And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.
Imagine yourself sitting in a room with 120 of the first disciples of Jesus. You have been through an emotional roller coaster the past two months, from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem of the Messiah, to his ignominious torture and death, to his resurrection. All of you saw him alive, some of you saw him ascend to heaven.
You are expectant, but you really have no idea what is coming. He told you to wait in Jerusalem until you were empowered, but what did that mean? Now, it is Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Christ’s resurrection. You have all come together to observe the Feast of Pentecost as you have all your lives.
Suddenly, with no warning, the room is filled with a great roaring sound, something very much like fire shimmers across the ceiling of the room, and a little stream of that fire descends upon each of you sitting in the room.
This would surely be the epitome of what we would call “a hair-raising experience.” Each of you finds yourself with the ability to speak in a language you have never spoken before and bursting with a message about the wonderful works of God. It would be an unforgettable experience. It would be energizing, empowering.
But the experience is not what this was about. The experience only lasted for a day, and then the disciples were left to ponder what the experience was all about and what it meant. It was clear enough right from the start that what was important was not so much the experience, but the meaning of the experience. What the disciples were coming to understand was that the Temple was a stage upon which a drama was played out, and that drama, from the beginning, was the story of Christ. Every year of their lives, they had observed a set of holydays, in all of which they were seeing, not only the history of God’s interaction with Israel, but of God’s interaction in the person of Jesus Christ. And here, on the day of Pentecost, one of the greatest movements in the history of God and man began.
The holidays of the Bible had an Israelite historical meaning, but they also foreshadowed the work of Christ. They sit in the Scriptures like rocks in the stream from which we can look back over history and forward into the future.
One of the really great losses to the nominal Christian faith was the abandonment of the holydays of the Bible, their dismissal as merely “Jewish” institutions. And surely, one of the greatest of the Christian holydays is Pentecost, because it was on this day that the church was empowered to do its work. Some even call Pentecost the birthday of the church.
But on that first Pentecost of the New Testament church, no one even thought of abandoning this festival. They were too high with the experience. But on this day, one question had to be dominant in every mind. Once you look past the incredible experience of the day, what did it all mean?
As word spread, men came running together to see what had happened, and as they listened to the disciples speaking, they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, “What does this mean?” Some, to be sure, mocked and accused the disciples of being drunk, they were that excited. Peter stilled the crowd and explained what was happening.
Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy.
It seems doubtful that Peter, even here, fully understood all the implications of Joel’s prophecy. He was seeing with his own eyes part of the phenomenon, but in the light of his later conduct, it is doubtful that he considered the implications of the phrase, “all flesh.” For Peter and the others still had not absorbed the truth that God was breaking the faith loose from the Temple, from Jerusalem, and in particular, from the control of the religious establishment. It would later become apparent to Peter that when God said “all flesh,” he meant precisely that.
And in the event, the pouring out of the Spirit was all encompassing – old, young, male, female. And I have to conclude, based on Peter’s citation of Joel, that there were women present who received this same gift and who spoke as well. Peter went on:
I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the Lord Shall be saved.
This passage also kicked the door wide open for taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. That last phrase was all inclusive. “Whoever” included Gentiles. So here we go all the way back to the Prophet Joel, and he was not the only one. The Old Testament prophets, Isaiah in particular, foresaw the conversion of the Gentiles to God, something all the Jews, and even some of the disciples, had a lot of trouble dealing with in the early years of the church.
The difficulty with this passage, though, is that Joel is plainly dealing with an end time event – the Day of the Lord. The confusing thing about prophecy is its dreamlike quality. You know how it is when you dream. All the normal rules of time and space are suspended. You can be acting out events in one location and finish them in another. In a dream, anything can happen. In prophecy, you can start out in one dimension of time and end up in another.
So attempts to interpret prophecy in conscious, literal terms is, in the main, futile. Peter was sure that he was seeing a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. What he could not know was how soon or in what manner the rest of the prophecy might come to pass.
The references to these signs in the book of Revelation place these events well into the future. But the empowering of the disciples and the opening of the door to the Gentiles was a right now event. But apart from taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, what did Pentecost mean? Peter continues:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know.
Peter did not have to recount all the events of Jesus’ ministry. The men in front of him on this day knew them. Even though they were from another part of the empire and spoke those languages, they had been in Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry.
Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.
Yes, but they didn’t do it, did they? Didn’t the Romans crucify Jesus? Yes, but they cannot escape responsibility. They had been there, they knew. They may even have been in the crowd that yelled, “Let him be crucified!”
Whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: I foresaw the Lord always before my face, For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence.
Peter here cites a Psalm,i written by David, who serves in the Bible as a type of Christ. Because he was anointed of God to be King, he was a kind of Messiah in his own right.ii Often in the Psalms, he speaks in the first person as God’s anointed, and he is speaking for Christ.
Now Peter comes to the crux of the matter, and it could not be denied. There were 120 witnesses present who had seen Jesus alive after his death and burial. And Peter does not rely only on the phenomenon to establish his point. His audience was Jewish and well trained to reject mere miracles as proof of anything.iii They expected matters like this to be established by Scripture, so Peter cites Scripture.
Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption.
David knew. This comes as a bit of a surprise. We know David as a poet and king, but the role of the prophet seems unexpected. Yet so many of his Psalms are prophetic, especially Psalms about the Messiah. Peter continued:
This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’” Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
Peter’s speech was tough and to the point. There was no denying the resurrection of Jesus in the face of 120 witnesses, all nodding their heads and for all we know, giving amens to what Peter was saying. And it was the resurrection of Jesus that trumped everything and led to the climax. The Lord has made this same Jesus whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?
Cut to the heart is probably putting it mildly. To come to the realization that you had crucified the Christ, that he was now raised from the dead, would have crushed a man’s soul. Peter offers the crowd a way to resolve the pain.
Then Peter said to them, “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.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
So, what did Pentecost mean, to these disciples, in this time and place? To the Jew, Pentecost was not a stand alone festival. It was the fiftieth day of the harvest that had begun seven weeks ago. In the Jewish economy, it started with “the first day” of seven “weeks” of harvest. It started with the offering of the first of the firstfruits to God at the same moment that the resurrected Jesus was presented to the Father on the morning after his resurrection.
To the disciples of Jesus, Pentecost was the Feast of Firstfruits, and the baptism of 3000 souls on that day was a sharp reminder of what they were about.
Now, what is the Christian connection to the Feast of Firstfruits? That’s our question. As is so often the case, Paul comes to our rescue.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
So for the early Christians the connection was almost automatic. They saw very clearly and very quickly what all this meant. We walked through this earlier, but consider it again from their perspective:
You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed.
Note this well. There was a countdown of seven Sabbaths. So when Matthew says that Mary first saw Jesus on “the first day of the week,” what he said in Greek is that Jesus appeared to Mary on the “first of the Sabbaths.” Now we know it was a Sunday morning, so it had to be on the first day of the weeks, the first day of the seven.
Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord.
Now we encounter a marked difference. When we thought of Jesus as the Bread of Life, we were speaking of unleavened bread, bread that is absent the symbolism of sin. Now we have an anomaly. We have two loaves of leavened bread presented to God as an offering of the firstfruits to God. These are offered on Pentecost, on the day the Holy Spirit was poured out in great power, and the day they baptized 3000 people.
What would the first Christians have made of all this? Seven weeks after Jesus rose from the dead as the firstfruits, yet another offering is made that is also called firstfruits. How would they have understood it? We know how James understood it because he states it outright in his letter.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Make no mistake about it. James, like all the apostles, was well versed in the Scriptures, and this comparison to the Feast of Firstfruits is deliberate. Not only is Christ the firstfruits, so are we. So when we make our way into the Temple on Pentecost and see the priests with the two “wave loaves” of leavened bread to offer before God, we have closed up the season of the firstfruits. But now it is not about the resurrection of Christ. It is about the resurrection of the saints.
You may not realize this, but in Revelation 14, the 144,000 that you’ve probably heard about, are called the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. The church surely would have connected these two loaves of the firstfruits to the three thousand people they baptized at Pentecost. In a sense, Pentecost looks to the Day of the Lord – the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead when the firstfruits are presented to God.
But there’s a joker in the deck, and I wonder if you’ve caught it. Mind you, we have made our way down to the time of the resurrection of the dead, the 144,000 are standing there along with the rest of us, and they are the firstfruits of God. The very term “firstfruits” suggests that there are later fruits, doesn’t it? Otherwise, why are they the first?
There are later fruits to be harvested after the firstfruits which, in Christian doctrine, come at the return of Christ, the Day of the Lord, and the resurrection. Sobering thought, isn’t it? You see, in Palestine, there were two major harvests: grain in the spring, fruit in the fall. We are left to ponder the significance of firstfruits and then later fruits. We will come back to that later, but for now, we have to consider how Jesus spoke of this.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
You don’t have to be a scholar to see what Jesus is talking about. He is talking about people, not grain. It was the people who were scattered and leaderless. There were so many of them, and so few to provide help and direction. The harvest of lives is out there in great abundance, Jesus told his disciples. Pray to God that he would send more workers out into the harvest. There is much work to be done. In the New Testament, the harvest is a repeated analogy for evangelizing the people of the world so they can be harvested as the firstfruits to God.
So Pentecost brings us up to the resurrection – the harvesting of the saints for the kingdom of God. Where does the thread take us next in the year? It takes us to the Feast of Trumpets on the first day of the seventh month. Of the seven Christian holidays in the Bible, the Feast of Trumpets is the fourth. The Old Testament tells us surprisingly little of the festival.
(An excerpt from The Thread: God’s Appointments with History)
i. Peter is citing Psalm 16:8-11.↩
ii. “Messiah” in the Hebrew is Mashiyach and means “Anointed.” Thus every king and every priest, being anointed of God, was a messiah of sorts.↩
iii. See Deuteronomy 13:1-3.↩
iv. “Christ” comes from the Greek Christos and means “Anointed.” It is the Greek translation of “Messiah.”↩