Word Study #187 — Pentecost

After finding that there was so much to be learned about Epiphany (#171), I wondered if the same would be true of another “event” in the “church year”. Pentecost is effusively celebrated by some groups, and virtually ignored by others. As before, there is very little direct information in the New Testament. The word appears only three times: the description of the initial “grand entrance” of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection (Ac.2:1), Paul’s letter to the Corinthian brethren mentioning his intention to stay in Ephesus “until Pentecost” (I Cor.16:8), and his telling the Ephesian elders at their farewell meeting that he wanted to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost (Ac.20:16). Either of these latter two leaves one with the impression that some sort of observance may have been planned. Although reference is made to the event on other occasions (for example, Ac.11:15 and 19:1-5), the word itself is not used. There are no classical references: L/S notes that it was applied to the Jewish feast day because it was 50 days after Passover, but has no literary reference outside the NT except for its use as the date of a battle in II Maccabees 12:32.

It was equally difficult to find Biblical information about the Jewish feast for which the crowd “from every nation under heaven” (Ac.2:5) had assembled in Jerusalem. Most scholars assume that the event was the “Feast of Weeks”, also called Shavuot – the offering of the firstfruits of the grain harvest, which occurred 50 days after the Passover. Ex.34:22 describes that offering, but does not name it. It was one of three occasions where every adult male was expected to appear at the designated place (eventually Jerusalem), bearing the prescribed sacrifice, but the word pentekostes does not occur at all in the Old Testament portion of the LXX. Related words, simply referring to “fifty” of anything – people, animals, etc. – are fairly common.
This firstfruits feast seems to be a somewhat plausible candidate. The celebration of the Passover related to the deliverance from bondage in Egypt, and the “firstfruits” somehow became connected to the celebration of the giving of the Law at Sinai. There is however no direct OT formula or command concerning this juxtaposition. I was interested to find one reference to a Talmudic assertion that the Law was given at Sinai in 70 languages! Apocryphal or not, that would be a curious precedent for the events at Pentecost.

The idea of “firstfruits” – aparche – shows up a few more times than does pentekostes. The word, classically, reached far beyond the concept of a grateful offering. L/S includes “a 2% tax on inheritance, an entrance fee to an event or organization, a board of officials, the birth certificate of a free person,” as well as “the beginning of an offering or sacrifice.” Bauer notes that it had to be offered before using any part of the harvest, and was considered a foretaste of the future.

Traditionally, a harvest offering of firstfruits was an acknowledgment that all of produce, and indeed all of life itself, belonged to God. In the New Testament, Jesus himself is called “firstfruits” (I Cor.15:20, 23) from the dead;, converts are called the “firstfruits” of their region of origin (Rom.11:16, 16:5, I Cor.16:15, Jas.1:18); and Paul refers to the activity of the Spirit among his people (Rom.8:23) as the “firstfruits” of their adoption into God’s family! So it is entirely proper that this image should go both ways: the gift of the Holy Spirit as what Paul also called the “down-payment” (II Cor.1:22) on our inheritance, and the worship, service and praise to God enabled by that gift as the firstfruits to God of the eventual triumph of his Kingdom. (Please see also #52 and 53.)

But what are we to make of the events of Pentecost itself? Historically, both Eastern and Western churches considered it the appropriate time for baptisms, ordinations, and confirmations, all of which are clearly assumed to be connected to the agency of the Holy Spirit. (Please refer to #76). Other groups focus on the wind, the fire, and the languages. This is where things can get messy.
Wind can cool the heat of summer and bring refreshing rain – or it can wreak terrible destruction.
Fire can provide light and warmth, enable the preparation of food, or destroy everything in its path.
And language can encourage, heal, and build relationships of love and trust, or communicate anger and strife, provoking misunderstanding and wars.

Regarding the wind – this is the only New Testament use of the word pnoe (NOT pneuma) except for Ac.17:25. There are none in the LXX. It is used of storms, and never a synonym for “spirit”. I thought that might be the word used where Elijah discovered that “the Lord was NOT in the wind,” but it is not: that uses pneuma – I can’t figure that one out! Can you? Here, though, in the Acts account, it may be that Luke simply needed it to distinguish it from his use of pneuma for the Spirit.

John the Baptist had spoken of fire (Mt.3:11, Lk.3:16) when distinguishing his baptism “for a changed life” from the baptism that Jesus would perform “in the Holy Spirit”. Other gospel references to fire are primarily negative – the fate of the “weeds.” Although fire is also symbolic of Godly power in many ancient cultures, the significant words here are diamerizomai (divided, distributed) and eph hena hekaston auton ( upon each one of them). This picture is in sharp contrast to the single “pillar of fire” that had led the Israelites through the desert. This fire is divided, and parceled out to every single person! This is one of the rare instances where individuals are the focus, as opposed to the group as a unit. But notice that it is not a leader, not a group of leaders. Everyone is singled out!

Then there is the language phenomenon. People – apparently observant Jews – were assembled in Jerusalem from all over the (known) world. They would have had at least a passing knowledge of the languages of the most recent conquerors (Greek and Latin), and probably whatever iteration of ancient Hebrew was current in temple worship. But they all heard the message of the greatness of God in their own native dialects (ta idia dialekto)! We are told that the speakers were using different languages (glossais) as the Spirit gave them things to say. Dialects are a sub-group of languages.

Some folks make a big to-do about whether the miracle was in the speaking or the hearing – or both. Why would that matter? The point is, people understood what was said! They received the message about the “wonderful works of God” in the dialect they learned as children! That speaks to hearts!
Neither here nor elsewhere in Scripture is a totally unintelligible outburst of speech advocated. Our brother Paul has provided very helpful guidelines for the use of this very valuable gift in I Cor.14.
The purpose of language is communication! Natural or supernatural, with people or with God: no more and no less. Although speech in an unlearned language is several times (Ac.8:14-18, 10:46, 15:8) considered evidence of genuine faithfulness, nowhere is it demanded as either a qualification – or a disqualification! – for acceptance or service.

The most significant “accomplishment” of Pentecost is evidenced rather in its tangible results (Ac.2:42-47, 4:32-35). Having heard the word, three thousand new people sought baptism. They gathered daily, eager to learn more (#47). They shared their lives (#8). Whether the “breaking of bread” refers simply to shared meals, or to an observance of “communion” (koininia) #8, matters little. There was mutual prayer (#91). “Wonders and signs” (#168) were manifested through the apostles. They shared (#8 again) all they had, as anyone had need. In short, the loving mutuality created by the Spirit bestowed at Pentecost created a community to which the Lord could continually add the folks he was recruiting!

This is the most convincing evidence of Pentecost!
I can’t imagine that such a brotherhood, contrasting with the individualistic self-focus of our present society, would not be as attractive today as it was in Imperial Rome.

May this Pentecost become reality among us!

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