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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Jesus Is the Answer


“Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’"

Acts 2:12

What does this mean? Of course, Peter gives them the answer. In verse 14, he says, ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say…’ The account of Acts 2 is really well known by Christians. It is full of the most wonderful meaning. I want us to consider some of the things from this chapter today. Also, I want to ponder the Jewish festival that was taking place on this day in question. I want us to look at that festival and ask the question, ‘What does this mean? Does it have any continuing relevance to God’s people, or is it just coincident to this story?

Firstly, though, I want us to look at the last part of Acts 1. There is an important principle, here, about how we handle Old Testament scripture. There is also something that I believe is important for us to clarify, as the Lord’s people now. A decision is reached about who will replace Judas, the betrayer, and now be counted as an ‘apostle’, in this emerging body of people. After Peter has spoken, two men are put forward; Joseph and Matthias. The group prays that the Lord will guide them to make the correct decision and ‘then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1:26).

So, there we have a principle for how this new body, the church, is to make decisions. Should I bring the message next Sunday, or should Tim? Heads or tails?! Actually, we know that this isn’t true. This isn’t current practice for Christ’s people. It is important for us to understand the place in time that this occurred. These were men who were fundamentally Jewish in their understanding. This practice belonged to their heritage. We do find it within the decision making of the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Under that old agreement between that people and Jehovah God, the casting of lots was practiced. But things have changed. Immediately after this incident in Acts 1, we move into Acts 2, and the account of the pouring out (v.17) of God’s Spirit. We have the beginning of what we might call the Spirit-baptised church. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 7:28), told people this about Jesus, and what he was going to do for those who followed him, ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ That’s exactly what happens in Acts 2. Jesus also told his disciples this, ‘when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). The people of God, now, have a new principle. With the guidance of God’s Spirit, and something that the New Testament makes so much of, called ‘faith’, the church is to act decisively.

Faith is very much the guiding principle in this New Covenant age. The Bible is made up of approximately 76% Old Testament and 24% New Testament. I know this because I weighed it yesterday. I have a bible that I bought for a pound. I cut it in two. The Old Testament weighed 263 grams, while the New weighed 83 grams. The Old Testament has so many more pages. But despite this fact, the word ‘faith’ only appears ten times in the Old Testament, in our NIV. But in the New Testament it appears 249 times. Taking into account the smaller size of this second part of God’s word, this means that we aren’t two times, or three times, more likely to find this word in the New Testament, compared to the Old, but nearly 79 times more likely! Faith, being a new principle reminds me of the AV’s rendering of 2 Corinthians 5:17 – ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.’

But there is something that Peter and the others did here, that the church should also do when we make decisions; we should pray (Acts 1:24). We should also consult the principles for Christian living found in the New Testament, and we should use whatever wisdom the Lord has given us. Then, we proceed in faith. We trust God. We believe that, whatever the outcome, he will work in all things for our eventual, everlasting, good (as Romans 8:28), and his own glory.

Also, there is another example which Peter gives here that is really important for us to follow now. Peter believes that these Old Testament scriptures have much to say about Jesus. He directs the group’s attention to Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8, and the writing there about betrayal. Both these poems were written by David. In the first instance David would have been considering the presence of betrayal that was occurring, then, in his own life. But Peter is drawing our attention to what he later writes in 2 Peter 1:21, about these Old Testament characters. He says, ‘but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit'.

This is a theme throughout the four gospel accounts. Matthew in particular uses the phrase, ‘for it is written’, particularly when recording the words of Jesus. Matthew quotes Old Testament writings over 60 times, to show how they are actually being fulfilled in the life and message of Jesus Christ. And, in John 5:29, Jesus says this about the Old Testament, ‘these are the very Scriptures that testify about me.’ This leads us into how I want us to briefly consider Acts 2 today.

Our first reading this morning was from Leviticus 23. In our NIV, that section containing verses 15 to 22, is titled, ‘The Festival of Weeks’. I’ll ask the same question as at the beginning – ‘What does this mean?’ There are two answers. This festival, or time of feasting, was connected to the harvest. That is why I chose, ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’, a hymn about harvest, as our first hymn. In fact, in Exodus 23:16 it is actually called, ‘the Festival of Harvest’. It is given a third name in Numbers 28:26. It is called the ‘day of firstfruits.’ This is not to be confused with the ‘Feast of Firstfruits’, which comes earlier in the year, within the Passover festival period. Why am I wanting us to suddenly consider this feast with three names; the Festival of Weeks – Festival of Harvest – Day of Firstfruits? Because in Acts 2, it is referred to by a fourth name – ‘Pentecost’.

The Jews call this ‘Shavuot’, which means ‘weeks.’ This is due to the way that they were to calculate the date upon which this festival day fell. Deuteronomy 16:9 has the calculation, as does Leviticus 23, which we read this morning. It starts with the Passover festival. The Israelites were to start a count from the day after the Sabbath Day that fell within that Passover period. The day after the Sabbath was called the ‘Feast of Firstfruits’, where the priest was to be given a sheaf of the first grain of the barley harvest, to present before the Lord as a wave offering. Barley comes to full fruit, earlier than wheat. The Israelites were to then harvest the whole crop of Barley, and during this time they were to ‘count seven full weeks’ (Leviticus 23:15), which took them to the end of barley harvest, to the start of the wheat harvest. That is a week of weeks, if you like – seven weeks of seven days, plus one day, because it started one day after that Sabbath. So, a question – What is 7 times 7 plus 1? 50! How many sides does a pentagon have? 5; because ‘pent’ refers to the number 5. And ‘Pentecost’ means ‘fiftieth’. The day of Pentecost was always 50 days on from the Sabbath following Passover. That is why this calculation is reiterated in Leviticus 23:16. ‘Count fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.’ This new grain, presented on the fiftieth day, the day of Pentecost; the day of first fruits, was the first cutting of a new harvest, the harvest of wheat.

So, that is what this Festival is. That is what it means. Or is it? I said that there were two ways to answer the question. If Peter is correct, in the way that he looks at Old Testament scripture; if Matthew is correct in the way that he sees the writings of Moses being fulfilled; if Jesus is correct in his claim, ‘these… testify about me’, then the answer to the question, ‘what is the Festival of Weeks about?’, is simple. The answer is Jesus. This festival powerfully illustrates truth about Jesus and his New Covenant people. The connection between it and Acts 2 is really striking, I think. So let’s consider them together.

What about the point in time in the Jewish annual calendar? The barley harvest had just finished and the wheat harvest was just about to begin. Can you see that in Acts chapter 2? Acts chapter 2 is all about the start of a new crop. Not a crop of barley or wheat, but the beginning of a new growth of people, as the church of Jesus Christ begins, as the Spirit, promised by Jesus, is ‘pour(ed) out’ (v.17). This theme of crops and harvest is found in the words of Jesus.

Last time, when we looked at Acts 1, I referred to this growth of Christ’s church as ‘kingdom expansion’, and quoted words of Jesus, found in Matthew 13:31-32, where he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…’ In the previous verses of that chapter (24-26), we are told, ‘Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.’ Jesus uses this verbal sketch to give us a picture of the world as it is. In his illustration the wheat and the weeds are growing side by side in the field. Jesus is saying that the ‘wheat’ represents his believing people. The ‘weeds’ represent those who don’t believe. They are living side by side. But a harvest time is coming when there will be an everlasting separation of the two.

In Acts 2, we see, essentially, two types of people, living side by side. Some of those people don’t believe the gospel message that Peter delivers. Some of them even, ‘made fun’ (v.13) of it. But others (v.41) ‘accepted his message.’ They were ‘added to (the) number’ of believers. When harvest time comes these people have an assured destiny. Jesus in his parable said this, ‘gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’

The Israelite Festival of Harvest was a celebration. It was a time when the Israelites were meant to wholeheartedly praise God for his provision of food. Who makes the ‘sun to rise… and sends rain’? Matthew 5:45 gives this answer to believers, ‘your Father in heaven’. Psalm 104, which begins with the exhortation to, ‘Praise the Lord, my soul’, tells us, about the Lord, ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth’ (v.14). But let’s consider another aspect of his awesome providence in Acts 2, through the previous writings of Moses.

There were three festivals a year where the Jewish men were commanded to assemble together. We find this command in Exodus 23:14 & 17, and Leviticus 23:2, calls these ‘appointed festivals’, ‘sacred assemblies’. Deuteronomy 16:9-12, goes further, dealing specifically with this Pentecost festival. It details where this assembling should happen; ‘at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name’. At the time of Acts 2, that was the temple in Jerusalem, and Deuteronomy gives this command to everyone, it seems. ‘Rejoice before the Lord your God… – you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you.’ Jerusalem would have been packed with people on the day that the Spirit arrived and prompted Peter to give one of the speeches of his life. It was heard by the biggest audience possible. What providence is that? This didn’t happen by chance. This was pre-planned and purposed by the one who we read of in Psalm 147:5. ‘Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.’

We should also examine what this crowd was required to bring. Leviticus 23:17 says, ‘From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of one fifth of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord.’ ‘Baked with yeast.’ This is quite extra-ordinary. There is only one other instance of bread with yeast being used in Israelite ceremony. That is in the commandments surrounding the fellowship, or peace, offering found in Leviticus 7:11-15. That bread was given as a provision for the priest and his household, and there is symbolism in that offering, that we don’t have time for today. In every other instance, the Jews were commanded to use ‘bread without yeast’, or ‘unleavened bread’. This goes back to the time of that nation’s mass exodus from slavery in Egypt. Then, the Israelites left so fast that they didn’t have time to prepare ‘bread with yeast’. The bread used in the Passover celebration was to be the usual, Jewish sacrificial, ‘unleavened’ type. Deuteronomy 16:3 commands them, ‘Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste…’ Unleavened bread is the most Jewish thing. Bread with yeast is, by contrast, the most un-Jewish thing.

Yet at Pentecost, God commands bread with yeast to be held forth by the arms of the priest. Why? I think it points to this moment in Acts 2, and the birth of the church of Jesus Christ. This was no longer going to be just a Jewish thing. As Jesus had predicted, in Acts 1:8, this message was going to be heard, not just ‘in Jerusalem’, but through into ‘all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

The priest, in following the commands of Leviticus, held forth that bread as an offering. When Peter stood up at Pentecost he held forth ‘the bread of life’ itself. Peter held out the message of Jesus, who had ‘declared’, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty' (John 6:35).

This was the ‘Day of Firstfruits’. It saw the firstfruits of the gospel message being realised. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to some of the early believers in the New Testament church. He told them this – ‘we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13) That’s Acts 2! How were those people saved, on that greatest of Pentecost days? All we need is thirteen words – ‘through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.’

It is that simple. The message of the gospel is so wonderful. What an example of just who can be saved is seen in Acts 2? The main spokesperson that day was Peter, a man who had, just a few weeks before, denied that he even knew Jesus, so scared was he in that moment that his Lord and Master was facing the unjust punishment of death by crucifixion. And look at the crowd that he was now addressing. These were people who had been baying for blood. They were culpable in the murder of God’s Son. After Peter has pointed out some more Old Testament writings as evidence, he finishes with what must have been, for those people, a terrible, terrifying conclusion. ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’ ‘When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:36-37).

What shall we do?’ The answer again lies in Leviticus 23. In verse 21 we find something else commanded about this day of celebration. It was to be given Sabbath status – ‘On that same day’, the Israelites were told to ‘not do any ordinary work.’ It was a day of rest. Work was not required. Work was forbidden. So it was, in the answer that Peter gave to that urgent, anxious question, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ I suspect that they must have thought there was no way out of this. They were so ‘far off’ from God in that moment. When you think of all the ritual and ceremony that the Israelites had to obey, under the terms of the Old Covenant, then, at the very least, these people must have expected to be given an enormous burden to endure, possibly for the rest of their lives. But, no, this was not a day for work. Peter tells them as much. There is nothing to ‘do’. Just repent and believe.

Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call’ (Acts 2:38-39).

The Festival of Weeks; Pentecost, as a meaningfully observed festival, is over. The message that Peter spoke, that day in Jerusalem, remains unchanged. The Old Testament pointed towards it. The New Testament announces it. It is summed up in probably the most well-known verse of this whole book. John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gavehis one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’


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