A few years ago I was asked to teach a seminar on “Hebrew Holidays and Their Import For Christians” at Bradley University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The students were all 50 or older, so I knew they would remember the Marx Brothers comedy team. I asked them if they could name all the Marx Brothers. They immediately rattled off the names: Groucho, Chico, Harpo. But there was a fourth Marx Brother that people tend to forget, and none of my students could remember his name. (No, it wasn’t Karl.) It was Zeppo, I told them. Oh, yeah, Zeppo Marx!
Then I showed them a column from the 5/1/10 Jewish Forward called “Shavuot: The Zeppo Marx of Jewish Holidays.” J.J. Goldberg, the author, starts his column by saying:
“Of all the major Jewish holidays, the least familiar to the general, synagogue-avoiding Jewish public is the festival of Shavuot… In fact, its obscurity is so striking that discussions of the holiday commonly start by noting its obscurity, as I did. As a result, it’s probably best known for being little known, if you follow me. Basically, Shavuot is to Jewish holidays what Zeppo is to the Marx Brothers.”
Shavuot, also known as Pentecost, is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai in the Old Testament. It is also the anniversary of the giving of the Holy Spirit at Jerusalem in the New Testament. Even though Shavuot commemorates major historical events that are of great significance to Jews and to Christians, neither Jews nor Christians consider it a major holiday.
The reason Shavuot receives little attention from Jews is probably because the majority of Jews are not Orthodox and are therefore not very serious about the Torah. J.J. Goldberg writes in his column:
“This is the day we celebrate the handing out of the rulebook, with its bounty of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. Yay.”
Goldberg’s humorous sarcasm morphs into refreshing humorous honesty later in his column:
“The plain truth is that this holiday’s message begins with obedience. That’s why it attracts so little attention from your free-wheeling, skeptical Average American Jew. This fellow - let’s call him Jew Sixpack - isn’t big on rules and authority. If he does wander into a shul on Shavuot morning, he’s likely to slip out halfway through the Shalt Nots and leave the rest of the service to the regulars, the hard-core types who are drawn to structure and authority and probably enjoyed spending their Sunday mornings in Hebrew school.”
The festival of Shavuot/Pentecost usually receives no more attention from Christians than it does from Jews. In some mainline Christian denominations, Pentecost Sunday is commemorated as the anniversary of the giving of the Holy Spirit. But ask a typical Christian what he knows about the festival of Pentecost, and he will probably not know a whole lot, other than the fact that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Even so-called Pentecostal Christians often know nothing more about the festival of Pentecost than what they read in Acts chapter 2.
Messianic disciples of Yeshua usually know more about Shavuot than the average Christian knows, because Messianic disciples study about and celebrate the holy days that God gave to His people.
The celebration of Shavuot is not as lengthy as the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles and not as elaborate and formal as Passover. But it is connected to Passover. Even though it comes fifty days after the events of the Passover week, it is connected to Passover because it is the conclusion of the Passover season and the conclusion of the spring festivals.
Why is Shavuot regarded as the conclusion of the Passover season? The Exodus from Egypt took place on Passover, and the giving of the Torah took place on Shavuot. There’s no point in coming out of Egypt if you are not going to go to Mount Sinai to hear what the God who brought you out of Egypt has to say to you. Passover is about freedom, but free men need laws to function as a nation. Without laws, you have anarchy. If every man does what is right in his own eyes, you do not have a nation, you have a mob of anarchists.
The freedom God gives us is not freedom to do whatever we please. It is freedom to do the things that please God. If you want to please God, your effort to please Him does not start with good deeds, it starts with faith, because “without faith, it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6).
But Biblical faith, faith as defined in the Bible, is not just passive mental agreement that merely says “I believe” and does nothing in response to that alleged belief. True faith in God will lead to corresponding action. It will produce obedience to God’s commandments.
Passover is not complete without Shavuot, just as faith is not complete without works. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:19f).
Faith without works is dead. A verbal profession of faith in Jesus/Yeshua as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world is just empty words if the professing believer still continues to live in sin. “He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
Passover without Shavuot is incomplete. God wants to take you out of Egypt by the blood of the Passover Lamb, but that is not the end of the story. He brought the children of Israel from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where He gave them His laws on the Day of Pentecost before taking them into the Promised Land. He wants to give you these same laws so you can be victorious in your Promised Land. But you don’t need to go to Mount Sinai to receive them:
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire... But ye are come unto mount Zion, unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Yeshua the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 12:18-24).
The old covenant that God made with the followers of Moses at the earthly Mount Sinai on the Day of Shavuot consisted of commandments written on tablets of stone. The new covenant that God makes with followers of Messiah at the heavenly Mount Zion consists of these same commandments, written not on tablets of stone but on the fleshly tablets of the heart:
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt... For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people” (Heb. 8:8-10, quoting Jer. 31:31-33).
The new covenant does not terminate the Torah, it transfers the Torah from outside of you to inside you. For the followers of Moses, the commandments were written on stone. For a follower of Messiah, the commandments are no longer just written on cold, hard tablets of stone. They are now also written on the warm, soft tablets of the heart, if the heart is truly surrendered to the Messiah. The follower of Messiah obeys God’s commandments from the heart, because he wants to obey. New covenant obedience, for those who understand the new covenant, is not the result of external pressure or threats of punishment. We obey our heavenly Father’s commandments because we trust Him and we love Him. We know that He is wiser than we are. We know that He knows what is best for us. Even if we do not understand the reason for some of His commandments, we trust that He has a good reason for every Thou Shalt and every Thou Shalt Not, even when we do not see the reason. We show our trust in Him and express our love for Him by obeying His commandments. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3).
If God’s commandments seem grievous to you, then you probably do not understand the new covenant and you probably do not understand Pentecost, because this is an important part of Pentecost.
For many Christians, especially Pentecostal Christians, Pentecost is about being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in unknown tongues. This is indeed a wonderful experience. I was filled with the Holy Spirit in the early 1970s, and I still pray in tongues every day. I don’t think a day has gone by in the past 40-plus years when I have not spent some time praying in tongues. But as wonderful as this is, it is not the only thing that Pentecost is all about. Yes, Pentecost is about letting the Holy Spirit flood you and fill you to overflowing. Yes, it is about letting the Holy Spirit give you utterance to speak in unknown tongues. But Pentecost is also about letting the Holy Spirit write the commandments of God’s Law on your heart. It is about surrendering your stubborn heart to the will of your heavenly Father.
So receive the Holy Spirit, receive utterance to speak in unknown tongues, then surrender your tongue and give voice to those utterances that the Holy Spirit puts in your mind. Then surrender your heart so your heavenly Father can write the commandments of His Torah in your mind, “not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3).
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Image (top): Moses, by Daniel Botkin from his Portraits of Prophets Gallery. See more of Daniel's work on his art website, danielbotkin.com