************ Sermon on Leviticus 23:15-21 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on May 30, 2004

Leviticus 23:15-21
Acts 2:1-13 (read this passage in the sermon)
"Pentecost: The Feast of Weeks"
I am indebted to an article by James C. Vander Kam in "Calvin Theological Journal," Volume 37, Number 2.

Worldwide, most holidays are celebrated on specific calendar dates. For example, Christmas Day is always December 25, New Year's Day is always January 1, Independence Day is always July 4, and so on. Furthermore, one does not usually count the number of days between holidays to determine when one happens. For example, we don't determine the date of New Year's Day by counting 7 days after Christmas. However, the Israelite Feast of Weeks is just the opposite of both these rules. No date is associated with it in the Bible. And, it is always celebrated 50 days after the Feast of Firstfruits.

I The Biblical Observance
A Names were very important in the ancient Jewish world. They usually reflected the significant character, history, or meaning of that to which they were attached. Three separate names were used by the Hebrew Scriptures for the Feast of Weeks. Each name emphasized a different facet of its observance.

The most common Hebrew name was "Feast of Weeks" (Ex 34:22; Deut 16:10); 2 Chron 8:13). It was called the Feast of Weeks because 7 weeks were counted from the Feast of Firstfruits until observing this feast.

Another name was "Day of Firstfruits" (Num 28:26). This name was given because that was the day on which the firstfruit offerings of the summer wheat crop were brought to the Temple. This feast day is not to be confused with the "Feast of Firstfruits" which marked the beginning of the spring barley harvest.

The third name was "Feast of Harvest" (Ex 23:16) and reflected that this festival was the official beginning of the summer harvest season.

In the Greek language the Feast of Weeks was known as Pentecost which literally means fiftieth since it was celebrated 50 days from the Feast of Firstfruits. Until this past week I never realized that the references to Pentecost in the Bible have to do with the Jewish feast day and calendar rather than to the outpouring of the Spirit. Luke, for instance, has the Jewish feast day in mind when he writes:
(Acts 2:1) "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place."

(Acts 20:16) Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.
Paul also has the Jewish feast day in mind when he writes:
(1Cor 16:8) But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost.

B In Bible days, the Feast of Weeks was a particularly important Jewish feast. Seven divinely appointed feasts were given to Israel. Of these seven, three were decreed by the Lord as "solemn feasts" (Ex 23:14-17; Deut 16:16; 2 Chron 8:13; Exod 34:22-23). A solemn feast was one in which all Israelite men were obligated to present themselves at the Temple. The three solemn feasts were the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. By the time of Jesus the Feast of Weeks was the central holiday of the year.

C The Feast of Weeks was a holy day, a day of rest (Lev 23:21; Num 28:26). Therefore, no work was permitted.

According to the Bible, it was forbidden to eat of the new barley crop until the barley firstfruits were offered at the Feast of Firstfruits. The same principle applied to the wheat crop. Therefore, the numerous offerings and showbread for the sanctuary were not made from the new wheat crop until after the wheat firstfruits were presented on the Feast of Weeks.

The Temple services for the Feast of Weeks followed much the same pattern as that for the Feast of Firstfruits since both holy days were celebrated with firstfruit offerings. However, the offering for the Feast of Weeks was unique. It consisted of two long, flat, leavened loaves of wheat bread as commanded by the Lord:
(Lev 23:17) From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD.

The loaves were not burned because the Lord had forbidden leaven on the altar:
(Lev 2:11) "'Every grain offering you bring to the LORD must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in an offering made to the LORD by fire."
Instead, these loaves and two lambs formed a wave offering. The priest waved them before the altar forwards and backwards, then up and down. Afterward, they were set aside "for the priest" (Lev 23:20) and formed the festive meal eaten by the priests later that day in the Temple.

The feast was one of joy and thanksgiving for the soon to be completed harvest season. It was a harvest festival that celebrated the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord in providing for the needs of His people.

II The Modern Observance
A You will notice that in Bible times the Feast of Weeks was tied in with agriculture and with the Temple it was to the Temple that the men of Israel came with the firstfruits of their wheat harvest. This set the stage for a problem not just with this Feast but with all the Feasts outlined in the Law of Moses.

In A.D. 66 the Jewish nation rebelled against Roman rule. After a successful Roman siege, Jerusalem was viciously sacked, the Temple leveled, and the Jews were pushed out of their capital in A.D. 70. To ensure Roman control of Judea, a Roman garrison was permanently established on the ruins of Jerusalem.

In A.D. 132 the Jews rebelled against Roman rule again. The next year the Romans counterattacked with its best force of 35,000 foot soldiers. When the smoke cleared, the destruction was beyond comprehension. Some 50 fortresses and 985 villages lay in ruins. The Jewish death toll in the war topped 580,000. Countless other lives were claimed by starvation and disease. Ten of thousands were sold into slavery. The land was desolate with nothing to harvest. Jews were forbidden to enter their capital city under pain of death. Jerusalem was rebuilt and dedicated to the worship of the Roman Caesar and his gods. And, a temple to Jupiter was erected on Mount Zion so there was no Temple to which the people could bring their offerings.

B Responding to this crisis, the Sanhedrin convened in A.D. 140. They decided to divert the focus of the Feast of Weeks away from the wheat harvest and its firstfruits offering. Instead, the Feast of Weeks was a time to celebrate when the Torah, the Law, was given to Moses on Mount Sinai and the people were made into the covenant community of the Lord. Although the Bible never associated the Feast of Weeks with Sinai, this theme was chosen because the giving of the Law occurred in the same month (Ex 19:1) as the Feast was celebrated. Instead of focusing on the wheat harvest, the celebration now focused on the spiritual harvest on Israel being set apart as God's own people.

C Actually, what the Sanhedrin decided was nothing new. Since 150 B.C. the Feast of Weeks was closely associated with the covenant, and its law, made at Mount Sinai and renewed on different occasions. So, at the time of Jesus the Feast of Weeks was a festival of covenant making and covenant renewal. In the community of Qumran, for instance, the Feast of Weeks became the setting for an annual ceremony at which candidates for admission entered the group and those who were already members renewed their commitment.

III The Fulfillment
A In Acts 2:1 Luke mentions "the day of Pentecost." As I already mentioned, he was thinking of the Feast of Weeks and not the day when we celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit. Yet, when we closely examine Acts 2 it becomes clear that Luke sees the Feast of Weeks as being fulfilled on the day the Spirit came.

In Acts 1, Luke carefully sets the stage so his readers have Moses and Mount Sinai and covenant and Law in mind as they read the Pentecost story in Acts 2.

The story of Jesus' ascension in Acts 1 reminds the Bible reader of episodes in the life of Moses. For example, Acts 1:3 refers to the 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension; that number recalls several time-spans in Moses' career, including his two stays atop Mt. Sinai. We learn that the Ascension took place on a mountain and that a cloud hid Jesus from the sight of the disciples (Acts 1:11-12). Similarly, Moses went up to God (Ex 19:3) and he entered into the cloud of the Lord's presence (Ex 19:16; 24:15-18). Jesus' command to His disciples to wait in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4) echoes Moses' order to the elders to wait for him and Joshua until they returned (Ex 24:14). The last part of Acts 1 is concerned with making the disciples twelve in number again, just as the twelve tribes were a party to the covenant in Exodus 24.

B With all this in mind I want to read Acts 2:1-13 ... (INVITE THE CONGREGATION TO TURN TO THIS PASSAGE).

Now, we need to read and interpret Acts 2 in its Jewish setting.

First, we should all recognize the similarity between the Christian Pentecost as the birth of the church and the covenant at Sinai as the beginning of Israel as God's chosen people. So, I want you to notice that both the Christian and Jewish Pentecost celebrates the formation of God's people. The Christian Pentecost fulfills the Feast of Weeks.

Second, I want you to notice the nature of the community that was formed. In some ways the Bible presents the Israel that received the Law at Mt. Sinai as an ideal community. Upon being presented with the Lord's words by Moses, the people all answered as one, "Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex 19:8; cf Ex 24:3). Some early commentators indicate that Israel wore white clothes and that their conduct before the mountain was characterized by bliss and peace and harmony. They were a holy people unto the Lord. They were a people who cared for and looked after one another. With this in mind, listen to the description of the church after Pentecost:
(Acts 2:42-47) They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (43) Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. (44) All the believers were together and had everything in common. (45) Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (46) Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, (47) praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The early church was also an ideal community of God's people. Again, the Christian Pentecost fulfills the Feast of Weeks.

Third, Paul explicitly makes a connection between firstfruits and the Spirit:
(Rom 8:23) Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Remember, the people brought the firstfruits of their wheat crop to the Temple. Just like the firstfruits of the wheat marked the start of the harvest, so the Christian Pentecost marks the start of God's eternal harvest. Again, the Feast of Weeks is fulfilled by the Christian Pentecost.

Fourth, we are told that when "the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place" (Acts 2:1). Earlier, Luke tells us that the group numbered about 120 people (Acts 1:15). The place where they gathered is not named, but it is called a "house" in verse 2. The house has often been understood to be the Temple the same place which stood at the center of the celebration of the Feast of Weeks. Again, the Feast of Weeks is fulfilled by the Christian Pentecost.

Fifth, the giving of the unseen Spirit is marked by visible signs:
(Acts 2:2-4) Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (3) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. (4) All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
This combination of tongues of fire and languages is also seen in the account of the giving of the Law in Exodus 19:
(Ex 19:16) On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.
Notice there was fire lightning. And, there was thunder. The word translated as "thunder" in our Bibles is translated by the Jews as "voices" or "languages." Among the Jews there is a whole tradition that the languages are those of Israel's neighbors. So, among the Jews there is a Sinai story in which the divine word takes on fiery form and addresses the nations in their own languages. Again, the Feast of Weeks is fulfilled by the Christian Pentecost.

C There are also some major differences between the Jewish and Christian Pentecost. We cannot help but notice the heavenly gift is not the same. At Sinai it was the divine Word, while in Acts 2 it is God's Spirit.

The Old Testament passages quoted by Peter in Acts 2 are not the ones used in the synagogues in the Feast of Weeks.

In the Sinai stories the One Who proclaims the Word is the Lord Himself. He is the One Who gave the Law to Israel and the nations. In Acts 2 it is the apostles who proclaim the message as empowered by the Spirit and sent by Christ.

The Jewish tradition says the Law was offered to the nations who rejected it. In Acts 2 the message of Jesus Christ was presented to Jewish people who lived among the nations and 3000 of them accepted it.

I have been hearing and reading a lot, lately, about church growth. The Christian Pentecost shows us we don't need to follow the latest fad or trend of man to have church growth. All we need for church growth is the Word of the Gospel and the Spirit. I know this thought is not popular in a day when programs and plans and various proposals are pushed upon us.

Try to imagine the scene in Jerusalem that day. How long do you think it took the apostles to baptize all 3000 people? And, where did they baptize them? And, was it done all at once or did baptisms take place throughout the day? In one day they went from being a small church to being a megachurch! Amazing.

The Christian Pentecost, like the Jewish Pentecost, is a time of great joy and celebration and festivity. We want to celebrate the formation of God's people. We want to celebrate the formation of a loving and caring community. We want to celebrate the firstfruits of God's harvest field. We want to celebrate a message, unlike the one given to ancient Israel, that is proclaimed and accepted throughout the world.
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