the Old Testament (26.5% using the NRSV). A relatively consistent pattern we find with the Spirit’s activity in the Old Testament is that it creates (e.g., Gen 1), anoints for leadership/service (e.g., Samson, King Saul), and initiates new life and movements (e.g., Ezekiel 37). Now consider what kinds of things the Spirit does in Acts. Is it much different, or more similar than not” (Forum post from Professor Troy Troftgruben, New Testament Narratives, November 16, 2017)?

The work of the Holy Spirit in the world did not begin at Pentecost. God is working and has been working in the world, through all times, with God’s own two hands, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God’s Word is carried on God’s breath to redeem and renew God’s people for the life of the world.

Check out this animated narrative about how God’s Spirit was moving and working all the way through the Bible…

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