They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).
Beginnings set the tone for how everything following will proceed. Not for nothing is it said that you only have one chance to make a first impression.
The beginning of the proclamation of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Apostles, the beginning of the church, the manifestation of Jesus’ Kingdom on earth, is set forth in Acts 2:1-48. The Apostles are baptized with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in the assorted languages spoken by the diaspora of Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Peter proclaims what it is the Jewish people are seeing: the Holy Spirit has fallen on them as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, for Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had seen work miracles and had crucified, was raised from the dead by God, and of this David prophesied in the Psalms and Peter and the Apostles had personally eyewitnessed (Acts 2:14-36). About three thousand Jewish people believed, repented, and were baptized in the name of the Lord, and began devoting themselves together to the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer, spending time together in the Temple and from house to house, providing for each other as any had need, having favor with the people, full of joy and purpose, and many others were being added to their number (Acts 2:37-48). An auspicious beginning indeed!
But why on Pentecost? Pentecost was the festival of firstfruits of the wheat harvest, established by YHWH as fifty days after the Passover (the Feast of Weeks or Shauvot; Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:9-11). A festival for firstfruits was by its very nature a celebration; the people would have been subsisting on whatever had remained from previous harvests, and the prospect of new and bountiful food would make them glad. The Feast of Weeks also manifests their confidence in God, for if they gave the firstfruits to Him, they were trusting in Him to give plenty in the rest of the harvest. The Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Weeks were all in their own way a reminder of being slaves in Egypt delivered from bondage by YHWH (Deuteronomy 16:12). As one of the three festivals in which all men were to appear before YHWH in the Temple, the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost represented a convenient opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus of Nazareth to all Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 16:16-17).
Yet Pentecost, in Jewish memory, was not only the Feast of Weeks, an agricultural celebration; according to the oral tradition of Israel it is also the anniversary of the day on which YHWH spoke the Ten Commandments before Israel on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-21).
Thus Pentecost hearkens back to another beginning, the beginning of the covenant between God and Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses. This covenant was established on Mount Sinai; the people were terrified at the thunders, lightning, fire, and the voice of God, and having heard the Ten Commandments, begged for Moses to receive the Law and stand between them and God (Exodus 20:1-21). YHWH then gave Moses the Law and the provisions for the Tabernacle over a forty day period, culminating in receiving the two tables of testimony in stone written by the finger of God (Exodus 20:21-31:18). Meanwhile, the people feared that Moses had met his demise, and persuaded Aaron to make gods for them, and he made a golden calf which they served and before whom they made merry (Exodus 32:1-6). YHWH burned in anger against Israel and sought to strike them down and make of Moses a great nation; Moses talked YHWH down by reminding Him of the promises He had made to their forefathers (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses descended to the base of Mount Sinai, broke the tablets of the testimony, destroyed the golden calf, grinding it into powder, and made Israel to drink it (Exodus 32:15-25). Moses called on those who were on YHWH’s side, and his fellow Levites came to him; he commanded them to strike down their companions and neighbors, and about three thousand of the people fell (Exodus 32:26-28). Moses testified how Israel had committed great sin, and YHWH struck the people further, because of the golden calf they had made (Exodus 32:29-35). YHWH would then command Moses to lead the people away from Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:1); what was supposed to be a sanctified place had been defiled, and what was to be a holy people needed forgiveness. From then on the Levites would be called upon to stand between YHWH and the people, and the Law would be reckoned as a burden that none of the Israelites could properly bear (Exodus 19:6, Numbers 3:12, Acts 15:10). This was a less than auspicious beginning!
In this way Pentecost marks the beginning of two covenants, one in Sinai and the other in Jerusalem. On Sinai great terror came upon the people as they heard the voice of God; they sinned against God there, and about three thousand of them died. In Jerusalem great amazement came upon the people as they heard in their native languages the mighty works of God; they learned about redemption there, and about three thousand of them received salvation and the hope of eternal life. The Law from Sinai would remind them of their faults, failures, and sin; to various degrees Israel sought to live up to what God had decreed, but frequently failed and/or turned aside to other gods. The gift of the Spirit in Jerusalem would provide release from sin, deliverance from bondage, and hope for eternity in the resurrection with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Later on Paul would make a similar contrast in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18: the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; the old is a ministration of death and condemnation, the new is a ministration of the Spirit and of righteousness. Pentecost provides a great illustration of this principle. When the Law was given, the people turned aside and about three thousand were killed; when the Spirit is given, the people repented and about three thousand found eternal life. The Law set forth right and wrong and in so doing gave life to sin and thus death (Romans 7:5-13); the Spirit set forth deliverance from sin and death through Jesus and the resurrection, and in so doing gives life (Romans 8:1-3).
We do well to praise God that we have not come to a mountain of fear and condemnation, as was Sinai, but to Jerusalem, Mount Zion, wherein life can be found through the Spirit and the message of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Hebrews 12:18-24). May we ever live in repentance and hope in the Spirit, serving the Lord Jesus and proclaiming His good news to all nations!
Ethan R. Longhenry