OVERVIEWING the New Covenant, PART 3: The CULMINATION of the New Covenant
We said that the greatest and most important event in the inauguration of the new covenant is the death of Christ. But though it's true this is the “highest peak” among many in the inauguration of the new covenant, that doesn't mean it's the last one. After Jesus had risen from the dead and spent forty days with His disciples, He gathered them together and “commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised,” saying to them,“for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5). Christ had died, He had risen, and He was about to ascend back to His Father, but there was still something else that was needed to complete the inauguration of the new covenant.
Pentecost is taken from a Greek word (pentaecostae) meaning “fiftieth”; it refers to the festival that's celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, also known in the Old Testament as the Feast of Weeks. There were actually three celebrations that took place during the course of these fifty days: The first was Passover; which celebrated the Lord's saving of His people from death through the blood of the Passover lamb. Passover took place on the 14th day of the first month (Leviticus 23:5). The second celebration took place three days later; it was the celebration of “the first fruits”, and it was to happen “on the day after the sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11), which would have always been on a Sunday. Finally, God's people were to count off fifty days from the Passover, at which time they would celebrate the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost), which was a celebration of the very beginning of the ingathering of the harvest (Exodus 23:16). All three celebrations point us to Christ: For Jesus is our Passover lamb who has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). And three days later, His resurrection is said to be the first fruits of those who are asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20). But it wasn't until the day of Pentecost that there was, in a very real sense, the inauguration of the harvest of Jesus' new covenant work of redemption.1
Well, after Christ had ascended to the Father, all His disciples were together in Jerusalem when the day of Pentecost came. And we know the rest! There was a loud rushing noise from heaven; and it filled the house, and tongues of fire distributed themselves on each of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other dialects and languages; so that the Jews that rushed to see what was happening could each hear them in their own mother tongue “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:1-11). When Peter took his stand to explain what was happening, he told the crowd, “this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: 'And it shall be in the last days,' God says, 'that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. . .” (Acts 2:16-17). In other words, Peter was saying, this very moment is the fulfillment of what Scripture foretold in Joel 2:28-32. And indeed, it's God's own testimony that the days of the new covenant have arrived; for the pouring out of God's Spirit was one of the certain signs of the beginning of the new covenant administration.2
This doesn't mean the Holy Spirit wasn't at work in the old covenant. He certainly was. Those who penned the Old Testament Scriptures did so in and through the Holy Spirit who was moving within them (1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:21). The Lord's prophets were filled with the power of the Spirit as they declared the Word of God to His people (Micah 3:8). God's Spirit gifted certain individuals in the old covenant for particular tasks (Exodus 31:2-6). The Spirit of the Lord also came upon certain leaders that the Lord raised up, to empower them to deliver His people from their enemies (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 15:14-15). Later in Acts, Stephen tells the Jews they “are always resisting the Holy Spirit” even as their fathers did (7:51); and Isaiah helps us understand what Stephen meant when he testifies how God's people “grieved His Holy Spirit” when they rebelled against Him in the wilderness (Isaiah 63:10). And this also teaches us salvation itself has always been the special gift of the Spirit. Whether living in the old covenant or the new, the only way anyone is ever saved is through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). So, it's quite clear that the Spirit was at work in the old covenant as well. But if all this is true, then in what sense is the pouring out of the Spirit “new” in the new covenant?3
1) At Pentecost, there's a newness in the CORPORATE EFFECT of the Spirit: We mentioned this earlier in our study of Jeremiah 31. Though there were many in the old covenant who embraced the gospel from the heart, by faith; it seems this was the exception rather than the rule. For though many in the old covenant had God's Law written in their hearts, many more remained unchanged. But this is precisely what's different now in the new covenant, and the reason it's different is the greater effect in the working of the Holy Spirit. We could put it this way: In the new covenant, the Spirit is now at work with a much greater force among God's people than He was in the old covenant administration. We showed that Pentecost was the celebration of the first fruits. But there's also another event in the Old Testament that came to be associated with the same day. For it was on the day of Pentecost that Moses also came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments in his hands. Do you see the correlation? Moses had ascended the mountain; and on Pentecost he came down again with the the Law of God written on stone tablets. In the same way, Christ had ascended; but at Pentecost, He comes down—not to present God's Law as written on tablets—but to write it powerfully on the hearts of His people through the working of the Holy Spirit. When God gave the Law to Moses, He did so out of the midst of the fire on the mountain. But now, when the Lord sends the Holy Spirit, He puts the fire of heaven into the very hearts of His people. Again, it's not that the Lord hadn't done this at all before—but now it would be on a much greater scale—so that when Peter preaches his first sermon after Pentecost, three thousand souls are saved all at once. The old covenant had been characterized by God's Law written on stone; but now the new is marked by that same Law written on the hearts of His people. And the reason is, at Pentecost, there's a newness of effect in the working of the Spirit.4
2) At Pentecost, there's a newness in the INDIVIDUAL GIFTS of the Spirit: There's a story in the Book of Numbers about two men named Eldad and Medad. When the Lord sends His Spirit to rest upon seventy elders who are chosen to assist Moses, God's Spirit also comes to rest upon them; and when it does they begin to prophesy in the camp. Joshua doesn't like what's happening. But Moses says to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). Well, in the new covenant, God is pleased to grant Moses' request. This is what the Lord meant when He foretold through the prophet Joel: “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (2:28-29). Here, God is speaking about extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit. These things were rare in the Old Testament. The Lord gifted those seventy elders under Moses with a special unction from the Spirit. He had gifted another man with a special measure of wisdom in craftsmanship for constructing the furnishings of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-5). And God had gifted His Spirit to particular judges and kings whom He had raised up in Israel's past in order to equip them in a special way to lead and govern His people. But every time the Lord did this, it was the exception, rather than the rule. These unique gifts of God's Spirit were only given to the few, not the many. But this is what Joel is saying would be different in the new covenant. In the old covenant administration, it was only certain individuals that were gifted at select times in order to fulfill particular functions. But now, in the new covenant, the Lord has poured out all kinds of unique spiritual gifts (IE, Joel's imagery of prophesy, dreams, visions) upon all His people (literally on “all flesh”; young men and old, male and female servants). In the new covenant age, each one of us has received a special gift (1 Peter 4:10) for the building up of the whole (Ephesians 4:12).5
3) At Pentecost, there's a newness in the UNIVERSAL SCOPE of the Spirit: When Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit on “all flesh” (2:28) in the new covenant, he was saying the Lord would grant unique gifts to each of His people. But he may have been saying much more than that as well. For when God poured out His Spirit at Pentecost, not only was there a newness as it related to the Spirit's individual gifts—but there was also a newness as it related to the Spirit's universal scope. In the old covenant, God had singled out one particular people to be the objects of His mercy. It's not that the Lord never saved any Gentiles in the Old Testament; but when He did so, this was definitely the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of God's people in the old covenant were ethnic Jews. And even when Christ went about His public ministry, He made clear this was something that hadn't changed—at least not yet. For when a Gentile woman comes to Jesus about her daughter, He tells her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). And when Christ sends out His disciples to preach, He forbids them from going to the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5-6). In the old covenant, the extent of the Spirit's influence was effectively limited to the Jews. But now, with the new covenant outpouring at Pentecost, the Spirit's influence has taken on a universal scope. And it's for this reason that Christ tells His disciples just before His ascension: “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). From now on, the gospel is to be proclaimed to all nations. And the reason is that the Spirit's influence is no longer limited to just one particular people. At Pentecost, the Lord has given a new manifestation of the Spirit fit for a new covenant. And He's also given us a new missional power that corresponds to this design; for the Spirit himself empowers us to testify of Jesus (1:8). We no longer need to sit, waiting for the Spirit to show up (1:4). He's already come. We rather go forth in His power, declaring the gospel of Jesus.6
1 We might say there were actually four feasts in the span of the fifty days, as the Passover was also the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (See Leviticus 23:5-6. Deuteronomy 16:1-8 shows the intimate connection between the two). The three great feasts of Israel were the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of the Harvest (which is another name for the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost), and the Feast of the Ingathering, which was also called the Feast of Booths (cf. Exodus 23:14-17). All Israel was to travel down to Jerusalem for these feasts three times a year. The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted for an entire week, from the 15th to the 21st of the first month. If the Passover signifies what Christ has done for His people, then the Feast of Unleavened Bread signifies how God is calling us, His people, to live in light of Christ's sacrifice. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, “For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” What feast is Paul talking about here when he says, “let us celebrate the feast”? The Feast of Unleavened Bread! Paul is connecting the Passover with the Feast of Unleavened Bread and telling us that this is the feast we are to observe for the whole of our lives. Yeast or leaven represents sin in Scripture. So Paul is telling us that as Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed for us, our lives, in turn, are to be unleavened; that is, sanctified, set apart, holy for the Lord. The Feast of Booths (or Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of the Ingathering) also lasted an entire week, being celebrated on the 15th to the 21st of the seventh month. It commemorated the full gathering of the harvest. It also looked back and remembered God's faithfulness to His people through their wanderings through the wilderness under Moses. If you calculate from Exodus 19:1, it appears Moses comes down from Sinai the seventh time with his face shining in Exodus 34:29 on the first day of the Feast of Booths. If Pentecost celebrates the beginning of the ingathering of the harvest, the Feast of Booths celebrates the completion of the harvest. It signifies the resurrection. As Moses came down from the mountain with his face shining, so too, this feast looks to the day that Christ will come again. On that day He will gather His people as wheat into barns, but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. If our present life now is a continual celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, then the life to come in eternal glory with the Lord will be a continual celebration of the Feast of Booths, as we similarly look back on our pilgrim journeying through the wilderness of this world and wonder at the Lord's mercies in providing all of our needs, protecting us from evil, and bringing us safely home to glory.
2 As Ferguson notes: “Pentecost publicly marks the transition from the old to the new covenant. . .and inaugurates the new era in which the eschatological life of the future invades the present evil age. . .That which is 'new' in the new covenant ministry of the Spirit is therefore inextricably related to the significance of the Pentecost event.” (The Holy Spirit, pp57-58). On Peter's reference to Joel, he takes some liberty at the beginning of the quotation: Joel 2:28 begins: “It will come about after this”; while Peter quotes Joel as beginning, “And it shall be in the last days. . .” The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible explains what Peter is doing in this way: “The words 'In the last days' (cf. Isaiah 2:2; Hosea 3:5; Micah 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1) are Peter's way of associating the Hebrew and Greek words of Joel 2:28 ('and afterward'). Peter interpreted 'and afterward' as referring to the days of the new covenant in contrast to the former days of the old covenant.” (from note on Acts 2:17-21). And again on Joel 2:28-29: “By introducing this prophecy with the words 'in the last days' (Acts 2:17), Peter connected it with other prophecies regarding Israel's Messianic future and so taught that Pentecost was critical to the inauguration of the promised new age.” Thomas Blake helps to explain Joel's meaning when he speaks of visions and dreams: “prophecies in the Old Testament, of the glory of the New Testament times, are in Old Testament phrases by way of allusion to the worship of those times, set forth to us.” (A Treatise of the Covenant of God, p238). In other words, when the Old Testament prophets looked forward and spoke of New Testament realities, they explained those New Testament realities using Old Testament language, since it's the only language they had. Others have compared this to a father and son who lived in the late 1800's. When the son is a boy, the father promises to give him a horse on his 18th birthday; but when the boy turns 18, his father gives him a (newly invented) car instead. When Joel speaks of visions and dreams, he's using the only language he knows to explain new covenant realities.
3 The Spirit of the Reformation Bible notes: “To understand the New Testament ministry of the Spirit, it is essential to be aware that He ministered in the Old Testament period in ways that anticipated what was to come in the New Testament. He 1) brought order to the primeval chaos (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 33:6); 2) imparted revelation and wisdom (Deuteronomy 34:9; Micah 3:8); 3) fell upon special servants of God to enable them for service (Exodus 31:2-6; Judges 6:34; 15:14-15; Isaiah 11:2); and 4) brought about inward renewal in believers (Ezekiel 36:26-27; cf. Romans 8:9-16). In these and similar ways, the Holy Spirit was revealed in the Old Testament as the power and presence of God with His people.” (p1755). Ligon Duncan cites John 7:39, “for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified”, and explains it in this way: “]Radical] discontinuity is emphasized in this passage. . .the language of discontinuity there has to be understood as a relative contrast in absolute terms. . .” Referencing similar passages, Duncan concludes: “the Holy Spirit is said by New Testament writers to be active in the Old Testament. . .nevertheless, the change from old covenant to new covenant is often described in the New Testament itself, as fundamentally being seen in just this: That the new covenant is uniquely the era of the Holy Spirit.”