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What is Shavuot (Pentecost) really all about?

Over the past 44 years, I have had the privilege of speaking in over 450 churches in any number of varied contexts. When given the opportunity, I have asked the audiences a question that’s only been answered correctly once. “What happened 50 days after the first Passover in Egypt?”

Ask any practicing Jewish person, and there is no question. It was the giving of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, on Mt. Sinai. In the bible, this 5oth day is called “Shavuot”, or the Feast of Weeks (sheva translates seven, “ot” is plural), indicating seven weeks following Passover.  In the book of Acts, the Greek word used translates to “Pentecost.”

Given my audience, then, it is perhaps shocking that my question has so consistently been answered with silence. Of course, I hold no one guilty! Why? Because though the scriptures say, “When the Day of Pentecost came” (Acts 2:1), the transliteration from the Greek word for Pentecost is little taught. “Pentecost” was not a new Christian holiday. It was the yearly Shavuot celebration.

Even today, Judaism observes this feast. It is recognized as one of the three “Regalim”, feasts that involve “going up” to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The other two are Passover (lamb slaughter) and “Sukkot” (the Feast of Tabernacles or “Booths,” anticipating the eschatological gathering).  In Judaism, Passover and Shavuot are bookends representing one story; they comprise a single redemptive narrative from Redemption (the deliverance from Egypt) to Revelation (the giving of the Torah).

Leviticus 23 describes all of this, beginning with “Bikkurim” or First Fruits of the barley harvest (v.9) through to another “Bikkurim”, the wheat harvest (Shavuot). (This explains why the Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on this day.) The custom of the counting of the “Omer” (Barley sheaf) each day for 50 days continues. Jews like myself acknowledge the day and week of the counting and transfer a portion of barley from one bowl to another for 50 days, accompanied by special prayers remembering the commandment and designating the day and week of the counting.

This explains why, in Acts 2, “Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) had gathered. Pentecost (Shavuot) was a “Regel”, a “going up” (to Jerusalem) feast.  What Christians often fail to recognize is Acts 2 as the commemorative day for celebrating the giving of the Torah through Moses to establish the constitutional identity of the nation of Israel.  Acts 2 is a Jewish holiday!

In fact, if what you presume when you use the label Christian is a non-Jewish Christ-follower, there is not a single Christian in all of Acts 2. Likewise, if what you presume when you think of the church is a non-Jewish church, this is not the birth of the church. That would not occur until Acts 10 with Cornelius, a Gentile. Rather, if you are a follower of the God of Israel from among the nations, then through Pentecost, the witness of the Spirit to the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31 confirms that you follow the Jewish Messiah and the God of Israel with Israel. Welcome to the family!

This renewed covenant made with the “Household of Israel and the Household of Judah” will be characterized by the Torah (yes, the Torah!) written in our hearts by the Spirit of G-d (Jeremiah 31:33-34, Ezekiel 36:27). Rabbi Feldman, what are you saying? The Law? Well, it does not matter what I have to say about it. The answer from scripture is, “Yes!” On this issue, another article would be required. But for now, know that the word Torah does not translate as “law,” but as “instruction.”

In today’s theological milieu it is unfortunately popular to dichotomize the “New” from the “Old” or Grace over against Law. The Bible does not teach that. The giving of the instructions of God, whether for Jew or Gentile, was an act of God’s grace which no one earned or deserved. Paul said, “So, then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom7:12).

For the Jews present in Acts 2, then, Pentecost (Shavuot) was the New Covenant witness of the new Sinai; or better still (and in accordance with the commandment in Leviticus 23:21), both a recapitulation of Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments on stone) and the prophetic fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31-34 (His law in our minds and hearts).

Note the parallels: The Israelites left Egypt on Passover and 40 days later Moses went up on a mountain to see God (Mt. Sinai). Ten days later, Moses came down with the Torah.  The Israelites broke the covenant and 3000 people died as a result.  Jesus died on Passover and 40 days later went up on a mountain to be with God (Mt. Of Olives).  Ten days later, the covenant-confirming Spirit (who writes His law in our minds and hearts) came down and 3000 people were saved!

Further, consider the tongues of fire described in Acts 2. Here, instead of only Moses in the presence of God (as at Mt. Sinai), now the Glory Spirit cloud fell as a personal “mini” form on each one, confirming our calling into the New Moses (prophesied by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 18 and 30). Through this baptism of empowerment, the Torah given at Sinai is not abolished, but brought to its intended testimony, establishing what it truly means to be and act like the people of God, with our lives characterized by God’s righteous requirements.

At Sinai, Moses heard the Word of God but the rebellious below heard thundering. (The Hebrew word translated thunder in Exodus is “kolot” which means voices or languages.) On Shavuot in Acts 2, the same occurred. Some heard them speaking in their own language while others heard what sounded like drunken gibberish. Were these actual languages spoken or what I call “ecstatic utterances” (Romans 8:26) like those we witness in churches today and identify as speaking in tongues?

Note that in Acts 2, in both verses 6 & 8, Luke is careful not to say that these disciples “spoke” in other languages, but that listeners “heard” them in their own languages. When you and I hear someone speaking in a foreign language we do not understand, we do not call them “drunk” and ridicule them, so something else is going on here. I suggest we consider that the miracle was in the hearing and not the speaking.  That is, for those without an ear to hear, these “vocalizations” would be nothing but “thunderings” (cf. Exodus 20:18).  Audibly, it would have sounded like gibberish.  But to those with an ear to hear (just like to Moses on the first Shavuot at the mountain), God was speaking.

In 1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul references Isaiah 28:11. Isaiah prophecies judgement would come in the form of God speaking to the rebellious in languages “they cannot understand.” I suggest this is an exact parallel between those who could not hear the words of God in words of men, to understand and know what the Lord was speaking to Moses. Now through the New Moses and a (re)newed covenant Glory Spirit presence out of which God speaks, this “gibberish” confirms that we are the children of God, crying out “abba” (father) in child like manner. “Abba”, though translated father, is an onomatopoeic word, a sounding that implies meaning but is just non-intelligible expression—in this case, “a heartfelt sounding out of endearment from a pre-language-speaking child to a father.” After all, how do you translate “oink” when referring to the sound of a pig. (Oh no, did I refer to a pig)?

Perhaps this explains why tongues without interpretation in corporate worship is unacceptable—could it be a sign of judgement that we are not a people in unity poised to have a shared experience of hearing from God? Perhaps that would have us grieve, repent and seek Him with a greater recognition of His glory presence and desire to dwell in our midst as we cry out “ABBA” together re-establishing that truly “He is our God, and we are His people.”

Finally, if they were all miraculously speaking in known languages, why did not the Phrygians, Parthians, Medes, etc., then not strike up a conversation with those who seemingly were speaking their own languages? Instead, they asked one another, “What is the meaning of this?” (Acts 2:12). As suggested, I think it is because they heard aurally ecstatic utterances but by the miracle of hearing in their inner being, heard their own native tongues (in the singing of praises to God).

I trust that this year Shavuot (the Day of Pentecost) will not just be a day to recognize what happened in Acts 2, but a day filled with powerful desire for the presence of God to confirm in us that we are the children of God destined to fulfill his glory presence purpose on earth until He comes! I will, likewise, but for me it will be Shavuot in Messiah!

–Rabbi Jerry Feldman | Adat Yeshua