“Pentecost” means something entirely different to us than it did to those waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come. We, of course, will always associate it with that momentous occasion. But before then Pentecost was still a high holiday on the Jewish calendar. To understand it as the waiting apostles did, we must return to the time of Moses and the giving of the Law.
When God led Israel out of Egypt and brought her to Mount Sinai to teach them His ways, He established some very special annual events. God was preparing Israel to enter the Promised Land, where they would spread out over a fairly large area. To keep them from just diffusing into the pagan cultures around them, God expected them to travel back from wherever they took up residence to wherever the Tabernacle was located. They were to worship Him there and only there. In Exodus 23:14-17 God told them,
Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread was to remind them that they had left Egypt in such a hurry that they had no time to let bread dough rise. (Of course, it has much deeper significance in Jewish and Christian ceremony, but that is beside the point at the moment.) A striking event had marked their ejection from Egypt on the previous night — the Angel of Death had moved silently through Egypt and killed all of the firstborn… except, of course, firstborn sheltered in homes that had the blood of a lamb painted around the doorway. Those homes were passed over, marking the first Passover. So Passover marks the opening day of the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was celebrated on the 14th day of the month Nisan, the first month in the Jewish calendar (roughly equivalent of Easter, occurring variably in March or April, and celebrated by Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room.) The use of the name Abib for the month of Nisan is a reference to the harvesting of winter barley. This expression, ‘in the month Abib’, would be equivalent to calling our month of March ”during the windy month”.
The next feast, the Feast of Harvest, was to be counted off on the calendar from the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (called the Feast of First Fruits, a feast within a feast) fifty days. This new feast day became known as the Feast of Weeks, or, because of the number 50, Pentecost.
The final feast, the Feast of the Ingathering, corresponds roughly in both timing and purpose with our celebration of Thanksgiving. In the Hebrew holidays, however, it also marks the Day of Atonement when the sins of the nation are remitted by the High Priest. (Too bad we don’t also celebrate that aspect of what to be thankful for…) But it is the first two feasts that we are interested in.
Jesus “ate the Passover” (Luke 22:15) with His disciples in the Upper Room, beginning the Feast of Unleavened Bread with them. Before the Feast of Unleavened Bread was completed, Jesus had been tried, crucified, buried, and raised again! As we learned in Acts 1:3, he appeared to the disciples and others over a period of forty days, and then ascended. His instructions were to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came as He had promised. The very first verse in Chapter 2 of Acts tells us that He arrived precisely fifty days after Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples, since He arrived on the day of Pentecost. Mark this well — Pentecost is not so called because that is the day the Holy Spirit came! He came on an already-named holiday! (This is kind of like the ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ question. In this case, Pentecost came first.) I hope you can appreciate how carefully God orchestrated the events of the days we are studying, by using days in the Jewish calendar that were already long-established, which made these events particularly meaningful to Jews. What are the odds that these important events could have randomly fallen on such siginificant days to the Jews or not fallen on important gentile holidays instead?
Any devout Jew, whether genetically Jewish or a proselyte, took God’s law very seriously. Just as Muslims today make pilgrimages at great expense to Mecca from all over the world, so did the Jews of Luke’s day. Travel in those days was slow and often dangerous. One didn’t just hop a plane to Jerusalem. If you were bringing along wealth, you had to organize a small army to escort you through bandit-infested areas. Once you had arrived at your destination, you wouldn’t want to return home after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, only to return again in six weeks — especially if the trip took three weeks each way! If you had the means to appear in Jerusalem before your God three times a year as required, you also had the means to retain lodging in Jerusalem until the Feast of the Harvest six weeks later. We could expect many followers of Judaism from many foreign countries to be present in Jerusalem for the entire seven or eight weeks. Others who could not stay the entire eight weeks certainly wouldn’t stay for less that two weeks because the efforts to get there and get home again were so significant. This is the scenario I believe Luke describes in the second chapter, in fact an uncannily accurate description of the state of the diaspora who were wealthy enough to go on annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If Luke is describing the daspora and only the diaspora here, then the events here must concern Israel and not the Age of Grace still hidden in God as a mystery.
The alternative view is that the participants in the story of Pentecost were a random mixture of Jews and gentiles who just happened to be living in Jerusalem, much like the populace of Corinth. For those of us who still think of the United States as the great melting pot, it’s hard to not impose this impression unthinkingly upon Jerusalem in Luke’s day. Such an unrecognized presumption fits conveniently with the notion that the church was Christ’s Kindom in the Hearts of Men, begun on this auspicious occasion. But this is sloppy thinking and even sloppier historical research. Jerusalem was not a “melting pot”, it was a world religious center, specifically the center of Judaism. In fact, the Roman occupational force thought of being posted to Palestine like being sent to the Russian Front. While there certainly were gentiles living in Jerusalem, they would have taken little if any notice of these events because they were religiously uninterested. But the men from every nation under heaven that Luke describes were devout, meaning they were highly interested specifically in the religion of Judaism. What better stage could God have prepared for this event? And the focus of these events could not have been more Israel-centric.
We say that we believe that the Word of God is divinely inspired and inerrant. Jesus said as much, right down to the last “jot and tittle” that will not pass away. As such, each individual word that Luke penned under the influence of the Holy Spirit should be exactly the word God intended to best communicate what really happened. If we are to be good students of the Word, and not ashamed as shoddy workmen, surely we must pay rapt attention to every word. So which of the two above scenarios does Luke describe in Chapter 2 of Acts? Be Berean — study, and then you decide!