Happy Pentecost! Most Christians think of Pentecost as the story of the early church in Acts 2, which many churches will commemorate this Sunday, May 19. But as mentioned in our Jewish Facts of Life last month, the Festival of Pentecost goes all the way back to the Law of Moses.*
And while some church traditions delve more deeply into the particulars of that first Pentecost Sunday than others, many people don’t realize that the signs and wonders most often associated with the “Pentecost experience” of Acts 2 were not so much the main event as they were God’s special effects. Those effects were to signal the importance of what was happening then (the birth of the church), and its connection to the very first Pentecost back at Mount Sinai.
I love special effects, and God’s special effects trump those of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg any day. The Acts 2 special effects help unpack a sophisticated plot that God has woven into many scenes throughout the course of sacred history. The signs at Pentecost pointed to past events to help us understand God’s future plans. In particular, they point back to the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. While a connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Law is not overtly stated in the Hebrew Scriptures, Acts 2 certainly seems to verify that traditional Jewish belief.
If you ever decide to become a filmmaker, take a lesson from Cecil B. DeMille and don’t try to recreate the Bible scene where God gave the Law from Mount Sinai. DeMille didn’t even come close, nor did Roma Downey and Mark Burnett! Exodus 20 says the entire nation of Israel was in mortal fear over the smoking mountain with all the thunder and trumpet sounds. Many descriptions beyond what we read in Exodus 20 survived and shed further light on that experience.
We are told that a sound from heaven, like that of a ram’s horn or trumpet, increased in volume so that it was inescapably loud. I don’t know if it is fair to compare the sound of the ram’s horn to the sound “as of a rushing mighty wind.” But whatever the sound was, it was startling to begin with and grew till it was practically unbearable. Have you ever been jolted in surprise by a loud noise that continued growing louder and louder? Whether it sounds like a howling wind or the pulsing crescendo from the blast of a ram’s horn, you actually feel it throughout your entire body, vibrating even inside your head. I have been told that the mighty rushing wind of a tornado sounds very much like a freight train roaring past.
When the Apostle John attempted to describe the voice of the Lord Jesus in his vision, he said it was “as the sound of many waters,” maybe like standing under Niagara Falls. We don’t know if that is what the children of Israel heard coming from Mount Sinai. But the overwhelming intrusion of the sound they heard and felt meant one thing: revelation. God was speaking. And so it was at Mount Sinai.
Along with the sound came a stunning visual display that would make Macy’s July 4th fireworks look like a child’s sparkler. Exodus 19:18 tells us that the Lord descended in fire on the mountain, but other Jewish sources provide additional imagery. An ancient manuscript called a Targum, found in a library in Egypt, states:
“The first commandment, when it left the mouth of the Holy One … as meteors and lightning and as torches of fire; a fiery torch to its right and a fiery torch to its left, which burst forth and flew in the air of the heavenly expanse; it proceeded to circle around the camp of Israel.”
Philo, a Jewish philosopher from the 1st century A.D., wrote,
“from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them” (On the Decalogue 46).
The Midrash (an ancient rabbinic commentary) on Exodus amplified the Bible’s description by stating:
“the glory of God descended upon the heads of the Israelites as divine diadems when they received the Torah at Sinai.”
In another Midrash on the giving of the Law there is an emphasis that sounds very similar to this description of each hearing the word in their own tongue:
“And all the people saw the thunderings. They saw what was visible and heard what was audible and these are the words of Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiva says. They heard and saw that which is visible. They saw the fiery word coming out from the mouth of the Almighty as it struck upon the tablets. As it is said, the voice of the Lord hewed out flames of fire (Psalms 29:7). But how many thunderings were there and how many lightnings were there? It is simply this. They were heard by each man according to his capacity. As it is said, the voice of the Lord was heard according to the strength or power (Psalms 29:4). Not with his power, but with power, the power of each individual, even pregnant women to his strength.”
We cannot know if the extra-biblical descriptions are exactly accurate, but they do seem to be in keeping with the biblical account in Exodus. They also seem to fit with the poetic reflections of King David:
“The voice of the LORD divides the flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness” (Psalms 29:7-8).
Clearly God used His special effects at Sinai to grab the attention of the children of Israel; the giving of His law became a defining moment the people have not forgotten. The descriptions and traditions mentioned above certainly would have been known to the 120 disciples in the upper room, and to all those in Jerusalem that day.
Therefore, when the disciples heard the sound from heaven, it would have been natural to make the connection back to Exodus. And then divided tongues, as of fire, sat on each of them. According to Acts 1:15 we know there were at least 120 divided tongues that day and that is a lot of flame—more like a conflagration. Can you imagine it?
So when we speak of Pentecost let’s remember that God was doing something very special in the history of Israel the first time, and in the birth of the church in Acts 2. He was marking out something for us to pay attention to. God gave the Law to teach Israel what it means to be the community of God. But just as Jesus promised, His very Spirit came to empower His followers to bring the gospel far and wide, expanding the community of God to include Jews and Gentiles from all nations.
Let’s respond to Him and celebrate our Super-duper-supernatural God. Let’s rejoice in the power of God to remind us of His sovereignty and celebrate the great plan of God that has yet to be finally consummated on the earth. No doubt, more of His great special effects are on the way, in the not too distant future!
*More information on Pentecost is found in the book “Christ in the Feast of Pentecost” that I wrote with Rich Robinson. This article is adapted from that book.
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