Saturday, June 4, 2022

Pentecost: The Countdown

"Pentecost" by Pierre Raymond

One reason I love being in a liturgical church is that we celebrate Easter for an entire season. Not just a day, not just a weekend, not even just a full Passion week. But an entire season - fifty days. From Resurrection Day all the way to the anniversary of receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

As a new believer, when I discovered that the church had tied Easter and Pentecost together in this purposeful way, my Jewish brain was astounded. And excited. And affirmed. Because it showed me that the early Christian church – at its core – had established itself firmly in its Jewish roots. Even though most people today don’t realize it.

You see, Pentecost – or Shavuot, as it’s called in Hebrew – is inextricably tied to Passover. It doesn’t actually have its own specific date. It’s simply “fiftieth” (pentecost) or “weeks” (shavuot): i.e., the fiftieth day – or seven weeks – after Passover. So every year, on the day after the Passover sabbath, everyone starts counting down. Ticking off every single day after a prayer at sundown. Looking toward that fiftieth day, when God had instructed people to offer their harvest tithe in Jerusalem. All the while, still eyeing Passover in the rearview mirror: thirty-nine days since Passover, forty days since Passover, forty-one days since Passover… Tethered together, Passover and Shavuot create an entire season.

But why the fiftieth day? What’s so special about that number?

Sure, the end of the grain harvest falls around then, which definitely fits the feast's harvest tithe purpose. But why fifty days? Why not forty-five or fifty-two? Why not six weeks? Why even tie the harvest tithe to Passover at all? None of the other feasts are scheduled this way. Why not give Shavuot a specific date on the calendar? 

Why? Because the fiftieth day wasn’t just about the grain harvest. And it wasn’t arbitrary. At all. The fiftieth day – as is often taught – completes Passover.

You see, way back in the desert wilderness, on the fiftieth day after the Exodus rescue, God gave His people the Law at Mount Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and covenant making. On the very first Passover, the people were freed from something, and then on the fiftieth day they were freed to something – to some One.

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God…” Exodus 6:6-7 NIV

The fiftieth day completed God’s Passover promise. He didn’t just to release the Israelites from bondage into the wilderness only to strike it out on their own. He adopted them as His own treasured people. Not only ransomed and freed, but also loved and covenanted.

It seems to me that Passover was the dramatic engagement, and then the fiftieth day was the wedding. By establishing Shavuot on that very same fiftieth day, the Groom reminds us that He gives us Himself, and everything that He is and that He does: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And we, the Bride, bring the fruits of those gifts. 

It seems like a beautiful picture of marriage – our own personal covenant with God and also our marriages on earth: it’s the melding together of giving and receiving and bearing fruit as we abide in one another.

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” John 15:4a NIV

Shavuot completes Passover. Gives it purpose and joy and fruitfulness. And never was this more so than during that fateful year in first-century Jerusalem. In fact, when I first realized that the Pentecost feast of Acts 2 was the same annual Shavuot feast of my Judaism, I was absolutely overwhelmed. Let me set the stage for you, so you’ll understand why. 

The very first tick of the Shavuot/Pentecost countdown happens the morning after the Passover sabbath. According to God’s instructions, everyone presented the first sheaf of their harvest to a priest, who then waved it toward heaven on their behalf. Then the people offered a lamb without blemish. So, what this means – in the aftermath of the Cross – is that when everyone was raising their firstfruits to heaven and offering their lambs without blemish, The Lamb without blemish was being raised as the firstfruits of the grave!

And yet, none of them had any idea of the revolution taking place in the garden tomb. Even as they obeyed the barley sheaf command, Jesus’ followers were bewildered and grieving. And every single pilgrim in Jerusalem - regardless of their thoughts about Jesus – was probably preoccupied with the violent spectacle of the rabbi’s crucifixion, right in their midst. And so, lost in their thoughts and emotions and ritual offerings, everyone was oblivious to the glorious spectacle unfolding quietly in the garden. The contrast is absolutely breathtaking.

But there was more. And it’s one of the things I love most about the tethering together of Passover and Shavuot, of Easter and Pentecost. Because, as the people began numbering their days that morning, they were not only oblivious to the trampling of death taking place down the road. They were also absolutely unaware of the fullness they would experience on the day their countdown reached its completion. Instead, on that first countdown day in Jerusalem – and for the next forty-nine – God’s people simply thought they were numbering their days until the pilgrimage back to the Temple, their grain tithes in hand. Just like they did every single year.

But God knew they weren’t just counting down to what they people would give to Him. He knew they were counting down to the extravagance they would receive from Him. The Holy Spirit. Within them. And I have to imagine that all of heaven was bursting with excitement as they listened to families counting down every night, each sunset drawing them one day closer to Joel’s prophecy becoming reality.

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days... Joel 2:28-29 NIV

On the actual anniversary of the day God shared the Law on tablets of stone, the Holy Spirit came and placed the Law on people’s hearts. On the day God's people commemorated His thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, He enveloped them with wind and fire on Mount Zion.

Faithful Jews had been planning and anticipating that very day for seven weeks. Every night they’d checked off the date and prayed. Every day they’d tended to their fields and their tithe. Yet they were counting down to something so much greater than the annual tithe. God had something in store that was beyond anything they knew to even imagine or ask. And the reality is that what He ultimately has in store for us is beyond anything we can even imagine or ask.

And so, as I think about that incredibly unexpected Pentecost countdown, I’m in awe of a God who is more intentional than I can possibly imagine. A God whose plans are for my eternal flourishing – even when my tunnel vision seeks momentary flourishing within my own perspectives. A God who refuses to abandon me to that place, because He has an abundance in mind that I can't conceive. And I’m also convicted to hold my own personal countdowns loosely, with an attitude of humility and wonder and worship.

This year, that fiftieth day – Shavuot – begins this evening, June 4. And so, in the spirit of Jewish Pentecost tradition, I leave you with the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May He make His face shine on you and be gracious to you;

May He turn His face toward you and give you peace.

Amen & amen.

{for a Pentecost recipe from my grandma, check out the newsletter at}