Fire on the Mountain: A Fresh Summons to Pentecost
The Festival of Shavuot is foundational to both Judaism and Christianity. Literally the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), it is the second and the longest of God’s three annual pilgrimage festivals––fifty days in duration, beginning (biblically) on the day after the weekly Sabbath after Pesach (Passover) and concluding on the very Day of Shavuot (Pentecost). For the Jewish people, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For Christians, it recalls the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the earliest church. Both of these foundational events occurred when supernatural fire appeared on the mountain of God. In reality, therefore, Shavuot is the tale of two mountains and the story of two parallel peoples, both of whom shared in a supernatural experience of relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth.
Listen to the Fire
In the case of Israel, the ancient nation that God chose because of his covenantal relationship with their patriarch Abraham, 600,000 men, plus women and children, stood before Mount Sinai. They had been delivered from the onerous slavery imposed upon them by Pharaonic Egypt, which, at that time, was the world’s most powerful kingdom. At long last, after decades of vile servitude, Pharaoh had ordered their release from slavery immediately after the ominous night of terror in which all of Egypt’s firstborn had perished while the Israelites escaped the plague by encircling the doors of their houses with the blood of the Passover lamb at God’s instruction. Then, they had been delivered from certain death when God created a path of dry ground for them to pass between the walled-up waters of the impassable Red Sea and then used the same waters to drown all of Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Now, as they stood before Mount Sinai, they awaited a personal encounter with the God spoken to Moses and who had delivered them. As they lifted their eyes toward the mountain of the Lord, suddenly they saw it: “Fire on the Mountain.”
All of this had begun forty years earlier when Moses, the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, had been exiled from Egypt after he challenged the Egyptians’ vile treatment of his people. It took only one day for God to get Moses out of Egypt; however, it then took forty years for God to get Egypt out of Moses! Finally, the once proud prince of Egypt had become a stammering shepherd tending his father-in-law’s sheep on the backside of the desert. Then, on that fateful day, Moses stood before Sinai, and there he saw it: “Fire on the Mountain!”
In the distance, a bush was burning, but, then, that was not profoundly unusual in the searing desert heat where spontaneous combustion was not an infrequent occurrence. What was different about this burning bush was that the flames did not consume it. When Moses turned aside to observe this phenomenon, a Voice spoke to him from within the flames, saying, “Moses, Moses!” When the shocked shepherd replied, “Here I am,” the Voice instructed him, “Don’t come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” After a conversation with the Voice in the burning bush, Moses was commissioned with that famous proclamation of liberty and justice that was first repeated to Pharaoh but has continued to echo through the corridors of time for countless oppressed peoples: “Let my people go!”
The reason that God had commanded Pharaoh to release the Israelite people is of profound importance. It was not so that they would be free from slavery: it was “so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert” (Exodus 5:1). Even before God arranged the writ of habeas corpus for his people, he had already planned a festival, the Festival of Shavuot, an event that was to be more than a victory celebration. The very first celebration of Shavuot was to be a wedding celebration.
For forty days after the Exodus, Israel journeyed and camped, but they were a less than unified, organized people. The Hebrew text of Numbers 23:3 notes that Israel (singular) “journeyed and camped” (plural), a fact that tradition suggests confirmed their divided state. When they finally reached Sinai, however, Exodus 19:2 observes that “Israel” (singular) “camped” (singular). By that time, they had become a body politic that was “in one mind and one accord,” awaiting God’s revelation, his self-disclosure and his declaration of his will.
Finally, on the fiftieth day after the Festival of Firstfruits that followed the day of Passover, they faced the same mountain where Moses had seen and heard God’s voice in burning bush, and, quite unknown to them at the time, they prepared to celebrate the festival that God had pre-appointed for them, Shavuot, the festival of divine revelation. Suddenly, they saw the same thing that Moses had seen: “Fire on the Mountain!” The leitmotif of fire in this experience is so important that it is mentioned no less than seven times in Deuteronomy 5.
Listen to the Torah’s narrative of this spectacular event: “On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Exodus 19:16-19a, NIV).
Subsequently, God thundered the words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments that he personally wrote with his own finger, the Shekhinah, on tablets of sapphire stone. So frightful was the sight of the fire and the sound of the shofar that Israel implored Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” When the Israelites cried out in fear, however, they were unaware they were making a serious mistake, for thereafter they would not hear directly from God for themselves. Instead, they would have to listen to the words of God that were reported to them by men and women who did hear from God and faithfully conveyed his message to his people.
Israel was little different, however, from people of all ages––including most Christians––who prefer an intermediary rather than having a personal panim el panim (face-to-face) encounter with God. The truth is that when believers have enough of Egypt purged from their lives, like Moses did, they will yearn to hear from God for themselves. Those who listen to the fire discover a cleansing that brings liberty. In view of this truth, why would anyone be content with hearsay when he or she can have a face-to-face, mouth-to-mouth encounter with the living God?
Tongues of Fire
But, what was this shocking display that struck so much fear in the hearts of Israel? Exodus 20:18 is more literally translated: “And all the people saw the voices and the flames, and the noise of the shofar, and the mountain smoking …” When the sages studied this declaration, they asked, “How does one see voices?” One midrash explains that God’s voice emerged from the flames as tongues of fire! All the Israelite people saw it: “Tongues of fire on the mountain!” Shortly before the time of Jesus, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described the scene in this manner: “From the fire … there sounded … a voice, for the flame became articulate speech … so clearly were the words formed … that they seemed to see them rather than hear them.”
Why tongues of fire? Noting Psalm 68:11, which says, “The Lord announced the word; great was the company of those who proclaimed it,” Rabbi Yohanan explained that every fiery word was divided into seventy languages, just as God said, “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). Why were there seventy languages? It was because Genesis 10:1-2, 20, 31-32 reports that the descendants of Noah, who numbered seventy, were for “nations and languages.” Then, just as Moses ordained seventy prophets from Israel in Numbers 11 and Jesus commissioned seventy prophetic voices to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God in Luke 11, apparently God considers the nations of the world to be divided into seventy groupings. The midrash says that when God spoke the Decalogue, his voice was heard throughout the earth in seventy languages, giving every nation an opportunity to accept the Torah of Divine Instruction. And, in a measure, God’s law was even written in the consciences of the Gentile nations (Romans 2:14). Only Israel, however, volunteered to accept God’s Torah by promising Moses. “Kol asher diber Adonai naaseh v’nishmah,” (“All that the Lord has said, we will do, and we will hear [intelligently]”) (Exodus 24:7). Amazingly, Israel had such faith in God that they agreed to obey all of his commandments even before they even understood them!
A Fiery Law
In this Shavuot “Fire-on-the-Mountain” experience, Israel received God’s Torah, the revelation of his divine D’var/Memra. “From God’s right hand,” Deuteronomy 33:2 says, “went forth a fiery law (the Torah).” What the Israelites experienced was a tangible demonstration of something that would occur centuries later when John the Baptizer predicted that Jesus of Nazareth would “ immerse you in the fiery Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11). The Torah was God’s fatherly instruction for his children, the Chosen People. It was a guardian that the Almighty assigned to teach them his will for relationship with him and for proper human conduct and ethics. Paul says that the Torah was to escort all people to the Messiah so that they might be justified by grace through faith.
The Hebrew word torah is a derivative of the word yarah, which is an archery term that means to aim at a target and hit it. Other derivatives of this word include moreh (teacher) and horeh (parent). The Torah was, therefore, divine instruction, not a mere juridical code that demanded punctilious performance. Even the Greek word chosen by the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the fourth century BC conveyed a similar meaning for the Hebrew word torah. This word, nomos, is likely a loan word from the Hebrew word nemus, which means “to civilize or to be polite.” Sadly, when Latin versions of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures were produced that the word lex was used to translate nomos, the idea of Torah as “Law”—and only “law”—came to be prominent in Christian circles. In truth, however, though the Torah does contain laws and commandments, it is more, much more. It is, in fact, the condensate of the very Words of God himself.
The Torah was advanced in three stages. First, there was the Shema, the pivotal commandment on which all other ordinances are contingent: “Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad” (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”). The monotheism that this commandment encapsulates is foundational to all biblical religion. Second, there was the Decalogue, the perfect delineation of God’s instructions for proper relationship with the Divine and with humanity. Finally, there was the corpus of the mitzvot, 613 commandments, of which 365 were negative (e.g. “You shall not kill.”) and 248 were positive (e.g. “Honor your father and mother.”). These commandments were foundational to King David’s proclamation: “I have hidden your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Understanding God’s Word revealed in the Torah equips everyone—Jew and Christian—so that they are “not ignorant of haSatan’s devices” and can overcome them (2 Corinthians 2:11).
God’s commandments were designed to equip every believer for maturity and good works. As Paul note, “all scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for instruction in righteousness so that a man of God may be mature, completely equipped to all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16). Jesus himself emphatically declared: “Do not even begin to think that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). And, no amount of hermeneutical contortions or exegetical gymnastics can make God’s law illegal! It stands forever as God’s instruction for his children and his eternal, inalterable commitment to their election.
A Wedding Anniversary
Shavuot, then, is for all believers in the God of the Bible, the festival of the giving of the Torah, God’s Law. But, there’s more, for God also summoned Israel to Sinai to join in covenant with him. A wedding took place under the chuppah (canopy) of cloud and fire. The assembled Kahal—Kehillah (community or congregation) had heard the Kol (voice) of God summoning them from Egypt to Sinai so that they could become God’s community in the wilderness.
For over 3,500 years, therefore, Shavuot has been Israel’s wedding anniversary! Shavuot was the reason for Pesach. Without Shavuot, Passover would have been meaningless. An insignificant tribe of nomads would have faded into history, swallowed up in the desert never to be remembered if they had not received the summons to appear before the court of heaven at Sinai on Shavuot and be joined in a holy marriage covenant with their God. When Israel left Egypt, they were only partially free, but they were bound for freedom, the liberty that they found at Sinai in God’s presence. They had been chosen on the merits of their father Abraham, but now they, themselves, were joined in covenant with God that was a constitution for a new nation, the Israel of God.
As a material demonstration of their status as God’s Kingdom of Priests, God designed the Tabernacle to be a portable Sinai. The “Fire on the Mountain” descended upon the altar and from there to the menorah and the altar of incense. This fire was the Shekhinah, the localized, physical manifestation of the God who in the beginning had spoken forth the primordial fire which became the universe. God, himself, was the “Fire on the Mountain” who accompanied the congregation in the wilderness. He was so jealous of his passionate, fiery relationship with his new bride that he would not tolerate any form of strange fire on his altar. Those who have dared to offer homemade fire on God’s altar have always found their action to be self-destructive.
What a festival it was that God had prepared for his people! There was “Fire on the Mountain,” a fire in the Tabernacle, a fiery Law, and tongues of fire that proclaimed God’s Torah in unmistakable terms. There was a fiery, passionate engagement between God and his people. And, there was a fiery zeal for God’s house.
Fire on a Spiritual Mountain
Some 1,500 years after the first Shavuot at Sinai, similar circumstances had summoned a much smaller community of believers to another of God’s mountains when 120 followers of Jesus of Nazareth returned to Mount Zion after they too had just witnessed a phenomenal Passover and Festival of Firstfruits. Jesus had died on the very day of Passover in an event that they later would understand was a sacrificing of the Paschal Lamb of God who was “slain from the foundation of the world” in order to provide atonement for the sins of the entire human race. Then, three days later, Jesus resurrected from the dead, a positive proof for them that he was the Messiah of God and the Savior of the world. After his resurrection, Jesus communed with these disciples for forty days, instructing them concerning the Kingdom of God. Then, he ascended to heaven, but only after promising them that their waiting in Jerusalem would climax in their receiving the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, himself. Like generations before them, they were “counting the omer,” observing Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, all the while expecting something profound to happen to them.
Jesus had instructed them: “Wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are clothed upon with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Like Israel at Sinai, they had come to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Zion. Like Israel, they were all in one accord and in one place. Like Israel, they waited for at least seven days. Descendants of the congregation that had been formed 1,500 years earlier at Sinai then waited at Zion. Those whom the Master had called and chosen waited on God. They knew what God had done when the first Shavuot had fully come, and now they waited to see what God would do for them.
The chronicle of the first Christian Shavuot continues in this manner: “When the day of Pentecost was fully come … suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all of the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1-2). In all likelihood, this “house” was the Temple itself with its massive courtyards, porticos, and meeting rooms, where more than 3,000 people could have heard the Word of God and be immersed in the waters of the mikvaot that surrounded the Temple Mount. In that day, the Temple was actually called “The House.” And, in Israel today, the Temple Mount is still called, “Har b-Bayit,” the “Mountain of the House.”
The chronicle continues, “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like fire, and it sat upon each of them.” Once again, there was “Fire on the Mountain.” This time, the fire fell on Mount Zion in the temple. Instead of falling on an altar of stones and being transported to the menorah and the altar of incense, it engulfed living stones to be manifest as the fire of God on a living menorah, the light of the world, and on a living altar of incense, offering up the sweet smell of prayers to God.
This time the “Fire on the Mountain” fell on a living mountain, the Heavenly Jerusalem that was manifest in the congregation of Yeshua, the Messiah. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Like what Israel of old experienced, the tongues of fire again spoke God’s Word in seventy languages, all the tongues of the earth, for “devout men, out of every nation under heaven” heard in their very “own tongue … the wonderful works of God.”
The fire that had been external at the first Shavuot became internalized at the first Christian Pentecost. The law that was written on stone was written in human hearts. The Lawgiver who had remained hidden at Sinai now inhabited the believers, just as Jesus had predicted: “He is with you, but he shall be in you” (John 14:17). As lightning had split into words of all languages, so the Spirit divided into the words spoken by the disciples. This time, 3,000 believers received eternal life. Whereas Israel of old had worshipped God in the truth that he had revealed, the church worshiped the Father in Spirit and in truth. Whereas at Sinai there was a borderline separating God and the people, now there were no borders: God inhabited humanity. Once again, there was “Fire on the Mountain,” another miraculous, life-changing manifestation of divine power and grace.
In this act of divine indwelling, a portable Mount Zion was constructed, a spiritual temple designed to carry the fire into all the world. And the voice that shook the earth at Sinai now began to thunder through the community of Messiah Jesus the wonderful words and works of God, empowering them to be witnesses of the Kingdom’s good news into all the world.
Without the Mount Zion Shavuot, Passover for the Christian community might have faded into obscurity. The “Fire on the Mountain,” however, brought God, the “consuming fire,” into the lives of the believers so that they could be the light of the world and fulfill God’s commission to Israel to be “the light to lighten the nations and for salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
A Fresh Summons
God is ever issuing a fresh annual summons to Shavuot, calling each generation of the Israelite/Jewish community to fidelity to the divine Torah so that they exclaim with their ancestors, “Kol asher diber Adonai naaseh v’nishmah.” Likewise, God summons Christians on each Shavuot, instructing them with the words, “Be ye being filled with the Holy Spirit.” Just as the Jewish people remember deliverance at Pesach and receive the Torah anew each year at Shavuot, so, each year, believers in Jesus should memorialize their redemption at Passover and then, at Pentecost, celebrate both the giving of the Torah and the divine impartation of the Holy Spirit.
Together with their Jewish brothers and sisters, may Christians receive a fresh summons to Shavuot for renewal of faithfulness to God’s Word, a fresh summons to walk in the Spirit, a fresh summons to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in works of faith, a fresh summons to manifest the fire of God, a fresh summons to witness the good news of the Kingdom of God to the nations. In this fresh summons to Shavuot, may Jew and Christian always come face to face with God’s “Fire on the Mountain,” the Shekhinah that empowers everyone for service to the one and only God. Baruch ha-Shem!
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