Acts 2: Shavuot/Pentecost, the Day God Renewed His CovenantAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Acts, Bible, Church, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Pentecost
When we open our Bibles to Acts 2 and read about a loud, violent, wind and fire on the heads of the 120; when we read about people from all over the known world gathering in the Temple at that time; and when we read Peter quoting from Joel 2 about the Spirit being poured out upon men and women; sons and daughters; old and young and even male and female slaves we see a great convergence taking place. Israelites in Luke’s day had a massive amount of information converging on a single point. All of these motifs are “Pentecostal” themes embedded in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism that explode on the scene in Acts 2. Rich and varied themes come together here and point to far more than the birth of the church.
Pentecost is, in essence, the declaration by God and Israel “we have a long history and we want it to continue.” It is the REnewAL of God’s covenant at the Feast of weeks/ingathering/first fruits/Pentecost. How is this? Sadly in a day when we are awash in Bibles many do not know the story or the structure of the biblical narrative nearly as well as those in Luke’s day that never in their lives ever owned a Bible.
Foundation of Joy in the Torah
The Torah provides several texts which direct when and where Shavuot is to be observed. It is celebrated fifty days after Passover as wheat and barley (the ingredients for beer which helps explain why some assumed the disciples were drunk btw) are harvested, as the book of Ruth depicts. Shavuot is dependent upon, and responding to, the prior act of God’s salvation of Israel by his glorious grace. The festival always looks back to the history of God’s incredible faithfulness to Israel from the call of Abraham, thru the Exodus, until “now” (more on this in a moment). God’s grace is not simply in the historical act of redemption from a terrorist regime in Egypt but is expressed in Yahweh’s loving care for all in giving them food and drink.
So Shavuot interweaves God’s providential care with his historical acts of grace. When we gather our crops together we come before the Lord to celebrate. So Deuteronomy 16.9-12 tells us that Shavuot is about gratitude for grace.
“And you shall make the Festival of Weeks for YHWH your God, contributing a freewill offering of your hands which you shall give just as YHWH your God blesses you. And you shall rejoice before YHWH your God, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female slave and the Levite who is in your gates, and the alien/stranger/foreigner and the orphan and the widow who is among you … And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and you shall diligently observe these statutes” (Deuteronomy 16.10-12, BV; See Leviticus 23.15-21)
Freewill offerings reflect how grateful we are. Joy is the characteristic of this festival of worship according to the Deuteronomy. Moses says we come before the Lord and “rejoice” because Israel has reason to rejoice.
The Festival is not just a gathering of men. Instead get your sons, daughters, widow, Levites and even male and female slaves … bring them with you and celebrate. Please note that Deuteronomy specifically mentions the male and female, slave and free … people that pop up in Acts 2.
Shavuot says we have a history that reaches way back before I was born, continues into the present, and we want it to continue in the future. We are part of that Story. As I noted in a previous post Israel did not so much as read the Bible but reenact it.
In the Torah we read the epic “Pentecostal” text Deuteronomy 26.1-11. In the third month we gather our family, friends, and any that will come for the pilgrimage to the Temple. But what will we do? What will we say? On that day we come into the Presence of the Lord to confess (I paraphrase) “we have a long history! you have loved us from ages past. never was there a time you did not love us! we are here because of your faithfulness to the covenant! we are here as proof of your grace, mercy, love and your commitment to the covenant of hesed.”
This is in fact what is confessed. Deuteronomy 26 tells us, have ears to hear! I, in the presence of the Lord and my sons, daughters, slaves and all, say “Today I declare to YHWH that I have come into the land you swore to our ancestors” (26.3). Immediately we, not me, are connected to the sweep of the Story of God and his faithfulness from the time of Abraham. The mere fact that we are here is proof that he has kept his promise of grace. Then we make that astounding confession, it is the great summary of Israelite faith, in vv. 5-10,
“A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down into Egypt … we were afflicted … we cried out … YHWH heard our cry and brought us out and brought us to this place … So now I bring O YHWH the first fruit of the land that you gave back to you.”
And we rejoice! We rejoice with the aliens (i.e. Ruth!). We rejoice with the slaves. We rejoice with women. We rejoice with the priests. The covenant is not just with those in the distant past, it is with us!! God’s grace, God’s promise, God’s love is for US.
The covenant is REnewED in our time and with us. In Acts 2 everyone one of those thousands of people were coming to Jerusalem to make that confession from Deuteronomy 26. The Festival “says” we have a history God and we want it to continue.
Yahweh Married Israel on Pentecost
A not so minor point to be made here. The covenant that God made with Israel, the awesome revelation of his Presence at Mt Sinai, and the giving of his holy word was done on what later was called Pentecost. God entered into a marriage with Israel – a covenant of love.
“On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai … YHWH called from the mountain, saying … You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on Eagles wings and brought you to myself … you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples ...” (Exodus 19.3-5)
Sinai is three months after the Exodus, just like Shavuot is three months after Passover. After the Bride has been liberated the Lord enters into what amounts to a marriage with Israel. The Torah was like a bridal gift and is seen as such throughout the Hebrew Bible. But God gave more than the Torah at Sinai, he gave himself!
We will note more of this in a moment but it shows up in Acts 2 and no Jew missed it.
Pentecost Was a Time for Renewing the Covenant
From the beginning, Shavuot, Pentecost, pointed to God’s long history of grace with his people combined with his daily care for the needs of his people. It pointed to the covenant. Pentecost provided Israel an opportunity to respond to God’s grace. Free will worship. How grateful am I? Celebration and Joy are the mood of this great festival.
Since Pentecost provided Israel with a way of responding to God’s grace in faith and joy, it became a time not just to acknowledge our standing in the covenant. Rather Shavuot became a time to renew the covenant for people that were terribly sinful and unfaithful. Israel was just the opposite of their Lord.
Thus we see in that book no one hardly ever reads, 2 Chronicles, of a covenant REnewAL in the time of the evil king Asa. The prophet Azariah met Asa and told him “for a long time Israel and Judah was without the true God, the teaching priest and without Torah” (2 Chronicles 15.3). After exhortation, Asa was led to repent and called all Israel and Judah to come and Renew the covenant of God’s love. So in the “third month” …aka the time for Shavuot/Pentecost … they entered into a “covenant to seek YHWH” all over again (15.10-15). As Judah took an oath on during this covenant ceremony they “rejoiced … with all their heart, and had sought him with their whole desire, and he was found by them, and YHWH gave them rest …”(15.15).
Even greater than Asa however was the renewal of the covenant at Mt. Sinai itself. Moses had not even descended from the mountain before Israel had tragically shattered the covenant with the assistance of Aaron. The Golden Calf is to the history of Israel what the eating of the forbidden fruit is for all humanity … a great Fall! (Exodus 32-33). God threatened to destroy the children of Israel and fulfill his promises to Abraham through Moses himself. As Moses interceded with Yahweh grace was given. Moses returned to the mountain to hear God reveal his name in that epic text of Exodus 34.6-7.
What we may not have remembered is that God says “I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform my marvels … for it is an awesome thing I will do with you” (34.10). The chapter relates how God has renewed his covenant mentioning both Unleavened Bread/Passover and Weeks by name (34.21-28). Israel’s experience at Mt. Sinai was not only the giving of the marriage to Israel but also the scene of the first covenant renewal in the face of scandalous sin.
Pentecost was the time for the whole, faithless, nation to come before the LORD and make the confession of Deuteronomy 26. We have a long history Lord, you have always been faithful and gracious before we were even born and that we are here in spite of our faithlessness, show how faithful and true you are.
God initially gave his covenant, his torah, himself on Shavuot and it became the day on which Israel hung hopes and dreams of mercy, grace, and renewal in the future just as it was for Asa.
Shavuot: Great Expectations of Hope, Healing and Renewal
By the time of Jesus, and Acts 2, a lot of water had passed under the bridge. Never once, even for a moment, was God untrue to his covenant. But sadly the same cannot be said for God’s people in either Testament. Unfaithfulness has been the single greatest recurring theme in this history of our Ancestors. That unfaithfulness lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and Exile among the nations. One Empire after another trod over the heads of people of God. Had the covenant been undone? Even with the promise of Haggai, and the rebuilding of the Temple, it was not always felt like God had healed “us.” Even with the Maccabees it was felt that God’s promises were not quite realized. Pentecost was a time of great expectations. Another Sinai would happen!
Long before Jesus was born, Jews believed that on Pentecost a powerful and great renewal would take place. Just like at Sinai itself. God is faithful. We confess it every Shavuot. We confess we have a long history and we want it to be more glorious in the future than it has even in the past.
In an influential work known as Jubilees, which is essentially a retelling of the history of Israel, we learn that Jews believed that Shavuot was as old as the world. Noah celebrated Shavuot. Then the world in its rebellion no longer acknowledged the true God. Shavuot was restored to the world when God gave his covenant, his torah and himself at Sinai. And every year they gathered before the Lord to renew that covenant that was made by God. Each one points to the great Shavuot when something like Sinai might happen again.
“For this reason it has been ordained and written on the heavenly tablets that they should celebrate the festival of weeks during this month–once a year–to renew the covenant each and every year. This entire festival had been celebrated in heaven from the time of creation until the lifetime of Noah … Abraham alone kept it, and his sons Isaac and Jacob kept it until your lifetime. During your lifetime the Israelites had forgotten it until I renewed it for them at this mountain” (Jubilees 6.17-19)
In Jubilees, Pentecost became the occasion that God renewed his covenant with Noah, then Abraham, then Moses and the great expectation was that God would do the same again. We know that the Essenes of Qumran practiced Shavuot as a covenant renewal celebration, every year. It was not a different covenant but the same covenant made new.
The Story of Ruth is read publicly during Shavuot. It is in fact a story the celebrates many key themes of this great worship festival. The story centers on the marginalized, the fringe, the outcasts, the powerless … even the forbidden woman of Moab being welcomed as part of the covenant even though forbidden! The story is about the nature of hesed and a testimony for those who come to the God of Israel “under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2.12). Pentecost is when all of Israel becomes Ruth the outsider longing for God to build the house of Israel (see Ruth 4.11).
So when Israelites came from all over the world in the first century on their pilgrimages, like Pentecost, they had incredible hopes that THIS is the year a new Sinai event would take place. They came far and wide, confessing with their sons and daughters, the old and the young, the slaves and the free – standing before the Lord as equal human beings – that God had been faithful. He has always been faithful. That he will always be faithful. That we standing in his Presence is proof of his covenant.
In joy and celebration we share in the bounties of God’s infinite grace. All the while praying that something else may happen – a Sinai happening, an Asa happening. Joel 2, which Peter quotes, is obviously a “Pentecostal” text. God renewing his covenant not only with Israel but all of Creation. Not with men but women too (Ruth is, interestingly, about older and younger women). Not just the young but the old. Not just the free but the slave too. All those who stand before the Lord on Shavuot.
So when the loud sound of a hurricane appeared (Luke’s word can be translated as “roar”) and fire in the sky upon the peoples head … No Jew reading this would mistake what is happening. When God shows up, stuff happens in the Hebrew Bible.
God showed in a storm of smoke and fire at Sinai. God shows up in the violent thunder storm in the temple(!) in Ps 29. God shows up, and speaks, out of the storm in Job. God shows up in fire when he revealed his Name at the bush. God shows up in fire and smoke at Sinai in Exodus 19. God shows up in smoke and fire in numerous Psalms.
What we hoped for, what we prayed for, what we dreamed of is taking place. God is REnewING his covenant – finally. He is making it new. He is giving his Word. He is keeping his Promise. He is giving himself. Acts 2 is the great long awaited for Shavuot that revealed that God was STILL true to his promises to the patriarchs. That God is saying “we have a long history and it will never end.” This is why Peter, hardly containing himself, says THIS is THAT … this Shavuot – the stuff you are busy sharing and confessing as you sacrifice with your family, friends, neighbors – is THAT long promised renewing Pentecost.
When the disciples asked Jesus when he would restore the kingdom in Acts 1.6. This is not, as I was taught, a misguided question at all. It is based directly on the Hebrew Bible. God has rescued his people again at the Cross of Christ. The New Exodus has taken place. It is natural, being schooled in the rhythm of Israel’s history, to expect the next event to be the renewing of the covenant at … Shavuot! And it happens.
Acts 2 is to Jesus’s Death/Burial/Resurrection what the theophany, torah and covenant on Sinai is to the defeat of Pharaoh and the Red Sea. God has renewed his covenant. This is a big deal for Luke who stresses so powerfully – and directly contrary to many Christian theologies – that God did not replace Israel with the church. God restored Israel by renewing his covenant and giving himself in his Spirit. Luke’s allusions to “Pentecostal” themes flow throughout Acts but we do not have time to review them here.
Final Thought: We Continue to Be Part of the Story
We sometimes call Acts 2 the “birthday of the church.” Perhaps in a sense that is true. But the world “church” never appears in Acts 1, Acts 2, Acts 3, or Acts 4. The first time the word “church” appears in Acts is 5.11. But something massively important happened on Pentecost, but it was not the beginning of a new (=different) people of God. Luke would not call it the birthday of the church, if we mean by church “the people of God.” Pentecost is not the creation of God’s people, but the renewal of his people.
I think Luke would say such a position is utterly false and unbiblical. Acts 2 records the great eschatological renewal of the covenant with God’s ancient people with their long history of disobedience, yet he saves and comes in covenant by his love just as he did with Abraham, just as he did in the Exodus, just as he did with Asa, just as he does with us. The REnewED covenant certainly has differences with just the old one but it does not have a different God and it does not have a different people.
This and so much more is going on in Acts 2 … the great covenant renewal on the Day of Pentecost. God gave his covenant. God gave his word (revelation). God gave himself on this day.
Now you see why Israel rejoiced and celebrated with a great joy on this day.
We should too.