WHY CHRISTIANS KEEP WHITSUNDAY (THE DAY OF PENTECOST)
Lawson C Briggs
Whitsunday," says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is "one of the three major festivals of the Christian Church" (article "Whitsunday," 1973 edition). But you will never find it by that name in the Bible. Instead, you will read of Christians observing "Pentecost," a term derived from the Greek language. And in the Old Testament, where Hebrew was the original language, you will find it variously called the "feast of first fruits," "feast of harvest," and "feast of weeks." All of these terms refer to the same festival — originally taught by Moses to Israel, and observed by the people of God ever si nce. Each name is descriptive of some phase of its observance, and each of these terms is connected with a different aspect of the meaning of this deeply meaningful day.
"Whitsunday," postbiblical and English, is of course a late term and biblically nonsignificant. It has reference to the practice of the newly baptized wearing special gleaming white garments on this day, which they felt for the first time worthy to wear. (See Revelation 19:8 for the spiritual symbolism of this.) The tradition of Whitsunday does illustrate the great importance (it is emphasized in the Bible) of the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit of God for the Church. For the Holy Spirit's function is to reproduce the spotless works and character of God in man. The Spirit was first made generally available to humanity on the day of Pentecost, A.D. 31. Let's explore the biblical basis for Pentecost observance.
"Pentecost" is a Greek term meaning "fiftieth." It has nothing to do with supposed or alleged modern charismatic manifestations. It does not signify a style or degree of Christianity. It does, however, refer to the way by which the date of the festival must be set, and links it to preceding episodes in the plan of salvation represented by the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. Pentecost, continues the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is "celebrated on the Sunday that marks the 50th day after Easter, to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples following Jesus' passion, resurrection and ascension (Acts 2)...." One correction needs to be made to this statement: The fifty days should be counted not from Easter, but from the first Sunday following the Passover (Lev. 23: 15). On that Sunday certain Old Testament rituals were performed which prefigured the first day of the restored life of the resurrected Jesus Christ. Symbolically represented were His presenting Himself before God the Father and His acceptance there as the very first to be fully reborn from the dead (Col. 1:18), "raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (I Cor. 15:20). Following that, on the fiftieth day, comes the time which, among other things, prefigures the Christian's future first glorious day in a similar state. But before we come to a discussion of today's Christians as firstfruits, notice some additional meanings in the names of this day.
The Feast of Weeks
Deuteronomy 16:9-10, 16 gives an alternate method of counting the 50 days: Simply count forward seven weeks, and the next day, the first day of the week, is "the feast of weeks," the same day as the "festival of the fiftieth."
The Feast of Harvest
Exodus 34:22 links the concept of the feast of weeks to the harvest of early spring: "And you shall observe the feast of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest...." The same theme occurs in Exodus 23:16: "You shall keep the feast of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field." In Numbers 28:26 this festival is again equated with the harvest: "... the day of the first fruits... your feast of weeks, you shall have a holy convocation." This late spring festival, then, is linked to the idea of the year's early harvest. Since later harvest periods extend on into the autumn of the long Palestinian growing season, the early harvest is only a part of the ultimate increase to be garnered. This has spiritual meaning. But what has this material harvest in Palestine to do with Christianity?
The Day of the Firstfruits
Most know that the Christian Church began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, on that "feast of weeks" shortly after the ascension of Christ from this earth. But what is not commonly understood is the harvest/firstfruits connection to that event. The ancient Levitical priests made a special "wave offering" of firstfruits of the barley harvest, the first grain crop to ripen in the spring. This symbolically pictured the resurrected Christ's ascension to heaven. But still in the category of firstfruits was the other special "wave offering" 50 days later, at Pentecost, this time probably of wheat, which ripens next after barley (Lev. 23:16-17). That offering of firstfruits represented the Church; unlike the offering representing Christ, the loaves that were offered contained leaven, the symbol of sin, for not one individual Christian is perfect. Does the New Testament say Christians are firstfruits? "Of his [God's] own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures" (James 1:18). And Revelation 14:4 speaks of 144,000 who are firstfruits. So this is the Bible's own interpretation of the meaning of at least one aspect of Pentecost. Pentecost — the day of firstfruitsis indicative of the fact that God is not calling everybody to salvation today. The entire Christian era, from the resurrection and ascension of Christ to His return and inauguration of the millennial Kingdom of God, is only a firstfruits phase of God's plan. To fully explain that — and to explain how the harvests of the year are involved in the meaning of additional biblical holy days — would require another article — or several. For a full explanation, request our booklet Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days - Which? and the article "Is This the Only Day of Salvation?" It's true. Today is the day of salvation — the only one — for those whom God is calling now as firstfruits, a tiny fraction of the majority of humanity ultimately to be called.
A Day of Christian Promise
It took the coming of New Testament times and Christianity to fully reveal the depth of the spiritual meaning of Pentecost. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (article "Pentecost") remarks: "It [Pentecost] marked the beginning of the offering of first fruits. The NT [New Testament] uses the term to refer to the established Jewish feast. But since the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1), Christians reinterpreted the meaning of it in terms of the then event." The Encyclopaedia Britannica (article "Pentecost") more fully explains: "The Jewish feast was primarily a thanksgiving for the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, but the rabbis associated it with remembrance of the Law given by God for the Hebrews to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The church's transformation of the Jewish feast to a Christian festival was thus related to the belief that the gift of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus was the firstfruits of a new dispensation that fulfilled and succeeded the old dispensation of the Law." The New Testament Pentecost fulfilled, and advanced, God's purpose that involved the law. So now we are ready to examine the question: Exactly what is the relationship between the Old Testament Pentecost and the New? From at least the later centuries before Christ, the Jews tended more and more to look back on the original Old Testament Pentecost as the feast related to Israel's experience at the foot of Mt. Sinai, just as they looked back on the original Passover (commemorated today in the Christian's annual reenactment of the Lord's Supper) as the memorial of divine protection and deliverance from Egypt. At Sinai, God spoke the Ten Commandments. And at Sinai, on the following day, the people of Israel bound themselves to a covenant with God to obey those Ten Commandments in addition to other regulations and ordinances given them by God through Moses.
Pentecost and the Law
Where, you may ask, does the Bible tell us this covenant was solemnized on Pentecost? The answer is in the use of the simple reference "in the third month" (Ex. 19:1; also see II
"Pentecost" is a Greek term meaning "fiftieth." It has nothing to do with supposed or alleged modern charismatic manifestations.
Chron. 15:10-15, where a reaffirmation of that covenant was made by Judah in the days of King Asa). Understand that the date for Pentecost is unlike that of any other of God's feast days. Pentecost alone must be counted each year; it does not always fall on the same day of the month. Probably for that reason no date is given in the original account for the first Pentecost. But Pentecost does always occur in, and is the one biblically and spiritually significant day in, "the third month." According to a Jewish tradition and belief dating from at least the time of the composition of the pre-Christian Book of Jubilees, the Old Covenant was indeed made on the feast of weeks. After the Roman destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the feast of weeks became preeminently a feast of the law even for the Pharisees. The Samaritans likewise have always placed God's actual revelation and giving of the law on the Sabbath preceding the Sunday Pentecost.
The Covenant Day
But is the connection of the law to the day of Pentecost antithetical to this festival's Christian connection? Not at all. The significance of the day of Pentecost is that it is the day of covenants. We have seen that this is a biblical concept illustrated in Asa's reaffirmation of the Old Covenant. The writer of the Book of Jubilees went even further, judging Pentecost and covenants so obviously related that he assigned also God's covenants with Noah (Gen. 9), two with Abraham mentioned in Genesis 15 and 17, and Jacob's covenant with Laban (Gen. 31:44), to this day. At Sinai, when Moses had written down all of God's instructions, built an altar, made other preparations for the actual ceremony, and read again to Israel the requirements of God, Israel, as the wife, promised to obey God the Husband, in a marriage covenant: "All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do," they said (Ex. 24:3). So the day God and Israel finalized a covenant at Sinai became, so to speak, God's wedding day- and the anniversary is still so important to God that He chose that very day to inaugurate a New Covenant, confirming His continued love and concern for humanity. It was because of lsrael's lack of the Holy Spirit that the original marriage came to grief. Therefore Christ later came to reconcile God and man, and then sent the Holy Spirit from heaven to beget Christians to God-life, and to empower them so they would be able to keep a covenant with God. With this covenant function in mind, it should be fully apparent how law, grace and divine love are united for Christians in the meaning of this day of Pentecost. When Christ by sending the Holy Spirit had confirmed the covenant on this day, three thousand people then entered a new covenant with their God, solemnizing it by the ceremony of baptism (Acts 2:41). They, like all of us who today are baptized into the New Covenant, were agreeing with the words of the Israel of old : "All that the Lord commands, we will do." And whatever the actual day on which we are baptized, Pentecost is the spiritual commemoration — the birthday — for us all, for it is the birthday of the Church. It is the day of our espousal, or betrothal to Christ (a very binding kind of engagement). "I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband," wrote Paul (II Cor. 11:2). Who knows, perhaps some future Pentecost will also be our wedding day-at the marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9; Matt. 25: 1-13), when Christ takes His Church as His bride.
Christians Kept Pentecost
Tertullian was a prolific writer I and one of the most famous of the church fathers. He flourished in Roman North Africa during the years just before A.D. 200, to about 222. In the fashion of his day, he denounced the wrongheadedness, as he saw it, of the way the Jews observed the holy days and Sabbaths. But did he believe such days were all abolished? Not at all. He himself kept at least some of them, while insisting on a new Christian manner of observance more suited to their meanings. "If [since] there is a new creation III Christ [the New Testament Christian], our solemnities [manner of observing the festivals] will be bound to be new [different from the Jewish manner, and filled with new meaning]; else, if the apostle [Paul, in Galatians 4:10, for example] has erased all devotion absolutely 'of seasons, and days, and months and years,' why do we celebrate the Passover by an annual rotation in the first month? [Tertullian's meaning is that Paul did not do away completely with festivals and holy days, but only pointed to a more proper mode of observance; otherwise Christians in Tertullian's day, and Tertullian himself, would not have kept on celebrating the New Testament Passover or Lord's Supper once each year.] Why in the fifty days ensuing [to and including Pentecost] do we spend all our time in exultation?" ("On Fasting," ch. 14, Ante-Nicene Fathers, IV, p. 112).
Date of Pentecost
The Worldwide Church of God will observe Pentecost this year on Sunday, June 11, in accordance with the lunisolar holy day calendar. We do not consider correct the Whitsunday date which is derived by counting the fifty days, not from the "morrow after the Sabbath" following Passover, but from Easter, a day neither taught nor mentioned in the Bible. (The mention of "Easter" in the King James Version [Acts 12:4] is a mistranslation of the Greek word Pascha, meaning "Passover.") Influenced by anti-Semitism, in order "that none should hereafter follow the blindness of the Jews" (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, i, 9, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. II), the Constantine-dominated Council of Nicea, A.D. 325, decreed that Easter Sunday should completely replace the Passover and be tied directly to the solar year, specifically to the spring equinox. Centuries of confusion followed. Not only have Christians disagreed with the Jews, they have continually disagreed with one another. With Passover (and Easter) no longer necessarily falling in the first month nor Pentecost in the third, the British and Celtic Christians for centuries frequently kept a different day than the Romans; while the French, Spaniards, Egyptians, etc. sometimes disagreed with both and with each other. Up to modern times the Eastern (Orthodox) Church's calendar has continued to differ from the calendar of the West.