What holiday do Jews and Christians have in common?
By Dr. Mitch Glaser
The Festivals of Israel
Commonly known to Christians as Pentecost, Shavuot is one of four spring festivals and one of three “Aliyah” festivals found in the Hebrew Scriptures, when Jewish men were commanded to go up to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple. The festivals of Israel were designed by God to focus the hearts and minds of the Jewish people on the redemptive message of God’s person and plan.
The seven great festivals outlined in Leviticus chapter 23 all point to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus had the Festivals, along with other passages of Scripture, in mind when he told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus,
And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27)
The four Spring Festivals – Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, First Fruits and Shavuot – were fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus, and the three Fall Festivals, Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot will be fulfilled in His second coming.
The First Three Spring Festivals
Passover is a prophetic portrait of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The celebration of unleavened bread reminds us of the sinless nature of the Savior. First Fruits, which took place on the Sunday after the Sabbath of Passover speaks of the Messiah who would rise as the first fruit from among the dead.
The Fourth Spring Festival
The Biblical Names
Shavuot – “Weeks” – 7 weeks after Passover
The fourth and final spring festival is called Shavuot, which means “weeks” in Hebrew. Beginning with Passover, Israel is commanded to count seven whole weeks until the 50th day at which point Shavuot is observed.
You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete sabbaths. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring in from your dwelling places two loaves of bread for a wave offering, made of two-tenths of an [c]ephah; they shall be of a fine flour, baked with leaven as first fruits to the Lord. Along with the bread you shall present seven one year old male lambs without defect, and a bull of the herd and two rams; they are to be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the Lord. You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings. The priest shall then wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering with two lambs before the Lord; they are to be holy to the Lord for the priest. On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work. It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations. (Leviticus 23:15-21)
Pentecost – “Fifty” – 50th day after Passover
In Christian tradition the festival is called Pentecost – the Greek term which means “50”, as this fourth spring festival is observed on the 50th day after Passover.
The Traditional Jewish Names
Chag HaKatzir, which means “The Harvest Holiday.”
Chag HaBikurim, meaning “The Holiday of First Fruits.” This name comes from the practice of bringing fruits to the Temple on Shavuot.
Chag ha Azereth – Jewish tradition designates it as “Chag ha Azereth” or simply “Azereth” (the “feast of the conclusion” or simply “conclusion”).
The Biblical Commands
There are many Jewish traditions associated with Shavuot, such as reading the Book of Ruth, spending the entire night studying Torah until dawn, chanting the Ten Commandments, decorating synagogues and homes with aromatic spices, and partaking of a dairy meal and dessert.
The Book of Ruth is traditionally read during Shavuot because the biblical account takes place during the summer harvest. The book of Ruth celebrates God restoring honor and dignity to Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. Ruth is a gentile who identifies with the Jewish people by committing herself to Naomi and Naomi’s people, the Jewish people. King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, was born and died on this festival.
Many religious Jews commemorate Shavuot by spending the entire night studying Torah at their synagogue or home. They also study other biblical books and portions of the Talmud. This all-night gathering is known as Tikun Leyl Shavuot and at dawn participants stop studying and recite Shacharit, the customary morning prayer.
The Foods of Shavuot
What Jewish holiday would be complete without a signature cuisine? Shavuot is no different! According to long-standing tradition with a blurry origin, dairy foods such as cheese, cheesecake and milk products are eaten on Shavuot. A popular Shavuot delicacy is cheese blintzes. Some believe the tradition is related to The Song of Songs and based upon the passage that references milk and honey in chapter 4, verse 11.
Your lips, my bride, drip honey; Honey and milk are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
Many believe that this line is comparing the Bible to the sweetness of milk and honey. In some European cities children are introduced to Bible study on Shavuot and are given honey cakes with passages from the Bible, primarily passages from the first five books of Moses (the Torah), written on them.
Zman Matan Torah –– One of the Hebrew titles for the holiday in Jewish tradition is Zman Matan Torah, “the season of the giving of the Law,” as the rabbis believed that the Law – the Torah, was given on Shavuot. A special holiday bread with a ladder design embedded into the loaf is eaten – a reminder of the Jewish tradition that Moses climbed a ladder to heaven to receive the Law.
The Messianic Fulfillment of the Festival
Now, if Passover is fulfilled in the death of the Lamb of God, Unleavened Bread in His sinless character, and First Fruits in His resurrection, then we must ask ourselves – how is Shavuot (Pentecost) fulfilled by the first coming of Jesus?
It is no coincidence that God selected this Jewish festival as the day when He would send His Holy Spirit.
The Promise of the Spirit
The 120 Disciples (Acts 1:15) were in one place, in one mind, praying and focusing on God’s work. They were waiting in obedience to the command of Jesus (Acts 1:4-5) and also in obedience to the Laws of Shavuot regarding “no work” (Leviticus 23:21). Many were pilgrims who had left their homes in other places to be part of this festival. God would bless their obedience now in a powerful way.
Jesus opened the eyes of the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus and explained to them what was in the Old Testament scriptures about Himself and then pointed them towards the coming of the Holy Spirit, which He described as the “promise of the Father.” This implies that the coming of the Holy Spirit was the subject of Old Testament prophecy. This is detailed further when the Holy Spirit falls and Peter explains the event in light of Joel chapter 2:28-32.
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45-49)
And further, before His ascension to the right hand of the Father He says to His disciples,
Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized [f]with the Holy Spirit [g]not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5)
Signs and Wonders
After some days of patient waiting, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples on the 50th day after Passover. It was a new revelation given on a new Shavuot/Pentecost! The initial giving of the Torah by Moses at Mount Sinai had come with signs and wonders in the heavens as seen in Exodus 19.
So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. (Exodus 19:16-19)
There were signs and wonders in the Upper Room marking this new Pentecost as well. It was the birthday of a new revelation and the fulfillment of God’s promises to pour out His Spirit in the last days!
The Tradition of All Israel Being Present at Sinai
According to Jewish tradition, our Sages taught that every Jew who would ever live was at Mount Sinai, pledging their obedience to the Law. The rabbis believed in the pre-existence of the soul and that every Jew who would ever live was there at Mount Sinai, with or without a body! The rationale for this is that every Jewish person at that moment agreed to keep the Torah. The verse used to teach this is in Exodus 24:7.
Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!”
The Jewish tradition that every Jew present at Mount Sinai that day actually heard the giving of the Law in their own native tongue makes sense, as in order to obey the Jewish people needed to understand what they heard. Now, this is just a tradition and we do not believe this actually took place. But, the Jewish tradition is ancient and could very well have been known by Jesus and His disciples.
This new Pentecost took place 50 days after Jesus, the Lamb of God, died for our sins. There were signs and wonders, just like at Mount Sinai and those who heard the disciples preaching understood this new revelation in their own native tongue. The new had come in a similar manner as the old, and therefore had greater authority for the disciples if indeed they knew the tradition.
How gracious of God to use our culture and human understanding to communicate His truth to us! He communicates with us in ways we can understand: God could make His point otherwise, but He proves Himself in ways that humans can comprehend since our ability to fully grasp spiritual truth is so limited.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Son of God Himself, who took on flesh in order to communicate with you and me…to show us His love and to help us better understand the Father through His role model and example.
We too need to internalize and embody the Good News in ways our families, friends, and neighbors can understand – that is through love, helping in practical ways, and doing whatever it takes to help those we pray for understand that God is not far away, He is close and He loves them.
Lessons from the Feast of Shavuot
Jews and Gentiles Together: Live in Unity
There were Jewish people from almost every region in the Diaspora who were now part of this first harvest on the Day of Pentecost. They seemed to decide as a group that they did not want to return home immediately after the festival, but rather to spend time with one another. Note Luke’s description in Acts chapter 2,
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
This first band of Messianic brothers were all Jews as there were no known Gentile believers at this point. In fact, the Lord would teach these early Jewish believers what it meant to live in unity and work through their differences so that they were prepared for the harvest of non-Jews that would come a short time later, beginning with Cornelius in Acts chapter 10.
The Holy Spirit draws our attention and focus to Jesus and it is when we focus on the Messiah and Lord that we find unity. The Spirit of God seals us, baptizes us and connects us to Jesus and one another in a way that is supernatural and miraculous and without parallel in this world of divisions and conflict. We are not perfect and sometimes we do not work at unity, but it is clear from the text that the impact of the First Day of Shavuot in the New Covenant calendar was a season of amazing unity. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Paul described our unity in greater depth in writing to the believers in Ephesus,
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. (Ephesians 2:13-16)
The Lord wants us to become His by the power of the Holy Spirit and to work together in unity as so much more can be done together than apart as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus to a broken and needy world.
Preach with Power
We believe in the deity of the Holy Spirit and that He existed in perfect fellowship with the Son and the Father in the Old Covenant and for all eternity. However, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant is quite different than in the Old Covenant. The Holy Spirit did not change, but His role certainly did. His role in the world today is well described by Jesus in the Gospel of John, where we read,
But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (John 16:7-11)
The term translated Helper, “parakletos” literally means “one who is called alongside”…to help, strengthen and to partner with each child of God in their life and ministry. The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives is all-important, as first He regenerates us – we become born again…born from above – then He indwells us, fills us, and empowers us to preach.
We see the power of the Holy Spirit unleashed in the early sermons of the Book of Acts, especially through Peter’s preaching,
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:37-42)
But, there is more!
The Holy Spirit not only empowers the preacher, but also convicts the hearer.
The Holy Spirit convicts those who hear the preaching to repent of their sin and be saved. Convincing others that Jesus is the Messiah and by believing in Him we receive the gift of everlasting life is God’s job – through His Holy Spirit. He will convict and draw seekers to Himself as this work is His work and not ours.
The Global Harvest
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
The festival of Shevuot/Pentecost reminds us of God’s plan to bring the Good News of salvation through the Messiah to the world. This was His plan all along! When God told Abram that He would bless the world through His descendants, it was clear that God’s choosing of the Jewish people was not for the sake of the Jewish people alone but for the entire world. He said to Abram,
“And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
The blessing He promised through the Jewish people is the Gospel – the Good News about the Messiah Jesus who died and rose for our sins. Perhaps this is why the Day of Pentecost may be viewed as the birth of the church – the mysterious New Covenant community made up of Jews and Gentiles. As Paul writes,
To be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:6)
This mystery Paul is describing is the joining together of Jews and Gentiles in God’s family – set apart through the sacrifice of the Messiah Jesus and united together by His Holy Spirit.
The two loaves, made with leaven, remind us that Jews and Gentiles, sinners redeemed by God’s grace in Jesus may be made acceptable to God. As the two loaves, we are also representative of the “rest of the harvest.” And it is now our joy to work in the harvest fields of the Lord until He returns!
Jews and Gentiles have been brought together through the miracle of Pentecost and share a common Lord, common life, and common calling to reach the world for Jesus in the power of His Spirit.
And together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have a common mission – to bring the Good News of Jesus the Messiah to the Jew first, and also to the Gentiles! (Romans 1:16).