The story of Pentecost is well known, but like every story in the Bible there is more here than meets the eye. Acts chapter 2 starts out with the apostles receiving the Holy Spirit and then proceeding to preach in the streets with a newfound boldness. St. Peter leads this ragtag band of men who had been cowering in fear only a few days before, this same Peter who had denied Christ only fifty days earlier is now going into hostile territory (the temple) to preach the Gospel of Christ.
See: Boldness of St. Peter
Pentecost was a big deal for both the Jews and now for the Church;
For the Jews it was celebrated as a harvest festival fifty days after Passover, it was also when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt Sinai. Shavuot was one, of three, of the festivals that Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, this is why there were so many foreign Jews present for St. Peter’s speech.
For Christians the pattern of typology can’t be missed with Pentecost; its fifty days after our Passover lamb was slain; it celebrates the “harvest” of the fruits of the spirit; and instead of God delivering the Law to Moses, we have God delivering His Grace to us through the Holy Spirit.
It is the events that follow this that I want to focus on. Besides the coming of the Holy Spirit (a big deal, not meaning to undermine that) there were two other things taking place on Pentecost that gets overlooked:
- 1. Return of the spirit.
God is omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere, but He told Moses and the Israelites that He would dwell, in a physical way, in the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem:
And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the covenant, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.
(in a similar way to Jesus being physically present in the tabernacles around the world today)
When the prophet Ezekiel received the vision of God’s spirit leaving the temple (Ezekiel 10:18) it must have been devastating to the Jewish people.
So much so, that during the first Tamid sacrifice of the day the Levitical priests and people would pray for the return of the Spirit of God to the temple. This prayer and sacrifice would take place at the third hour of the day, or 9am, this was the same hour when the Holy Spirit filled the upper room and the apostles.
God had promised the prophet Ezekiel that His spirit, and glory, would return to dwell in the temple:
Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory.
The only problem was that the priests and the people assumed that this was the physical temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus told them, in a somewhat veiled way, that they were mistaken in believing the Spirit would return to a temple built of stone:
Jesus answered them, ” Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?
Jesus was speaking about His body, and they thought He was talking about a building. As important as the temple was in the Old Testament, it was just a building that God dwelled in, now here was Emmanuel (God with us) and they failed to see Him for who He is. Here, before them, was the new temple.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, before his passion, He entered through the east gate; here was the glory of God returning to Jerusalem and the temple. When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, and they went out preaching in the temple courtyard, the priests were praying for God’s spirit to return.
Both of these signs happened right under the noses of people who should’ve recognized them for what they were, but because they didn’t come in the way they expected it passed right by them.
How many times has something happened in our lives that wasn’t exactly as we expected it to be and we miss the opportunity? Perhaps someone we should’ve prayed with or shared our faith with?
May we all pray that the Holy Spirit enlightens us to recognize and act on God’s presence in our lives
- 2. Obedience brings life, disobedience brings death.
The first Pentecost, or Shavuot, occurred in the desert of Sinai about 1600 years earlier than the Pentecost in Acts 2. It has been celebrated by the Jews ever since as both the festival of weeks, and the giving of the Law of Moses.
After the Israelites had wandered through the desert for three weeks they came upon mount Sinai, here they camped and Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. Here God begins to lay out the covenant that He is going to make with Israel, through Moses. Moses reports back with what God has said:
And all the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.
Fast forward four weeks and now Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. But what is the rest Israel doing while Moses is up the mountain? They are disobeying God and worshiping a false deity, in the form of a golden calf. Because of their disobedience, Moses ordered the Levites to slay those who had not heeded the words of God,
And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
Now jump ahead 1600 years to 33 AD Jerusalem. Here another Pentecost, or Shavuot, is being celebrated by giving thanks to God, but not simply for His law, the apostles are praising God for sending down the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
Saint Peter preaches to the assembled masses and many accept the good news that’s been told to them.
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
What is the significance of that number? It’s the same amount as those who died on the first Pentecost! Any Jew would’ve been familiar with the account of the golden calf and its aftermath, so I believe St Luke (through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) was drawing a parallel here, between those who disobeyed and died and those who obeyed and were brought into new life.
Don’t forget what it says in verse 42: “And they held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Teachings, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers… Sounds a lot like Mass to me.)
After we obey the word of God and come into a relationship with Him through the sacrament of baptism, like the 3000 that day, we must live the Christian life. The text doesn’t read “3000 souls were baptized that day, and then the next day went back to their usual lives.”
An encounter with the resurrected Christ and the Holy Spirit must be life changing and revolutionary. We may be saved by grace and not be bound by the old covenant laws of Moses, but we are bound by the words of Christ:
Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
So this Pentecost let’s thank God that He heard the prayers of His people, and returned His spirit and that we may be counted as among those that heard His Word and were saved and not among those that rejected him and perished.
(This post originally appeared at Catholic365.com )
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Some lesser known facts and reflections on the Feast of Pentecost