15 May A Most Unusual Shavuot
This year, Shavuot is from May 19th to 21st. God promised the Jewish people that their agricultural results would differ from that of all other nations. This promise to Israel was not like a doting celestial grandfather – the promise had requirements. To be blessed, we had to obey God. God himself was the provider and could give a harvest or allow a shortfall. If Israel obeyed, she found a full table. If she disobeyed, she found a shortfall at harvest time. Therefore, it was right to give the first of the crops back to him as a way of showing our gratitude. In fact, we couldn’t even eat from the produce until the first fruits had been dedicated to God.
Shavuot is described in Leviticus 23. The very name of the holiday, Shavuot, means “weeks,” coming as it does seven weeks after Passover, as the fiftieth day after the Sabbath that fell during Passover
There was a first-century event that occurred on this holiday. The writer of Acts describes the Jerusalem crowd on Shavuot: Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs. (Acts 2:5, 9-11)
In other words, Jews from the Diaspora as well as locals had gathered in Jerusalem. They came from as far away as what today would be Iran, Turkey and North Africa. Each spoke his own language.
According to the narrative, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in a home when a strange, wind-like sound filled the air. At the same time, an extraordinary thing happened. Tongues of fire appeared to lap at their heads, they “were filled with the Holy Spirit” and they began speaking in languages other than their own. This caused a crowd to gather, as Jewish people from different nations heard their own languages spoken. They were amazed that a group of Aramaic-speaking Galilean Jews could suddenly show such linguistic fluency. Others apparently thought that they were drunk, but one of the disciples, Peter, retorted that it was only nine in the morning, too early for the bars to be open! Then Peter addressed the crowd.
Peter described Jesus as a man unlike other men whose credentials included his miracles and wonders. Peter went on to say that most of the people didn’t accept him, and he was crucified. However, Peter pointed out that death was not the end of the story. He told the crowd that God raised Jesus from the dead, in contrast to King David who “is both dead and buried, and his tomb is here to this day.”
Resurrection and Shavuot
What does resurrection have to do with Shavuot? Peter quotes King David’s words in Psalm 16, when he spoke of a coming Messiah who would die and be raised to life. He rejoiced that he would not be relegated to Hades, nor would the Messiah see corruption. This was fulfilled, Peter explained, in the resurrection of Jesus, who was a descendant of David.
Resurrection at the end of time was not a new concept. The Bible spoke of it: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Jewish tradition spoke to it: In the time of Jesus, it was axiomatic among the Pharisaic Jewish groups that there was to be a coming resurrection.
So, on this Shavuot, not only was the rabbinic scenario of a word from God going forth in several different languages re-enacted, but that word spoke of the resurrection of Jesus!
Shavuot has been relegated to the status of a lesser-celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar, yet it is a festival that reminds us that God meets both our physical and our spiritual needs. As a harvest festival, it taught us to regard God’s gifts with gratitude, returning to him, in the form of first fruits, that which we received. For Jews of later generations, it instilled in us the knowledge that the Scriptures can nourish us spiritually.
For messianic Jews, Shavuot is all that and more. Like the Diaspora Jews gathered in Jerusalem on that first-century Shavuot, we have heard the message of Jesus in our own language in a way that we can comprehend. Several times Jesus had used the metaphor of a “harvest” to point to the end of time, when the final resurrection would occur. In keeping with this metaphor, one of his followers, Paul, referred to a resurrected Jesus as the “first fruits.” Just as agricultural first fruits are the token of the fuller harvest to come, Paul saw Jesus as the first example of those who would be resurrected later.