Pentecost and the Harvest

How the Feast of Weeks Foreshadowed the Harvest to Come

by Alison Dellenbaugh on

Articles 8 min read
Acts 2:1–4 Acts 2:41

Pentecost is known as the day that the Holy Spirit was poured out on followers of Christ, and the Church was born. But that day detailed in Acts 2 was not the first Pentecost. Pentecost was a festival long celebrated by the Jewish people, which was being observed in Jerusalem at the time that the Holy Spirit arrived with “what seemed to be tongues of fire” (Acts 2:1-3).

So what was Pentecost? What were they celebrating? And how did the celebration take on new meaning for the people that day forward?

Pentecost was the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, meaning “weeks.” This Feast of Weeks was one of the festivals instituted by God for the Israelites in the Old Testament, starting in Exodus (Ex 34:22). It’s also mentioned in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The festivals are mentioned or described five times in the opening books of the Bible, the Torah.

While this is the fourth feast of the Jewish year by many reckonings (after Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Firstfruits), some consider it to be only the second or third, combining Passover with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and/or the Feast of Firstfruits with the Feast of Weeks. 

In any case, the first big spring festival is Passover. The Festival of Unleavened Bread (Ex 12:17; Lev 23:6; 2 Chron 8:13) occurs at the tail end of Passover. The Festival of Firstfruits, also part of the Passover week, is when they dedicated the very first of their wheat harvest to God.

Then, starting the next day they would count seven weeks, hence the name “Feast of Weeks” or “Festival of Weeks” (Num 28:26; Deut 16:9-10). It was 50 days from the offering of firstfruits, which was why it was known as Pentecost in the time of Acts, from the Greek pentēkostē, meaning “fiftieth.” It was also called the Feast or Festival of the Harvest. The Jewish people today still call it Shavuot.

It was a time of joyful celebration, and was eventually one of three festivals per year in which people would take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Deut 16:9-17). That’s what they were celebrating in Acts 2 when God sent the Holy Spirit.

Some people believe there is a connection between this feast and the giving of the Torah, or the Law, at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after the original Passover and the exodus. Even today, the Jewish people celebrate Shavuot as the day that they re-accept the Torah. This connection, however, is not made in Scripture. The Feast of Weeks in the Old Testament and Pentecost in the New Testament are never explicitly associated with the Law in that way in the text. Rather, that connection likely came from the rabbi Maimonides in the 12th century AD.

However, even if there isn’t necessarily a scriptural precedent for that connection, it is interesting to note that people who follow this tradition celebrate the giving of the Law at the same time that the Church is celebrating the giving of the Spirit. According to Romans 8:2,the law of the Spirit who gives life” has set us “free from the law of sin and death.” So, while one group is reaffirming the Old Covenant, the Church is celebrating the coming of the New Covenant.

Many sources and scholars also claim there is no connection between the Feast of Weeks as described in the Old Testament and Pentecost as described in the New Testament, except that they just happened to fall at the same time. Yet God is not random; everything He does is purposeful (Prov 16:4, Prov 16:9). God is the One who established the calendar of feasts and festivals in the first place, and as He only instituted seven holidays or festivals, surely all of them have importance. Of course, God is also the one who sent the Holy Spirit, and His timing is always impeccable (Dan 2:21; Gal 4:4).

Christ’s death happened around the time of the Passover. The Last Supper was celebrating the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread (Luke 22:7), and Scripture describes Jesus as “our Passover Lamb” (1 Cor 5:7). Then, the day of His resurrection was the day of the Festival of Firstfruits. And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20,Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” He continues: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:22-23).

Christ is the firstfruits. His followers and our eternal life through Him are the harvest. While the Spirit and early believers are also described as firstfruits in places (Rom 8:23; 2 Thess 2:13), generally those who believe in Christ and receive eternal life, becoming part of His Church, could be considered the rest of the harvest. (In fact, Jesus described believers as wheat in one of His parables; Matt 13:30. The harvest we reap is also our eternal life itself; Gal 6:8.) 

And sure enough, Pentecost happened exactly 50 days after the resurrection. Fifty days after the raising of “the firstfruits” from the dead, we celebrate the beginning of the harvest. The day the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, 3,000 people were added to the Church (Acts 2:41), being raised from spiritual death (John 5:24), and that is when the Church was really born (Acts 2:42-47). Clearly, then, there is more than a coincidental connection between the original Feast of Weeks, the celebration of the harvest, and the day that God chose to send the Spirit in power (Acts 1:8) to reap a spiritual harvest and inaugurate His Church.

Far from simply lining up on the calendar with a Jewish feast, the Pentecost celebration in Acts mirrored the significance of the existing feast and breathed new meaning into it. As Duane A. Garrett writes:

“The sequence from Passover to Pentecost is meaningful from the New Testament perspective. The slaughter of the Passover lamb recalled the great deliverance of the exodus and marked the beginning of the harvest with the gift of firstfruits, and the Feast of Weeks was the great celebration in thanksgiving for the grain harvest. Jesus' crucifixion at Passover, similarly, was the sacrifice for the deliverance of his people, and the subsequent pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost was the fulfillment of what his sacrifice had promised (John 14:16-20; 16:7)” (Garrett, “Feasts and Festivals of Israel,” in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology).

Those of us who are not from Pentecostal or charismatic traditions, or not in liturgical churches that follow the liturgical calendar, often tend to overlook Pentecost, or to not know much about what it is or when it is. Many years, we may not hear about it at all. Yet for the Church, the birth of the Church is clearly important. And very, very important to our lives as believers is the Holy Spirit of God who indwells us. He is the One who changes, counsels, and guides us. He takes up residence in us and changes us from who we were before to who we are now and who we will be when we go to meet with God in eternity (2 Cor 3:18; 1 Thess 5:23; 1 Pet 1:2). He also gives us unity with other believers (1 Cor 12:13Eph 4:3-6)—including those from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Acts 2:4-11; Acts 10:34-35; Acts 10:44-45Rev 7:9).

The Church and the Spirit are worthy of celebration! Take time to give thanks to God for starting the Church (Eph 1:22-23), for giving us the Holy Spirit, and for giving us opportunities to be workers for His harvest (Luke 10:2), helping to grow the harvest more and more until He returns. Go invite more people in to be part of the harvest. And may you experience the power and joy of the Spirit (Rom 15:13; Gal 5:22) at Pentecost and beyond!

About the Author

Alison Dellenbaugh (M.A. in Christian Leadership, Dallas Theological Seminary) is the Spiritual Formation Resource Manager at Central Bible Church and editor of the Next Step Disciple website.