This Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost. For today, please read the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. “Pentecost” means fiftieth in Greek. It is the Jewish festival of Shavout, and takes place fifty days after the Passover. The festival’s origins were to celebrate the grain harvest (Deut. 16:9-11). Jewish tradition dating back to before Jesus also identifies this festival with the giving on the law on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-32. Just as the Passion is seen as a fulfillment of the Passover in Exodus 12-14, so too is the coming of the Holy Spirit the fulfillment of the giving of the Law. And in giving us the story of Pentecost, Luke will follow the outlines of this Jewish tradition.
The story of the Passover is that the Israelites were enslaved to the Egyptians. God frees his people from slavery through the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. The Lamb’s blood tells the Destroyer sent by God to pass over the Israelites’ houses during the tenth plague, which is the death of the firstborn. The slaveholders let the Israelites go and fifty days later (after crossing the Red Sea) the people encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:2) as God had commanded Moses to do from the burning bush (Ex. 3:12).
Exodus describes the occasion of God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai as one of great tumult – thunders and lightning, the sound of trumpets, and earthquakes. Ex. 19:16-19. Scripture says that “God descended on the mountain in fire.” Ex. 19:18. Although the people heard the tumult, they were prohibited from coming into God’s presence because the masses lacked the appropriate holiness. Ex. 19:24. It is the gift of the Law that establishes the covenantal relationship between God and the Israelites. God delivered his people from slavery and they became his at Mt. Sinai.
The Hebrew word qol is a noun that is translated as “thunders” in Exodus and comes from the word meaning the sound made by a human voice. (“Abram listened to the voice (qol) of his wife Sarai.” Gen. 16:2.) Because the word qol, is equivocal (thunder or voice) and because in Exodus 16:19 the word is plural, not singular, and because God is seen as descending in fire, Jewish tradition taught that:
“And all the people saw the sounds (literally, voices) – it is not written, ‘sound,’ here, but rather, ‘sounds’ as emerging from the Lord’s mouth as a fiery substance. Each commandment that left the LORD’s mouth traveled around the entire camp and then came back to every Jew individually. Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘The voice would go out and divide into seventy voices for the seventy languages (Jewish tradition teaching that there were seventy languages in the world) so that all the nations would hear. And each and every nation would hear in the language of the nation and their souls would depart.’” Shemot Rabbah 5.9.
The story of the New Covenant is the same. God frees his people from being enslaved to death and sin through the sacrifice of the Christ, the new Passover lamb. 1 Cor. 5:7. Fifty days later the gift of the Spirit establishes the covenantal relationship between God and his Church. Like the Israelites, the early church was all gathered in one place when the great tumult occurs. And, like Mt. Siani in the tradition, the two great signs are fire and language. Jewish tradition says that God’s voice on Siani went out to all the nations, and this is what occurs on Pentecost as well. Acts 2:5-11.
And just as the Passover lamb was superseded by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, so does the new Pentecost supersede the old. As Jeremiah wrote, the new covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt . . . . But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jer. 31:31-33, Heb. 10:16. Or as Paul puts it: “The new covenant is not of the letter but of the Spirit” 2 Cor. 3:6.
The difference between the old covenant formed at Mt. Siani and the New Covenant formed on Pentecost is profound. The fire on Mount Siani was to keep the unclean people away from the holy God. Exodus 19. And as the Scriptures tell us while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law, the people built a golden calf to worship. Ex. 32:4. As a result, Moses ordered those who worshipped the calf to be killed, and “about three thousand people fell that today.” Ex. 32:28. In contrast, the fire of Pentecost served not to separate the holy from the world, but to drive the holy out into the world. Unlike the conclusion to the reception of the Law where three thousand died, Luke tells us that “those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” Acts 2:41. There is a contract between a covenant based on the law which requires separation and death, and a covenant based on the spirit which leads to inclusion and life.
He has given us the power to serve under a new covenant. The covenant is not based on the written Law of Moses. It comes from the Holy Spirit. The written Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.2 Corinthians 3:6