In the process of revealing His plan of salvation for mankind, God established His annual Holy Days around the harvest seasons in the Middle East (Leviticus 23:9-16; Exodus 23:14-16). Just as His people harvested their crops around these three festival seasons, God's Holy Days show us how He is harvesting people for eternal life in His Kingdom.
The Holy Days have meanings that build upon each other. Together they progressively reveal how God works with humanity.
Earlier we saw Passover symbolizing Christ's giving of Himself for us so our sins could be forgiven and we could be redeemed from death. We also learned how the Days of Unleavened Bread teach us that we must remove and avoid sin and instead obey God in actions and attitudes. The next festival and Holy Day, Pentecost, builds on this important foundation.
This festival is known by several names that derive from its meaning and timing. Also known as the Feast of Harvest (Exodus 23:16), it represents the firstfruits (Numbers 28:26) gathered as the result of the labor of those who completed the spring grain harvests in ancient Israel (Exodus 23:16).
It is also called the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:22), with this name coming from the seven weeks plus one day (50 days in all) that are counted to determine when to celebrate this festival (Leviticus 23:16). Similarly, in the New Testament, which was written in Greek, this festival is known as Pentecost (Pentekostos in the original), which means "fiftieth" (W.E. Vine, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "Pentecost").
Among Jews the most popular name for this festival is the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, in Hebrew. When celebrating this festival, many Jewish people recall one of the greatest events in history, God's revealing of the law at Mount Sinai.
But Pentecost doesn't just picture the giving of the law; it also shows—through a great miracle that occurred on the first Pentecost in the early Church—how we can persist in living by the spiritual intent of God's laws.
The gift of Pentecost: the Holy Spirit
God chose the first Pentecost after Jesus Christ's resurrection to pour out His Holy Spirit on 120 believers (Acts 1:15). "Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues [languages], as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:1-4).
The speaking in various languages occurred as a crowd of people from many nations gathered in Jerusalem, with each visitor hearing the speech of the disciples in his own native tongue (Acts 2:6-11). These astounding events demonstrated the presence of the Holy Spirit.
At first the people of Jerusalem who witnessed this miraculous phenomenon were astonished, with some attributing the proclamations of the Christians to drunkenness (Acts 2:12-13). The apostle Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly explained the event to the crowd as a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy: "And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh" (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28).
Peter explained how his listeners could also receive this Spirit: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:38-39).
God used these miracles and Peter's preaching to add 3,000 people to His Church in one day. These converts were all baptized and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:40-41). From this pivotal point, God's Spirit has been available to all who truly repent and are properly baptized. The Day or Feast of Pentecost is an annual reminder that God poured out His Spirit to establish His Church, the group of believers who are led by His Spirit.
Why we need God's Spirit
Humanly speaking, no matter how hard we try not to, we still sin (1 Kings 8:46; Romans 3:23). Acknowledging this inherent weakness of humanity, God lamented in Deuteronomy 5:29, "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments that it might be well with them and with their children forever!"
Here God explains that humankind has a heart problem. Academic knowledge of the law does not enable us to think like God. Becoming godly in our thoughts, attitudes and actions is beyond the comprehension and ability of men and women without an additional ingredient—God's Spirit.
God's way of thinking produces peace, happiness and concern for others. Jesus complimented a religious scholar who correctly quoted the essence of God's law: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind" and "[love] your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). This man quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, from two books of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Jesus here confirmed that the Old Testament Scriptures are based on these two great principles of love (Matthew 22:40).
The essence of God's law is love (Romans 13:8-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9). God gave His commandments because He loves us. Writing to Christians who had God's Spirit, John said, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:2-3).
Because God's Spirit was now residing in the Church, its members could express genuine love. "A new commandment I give to you," Jesus had said, "that you love one another; as I have loved you . . . By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). God's gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost made it possible for the Church to fully express God's commandments of love.
Jesus Christ: the firstfruits of eternal life
Firstfruits are the first agricultural products to mature and ripen. Throughout the Bible, God uses the analogy of the harvest—and, particularly on Pentecost, firstfruits—to illustrate aspects of His plan of salvation. Israel observed this day in the late spring after the barley and wheat harvests. A special offering of the first ripe grain during the Days of Unleavened Bread, called the wave-sheaf offering, marked the beginning of these harvests, which continued during the next 50 days and led up to Pentecost (Leviticus 23:11). This spring harvest was the firstfruits of the yearly agricultural cycle.
One of the first harvest lessons of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ "is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20). The wave-sheaf offering represented Jesus Christ, who was the "firstborn over all creation" and the "firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:15, 18). He presented Himself to God the Father on the Sunday after His resurrection, the same day during the Days of Unleavened Bread on which the first sheaf of grain of the spring harvest was to be waved before God.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark and after Jesus had already been resurrected (John 20:1), Mary Magdalene came to His tomb and discovered that the rock in front of it had already been rolled away. She ran to tell Peter and John that Jesus was no longer in His grave. The two men hurried to see this and verified that Jesus' body was gone (John 20:2-10). Mary also returned and, after Peter and John left, she stood outside the tomb (John 20:11). As she wept, Jesus appeared to her but would not allow her to hold on to Him because He had "not yet ascended" to the Father (John 20:17).
Later that same day Jesus appeared again. This time He allowed certain women to hold on to Him (Matthew 28:9). His own words show that, between the time Mary Magdalene saw Him and the time He allowed the women to hold on to Him, He had ascended to, and been accepted by, the Father.
The wave-sheaf ceremony God gave to ancient Israel thus represents Jesus Christ's acceptance by His Father as "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20).
The Church as firstfruits
Romans 8:29 speaks of Jesus Christ as "the firstborn of many brethren." Yet the New Testament Church is also considered to be firstfruits. In speaking of the Father, James said, "Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18).
God's Spirit within us identifies us and sanctifies us—sets us apart as Christians. "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ," wrote Paul, "he is not His," and "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:9, Romans 8:14).
Paul also referred to the members of the Church as those "who have the firstfruits of the Spirit" (Romans 8:23). He alluded to several first-century Christians as the firstfruits of God's calling (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:15).
The significance of the Bible writers calling these people of God firstfruits becomes evident when we consider John 14:6. Here Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."
How many, throughout the centuries, have really accepted and practiced the way of life Jesus taught? Even today many people have simply never heard much, if anything, about Jesus Christ. How will God offer them salvation?
Few people understand that God follows a systematic plan, symbolized by His Holy Days, to save all of humanity by offering all people eternal life in His Kingdom. In this world we are simply at the beginning of the harvest for the Kingdom of God.
The apostle Paul understood this: "But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:20, 1 Corinthians 15:22-23). Anyone who is now called and chosen by God is included with Christ as God's firstfruits.
The Bible teaches us that God must call people (John 6:44; John 6:63). Our Creator, therefore, controls the timing of His harvest. When God founded His Church by imparting His Spirit to believers on the Day of Pentecost 50 days after Jesus' resurrection, He was expanding His spiritual harvest. It was the beginning of what Joel prophesied, that God will ultimately pour out His Spirit on "all flesh" (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:14-17).
The Holy Spirit at work
The coming of the Holy Spirit dramatically changed the lives of these early Christians. The book of Acts is filled with accounts of the early Church's remarkable spiritual impact on the surrounding society. A transformation was so evident that nonbelievers accused the Christians of "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). Such was the dynamic, miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.
To fully grasp how God's Spirit can work in our lives, we must comprehend what the Holy Spirit is. It is not a person who, along with God the Father and Christ the Son, forms a "Holy Trinity." In Scripture the Holy Spirit is described as the power of God at work in our lives (Acts 1:8; Romans 15:13, Romans 15:19), the same power that was at work in the ministry of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38). (To learn more about what the Holy Spirit is, read our free Bible study aids Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion, Who Is God? and Is God a Trinity?)
This divine power allows us to be "led by the Spirit of God" (Romans 8:14). It was this same power that transformed the lives of the early Christians and is the power working in the Church today. Paul told Timothy that God's Spirit is a "spirit of . . . power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
Pentecost serves as an annual reminder that our Creator still works miracles, granting His Spirit to those called to be the firstfruits of His spiritual harvest, empowering them to carry out His work in this world.