What Is Pentecost?

Pentecost is a sacred festival commanded in the Bible to be held each year in late spring. This year it will be observed on Sunday, May 31.

The name Pentecost is found in the New Testament, in Acts 2. It was on that day that the New Testament Church of God was founded in a.d. 31, when the apostles and other believers first received the Holy Spirit.

The origins of the festival trace back to the Old Testament, when it was called “the feast of harvest,” “feast of firstfruits” (Exodus 23:16), or “the feast of weeks” (Exodus 34:22). God commanded that this and several other holy days, or annual sabbaths, be kept year after year, “for ever throughout your generations” (e.g. Leviticus 23:14, 21, etc). The New Testament Church continues to keep this holy day today.

God’s purpose in giving His Church His annual holy days is to keep us in the true understanding of God’s great plan of salvation for all mankind. As with all the annual sabbaths, the meaning of Pentecost is closely tied to the two annual physical harvests in ancient Israel. These material harvests picture the spiritual “harvest” of human beings into God’s Family.

The first harvest, in the spring, is much smaller than the bigger harvest in the fall. Pentecost comes at the end of the spring harvest, and it pictures the Church as the first to be spiritually begotten and born as children of God. This shows that those in the Church are merely the “firstfruits” of the great spiritual harvest (e.g. James 1:18; Revelation 14:4).

Yet Pentecost is ripe with more beautiful symbolism.

In ancient Israel, the spring harvest each year began when the priest would wave the first handful of grain to be accepted before God (Leviticus 23:9-14). This foreshadowed the time when the resurrected Jesus Christ would ascend to heaven to be accepted by His Father as the very first human to be actually born of God—the firstfruit of the first harvest of saints, the “firstborn among many brethren”! (John 20:17; Romans 8:29).

On the day after the seventh Sabbath from that wave sheaf offering, the spring harvest would end—on the day of Pentecost (Leviticus 23:15-16). Seven times seven plus one is 50. Pentecost is a Greek word that instructs us to count 50, and signifies the 50th day. On that day, the priest would wave two loaves of leavened bread, representing God’s firstfruits (verses 17-21)—one symbolizing those called during Old Testament times, and the other those called into the New Testament Church.

Those who observe Pentecost today not only remember the Holy Spirit being made available to those called and baptized when the Church began, but even further back to the year of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Indications in Scripture are that it was on Pentecost when God presented the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20).

Though these two events occurred centuries apart, together they teach us a vital lesson. The people of ancient Israel did not possess God’s Holy Spirit. Without that power, they were unable to obey God. Their hearts were hard—much like the tablets of stone the Ten Commandments were written on—thus they failed to keep their covenant with Him. This shows us how much we need God’s Holy Spirit to be able to obey Him. With that Spirit, those called today to a new covenant have the power to keep the law on a fuller, spiritual level. With the Holy Spirit, the law can actually be written, not on stone, but on our pliable hearts (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Finally, there is also a marriage theme associated with Pentecost. The Old Covenant between God and Israel is likened in Scripture to a marriage agreement (Jeremiah 31:31-32; Ezekiel 16:8). Under the terms of the New Covenant, the Church is the affianced Bride of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:29-32).

The day of Pentecost emphasizes the role of the Church today. God has not called some few in advance as favor to them. Rather, the firstfruits are called to do a Work. That Work proclaims the gospel of the Kingdom of God. By faithfully doing the Work, those called today are being prepared to help Jesus Christ bring in the greater fall harvest when He returns—when salvation will be opened to all mankind.