The Significance of Pentecost
By: Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor
Throughout the Bible, God provides types and shadows to help us understand better how He has worked throughout time, a unique kind of symbolism that foreshadows a thing or person in the New Testament. Pentecost, the day God’s Spirit indwelt Jesus’ disciples in Acts 2, is one such New Testament event. In the Old Testament, Pentecost is called the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Harvest. Today, Jews refer to it as Shavuot.
Knowing how and when the Jews in Jesus’ day celebrated Shavuot, where this feast shows up in the Old Testament, and what exactly was happening that day in Acts 2 helps us more deeply understand the significance of Pentecost—what it means for us today and what it tells us is yet to come.
Exactly 10 days after Jesus ascended to heaven, on Shavuot, as Jesus’ disciples were waiting in Jerusalem for the “helper” He had promised to send (John 14:26), they all heard “a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind” that filled the whole house. Acts 2:3 says there “appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.” Consider what happens next:
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:4–6)
Up to that point, God’s presence had primarily existed outside His people; the Spirit of God sometimes indwelt prophets, priests, and kings, but it was selective, temporary, and usually for a specific task. Yet in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’ disciples, it was permanent. It’s a familiar story to most believers, but there’s more to unpack about this profound day! Going back to the “shadow” of Shavuot in the Old Testament can help.
What Is Pentecost?
The Bible lists seven “feasts” in Leviticus 23, times God set for His people to draw near to Him. Shavuot is one of those feasts. In Leviticus, right after God instructed Israel on how to celebrate the spring feasts of Passover and Firstfruits, He told the children of Israel to start counting:
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.” (23:15–16)
God required Israel to count 49 days from the day after they brought the first grain offering for the feast of Firstfruits. Day 50 is Shavuot. This helps explain the different names for the holiday! Shavuot means “weeks,” so “Feast of Weeks” points to the 7 weeks of counting. And because the feast centers on bringing firstfruits offerings of the spring wheat harvest before the Lord, it’s sometimes called the Feast of Harvest. (The 50-day count gives it the name “Pentecost” in the New Testament—Pentecost in Greek means “fiftieth.”)
In Jesus’ day, Shavuot was a holy day set aside for giving thanks for the harvest. It was the day the children of Israel brought the firstfruits of the wheat harvest to the temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God; because it was the first ripened wheat of the season, this offering indicated there would be a greater fall harvest—a guarantee of more to come.
But the feast also remembered what happened at Mount Sinai, linking the process of freedom (salvation) that began in Egypt with Passover to the giving of God’s law.
A Shadow of Things to Come
Now let’s explore a bit deeper the importance of types and shadows in the Bible. In Colossians 2:16–17, the apostle Paul references something twenty-first-century Western readers sometimes gloss over because they are unfamiliar with the cultural context behind some of the words and phrases:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival [including feasts like Shavuot], a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (NIV)
In this passage, Paul refers to festivals (or feasts) as a “shadow” of something to come. A shadow gives an idea of what something looks like, but it has no substance. It’s a picture pointing to what the real thing is like. Consider this image of a tree: the shadow of the tree provides an idea of what the actual tree looks like, but the substance is the tree itself—a tree whose trunk, bark, branches, and leaves we can see and touch.
The thing of substance, Paul says, is Jesus. This means that to understand the significance of what happened that day in Acts 2 better, we must go back to the “shadow” that points to that reality—and that shadow is found in Exodus.
The Bible tells us that on the first day of the third month—50 days after God brought Israel out of Egypt—they arrived at Sinai and camped before a mountain (Exodus 19:1–2). Verses 16–18 describe what happened next:
Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire.
Verses 19–20 tell us the “whole mountain quaked greatly” and the blast of the trumpet “sounded long and became louder and louder.” When Moses spoke, God answered him “by voice,” and then Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain.
What a fascinating, noisy scene! Moses brings the entire nation of Israel out to meet with God against a backdrop of loud thunder and lightning, the earth quaking, and a thick cloud that enveloped the mountain covering it in smoke—and then “the Lord descended upon it in fire.”
Words in the Bible often have a deep, spiritual meaning, so consider a few from the Exodus 19 passage to help connect what happened at Mount Sinai with Acts 2:
Fire and cloud: The presence and glory of God
Wind: The Spirit of God, His breath of life
Thunder: Sound or noise
Trumpet: God’s voice
Clearly it was God’s presence that descended upon Mount Sinai that day. Immediately after, God gave Israel His Torah, or “law,” which included all of God’s instruction for how the children of Israel should live. It was like a marriage contract between God and Israel, His bride. That first Shavuot established a relationship.
Israel’s physical liberation (their redemption from slavery in Egypt because of the blood of the lamb painted on their doorposts) was complete. But they needed to know how to live as a redeemed people so that they would look different from the nations.
Though Jews today still celebrate Shavuot 50 days after the feast of Firstfruits, there are no specific requirements for how to do it, though several customs exist, like reading the book of Ruth. Yet from ancient biblical times to today, on Shavuot, Jews remember God’s presence on Mount Sinai as a cloud, fire, smoke, noise, and quaking as He gave them His law—what we know today as the Mosaic covenant.
It’s no coincidence that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those 120 disciples as tongues of fire happened on Shavuot, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection—the very day Jews were remembering the events of Mount Sinai.
Recall that Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem because He had told them to remain there until the promised helper came. But Acts 2 says there were also Jews in Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven” (v. 5), and they, too, heard the commotion. Interestingly, Shavuot was one of three “pilgrimage” feasts; God required all male Jews to gather in Jerusalem and worship God on that day, so the city was packed with Jews from surrounding nations there to celebrate the feast. This meant the entire nation of Israel was represented to witness what was happening, just as at Mount Sinai.
On that day, the Bible says everyone in Jerusalem heard a “great sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind”—God’s Spirit—and His presence filled the whole house where the disciples waited as tongues of fire descended on them and the Holy Spirit filled their hearts.
The events of Acts 2 were the reality, the “substance,” of the shadow of Exodus 19, profoundly occurring on the same date God had given Israel His law on Mount Sinai.
A New Heart and Spirit
The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel shed light on what was happening that day in Jerusalem. Jeremiah declared that one day God would make a new covenant with Israel, unlike the one He had made at Mount Sinai (which they broke). He would put His laws in their minds and “write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). And Ezekiel said God would give Israel “a new heart and put a new spirit within them” and cause them to walk in His statutes (36:26–27). God’s Spirit within His people would enable them to obey His instruction (36:26–27), something they could never do of their own will.
On the first Shavuot after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, as the children of Israel were bringing the firstfruits of their spring wheat harvest to the temple as a deposit for the fall harvest to come, those first believers, now filled with the Spirit, were a “deposit” of a greater future harvest of believers:
Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:21–22)
Later Paul would write that anyone filled with God’s Spirit is a living epistle, or “letter,” of Christ, “written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3). No longer was God’s instruction external and temporary, but for anyone who believed, it was internal and permanent. Jesus, God’s perfect instruction, the “living Torah,” would dwell within His people, sealing their relationship.
The writer of Hebrews says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). Understanding how the “shadow” of Shavuot and the events of Exodus 19 connect to the Pentecost story of Acts 2 not only increases our faith in God and affirms His Word but points to a day when what began at Pentecost is completed, when Jesus—the fulfillment of God’s instruction given at Mount Sinai—returns to earth to dwell among His people and God’s law goes “out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2 NIV).