Thursday, May 28, 2009

Josephus' history of Pentecost

There is a meaning to Pentecost that is highly important in the history of biblical peoples, whether they lived in the Old or New Testament periods.

The apostle Paul made it clear that no New Testament believer needs to celebrate the actual Old Testament feasts given to ancient Israel. All of the ritualistic holydays, new moons, sabbaths, food laws, etc. have been nailed to the cross and there is something better for those who follow the Christian faith. The present emphasis (since the death of Christ) has been the spiritual factors of biblical belief, not the outward and ceremonial.

This does not mean, however, that the typical and symbolic teachings found within the Old Testament rituals should be cast aside. They are “shadows of things to come” (Col. 2:17).

Pentecost is a festival that has particular interest in regard to the origins of Christianity (as well as the Old Testament church).

The Bible awards this holyday with three distinct titles: 1) the feast of harvest (firstfruits) 2) the feast of weeks 3) the day of Pentecost. The basic idea of Pentecost centered on the celebration of the beginning grain harvest of the land. It seems possible, and Jewish tradition affirms, that Israel was gathered around Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and other laws on the day of Pentecost. This is the time when the Old Testament church (Acts 7:38) had its beginning. Also, the church which Christ raised up right after His resurrection was born on the same day (Acts 2:1). These were not accidental occurrences.

It may come as a surprise to realize that the public ministry of Jesus (in its official capacity) commenced also on Pentecost (Luke 4:16). Also Pentecost is used to describe the start of the Christian Gospel in Galatia (Acts 13:14) and on the continent of Europe (Acts 16:13).

But each new beginning also has an end to something. The first Pentecost was to the Israelites the official termination of their Egyptian slavery. With Christ’s preaching in Galilee it was the end of the old way of looking at the law. With Pentecost some 50 days after Christ’s resurrection, it was the end of the Old Covenant dispensation for those who accepted the call of Christianity.

And on Pentecost of A.D. 66, something happened at the Temple of Jerusalem that made it clear to all thinking people that an old age had ended and a new one was then beginning. It refers to the time when God abandoned the Temple at Jerusalem. There were three miraculous events that occurred, starting just before Passover in A.D.66. In a step by step way the Jewish historian Josephus recorded how God abandoned the Temple and gave it up to destruction by the Romans. That particular Passover was not only the last one to be celebrated before the outbreak of the Roman/Jewish War, but it was known in Jewish history as the Passover that saw more people attending the feast in Jerusalem than at any other time in history. For many generations later the Jews called it “The Passover of the Great Throngs”. The major signs that I am about to mention occurred when there were more people to witness them than at any other time. The miraculous signs of A.D. 66 started just before Passover and ended when God left the Temple on Pentecost day. This was just a few months before the major Roman/Jewish War broke out that culminated in the burning of the Temple in A.D. 70.

The first incident is recorded by Josephus as follows:

“Before the revolt and the disturbances which led to the war, at the time when the people were gathering for the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth of the month Nisan, at the ninth hour of the night [3 o’clock in the morning), so brilliant a light shone around the altar and the inner temple that it seemed to be broad daylight; and this continued for the space of half an hour. By the novices this was regarded as a good omen, but by the sacred scribes it was at once interpreted in accord with the events which happened afterwards” (War,VI.290).

After 30 minutes which had the brilliance of daylight, the light then removed itself from the site of the Temple! This was the departure of the shekinah glory of God - the light that had been present throughout the whole period of the wilderness journeys of Israel. But there was one problem with the situation of this Temple. It was no longer a portable Tabernacle! When God left, this meant that the Temple was being abandoned leaving behind an “empty dwelling place” of God.

Let‘s now see the second of these miraculous signs. Josephus said it was equally spectacular:

“At that same feast, the eastern gate of the inner court at the sixth hour of the night [at midnight] opened of its own accord. This gate was of brass and very large and heavy, seeing that when it was closed each evening it took twenty men to shut it. It had bolts sunk to a great depth into a threshold made of a solid block of stone. ... This again to the uninitiated seemed like the best of signs, as they thought that God had opened to them the gate of blessings; but the wise understood that the security of the Temple was leaving of its own accord and that the opening of the gate showed it was a gift to the enemy” (War,VI.293-295)

Within a week after the great light of the shekinah glory was illuminated and “taken up”, we now find the massive gate being opened up of its own accord. The Temple was thrown open for destruction.

The final miraculous sign was even more to the point and occurred precisely on Pentecost day. It was revealed to the combined body of 24 priests who represented the Aaronic priesthood. Here is Josephus’ description of this event:

“Moreover, at the festival which is called Pentecost, the priests on entering the inner court of the Temple at nightfall, as their custom was in the accomplishment of their ministrations, stated that they first became aware of a commotion and a roar, and after that the voice of a great multitude saying ‘We are departing hence” (War,VI,299).

This was interpreted as the time that the Deity Himself was then leaving the Temple as the two previous signs had shown He would. (The fact that the supernatural voice said “We” rather than the singular “I” was no problem to first century Jews. They were well aware of the uniplural “Elohim” used in Genesis for God.)

Remarkably, Jewish records show that when God’s shekinah glory departed the Temple, it remained over the Mount of Olives for three and a half years. During those years, a voice was periodically heard coming from the region of the Mount of Olives pleading for the Jews to repent of their ways. The Jews failed to heed this warning from the voice, and the shekinah glory light left the earth and retreated back to heaven just before the final siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.

So we see that in all occasions where Pentecost is used in the biblical revelation, there is a divine significance associated with the day which is very instructive to students of the Bible.

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