Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Feast of Weeks (Shavuoth)

A few weeks ago we talked about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection at the time of the Passover festival.  But it’s important to remember that Jesus’ resurrection wasn't just a one-time experience for the disciples.  They continued to meet with Jesus in his resurrected body over a period of 40 days.  

But then, after 40 days, he had to leave them.  Why?  So the Comforter could come, the Holy Spirit: (“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you,” John 16:7).  So on the 40th day, he ascended into heaven.  And then, on the 50th day, the Holy Spirit descended on the Day of Pentecost. 

These amazing events were not just random miracles.  They were part of God’s plan from all eternity.  How do we know that?  Because they are a detailed fulfillment of the festivals of Israel. 

Passover and Pentecost are two of the three great pilgrim festivals for which God commanded all the men of Israel to come up to Jerusalem to appear before the Lord.  What was the third pilgrim festival?  The Feast of Tabernacles in the fall.  Passover is a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.  What is Pentecost in memory of?  In Jesus’ day, Pentecost was celebrated in memory of the Giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. 

In the Bible, Pentecost is an agricultural festival, celebrating the wheat harvest.  In Hebrew, it’s called Shavuoth, which means “Weeks.”  What’s the meaning of this name?  The Bible says that they are to count seven weeks after Passover (49 days), and then on the 50th day there would be a festival day of rest (Lev. 23:15,16).  In Greek, this day of rest is called Pentecost, which means “fiftieth (day).”  Because of this connection between Passover and Pentecost, Pentecost is sometimes also considered the conclusion of the Passover Festival. 

During the time between Passover and Pentecost, the Jewish people have a special ceremony that they do every evening to count off the days between the festivals.  This ceremony is called the Counting of the Omer.  How do they do this?  They read a couple of verses about counting the Omer, say a blessing, and then count the day.  For example, “This is the forty-eighth day, making six weeks and six days of the Omer.”  Then they read Psalm 67 and finish with a prayer. 

Why do they count these fifty days?  Because that’s what the Bible tells them to do, in Lev.  23:15:  You will count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf (the omer) of the wave offering; there will be seven complete weeks.” 

Why did God have them count these days?  The time of the counting of the Omer is the time of the grain harvest in Israel.  For farmers, it’s a time of great uncertainty.  If there is too much rain, the crop can be destroyed, if there is too little rain, the grain will not swell, and its quality will be low.  Lots of things can go wrong.  Because of this, it’s a time of prayer.

The first day of the Omer is the day when the barley harvest begins.  This was marked by a special ritual, when a sheaf or omer of barley was waved before the Lord.  Sometimes this is also called a first fruits offering —the first fruits of the barley harvest.  Until this offering was brought in the Temple, no one was allowed to eat any of the new barley harvest.  And then after this special wave offering the counting began:  the fifty days until Pentecost, when a second harvest, the wheat harvest, began. 

Let’s take a look at the section about the Omer in Leviticus:  “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'You will come in to the land that I am giving to you, and you will reap its harvest, and you will bring in a sheaf (an omer), the first of your harvest, to the priest” (Lev. 23:10).  This is the first sheaf (the first omer) of the barley harvest that is given to the priest. 

Lev. 23:11:  “And he will wave the sheaf (the omer) before the LORD for you to receive favor; on the day after the Sabbath the priest will wave it.”  He will wave the omer before the Lord on the day after the Sabbath.  Which Sabbath was this?  This was understood by the Pharisees to mean the first day of Passover, since the first day of Passover was a day of Sabbath rest.  This is the 15th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar.  So the Omer was waved on the next day, the 16th of Nisan.  The offering of the Omer was one of the most important events to take place during the Passover week. 

Lev. 23:12:  “And in the day that you wave the sheaf (the omer) you will offer a lamb without defect, a year old, for a whole burnt offering to the LORD.”  A one year old lamb was the sacrifice that went along with the Omer offering. 

Lev. 23:14:  “And bread and parched grain and fresh grain you will not eat until this same day, until you bring the offering of your God; this will be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.”   This is the verse that says no new barley could be eaten until this offering was made. 

Lev. 23:15:  “And you will count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day when you bring the sheaf (omer) of the wave offering; they will be seven full weeks.”  This is the counting of the Omer. 

Lev. 23:16:  “until on the day after the seventh week; you will count day fifty and you will offer an offering of new grain to the LORD.”  This “fiftieth” day is Pentecost (Shavuot).  And what will this offering be on Pentecost? 

Lev. 23:17:  “From your dwelling places you will bring bread, two loaves, for a wave offering; they will be of two-tenths of a measure of fine flour.  They will be baked with leaven, first fruits for the LORD.”  This was the first fruits of the wheat harvest.  After this, there is usually little rain, so the time of uncertainty has passed. 

But beginning in about the time of Jesus, the Festival of Pentecost was connected with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.  Why was this?  If you count up the days in the book of Exodus from when they left Egypt, it’s just about fifty days until they arrived at Mt. Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. 

These were also 50 days of uncertainty.  When they left Egypt, they were a disorderly mob that Moses could only barely keep under control.  They were always complaining, always thirsty and tired.  Would they follow Moses’ leadership?  Would they obey God? 

It wasn’t until they got to Mt. Sinai that God began to build them into the new nation of Israel by appearing on the mountain and giving them the Ten Commandments.  This is when they first entered into a covenant relationship with God. 

Sometimes we as Christians forget how awesome this day was, when God appeared in fire on the mountain.  This wasn’t a volcanic eruption as some people think.  Moses went right up the mountain into the presence of God, and he wasn’t hurt.  No, this was a supernatural fire like Moses had seen in the burning bush at that same mountain when God called him to go to Egypt to set his people free (Exo. 3:2).  That fire did not destroy the bush.  It was a supernatural fire. 

Most of us imagine that on that same day Moses went up the mountain and brought back the two tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But that isn’t what the Bible says at all.  The tablets came many days later, after Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  So what happened on that first day, when there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud on the mountain (Exo. 19:16)? 

You have to remember that this was in the middle of the Sinai desert, one of the driest deserts in the world.  It’s not like here in Taiwan, where you see clouds on the mountains all the time.  For at least half of the year, there are no clouds at all, from one side of the sky to the other (except maybe dust clouds).  And even in the other half of the year, when it does sometimes rain, the rain is so little, you can barely measure it.  It’s a real desert.  And this was already the end of the rainy season. 

But this was not a rain cloud on the mountain.  There’s no mention of any rain.  And the cloud was only on the one mountain.  There are mountains all around you in this area.  Why was the cloud only on one mountain?  It’s not a big enough mountain for this to happen naturally.  Mt. Sinai is nowhere near as tall as the tall mountains here in Taiwan.  It only takes four hours to walk up to the top of it.  That’s like one of the lower hills here in Taiwan:  maybe twice or three times higher than the hiking trails at Dakung. 

And the Bible says there was a loud trumpet sound, like a huge ram’s horn (Exo. 19:16).  That would have been very frightening.  This is when Moses brought the people out to meet God (Exo. 19:17).  There was also an earthquake (19:18). 

That’s when Moses spoke and God called out to Moses from the mountain:  “and when the sound of the ram's horn trumpet (the shofar) grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice” (Exo. 19:19).  Some translations say that God answered Moses with thunder.  But in Hebrew, it clearly says that he answered him with a voice.  So Moses went up to the top of the mountain, where God gave him instructions for the people, and then he came down again (Exo. 19:20,25). 

Then, while Moses was down below with the people, God began to speak again (Exo. 20:1).  This is when they first heard the Ten Commandments:  from the voice of God himself.  Do you remember what they said when he finished?  “And they said to Moses, ‘You speak to us and we will listen, but let not God speak with us lest we die’” (Exo. 20:19).  They didn’t want to hear any more from God, so Moses went back up again and received the rest of the instructions from God for them.  When he told them the rest of the instructions (Exo. 20-23), the people accepted them (24:3).  And they entered into a covenant with God. 

How did they do that?  They built an altar with standing stones representing the 12 tribes (Exo. 24:4).  And they offered sacrifices (Exo. 24:5).  Then the blood of the sacrifices he sprinkled on the altar and on the people (Exo. 24:6,8).  Now they were in a covenant relationship.  Then God called Moses and the elders of the people up the mountain, and what happened there? 

They saw God!  “And they saw the God of Israel; and beneath his feet there was something like tile work made of sapphire and like the heavens themselves in purity” (Exo. 24:10).  But wait a minute!  Jesus said that no man has seen the Father (John 1:18)!  Even Moses was told that no one could see God and live (Exo. 33:20).  So who or what were they seeing?  This was not an angel, as some say, because it clearly says that this was “the God of Israel.”  So who was it?  It was the Son of God appearing in his heavenly glory, the glory he had before he set that all aside to become a man. 

And what were Moses and the elders doing up there on the mountain with God?  They were eating a covenant meal with God, confirming their covenant with God (Exo. 24:11).  Only after this did Moses go up the mountain for forty days to get the Ten Commandments. 

So how does all of this connect with the events in the year that Jesus died and rose again?  On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the Passover.  He became the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. 

He was crucified on the first day of Passover (Nisan 15), the Friday morning after the Passover Meal the night before.    After he died, he was taken down off the cross late on Friday afternoon.  This was at the end of the first day of Passover.  Then they hurried to put him in a tomb before sunset, since that would be the beginning of the Sabbath, at sunset (Nisan 16).  They got him in the tomb, the Bible says, just as the Sabbath was beginning to shine (in Greek), which refers to the Sabbath lamps that people were lighting in their homes just before sunset (Luke 23:54). 

That same evening, just after Jesus was placed in the tomb, as it was growing dark, a group of three men went out of the city of Jerusalem to the Mt. of Olives to cut down the sheaf of barley for the wave offering, the Omer offering in the Temple.  This happened every year.  The barley was cut just after the sun went down, even though this year it was a Sabbath.  Why did they do this work on the Sabbath?  Because this was a command of God that overrode the Sabbath.  (Remember, Jesus talked about the duties of the priests in the Temple that overrode the Sabbath  in Matt. 12:5).

The cut grain was then given to the priests in the Temple.  Then, that night, Friday night, they threshed the barley by beating it with canes or stalks (to separate the kernels out from the husks), then it was parched on a pan perforated with little holes so the kernels actually touched the flames, it was exposed to the wind, and then ground into flour. 

The next morning, Saturday morning, while Jesus lay in the tomb, a container of that flour was waved before the Lord in the Temple.  This was done by lifting it up and down in the hands of the priest and waving it back and forth.  This was a symbol that the offering belonged to the Lord.  At the same time, a one year old lamb without blemish was offered up as a whole burnt offering to the Lord.  This meant that the lamb was completely burnt to ashes on the altar.  Only after this was done was the new grain of the barley harvest eaten in Israel. 

What was the meaning of this strange ceremony?  It’s a perfect picture of the sufferings of Jesus:  like the Omer, he was whipped for our transgressions.  He was parched in the heat of the sun as he hung on the cross.  He was exposed to the wind, when darkness blew in over the land.  And he was “crushed” in death, and put in the tomb.  His life was offered up, like the Omer, as a first fruit to God. 

But on the next day, he was “lifted up” out of death in the resurrection.  Only after this would the new harvest of souls be acceptable to God.  That’s why in 1 Cor. 15:20, Jesus is called the first fruits:  “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”  

Then began the counting of the Omer, the countdown to the Feast of Pentecost.  On day one of the Omer (Nisan 16), Jesus was in the tomb.  On day two of the Omer, Jesus was raised from the dead, and the women saw the empty tomb, as did Peter and John. 

On day three of the Omer, Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, and to the disciples in the Upper Room.  On day eleven of the Omer, he appeared again to the disciples in the Upper Room, when Thomas was with them.  After that, they returned to Galilee where Jesus appeared to them on more than one occasion.  By the fortieth day of the Omer, Jesus had gathered them back to Jerusalem. 

Why was all of this time, when Jesus was appearing to his disciples, a time of great uncertainty?  This was a big step for them.  Would the disciples believe that Jesus had risen?  Would they understand his message?  Would they carry out his plans for them?  This wasn’t a sure thing. 

In John 20:9 it says that “they did not yet know the scripture that he must rise from the dead.”  At first they thought he was a spirit (Luke 24:37).  Some had “doubts” arising in their hearts (Luke 24:38).  Thomas didn’t believe when he heard about his appearance in the Upper Room (John 20:25).

Later, when Jesus appeared to the eleven on a mountain in Galilee, they hesitated.  They were uncertain (Matt. 28:17).  It was so incredible to believe that Jesus had actually, physically risen from the dead.  Peter and some of the others had gone back to their old job fishing on the Sea of Galilee.  They didn’t understand what was happening, so Jesus had to explain it to them.

This teaching went on during the entire 40 days he appeared to them (“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that it is necessary that all the things written in the Law of Moses and the prophets and psalms concerning me be fulfilled.’  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” Luke 24:44-45).  Have you ever wondered where the Christian gospel comes from?  It wasn’t invented by the disciples.  Jesus taught it to them himself after his resurrection.  And they taught others what he told them.  And we continue to teach it today. 

These 40 days were a time of uncertainty, when the disciples first heard the gospel and first believed the gospel.  Would there be a good harvest?  Or would the harvest fail?  But over those days, Jesus continued teaching them.  And their weak faith slowly grew stronger and stronger.  But it wasn’t until Pentecost that the days of uncertainty were over, when they finally were filled with the Holy Spirit. 

Even after Jesus gathered them back to Jerusalem, just before the 40th day of the Omer, they were still wondering if he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel ( “And so when they had come together, they were asking him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” Acts 1:6).  But then, on the 40th day, Jesus took the disciples across the Kidron Valley and up onto the Mount of Olives, tracing in reverse the same route he had taken when he rode the donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. 

This route, going up and out away from the Holy City, was the same route used in the ritual of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8,10,21-26).  What was the meaning of the scapegoat ritual?  The goat led out into the desert carried away the sins of Israel.  Now Jesus was fulfilling this same ritual on the same spot it took place.  On the cross, he had all the sins of mankind laid on him.  Now, like the scapegoat, he was carrying all those sins away.  And when he ascended into heaven, he carried those sins as far as the East is from the West, as far as the heavens are above the earth (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9). 

But the counting of the Omer continued.  The counting of the 50 days of the Omer follows the view of time we mentioned once before of a water clock filling up with water.  It gets more and more full until it reaches the top, and the period of time is complete.  But today, we think more in terms of a countdown to the completion of a period of time.  So perhaps instead we should consider the day of Jesus’ ascension T minus 10 and counting, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…

The disciples would have come back to Jerusalem anyway for the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Pentecost.  But they had no idea that anything special was going to happen on that day.  Jesus had just told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t tell them how long they would wait (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8). 

The disciples were able to go home to Galilee after Passover and then return again for Pentecost because they lived nearby.  But this was not possible for people who lived further away.  Because of this, many thousands of Jewish pilgrims would remain in Jerusalem for the time between Passover and Pentecost.  If they came from a great distance, it might be the only trip to Jerusalem in their lifetime.  So many would come for Passover and stay over until Pentecost.  This way, they got two festivals in one trip.  What this means is that when the disciples returned to Jerusalem, many thousands of people from all over the world were still there that had been there since Passover.  They had seen or heard about all the things that happened to Jesus during the Passover festival.  Maybe they had heard him preach in the Temple, or seen his crucifixion. 

This includes the many different groups of Jews mentioned in Acts 2:  Jews from Parthia, Media, and Elam (all today’s Iran), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia (all in Turkey), Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete (Greece), and Arabia (Jordan/Saudi Arabia; Acts 2:9-11).  These people would all have heard the rumors that had been going around about Jesus’ resurrection.  And they would have wondered what it was all about.  Was Jesus really the Messiah?  But how could the Messiah die like that?  Had he really been raised from the dead?  Who were these followers of his anyway?  The city would have been abuzz during the whole holiday season with stories and speculations. 

Not all of these visitors knew how to speak Hebrew very well.  So to help them, small synagogues had grown up all over the city where services were held in the different languages of these different groups of Jews.  These synagogues also provided places to stay and other assistance while they were visiting—just as some do today. 

…3, 2, 1…

Tradition says that the disciples of Jesus were gathered in the Upper Room for the Day of Pentecost.  But the Bible says only that they were in a “house” (Acts 2:2).  According to one tradition, this was the house of John Mark’s mother mentioned in Acts 12:12.  The reason they were gathered together was because of the holiday:  Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.  All the stores and businesses were closed, and as they do today, people get together with their family and friends for a meal and to visit with each other. 

“And suddenly there was a noise from heaven just like a driving, violent wind and it filled the whole house where they were staying.  And separate flames, like fire, appeared to them, and stayed on each one of them.  And all were filled with a holy spirit and began to speak in other languages just as the spirit was giving them to speak out” (Acts 2:2-4).  This was like a second Sinai!  God was descending again in the fire of the Holy Spirit! 

That’s when that crowd of Jewish visitors from all over the world gathered to see what was going on:  “But when this sound happened, the crowd gathered together and was amazed, because they were each one hearing them speaking in his own dialect” (Acts 2:6). 

That’s when Peter stood up and preached the gospel for the first time.  “But Peter, having stood with the eleven, raised his voice and spoke out to them, ‘Men, Judeans and all those staying in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and pay attention to my words.  For these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is the third hour of the day (9 am).  But this is what is spoken by the prophet Joel:And it will be in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams’” (Acts 2:14-17).  All the weeks of uncertainty were now gone.  Peter boldly proclaimed his faith without fear, because now he was fully convinced of what he believed. 

After that sermon, 3,000 were saved and baptized, and signs and wonders and miracles were taking place (Acts 2:41-43).  The Law was no longer written on tablets of stone, but was now a new covenant written in their hearts.  Now, the Spirit of God was in them and would lead them and guide them in ministry, just as he leads and guides us today. 

As Jesus had said just a few days before, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  And from there they eventually went out to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  And today we continue their work.  Are you filled with the Spirit of Holiness?  Are you confident of where you stand with Jesus?  You can be. 

Let’s stand up and pray together.  Father God, we come to you in Jesus’ name.  And we pray that you would move by your Holy Spirit on each and every one of us here today.  We say “yes” to you right now in our hearts:  yes to your goodness, yes to your plan for our lives, yes to the power of the Holy Spirit in us.  Have your way with us today, Lord, we ask in Jesus’ name.

Let’s continue to pray and allow the Holy Spirit to have his way in our hearts.  What is the Lord saying to you today?  What is he doing in your heart?  Lord Jesus, we ask that you would minister to each and every heart here today.  Touch your people and change us, Lord, just like you changed the apostles, and so many generations since then.  We are your people, Lord.  We give our lives to you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen?

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