“Pentecost: A Firstfruits Harvest Festival” (Acts 2:1-41)
What do you know about the Feast of Pentecost? If you’re like most people in the church today, I’m guessing not too much. Oh, maybe you know it has something to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit. And you would be right. But there’s more to it than that. OK, let’s see. Maybe you’ve heard that Pentecost is called “the birthday of the church.” Well, alright, there’s something to that. Maybe somewhere along the line you heard that people can wear red to church on Pentecost Sunday. And that does match the color of the paraments. But if it’s just a silly custom of wearing red, then there’s not too much to that.
So what do you know about the Feast of Pentecost? By the way, why do we even call it a “Feast”? Well, in church lingo, a “feast” is when it is appropriate to have the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood, as we do on every Sunday and major church festival. Oh, there’s that word “festival,” which is another way to say “feast.” And Pentecost certainly is a major festival in the church. In fact, the Day of Pentecost is one of the three highest, most major festivals in the church year, along with Christmas Day and Easter Day. But compared to Christmas and Easter, Pentecost kind of gets short shrift. We’ll try to remedy that today.
Now what I’m about to tell you about Pentecost may surprise you a bit: Did you know that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival? That’s right. We’ll explain. And another thing: Pentecost was a harvest festival, a firstfruits harvest festival. We’ll explain that too. And we’ll tie it all together, along with Pentecost’s tremendous meaning for us today, all under the theme, “Pentecost: A Firstfruits Harvest Festival.”
Now when I say that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival, you may not have known that. For you won’t find the word “Pentecost” in your Old Testament where it talks about the Hebrew calendar and the festivals that the Lord appointed for Israel. You won’t find “Pentecost,” but you will find the word “Weeks,” as in, “the Feast of Weeks.” Pentecost and the Feast of Weeks are really the same thing. You see, in the Hebrew calendar, the Feast of Weeks occurred seven weeks after Passover. And the Hebrew name for this festival is “Shavuot,” which means “Weeks.” So seven weeks after Passover, after seven sevens, that is, on the fiftieth day, they had this festival. And that’s where the term “Pentecost” comes from, because “Pentecost’ is the Greek word for “fiftieth.” So Hebrew, “Shavuot”; Greek, “Pentecost”; English, “Weeks”: In any language, they’re all referring to the same thing, the Feast of Weeks, a Jewish festival, going all the way back in Israel’s history to the time they came out of Egypt and started heading toward the Promised Land.
What was Shavuot or Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks about? Well, as I said, it was a harvest festival. When Israel would get into the Promised Land, and the Lord would bless them in that bountiful land, then every year when the firstfruits of the wheat crop would come in–at this time of year, in late spring–the Israelites were to have a festival and give thanks to the Lord. They were to remember and to rejoice. They were to remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt at the Passover and brought them up into the Promised Land, where they could enjoy such bounty. And so it was a time of rejoicing, a time to remember and a time to rejoice in what the Lord had done.
Now don’t worry, we’re getting to the Christian Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 and what all this means for us today. But first I’m giving you the biblical background that will set the stage for what follows. A couple more things yet about the Jewish festival.
Another thing that was celebrated by Jews at Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks was the Lord giving his Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 it does say that Israel came to Mount Sinai around that time of year, so the giving of the Torah became associated with the Feast of Weeks as well.
And one more thing that will help us understand the Old Testament background when we come to Acts chapter 2: The Feast of Weeks was a pilgrimage festival. That means that all the Israelite men, in whatever part of the country they lived, were to travel to the tabernacle–or later, the temple–for the three pilgrimage festivals, which were the Passover festival in early spring, the Feast of Weeks in late spring, and the Feast of Booths in the fall. Now that was not that difficult when all the Israelites lived in the Promised Land. But later, when first the northern tribes were dispersed by the Assyrians and then the Judeans were taken captive to Babylon and not all returned–when so many Jews had been scattered all over the Mediterranean world and the Ancient Near East–then making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the temple became more difficult. But it still needed to be done.
Well, alright, all this sets the stage now for what we read in Acts 2, where we see that Pentecost, the Christian Pentecost, is the fulfillment of all that biblical background, in such a great and surprising way.
So it’s Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover. The disciples of Jesus–indeed, the whole company of believers–were all together in Jerusalem. Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier, and now they were waiting there, together, as he had instructed. They were not the only ones in Jerusalem, because, remember, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival, so you have all these scattered Jews, from all over the world, coming into Jerusalem to worship at the temple.
Then the Holy Spirit falls on the believers. This is what Jesus had promised. And he had said the Spirit would give them power to be his witnesses. Which they now begin doing. They start telling out the mighty works of God, and they tell them out to all these Jewish pilgrims who had come from every nation under heaven–Parthians and Medes and Elamites and all the rest–and saying these things in the various languages that those faraway pilgrims knew.
Now hold on, there’s more. So Peter begins preaching to them. He tells them what had happened there in Jerusalem just seven weeks earlier, at Passover, when there was a big crowd at that time also, and they had called for this man Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified, which he was. But this was according to God’s deliberate plan, Peter says, and now this same Jesus God has raised from the dead, and “of that we are witnesses.” “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
This message cuts the hearers’ hearts to the quick, when they realize they had blown it, that they had not recognized the Lord’s Messiah when he had come. So they ask Peter what they should do. He tells them: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” “Be saved from this crooked generation.”
And that’s what happens. They do repent, they are baptized, they do receive forgiveness, they do receive the Holy Spirit, and they are saved. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Now do you see how this Christian Pentecost is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Feast of Weeks? Do you see how God had arranged all this in such a marvelous way? By the Feast of Weeks being a pilgrimage festival, it brought all these Jews from all over the world to the same place, all so they could hear the same sermon from the apostle Peter at the same time. It’s like an instant microwave church! And later these Jewish pilgrims would be returning to their homelands, to Cappadocia and Pontus and Asia and Egypt and Rome–only now they would be returning as Christians! Do you get it? Ready-made seedbeds for growing the church in all those places around the world!
See, Pentecost is a harvest festival, a firstfruits harvest festival. On that day back then, it was a harvest of three thousand souls. But that was just the firstfruits. Soon there would be thousands–no, millions–more. And, friends, Pentecost is continuing today. That’s why you’re here. You and I are part of the worldwide harvest that has followed. The Word has gone out, the Spirit has blessed, and you and I have been given the gift of faith. We too have been baptized and brought into the church. The Holy Spirit is continuing to gather a harvest of souls. And guess what? He might even use us as his witnesses.
I said that Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, was a time to remember and a time to rejoice. So it is for us at this Feast of Pentecost. We remember, with thanksgiving, what the Lord has done to bring us out of our bondage to sin and Satan and death. God has provided the Passover Lamb, our Savior Jesus Christ, to be our way out. His blood covers our doorposts, and death passes over. We are led out of our Egypt and brought as on eagles’ wings to our Lord to hear his word and be his people. As at Sinai the Lord gave his people the Torah, a way of life for God’s holy people, so the Lord has given us the Holy Spirit, to lead us in all truth. And now the Lord is leading us on our way to the Promised Land, the Promised Land of our home in heaven.
Dear friends, Pentecost is a harvest festival, a firstfruits harvest festival. On that day in Jerusalem, the Spirit fell and the Word went out and there the Lord had himself a harvest of souls. And so the Pentecost harvest continues to this day. You are here. More are coming, here in our Jerusalem, and all around the world.
Pentecost is a festival of remembering and rejoicing. We remember what the Lord has done to make us his people, his church. We rejoice in what the Lord is continuing to do and what he will do, in the days–and in the age–to come.