Pentecost was an ancient Hebrew festival, one of the three mandatory feasts for Israelite men. Celebrated in the third month (May/June), it commemorated the giving of Torah at Sinai (cf. Exod. 19:1). Called the “feast of weeks” (Deut. 16:10) because it was celebrated seven weeks after Passover, it marked the gathering of the wheat harvest, the firstfruits of the full annual harvest (Exod. 23:16).
In Leviticus 23, Pentecost is scheduled by counting seven weeks from the presentation of the “first sheaf” (Lev. 23:9-15). The fiftieth day is Pentecost. No work was to be done on this day. In contrast to Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the first month, Pentecost required leavened bread (Lev. 23:17), which the priest consecrated by waving or lifting two loaves before Yahweh (Lev. 23:20). The priests offered seven year-old male lambs, a bull, and a ram as ascension offerings; a male goat for a sin offering; and two year-old lambs for a peace offering (Lev. 23:18-19).
When the day of Pentecost “fully comes” (Acts 2:1), these figural ceremonies are fulfilled. Instead of tablets of Torah written on stone, the apostles receive the Spirit who writes the law on tablets of the human heart (2 Cor. 3:3). Instead of firstfruits of grain, the apostles harvest the firstfruits of nations, three thousand baptized disciples (Acts 2:37-41). The Twelve receive the leaven of the Spirit, who is inserted into the dough of the world until it leavens the whole lump (cf. Luke 13:20-21).
There’s another, unexpected link between the Levitical and the apostolic Pentecost. Leviticus 23 is a calendar that decrees the annual commemorations of Passover, Unleavened Bread, first sheaf, Pentecost, Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and Booths. It schedules each feast, prescribes offerings and other rituals, fixes measures of flour for loaves, and specifies the ages of sacrificial animals. It seems to be the kind of tedious Levitical duty roster that makes readers’ eyes glaze over.
Nestled between instructions for spring feasts and instructions for autumn celebrations is a reminder about gleaning (Lev. 23:22), one of Israel’s chief “social programs.” Landowners were forbidden to harvest the corners of their fields, retrieve dropped sheaves, or harvest vineyards a second time (Lev. 19:9-10). All that food belonged to the landless poor, who were permitted to harvest the uncut corners, follow harvesters to pick up sheaves, and collect fallen grapes from harvested vineyards. The Torah imposed limits on landowners, who were not allowed to maximize their yield, and it ensured that everyone shared the abundance of the land. Poor Israelites and sojourners had to work for their grain and grapes, but the land belonged to Yahweh and he gave its Eucharistic bounty not to the wealthy but to all Israel.
Instruction about mercy and justice may seem out of place in a ritual timetable, but it’s not. Feasts (especially Pentecost) were occasions for generosity, reminders that Israel must distribute Yahweh’s gifts fairly to orphans, widows, strangers, the landless, and everyone without resources of his own (cf. Deut. 16:11, 14). As my Theopolis colleague Alastair Roberts points out, there’s a numerical link between Pentecost and the year of Jubilee, which was observed every fifty years (Lev. 25:8-12). During Jubilee, slaves were freed and land returned to its original owners. Every year, Israel celebrated a micro-Jubilee on the fiftieth day after Passover, when they shared the fruits of the land with all God’s people.
It’s no accident that after the Spirit falls, after Peter’s sermon, after three thousand are baptized, Jesus’s new disciples lived Pentecost by devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, by the breaking of bread, and by sharing their goods, even selling property to meet the needs of all (Acts 2:42-45). They knew from Torah that Pentecost demands costly generosity.
As James Jordan likes to say, the Spirit is the divine matchmaker, who has been wedding heaven to earth, man to woman, nation to nation from the beginning of time. Filled with the Spirit, the early church worshipped “with one mind” (Acts 2:46). But the Spirit weds hearts to one another through human actions and physical things, through shared words, shared bread, shared goods. Our bitterness, ingratitude, and stinginess grieve the Spirit. In both Leviticus and Acts, Pentecost teaches us to say, “Whatever gifts the Spirit gives me are for the edification of the church. Whatever wealth God entrusts to me serves the common good, especially of his household.” The Spirit comes to fashion the Pentecostal community envisioned in Leviticus, in which “there [is] not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.