Pentecost has significance in both Judaism and Christianity, although for different reasons. This article will look briefly at the significance of Pentecost for the Jewish community, but the primary focus will be on its significance for Christian believers. Just what was it that took place on the day of Pentecost, soon after Jesus’ ascension, that makes it so significant to Christians.
What Is Pentecost?
In Leviticus 23, God gave instructions to Israel concerning several special days, or weeks, of remembrance and celebration. These festivals were to be celebrated annually for the generations to come. In Leviticus 23:15-21, God described what was known as Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks. According to the Lexico dictionary, Shavuot is “a major Jewish festival held on the 6th (and usually the 7th) of Sivan, fifty days after the second day of Passover. It was originally a harvest festival, but now also commemorates the giving of the Law (the Torah).” Shavuot was also sometimes referred to as Pentecost, a Greek word meaning fiftieth.
The second chapter of Acts records the coming of the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8) at the Jewish celebration of Shavuot. Because of this, Christians also celebrate Pentecost. But not as a harvest festival or a remembrance of the giving of the Law, but as the coming of the Holy Spirit.
However, I do not believe that it is coincidental that God chose this day to send the Holy Spirit. The Shavuot was a celebration of the first fruits of the year’s harvest. And, in a sense, that is what Pentecost is to Christians. Those believers in Jerusalem on that momentous day were the “first fruits” of the great harvest that was just beginning. As the Passover and Exodus were a foreshadowing of Good Friday and Easter, so the Shavuot was a foreshadowing of Pentecost.
What Happened at Pentecost?
After Jesus’ ascension, his followers, about 120 of them, continued to meet in Jerusalem. Acts 2:1-13 records the events of this Pentecost, about 10 days after Jesus’ ascension. Jesus’ followers were all together when a sound like the blowing of a mighty wind came from heaven and filled the place where they were staying. What appeared to be tongues of fire separated and rested on each of them, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.
When this happened, a crowd gathered to investigate the noise. And when they did, they heard Jesus’ followers all speaking in the native languages of the listeners. The crowd had come to celebrate Shavuot and was from all over the known world, with many different native languages.
Yet, each was hearing what was said in their own native language. This confused the crowd, but Peter explained to them that what they were experiencing was the fulfillment of a prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. A prophecy that included God pouring out his Spirit on all people.
Peter then proceeded to preach his first sermon, explaining who Jesus was and the significance of what had happened to him. Then he called on them to repent and turn to Jesus for salvation. And that day, 3,000 people believed and were saved.
The Significance of Pentecost
But is that all that really happened on that day? We have a description of the physical events of the day, but there is much more to Pentecost than that. Pentecost is a day that is nearly as significant to Christianity as Good Friday and Easter. On those latter two days, we celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Events that enable the forgiveness of our sin and victory over death, but without Pentecost that work is unfinished.
Pentecost is significant for two reasons: The first has personal application while the second is more universal.
A Promise Fulfilled
On the eve of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, he spent the evening teaching his disciples. And a significant portion of that instruction concerned the Paraclete/Counselor/Comforter/Advocate that he would send to them (John 16:7), the Holy Spirit. This Paraclete would be with them forever (John 14:15-21). He would teach them of Jesus (John 15:26-27), convict the world of sin (John 16:8-11), guide the disciples into truth (John 16:12-13), and glorify Christ (John 16:14-15).
This promise was fulfilled less than two months later at Pentecost. Christ sent the Holy Spirit to his followers. Not just to their leaders or to the most faithful, but the Holy Spirit came to all of them. Nor was this a temporary arrangement. The Holy Spirit came to stay, taking up permanent residence in each believer. And not just the believers at Pentecost, but all believers from then on.
When we are saved, we experience the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. His experience becomes our experience. But we also experience Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes upon us, teaching us and guiding us into the truth. The Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ indwelling us and enabling us to live the life that Jesus’ death and resurrection made possible.
The Establishment of the Church
When was the church established? I believe that it was at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Prior to Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples followed him, learning what he had to teach them, and preparing for the coming kingdom. And, in a sense, they were a church, a called-out assembly. But they were not yet the Church that Jesus was going to establish.
When the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed. The Holy Spirit took that motley collection of disciples who had followed Jesus for as long as three years and turned them into a unified body. It is the Holy Spirit, sent to us at Pentecost, that draws us into the body of Christ.
As the church expanded beyond its Jewish roots, it was the Holy Spirit who brought each people group into the church, replicating in them what had happened at Pentecost. First in Jerusalem, then in Samaria (Acts 8:14-17), and then to the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-46). The Holy Spirit ushered each of them into the body of Christ.
What Does This Mean?
The second chapter of Acts records the visible signs of the day of Pentecost. But there is much more to Pentecost than those outward signs. Pentecost was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Paraclete to us, the personal indwelling Spirit of God. In his coming, we also experience the establishment of Christ’s church.
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Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.