Leviticus 23:15-22 and the Christian Pentecost

Leviticus 23:15-22 and the Christian Pentecost


Calvin Lashway

May 2011


In the Bible the Day of Pentecost has several different names. In the Old Testament: “The Day of the Firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26), “The Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16) and “The Feast of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22; Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16:10, 16; 2 Chronicles 8:13). In the New Testament: “Day of Pentecost” (Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:8). This festival marks the end of the spring grain harvest in the land of Israel. The harvest starts during the days of unleavened bread, beginning with the barely harvest, followed by the wheat harvest, with its completion around the Day of Pentecost.


In Leviticus 23:15-22 we find the old covenant Levitical ceremony prescribed for this festival. There a great deal to learn about the Christian life by examining this ceremony through the lens of the new covenant. Although the old covenant sacrificial system ended at Jesus death (Hebrews 9). Christians, following Jesus' practice and that of the early church should continue to observe these festivals, including Pentecost.1


Seven Weeks

"You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord" (Leviticus 23:15-16, all scriptures are from the English Standard Version).


For old covenant Israel, on the Sunday, “the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:9-14), that fell within the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The High Priest offered a sheaf of the firstfruits of the barley harvest to God.2 This sheaf was from the first grain harvested during the seven week spring harvest season. This offering, called the Wave Sheaf Offering, is crucial in determining the date of the Feast of Weeks. Calculating the date of the Pentecost involves counting seven weeks or Sabbaths from the day of the Wave Sheaf Offering. With the day after the seventh Sabbath, a Sunday, being the Feast of Weeks. This is a total count of fifty days. Pentecost, the New Testament name for the festival, is derived from Greek word for fifty. The exact date on the calendar may vary from year to year, but the feast day is always on a Sunday.


The grain harvest is an important theme of the festival. We find this reflected in one of its names, “The Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-17, 21-22). The New Testament references to harvesting have important lessons to teach about this festival. One of these is the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost, which can picture the Christian life of spiritual growth, culminating in Jesus harvesting us at His second coming. In the Bible, the number seven can represent completion, for example the seven days of creation (Genesis 2:1-4). The New Testament uses harvesting to picture the resurrection of the righteous at "the end of the age" (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; 24:3, 29-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 New American Standard Bible).


The scriptures compare Jesus' disciples to grain, that once reaching maturity is harvested (Mark 4:26-29). We are a people who must bring forth "fruit to maturity" (Luke 8:11-15 New American Standard Bible). Who grow in “the standard of maturity set by the Messiah’s perfection" (Ephesians 4:11-13 Complete Jewish Bible), as we “press on to maturity" (Hebrews 6:1 New American Standard Bible). Our goal is to become spiritually “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4). This seven-week period symbolizes the Christian life. It represents the period of time we have to become spiritual mature, perfect and complete.


Firstfruits, Two Loaves, Fine Flour and Leaven

"You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the LORD" (Leviticus 23:17).


Firstfruits to the LORD

The firstfruits of the wheat harvest is another Old Testament Pentecost theme. We see this is in the following references to this festival: “Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor” (Exodus 23:16); “Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest” (Exodus 34:22); and “the day of the firstfruits . . . at your Feast of Weeks” (Numbers 28:26).


In the Pentateuch God commands individual Israelites to "bring into the house of the LORD your God," "the firstfruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first fleece of your sheep" (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 18:4). He also commanded the priesthood, on behalf of the nation to make firstfruit offerings of the barley harvest, with the wave sheaf offering (Leviticus 23:9-14). And fifty days later, on the Feast of Weeks, the wheat harvest with the two loaves of "the bread of the firstfruits" (verses 15-21).


According to the prophet Jeremiah, God symbolically saw ancient Israel as "the firstfruits of his harvest” (Jeremiah 2:3). Firstfruits is also a term used for Christians in the New Testament. James says we are “a kind of firstfruits of [God's] creatures” (James 1:17-18). The 144,000 of Revelation 14 are those “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb" (Revelation 14:1-4). The apostle Paul calls the first converts in an area he evangelized, firstfruits (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:15 King James Version, New King James Version).


Paul also refers to fellow believers as we “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23). The Holy Spirit is another theme of Pentecost, because it was on this day that Jesus' followers (firstfruits) received the promised "firstfruits of the Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4, 32-33). The Spirit of God plays an important part in the salvation process. On this first new covenant Pentecost, Peter tells those assembled in the Jerusalem Temple to: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (verses 37-38).


Paul makes an interesting observation about firstfruits, salvation, the Holy Spirit and obtaining glory in a letter to the Thessalonians: "But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:13).3 God chose the Thessalonians, as well as us, as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and belief in the truth, so we might obtain the glory of Jesus.


In Romans chapter 8, Paul goes into great detail on the importance of the Spirit in our present lives, as well as our future lives as God's glorified children. He says, "You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. . . . If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies [at the resurrection] through his Spirit who dwells in you. . . . For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. . . . For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. . . . And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies [the resurrection]. For in this hope we were saved. . ." (Romans 8:9, 11, 14, 19, 22-24).


Christians, like Jesus, are the firstfruits of God. The first of many more God will resurrected from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20-24). The Old Testament "sheaf of the firstfruits" (Leviticus 23:9-14) was a type of Jesus. Just as the two Old Testament loaves of the “bread of the firstfruits” are a type of Jesus' followers (Leviticus 23:15-22).


This festival emphasizes the firstfruits of God’s spiritual harvest. The term “firstfruits” implies there will be “other fruit” or “later fruit” or “second fruit.” This festival is a reminder that we are God's firstfruits. The first ones to receive the Holy Spirit, and the offer salvation, with the rest of humanity given this opportunity at a later time.


Two Loaves of Bread

There are several differing explanations for the meaning of these two loaves of bread (Leviticus 23:17). We will look at two possibilities. First, these loaves may represent the Old Testament people of faith, and the New Testament people of faith described in Hebrews 11:39-40. The second possibility is one loaf may represent the firstfruits of God who are the dead in Christ, and are resurrected at His return (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). With the other loaf representing those still living at Jesus' return whose perishable, mortal, flesh and blood bodies are changed into imperishable immortal bodies (Corinthians 15:50-53).


Fine Flour

The wheat used to make the two loaves, comes from finely ground floor (Leviticus 23:17). This fine flour can be symbolic of the trials and tests of the Christians life. The apostle Peter tells us we will suffer grief "by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:6-7). He goes on to say, "beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you" (4:12-19). Pentecost helps us to see that as God's firstfruits, spiritual trials and tests are going to be a part of our lives. There are times when God will grind us down to make fine flour out of us.


Baked With Leaven

These two loaves of bread were made with leaven (Leviticus (23:17). According to the Old Testament sacrificial system, grain offerings were not made with leaven (Leviticus 2:1, 4-6, 11). This was an exception to the rule. The bible uses leaven as a symbol for sin, because leaven puffs up, and so does sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). These leavened loaves remind us that even though we are God's firstfruits, in this life we will still sin (Romans 7:7-25; 1 John 1:8-2:2). It's not until we "attain the resurrection from the dead" at Jesus return when he transforms our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, that we will be perfect and without sin. (Philippians 3:11-12, 20-21).


The Holy Day Sacrifices

"And you shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, and one bull from the herd and two rams. They shall be a burnt offering to the LORD, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. And you shall offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of peace offerings" (Leviticus 23:18-19). These sacrifices foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (Hebrews 10:1-18).


Waving the Bread of the Firstfruits

"And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the LORD, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the LORD for the priest" (Leviticus 23:20).


The lifting up of the two loaves of bread and waving them in the air symbolizes God’s firstfruits, the saints, rising to met Jesus in the air at His second coming. This is Paul's description of this event from his first letter to the Thessalonians: "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). He presents a similar description to the Corinthian brethren: "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:50-53). Pentecost teaches us about the coming resurrection to immortality of the dead in Christ, and the change from mortal to immortal of those living at the return of Christ. This is also one of the meanings of the Feast of Trumpets.


Holy to the LORD

Theses two loaves of leavened bread, “the bread of the firstfruits,” are Holy to God (Leviticus 23:20). God makes us holy by reconciling us to Himself through Jesus' sacrifice (Colossians 1:21-22). But we can fall from this state of holiness, if we fail to continue in the faith and move away from the hope of the gospel (verse 23). We have a part to play in being holy. By thinking "clearly and exercise self-control. As we look forward to the gracious salvation Jesus will bring to us at His second coming. We must live as obedient children. Not slipping back into our old ways of living to satisfy our desires. We must be holy in everything we do, just as God who chose us is holy. God paid a ransom to save us from the empty life we inherited from our ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God" (1 Peter 1:13-19 Based on the New Living Translation). Pentecost teach us that God makes us holy through Jesus. But once made holy we have a part to play in staying holy. By looking to God for the ability to obey through the power of the His Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27).


A Holy Convocation and No Ordinary Work

"And you shall make proclamation on the same day. You shall hold a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a statute forever in all your dwelling places throughout your generations" (Leviticus 23:21).


Like the other festivals in Leviticus 23, God commands us to have a holy convocation, and to refrain from doing ordinary work on Pentecost. It was on this day when the 120 disciples in obedience to this command, "were all together in one place," and "were all filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:15; 2:1-4). God doesn't want us neglecting to assemble on the festivals. These convocation give us an opportunity to encourage and "stir up one another to love and good works" (Hebrews 10:24-25).


Not Reaping the Corners of Your Field

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 23:22).


Following the instructions on how to observe the old covenant sanctuary service of the Feast of Harvest. We find a curious command that at first seems out of place with the subject under discussion. God tells Israel that when reaping their grain fields they are not to reap right up to the edges of the fields. Nor are they to go back through the field a second time to pickup any leftover grain. This regulation wasn't unique to the Law, for it was a part of Israel's welfare system (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). We see an example of this system at work in the book of Ruth. The events in Ruth occur during seven weeks leading up to Pentecost. It's possible the original reason for placing this regulation here was to remind Israel of the need to share their bounty with the less fortunate. This is similar to the command for the Israelites to share their food with less fortunate on other feast days (Deuteronomy 12:10-12, 17-18; 14:22-27; 16:11, 14-15; Nehemiah 8:10-12). As Christians these instructions remind us that as the crops left behind in the field were set aside to serve and help others; we God's firstfruits should be of serves to others (Matthew 25:31-46; Galatians 6:10).


Conclusion

We gain a deeper understanding of the Christian life, when we examine the old covenant Pentecost service through lens of the new covenant. This seven-week count to Pentecost pictures the Christian life of growing to spiritual maturity. The festival emphasizes that we are the firstfruits of God’s spiritual harvest. With the harvest consisting of two groups or types of believers. As firstfruits we will have trials that will make us better Christians. Even though we are God’s firstfruits, we will still fall short and sin. The festival helps to focus on the hope of the coming harvest at the resurrection. As firstfruits, God made us holy, and we must remain holy. We keep this festival as a day of rest and assembling with others for worship. Finally, Pentecost reminds us that we should be of serves to others.



Notes

1 This article presumes the Christian observance of the festivals of Leviticus 23. It’s beyond the scope of this work to prove that Christians should keep these festivals. For information on this, and the meaning of the festivals, see the following literature: God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise for All Mankind http://www.ucg.org/booklets/HD/; Ronald L. Dart's book The Thread: God’s Appointments With History, Appendix 2 "In Defense of the Holydays." A PDF version of the book is available at http://servantofmessiah.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/11/The-Thread-Gods-Holy-Days-Ron-Dart.pdf.

2 For information on the importance of the Wave Sheaf Offering see the article by Jerold Aust, The Wave Sheaf Offering—A Ceremony Foreshadowing Salvation at: http://www.ucg.org/gods-holy-days/wave-sheaf-offering-ceremony-foreshadowing-salvation/.

3 In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 the English Standard Version has "God chose you as the firstfruits." A version of this rendering is found in these translations: Complete Jewish Bible, New Revised Standard Version, New American Bible, New International Version 2011 and the New Living Translation. Instead of a reference to firstfruits, many translations have some form of: "God from the beginning chosen you," with a marginal reference that an alternative rendering is "firstfruits." New Testament scholar Philip W. Comfort, discussing the alternative translations of this verses, concludes with: "The split among English translations shows the difficulty of making a definitive decision. This would be a good place to use the marginal notes to indicate that the alternative reading is just as viable. If the translators select “from the beginning” as the text, the note would read: “Or, as in other manuscripts, ‘firstfruits’”" (Comfort, Philip W., New Testament Text and Translation Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008).



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