Pentecost – Why did it occur when it did?

Today (May 27) is Pentecost Sunday. Unlike Christmas and Easter this day passes with such little fanfare that there is a good chance you will not think about it or be reminded of it. But it is another sign, a remarkable allusion in the unfolding of the Gospel that it does deserve our full attention. However, to see the significance we need to understand its place in the Biblical story.

Pentecost in Acts 2 of New Testament

If you are aware of Pentecost, you will probably know of it as the day when the Holy Spirit of God came down to indwell the followers of Jesus. This is the day that the church, the “called-out ones” of God, was born. This event is recorded in Acts chapter 2. On that day, the Spirit of God descended on the 120 followers of Jesus and they started speaking out loud in languages from around the world. This created such a commotion that thousands who were in Jerusalem at the time came out to see what was happening and in front of the gathering crowd, Peter spoke the first gospel message and ‘three thousand were added to their number that day’ (Acts 2:41). And the number of gospel followers has been growing continually ever since that Pentecost Sunday.

That event happened 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. It was during this ‘quiet’ interval of 50 days that the convictions of Jesus’ disciples regarding his resurrection were formed and hardened. On Pentecost Sunday it all went public and history has been changed because of it. Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, your life has been affected by the events of that Pentecost Sunday.

But this understanding of Pentecost, though correct, is incomplete. And it will keep you from seeing the allusion, the Sign. Many people yearn for a return to that Pentecost Sunday to have a similar experience of speaking in languages and dramatic signs of the Holy Spirit. And since the first disciples of Jesus had this Pentecostal experience by ‘waiting for the gift of the Spirit’, today people figure that similarly if we ‘wait’ He will come again in a similar way. And so many people wait and implore God for a similar experience. To think this way is to assume that it was the waiting and yearning that moved the Spirit of God back then. To think this way is to miss the point and overlook the allusion – because the Pentecost recorded in Acts Chapter 2 was not the first Pentecost.

Pentecost from the Law of Moses

No, in fact Pentecost was a regular Old Testament festival. In the time of Moses, several annual festivals were prescribed and celebrated throughout the year. The festival of Passover was the first to be celebrated in the Jewish year. In Session Five I showed how Jesus was crucified on that very Jewish festival. And so Jesus, the Lamb of God, was sacrificed on the same day that all Jewish people were sacrificing their lambs in memory of their first Passover. Given that there are 365 days in a year it is striking that Jesus dies on that very day. It is like Moses, 1500 years before the event, establishes the festival of Passover as an allusion to the eventual crucifixion of Jesus.

But it does not end there. Exactly 50 days after Passover the Jews celebrated the Feast of Pentecost. And they had been doing so yearly for 1500 years by the time the events of Acts 2 happened. In fact, the reason that there were people from all languages who were in Jerusalem that day to hear Peter’s message was precisely because they were there to celebrate the Old Testament Pentecost.

We read in the Law how Pentecost was to be celebrated

Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath [i.e. of Passover], and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD. (Leviticus 23:16-17)

On the day of firstfruits, when you present to the LORD an offering of new grain during the Festival of Weeks (i.e. Pentecost), hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. (Numbers 28:26)

In the Jewish feast of Pentecost the Jews were to offer up a grain offering along with the regular burnt offerings. The grain was to be ‘firstfruits’ of new grain harvested from the land. This was an allusion – the depth of which was unseen by the first Jews from the time of Moses – of the coming of the Holy Spirit on that more famous Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2.

Pentecost: A Sign of Firstfruits

This is significant on several counts. First of all, one of the reasons that the Gospel is ‘good news’ is that not only is it about a conquering of death, but it is also about living life differently. Life is now a union between God and people. And this union takes place through the indwelling of the Spirit of God – which began on the Pentecost Sunday of Acts 2. The Good News is that life can now be lived on a different level, in a relationship with God through His Spirit. Paul puts it like this:

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)

The indwelling Spirit of God is a ‘firstfruits’ of the gospel, intimately tied in with the resurrection because the Spirit is a firstfruits – a deposit so to speak – of our coming personal resurrection.

Pentecost Timing: Evidence of a Mind

And it is this remarkable coinciding of the timing of the events of Acts 2 and the Feat of Pentecost with the themes of firstfruits and abundant living that point, once again, to a Mind planning this through history. Given that there are 365 days in a year why should the events of Acts 2 happen exactly on the Feast of Pentecost, the day when the Jews celebrated ‘firstfruits’ of the grain and oil of the land – the things that give not just life, but an abundant life?  The timing is remarkable. Timing like this happens only by intent, and intent shows a mind behind it.

Did Luke ‘make up’ Pentecost?

One could argue that Luke (author of Acts) made up the events of Acts 2 to ‘fall’ on Feast of Pentecost. Then he would be the ‘mind’ behind the timing. But when you read Acts he makes no reference back to the Law to tell the reader that this is ‘fulfilling’ the Feast of Pentecost. Instead he points the reader to (another) fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Joel. Why would he go through the trouble of inventing something ‘big’ on that day and then not help the reader see how it fulfills the Feast of Pentecost. In fact, Luke does such a steady of job of reporting events rather than interpreting their significance that most people today do not know that the events of Acts 2 fall on the same day as the Old Testament Feast of Pentecost.  Most people think that Pentecost has its start in Acts 2. If Luke made it up to ‘fit’ the Old Testament he was a genius in dreaming up the connection but a failure in ‘selling’ it since most people today are not aware of it.

Hence this post. Now that you are aware of it you can consider the good news of the offer and reality of a life made abundant not by possessions, pleasure, status, wealth and all the other passing trifles pursued by this world, which Solomon had found to be such an empty bubble, but by the indwelling of the Spirit of God. Think about it!  If this is true – that God offers to indwell and empower us – that would have to be good news. And the fact that the timing of the Old and New Pentecosts are perfect is evidence that indeed it is this very God that is the mind behind these events and this offer of an abundant life.

Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 3

In my previous two posts (1 and 2) I had been looking at Bishop Shelby Spong’s view of the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. He is correct in that ‘something’ happened that demands an explanation. But he does not believe in the resurrection and so we have been following his scenario of Peter and the other disciples about-face.  Yet though he claims to be driven by reason, his scenario flies in the face of common-sense.

But the fact that you and I are sitting here contemplating this question probably comes from the influence of Paul as well as Peter. Paul was the one who first brought this message to Europe and hence the West. But Paul had originally been Saul – a violent opponent of the gospel. And while Peter and Paul were travelling the world with this message who was holding ‘the fort’ back in Jerusalem? It was James, the brother of Jesus who became the leader of the Gospel followers in Jerusalem. But when Jesus was alive and ministering publicly his brother James had little to do with him. The Gospel of John records a sarcastic exchange that his brothers gave him with this concluding comment ‘For even his own brothers did not believe in him’ (John 7:5). But we know about James’ subsequent life from many sources, including his own letter (‘James’) in the New Testament and also, outside the Bible, from the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus says about James:

“Ananus [the high priest] was rash and followed the Sadducees, who are heartless when they sit in judgment. Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have the opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin [the Jewish ruling council] he brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death”[1]

Josephus is explaining that Ananus had just been made high priest and there was a bit of a power vacuum. Ananus used the opportunity to sentence James to death. He must have done this quickly since he was only high priest for 3 months in 62 AD. His father (also called Ananus) had sentenced Jesus to death about 30 years previously and Ananus Jr. quickly took the opportunity to do the same with James, Jesus’ brother. So James was a target for his years of leadership with the Jewish church in Jerusalem. This is an extra-biblical fact of history. So what caused James to go from mocker to leader of the gospel? Spong is ready with an answer.

One reason Spong believes he has the freedom to come up with a ‘new’ scenario is that he puts no weight on the testimony of the gospel accounts because he feels that they are written too late. So he dismisses their eyewitness statements on the resurrection of Jesus as pious fable. For the sake of argument let’s give him the benefit of his doubt. But Spong recognizes a problem in his rejection of the testimony of these ‘late’ gospels. There are other early-dated New Testament writings concerning the resurrection. What to do with this testimony? For example there is the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is a letter written by Paul about 55 AD, just 25 years after the death of Jesus. In these verses, Paul goes on to list the people that the risen Jesus appeared to. Paul writes:

“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

So what does Spong do with this very early resurrection testimony? It lists in detail the people that saw Jesus raised – including James.

“The same is true of Paul’s reference to James…there was no record in the Christian writing of any role of discipleship during Jesus’ earthly life for anyone identified as a brother of Jesus, nor any appearance to James of the risen Lord, save for this single reference. The fact remains that James, the brother of Jesus, was a leader of the Christian church who exercised great authority. So the authority exercised demands some kind of explanation. Paul thus listed James as one who had seen Jesus”[2]

Spong recognizes the issue: that during the life of Jesus, his brother James was not a follower but afterwards the ‘fact remains’ that he became a ‘leader’ with ‘great authority’. How to account for the change? Spong’s ‘solution’ is simply to have Paul make up an appearance of Jesus to James, thus explaining his authority in the church. But this explains nothing. It is not James’ authority in the church that needs explaining; it is the fact that James even wanted to be part of the fledgling church that needs explaining. If the appearance to James is just made up, then it never happened. And if it never happened what on earth would cause James to go from a mocking, disbeliever when Jesus was alive to a leader and martyr in the movement with only the grisly resurrection-less crucifixion of Jesus for motivation? James would have had all the same questions that Peter would have had that we went over in the previous post. History shows that something happened to change James’ mind. If not the resurrection then what could it have been? Inserting an ‘appearance’ does not solve the problem. For some reason Spong thinks he has a solution but really he has ‘solved’ the wrong problem.

And it is not just James. What about the ‘five hundred’ that Paul mentions who saw Jesus at the same time, and many of whom were still alive at the time of writing of 1 Corinthians in 55 AD? Spong argues that:

“… who were the 500 brethren… it was not picked up and described in any recognizable form in any of the later gospels… it is enough now to acknowledge that Paul’s reference to Jesus’ appearance to 500 people at once is found nowhere in the gospel tradition”[3]

Earlier he had indicated that any resurrection testimony in the gospels was not really reliable because they were written so late. We gave him the benefit of his doubt. So then you would think he would take ‘early’ testimony seriously. But now he dismisses this early testimony of resurrection appearances precisely because it is not also mentioned in any of the ‘later’ gospels. For him it is ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.

And what about Paul himself? We continue following Spong’s analysis in our next post.

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[1] Josephus. 93 AD. Antiquities xx 197

[2] Resurrection: Myth or Reality? p. 52

[3] Ibid p. 52

 

 

Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 2

In my previous post I had started us thinking about the resurrection from the point-of-view of one of its prominent deniers – Bishop John Shelby Spong.  In his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, he had given a vivid description of how Jesus would have impacted his disciples during his lifetime. He then painted a thorough picture of how the disciples would have interpreted the meaning of a non-resurrected, dead, Jesus. Spong focused on the turmoil that would have gone on in Simon Peter’s mind and Spong portrays Peter’s conclusion as:

…Jesus had to have been guilty of blasphemy. He was dead, and they had to begin to accept the fact that they had been misled, duped, and therefore they also were guilty (p.251)

Bishop Spong on the turn-around of Simon Peter

Spong has perfectly captured the implications that would indeed have haunted the minds of the disciples with a non-resurrected Jesus. But what was the catalyst that would have turned these peasant fishermen around to take on the world? Spong continues by surmising how it would have turned around for Simon Peter after a night of fishing and now warming himself by the fire.

Suddenly it all came together for Simon. The crucifixion was not punitive, it was intentional. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate parable, acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love. God’s love was unconditional, a love not earned by the rigorous keeping of the law… Jesus’ death was the final episode in the story of his life. It demonstrated as nothing else could or would that it is in giving life away that we find life, it is in giving love away that we find love… It was a love that allowed us to stop pretending and simply to be. Simon saw the meaning of the crucifixion that morning as he had never before seen it … this was the dawn of Easter in human history … the clouds of his grief, confusion, and depression vanished from his mind, and in that moment he know that Jesus was part of the very essence of God, and at that moment Simon saw Jesus alive. (p.255)

So what caused this ‘coming together’ for Simon? Well after the night of fishing, by the fire, he ‘broke bread’ and said grace and in doing so remembered Jesus. That’s it! That changed the defeated and confused Simon into valiant Peter that no one could silence. Read Spong’s explanation again in detail, and you will see it just raises far more questions than it answers. How could the crucifixion not be ‘punitive’? It is the worst form of humiliation and torture that man has invented. In what way is Jesus being ‘intentional’ and ‘acting’ out a ‘parable’ that leads to his grisly end? How can a man tortured on a cross, without a resurrection, be a “sign of God’s love”? And is not anyone’s ‘death the final episode of their life’? That is true for everyone. That is just a circular statement to mean nothing. How does Jesus giving his life ‘away’ in crucifixion ‘demonstrate as nothing else could’ that ‘we find life’ (assuming no resurrection)? That is bogus; it just demonstrates the reverse. How does Simon in that moment ‘know’ that Jesus was part of the ‘very essence of God’ when as we saw in the first quote that the non-resurrected death of Jesus would very logically been understand as proof of his ‘blasphemy’? What could be going on in Simon’s mind to get this sudden ‘realization’? Spong tells us.

It was as if scales fell from his eyes and Simon saw a realm that is around us at every moment … a realm of God from within which Jesus appeared to Simon. Was it real? Yes, I am convinced it was real. Was it objective? No, I do not think it was objective. Can it be real if not objective? Yes I think it can. (p.256)

We have a word for this kind of thing, where something appears ‘real’ to the beholder, but is nonetheless not objective (i.e. it is not true). We call it delusion. There would be no other way to describe what would have happened to Peter at this moment if Spong’s scenario is true. In a real sense, Spong has Peter becoming a lunatic regarding the person of Jesus.

Spong on the turn-around of the other apostles

But perhaps we should cut Spong some slack. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and concede that it is conceivable that in the stress Peter went through that he snapped and had this delusional ‘realization’. But that still does not explain anything. Peter needs to get a movement going (which we know from history did indeed take off). He needs to get all the other ‘apostles’ on board. And he has to do so in a way that will sustain them for a long, long time in a difficult, difficult task. Consider, given the opposition that the disciples would face in the coming years, what kind of pressure they would be under. Dr Simon Greenleaf, a professor of Law at Harvard whose specialty it was to train students how to cross-examine witnesses had this to say of the disciples coming career:

The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted [1]

French Philosopher Blaise Pascal had this to say about the disciples.

The hypothesis that the disciples were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. [2]

So how is delusional Peter going to develop men of adequate calibre to face this task? Spong tells us:

The gospel of Easter and Jesus as the exalted one, living with God, dawned, I believe in Galilee with Peter at its heart. Peter then opened the eyes of the other Galilean disciples to see what he saw. They took this faith to Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles some six months after the crucifixion. That was the real triumphal journey. That was the original Palm Sunday. In Jerusalem they made known their faith in the risen, living Christ; and in time the Jerusalem setting for the resurrection became the primary one…The Jerusalem Easter legends are not to be dismissed as untrue. They are meant to be probed for clues, as I trust I have done adequately. (p.282)

So Peter just ‘opened the eyes’ of the other disciples to see his delusion!!? Then they marched down to Jerusalem, and in a public display, in the teeth of the authorities of the day they proclaimed the ‘risen’, ‘living’ Christ! So now Lunatic Peter has made Liars of the rest of the disciples since what they were saying would have been a lie.  Jesus was not risen; he was not living (in Spong’s unfolding scenario).

In attempting to avoid a supernatural explanation for the events of history that we know, Spong has made his natural explanation supremely bizarre and infinitely less rational. His scenario takes a naive faith to believe because it flies in the face of facts that we know. But somehow he thinks he has ‘adequately’ explained things.   There is nothing ‘adequate’ about his explanation – but it is naturalistic, and this provides a glimpse into a foundational assumption in our society.  Spong, like so many of us, equates naturalism with ‘rational’ and ‘adequate’.  Like an iceberg submerged just below the water surface, invisible but certainly there, this unwritten doctrine squeezes so much of our thinking that, without realizing it, we confuse ‘adequate rationality’ with ‘naturalistic folly’.  That is why Spong thinks his scenario is reasonable.  But he is not even close to accounting for all the facts of history as we know them. How does he explain the turnaround of Jesus’ brothers and Saul of Tarsus? We will see how he does this in our next post.

[1] Greenleaf, An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of
Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice
. 1874 p. 29

[2] Blaise Pascal Pensees 322,310