Today is the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Day of Pentecost. It is the anniversary of Peter’s gospel sermon and the subsequent baptism of the first converts into the Lord’s church. Let us consider what makes it a special occasion and why the Lord chose to pour out His Spirit on that day.
Pentecost is not a Christian feast—the Lord’s Supper is the only Christian feast—it is a Jewish feast commanded in the Law of Moses. We read of it under a different name in the Law: the Feast of Weeks. Pentecost is the feast’s Greek name. Both names come from the way in which the feast is dated: “You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. 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” (Lev 23.15-16).
The precise dating of Pentecost is a matter of dispute in Judaism, depending in part on which Sabbath you take the text to mean. Rabbinic Judaism has always interpreted this as the Sabbath of the Passover. The date is not disputed among Christians, as far as I am aware, because the Rabbinic date accords with what we read in the first chapters of Acts. Our Lord was crucified on Passover and rose the Sunday after the Passover Sabbath. Luke tells us, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1.3). After the Lord’s Ascension, the next date we are given is Pentecost (Acts 2.1).
We do not think it a coincidence that our Lord chose to be crucified on the Passover, because He is our paschal lamb. We are likewise given to think that it was His choice, and not coincidence, to spend the better part of the time between Passover and Pentecost with the disciples, ascending into heaven just days before year’s second pilgrimage feast. Let us consider why.
There is a practical reason for placing the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost: there was a guaranteed audience, since Pentecost was one of the three feasts of obligation (Dtr 16.16). Not only was Peter guaranteed a crowd, it is almost certain that most of the men in Peter’s audience on Pentecost had also been in the city on the day the Lord was crucified. When Peter talks about the crucifixion in his sermon, his audience knows—they were there! And it pricks them in their hearts, because they were the men shouting “Crucify! Crucify!”
We must also consider what Pentecost stood for in the Law. It is connected to the Feast of Firstfruits, which we read about in Lev 23.9-14. When the grain harvest comes in, the Lord and His priests get to enjoy its firstfruits. Only after offering to the Lord may one enjoy the fruits of his labor. This reminds us of who we are and what we are about in the church. We are the Lord’s reapers, as He said, “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” (Lk 10.2). It reminds us that we are to labor here for the Lord and enjoy the fruits of our labor after we have finished offering to the Lord.
Pentecost is also a celebration of the new grain in Israel. It is the time when the Lord pours out his gifts on men, and all enjoy the blessings of new life. Passover is solemn, and Booths is humble; Pentecost is a party. What better time, then, for the Lord to pour out His Spirit on men and to have his servant, Peter, preach new life in Christ?
Finally, the abundant life of Pentecost was meant as a celebration to all, especially to the poor and outcast. In Leviticus, the Law connects the reaping of Pentecost with the care of the poor: “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” (Lev 23.22). The command in Deuteronomy makes the connection more explicit: “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes” (Dtr 16.11-12). The poor were to join in the partying, and Israel was to share with them. In choosing Pentecost to institute His church, our Lord signifies that we are to continue His word which He proclaimed in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4.18a).
Let us rejoice in the abundant gifts of our Lord, for He has blessed us with His Holy Spirit.