Today is the day of Pentecost, at least for a lot of Armstrongites. Most Jews celebrate it on another day.
Here’s the deal: Leviticus 23:11-16 tells the Israelites to present a wave sheaf offering to God on the day after the Sabbath. According to the passage, Pentecost occurs fifty days after that.
The debate within first century Judaism was, “Which Sabbath is Leviticus 23:11-16 talking about? Exactly when should we start counting to fifty?”
The Pharisees interpreted the Sabbath to be the first day of unleavened bread, which was a day of rest (Leviticus 23:7). Consequently, they placed Pentecost fifty days after Nisan 16, meaning it could fall on any day of the week, depending on the year. The Sadducees, by contrast, took the Sabbath to mean the weekly Sabbath during the Days of Unleavened Bread, so their Pentecost fell fifty days after the following day, Sunday. For them, therefore, Pentecost always fell on a Sunday. And the Qumran community started counting the Sunday after the Days of Unleavened Bread.
And so most observant Jews today follow the Pharisaic method of counting Pentecost. Armstrongites do it the Sadduccean way. And I don’t know if anyone observes the Qumran approach. At Catholic mass this morning, I learned that Catholics consider today to be the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, meaning that their Pentecost was four weeks ago. But, to be honest, I don’t know on what basis their Pentecost occurs when it does.
I once learned about the Pharisaic method of counting Pentecost the hard way. I had to return all these books to the Hebrew Union College library, and I put them in a movable bag, the type you haul around at airports. I didn’t have a car, so I had to drag that heavy bag of library books up a hill. When I finally arrived at Hebrew Union College, I saw a sign that said the HUC library was closed for Shavuot (Pentecost). I was mad!
One advantage to observing the Sadduccean Pentecost is that I get to tie certain Old Testament rituals to Christ. According to Sadduccean reckoning, the wave sheaf offering occurred on the Sunday during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Well, guess when Christ rose from the dead? Christ was crucified on the Passover, and he rose on the Sunday during the festival (or, for Armstrongites, he ascended to the Father on that day, only to come back down and appear to his disciples). So Christ is not only the Passover lamb. He is the wave sheaf offering as well.
Personally, there’s a lot that I don’t understand about Pentecost. How is the wave sheaf offering thematically connected to the festival that occurs fifty days later? I always assumed that the wave sheaf offering was the first fruit of a harvest that would occur in fifty days. But that doesn’t exactly work. For one, the wave sheaf offering was of barley, whereas the offering fifty days later was of wheat (or so I’ve read). And so the barley harvest didn’t occur fifty days after the wave sheaf offering. And, second, the offering that occurred on Pentecost was also an offering of first fruits. That may be why there’s a connection between the day of the wave sheaf offering and Pentecost: both were days to offer the first fruits of a later harvest (barley and wheat, respectively).
In Old Testament Israel, offering the first fruits was a way to honor God as provider. In a Mishnah class, I learned that the rationale of the biblical author was that, if the Israelites presented God with their first fruits, God would then bless them with a bountiful harvest. That kind of sounds like the prosperity Gospel to me, but that very well may have been how they saw it.
Interestingly, I encountered the wave sheaf offering in my weekly quiet time on the Book of Judges. Yesterday, I read Judges 7, in which Gideon overhears the Midianites recounting a dream. In it, a barley cake rolls down a hill and strikes a tent, causing it to collapse. The dream means that Gideon will overthrow the Midianites, but why’s it have a barley cake? According to Rashi, the cake symbolizes “the merit of the Omer sacrificed on Passover.”
For Rashi, God blesses the Israelites because they offered the wave sheaf. In his mind, God may have done so because he was pleased that the idolatrous Israelites were finally making some effort to turn to him. But the ritual by itself related to Israel’s acceptance before God, for Leviticus 23:11 states, “He shall raise the sheaf before the LORD, that you may find acceptance.”
So what can I as a Christian learn from all this? I think that the New Testament tries to interpret the wave sheaf and the feast of Pentecost in a Christian sense. Paul calls Christ the first fruits because Jesus was the first to rise from the dead (I Corinthians 15:20, 23). Because Jesus rose, those who believe in him will also rise and receive immortality. And Jesus as the wave sheaf offering has brought about our acceptance before God, for our justification depends not only on his death, but on his resurrection as well (Romans 4:25; I Corinthians 15:17). Our blessings and our spiritual victory as Christians depend on the merit of our wave sheaf offering, Jesus Christ.
But, fifty days after Christ’s resurrection, another batch of first fruits was offered to God. The church was born on Pentecost, as God baptized his disciples with the Holy Spirit and enabled his church to expand (Acts 2). And the New Testament is clear that Christians are first fruits (II Thessalonians 2:13; James 1:18; Revelation 14:4).
What’s this mean, exactly? Christians are the first fruits of what? Armstrongites will probably bring in their second chance doctrine, the belief that God will offer all people a chance to receive Christ after their resurrection (unless they’re hopelessly wicked). In that scenario, Christians are the first batch of believers, but there will be another batch in the second resurrection. I don’t see much explicit evidence for this in the Bible, but I won’t object if God does it this way.
How else could Christians be the first fruits? Maybe they’re first fruits in the sense that God will bring others to Christ on this side of the second coming. Or perhaps they are the first fruits of God’s new creation, which will one day entail the transformation of the entire cosmos (see Romans 8:19-23). Christians are the first stage of something remarkable that God is doing.
And so I wish you all a happy Pentecost, if you are celebrating today. I actually learned a lot from writing this post. I hope that you too are edified.