The latest possible date for Pentecost is June 13th, so June 4th is a relatively late date for it, though three years ago it was on June 8th. Pentecost is 50 days (hence the “pent”) after Easter and occurs at the same time as the Jewish Shavuot, variously known as the Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:10), the Feast of Harvest (Exodus 23:16) or First Fruits (Numbers 28:26). For Christians it celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts Chapter 2), seen as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel (2:28-32).
In England we no longer celebrate Whit Monday, which since 1967 has been replaced by the Spring Bank Holiday, which occurs on the last Monday in May. I guess that it was seen as more vulnerable than Easter, but with the introduction of the Communist May Day as a public holiday it now means that we have a cluster of Spring Holidays and then a long summer without one until the last Monday in August. Whit Monday was vulnerable because the Church had forgotten about Pentecost. One of the reasons for this was that the Church of England wished to distance itself from Pentecostal denominations that majored on Pentecost.
Pentecostal Churches associate the Holy Spirit with the spectacular gifts poured out on the Church: speaking unlearnt foreign languages, miracles of healing, visions and prophecies. I think that these churches made the error of not appreciating the significance of Shavuot. It is the Feast of First Fruits. The first fruits are a particularly Mediterranean phenomenon. Harvest does not normally occur in May – this is the early harvest, an earnest, (if you like a deposit) of what is to come later. It is clear that the miraculous gifts of the book of Acts were short lived. In Acts 91:12 we read of Paul’s handkerchiefs touching the sick and healing them, but later on he writes to Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake and his many ailments. Why didn’t he send a handkerchief?
The miraculous gifts were the first fruits. To pretend that they are still present is technically known as realized eschatology; the idea that the ‘last things’ are already here. Concentrating on the gift of tongues misses out on what it was there for. The point about Acts chapter 2 is that everybody present heard them speaking in his own language. It was the message that was important not the medium.
The Jews of the Gospels were notoriously insular. There had long been strictures about marrying out for fear of foreign gods. In the conquest of Canaan no prisoners were taken. But as God’s chosen people they were chosen for a purpose – to let the world know about Him. So the Deuteronomy passage about Shavuot specifically mentions foreigners among the blessed. Jesus’ first sermon (Luke Ch 4:14-28) raised the anger of his listeners because he spoke of God helping the Gentiles giving examples of Elijah helping a widow from the region of Sidon and Elisha curing the leprosy of a Syrian rather than an Israelite.
When modern Biblical critics consider the two feeding miracles in the Gospels (of the 5000 in Mark 6 and 4000 in Mark 8) they assume that this is the same event somehow confused, but they fail to notice the differences between them. The 5000 took place on Jewish territory in Galilee and the 4000 in Gentile territory in the Decapolis. In explaining their meaning in Mark 8 Jesus harks on about the numbers of baskets. “Do you still not understand?” he asks.
The numbers give the clue. Many people are sceptical about numerology, but without doubt numbers had an important significance in Biblical times. The Jewish feeding is full of Jewish symbolism. 5000 refers to the Pentateuch, the 5 books of Moses; note also there were 5 loaves. Arranging the people in groups of 50 and 100 harks back to Moses in the Wilderness. The 12 baskets refer to the 12 tribes of Israel. The Greek word for basket used here is a specific term for a small lunchbox sized basket used by the Hebrews. On the other hand the word for basket used for the feeding of the 4000 refers to a hamper sized receptacle used by Jews and Gentiles alike. The 4000 is symbolic of everyone – the 4 points of the compass. The 7 baskets refers to the ‘perfect number’ representing all nations; note also there were 7 loaves.
All through the Old Testament there are signs that the Jews were to share ‘their’ God with the rest of the world. Abram is renamed Abraham, the father of many nations. Isaiah talks of his servant being a light for the Gentiles (44:6, 49:6), and Zechariah 8:22 has “many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty.”
Finally Jesus gives the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations…”
Pentecost is about evangelism … and it worked. Three thousand converted in a single day; evangelists spilled out all over the Roman Empire and beyond,.all preaching a message of a suffering saviour who died to save us and rose to free us and will return to take us home.
My Lord what love is this
That pays so dearly,
That I, the guilty one,
May go free?
O what sacrifice!
The Son of God given for me.
My debt he paid
And my death he dies
That I might live