What is Pentecost and Its Significance?

By Kurt Selles

May 17, 2021

What is Pentecost?

Today, when people think of Pentecost they usually think of the Christian holiday that occurs in late spring. But have you ever wondered where the name “Pentecost” comes from? The name itself comes from the Greek root word for “five,” penta, which means “fiftieth.” Although it’s traditionally thought of as a strictly Christian holiday or high-point in the Christian liturgical year, Pentecost has its roots in Judaism. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel celebrated the “Festival of Weeks” exactly fifty days (seven weeks and one day) after Passover, their most important religious festival of the year.

Essentially, the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot, was a harvest festival. In Israel, grain was harvested twice annually: wheat in the spring and the rest of the harvest in the fall. With the spring harvest, the Hebrews celebrated the Festival of Weeks. Although the Festival of Weeks did not have quite the same level of importance as Passover, it was, nevertheless, a time of joy and celebration. Work ceased and pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem carrying with them the first sheaves of the wheat harvest for an offering to celebrate God’s provision of food.

In the early chapters of the book of Acts, the celebration of Pentecost takes a distinctly Christian turn. We read about the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, where we find Jesus’ disciples and 120 other of his followers, including his mother, Mary, along with some of his brothers, all huddled in an upstairs room in Jerusalem. They are hiding out for fear of local religious authorities, but they’re also waiting for something that Jesus, their beloved teacher and leader, has promised them, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Suddenly, a sound like a violent wind fills the room where the disciples are hunkered down and tongues of fire seem strangely to hover over their heads. Even stranger, those gathered in the room miraculously begin to speak in the languages of the wide variety of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks. Some of these pilgrims, seeing this strange sight, ask, “Are these scruffy fishermen drunk?” Then the Apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, rejects the explanation of drunkenness for this miraculous event and preaches one of the most powerful and important sermons in the entire New Testament.

Peter points to the prophet Joel’s words in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-32) promising an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all of God’s people, which fulfills a promise that Jesus had made. This Jesus, whom you crucified, Peter informs the crowd, is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s promised Savior who conquered sin and death. When the crowd hears Peter’s piercing words, many are “cut to the heart,” and ask, “What should we do?” Peter calls on them to repent and believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Many in the crowd do, and three thousand are baptized on Pentecost.

What is the significance of Pentecost?

In short, Pentecost, though originally a Hebrew religious festival, is a watershed moment in God’s plan of salvation. For all who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, the following are three hugely significant and timeless truths of Pentecost.

  • Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit reminds and assures us that Jesus keeps his promises. Now, when old and young, women and men, and people from every other race and ethnicity, as well as every walk of life, claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they receive new life through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus and assures us deep in our hearts that we belong to God and that nothing will ever separate us from his love.
  • Pentecost also marks the birthday of the church. In the Old Testament, God’s people consisted only of Israel. Pentecost heals the divisions and animosity of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), where because of pride and arrogance, people were divided by language and race. At Pentecost, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, people from every tongue, race, and nation are brought together in Jesus Christ. God has reconciled us individually to himself through his son Jesus, and through him we have been made one body in the church.
  • Finally, Pentecost reminds us of the church’s primary purpose: to share the love of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Throughout the remaining chapters of the book of Acts, we see the Apostles and all of Jesus’ followers continue his mission to proclaim God’s love. Significantly, Acts’ open-ended conclusion clearly indicates the church’s mission to proclaim the gospel is to continue until Jesus comes again. When the church shares the love of Jesus in word and deed, it carries out God’s purpose and plan to redeem and restore our fallen world.

About the author — Kurt Selles

Kurt Selles is the director of ReFrame Ministries and serves as the Executive Editor of Today. He is a graduate of Calvin College and Seminary, and received his PhD from Vanderbilt University. Before coming to ReFrame, he served 19 years in Taiwan and China with CRC World Missions. Kurt later taught missions at Beeson Divinity School, where he also acted as the director of the school’s Global Center. Kurt and his wife, Vicki, reside in Grand Rapids and have three adult children.

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