Most of us recognize Pentecost Sunday as the day on which the “Kneeling prayers” are said at the end of the Liturgy. These prayers draw to a close our long celebration of the Resurrection of Christ on Holy Pascha. But the roots of Pentecost are far older than Christianity, and to understand it we have to look both at the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, and also at the great prophets, such as Ezekiel and Joel.
The Feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew called Shavuoth (sha-voo-OAT), is a Jewish festival which occurs fifty days after the Sunday after Passover. By New Testament times, educated Jews throughout the Roman Empire spoke Greek, and called the Hebrew feasts by their Greek names. Therefore, Pentecosti is the Greek name for the feast, from the Greek words for “fifty” and “day”. (A full list of the feasts is found in Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus, in which God tells Moses what feasts the Hebrew people would celebrate after their escape from Egypt.)
Passover, called pesach in Hebrew (which gives us the Greek word, pascha), is one of the most important of the Jewish feasts of the year. On this day the Jewish people remember how their ancestors escaped Egypt. That night, the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses of the Jews, which were marked in the shape of a cross with the blood of a lamb.
In the Law, God instructs Moses to keep an annual memorial of the liberation from Egypt by re-enacting what happened on that night. The people were to sacrifice a lamb and eat it just as they had eaten quickly before their night-time escape from Egypt. The Jews were also instructed to eat unleavened bread for a week, remembering that on the night of the Passover there was no time to allow the bread-dough to rise (see Leviticus 23:6).
Then, on the Sunday after the first day of Unleavened Bread, the people were to take grain and offer it to God. This feast is called Omer (Leviticus 23:9 ff), the feast of “wave-offering” or “first fruits”—so called because on this day in ancient times, the people brought the first ears of grain (usually barley) to the temple to “wave” it before the LORD. It was a way of remembering that when they reached the Promised Land, the Hebrew people offered the first grain of the first harvest to God.
Now we remember that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, which that year was the day on which lambs were being slaughtered at the Great Temple in preparation for the Passover feast. Then as we know, on the third day following—the first day of the week, or Sunday—Jesus rose from death.
That day, which was also the third day of Unleavened Bread, was the Feast of Omer. For that reason, St. Paul calls Jesus “the first-fruits of the dead” (see 1 Corinthians 15:33). In other words, Jesus was Himself an offering of first-fruits on behalf of all people.
According to the Law, the Hebrew people were also instructed to “count” each day, beginning on the Sunday following Passover, for fifty days (Leviticus 23:15). Modern Jewish children still observe this ritual, “counting” aloud each morning with their parents. Then they celebrate Pentecost with special bread and foods.
It is interesting that the Law of Moses tells the people to begin counting “on the morning after the Sabbath,” i.e. the Sunday after Passover, and not on the day of Passover itself. Thus the Jewish feasts of Pesach and Omer are prophetic of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Jesus offered Himself to the Father, first as the Paschal Lamb, and then as a first offering of mankind to God on the day of the Wave Offering.
The feasts were also prophetic of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, which occurred on the feast of Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples were assembled in Jerusalem for the Feast, ten days after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven (Acts Ch. 1-2). On that day it was customary for Jews from all over the Roman Empire to gather in Jerusalem. The disciples, including the Mother of God, were all together—a total of 120 people, according to the account in Acts.
Suddenly, the sound of a powerful wind filled the room. Mysteriously, tongues of fire appeared to rest on the head of each one of the gathered disciples. Immediately they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began to prophesy. They understood the tongues of fire to be the visible presence of the Holy Spirit, who in Old Testament times was associated with wind and fire.
This strange event parallels what is described in the Book of Numbers 11:24-25, in which seventy elders gathered together by Moses were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. When Moses was urged to rebuke two of the “prophets,” he replied that he wished all of God’s people would prophesy. The event of Pentecost, described in Acts, is a fulfillment of that wish.
Today in the Orthodox Church, at Great Vespers on the night before Pentecost, we read aloud from the passage in Numbers as a background to what is described in the Acts of the Apostles. Then we read from the Prophet Joel, who was told by God that one day, the Holy Spirit would fall upon ordinary people and they too would become prophets (see Joel 2:28-30). Finally, we read from the prophet Ezekiel, who wrote that one day, God would take out the “stony” heart of the people and replace it with a “heart of flesh”—in other words, they would no longer be judgmental but would begin to love God and one another.
The way in which Joel’s prophesy was fulfilled on Pentecost was unusual. At the sound of the wind, a crowd gathered outside of the room where the disciples were. Then the disciples “began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The words translated here as “speaking in tongues” actually means they spoke in “languages;” in other words, they were speaking in many languages, preaching about the resurrection of Jesus to the crowds outside.
Acts 2:5 also says that each person in the crowd “heard them [the apostles] speaking in his own language,” a point which is repeated in Acts 2:8. This could mean that the disciples were not necessarily speaking in other languages, but that the people were hearing in other languages. Either way, the point is that miraculously, the disciples began preaching to the crowd about the resurrection of Jesus in ways that everyone could understand, regardless of their native language.
The Church has always understood this strange event to be a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel, recounted in Genesis 11. In this story, God mixed up the languages of the people because of their idolatry. Before that, people were cooperating to build huge towers (which archaeologists call ziggurats) to reach the heavens. God mixed up the language of the people so that they could not cooperate to build their towers. At Pentecost, however, this punishment was reversed so that people could understand one another even when they were speaking in different languages.
The point here is that in the Genesis story, the people were exalting themselves as powerful beings who could reach the heavens on their own. But in the story of Acts, the disciples were humbling themselves before God, and were pointing their listeners to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Moreover, the disciples were filled with such love that people wanted to hear their message. Their example was so powerful that thousands were baptized in a single day (Acts 2:41).
There is no question that the gift of “tongues” to the Apostles was miraculous. St. Paul mentions “speaking in tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12:30 and again in 1 Corinthians 14:2 ff, as spiritual gifts. He compares tongues-speaking to prophesying, and says that prophesying is more important because it builds up the Church (1 Cor. 14:5). Tongues, he says, must always be translated. We also note that “prophesying” can mean “preaching,” and probably has that meaning in the Pauline letters.
In the mid-19th century in Europe, and later in America, churches sprang up which called themselves “Pentecostal.” These off-shoots of Protestant churches emphasized the experience of speaking in tongues (or ecstatic speech) as proof of salvation. However, in general, the experience of “speaking in tongues” meant uttering sounds which had no known meaning.
In the Orthodox Church, we would point out that the biblical phrase, “speaking in tongues” (expressed by the Greek word glossolalia) does not mean uttering nonsensical sounds. In Greek literature, it means to speak in a different language, or to speak poetically, or to speak powerfully (prophetically). Furthermore, it could mean all three of these things at the same time.
From Church history, we learn that very early, the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” was not permitted at the celebration of the Eucharist, that is, the Lord’s Supper. This followed Paul’s injunction that prophesying is more important, and also that any utterances in a church gathering must be understandable. The spiritual gift of “speaking in tongues” therefore came to be used in the primitive Church either for private prayer; or when the apostles did not know the language of the persons to whom they were preaching—in which case they were miraculously understood. In the latter case, what they said could be translated for others standing nearby because they were real languages. But Paul argued that whether he spoke in “tongues of men or of angels,” the real point would be to communicate the love of God; otherwise, the experience would be worthless.
Today, many Christians—including Orthodox—may experience “tongues-speaking” in private prayer. Sometimes this occurs even when the person has never heard of modern Pentecostal Christians or their practices. There are also accounts of missionaries speaking in a language which they did not know, to people in a mission field. This has been testified to both by missionaries and by natives of areas where Christian mission is taking place.
Recently, tongues-speaking among Pentecostals has been studied by linguists. They point out that ecstatic speech occurs in a variety of religions, not just among Christians. Sceptics also claim that Pentecostal-Christian tongues-speaking does not follow the structure of real languages. However, this could not explain how the phenomenon works in Christian mission, either historically or today.
As Orthodox Christians, we note that if non-Christians speak in tongues, it does not mean that they have received the same Holy Spirit as the Apostles. Just as ordinary speech can be used for good or for evil, ecstatic speech is pointless if it is not to the glory of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We also preserve the tradition that the Liturgy is not to be interrupted by ecstatic speech. Apart from the sermon, we should not talk aloud (and that includes gossip!) during the Liturgy or inside the worship area.
Finally, it is important to realize that the most significant dimension of Pentecost was not speaking in tongues, but the love of God which was imparted to the disciples, and their joy in telling others about Christ. St. Paul writes about this to the Corinthians, to say that tongues will cease, but love never ends. Our goal as Christians is to be Spirit-filled, so that our lives overflow with divine Love for God, for everyone we meet, and for all that God has made.