Shavuot: Festival of Grace

Tomorrow evening (May 23, 2015) begins the Jewish feast of Shavuot, which means “weeks”, commonly known in Christian circles as Pentecost. It is the only one of the three major Torah festivals that is not explicitly connected to a historical event. Pesach (English: Passover) commemorates the exodus from Egypt, and Sukkot (English: Booths) commemorates Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. While there is no event explicitly connected with Shavuot, the timing of the festival does mark the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments in particular. And so Shavuot became the time the people of Israel would especially remember the gift of his revelation to them.

Readers of the New Testament know Pentecost as the time of another of God’s gifts. For it was during its festivities that the earliest of Yeshua followers in Jerusalem experienced the outpouring of God’s Spirit in fulfillment of the promise given through the Hebrew prophet Joel hundreds of years before (see Joel 2 and Acts 2). The purpose of the Spirit’s coming had been explained to the apostles about a week earlier just prior to Yeshua’s return to heaven, when he said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). A key function of the Holy Spirit therefore was to give Yeshua’s followers the ability to effectively testify on his behalf.

We don’t have time or space here to get into an extensive study of the Holy Spirit, but his role in empowering believers is central to his relationship to us. He empowers us to not only effectively explain to others what Yeshua did on our behalf, but he also imparts God’s holiness to us, resulting in godly living, and guides us in very practical ways. In other words, it is by the Spirit we are able to be the people God wants us to be.

This could be why the Holy Spirit was poured out at Shavuot. On the day commemorating the giving of God’s word, God saw fit to impart the ability to live by it. Prior to that extraordinary day, God’s ways were beyond human capacity to fulfill, the result being condemnation. But Yeshua’s sacrifice and his resurrection laid a foundation where we can be fully accepted by God through the forgiveness of sins. This then cleared the way for the Holy Spirit to be imparted to us and equip us to truly live as children of God.

This God-initiated, God-imparted empowerment is what the New Testament calls “grace.” I know this may not be how you are used to using this word, since most often grace is defined as “unmerited favor.” It certainly is unmerited, but by limiting it to favor alone gives the impression that it only has to do with God’s acceptance. This understanding of grace divorces the work of God in our lives from his work throughout our lives. Grace is not simply about God’s acceptance, it is the New Testament’s way of expressing God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people. Whether it is God’s saving us, providing for us, leading us, or using us – all this is based on God’s power – his grace – not on ourselves or our ability.

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