Pentecost Sunday (Leviticus 23:15-22)

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As a congregation we have sought over the years to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture and to adjust our beliefs and our behaviour as we have seen the need for reformation in the light of God’s revelation.

Over the past couple of decades, as our doctrinal convictions have been sharpened, we have made significant changes in how we conduct ourselves as a congregation.

For example, we have made changes in our polity, our soteriology, our eschatology, and our liturgy, to name but a few. It has been both an enlightening and exciting, as well as challenging, journey and no doubt as we continue to grow together in the Word we will reform in other areas as well. Ephesians 4, in fact, gives us the expectation that the church of Christ, made up of local congregations, will continue to reform until we grow up into Him who is the Head. That is grounds for much encouragement!

As we have journeyed together in Leviticus we have made some changes in our beliefs and in our practices. A recent study has introduced another area in which I believe we require further appreciation and tweaking; namely, the area of holydays. We first broached this subject in a study of Exodus 23 a few years back, but in Leviticus this has crystallised more—at least for me.

As we saw previously, the Lord prescribed seven feasts that the nation of Israel was to celebrate according to His prescribed rules. We know from Exodus 23 that the men were required to travel to the place of worship (eventually in Jerusalem) for three of these: Passover (Unleavened Bread), Pentecost (Weeks), and Tabernacles (Ingathering).

This schedule of feasts served as a yearly planner, around which the children of Israel would schedule their regular routine. We also noted that the feasts were purposefully arranged around the harvest seasons. The first feasts commenced in the early spring harvest and the last feasts occurred in the seventh month, the closing of the autumn harvest.

These Feasts, for the most part, were indeed festive occasions, in which the people celebrated God’s kind provisions to them. They were times of covenantal remembrance and recommitment as well as congregational reconnection. They served, effectively, as a means of national cohesiveness. Rooker observes “The festive occasions afforded opportunity for the Israelites to renew their allegiance to God and to promote national unity. The celebration of the annual feasts united the nation as they expressed their devotion to God for his past acts of goodness on their behalf.”1 Their observation of these feasts was to produce spiritual refreshment for their souls and hence the strengthening of their national identity as God’s chosen people through whom Messiah would one day come. As we saw previously, these feasts point to Christ in a most marvellous way. These feasts, in other words, were a poignant gospel presentation.

His Story

But what has really struck me alongside of these other observations is the reality that each of these feasts, for the most part, was designed to remind the people of God of what God had done for them in space-time history.

As they celebrated the Passover, heads of households would reiterate how Yahweh delivered the Israelites from Egypt through a series of plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn.

They would have retold the story of how they left Egypt with haste while they celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

In the Feast of Ingathering they would have told about the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

The point of these Feasts was to drive into the consciousness of God’s people that God worked in history to fulfil His promises, and this in turn would encourage the people of God that He is still working in history. After all, as has been well said, history is His story.

And so, as I have contemplated this, I have become increasingly convinced of the importance and the benefit of a Christian calendar.

Neglected Holidays

Growing up, I understood the importance of Christmas and Easter, but the other Christian days of significance were not so well emphasised. For example, Palm Sunday, and even Good Friday, along with Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday came and went without much notice. Perhaps one reason for this was an overreaction to the meaningless and ritualistic abuse of these days. Related to this was also the factor that the Roman Catholic Church often made much of these days (rightly so) and the association made us Protestants uncomfortable. I also wonder, however, if (at least in the USA) one reason for the neglect by many in the Evangelical Church of these holydays was because we followed too closely the national holiday calendar. And since most of these days were not scheduled as official public holidays, the church took little notice. But whatever the reason, I believe that we are the poorer for not recognising these important days in the history of God’s redemption of His people. And it is because of this growing conviction, fed by the text of Scripture, that I aim to highlight these occasions each year as they arrive on the calendar.

Let me point out once again the value of doing so. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Spirit of God was sent by the Father and by the ascended Son to indwell the Body of Christ. On that day, some three thousand individuals were regenerated and born again, with the result that the new covenant church was inaugurated in space-time history. The events of Acts 2:40-47 really happened and the world has never been the same since.

My desire as we study the Feast of Pentecost, and its fulfilment, is that we will be encouraged that this historical event continues to impact our world today and so we should take much encouragement that history is marching in step with God’s ordained purpose and plan. He is indwelling His people; He is building His church.

The Function of Pentecost

I will be careful to not simply repeat what we learned previously, but we do need to note again that this was the third feast2 that was celebrated by Israel.

It was a one-day Feast that all the males in Israel were required to attend. The day was to be treated as a Sabbath and therefore no regular work was to be done on this particular day. Further, it was to be a holy convocation, and hence this holiday was to be celebrated in communion with God’s people. There was nothing individualistic about it.

It was originally identified as the Feasts of Weeks because it occurred exactly seven Sabbaths from the Sabbath day preceding the one-day Feast of Firstfruits (v. 15). It was later called Pentecost because it was on the fiftieth day after the Feast of Firstfruits (v. 16).3

This day marked the end of the spring harvest after both the barley and wheat harvest had been gathered in. It was a day of celebration of God’s kind provision to Israel. As the Feast of Firstfruits marked the people’s gratefulness to God for the initial harvest, this feast acknowledged God’s faithfulness in giving them a full harvest. Pentecost “was a joyous occasion in which the entire nation gave thanks to a provident heavenly Father for His abundant gifts of food.”4

And as a worshipful response, they gave gifts to the Lord. There is much that can be said here, but one significant truth is that there was no Pentecost apart from sacrifice.

The feast was characterised by several sacrifices. It seems to me that these sacrifices were probably corporate, in the sense that not each household was to bring the noted number prescribed in the text but rather these sacrifices were seen as representative of all the households.

The sacrifices consisted of several types of offerings.

First, there was the burnt offering, which consisted of seven lambs, one young bull, two rams and a drink offering. In keeping with the burnt offering, the entirety of these sacrifices belonged to God and none was to be left for the priests. Such an offering we are told was a “sweet aroma to the LORD” (v. 18) because it was a memorial of Christ (Ephesians 5:2).

Another offering was required on this day: the sin offering (v. 19a). This consisted of a young goat followed by a peace offering made up of two one-year-old male lambs.

The text tells us that the sin and peace offerings were offerings that were “holy to the LORD for the priests,” which means that the priests were the beneficiaries of these sacrifices. Perhaps it was a kind of overtime pay for working on a holiday!

Gracious Growth

In v. 17 the instruction is given that two loaves of bread must be made from wheat and mixed with leaven, and then offered to the Lord. It seems from v. 20 that these were not given as a burnt offering but rather as a peace offering to be consumed by the priests. But what was the significance of these loaves?

Since they were first “waved before the LORD” they indeed belonged to Him. In other words, this was a declaration of God’s ownership of His harvest, which He had graciously given to the people. Yes, they had planted and watered, but it was God who gave the growth.

Further, the fact that this bread contained leaven also points to the idea of growth. Leaven is yeast, which is an active agent of growth. This leaven was therefore an acknowledgement that God caused the growth and was also a “prophetic sign” that God would continue to cause growth; He would continue to grow crops and provide for His people. “The festival dedicated unto God the daily food of nation for the coming year”. It was a confidence in God’s providential care of His covenant people.”5

We can conclude that these loaves therefore represented both thankfulness to God for past and present provision and also declared trust in God for future provision.

Third, though this holiday only lasted one day, it was to have a long-lasting effect on the people, for in v. 22 God commanded that once they returned to their fields they were to remember the poor. They were told to leave gleanings for the poor and the stranger among them. In other words, after recognising God’s bountiful goodness to them, the people were to express their gratitude by practical deeds of generosity.

Finally, it should be noted that, along with the Feasts of Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles, Pentecost was to be observed “forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations” (vv. 14, 21, 31). This was to be a perpetual commemoration and celebration of God’s covenantal faithfulness. And although there is plenty of textual evidence that makes it clear that the new covenant church is not under obligation to observe this feast, yet we can still find much benefit in perpetually reflecting on the many lessons here. We will see this below.

Having looked at the facts of the feast let us summarise its function:

  • Its primary function was to express thankfulness to God for His goodness to His people.
  • It was a day of solemn and joyful reflection of God’s care for those whom He had redeemed.
  • It was also a day whose purpose was to declare their faith in the redeeming God to continually meet their needs in the future. In other words, God not only saves His people but also sustains them.
  • Because God was faithful they were to be grateful and bountiful in helping others.

All too often we can find ourselves praying for God’s supply, only to forget the one who has previously supplied when we previously asked Him to supply! This annual feast was one means to serve as a practical antidote to such ingratitude. We can learn much from this. In fact, that is a major purpose of sacrifice. When we give our sacrificial offerings to God, we acknowledge His ownership and kindness in making us stewards of such gifts (see 1 Chronicles 28—29). Sacrificial giving is both a declaration of God’s faithfulness as well as a declaration of our future faith in Him. If we are not givers then we have a faith problem—as well, of course, as a gratitude problem.

We can therefore conclude that this Feast functioned to equip the children of Israel to realise that, as the children of God, they were to trust Him. But there was much more to this feast than that important function, for ultimately it foreshadowed the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Foreshadowing of Pentecost

This feast finds its fulfilment on the famed day of Pentecost, which occurred on the fiftieth day after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. On that day, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son for the purpose of indwelling the new covenant church. It was truly a harvest festival, as 3,000 were gathered into one body. As Ross observes, “Just as the firstfruits were eventually turned into loaves of bread, Christ’s death and resurrection produced the body of Christ.” How true this is!

The Lord Jesus Christ, the firstfruits from the dead, formed the Body of Christ on this day of Pentecost, fifty days after His resurrection (see John 12:24).

Though I am not comfortable with the notion that Pentecost was the “birthday” of the church, I do believe that it was the inauguration of the new covenant church, and therefore it was the beginning the Holy Spirit indwelling His church in a unique way. In fact, the Spirit of God figures so prominently here that an evangelist by the name of James Stewart once said that Pentecost was “the Incarnation of the Holy Spirit.” The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, had through the Holy Spirit brought a whole new loaf as a means of life into the world.

Again, this feast points to Christ in His work of redemption. He came to save a harvest of souls, and Pentecost was the beginning of such a harvest. In that sense it was a bit different than the prescribed feast. Yet, just as Pentecost was a declaration of faith in God’s future harvest, so was that wonderful day of Pentecost some two thousand years ago.

God saved a multitude of people on that day and He has continued to save multitudes more ever since. This is historical fact.

The Fullness of Pentecost

Acts 2 begins with these words: “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come” (v. 1). I love that phrase, for it suggests the truth that the previous celebrations of Pentecost were all leading up to this great and glorious day, in which God’s saving grace was so wonderfully displayed. All of those previous centuries of Pentecosts were merely a dress rehearsal for when this Day of Pentecost “arrived” (ESV). Let me recount a sketch of that historic day.

An Interrupted Prayer Meeting

The disciples had gathered to pray and fellowship when the Holy Spirit descended and indwelt each believer in Christ. Signs accompanied this event, such as sounds from heaven of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire, followed by the disciples speaking in tongues (i.e. that is they spoke in recognizable dialects that were ordinarily unknown to themselves). The crowds marvelled as each, according to his own language, heard these disciples glorifying God.

Once the crowd (including some mockers) swelled, Peter proclaimed the gospel in the language all could understand. He proclaimed that what was happening was the fulfilment of Scripture and that it all had to do with Jesus of Nazareth, who was the Passover Lamb. At the most recent Passover, it was that Lamb whom the nation had slaughtered as their substitute (2:22-23). In fact, His being slain was the very reason that they were still alive and had not experienced the fullness of God’s wrath. But they were also warned that if they did not repent, they would experience that wrath.

Peter then told them why they should believe that Jesus Christ was the Passover Lamb: because He was the firstfruits from the dead (2:24-32) and therefore both Lord and Christ, as further evidenced by His ascension and exaltation (2:33-36).

Many in the crowd were convicted of their unrighteousness and of their ungodliness and asked what they could do to be saved (v.21).

Peter pointed them to Christ and told them that they must repent and believe (evidenced by baptism). He exhorted them that all who did so would be saved. And three thousand were! The harvest had begun. And, in contrast to Pentecost, here these were actually the firstfruits of a greater harvest to come (see James 1:18). All typology at some point breaks down—and thankfully so! After all, we are a part of the harvest long after that Pentecostal fullness!

Pentecostal Fullness

As we saw previously, there were some other parallels on that day with the Pentecost as revealed in Leviticus 23.

First, the result was a holy and solemn convocation. There was feasting. There was corporate worship. There was corporate instruction, which would have put all of these things in perspective. Further, the people expressed their gratitude to God by their generosity to one another as possessions were sold and the proceeds shared with those who were in need. But there is another point that should also be noted: The harvest continued, for v. 47 tells us that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

In Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus spoke of the harvest being great but the labourers few. He said in John 4:35 that the fields were “white for harvest.” Pentecost Sunday is known in some parts of the world as Whitsunday or, literally, as White Sunday. Whitsunday got its name, we are told, from the white garments worn by baptismal candidates and clergy on the day, but perhaps a better picture is that of the fields white for harvest!

We need to realise that the fields were white for harvest in Jesus’ day and that they remain so today. The Lord has given a wonderful harvest over the centuries and Pentecost Sunday each year should point us to gratefulness for what the Lord has and encourage us that there is much more reaping to come. In the local church, Pentecost Sunday can serve as an opportunity for us to look at church growth over the previous year, and help us to anticipate more growth in the year to come.

Lessons from Leaven

An important observation arises here with reference to the use of leaven in the bread.

You will recall that God prohibited the use of leaven in the first feast (Passover / Unleavened Bread). Here, He required it. In the first, case the Lord was highlighting the haste with which the children of Israel left Egypt, while also pointing to their need to leave the corrupting influences of the world behind them. You will note in our studies in Exodus and Leviticus how the Lord was teaching His people to worship Him as the one and only true God rather than the idols of Egypt. He was teaching them proper theology to combat the lies they had learned in Egypt. And so, when they left Egypt, they were to flee for their lives, which meant also fleeing theological falsehoods.

Now, we read of a feast in which God commanded the use of leaven. Why? Because leaven speaks of growth. Growth, of course, can either be healthy or unhealthy (e.g. height versus a tumour). Here it represents good growth. The point of the leaven in this Pentecostal bread was that the people should expect God’s continued growing of crops. But typically it represents gospel growth.

It should not be missed that Pentecost occurred on a Sunday (the day after the seventh Sabbath from Firstfruits). And so, when we read that three thousand were saved on Pentecost and that they then broke bread, we can assume that they ate leavened bread at that first Lord’s Supper meal. It is entirely appropriate to do so when we partake of Communion.

A church can use either leavened or unleavened bread at the Lord’s Table; it really all has to do with what one wants to emphasise. If we want to emphasise fleeing with haste the sin that so easily besets and corrupts us, then the use of unleavened bread can symbolise that. But if we want to emphasise gospel growth, then leavened bread is fine to do so. And, by the way, unfermented grape juice is technically leavened, and so if you want to avoid all leaven at the Table then you should use wine. That certainly would not fly in our church!

In summary, on Pentecost Sunday, we should take great encouragement that gospel growth has occurred and that the Lord who gives the increase will continue to give it. We must faithfully sow and water and trust the one who will make the gospel seed to grow. Let us be grateful and faithful in the light of that glorious Pentecost so long ago. In other words, let us be encouraged and instructed by God’s work in history. He is still working in history. Let the past be a promise for the present; as well as for tomorrow.

Two Shall Be One

Another point of application has to do with the two loaves. I want to be careful here, for the text is not explicit, but have you wondered, why two loaves?

I would submit for your consideration that perhaps there were two loaves to signify that one day there would be only one loaf. Let me explain.

The world of the old covenant was divided between two groups: Jew and Gentile. In other words, there were nations comprising one group (Gentiles) and then the nation comprising the other (Israel). This was, of course, by God’s design (Exodus 19:5-6; etc.).

But under the new covenant, the middle wall of separation has been torn down and now there is only one nation: the church, which is comprised of many nations (Matthew 21:43; see Ephesians 3).

On that historic day, two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit brought that promise to pass when He baptised those believers into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). It is interesting that, according to Acts 6, the church in Jerusalem was already showing signs of being multinational in that there were many Hellenised members. No doubt, some Gentiles who had been proselytes before Pentecost were now believers in this new Body—the church—alongside fully ethnic believing Jews. The two loaves were now one.

Another point of application is suggested by the prescription of sacrifices to accompany this feast. After all, what is a feast without food? And, as pointed out earlier, there could be no Pentecost without sacrifice.

The sacrifices were costly, and if these sacrifices had to be brought by each household then it would prove very costly; in fact, it would truly be a sacrifice for the vast number of Jewish families. But think about this: Since this feast celebrated God’s good provision to them, they could sacrifice with confidence knowing that the Lord would continue to provide for them. They could sacrifice with the confidence that a harvest was still to come.

When it comes to gospel growth in our day, we too need to realise that this will accompany sacrifice. As we give of our money, our children, our grandchildren and our time, then we can be confident that it is a good investment, knowing that a future harvest will arrive. The Philippians understood this, and I think that, as a church, we are growing in our grasp of this.

You may recall that when Paul wrote to the Philippians, he commented that, out of all of the local churches with which Paul had a relationship, they alone came alongside him when he was in need (Philippians 4:14-16). He refers to their giving as an acceptable sacrifice as a sweet smelling aroma (4:18)—the same terminology used of the burnt offering used on Pentecost (Leviticus 23:18).

Paul then assured them that the Lord would meet whatever needs they had created by their sacrifice on his behalf (v. 19). But before saying, this he pointed out that he was not writing this for his own comfort but rather because he desired fruit that would abound to their account (v. 17). In other words, it is as if Paul was saying, “I believe that a gospel harvest lies ahead and your sacrificial giving has something to do with that.” Again, a Pentecostal theme seems to be present.

Paul was certain that God was busy with a harvest in his own point in history. He was also certain that any investment in that harvest would be recognised by God and that no one need worry that if they gave to such that God would fail to meet their needs. We need the same conviction.

We live in what seems to be ever-increasing financially difficult days and we must, more than ever, continue to cultivate a gratitude attitude for the Lord’s provision while at the same time fostering a faith in God’s faithfulness for the future. We can never outgive God—especially when we are doing so for the sake of His harvest.

Hope for the Future

Staying with this theme of the Pentecostal harvest as it played out in Philippi, let us note some further connections.

The church at Philippi had a somewhat inauspicious start (see Acts 16). It had both a small and troublesome beginning, but it became a church of great significance and no doubt one of the dearest of Paul’s churches. Applying the Pentecostal principle, we see how the initial harvest of souls there grew into a greater harvest. And as we have just indicated, that harvest led to a greater harvest elsewhere.

The point in all of this is that we should expect gospel growth in the present and in the future. It is true that the growth of the gospel is sometimes seasonal but, like a harvest, those seasons are usually repeated. In other words, as we look back on the history of the growth of the church over the past two thousand years, we should be encouraged to look for more and continued growth yet to come. Though doubtless the church is facing some challenges in our part of the world, and though it appears that the light has been extinguished in parts of Europe, nevertheless we have good reason to celebrate what God has done and to ambitiously anticipate what He will yet do. The harvest continues, and in the words of Steven Curtis Chapman, “spring is coming and all we have been hoping and longing for soon will appear.”

The Future of Pentecost

Though it is true that there was only one day in the history of the world on which Pentecost fully came (Acts 2:1), we can nevertheless expect a continuation of these Pentecostal blessings in the same way that the cross continued the blessings initiated at the original Passover. In other words, there is a continuity of Pentecost with our day and with the days that lie ahead, until the Lord Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It is for this very reason that we need to yearly commemorate and celebrate Passover Sunday.

But before bringing this to a close I want to make another important observation.

At the time of Pentecost, the spring harvest, for the most part, had been brought in, and it would be several months before the harvesting of the grapes and the olives. Life would go on and, in fact, there were no special holidays slated for the next six months or so. It would be a season of duties rather other than harvesting. It would be the arduous and seemingly unfruitful season of tending to the crops, de-weeding, and spot checking for insects and other hindrances to healthy growth. It was not a particularly exciting season. Nevertheless, Pentecost Sunday would give the people reason to be grateful for what God had done and expectant of another season of harvest.

Sometimes our lives are just like that, are they not? We enjoy wonderful seasons of growth and of fullness; in fact, we have so much harvest that we can hardly contain it! We are like the man of whom spoke who had to build bigger barns to store his surplus.

But then we find ourselves in a season of insects, weeds, blight and storms or draught, and we wonder if we will ever enjoy the fruit of a harvest again. Let Pentecost Sunday encourage you to be faithful at such times trusting God for a more fruitful day ahead. He is the giver of good things and knows that a harvest of blessings is more appreciated after a time of seeming fruitlessness. Be encouraged by the past Pentecosts to hope for a future Pentecost!

Having spent time studying Pentecost Sunday, let us be grateful to God for His kind provision to the church over all of these centuries. Let us be encouraged that He will continue to provide. And finally, let us be motivated to continue to sow and to water the gospel seed with our lips and our lives and our prayers, believing God for present and future Pentecostal blessings. There are plenty more Pentecost Sundays to be celebrated in the years ahead!

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 281.
  2. Some would say fourth feast by separating Passover from Unleavened Bread.
  3. The Greek word penta means “fifty.” This was the translation in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and the term has since come to be generally accepted.
  4. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 218.
  5. Rousas John Rushdoony, Leviticus: Commentaries on the Pentateuch (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2005), ??