Allow me to echo the sentiments Ari expressed in thanking you, our family and friends who have come to honor him today. You have given of yourselves and your time to be with us, and time is irreplaceable, so again, we appreciate it very much!
I think it appropriate and not at all coincidental that Ari’s Bar Mitzvah falls on Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks, better known as Pentecost. It is a very significant and unique festival but little understood and often overlooked; which is why many people are weak on the Feast of Weeks.
I. Background on Shavuot:
- Called “weeks” because it falls 7 weeks and 1 day after the Shabbat of Passover
- Also called Atzeret shel Pesach (“completion of Passover”)
- A harvest festival – wheat harvest
- Israel to bring the first fruits of their wheat crop to the Lord (show gratitude)
- One of the 3 mandatory pilgrimage feasts for all Israeli men
- Today religious Jews study Torah late into the night, celebrating the giving of the Torah, which the rabbis determined to have taken place at Shavuot
The Feast of Shavuot holds something very precious for Jew and Gentile alike, and as you’ve already noticed, ours is a family that has both Jewish and Greek roots. It was 25 years ago in March that I first came to understand and believe that Yeshua, Jesus, is the promised Messiah. It’s been quite a ride! I have been questioned more than a few times as to whether our (so-called) mixed marriage and my faith in Yeshua will prove a liability for our children. Skeptics ask me, “How can you believe in Jesus if you’re Jewish? Jews don’t believe in Jesus. And what about your children – aren’t they going to be confused?” I respond, “Actually, my children have great clarity. Does it confuse you?” “Yes!” “Well,” I reply, “the reason I and my children have no trouble making this connection is because we regularly read the Bible. By the grace of God my children have something real and something historically verifiable as the basis for their beliefs. They have acquired a working knowledge of the Scriptures – a reasoned approach.
And what do we find between the covers of this most extraordinary and unique Book in all of human history? We find that God intended all along for human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, to come together! I believe that is one of the major themes of Shavuot! You know what else we find as we journey through the history recorded in this Book? We find our own very checkered past. One of the things I appreciate most about the Scriptures is that nothing is whitewashed. In contrast to much of ancient mythology, details are not exaggerated, nor are virtues overstated. Even the heroes of the faith have their flaws presented with startling candor.
Ari did a very good job of describing the birth of this new nation – Israel, and that from almost the very beginning our people couldn’t seem to get it right. As stated earlier the rabbis teach that the giving of the Torah at Sinai took place at Shavuot. It makes sense, since Passover marked the time of the Exodus from Egypt. It was a short time later that we arrived at Sinai, set up camp and Moses ascended the mountain and received the tablets of the Law. Let’s compare and contrast two particular Shavuot events…
II. A Shavuot Leading to Death and a Shavuot Leading to Life
So what did Moses find 40 days later upon his return? He found the tribes of Israel rallying around a golden calf, offering it sacrifices and holding an orgy in its honor! It was appalling and it was humiliating. The surrounding nations got word of it and the biblical narrative says that for a short time we became a laughingstock (Exodus 32:25). When Moses drew the line in the sand and said, “Whoever is for Adonai come to me,” did you know that only the tribe of Levi responded? Only one tribe out of twelve was faithful! That should teach us adults that the majority never, ever makes something right. That should teach our teens that it is no excuse to say it’s what everyone else was doing. When the crowd is going in the wrong direction, you break from the crowd, period!
Three thousand men – the leaders of that rebellion, had to be put to death that day. That was a Shavuot filled with sadness! Nevertheless, it was a very real part of our history, something not to be forgotten, but rather to serve as a lesson for the generations to come – a good, bad example.
By contrast, on another Shavuot almost 1,500 years later something wonderful happened, though at the time I doubt anybody expected anything good at all. You see, it was the Shavuot following the Passover at which Yeshua had been put to death.
In the time of the first century, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of permanent residents of Judea, hundreds of thousands more Jewish people would typically make the required pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover, and remain there until Shavuot, swelling the population of the city to more than twice its normal number. You see, Jewish people at that time had long been scattered across the Earth – as far west as Europe, as far south as Egypt and eastward throughout Mesopotamia. It made a whole lot more sense to stay the 7 weeks between Passover and Shavuot (both being mandatory feasts for Jewish men) than to have to shlep possibly hundreds of miles on foot or by animal each way, taking perhaps weeks to get to the Holy City and weeks to get back home, only to have to turn right around and make the trip again. For that reason, most Jewish people living in other lands remained with their families or friends in Jerusalem for the whole season, returning to their various countries of residence after Shavuot.
As this particular Shavuot, or Pentecost, drew near, things certainly must have been quite different. There would have been a lot of buzz going around about this Yeshua who had claimed to be the Messiah, and who was put to death on the eve of Passover. There was also quite a stir, because His talmidim, (disciples), were saying that He had risen from the dead. There would also have been a lot of tension, because the same religious authorities that had orchestrated Yeshua’s death were now on the lookout for His followers and their sympathizers, and so for the past forty or so days the disciples had likely been keeping a low profile. But they were not the only ones who witnessed these events, so you can imagine that during this festival there was an entire substratum of hushed speculation.
Acts chapter two opens this way: When the day of Shavuot had arrived, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other languages as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and they were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language (Acts 2:1-6).
You had Jews from as far away as Persia and Asia Minor, Egypt and Rome all gathered in Jerusalem, as required of them, for Shavuot. What should they see but a bunch of Galileans – followers of Yeshua, preaching the Gospel in the languages of Persia and the provinces of Asia and Egypt and Rome! It was astonishing! So much so that when Peter got up to proclaim that the Messiah had come and that it was Yeshua, and that He had risen from the dead, people listened, and this is what happened:
Now when they had heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent and let each of you be immersed in the name of Yeshua the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit… and with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls (Acts 2:37-38, 40-41).
What an amazing contrast. At the giving of the Torah at Israel’s first Shavuot 3,000 men in rebellion died. At the giving of the Holy Spirit at Israel’s first post-resurrection Shavuot, 3,000 men in repentance came alive! The Torah is beautiful, but the Torah could not give eternal life, because of our inevitable failure to meet its demands on account of our sinful propensity. We have enough trouble even with the Ten Commandments, let alone 613. But what the Torah could not do, the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, is able to do – regenerate the human spirit and give us eternal life.
Consider for a moment all that the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish by the many biblical symbols used to portray Him. The Holy Spirit is likened to fire, because fire purifies and the Holy Spirit dwelling within the life of the believer enables him or her to overcome the ever-present temptation to sin in one way or another. Fire separates precious metals from the dross that is mixed in with them. The Holy Spirit does a work of purifying us so that those aspects of our lives that are displeasing to the Father are gradually burned up and only what is good and right and pure remains.
The Holy Spirit is likened to oil, because a lamp without oil will quickly go out and its wick burn up. We need to be being filled with the Holy Spirit, because we can only go so long on our own strength and by our own wits before we come to their end.
The Holy Spirit is described alternately as a Parakletos – an Advocate; as a seal, an imprint – securing our place in God; as a pledge – someone given as a down-payment, a guarantee on all the heavenly glories that await us. He has been likened to the wind, because while the wind is invisible, you see its effects dramatically. So it is with those who have entered the New Covenant made by Yeshua. They receive the Holy Spirit, and while the process itself is invisible, the effects wrought by the Holy Spirit are noticed by others. When people see change in you, they wonder how it came about. It is God at work within you by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit has been likened to water. Water is essential to life; without it you cannot survive long. Even the most lush, fertile land deprived of water for more than a season or two quickly turns to desert. The ancient Jewish prophet Zechariah wrote, “’Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). Even the most talented person will not succeed long relying solely on their own talent; the strongest among us will miss out on the best of life if they rely on themselves and ignore God.
III. Shavuot: Bringing Jew and Gentile Together
But I told you at the outset that I believe a central theme of Shavuot to be the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles in the Messiah. There are two more things that took place on Shavuot – rituals that were performed by Israel’s High Priest; two wave offerings.
On Shavuot the High Priest waved two loaves of baked bread before God. This particular wave offering was unique in all of the Torah. Why? It is unique because the two loaves were baked with leaven, whereas leaven was, in every other respect, prohibited from inclusion in any offerings. Leaven, in biblical imagery, is symbolic of sin. As yeast causes bread to rise and puff up, sin causes us to become puffed up with pride. Adonai did not want a symbol of sin to be part of Israel’s offerings –with this one exception.
I believe we should see it in contrast to the wave offering on the feast of First Fruits during Passover week. During First Fruits, which fell on the third day of Passover, the High Priest would wave a single loaf of unleavened bread before God. The absence of leaven may be equated with the absence of sin, and that is descriptive of Messiah – the One, unique, sinless Son of God. Its being lifted up and waved on the 3rd day of Passover may be equated with the Yeshua’s resurrection on the 3rd day.
But fifty days later, the High Priest waves two loaves, and these have leaven. Messiah was sinless; we are not. And why two loaves? I believe they represent the bringing together of Jew and Gentile – the two groups into which humanity is divided, as one.
But there’s more. On Shavuot the High Priest also waved two lambs before the Lord. Lambs as sacrificial offerings were very common, so why is this exceptional? It is unique in all the Scriptures as the only wave offering of two lambs. I believe the lifting up and waving of two lambs before Adonai is symbolic of two flocks – a picture of Jew and Gentile coming together. But I am not alone in that opinion. Listen to what Yeshua had to say about sheep and shepherds:
I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd (John 10:14-16).
IV. The Book of Ruth – More Evidence for the Unity of Jew and Gentile
But wait, there’s even more! Let me ask you a question: What are you going to do when you get home this afternoon? Rest, of course (it’s Shabbat)! But I think you should also definitely read the Book of Ruth. I say this because one of the long-standing traditions among the Jewish people on Shavuot is to read the Book of Ruth. It is appropriate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the story of Ruth is woven around harvest.
Now the story of Ruth has something for everybody. It’s a tragedy, it’s a love story, it has adventure, suspense, … a genealogy! A genealogy? Who cares about a genealogy? You should! Or perhaps you didn’t know that the end of the story has Ruth and Boaz giving birth to a son named Obed, who gives them a grandson named Jesse and a great-grandson named David – as in King David! Ruth is an ancestor of the great king of Israel!
So what’s the big deal? Ruth wasn’t Jewish. In fact, not only was she not from Israel, but she was from a nation considered one of Israel’s worst enemies – the Moabites! How does King David wind up with a complete foreigner in his ancestry? You’ll have to read it to find out, but the beautiful discoveries you’ll make along the way will make it more than worth your while. But listen to her immortal words, spoken to her mother-in-law Naomi,
“Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).
This is yet one more way that God was showing us His heart – that through faith in Him and ultimately in Messiah Yeshua, people from every nation, language and people group might come together in genuine love and in a common faith. This is what Rabbi Paul wrote about in his letter to the believers in Rome. We, Jews and Gentiles, when united in faith in Messiah, are like an olive tree that has both natural and wild olives grafted in. Just as we are incomplete without Yeshua in our lives, we are incomplete without one another. To this magnificent olive tree the natural branches bring a long and abiding culture, maturity and wisdom, and the wild branches bring life and vitality, color and flavor and strength.
To be sure, there are many people, and all too many professional clergy, who bristle at the idea of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together. Some have a vested interest in maintaining the divide. But it’s an artificial divide, and the truth of it is that they are fighting against God, who from of ancient times revealed His greater calling for mankind. Let me close with these powerful words, uttered by the ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people.” Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. “Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath and holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:3-8).
So if God intends Heaven to be filled with people from every walk of life, let’s practice it now. Consider this, your life, a dress rehearsal. Remember Shavuot, and the message it holds for those “with ears to hear”.