This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, when we remember the Holy Spirit being poured out on the first disciples of Jesus. The Book of Acts tells us,
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:4)
There were thousands of God-fearing Jews from every nation gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Shavuot, known to us as Pentecost (Acts 2:5). This festival has special significance for Jews, and it is helpful for Christians to understand the Old Testament background.
Pentecost comes 50 days after Passover. In fact, Pentecost means ‘fiftieth’. The Passover celebrates the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Shavuot (Pentecost) celebrates the giving of the Torah (Law – God’s Word) at Sinai in the desert to show the people how to live for God.
Both of these events prefigured the Messiah and His work of salvation, where God’s law (i.e. His Word) is written by the Spirit on our hearts and minds. (Jeremiah 31:33). The miracles of Passover and Pentecost are connected. The Jewish people count 49 days from Passover until Pentecost. This is known as “Counting the Omer”, and it comes from an instruction in Leviticus,
From the day after the Sabbath (Passover), the day you brought the sheaf (omer) of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:15)
The Omer (a unit to measure grain) is counted every night after evening prayer, together with readings from the Psalms. This would have happened in the first century in the time of Jesus. Although not explicit in Acts, it is highly reasonable to assume the first disciples of Jesus did this leading up to Pentecost when the Spirit was given. We know for certain that during this period of ‘Counting the Omer’ the prayers of the disciples were intensified as, “they all joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14).
The reading from Psalm 67 was particularly significant because this Psalm is about the gospel going out to all nations:
1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us–
2 so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.
3 May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.
4 May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth.
5 May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.
6 The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us.
7 May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.
Imagine the disciples reading these words as they anticipated the giving of the Spirit. Then, filled with the Spirit and with the word of God in their hearts, they became a light to the Gentiles by making His ways known on the earth, and His salvation among all nations. And this work continues today, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24, Romans 11:25).