Pentecost means “fiftieth day,” and the Bible describes two very significant “fiftieth day” events. Today, Barry Cooper describes the similarities and differences between those events so we may better know God’s gifts to His people of deliverance and life.
As Christian believers, we can take for granted the stunning fact that God’s Spirit empowers all of us for ministry. It wasn’t always the case.
In the Old Testament, only certain of God’s people were anointed by the Holy Spirit with gifts for ministry, and often only for a limited time, for particular purposes. Moses was given the Holy Spirit, and at one point he famously cried out, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”
But through the prophet Joel, God promised that the day would come when His Spirit would be given to all believers in a new and more powerful way:
It shall come to pass afterward [He says], that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.
That promise began to be fulfilled in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, on the day of Pentecost. In fact, the Apostle Peter quotes that exact passage in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, drawing attention to the fact that on that very day, the prophecy had been fulfilled.
Pentecost literally means “fiftieth day.” Originally, Pentecost was a Jewish holiday that was held fifty days after Passover. Among other things, it reminded God’s people of the day, fifty days after their deliverance from Egypt, that God had given them His law on Mount Sinai.
So what are the connections between that fiftieth-day event on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament and the fiftieth-day event in Jerusalem in the New Testament?
Well, on both of these “Pentecosts,” God drew near to His people. In the Old Testament, the Lord descended on Mount Sinai in fire. In the New Testament, tongues of fire appear on all the believers in Jerusalem. In Exodus, there’s loud thunder and the sound of trumpets; in the book of Acts, there’s a mighty sound of rushing wind. In Exodus, God gives His people His law, and in Acts, God gives them His Spirit, empowering them to keep that law.
So there are similarities. But there are some differences we’re supposed to notice, too.
The fire and thunder of Mount Sinai said very loudly and very clearly to God’s people, “Keep your distance.” God warned them, through Moses, that if they tried to come up the mountain, they would perish—such is God’s holiness. But in the book of Acts, we’re told that God’s presence rests on them: tongues of fire come to rest on every believer, and God’s Spirit fills each person.
Here’s another significant difference. As God’s people wait for Moses to descend Mount Sinai, they commit idolatry, worshiping a golden calf. Their idolatry is punished, and three thousand of them perished. But in the book of Acts, on the Day of Pentecost, we’re told that three thousand people are saved.
It’s clear that we’re meant to connect these two Pentecosts, these two fiftieth-day events. We’re meant to see that the giving of God’s law on that fiftieth-day—as glorious as it was—did not in fact lead to life. In fact, when God’s people broke that law, it led to death. Compare that with the fiftieth day described in the book of Acts: on that Pentecost, God poured out the Spirit of Life.
Why is there such a difference between these two “Pentecost” events? Well, the first took place fifty days after a great act of deliverance: God’s people saved from slavery in Egypt by the death of a lamb, its blood painted on the vertical and horizontal wooden doorposts of each home. The second Pentecost, the one described in Acts, took place fifty days after a far greater act of deliverance: God’s people saved from slavery to sin by the death of the Lamb, His blood painting the vertical and horizontal wooden beams of the cross.
The greater Passover leads to a greater Pentecost. The first marked the giving of God’s law. But the second marked the giving of God’s Spirit. The law brings us an awareness of our sin, but Christ’s Spirit gives us the power and the desire to overcome it. Where the law brought with it assurance of condemnation and death, the Spirit brings with Him assurance of forgiveness and life. As the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, “The letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Now, it’s important to say that the Holy Spirit did regenerate God’s people before Pentecost. The old covenant saints needed the Spirit in order to believe. The Spirit also gave them love for God’s law and a desire to obey it. But not all of the old covenant saints were given gifts by the Holy Spirit for ministry. By contrast, all new covenant believers get such gifts. And our experience of the Holy Spirit is fuller under the new covenant than under the old covenant.
That is the wonder of Pentecost: God coming to dwell more fully in each and every believer, to give them power and gifts for service.
But to what purpose? In Acts chapter 2, the result of being filled with Christ’s Spirit is that the disciples immediately began to declare, in multiple different languages, the mighty works of God.
Their praising of God was such that their initial hearers even suspected they might be drunk. But as one writer puts it: “The happiness you may feel when you are drunk comes because you are less aware of reality. The Spirit, however, gives you joyful fearlessness by making you more aware of reality.” That’s why they couldn’t keep themselves from speaking of God to anyone who’d listen: the reality of God was overwhelming to them.
You and I, if we’re in Christ, have the same Spirit those first believers received on the day of Pentecost. Do we have the same joyful fearlessness, too?