The Day of Pentecost
Pentecost means fifty. The feast of Pentecost was celebrated every year by the Jewish people, fifty days after the feast of Passover. Passover got its name when the Angel of Death passed through the land of Egypt during the final and greatest plague, killing the firstborn son in every home. But the Israelites were safe because they marked the doors of their homes with the blood of a lamb. When the angel saw the blood on their doors, he passed over their homes and they did not die. This was the first Passover. The next morning, God led his people out of slavery in Egypt to begin their journey to the promised land.
Fifty days after the first Passover, the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. God had freed his people from slavery, but He wasn’t done. He wanted to live among them. He wanted them to lead holy lives as His dear children. The grandchildren of Noah built a tower so they could climb up to God. Of course, it didn’t work. Human efforts can never bring us before God. Instead, at Mt. Sinai, God descended to his people, giving them His Holy Law from heaven through the hands of Moses. The people couldn’t climb the mountain. Only Moses, who acted as the mediator between God and the Israelites could. He went up into the presence of God, amidst the thunder and fire and smoke and brought back the Ten Commandments. This was the first Pentecost.
These two events, Passover and Pentecost, defined the nation of Israel and their relationship with God. When Israelite children asked their father, “Who is the Lord?”, the father was to answer, “He is the God who delivered us from Pharaoh.” The first and greatest commandment begins with these words: “I AM the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2–3). No other people on earth had been given the Law of God in written form. Thus Passover and Pentecost, the greatest events of the Old Testament, set the nation of Israel apart from all other nations, forming their identity as the chosen people of God.
As great as these events were, the Jewish people had no idea that the Passover and Pentecost they celebrated were actually not the main events. They were types and shadows of the greater things to come. The exodus from Egypt was, so to speak, a dress rehearsal for the true Exodus. Every special day that we observe commemorates something that happened in the past: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the end of World War I, the tragedy of September 11th. Who among the Israelites could have know that the feasts they had celebrated for thousands of years were actually to mark a future event? Only God can institute that sort of holiday.
If you think about it, there were signs all along that the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments were not the true Passover and Pentecost. Yes, God delivered his people from the wicked king of Egypt, but did they live happily ever after? Not even close. Why? Because long after Pharaoh was dead and buried, the ancient enemy of God’s people was still roaming the earth. God rescued the Israelites from physical slavery to an earthly king, but since the fall, we have all been born into a far worse slavery, that is, to sin and death. Even after being delivered from Egypt, the people of God were still suffering under a spiritual bondage that was much worse than forced manual labor. Yes, the Angel of Death had passed over their homes on that dark night, but guess what? That was only a temporary reprieve. Every one of these who was spared has since died. The blood of a lamb couldn’t actually prevent death; it could only postpone it. It’s said that in later years when the Jews celebrated Passover in Jerusalem, slaughtering a lamb for each house, there was so much blood that the Kidron brook at the bottom of the Mount of Olives ran red. And they did this every year! But all the blood of all the lambs could not keep the angel of death at bay forever. The true Passover Lamb was yet to come. Passover was never about Egypt and fluffy little lambs. It was always about Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His blood, shed once for all time, is the only solution for sin, death, and the devil.
So also the first Pentecost, the giving of the Ten Commandments, was never meant to be the final act. God wanted to live among his people. In order for a holy and sinless God to live with us, we must also be holy. That’s why God gave his Law: “Do this and live. You shall be holy even as I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16). What’s the problem with that? God says, “Keep my commandments and you will live.” It sounds great on paper, or on stone, and the Israelites were quick to promise, “We will do all that the Lord our God has commanded!” But what happened? They found, just as you and I find, that they were unable to do what they had promised. St. Paul writes, “The good that I want to do, I don’t do, and the evil that I don’t want to do, I find myself doing” (Rom 7:19). Any Christian who is being honest will admit the same. The Law of God is supposed to show us how to be holy, but it seems that it has the opposite effect. It’s not that there’s a problem with the Law. There isn’t. It’s perfect. But we aren’t. So instead of showing the Israelites how they ought to live, it generally showed them how much they failed. Can you imagine celebrating this holiday for several thousand years? “On this day, God gave us his Holy Law… which no one has ever kept perfectly and stands as a constant remind of our sinfulness… Wohoo!”
With this in mind, it’s clear that the Day of Pentecost had to be about more than the day God gave us the Law that no one can keep. Fifty days after the crucifixion, fifty days after the true Passover lamb was slain, the true Day of Pentecost arrived. Jesus said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things” (Jn 14:26). Well, thank God for that. We need a Helper, because if it were up to us to get right with God and enter heaven, we’d need a lot more than a tall tower. Not even the Ten Commandments can help us. They only show us how far we are off the mark. Thank God for the Day of Pentecost, in which the Helper is sent down from heaven to us. And how does the Holy Spirit help us? Does he enable us to keep the Law perfectly, so that like Noah’s children we can climb our way up to heaven? No. The Holy Spirit helps us by teaching us about Jesus, the only spotless Lamb, the only one who can and has kept God’s law perfectly.
On the Day of Pentecost, once again there was fire and smoke and a great and a great noise as the God the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to be with his people. But on this day the message the people received was not the Law. It was the Gospel. The Law says, “Do this and you will live.” The Gospel says, “Christ has already done it for you, so you shall live.” When the Holy Spirit descends, he teaches us the words of Jesus. And what words are these? “Peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).
The Holy Spirit teaches. He teaches peace. He teaches the peace of Jesus. This is not the peace of the law. The peace of the law depends on you. It depends on your obedience. You must obey the law to find the peace with God that the law promises. You must climb up to God. You must love Him with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself. But you don’t. No one who depends on the law to ascend to God will ever find true peace. The peace of Jesus is not the peace of the law. His peace rests solely in what He has done. True Passover is about His sacrifice, His blood, His death. Our enemy, Satan, lies crushed beneath His feet. His victory stands once and for all. And on the true Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends to live among men, teaching us to trust in Jesus, bringing His words to our remembrance, pointing us to the Passover Lamb who bore the sins of the world. Amen.