The Feast of Pentecost, the only holy day God instructs us to count, is just a few days away. For many years, the counting of Pentecost has been source of controversy within the church of God, causing many to separate themselves from established groups and form new ones. In a brief essay of this nature, it is impossible to give a full explanation of the Bible's instructions concerning the Pentecost count, but we can cover a couple of vital points that will help to sharpen the focus of the fuller explanation.
To begin, Leviticus 23:15 teaches that the Pentecost count begins by using "the Sabbath" to determine when the wavesheaf is to be offered, and therefore, where to begin the fifty-day count. Is this Sabbath a weekly Sabbath, as practiced by the Sadducees? Or is it the first day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15), as practiced by the Pharisees? Or is it the last day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 21), as practiced by the Essenes and Falashas (Ethiopian Jews)?
We do not have to be confused! We can know that "the Sabbath" mentioned in Leviticus 23:15 can be only a weekly Sabbath and not a holy-day Sabbath by looking at the very nature of Pentecost itself—it must be counted.
We do not have to count for Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Trumpets, Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Last Great Day because they occur on the same day of the Hebrew calendar every year. Therefore, no counting is required for these days.
Similarly, consider that the first day of Unleavened Bread is always on Nisan 15 and the last day of Unleavened Bread is always on Nisan 21. If either of these holy-day Sabbaths are used to begin the count, Pentecost would always be on a particular day in the month of Sivan, either Sivan 6 or 12, respectively. If we use either of these holy-day Sabbaths as the starting point, Pentecost would be just like all the other holy days, occurring on the same day every year on the Hebrew calendar. No counting would be required, thus contradicting the Word of God.
On the other hand, the weekly Sabbath that falls within the Feast of Unleavened Bread is a constantly fluctuating day on the Hebrew calendar. According to the Hebrew calendar rules, this weekly Sabbath can fall on any one of four days in the month of Nisan—Nisan 15, 17, 19, or 21. This varying date for the Sabbath within the Feast of Unleavened Bread requires counting Pentecost just as God has instructed.
To use either of the holy-day Sabbaths during the Feast of Unleavened Bread as a starting point is to violate God's clear command to count. Only the weekly Sabbath meets God's requirement that there be a counting for Pentecost.
Another reason that proves we should count from the weekly Sabbath and not a holy-day Sabbath is the appearance of the definite Hebrew article, ha, that normally precedes "Sabbath." In the Old Testament, this designation, hashabbath, indicates the weekly Sabbath about 95 percent of the time. In Leviticus 23, a form of "Sabbath" appears in Hebrew twelve times and "Sabbaths" twice. The article ha appears before "Sabbath" three times, and each time it refers to the weekly Sabbath. Two of these occurrences concern the Sabbath in question (verses 11, 15). It also appears once before "Sabbaths" (verse 15), also referring to weekly Sabbaths.
Another point to consider is that the Sadducees, for the most part, were of the priesthood, who were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the worship system. While their practice is not an indisputable proof of anything, it can offer helpful corroboration. They taught that Pentecost always fell on a Sunday. The Sadducees used the weekly Sabbath falling within the seven-day festival of Unleavened Bread to determine the Wavesheaf Day. Likewise, they counted fifty days using the weekly Sabbath falling within the Feast of Unleavened Bread to determine the day to observe Pentecost. The Sadducees followed God's three-step process revealed in Leviticus 23:15-16 and began that process with a weekly Sabbath—not a holy-day Sabbath.
Having just mentioned Wavesheaf Day, we should not disregard how the Wavesheaf was fulfilled in Jesus' ascension to heaven for acceptance before God. As Scripture shows (see John 20:1, 17), this occurred on a Sunday morning after the weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, following the command in Leviticus 23. This precise fulfillment verifies that the weekly Sabbath within Unleavened Bread is the correct Sabbath from which to count.
Another vital point concerns when Jesus kept the Feast of Pentecost. Through Jesus' birth, boyhood, young adult years, manhood, ministry, and death, who set the date for Pentecost for the Jews? History tells us that it was those responsible for the Temple—the Sadducees. How did the Sadducees count Pentecost? As mentioned above, history tells us that they kept a Sunday Pentecost and arrived at it by counting fifty days beginning with the Sabbath occurring within the Feast of Unleavened Bread [see Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (Updated Edition), 1994, pp. 203-204. Realize, however, that Edersheim, a convert to Christianity from Pharisaism, supports a Sivan 6 Pentecost.]. It is important to note that at that time it was the Sadducees, not the Pharisees, who consistently observed a Sunday Pentecost.
The New Testament shows us that Jesus and His disciples followed the practice of the Jews by keeping the same holy days on the same days, including Pentecost (Acts 2). As we have seen, the Jews followed the instruction of those God allowed to be in charge at that time—the Sadducees.
So, how did Jesus Christ, our example, count Pentecost and on which day did He observe it? He set us an example by counting the same way and keeping the same day as the Jews, led by the Sadducean priesthood, of His day—Sunday, after counting fifty days beginning with the Sabbath falling within the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For we who are called for the specific purpose of following Christ's example (I Peter 2:21), how can we call ourselves a Christian if we reject His example and follow a different way?
As Herbert Armstrong often preached, God designed the Sabbath as a test, a test failed by most of nominal Christianity. Could the unusual counting requirement of Pentecost be another of God's tests to see if we, His called-out ones, will be faithful to His instruction? Jesus says in Matthew 7:24, "Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man." Let us be wise and pass the test!
- Pat Higgins
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