Unlike every other feast in God’s calendar, Shavuot (Pentecost) is held not a specific date but a specified DAY: Sunday. Passover is always on the 15th of the first month, Nisan, Yom Kippur is always on the 10th of the seventh month, Tishri, but the date of Shavuot changes from year to year. It is always supposed to land on a Sunday—the day after the seventh Shabbat. God said to start counting the days and weeks after the Shabbat after Passover, but unfortunately the rabbinic authorities took it to mean something else and so many times start the countdown on a day other than a Sunday, and thus land on the wrong day too. Never mind. You can see the biblical instruction here below: it’s supposed to lead up to a Sunday, the Sunday of Pentecost, the biblical Feast of Weeks. Seven weeks—fifty days—are to be counted according to God’s instructions in Leviticus 23:
“You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count 50 days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Today Jewish people celebrate the giving of the Law at Shavuot, since the Sinai event happened 50 days after the night of Passover, according to Exodus 19:1. People stay up all night to read the Torah and there is a great celebration of dairy products (in the light of the Jewish tradition of keeping milk and meat separate, based on the commandment not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk). But despite all appearances and Shavuot traditions in Israel today—and as glad as I am that cheesecake is celebrated each year in all its glory—this is not really a festival about dairy products.
What does the Feast of Shavuot mean?
So the Jewish people have been “Counting the Omer” since Passover, which is the countdown to Shavuot. Or perhaps we should say we have been counting up, rather than down? Because counting the days is inevitably leads to a build up of expectation all the way up to Shavuot, which means “weeks” in Hebrew, hence the name “the Feast of Weeks”. Passover celebrates the time the angel of death passed over the Hebrew houses, and the feast of Tabernacles remembers the desert wandering in tents, but what is the Feast of Weeks all about?
If one only looks at the Bible rather than Jewish tradition, Shavuot seems to be missing an obvious reason for its existence in contrast to other festivals, but make no mistake, the Feast of Weeks is infused with great significance. Its meaning continues to unfold with God’s ongoing story of salvation.
Its main anchor point is Passover, in that it is intrinsically linked to counting the time since Passover and the Exodus event. After counting seven weeks down to the Sunday of Shavuot, the original biblical instructions involve celebrating with animal sacrifices as well as grain and drink offerings, and a good rest. The fruits of the land are celebrated, and it seems to be some sort of harvest festival. Somewhat randomly, after delineating the required sacrifices and wave offerings, this verse appears:
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)
This commandment is in keeping with the theme of harvest, but seems misplaced in the chapter on biblical feasts. However, the themes of the poor and the sojourner end up playing a significant part in the true, prophetic meaning of the feast. It was thanks to this verse that the Moabite Ruth was able to find the gleanings of the field to survive, and in doing so, met her kinsman redeemer, Boaz. A love story between Jew and Gentile… it should be no surprise then that the story of Ruth has become a significant feature of Shavuot. Moreover, the theme of Jew and Gentile comes into greater focus in the New Testament, when the Feast of Shavuot comes into fulfillment—except that in the New Testament, written in Greek, Shavuot is translated as Pentecost.
The harvest is ripe
Pentecost comes from the Greek word for 50 (pente) after the instruction to count 50 days, 7 weeks. Here’s how it was rather famously celebrated among the disciples of Jesus:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
Just as John the Baptist foresaw, Jesus baptized His disciples with the Holy Spirit and with fire! And it is interesting that John’s words were also in the context of the harvest, as he goes on to talk about the winnowing fork, the wheat and the chaff (Matthew 1:11-12). Jesus often described evangelism and the flourishing of the word of God in our lives in agricultural terms, using the metaphor of seeds and crops, harvest and harvesters. He said the fields were white and all that was needed was the harvesters. He was not wrong. Look what happened just 50 days after His resurrection:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)
Three thousand people came to faith that day! Peter stood up to address the crowd and enormous numbers of people from many nations believed in Jesus, right there and then. This was essentially the birth of the church. The gospel was for all nations, Jew and Gentile. The Holy Spirit was suddenly available to all people, men, women, slave and free. True fellowship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was now possible for anyone who wanted to be include in the New Covenant with Israel, promised in Jeremiah 31:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares 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 shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The New Covenant (New Testament) was with Israel, but all nations were now invited to be grafted in! It was a bit of a culture shock at first, and it took some work getting used to, but suddenly, at Pentecost, the Feast of Shavuot, everything changed. The God of Israel opened up a new and living way for everyone to come to Him through that New Covenant in the Messiah’s blood and His Spirit could now be poured out on all flesh. Now, the Law could be written on our hearts! God’s Spirit could now indwell each and every believer, helping us to live His way.
The significance of 50
The number 50 signifies freedom. The fiftieth year is the year of Jubilee, when all debts are cancelled and slaves go free. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the events of the Law being given at Sinai at Shavuot and the Holy Spirit falling at Pentecost occurred 50 days after the earth-shattering events of the Exodus and Calvary respectively. Let’s go into that a bit more. Backing up: Seven weeks are counted for the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) which is 50 days (Pentecost). Whether it’s checking off days before you get to go on vacation, chalking up days till a prisoner gets released from jail, or days till Christmas on an advent calendar, counting down builds anticipation and hopeful expectation. God deliberately created this drama, this dynamic, and wove it into the Feast of Pentecost. We see this even as Jesus tells His disciples to wait:
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now… But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:4-5,8)
Jesus had risen from the dead and was among them, teaching them for forty days. That’s well over a month! And then He told them to wait another ten days, until Pentecost. Forty plus ten. Forty is a very significant number in Scripture, representing gestation—things reaching their zenith. Whether it’s pregnancy or punishment, it’s often a season of development until maturity and fulfillment. So why fifty? Why the extra ten days? First of all, ten is an important number in its own right. Ten signifies authority, completeness of order, responsibility, holiness… consider the Ten Commandments, for example. Then fifty: fifty represents freedom! The fiftieth year is the jubilee when all things are restored and set free.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 2:17)
Shavuot and Jubilee joy
Even before the liberation that came with the Holy Spirit, the Law itself, the covenant of Sinai, was a radical expression on freedom in its own right. Consider the very first words after the Ten Commandments, as God gives the Law to Moses in Exodus:
“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.” (Exodus 21:1-2)
The very first rule is about slaves, and how they should be set free. For nothing. As much as the Old Testament Law might seem primitive to many New Testament followers, it was a radical departure from the tyranny and slavery of the cultures around them. The Law laid down the infrastructure of a fair and free society. Os Guinness is a thinker who has written much about the extraordinary and liberating nature of the Mosaic covenant, calling it a “Magna Carta” for humanity.1 He observes that there is a form of separation of powers, by which even kings are subject to the law since the prophets had the right to call them out according to its standards. The law brought in a new degree of equality, the value of human life, and many other fundamental principles which form the basis of Judeo-Christian societies in the West. In short, God’s law was given to enable people to live freely. He took His people out of slavery in Egypt, but they had to learn to be free. God gave them the handbook. At Shavuot.
We can see in our world today that the less moral boundaries there are, the less free we become. Feminists are finally coming to the conclusion that the so-called “sexual revolution” enabled by birth control has shackled women, not liberated them.2 We are learning, through trial and many errors, that the law of God is good. Monogamy and fidelity might sound restrictive, but they in fact lead to liberty. God’s law takes into account our sinful nature and enables the best possible society given the fact that our tendency is towards evil. For example, it is expected that the Israelites would trade and prosper, but it was also expected (because of greed and selfishness) the land would be overworked and farmed beyond repair, so God legislated a shabbat every seven years, the “shmita” year, where the land could rest. Also, left unchecked, wealth would inevitably end up in the hands of the few, and others becoming poor and oppressed. So it was built into the law that every so often there would be a big reset where lands, property, and freedom would be returned every 50 years. This was the law of Jubilee.
“You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years… And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops… You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God. Therefore you shall do my statutes and keep my rules and perform them, and then you will dwell in the land securely. (Leviticus 25:8-18)
The Hebrew word for Jubilee (yovel) comes from the root word יָבַל to bring, lead, carry, conduct, bear along, much as the wind carries things along, or as the Holy Spirit rushed like a powerful wind bringing change at Pentecost. But the word Jubilee itself (יוֹבֵל) is connected with the shofar, the ram’s horn, and the joyful sound of the trumpet announcing freedom. We also think of a “horn of plenty” which very much sums up the biblical pronouncement of rejoicing in the harvest.
Sunday and the Spirit of Freedom
In Shavuot we have two tiers of freedom and revolution in God’s manifest purposes on the earth. In the first 50 days since Passover in giving the Law, God creates His covenant people. He gives the Law and invites Israel to respond. They agree to the terms, and now the tribes of Jacob were no longer just an ethnicity, they became a faith community. This is essential to understand. Jewish people not only belong to a tribe, but a faith, and this is the handiwork of God (Exodus 24:3, Isaiah 43:1). It is unique.
And if keeping God’s Law is the basis for a free and flourishing society, how much more the Spirit of freedom!
Then fifty days after Calvary God pours out His Spirit and establishes His church. God establishes another faith community, but this time including all the families of the earth. Now we can enjoy a new level of freedom in the New Covenant, with the Holy Spirit available to all. We can walk in God’s ways because His law is engraved on the hearts of all those who believe. But now here comes the another dimension of freedom entirely. The freedom of the Spirit. Jesus explains to Nicodemus how it is with those who are born again:
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Moses communed with God for 40 days on that mountain before returning with the stone tablets, just as Jesus tarried 40 days with His disciples teaching them about the kingdom. The critical events involving blood and sacrifice were behind them (Passover and the cross) and God was building up to something new and wonderful. This is why Pentecost had to fall on a Sunday. In the Bible, the first day of the week is the Sunday and the final day is the Shabbat.
Sunday is the beginning, and the start of a new week. It is the first day of creation. It signifies creation and new beginnings. God formed the people of Israel as faith community and then formed the church at Shavuot, on a Sunday.
The day of Shavuot may be fixed but the date is not. It is determined by wherever the Passover falls. This also means that the gap between Shavuot and the Feast of Trumpets is an unspecified period of time. Given that we see the Spring feasts fulfilled in great measure by the first coming of Jesus, it makes sense that the unknown date of His return is mirrored by the indeterminate gap between the end of Shavuot and the Fall feasts. Even so, there is a season and a time frame that can be known. We recognize the times and seasons, and can see that the glorious return of Jesus is imminent, when He really will make all things new!
But while we wait expectantly, we know God will pour out His Spirit for a great end time harvest—all over the world, and in Israel itself. When the Holy Spirit comes in power, we become aware of our sin and our need to repent… and times of refreshing can come like the wind. Come Holy Spirit, come.
- Os Guinness, The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom (2021)
White Horse Inn podcast, Os Guinness on The Future of Freedom, October 3, 2021
Kirk Durston, Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought ,
Louise Perry, I’m 30. The Sexual Revolution Shackled My Generation. (2022)