Sometimes it might seem like the day of Pentecost is neglected among the Holy Days as one that we do not think about as often, but God established every Holy Day for a reason, and each one has a richness and a depth that demands and deserves our meditation. Pentecost pictures the day on which God gave His Holy Spirit to His Church, empowering His people in a divine, miraculous way. And we need that Spirit and the miracles God makes possible through it, as Dr. Roderick C. Meredith wrote in the January-February 2010 Living Church News:
We so very much need these “gifts” to begin to have the real impact on our brethren—and especially on the world—that we need in order to truly “finish” the job. So I beseech you to join with me in being one of those striving to “go all out” in seeking God, and trying in every way we can to “give” our lives to Him in zealous obedience and service, and to cry out for the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit for His Work, His ministry and all His people!
Properly meditating on the meaning of Pentecost can help us cry out to God in this way. The Bible records several observances of Pentecost for us—let’s compare two of them and see what we can glean. Their similarities and differences carry significant principles we should keep in mind.
The Pentecost of Exodus
Approximately 3,500 years ago, God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger at Mount Sinai, and given the timing of all the events surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Church has long believed the event occurred on Pentecost, itself. Otherwise, we’d have to conclude that Pentecost was, say, the day after or the day before—as if God would realize, Oh! You know, if only I had timed things slightly differently, this could have taken place on Pentecost! If anyone is always on time and mindful of the larger plan, God is. The dates of the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread are tied to events of profound significance. And there is good reason to believe God did not miss His mark concerning Pentecost, either.
And on that Pentecost, the Bible is plain that God wanted to make an impression—not just for show, but for a purpose. In fact, more than one.
For instance, Exodus 19:3–8 illustrates how God had Moses going back and forth between Himself and the people, conveying His instructions. Why? Could God not hear what the people said?
Part of the lesson God wanted the people to learn is how He works. The passage gives us important information not only in what He communicates, but also in how He communicates. Here, God was using Moses, and “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever’” (v. 9). God wanted to make such an impression that the people would realize that He was using Moses. God chooses whom God chooses, and He had chosen Moses. It was important to God that the people understand that and take it seriously.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. Not a hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot with an arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (Exodus 19:10–13).
The God of heaven, the Creator of all things, was personally going to descend on this mountain. God was coming, and the people had an obligation to prepare for that. What might those three days have been like for them? Can you imagine the anticipation that would have been building?
Finally, “on the third day, in the morning… there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (v. 16). I’ve tried to look for mountain scenes that help me picture what that would have been like, and the closest I can come are some of these fantastic volcanic eruptions spewing ash and smoke into the sky, with lightning coursing through the ash because of the electrical discharge. All of that can happen as a natural phenomenon—but what’s not a natural phenomenon is the sound of a trumpet coming out of a cloud on the mountain, and it was loud enough and piercing enough that millions of people could hear it. That’s not normal, and they were terrified.
“Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord,” the Ever-Living One, the God of Israel who would become Jesus Christ, “descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (vv. 17–18). This mountain, what would normally be the picture of stability and solidity, was trembling itself, heaving back and forth with the power and the force of the One who was descending upon it, a Being with power to which a mountain could never compare.
An Event Crafted with Purpose
Verse 19 says that “the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder,” and this was already a trumpet blast that made the people tremble in fear. As this Being descended closer and closer to the mountain, “Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice.”
Wow. The Bible doesn’t specify exactly what was said, but it’s worth the time to imagine what that exchange must have been like for the assembled Israelites—to hear their human leader addressing the majestic God who was concealed behind the smoke and fire on the quaking mountain, amidst divine shofar blasts, and then to hear that same God respond with His own thunderous voice. Whatever Moses and God said to each other, it is clear that God sought to make an impression: The Eternal One, your Creator, is here. This was quite a Pentecost.
“Then the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up” (Exodus 19:20). Moses was a brave man! Can you imagine the impression it must have had on the people when—after they had been told not to go up to the mountain and had seen all that was happening—Moses actually went up that mountain, into the tumult? “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the Lord, and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.’ But Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; for You warned us, saying, “Set bounds around the mountain and consecrate it”’” (vv. 21–23). God was making a point: Even if you want to, you cannot come closer. You are not worthy.
God used this Pentecost setting to give the Ten Commandments, and Pentecost is a beautiful season for reading them in Exodus 20:1–17. I encourage you to do so, and to imagine God’s powerful voice speaking each commandment from the mountain, as well as what it would have been like for those listening and trembling.
The passage gives us a sense of the impression it made on them: “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:18–19). It was terrifying to them, so they turned to Moses, and, again, that was part of God’s purpose—that they would hear His chosen servant and believe him forever (Exodus 19:9).
In Exodus 20:20, “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.’” God wanted them to realize that the Ten Commandments weren’t merely like the Code of Hammurabi, or like whatever collection of rules they may have had under Pharoah during their time in Egypt. This was the very Creator of the Universe giving them these commands. He could have done so in a completely different way, but God crafts these moments with intention and purpose—He is the great Designer, and no one knows how to make an impression like the Ever-Living One.
Everything God does is for a reason and by design, including the actions He took and choices He made on that Pentecost some 3,500 years ago.
The Pentecost of Acts
Now, let’s fast-forward to the Pentecost of 31 AD. Keep in mind that the Man of whom we are about to read is that same Being who descended on Mount Sinai in flame, smoke, lightning, and thunder, and who spoke to Moses. “And being assembled together with them, He [Jesus Christ] commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4–5).
God wanted them to wait for the Holy Spirit until the Feast of Pentecost, because God knows what He’s doing and is always on schedule. Can you imagine what those days must have been like? Imagine that the Messiah, whom you’ve seen resurrected, is going to give you power—but you need to wait in Jerusalem. What would that wait have been like, day in and day out, knowing a promise of divine power was coming?
They believed His promise, so they were preparing and working even before He gave them the Holy Spirit. They replaced Judas, making sure their number was complete. They spent time getting the Church in the kind of shape that they thought it needed to be in, as much as they could. Finally, “when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1–2).
It’s easy to think of the early Church members as though they were entirely different from us, but these were real people. They had husbands or wives, they had children like us, they had daily concerns—they had real lives, and they would have reacted similarly to the way we would react if, out of nowhere, we started to hear the amazing sound of a mighty, rushing wind filling the room and reverberating in our ears. We would realize, as they did, that something miraculous was happening.
“Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:3). Can you imagine how exciting and unnerving it would be to see divided tongues of fire and flame descending in the air around you, upon the heads of your friends and family? Or realizing that meant one was descending upon you, too? “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (v. 4). The Apostles, in an instant, were speaking languages that they had never known before in their lives. It’s inspiring to note that the gifts God gives the Church tend to come with the purpose of getting the truth out. The very first gift given in the Church was the power to take the Gospel to the entire world.
The nearby crowd heard this sound and began gathering. What is it like to hear a tornado coming from inside a building? “Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?’… Others mocking said, ‘They are full of new wine’” (Acts 2:7–8, 13). The mocking continues, 2,000 years later—but it doesn’t change the truth of what God is doing. The Apostle Peter then gave a vital message and, wrapping up, he said:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (vv. 36–38).
That day, the Lord added 3,000 people to His begotten family, the Church of God.
These two Pentecosts were very similar in many important ways.
On both Pentecosts, a group of people was called together by God to one location—and, on both Pentecosts, God founded a nation. What did God say before giving the Ten Commandments? “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6). And what did Peter say about God’s Church? Almost exactly the same words: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9).
On the Day of Pentecost, God founded first the physical nation of Israel, then the spiritual nation of Israel—the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)—filled with brothers and sisters who make up the body of Christ and who will make up the Kingdom of God. Nothing binds two people together as brother and sister like the Spirit of God. When we hear announcements about fellow Church members on the other side of the world, we should recognize that those people are our brothers and sisters in a profound way unmatched by even our biological siblings, because God’s Spirit is what truly makes us family. The parallels between what God did on those two Pentecosts should not be missed.
Consider additional parallels. Physical Israel had to wait three days before God appeared on Mount Sinai, and the leaders of spiritual Israel had to wait for the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Physical Israel heard great noise from the mountain that preceded the approach of God’s presence, and spiritual Israel heard the sound of a rushing, mighty wind. Physical Israel saw fire and smoke descend from heaven, and spiritual Israel saw individual, divided tongues of fire descend. And, to both physical Israel and spiritual Israel, God miraculously and explicitly demonstrated through whom He was working in a special way—Moses and Christ’s Apostles. Scripture is clear that miraculous signs have a purpose: They validate the message of God’s messengers in a way that nothing else truly can. That’s one reason why Dr. Meredith often exhorted us to pray for those signs. A vital element of the message of both of these Pentecosts is the challenge: To whom are you listening? Whom has God set apart to carry His message?
Yet, as instructive as the similarities between these two events may be, the differences between these Pentecosts are perhaps even more instructive.
The first demonstrated that, although God longs to dwell among humanity, there is currently a gulf of unrighteousness that separates human beings from Him. When the Eternal descended upon Mount Sinai 3,500 years ago, no one but Moses was allowed to come near the mountain, because the presence of God was sacred and holy. Yet on the Pentecost of 31 AD, while fire still came from heaven, it descended not far away atop a distant mountain, but upon each individual person in a very intimate way.
At the coming of that divine presence, the ancient Israelites trembled in fear, and Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” because the fact that there should be righteous fear before God has not changed. The difference is that He is no longer the power at a distance on a mountain. Instead, “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13).
On Pentecost, we must remind ourselves of this: The very power that must have made the Israelites wonder whether the mountain itself was not about to be rent in two, has actually been put within us—within all of the baptized children of God, all over the world. When we internalize that, it’s not hard to think that there could be powerful miracles in God’s Church today—healings, speaking in foreign languages we don’t know, even raisings from the dead. Those things are possible, because on the Day of Pentecost in 31 AD, the light wasn’t at a distance, the fire wasn’t on a mountain—the fire was on the people and the Spirit was in the people.
Another important difference between these two moments involves God’s law, which was central to both. God originally wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger on stone tablets and gave them to Moses to take to the people—yet He knew that wouldn’t be enough. Deuteronomy gives some details that aren’t present in Exodus, and one of them is God’s response to the people’s claim that they would always obey Him: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:28–29).
For all their proclamations of fear and obedience in the face of God’s terrifying display of power, the hearts of the Israelites were not truly changed on that Pentecost. God addressed this on the Pentecost of 31 AD, as He established the beginnings of the New Covenant. The Apostle Paul wrote in Hebrews 8:7–10 that the faults within the hearts of the people doomed the first covenant, making it necessary to establish a second, in which God “will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
Both Pentecosts are similar in that God began a process of writing His laws with His own divine finger, but the difference between the two Pentecosts is that, where He wrote on cold stone slabs for Israel, in 31 AD He began the process of personally writing those laws on our hearts and on our minds. That astonishing truth is at the heart of Pentecost: The Creator God—the Ever-Living One, the One who designed all we see and every molecule of air we breathe—is willing to personally work with us every day of our lives to write His laws, as with His own finger, on our hearts and minds through His Holy Spirit. That Spirit is no longer at a distance on a mountain—it’s here, with us. It’s here in us. The difference between the two Pentecosts is significant.
From the Mountain to His Children
At Mount Sinai, God Himself was making His thoughts, His desires, His passions known from His own mouth, and in 31 AD, God was still speaking—but this time, He was speaking through the mouths of His people “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). These two Pentecosts are similar in that they both serve as a reminder that the beautiful truth of the Gospel comes from God—and show us in their differences that while God once spoke at a distance, He is now speaking through people, through the mouths of human beings. He still has a message to give, and He is still in charge of that message, but He now proclaims it through the words and lives of individuals in whom His Spirit resides.
It’s so easy to lose sight of Pentecost amidst all the other exciting Holy Days, but we shouldn’t. On Pentecost, God began a process. In the past, a terrifying God descended upon a mountain with fire and thunder, and He wrote His laws with His own finger on tablets of stone to give to His people. But now, as we see from the Pentecost of 31 AD, He is no longer a God who dwells at a distance—instead, He dwells within us, His children (John 14:17, 23). He is a God who still writes His laws on tablets, but now those tablets are our individual hearts. And He does so not merely as the Divine Lawgiver, but with the care and concern of a loving Father who seeks to transform us.
Let us thank God for the Day of Pentecost. Let’s thank Him for taking His power, His law, and His presence off the mountain and moving them to a new home within His children.