“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1).
Shavuot (it. “weeks”) is a God-ordained feast given to the nation Israel. This feast is given in Leviticus 23:9-21 and is comprised of the Feast of First Fruits (Lev. 23:10) followed by an interval of forty-nine days culminating on the day that is called Pentecost in our New Testament. It is also known as the “day of first fruits,” since its primary purpose was to bring into the Temple the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Unlike Passover and Tabernacles (Sukkot) that look back to a specific event in the history of the Jewish people, Shavuot is mainly a harvest festival with no memorial significance. It is perhaps for this reason that the rabbis have ascribed to Shavuot the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:1), and thus it is considered the birthday of Judaism.
The biblical observance of this feast began with the Feast of First Fruits: the waving of the sheaf (Omer) of the first fruits of the barley crop by the priest in the Temple (Lev. 23:10-11). After performing the required offerings (Lev. 23:13), the counting of the fifty days until Shavuot would begin. The Pharisaic position of exactly when the waving of the Omer should occur prevails to this day. The sheaf of the first fruits of the barley harvest is waved on the day following the Feast of Unleavened Bread, 16th Nissan. The Counting of the Omer therefore begins on that day and continues for forty-nine days, the fiftieth day being Shavuot itself. Therefore, Shavuot always falls on the sixth of Sivan and is observed outside of Israel on both the sixth and seventh of Sivan.
The Counting of the Omer also begins a period of partial mourning said to commemorate several tragedies that occurred during the Counting of the Omer. Begun around AD 500, this period of time is characterized by no weddings, no enjoying of music, and no cutting of hair. There is a story in which one famous rabbi, Rabbi Akiva (ca. 135 AD), is said to have lost over twenty-four thousand students to a plague that ended on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. For this reason, the mourning period ends on a partial holiday called Lag B’Omer (lit. “33rd of omer”), where the restrictions on weddings, music, and hair cutting are lifted.
As the counting continued, the people would prepare to travel to Jerusalem to bring their offerings. Although seven kinds of first fruits were accepted (Deut. 8:8), wheat was the foremost offering since Shavuot occurred at the time of the wheat harvest. Since this was the second of the three pilgrim feasts where all adult Jewish males had to present themselves in Jerusalem to the Lord (Ex. 23:14-15), thousands upon thousands of people would amass in the Holy City. As the people traveled up to Jerusalem, singing praises to God and rejoicing in His goodness, they brought their baskets filled with their offerings to the priests.
On the day of Shavuot, there was also performed the waving of the two loaves as God had prescribed in Leviticus 23:17-21. Unlike most meal offerings that were not to contain any leaven, God commanded that the two loaves be baked with leaven. The priests waved them on the day of Shavuot along with the required animal sacrifices.
Today the celebration of Shavuot has changed drastically. With no Temple, there can be no waving of the Omer, offering of neither the first fruits nor the waving of the two loaves. Today people decorate their homes and synagogues with flowers and greenery harkening back to the harvest purpose for this feast. The focus is placed upon the rabbinic declaration that on Shavuot the Law was given to Moses. Readings and prayers in the synagogue include the reading of the book of Ruth. Ruth is read because the story occurred around the time of the harvest and also because Ruth is seen as a great example of someone who voluntarily took upon herself the yoke of the Law. In addition, foods made from milk products are eaten—cheesecake, blintzes (cheese crepes), kreplach (triangle dumplings), and holiday loaves representing the two loaves waved and eaten in the Temple.
Prophetically, the Feast of First Fruits represents the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23). The prophetic fulfillment of the Feast of First Fruits occurred when the Lord Jesus arose from the dead. His resurrection ensures that all who are His will be also resurrected at the time of His glorious Second Coming.
The fulfillment of the Feast of Shavuot—the day of Pentecost—was the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:1 the phrase “was fully come” means to “fill completely” or fulfill. In 1 Cor. 12:13, Paul taught that only Spirit-baptized believers form the body of Christ, the church. Since the day of Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit came upon and indwelt believers for the first time, Pentecost is the day in which the church was born. Thus on the day of the fulfillment of Pentecost, both Jew and Gentile were joined into the body of Messiah by the Holy Spirit. How beautiful then is the picture of the two wave loaves found in the biblical celebration of Shavuot. Sinful—Jewish and Gentile people are wonderfully pictured. The loaves were baked with leaven. The church, composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers, contains sin. Finally, both loaves comprised one offering. Although composed of two different groups, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is united into one “new man” (Eph. 2:15).
The Jewish people regard Shavuot as the birthday of Judaism. Biblically, Shavuot is the birthday of the church. There is a fascinating parallel between these two events. Four thousand years ago, Moses went to Sinai, God descended, Judaism was born, and three thousand souls were killed (Ex. 32:28). Two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit descended, the church was born, and three thousand souls were saved (Acts 2:41). Paul wrote that the “letter (the law) killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
During Temple times, the Gentiles were prevented from going any further into the Temple compound by the “middle wall of partition,” called the ballistrade, which separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of Women. To do so would mean instant death! With the fulfillment of Shavuot and the birthing of the church, this ballistrade was broken down and removed forever so Jews and Gentiles together have equal access to God.
“But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:13-18).