Introduction & Context
In biblical times Shavuot marked the beginning of the new agricultural season and was called Hag HaKatzir, which means “The Harvest Holiday” (Exodus 34:22). It also commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah by God to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai.
Other names that Shavuot is known by are:
- The Feast name Shavuot, is the plural of a word meaning “week” or “seven,” as the festival happens exactly seven weeks after Passover, thus the feast is also referred to as “The Feast of Weeks.” The feasts took place fifty days after the feast of First Fruits, and as fifty in Greek is penta, the New Testament name for Shavuot is Pentecost (Acts 2:1). It was on this day that the New Testament church began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all who believe.
- “Hag HaBikkurim”: meaning “The Holiday of First Fruits,” which comes from the practice of bringing fruits of the wheat harvest to the Temple on Shavuot.
- “Zeman Matan Tortenu”, the “giving of the law” to Israel.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the Jews were scattered, the feast lost its connection to the harvest of wheat. The rabbis connected Shavuot with the revelation at Mt. Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. This is why Shavuot celebrates the giving and receiving of the Torah in modern times.
Shavuot shares two important characteristics with the holidays Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles):
- All three holidays involved a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
- All three holidays involved first fruit offerings at the Temple.
Jewish tradition also suggests that King David both was born and died on Shavuot. Peter seemed to know this tradition when, at Pentecost, he gave his sermon (Acts 2:25-28), he used the prophecies of David in the Psalms to speak of the resurrection of Jesus, the Son of David.
- The Ten Commandments are read to commemorate the giving of the Law.
- Some Jews will stay up all Shavuot night studying the Torah (Law) to “re-live” the revelation at Mount Sinai. The practice, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot owes its origins to traditional narratives that are used by rabbis to emphasize a point, in this case, the study of the Torah. The problem with this is that there are many traditional narratives used by rabbis, so much so, many Jews cannot distinguish between what is narrative and what is scripture. The tradition relates that on the morning of the giving of the Torah the Israelites overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on Mount Sinai. So, as a form of penance for the nation’s tardiness, many devout Jews stay up all night to study the Torah.
- The book of Ruth is read, tying in with the theme of harvest as well as the theme of community. This also connects with the belief that King David was born on Shavuot, since the last verse of the book shows that David was a descendant of Ruth and Boaz.
- A 12th century Aramaic poem, Akdamut, which heralds the Messianic future, is read.
- Jewish people traditionally decorate their homes and synagogues with flowers and greenery. This is because Jewish tradition holds that Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers and greenery on the giving of the Torah.
- Leviticus 23:17 requires that two loaves of leavened bread be baked; this represents all of humanity (one loaf is the Jewish people, the other Gentiles).
- It is traditional to eat milk products because the rabbis say that when Israel received the Law they were as new-born babies.
The Timeline for the Giving of the Torah
Note Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew calendar, the Gregorian equivalent is March / April. Iyyar is the second month of the Hebrew calendar, the Gregorian equivalent is April / May. Sivan is the third month of the Hebrew calendar.
- Nisan 1 –The start of the sacred year. The commencement of the divine lunar calendar – Rosh Chodashim.
- Nisan 15 – Pesach/Passover. The curse of the first-born spurs Pharaoh to release the Jews.
- Nisan 18 – Pharaoh peruses (Exodus: 14:9).
- Nisan 20 – Israel trapped against the Red Sea (Exodus: 14:1-12).
- Nisan 21 – Seven days after the Exodus, the Red Sea is parted (Exodus:14:21).
- Nisan 24 – Israel arrives at Marah the pool of bitter water (Exodus 15:22-27).
- Iyyar 15 – Manna is given. 30 days had passed since Passover (Exodus 16:1-5).
- Iyyar 23 – water from the rock. 38 days after the exodus the Israelites arrive at Rephidim a desert area and Moses strikes a rock to produce water (Exodus: 17).
- Sivan 1 – Arrival at Sinai (Exodus: 19:1).
- Sivan 2 – The day of distinction.
- Moses ascends Mount Sinai (43 days has passed since Passover)
- Sivan 3-5 – The covenant is offered. Moses makes a covenant with the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, at which the people declare, “all the Lord has spoken, we will do and hear” (Exodus 19:8). The three days of preparation commence. God instructs Moses to set boundaries for the people around the mountain in preparation for the giving of the torch at the end of the three days (Exodus: 19:10-11).
- Sivan 6 – The giving of the Torah (Shavuot)
A Marriage Contract
After leaving Egypt the Jews were led by the pillars of cloud and fire to the foot of Mount Sinai. Then seven weeks after the exodus, the Lord reveals Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. All of Israel heard the Lord speak the first two of the Ten Commandments. Following this Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai for 40 days to receive the remainder of the Torah. This date coincides exactly with the festival of Shavuot.
In the Talmud, Shavuot is referred to as the marriage day between God and the nation of Israel, because of the covenant agreement that took place on that day – the Torah being the marriage contract (Passover is considered the time of Israel’s betrothal or engagement to God). Israel had become a people to God. This was the first Pentecost, the natural before the spiritual, and the temporal under the Old Covenant, before the eternal under the New Covenant that was to follow.
The Feast of Pentecost reveals a clearer understanding of the Church’s relationship with the Jews. Hebrew thinking is very different than Greek (Hellenistic) thinking, which is the foundation of our Western mindset. The Greek mind rationalizes and must find a conclusion. To limit God to a boxed answer, where He can be categorized for convenience is a grave mistake. Many errors in interpreting our relationship with God in scripture are made when seeking an either/or answer. It is also why we have so much confusion in the Church about our relationship with the people of Israel:
Is Christianity a faith rooted in Judaism, or are we a new faith, a New Covenant which has broken away from the old? Because this question is answered from a Western logic, we have churches that become legalistic and follow the practices of Judaism (called Judaizers), and some churches separate themselves totally from the nation of Israel and hold to the ideology of replacement theology.
Christianity a Jewish Faith?
Replacement theology holds the belief that God has finished with the nation of Israel, and the promise for Israel now belongs wholly to the Church. They do not mention the sinister side of that logic, which is that the Church has all the blessings, but the Jews still have all the curses (Deut. 28:15-68). The Jewish mind however has no difficulty accepting a both/and scenario, that the Church is both a Jewish faith rooted in Judaism and a new faith under the New Covenant. Examples of other difficulties with the either/or concept are:
- We are predestined for salvation, Paul tells us this in Ephesians – God chose us before the foundations of the world were formed (Ephesians 1:4). This scripture led men like John Calvin to believe that God predestined certain people to be “elect,” meaning that God dictated who will be saved before that person was even born. Because of the either/or ideology, the idea that man has free will is not considered. When we view the doctrine of salvation from a Jewish perspective of both/and, we can come to the understanding that God chose us because He knew we would choose Him.
- Am I a child of God or His servant? It is both/and – we cannot function properly as Christians if we make the mistake of tilting to one side of this logic: If I believe I am a child of God and not a servant I neglect to reverence God as the God almighty and treat Him as some benevolent old man who just wants to bless His children. If I believe He is my Lord and master then I become legalistic, I focus on a relationship that requires obeying rules and regulations. We need to understand the both/and, that God is both our father and our Lord, to attain the balance necessary for the correct relationship with God.
The both/and reasoning also applies to the Church’s relationship with Israel – The Church is both a faith rooted in Judaism, but different from Judaism, the feast of Pentecost makes that clear by its similarity, yet contrast. Let us look at the evidence.
What does Pentecost have to do with Shavuot?
As was stated earlier, the link between the two holidays lies in their names: Shavuot is also referred to as the Feast of Weeks, as it starts seven full weeks or exactly 50 days after the Feast of First Fruits. Since it takes place exactly 50 days after the previous feast, this feast is also known as “Pentecost” (Acts 2:1), which means “fifty” in Greek.
Pentecost Sunday marks the day the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus after his death, resurrection, and ascension. The story comes from the New Testament Book of Acts.
“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.” Acts 2:2-4
Jesus’ followers were amazed — they could speak languages they never knew before. The Apostle Peter stood up and preached his first sermon which resulted in 3000 men being saved. Instead of rushing to the foot of Mount Sinai to see the presence of God, the Jews were rushing to Mount Zion. Because so many were saved on this day many Christians think of this holiday as the “birthday” of the Church.
The Shadow of Jesus in Shavuot
Freedom from slavery
The feast of Pentecost, as stated earlier, took place fifty days after the feast of First Fruits. The number fifty represents liberty, freedom, and deliverance in scripture, for example, the fiftieth year in Israel was a Jubilee year (the Shemitah year), where the Jewish slaves were released from their bondage of servitude and debts were canceled. The feast of Shavuot for the Jews was a celebration of their release from captivity as slaves in Egypt and the beginning of a covenant relationship with God. The Christian Pentecost is a celebration of our freedom from slavery in sin, and the beginning of a New Covenant with Jesus.
On the day that the Jews celebrated the first fruits of the wheat harvest, the Church remembers the first fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38).
The Purifying fire
The presence of God descended on Mount Sinai in fire (Exodus 19:18), the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in fire (Acts 2:3), fire being symbolic of the purifying presence of God.
Anomalies signal the presence of God descending on a Mountain
Powerful anomalies were present in both cases; dark clouds, lightning, and earthquakes highlighted the presence of God on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18; 20:18). In the upper room on Mount Zion, a mighty wind was the anomaly that indicated the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2).
The Commencement Of A Covenant Agreement
The acceptance of the Ten Commandments by the Jews brought them into a legally binding covenant relationship with God. God would be their God and they would be His people. The baptism of the Holy Spirit brings the new believer into a covenant relationship with Jesus. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). We have eternal salvation, we are in an eternal covenant relationship – we have become children of God. God will never break His covenant agreement with us, if we backslide and break the covenant, God – our heavenly Father will institute corrective measures to restore our covenant agreement.
A Marriage Covenant
In the Talmud, Shavuot is referred to as the marriage day between God and the nation of Israel, because of the covenant agreement that took place on that day, the Torah being the marriage contract. On the receiving of the baptism of the Holy Spirit the believer becomes a “baptised,” Spirit filled member of the Bride of Christ.
The Writing Of The Commandments
The 10 commandments were written on two tablets of stone by the finger of God, which Moses had to carry down the mountain to present to the nation of Israel. At the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God writes the law on the heart (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). The Stone tablets of the law were a heavy burden for Moses to carry – the 10 commandments were increased to 613 rules and laws that needed to be obeyed as part of the covenant agreement. The Grace of God is light and easy with two requirements – to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 5:6-8; 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10). These two requirements fulfill the whole purpose of the Law. God before self, others before self – these requirements should be a joy to the Christian. Jesus told the Jews to take His yoke upon them “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The burden of the law was heavy for the Jews, even before the Pharisees built on it with their legalism and hypocrisy. The yoke Jesus was offering was the baptism of the Holy Spirit, to become conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
“Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20).
The Glory Of God
The New Testament Pentecost shows a great comparison and contrast to the Old Testament Shavuot. Paul tells us that the glory on the face of Jesus is greater than the Glory of God on the face of Moses. Jesus is the New Covenant mediator; the Glory of the Old Covenant is faded in comparison to the Glory of the New Covenant, which is the greater Glory because it lasts and will never fade (2 Corinthian 3:7-11). Moses had to cover his face with a veil so people could not behold the Glory of God (Exodus 34:29–35). The face of Jesus is unveiled so we can change into that same glory.
Paul in writing to the Corinthians warns that the law ministers’ death (2 Cor. 3:7). The evidence of this scripture is seen, when the first consequence of receiving the law was the death of 3 000 people. This tragedy occurred on the day Moses brought the commandments down from Mount Sinai. The New Covenant minister’s life, as is evidenced by the first consequence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit resulting in the salvation of 3000 people on the day of Pentecost.
Worship On A Sunday
Shavuot and Pentecost took place on the eighth day – the number eight in scripture (Bible numerics) is used to indicate a “new beginning”. The nation of Israel was commencing a new beginning in covenant relationship with God, and the Church was experiencing a new beginning in the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit manifest in each believer.
The resurrection of Jesus also occurred on the eight-day, the first day of the new week – a Sunday. As a result of this, the early Christians used to gather together in remembrance of these two momentous events in the Church’s formation. The promise we have in the resurrection and the sealing of the New Covenant through the baptism of the Holy Spirit which is where the tradition of Sunday services originates from.
The Two Loaves
For the feast of Shavuot, two loaves were baked with leaven (Lev. 23:17), which represented the Jews and the Gentiles, both born in sin. At Pentecost the Jews present for the feast, although they were sinners, received the power of the Holy Spirit by acknowledging Jesus as their Messiah. For the first time in 1500 years, the Jews received the fullness of the covenant they made with God on Shavuot.
What of the other loaf – the Gentiles? Peter in his sermon to the Jews stated that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was for all who would acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Saviour (Acts 2:39). This promise was later fulfilled for the Gentiles in the home of Cornelius in Caesarea.
It is worthwhile making a side note of the important significance of Caesarea, being the venue chosen by God for Gentiles to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. During the conflict between Mark Antony and Augustus that took place after the death of Caesar, King Herod had aligned himself with Mark Antony. Unfortunately for Herod, Mark Antony committed suicide after his defeat at the naval battle of Actium. Herod was in a political pickle and was in danger of losing his throne. Being the shrewd politician, he was, he made the brave decision to travel to Rome and make an appeal to Augustus. Herod lavished Augustus with gifts and promised him that the loyalty he had shown Mark Antony would be matched by the loyalty he would give to Augustus. The strategy worked and Herod kept his crown, and to show his loyalty to Augustus, Herod built the magnificent port of Caesarea in Augustus’ honour. The city was a major trading port, and Herod made sure it had all the trappings of a major Roman city including a hippodrome and a theatre. The city brought the influences of Pagan Rome into the land of Israel, righteous Jews hated it, it was an affront to their sacred Torah. Yet it was in Caesarea that God chose to first baptise Gentiles with the Holy Spirit. In the heart of Roman paganism, the power of the Holy Spirit moved.
In The Steps Of Jesus
- The Lamb of God is baptised by John in the Jordan River. When Jesus came up from the water, He was immediately baptized by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16-17).
- Jesus is then tested by Satan in the wilderness and is victorious. Note, testing goes before ministry, no worthy soldier goes untrained into battle.
- Jesus goes in the power of the Holy Spirit to Nazareth, and reads the scriptures in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captive and recovery of the sight of the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of our Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). The ministry of Jesus was also the great commission given to the disciples: “He who believes in me, the works I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).
The earthly ministry of Jesus was limited to one location at a point in time, wherever His body was. Now the Holy Spirit ministers through the body of the Church, wherever there is a believer empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Lord will be able to minister.
Every time a sinner receives Jesus into their hearts they experience Passover, and every time a believer receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit they experience Pentecost. God wants us to know Jesus, not only as the Lamb of God who died for our sins, but also the living, glorified Messiah and Lord who baptises us with the Holy Spirit. So, the believer must not stop at the feast of Passover with the salvation that the Lord brings, they must move on to Pentecost and enter into the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which is empowerment to serve within the body of Christ. The feasts are a shadow of the reality that is Jesus. By understanding the feasts, we draw closer to our Jewish Lord and Saviour, and we also come to understand our Jewish roots and our relationship with the nation of Israel. We are grafted into the olive tree, but we are also under a New Covenant (Ephesians 2:11-13).
~ Neil Taylor