Determining the correct date of Pentecost has historically created controversy in the Church of God. It did so for decades in what was known as the Radio Church of God, which later became the Worldwide Church of God, and it continues to be controversial to some even to this day.
God used Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong to restore observance of the biblical Festivals and Holy Days, which he and his wife Loma kept by themselves for seven years before others joined with them. It is important to note that he obeyed first—understanding the profound meaning of these days came later as he studied into and observed them.
Unlike the Feast of Pentecost, the other Holy Days are on specific dates—for example, the Feast of Trumpets is on the first day of Tishri, the seventh month, and the First Day of Unleavened Bread is on the fifteenth of the month of Abib. Pentecost, however, must be counted from a set time that is not the same calendar date every year: “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:15–16).
On the surface, that sounds simple enough—so what is controversial about it?
Two Crucial Questions
The first question we must answer to arrive at the correct day is, What does it mean by “from the day after the Sabbath”? The second is, Which Sabbath?
The key word in verse 15’s phrase is from. How are we to understand this word? Let us say that you want to go fishing a week (seven days) from Sunday. What day would that be? Most would agree that a week from Sunday is the following Sunday, but how do we arrive at that day? Do you begin counting with Sunday or does from mean the first of the seven days is Monday? Count it for yourself: You arrive at the following Sunday when “day one” is Monday.
In standard English usage, to count from is not the same as to count beginning with. So, Mr. Armstrong began counting from, not beginning with, the day after the Sabbath. The day after the Sabbath is Sunday, and if you count from Sunday, the first day in the countdown to Pentecost is Monday. Forty-nine days (seven weeks) would bring you to a Sunday, and the fiftieth day would then always fall on a Monday—and that is how the Church kept Pentecost for four decades. Some of us old-timers still remember that.
Through those decades, a few approached Mr. Armstrong and accused him of being wrong. Mostly, according to the limited knowledge I have on that period of the Church’s history, they tried to convince him that from meant beginning with. I’m certain that they had other explanations as well, but their attitudes had a lot to do with why their ideas were rejected. Then, in 1974, as I recall, it was Mr. Raymond McNair who came to Mr. Armstrong in a humble spirit and explained to him where he was wrong. The difference in attitude reminds me of the contrast between the first two of the king of Israel’s captains in 2 Kings 1:9–15, who tried to take the prophet Elijah into custody in a disrespectful and peremptory way, and the third one, who came in humility. The difference in outcome was remarkable.
Mr. Armstrong was indeed correct that common English usage indicates counting away from, not beginning with, but he was shown that this is not so in the original Hebrew usage. It was at that time that he contacted Hebrew scholars, including an associate in Israel, who confirmed that the original Hebrew expression should be understood as count beginning with the day after the Sabbath. That year, we began observing Pentecost on a Sunday rather than a Monday, and we have been doing so ever since.
Why Not Sivan 6?
It is predominant among Jews to observe the Feast of Weeks, the day that we refer to as Pentecost, on a set calendar day—Sivan 6—no matter which day of the week it falls upon. Why do we not follow their example?
As we read earlier, the key passage of Scripture that explains when Pentecost should be kept is Leviticus 23:15–16: “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath….” This is ambiguous, to say the least. Which Sabbath? It is not defined here. What about the day of the wave sheaf offering? Do the Scriptures clarify that?
“When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it” (Leviticus 23:10–11). This, too, is ambiguous. We are left asking, Which Sabbath?
What all seem to agree upon is that the Sabbath is related to the time of Unleavened Bread. That leaves us with five options: the Sabbath right before the Days of Unleavened Bread, the First Day, the Last Day, the Sabbath that falls within the Days, or the Sabbath immediately after the Days.
Jews have chosen the Sabbath of the First Day of Unleavened Bread—and, since this is always the fifteenth of Abib (or Nisan), they believe that every year the Feast of Weeks will be on Sivan 6. They counted once for all time. One could certainly reason that this satisfied the need to count, but why then did God not simply say that the Feast of Weeks was on Sivan 6—the sixth day of the third month?
Should we follow common Jewish custom? If not, why not? Although Leviticus 23 appears ambiguous and open to interpretation, it contains a clue that will settle this and other important questions. The key to unlocking the mystery is found in the words “When you come into the land which I give to you” (v. 10). Yes, it points us to a specific time to look for the answer.
Israel wandered about in the desert for 40 years. During that time, almost the entire older generation died off—including Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. It would be Joshua who would lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land. We read of this in the book named after him. Joshua 1 reminds us of the commission given to Joshua and how he assumed command after the death of Moses. We read in Joshua 2 of the spies he sent out, and how they were hidden and protected by Rahab before sneaking back across the river to report on what they had learned. The third and fourth chapters then describe Israel crossing the Jordan and stepping into the Promised Land for the first time. The timing of all this is important to our understanding.
We read that they crossed the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month (4:19). Joshua 5 is crucial. It not only tells us that the men were circumcised, but also contains two particularly important verses related to our understanding of when Pentecost falls. However, before looking at them, let us be reminded of an important instruction given in Leviticus 23: “You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings” (Leviticus 23:14).
Remember that this instruction was especially relevant to when they came into the Promised Land. “When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest” (v. 10). This practice was to continue year after year, but it is evident that it was to be done from the time they entered the land. Let us summarize what is clearly known from what we have already read:
- A wave sheaf of the firstfruits was to be offered on the day after a Sabbath.
- This was to be done when they came into the Promised Land.
- They could not eat of the produce of the land until the wave sheaf was offered.
With this in mind, let us now address two verses in the fifth chapter of Joshua:
Now the children of Israel camped in Gilgal, and kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight on the plains of Jericho. And they ate of the produce of the land on the day after the Passover, unleavened bread and parched grain, on the very same day (Joshua 5:10–11).
The passage goes on to show that the manna ceased the next day (v. 12), but verses 10–11 are the most pertinent because they confirm which Sabbath preceded the wave sheaf offering. Verse 10 tells us what we learn elsewhere in Scripture—that the Passover is at the beginning (twilight) of the fourteenth day of the first month. Then, verse 11 says that they ate of the produce of the land “on the day after the Passover.” From this we can conclude the following:
- Passover is the fourteenth and the day after the Passover is the fifteenth.
- The fifteenth is an annual Sabbath, a Feast day (Leviticus 23:6–7).
Israel ate of “parched” grain (new grain) on the day after Passover—the fifteenth.
- Israel was not to eat of the produce of the land until the wave sheaf was offered.
- This means that the wave sheaf was offered on the fifteenth that year.
- Therefore, since the wave sheaf must follow, not necessarily fall on, a Sabbath, the fifteenth could not be the Sabbath from which to begin our calculations for Pentecost.
We must conclude, then, that the Sabbath that precedes the wave sheaf offering and our count toward Pentecost must be the weekly Sabbath.
And There Is More!
Members often say that we count Pentecost beginning with the day after the weekly Sabbath that falls during the Days of Unleavened Bread. However, this is only partially correct and can lead to an error. Every several years, Passover falls on a weekly Sabbath, as was the case in 2021—so the Days of Unleavened Bread begin on Sunday and end with the following weekly Sabbath. If the wave sheaf were always offered after the weekly Sabbath that falls during the seven days of the Festival, in years such as this one the wave sheaf would fall outside of the Days of Unleavened Bread. This might appear on the surface to be a possibility, but Joshua 5 again comes to our rescue.
Remember that, in Joshua 5, the children of Israel ate of the produce of the land on the day after Passover (v. 11). We have already shown that they could not eat this produce until after the wave sheaf offering, and that the wave sheaf offering had to occur on the day after the weekly Sabbath. Therefore, Joshua 5:11 tells us when the wave sheaf is offered in a circumstance where Passover falls on the weekly Sabbath. In years such as this one, the wave sheaf is to be offered on the Sunday that is the First Holy Day of Unleavened Bread. So, it is the wave sheaf offering, not the weekly Sabbath, that must fall within the Days of Unleavened Bread! That is why we will keep Pentecost on May 16, 2021, rather than a week later.
There are those who try to get around these plain facts in order to promote their own ideas, but a careful reading of these verses brings us to these inescapable conclusions. God did not leave us in the dark as to when the wave sheaf was to be offered, which Sabbath He meant, and what to do when the Passover falls on the weekly Sabbath. And there is one more lesson we can draw from the controversies that have surrounded Pentecost.
A Lesson in Judgments
God used Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong to teach His people near the end of this age the need to keep the annual Festivals and Holy Days spelled out clearly in the Bible. Yet, for four decades, Mr. Armstrong’s count was off by a day. What are we to make of this?
There were individuals during those 40 years who saw that Mr. Armstrong was in error. Some saw the big picture—that it was not up to each individual to determine for himself the Church’s practice in this controversial matter—but some left the Church over this or sought to cause division. Jesus tells us to judge leaders by their fruits (Matthew 7:16–20). When we look back on the Work that God accomplished through Mr. Armstrong, we see God blessing it immensely, even during those 40 years. On the other hand, what became of those who left over what was a sincere error in Mr. Armstrong’s understanding? Where are they now? What were the fruits of their labors? Did they preach the Gospel to the world? Did they warn the world of what is coming? I think we know the answer: Nothing became of any of them.
God used Mr. Armstrong to show us the need to keep the annual Festivals and Holy Days as they are explained in the Bible. God also used him to explain the clear meaning of these days—God’s plan of salvation for mankind. If God had not used him, or someone else, to explain these things, none of those who contended against Mr. Armstrong would even have been keeping these days at all!
Where Mr. Armstrong was in error was that he did not understand the difference in English and Hebrew usage when using the word from, and, as a result, he made a wrong judgment. The error was not whether to keep Pentecost, but when. And once he understood his error, he did not put it to a vote—he made a judgment for the whole Church that thenceforth we would observe Pentecost on Sunday. It is clear—from history and from the fruits of Mr. Armstrong’s labor compared to that of those who opposed him—that God backed His chosen servant even while he was making this sincere mistake!
There are personal decisions each of us need to make every day. Some of those decisions have to do with how and when we worship God. Do we study the Bible by reading it in chronological order, by subject matter with a concordance, or a combination of the two? Do we pray in the morning, in the evening, or three times a day? These are judgments we must make in our own lives, and there are many others. Paul instructs us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
But there are judgments that must be made by the Church when it comes to collective worship. We read, “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1). Perhaps in this God provided an example to those for whom this matter would be controversial in the future. We see that individuals were not left to themselves to decide when and where to observe the day, for Pentecost had “fully come” and “they were all with one accord in one place.”
Observing Pentecost on the wrong day for four decades is not the only mistake the Church has made—it is merely one of the more pronounced errors. It was an unusual situation that arose as God was revealing to His end-time Church so many truths that had been lost. One could, of course, read into this far more than is intended; there are lessons in it for us, but we must be careful not to justify deliberate error, personal agenda, or tampering with the Scriptures, as was done after Mr. Armstrong’s death.
Rather, let us rejoice that God has given us the key that unlocks when to observe the Day of Pentecost—a day so meaningful to those He is calling during this age!