For many Christians, their concept of pentecost is confined to the historical record of Acts 2. Now Acts 2 is a wonderful Scripture but we cannot properly understand the events of that momentous day if we ignore the teaching that lies behind it preserved elsewhere in Scripture—indeed, the very name pentecost (or fiftieth day) reminds us that it is not a stand–alone feast but is founded on what has gone before. Again, very few believers appear to ask why the feast of pentecost was fulfilled by the events of Acts 2. To accept the fact of this fulfilment is one thing, but to understand why is quite another. This indifference is baffling when you consider how much controversy there has been over the details of that great day (such as speaking in tongues). To confine study to a single chapter will never produce an accurate understanding of any subject (see 2 Tim. 1: 13; 2 Pet. 1: 20).
Pentecost is actually one of seven annual set feasts of Jehovah (see Lev. 23)—the others being (in order) passover, unleavened bread, first–fruits, trumpets, the day of atonement and tabernacles. These feasts have a prophetic character, and the number seven (describing a complete period) splits naturally into four and three. The first four feasts in the calendar have been fulfilled in Israel’s history (see Acts 2: 1; 1 Cor. 5: 7; 8; 15: 20), while three await fulfilment. Pentecost sits in the middle of the seven as the last of the fulfilled feasts.
The Feast of Weeks
Pentecost is the Greek term for the Hebrew feast of weeks, so–called because of its peculiar timing: “And ye shall count from the morning after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave–offering, seven weeks; they shall be complete; even unto the morning after the seventh sabbath shall ye count fifty days” (Lev. 23: 15). Now “the morning after the sabbath” referred to is the feast of first–fruits (see v11), which is a picture of the resurrection of Christ: “but now Christ is raised from among [the] dead, first–fruits of those fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15: 20). The Lord was raised on the first day of the week (or the morning after the sabbath—see Matt. 28: 1; Mark 16: 9; Luke 24: 1; John 20: 1). This means that the fiftieth day is the eighth return of the resurrection day (hence Whit Sunday, from huit, the French for eight). The number eight is significant, for in Scripture it signifies a new beginning. Thus, for example, circumcision was on the eighth day (see Gen. 17: 12), Noah stepped out onto a new earth as one of eight (see 1 Pet. 3: 20; 2 Pet. 2: 5), David, the new king, was the eighth son of Jesse (1 Sam. 17: 12, 14) and the cleansing of the leper was completed on the eighth day (Lev. 14: 10, 23). My first point then, is that pentecost is a new beginning. That new beginning was offered by Peter to the Jews (see Acts 2: 38–40; 3: 19–21). Why? Because though they had crucifed Christ, God had raised Him from the dead, and in grace he was providing them with an opportunity for repentance and redemption.
Now although pentecost is a new beginning, that does not mean that everything was in place on day one (the popular term ‘the birthday of the Church’ tends to perpetuate this inaccurate idea). Certainly following the Holy Spirit falling upon the disciples (see Acts 2: 4; 11: 15) the Assembly (or Church) as a distinct body comes into view (see Acts 5: 11; 8: 1 etc.) but times of refreshing (see Acts 3: 19) were still being offered to the nation, and Peter is using “the keys” (not of the Assembly) but “of the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 16: 19). There is clearly a significant element of transition (and even hiatus) in the record of the book of Acts. The concept of the Assembly was initially limited to the remnant in Israel, although Peter’s words (see Acts 2: 39) were wide enough in scope to allow the entrance of the Gentiles later. This is not to say that there is any thought of the mystery in the feast of pentecost. Gentiles being blessed in association with Jews was long foretold (see Is. 2: 2; Jer. 3: 17; Ezek. 38: 23; Zeph. 3: 9; Zech. 14: 16; Rom. 15: 9–12 etc.), but the idea of Jew and Gentile assimilated into one new man (see Eph. 2: 15) was “hidden throughout the ages” (Eph. 3: 9). Thus the gleaning of the harvest left “unto the poor and to the stranger” (see Lev. 23: 22), while clearly setting forth Gentile blessing, has nothing directly to do with what was revealed to the apostle Paul (see Eph. 3: 3, 8, 9).
The Feast of First–fruits
Everything on the day of pentecost in Acts 2 proceeds from the fact of Christ’s resurrection. Leviticus 23 itself suggests this, in the way it connects the feast of pentecost with the preceding feast of first–fruits. Firstly, the text flows unbroken from the feast of first–fruits through to the feast of weeks without the usual introductory ‘Speak unto the children of Israel’. Secondly, it is impossible to count the days to pentecost without having first begun at the feast of first–fruits (see Num. 28: 26). The inevitable conclusion is that pentecostal blessing is founded on Christ’s resurrection. All must be preceded by the waving of the sheaf of first–fruits before Jehovah “to be accepted for you” (Lev. 23: 11; my emphasis). My second point then, is that pentecost is a new beginning founded on the resurrection of Christ. There is no new beginning without it—the Jews crucified Christ, but God raised Him from the dead (see Acts 2: 32, 36), hence Peter’s exhortation to “repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 38, my emphasis).
Now it is not difficult to see that the feast of first–fruits is typical of life out of death—the grain has been sown into the ground, and the sheaf of the first–fruits is the evidence of the life that results (see Lev. 23: 10). The imagery of the sowing of seed with a view to life would have been well–known to the Jews: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, it abides alone; but if it die, it bears much fruit” (John 12: 24). Indeed, the imagery is perfect, for in germinating, the outer casing (or ‘body’) of the seed dies. The feast of first–fruits is therefore a picture of Christ raised from the dead—the first–fruits (see 1 Cor. 15: 20, 23) of many more resurrections to come. But what is the feast of pentecost a picture of?
There are several parallels between the feast of first–fruits and the feast of pentecost, not least the fact that both consist primarily of wave– offerings before Jehovah. However, therein lies also the most obvious difference, for while in the earlier feast this wave–offering consisted of the first sheaf of the barley harvest, in the later feast it was made up of two loaves of wheaten bread. Now just as the sheaf was the key to understanding the feast of first–fruits, so the loaves are critical to grasping the meaning of pentecost.
Many think that the two loaves (Lev. 23: 17) represent Jew and Gentile, but the OT idea of blessing for the nations involved subservience: “In those days shall ten men take hold, out of all languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you; for we have heard [that] God is with you” (Zech. 8: 23). There was no thought of equivalence as pictured in the two loaves. Furthermore, any supposed Gentile loaf could only anticipative in character, for clearly no Gentiles were blessed in Acts 2. Certainly Paul laboured “that the offering up of the nations might be acceptable” (Rom. 15: 16), but this does not prove that the Gentiles were to be offered independently of the Jews. In any case, the whole idea that the two loaves in Lev. 23: 17 represent Jew and Gentile is conclusively dismissed by what is said in 1 Cor. 10: 17, namely that “we, [being] many, are one loaf, one body” (my emphasis; see also 1 Cor. 12: 13).
Others advocate the idea that the two loaves refer to the house of Judah and the house of Israel, but this division came centuries later as a result of sin (see 1 Kings 11: 30-39), and it cannot be right that God would have such an event encapsulated in his feasts. The fact is, those present on the day of pentecost were described as “Jews, pious men” (Acts 2: 5), and Peter addresses some of them later as “Men of Judaea, and all ye inhabitants of Jerusalem” (v14)—that is, of the house of Judah, and not Israel. Even if there might have been a few individuals descended from the northern tribes among the Jews, those few crumbs would not, in any credible sense, make a loaf!
In Scripture, two is the number of adequate witness (see Deut.19: 15; 2 Cor. 13: 1; Heb. 10: 28), and this is surely the real force of the twin loaves in Lev. 23. My third point then, is that pentecost is fundamentally about witness (the idea of loaves rather than simply grains, may give the idea of unity of witness). This witness concerned the resurrection of Christ, for the evidence is overwhelming that the disciples were to be witnesses of that stupendous fact (see Acts 1: 8, 22; 2: 32; 3: 15; 4: 33; 5: 32; 13: 30, 31; 1 Cor. 15: 15 etc.). However, the witness was also accompanied by a stark notice of the peril of rejecting God’s offer of a new beginning, and this warning (as we shall see) was conveyed by the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. However, before we consider what was witnessed, let us consider the witnesses themselves. To do this, we must look at:
Oil and Leaven
Now the feast of first–fruits (speaking of the resurrection of Christ) had an oblation or meat–offering associated with it of “two tenths of fine flour mingled with oil, an offering by fire to Jehovah for a sweet odour” (Lev. 23: 13). The fine flour speaks of the beautiful texture of the Lord’s life that was so pleasing to the Father. The oil, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, is seen here mingled with the flour, speaking of a life completely blended with the will of God. The divine answer to the ending of that life was the resurrection.
The feast of pentecost was somewhat different, for the oblation there is the wave–offering itself. Lev. 23: 16, 17 tells us that “ye shall present a new oblation to Jehovah. Out of your dwellings shall ye bring two wave–loaves, of two tenths of fine flour; with leaven shall they be baken; [as] first–fruits to Jehovah”. The fact of it being a new oblation is emphasised, and also its origin as taken out of the dwellings of the children of Israel. So believers, not Christ, are now in view, and their character is as the “first–fruits to Jehovah” (v17)—not of the barley harvest, but of the later wheat harvest (see Exod. 9: 31, 32; Ruth 2: 23). Pentecost was literally the beginning of the wheat harvest (see Exod. 34: 22), and this feature of the feast is illustrated in Acts 2 when “there were added in that day about three thousand souls” (v41). In this evangelical context, the joyful language of Deut. 16 (speaking about pentecost) is fitting: “and thou shalt rejoice before Jehovah thy God” (v11). However, the new oblation could not be offered alone, for the priest was to “present with the bread seven he–lambs without blemish, yearlings, and one young bullock, and two rams: they shall be a burnt–offering to Jehovah with their oblation, and their drink–offerings, an offering by fire of a sweet odour to Jehovah … And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the first-fruits as a wave–offering before Jehovah” (Lev. 23: 18, 20). Thus, if many believed in Acts 2, they could only be presented to God accompanied by what speaks of the death of Christ. This was a hard lesson for the Jew to learn.
There are other notable differences between this new oblation and the oblation of the feast of first–fruits. In the latter, we read of fine flour mingled with oil (see Lev. 23: 13), and seeing as the Holy Spirit is so prominent in Acts 2 we might expect to find the oil mentioned again in the new oblation. However, this is not the case. The fine flour is there, because it speaks of the moral features of Christ replicated in the believer, although now it is presented as loaves, baked with leaven. Leaven always typifies what is evil (see Matt. 16: 6; Mark 8: 15), and as Scripture tells us, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5: 9). There is therefore clearly something of a contrast intended between the leaven, picturing the sinful nature of man, contaminating his whole being, and the “flour mingled with oil” (Lev. 23: 13) that so typified Christ. Hence the only way that man can be presented to God as a wave–offering (even a believing man characterised in part by the features of the fine flour) is if the fine flour is baked into loaves. Why? Because the fire nullifies the action of the leaven. Now it is this presentation of the Spirit of God (rather than the oil) that we see on the day of pentecost. Hence: “And there appeared to them parted tongues, as of fire, and it sat upon each one of them” (Acts 2: 3). Upon the Lord Jesus Himself, the Holy Spirit descended “as a dove” (Luke 3: 22) for that was man walking in perfection, but in relation to the Lord’s people, the Spirit came by fire in keeping with the baking of Leviticus 23: 17. My fourth point then, is that the witness of pentecost was to be delivered by ordinary men of “like passions to us” (James 5: 17), but who were “filled with [the] Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 4).
This idea of a baked oblation is very interesting to consider in a modern context, and the supposed revival of ‘pentecostal gifts’. A sober assessment is that much of what is claimed to be the Holy Spirit at work seems to bear more of the character of leaven rather than the fine flour, however exuberant and impressive the outward manifestation. Just as at Corinth, (significantly, an assembly that came “short in no gift”—1 Cor. 1: 7) the cult of human personality rather than Christ is dominant, despite the apostle’s warning that those go down that path are “yet carnal” (1 Cor. 3: 3). Now to be carnal is to act in the power of the flesh, and in this context, it is quite remarkable how the disciples apparently waited seven weeks after the resurrection before they said anything about it to the world at large. On a purely human level it might be thought impossible to exercise restraint in the light of such a stunning display of the power of God—although the “fear of the Jews” (John 20: 19; see Mark 16: 8) was very real. The difference between the disciples’ demeanour before and after the events of Acts 2 is marked, and there is no doubt that the feast of pentecost typifies the reception of power from God to witness for Christ. As the Lord Himself told the disciples “and ye are witnesses of these things … but do ye remain in the city till ye be clothed with power from on high … ye will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you, and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Luke 24: 48, 49; Acts 1: 7, 8, my emphasis). The thought behind pentecost is therefore not so much a literal resurrection (as with Christ and the feast of first–fruits), but believers in the practical gain of the “power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3: 10; my emphasis). This could not happen until the Holy Spirit had been received.
Since Christ rose from the dead on the feast of first–fruits, the counting of the seven weeks until pentecost began from that same day, for the day of the resurrection was the “morrow of the sabbath” (Luke 24: 1) matching “the morning after the sabbath … that ye brought the sheaf of the wave–offering” (Lev. 23: 15). It is on the very same “first [day] of the week” that the Lord breathed into his disciples saying “receive [the] Holy Spirit” (John 20: 19, 22)—the first day of counting down to the feast of pentecost. The last day of counting was, of course, the day of pentecost itself when the disciples “were all filled with [the] Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 4). Thus, although the Lord sent the disciples in John 20: 21 (just as the Father had previously sent the Son) they did not attempt to answer to the command until they had received power.
It of significance, therefore, that pentecost was the only feast associated with a command to count the days until it took place (see Lev. 23: 15). The thought of anticipation was clearly a critical part of its character. That same anticipation we also see in relation to the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit: “but do ye remain in the city till ye be clothed with power from on high … to await the promise of my Father” (Luke 24: 49; Acts 1: 4). The Lord had died on passover, had risen from the dead on the feast of first–fruits, and a further forty days had elapsed before He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1: 3). In the interval between the Lord’s ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit the disciples thus “gave themselves all with one accord to continual prayer” (v14) in keeping with what had been recorded earlier in Luke 11: 13. As observant Jews, the disciples would have already been counting down the remaining ten days to the feast of pentecost (see Acts 1: 3), and this was now accompanied by a parallel expectancy relating to the promise of the Father.
The mere anticipation of an event, however, does not, in itself, tell you anything about the event itself. It is the waving of the two baked loaves before Jehovah (see Lev. 23: 17) that is fulfilled in Acts 2—the counting down is merely a confirmatory associated detail. What is presented in Acts 2 is things coming together at the very moment “the day of Pentecost was now accomplishing” (Acts 2: 1), namely the witnesses of the resurrection being empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak the great things of God (see v 11). Chief among those great things was the resurrection of Christ, and yet the message was delivered in a most peculiar way. This brings us to the subject of:
Speaking in Tongues
There is no doubt that speaking in tongues was prominent on the day of pentecost in Acts 2—hardly surprising when we are told elsewhere that the evidence for the gift of the spirit being poured out was “they heard them speaking with tongues and magnifying God” (Acts 10: 46; see v45; 11: 15; 19: 6). Of the five signs spoken of by the Lord in resurrection in Mark 16: 17, 18, four had already been given to Israel in the synoptic gospels (see Matt. 10: 1; Luke 10: 19 etc.). The phenomenon of speaking in tongues, however, was new and elicited a question in those Jews who witnessed it (“What would this mean?—Acts 2: 12), and it is clear that significance was to be attached to the phenomenon. Peter answers the question by proclaiming “this is that which was spoken through the prophet Joel” (v 16), and quotes a passage which is a precursor to the coming kingdom, and speaks of a delivered remnant of the nation who will then call upon Jehovah for salvation. He then goes on to preach, closing with the words “be saved from this perverse generation” (v40). The meaning is evident: having crucified the Messiah, Israel was in peril, and the tongues were a sign of this—on each historical mention in Acts, Jews are present. Every Jew would know that tongues were introduced to scatter man at Babel (see Gen. 11: 1-9), and those prepared to read a few lines further on in Joel would know that the prophet also foretold a Jewish scattering away from the land by a foreign power (see Joel 3: 2). As Paul says (quoting Is. 28: 11, 12; see Jer. 5: 15), “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14: 22). Thus, the Lord Jesus had foretold that Jerusalem would be “encompassed with armies” (Luke 21: 20), and her people “led captive into all the nations” (v24). As Moses had prophesied centuries before, “Jehovah will bring a nation against thee from afar, from the end of the earth, like as the eagle flieth, a nation whose tongue thou understandest not” (Deut. 28: 49; my emphasis). All this was fulfilled in AD70, when the Romans under Titus sacked Jerusalem, and exiled the Jews throughout the world. Hence to hear foreign tongues spoken on the day of pentecost was a forewarning of what might come—an army of foreigners sent in judgment upon the nation if it did not repent.
Thus the emphasis of the message delivered by Peter in Acts 2 is not what God has done for the sinner, but the contrast between what God has done for Jesus and what the Jews did to Him. The Jews crucified Jesus, but God has raised Him from the dead, and re-stated His declaration that His Son is “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2: 36). In one sense, tongues were God’s last message to Israel before His judgment fell. Once it had fallen, tongues had no more purpose—the sign (see Mark 16: 17) was no longer required. In this respect it is of interest that the feast of pentecost was not seven days like that of the feast of unleavened bread or the feast of tabernacles (see Lev. 23: 6–8; 33–36)—both speaking of complete periods—but one day. Pentecost is a very short and limited feast, and this is in keeping with what Paul tells us, namely that “tongues, they shall cease” (1 Cor. 13: 8). Hence my fifth and final point is that pentecost is also a warning of coming judgment on Israel if they rejected the witness to Him God has made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2: 36). Seeing as that judgment has now fallen, it is impossible (as some allege) to ‘get back to pentecost’. God has left off appealing to Israel, paving the way for what we have now, namely the introduction of the truth of the mystery of Jew and Gentile united and equal in the Assembly. The modern phenomenon of so–called tongue-speaking is to be rejected as bearing no relation whatsoever to what has been revealed in the Word.
Little more needs to be said apart from to recap the main points:
- Pentecost was a new beginning offered to the Jews.
- That new beginning was founded on the resurrection of Christ.
- Pentecost was fundamentally about witness to the resurrection.
- The witness was to be delivered by ordinary men empowered by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- The witness was delivered by speaking in tongues, which was a warning of impending judgment on the nation if they rejected the message.
This is what the Bible teaches. Of course, to Christian ears, pentecost is perhaps the most familiar of the “set feasts of Jehovah” (Lev. 23: 4), but at the same time, its force and meaning is largely obscured by the teachings of men. By contrast, Scripture will reward those who are prepared to seek out its treasures, and it is hoped that this inadequate study will stimulate the reader to dig further in that direction.