Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost/Shavuot), the Christian Church, and the Holy Spirit

Leviticus 23:9–22

9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12 And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord. 13 Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the Lord, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. 14 You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 

15 “You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. 16 You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the Lord. 18 And you shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, and one bull from the herd and two rams. They shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. 19 And you shall offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of peace offerings. 20 And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. 21 And you shall make a proclamation on the same day. You shall hold a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a statute forever in all your dwelling places throughout your generations. 22 “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

A study of Leviticus 23:9-22 will yield us much fruit (pun intended)! This lesson demonstrates how God provided an occasion for his people to meet together as a family of Israelites for the giving of thanks, fellowship, forgiveness, and spiritual dedication. This study is about the Feast of Weeks, which is an unusual term for a one-day celebration. Some of its features made it the preferred event for those who lived at great distances from Jerusalem.

Background to Leviticus 23:9-22

The first Passover in Egypt demonstrated to the Israelites that God was on their side. Next, Moses led the Israelites in an unusual direction—into the wilderness of the Red Sea area. The Lord used a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide, protect, and assure the people that they were going where he wanted them to be (Exod. 13:21, 22).

The Israelites experienced at the Red Sea yet another mighty deliverance after Pharaoh changed his mind about the departure of his labor force and went after the Israelites. Pharaoh’s army was destroyed by God in the Red Sea and they were in hot pursuit. As the journey continued, God met the needs of his people. 

Now, there was a question: the Israelites knew that the Lord was God, but what did he expect from them? God was ready to tell them, and that was the purpose of their stay at Mount Sinai, which lasted almost a year. When God gave the people manna on the way to Sinai, they learned that God expected them to rest on the seventh day, and that expectation was reinforced as part of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).

This was followed by his giving laws (chaps. 21–23) that collectively are called “the Book of the Covenant” (24:7). It contained upwards of 70 rules that the people needed immediately for the governing of social relationships. It could be called their bill of rights, but perhaps bill of responsibilities for producing a just society is better.

These laws introduced for the first time the fact that the Israelites were to have three feasts during the year (Exodus 23:14–17). In past weeks we talked about the first one, the Passover Feast. Passover was a one-day observance that was to be followed by seven days during which the only bread that could be eaten was to be unleavened. These seven days constituted the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the two feasts were functionally considered the same event since they were right next to each other on the calendar.

This lesson is about the second of the three annual feasts: the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. This feast is different from the others (Passover and Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot) in that it is not associated with a historical event. There is a tradition that the Feast of Weeks commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai, but the first mention of that idea is postbiblical.

The Feast of Weeks received its name because it was to be celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Therefore the Feast of Weeks was to take place in late May or early June. It is not given a name in today’s text, but it has other names attached to it elsewhere: Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:22a; Numbers 28:26b), Feast of Harvest (Exodus 23:16a), and sometimes the day of the firstfruits (Numbers 28:26a). In the New Testament it is called Pentecost (Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:8), a Greek word that means “fiftieth.”

First off, note that there are two ritual events in the liturgical calendar which we just read about in the text. Each of them in a sense announce the beginning of the harvest season… The first was the ceremony of firstfruits (vv. 9–14), and the second was the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) (vv. 15–22).

The provision of firstfruits (Lev. 23:9–22). After the redemption of Israel from Egyptian servitude, the Lord led his people into the desert where he demonstrated his provision and care for them, even when they were rebellious. The most important provision was the land that he led them to possess—the land of Canaan, where he had chosen their fathers and promised to give them this land. Upon arriving in the land, the people were to recognize God’s grace by taking the first produce of the land’s harvests and offering a portion to the Lord as a symbolic gesture of worship to the God of their provision. The day of firstfruits was embedded in the week’s celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which stretched from the fifteenth to the twenty-second of the first month. It was offered up on the second day of that feast, that is, the sixteenth day of the first month. This would fall in the months of March/April. The ritual of firstfruits entailed presenting the first sheaf of the barley harvest to the priest at the sanctuary, who on behalf of the worshipper lifted it up before the Lord, indicating that the worshipper offered thanksgiving to God as the source of his livelihood. It was the first evidence of the coming months of spring harvest. The memorial included animal sacrifice and grain offerings. The people were not to indulge in the grain of the land until God had received his due first (v. 14). This was God’s harvest; he was the owner of the land, and its produce was his to do with as he pleased. He graciously shared the land and its harvests with the people to farm as tenants. By their offering of firstfruits the people acknowledged that theirs was a bounty that had come from the Lord. The benefit of the land remained theirs as long as they lived as good tenants, keeping the agreements made with the divine Landowner (Leviticus 26:3–13).

The second harvest celebration, known as the Feast of Weeks, followed seven weeks after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was the second pilgrim feast in the liturgical calendar. The date for the Feast of Weeks was determined by counting fifty days from the day after the Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Although this celebration was in the third month of the year, our May/June months, we can tie it to the first month by virtue of its association with the Feast of Unleavened Bread (v. 15). It was the celebration of the harvest of grain. The celebration was an elaborate one, involving a full week of special activities. The people were forbidden to work at their ordinary duties, setting the week aside for special recognition of the Lord. This festival focused on the grain crops. Special loaves of bread were baked and waved before the Lord at the sanctuary. Unlike the Feast of Unleavened Bread, these loaves were made with leaven, indicating the season of joyful gladness at God’s provision. Additional animal offerings accompanied the bread, making a full meal, so to speak, in which the Lord partook.

That the ritual was not a superficial show for the bystanders to enjoy is shown by the instructions regarding the responsibility of the people in sharing their produce. The Lord compassionately shared the land with his people, and in turn they were to provide for the poor (v. 22). That the Lord instructed the Hebrews to share with others reflects again that ultimately the harvest belonged to God. The Hebrew landowners were prohibited from reaping every row of grain, taking it all for themselves and their workers. There were members of the community who could not benefit materially from God’s blessing since they had no land to work or were unable to work as day laborers. By leaving gleanings in the fields, the poor could make bread from the grain, which was the main staple for their daily diet. The succession of the gift was important theologically as well as practically. God gave the land to his people, and by enriching them the people could assist others. At the people’s faithful obedience to the Lord, he supplied more than enough for their needs, which meant that the landowner shared his wealth with others too. The Apostle Paul recognized this principle and instructed the church, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:11). God gives to us liberally so we can be generous to others.

Many peoples yesterday and today formally commemorate seasons of harvest. But there was an important difference in the practice of Israel compared to their neighbors. Whereas the nations focused on the earth as the source of their wealth, the Israelites remembered that the harvest season was tied to a great historical act of divine promise. It was not merely a celebration of the cycle of nature but a remembrance of the Lord’s gift of the land. By miraculous deeds, the Lord fought the battles of Israel and brought them safely into the land of plenty. There is a similarity in our celebration at Thanksgiving, or at least should be. Thanksgiving is not an annual celebration that is focused on the bounty of American life but has its roots in a gracious historical act on behalf of God toward the first pilgrims to this land. It was a historical event that we remember each Thanksgiving Day—the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one that sustained the fledgling colonists who had arrived the year earlier on the Mayflower. The native Indians who were instrumental in the Plymouth colonists’ survival joined in the celebration.

So, let me ask you a couple of questions about these texts and then I want to look at a connection with the New Testament…

What Do You Think?

What do you think of this idea of blessings the blessers (v. 20)? It’s interesting that the Lord’s directions for the Feast of Weeks include some offerings that were to be burnt to please him, while others were for his servants, the priests. That was commanded by God. We should not need a command today to bless in return those who have been a blessing to us as they serve the church, for example the elders, teachers, ministry leaders, volunteers, etc.

How can Christians offer “firstfruits” to the Lord? In finances, in time, in talents?

What do you think of this idea of not being stingy or greedy which is embodied in the text (v. 22)?At first glance, this verse may seem out of place. Its stipulations were given earlier (Leviticus 19:9, 10), so why is it repeated in conjunction with the Feast of Weeks? The answer may be that since this is a harvest celebration, it is appropriate to mention one of the laws of the harvest: God is concerned for the welfare of those in need. The harvesters are to reap so that there will be something left for them. It is noteworthy that the verse does not say that harvested grain is simply to be provided for the poor and for the sojourner. Rather, those in need are to go to the fields and do the work of harvesting themselves. An outstanding example of this practice is found in the book of Ruth, specifically chapter 2.

Cross-Canonical Connection (Acts 2:1-4)

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

Acts 2:1 tells us that “the day of Pentecost” had arrived. This was fifty days after Passover, and that is what Pentecost means—“the fiftieth.” Passover occurred in mid-April, so Pentecost was at the beginning of June. It was the best-attended of the great feasts because traveling conditions were at their best. There was never a more cosmopolitan gathering in Jerusalem than this one. It was the perfect time for the descent of the Holy Spirit of God.

And here is the beautiful connection between the OT and the NT in our study tonight. There’s a divinely arranged appropriateness in that the feast of Pentecost provides the background for the giving of the Holy Spirit. As the day of the firstfruits, Pentecost was eminently appropriate for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of 3,000 souls—because you see THEY were the firstfruits of an even greater harvest that God was ordaining in the world.

It was also fitting that the church began on Pentecost/Feast of Weeks because by the time of Christ, Pentecost was considered the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and thus it provided a perfect opportunity to contrast the giving of the Law with the giving of the Spirit. 

You see, the Spirit’s coming is in continuity of God’s purpose in giving the law and yet… the Spirit’s coming signals the essential difference between the Jewish faith and commitment to Jesus… the former is Torah-centered and Torah-directed, the latter is Christ-centered and Spirit-directed.” Pentecost occurred by GOd’s sovereignly designed arrangement.

So, what happened on that special day?

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (vv. 1–4)

As the apostles’ heads were bowed in prayer, a breeze began to move across them, and then it was more than a breeze. Literally, “an echoing sound as of a mighty wind borne violently”  roared through the house like the whirr of a tornado, so that their robes flapped wildly. The Spirit of God was coming upon them! A fiery presence was in their midst, and (as the Greek indicates) it suddenly divided into separate flame-like tongues that individually danced over the heads of those present. Fire had always meant the presence of God. Through John the Baptist, God had promised a baptism with fire (Matthew 3:11), and now it was here. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and in an electrifying instant began to speak in other languages—literally, “as the Spirit continued giving them to speak out in a clear, loud voice.”  They spoke as clearly and powerfully as the Old Testament prophets.

This event may seem esoteric and mysterious, with its “wind,” “fire,” and supernatural utterance. It has a primal ring like the Greeks’ earth, fire, wind, and water. But in the Jewish context the phenomenon was perfectly understandable. The Hebrew word for “wind,” ruach, and the Greek word pneuma are both used for the Holy Spirit. 

Ezekiel used ruach to describe the Spirit of God moving over a valley of dry bones (representing a spiritually dead Jewish nation), so that suddenly there was thunder and the clattering of bones as they came together “bone to bone.” Then came the wonderfully macabre spectacle of growing sinews and flesh, and finally skin, and then Ezekiel’s words at God’s command:

"Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’ 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army." (Ezekiel 37:9–10)

In the end, it was during the Feast of Weeks, at Pentecost, that the reviving winds of the Spirit came upon the apostles with incredible spiritual life and power. In a future day this will achieve final fulfillment in the Messianic Age. The apostles now had God’s life-giving Spirit in a more intimate and powerful way than they had ever known—than anyone had ever known.

So, what does the study of the traditions of Leviticus 23 leave us with in summary? 

Well, we learn that the Lord is in the process of providing for his people by giving them a land that flows with milk and honey, a land where they can flourish (Deuteronomy 31:20, “When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant.”). 

But not only that, the Lord also is providing ways for his people to remember the source of their blessings: they are to have feasts that enable them to join with others in celebrations in the giving of thanks. Passover, Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Booths—they are reminders of the blessings of harvest and/or famous events in the nation’s history. God is good, all the time!

Finally, as mentioned, the Day of Pentecost—the later designation for the Feast of Weeks—is the birthday of the church (Acts 2). The Bible does not say why God chose this occasion for the church to begin. But the way that it was celebrated made it the perfect tool to fulfill God’s plan to spread the gospel from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Pentecost drew many Jews from distant parts of the Roman Empire (compare Acts 2:5–11). The rainy season was over, and the weather was warm and delightful for travel. Some who made a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Jerusalem for Passover perhaps remained “on vacation” through Pentecost.

In any case, it is fascinating that the death and resurrection of Jesus occurred during the time of Passover and Unleavened Bread and that seven weeks later the church began on Pentecost. The people who were in Jerusalem at these times had the privilege of being among the first to be introduced to the gospel, which they could take with them on their return home. About 3,000 people were convinced, and they responded to Peter’s instructions to repent and to be baptized for the remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 41). As they returned to all parts of the Roman Empire and elsewhere, they became the vanguard for the spreading message of redemption.