Today we are going to talk about what Shavuot means and why it is important. I know that this blog post is really long but unfortunately I was unable to shorten it because you would have lost the meaning of this post. Please bear with me to the end as I promise you it will be well worth it.
So let’s return now to our discussion of the feast day that concerns Acts chapter 2 and that is Shavuot: Pentecost. Besides its original agricultural motif and significance, later it took on a dual meaning as commemorating the giving of the Law, the Torah, to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Because Exodus 19:1 tells us that the giving of the Torah occurred in the 3rd month after Israel left Egypt, it is entirely probable that indeed Moses was given the Torah on a day that the following year, according to a commandment of Yehoveh (God) that was given in the Torah, would henceforth be called Shavuot.
The earliest known direct reference to the feast of Shavuot being celebrated, as the day the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai is the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., and it is found in the Talmud tractates Shabbat and Pesachim.
However the Book of Jubilees also alludes to Shavuot’s two-fold nature. The Book of Jubilees was created in the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. What is most important for us to grasp is that whether or not God actually gave Moses the Torah at Mt. Sinai on what became the day of Shavuot is not the point.
The point is that starting well before the time of Christ Judaism believed that the Torah had been given on Shavuot, and so the Jewish Bible characters and the Jewish writers of the New Testament believed it and they celebrated the day of Pentecost, Shavuot, with that dual purpose in mind.
Why does that matter?
Because the Book of Acts is written with this understanding as its context: it was understood by Luke, Peter, all the disciples and all Jews that in addition to celebrating the firstfruits of the wheat harvest Shavuot also celebrated the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And so this fact is naturally reflected in the story of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 when we know what to look for.
Let me make a Hebrew scholar of you. Midrash is a Hebrew term that means to discuss and interpret Scripture. But there is also a body of ancient Jewish literature called The Midrash, and in it ancient Sages and Rabbis gave their interpretations of many Bible passages (meaning the Hebrew Bible, of course).
All the people experienced the thunder, the lightning, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled…………….
This midrash sets up the understanding within Judaism that the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai came with flames and with fire.
Let me repeat that so you understand why I’m taking you where I am: this Midrash I’m about to quote to you says that the giving of the Torah to Moses came with flames of fire. And when we see that the Holy Spirit came in the same way, we need to take notice.
“The word that went out of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, was like shooting stars and lightening and like flames and torches of fire, a torch of fire to the right and a torch of flame to the left. It flew and winged swiftly in the air of the heavens and turned around and became visible in all the camps of Israel and by turning it became engraved on the two tablets of the covenant.”
Once again, how ever true or fanciful this midrash on the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai might be doesn’t matter. The issue is that this was the understanding of the Jewish people in Jesus’s day; it was not questioned. It was as much a part of regular Judaism then as the cross is for regular Christianity now. But there is yet another element of this midrash that is every bit as important.
Whereas in almost all Christian Bibles we find the English words “all the people experienced the thunderings”, or “all the people witnessed the thunderings”, in fact that is not a correct translation.
The Hebrew says that they SAW the thunderings. Thunder is a sound; we see the lightening but we hear the thunder. This is why instead of translating this verse literally, translators thought it nonsensical to write down “saw the thunderings” and instead wrote the words “experienced” or “witnessed” or some such fairly ambiguous word like that.
But in another ancient Jewish writing called the Mekilta we find another midrash on this issue of how it could have been possible for the Israelites at Mt. Sinai to SEE thunder.
“They saw what was visible and heard what was audible.” These are the words of Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiba says: They saw and heard that which was visible. They saw the fiery word coming out of the mouth of the Almighty as it was struck upon the tablets, as it is said: “The voice of the Lord hewed out flames of fire” Psalm 29:7.
But how many thunderings were there and how many lightenings were there?
It is simply this: each man according to his capacity heard them, as it is said: “The voice of the Lord was heard according to the power…” Psalm 29:4……….not with His power, but with power; i.e., with the power of each individual, even to pregnant women according to their strength.”
And yet another midrash of the events of Mt. Sinai called Tanhuma, we find this:
“All the people saw the voices. Note that it does not say saw the voice but saw the voices.Wherefore Rabbi Johanan said: the voice went out and was divided into 7 voices and from 7 voices into 70 tongues, so that all the nations would hear. And every nation heard the voice in its own tongue and was amazed. But the people of Israel heard the voice and were not hurt.”
Do you understand what you’re hearing?
The Rabbis taught that when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai it was given by means of flames and thundering. And the thundering was always seen as God’s voice since time immemorial. And each person was able to perceive only as much of God’s voice as each was capable.
The Rabbis also taught that the single voice that was emitted from God and heard at Mt. Sinai became divided into 7 and then the 7 into 70 languages.
Because in the Table of Nations in Genesis we are told that God divided the earth into 70 nations (each, presumably, with its own unique language). So the idea is that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai in a way that all the languages of the earth (considered to be 70) were represented so that all the peoples of the earth had an opportunity to receive God’s Words that formed the Torah.
Once again: whether these Rabbis are right or not is debatable. The important matter is that this is what people in Yeshua’s time believed. This was the standard understanding within 2nd Temple Judaism.
This is the context for understanding of the writers of the New Testament and this is especially the context for the coming of the Holy Spirit on Shavuot. Let me say this more plainly: Luke is portraying the coming of the Holy Spirit on Shavuot as essentially the 2nd coming of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
For Luke this awe inspiring happening of the visible, noisy, coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, complete with flames and fire and with many languages is the second Mt. Sinai event, only it’s happening this time on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.
But more than Luke merely accepting what is happening in this context that is based on some Jewish traditions that have come from the midrash of Rabbis, there is also the fulfillment of Biblical prophesy that is occurring. Read this from the Book of Jeremiah:
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and with the house of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.
Jeremiah 31:31-33 (AMP)
God says that the difference between the new covenant and the older covenant (Moses’ Covenant) is not the content, but rather only the means of giving it. The older covenant was given out in the desert, on Mt. Sinai, and it was written down on stone tablets.
But the new covenant is that God will write that same Torah NOT onto stone but rather onto the flesh of human hearts. He will quite literally insert the Torah into the bodies of His people.
But where will this occur?
How will it happen?
Part of that answer comes from a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah.
And many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house (temple) of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For the law will go out from Zion
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Isaiah 2:3 (AMP)
Isaiah says that a time will come when the Torah will go forth from Zion, God’s Word from Jerusalem. That is, this next time the Torah (God’s Word) comes to humanity it won’t come from Mt. Sinai; instead it will come from Jerusalem.
And where were the disciples when the Holy Spirit came?
On Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem.
And how did it come?
With flames and fire, noise like a rushing wind, and with languages from every nation on earth. Just like the Rabbis said it had been at Mt. Sinai.
It was no coincidence that the Holy Spirit came on Shavuot. And it was no coincidence that He came in the manner He did using the same signs and miracles that the Jewish sages said had occurred at Mt. Sinai 13 centuries earlier.
The observers and recipients of this amazing, and perhaps terrifying, aerial display were Jews, in Jerusalem, perceiving everything that happened within a framework of Jewish cultural customs and thinking.
One of the things that God shows us in His Holy Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) and in our personal experiences with Him, is that He communicates with each of us, and deals with each of us, in ways we can personally understand and take meaning from.
The Jews of Yeshua’s day had long been taught that the power of God on Mt. Sinai manifested itself in noise, flames and fire, and in many languages. This knowledge was a given and every Jewish child grew up knowing it.
So when those same signs and miracles that supposedly happened on Mt. Sinai also happened on the first Shavuot after Yeshua (Jesus) ascended, then those who had the eyes to see and ears to hear understood that Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s prophecies were fulfilled at that moment.
For these Jews it was the 2nd coming of the Torah. And it was the Holy Spirit who brought the Torah this time, and implanted it internally within individuals, rather than inscribing it externally on stone tablets.
Who understood this awesome reality?
ONLY Jewish Believers in Messiah and probably not all of them.
But now you understand it and we all need to be about the work of explaining this to a gentile Church that has so misunderstood what happened on that particular Shavuot in Jerusalem that it has caused a terrible rift between Jews and Christians, as well as the creation of numerous Church doctrines that are well off the mark.
The content of the new covenant was not new, it was only the older covenant renewed. And it was renewed by means of the Holy Spirit imbedding that original Torah deep into the hearts of Christ’s worshippers to enable a much deeper devotion to it.