Most Christians understand that the New Testament church began on the Pentecost after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. However, every indication suggests that the Old Testament Church also began on Pentecost. This beginning, dated to the time of the Sinai Covenant, occurred seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. Appreciating this parallel reveals much about the role and the history of God’s Church.
A study of Pentecost reveals important Old Testament symbolism. Much of what happened to ancient Israel was, after all, recorded for our benefit. The Apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 10:11 that many Old Testament events and situations were intended as types that are instructive for us today.
The term “Pentecost” is not itself used in the Old Testament. Rather, it is a Greek word referring to the 50 days counted from the offering of the wavesheaf during the Days of Unleavened Bread until the holy day which celebrates the harvest of the firstfruits. The Jews commonly call this day Shavuot, meaning “weeks.” Comparing Exodus 23:16 with Exodus 34:22 shows that “Feast of Weeks” and “Feast of Firstfruits” were inter-changeable terms referring to this holy day.
Old Testament Symbols
Two of the ceremonies of ancient Israel connected with this particular festival are outlined in Leviticus 23, which outlines God’s festivals. This chapter was written by Moses when Israel was beginning its wilderness journey, and includes (cf. Leviticus 23:9–17) instructions about some matters that could only be carried out after Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land.
Israel was told that the priest must ceremonially present, as a wave offering to God, the grain from the first-cut sheaf of the grain harvest. This ceremony was to occur on the day following the Sabbath which came during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Only after that ceremony had been carried out could the people begin harvesting and eating their freshly ripened grain.
Traditionally, the first sheaf was cut at sunset when the weekly Sabbath ended. The following morning, an omer (about two quarts) of the freshly harvested grain was waved before God for His acceptance. Later in the day, an unleavened loaf made from this grain was offered on the altar. After this offering, the Israelites were free to begin their harvest which, beginning with the winter wheat and proceeding to the barley, spanned a period of seven weeks. It culminated in the celebration of the Feast of Firstfruits harvest, also known as the Feast of Weeks.
On the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), seven weeks after the first omer of the harvest had been presented to God, two loaves of bread were to be offered to God (Leviticus 23:16–17). These two loaves were different from normal meal offerings in that they were leavened. What did these two different grain offerings symbolize? Why were the two loaves at the end to be leavened, and why were there two loaves offered on Pentecost?
The spring grain harvest represented the beginning, or firstfruits, of Israel’s harvest cycle. This cycle began in the spring and culminated in the fall at the Feast of Ingathering, better known as the Feast of Tabernacles. We are clearly told what the two loaves offered on Pentecost represented, “They are the firstfruits to the Lord” (v. 17). Why two loaves? Because the symbolism of the firstfruits must include both the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church.
Jeremiah 2:3 makes plain that Israel represented the “firstfruits” of God’s increase. Yet, in James 1:18 we are told that the New Testament Church represents a first-fruits. One is physical Israel and the other is spiritual Israel, but both are the Church. Israel was not only a nation, remember, but was also the Congregation of Israel, the Church in the Wilderness. The loaves are pictured as leavened because the Church in both the Old Testament and the New Testament has been made up of imperfect people. In other words, it has contained leaven. The Pentecost symbolism of the Old Testament points toward God’s harvest, the Congregation of Israel and the Church of God. That’s why there were two loaves presented on Pentecost in the Temple.
This is contrasted to the bread presented during the Days of Unleavened Bread at the beginning of the count toward Pentecost. That loaf, made from the first grain harvested, pictured Jesus Christ, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Christ was resurrected at the end of the Sabbath during the Days of Unleavened Bread, at the time that the first sheaf of grain was scheduled to be cut. The morning after His resurrection we find two accounts of His appearances to disciples that together demonstrate that He was presented to the Father at the same time that the first omer was waved in the Temple. In John 20:17, still very early on Sunday morning, Jesus wouldn’t let Mary Magdalene touch Him, “...for I have not yet ascended to My Father....” Matthew’s account makes plain that later on the same day He did allow Himself to be embraced (28:9). Clearly, He had been accepted by the Father as the “firstfruits” in the interim.
Another important Temple-related symbol also pointed toward the Church — God’s firstfruits. We read (Exodus 25:31, 37) that the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) contained a golden lampstand which was to remain in the Holy Place. This lampstand contained a central branch and six side branches — seven lamps which were kept burning around the clock in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.
Revelation 1 describes the Apostle John’s vision of the glorified Jesus Christ standing in the midst of seven gold-en lampstands (vv. 12–13), symbolically representing the seven Churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3. Seven is God’s number of completion, and is so used throughout the book of Revelation. Clearly, the seven churches of Revelation must represent the entirety of the Church. We have often used the term “church eras” because the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3, successive stops on a Roman mail route, represent seven stages or eras through which the Church was to pass historically. The seven lamps are used because the Church was always intended as a light to the world (Matthew 5:14). Yet what is often overlooked is that just as the seven lamp-stands of Revelation 1 picture the New Testament Church, similarly the Temple’s one lampstand with seven branches can picture the Old Testament Church. As there have been seven eras or stages in New Testament Church history, let us explore the indications that there were seven eras of the Old Testament Church. Indeed, we can find a remarkable parallel between the story of God’s Old Testament Church and of His New Testament Church!
Old Testament Church Eras
The New Testament Church began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost upon those who first embraced the New Covenant that Christ had come pro-claiming. The Old Testament Church began at Sinai, on the first Pentecost, when Israel received the Ten Commandments and accepted the terms of the Old Covenant. Remember, the difference between the Old and New Covenants was not the law, it was the hearts and minds of the people. Under the Old Covenant, God wrote His law with His own finger in tables of stone. Under the New Covenant, God set out to write His law (same law) in the tables of our hearts through the power of His Spirit (Hebrews 8:8–10).
The first era of the Old Testament Church was led by Moses, Joshua, and the elders that outlived Joshua. In many ways this is comparable to the time of Christ and the Apostles. It was the era of beginnings and of great miracles. It was a time of a clear sense of mission and of the need for God’s power to carry it out. It was also the story of an era that ended because it lost its first love (cf. Revelation 2:4). We are told that Israel served God all the days of Joshua and the elders that outlived Joshua (Joshua 24:31).
The second era of the Old Testament Church was the period of the Judges. It was a time of persecution and poverty, in many ways comparable to the story of the church at Smyrna, the second era of the New Testament Church. The period of the Judges was a tumultuous time for the Old Testament Church. Throughout this period God raised up deliverers for His people and the nation survived, despite the incursions and threats of many enemies. This era is a period where survival is the chief accomplishment. The people of God were faced with persecutions from the outside and with attraction to the pagan world around them from within.
The third era of the Old Testament Church was the time of the united monarchy. The kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon saw the release of Israel from the constant enemy incursions which characterized the time of the Judges. Yet, toward the end of this period, King Solomon became involved in idolatry as a result of the enticement of his many wives. His sins in this regard brought about the end of the united monarchy (1 Kings 11:1–11).
When we look at the Church at Pergamos, the third of the New Testament eras, we note interesting comparisons. Pergamos means “fortified” and this era was fortified from much persecution by being located primarily in remote mountainous regions, first in Armenia and later in the Balkans. This era was warned about being enticed by spiritual fornication and idolatry. Similarly, in this “fortified” period of Israel’s history, we find that the same enticements proved its undoing.
The next stage, the fourth era of the Old Testament Church, is the period of the divided monarchy. It had its bright times such as the reigns of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, and its dim periods such as the times of Queen Jezebel’s influence. Elijah and Elisha prophesied during the early part of this period, while Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Daniel, and others flourished in the latter part of this era.
Similarly, the fourth stage of New Testament Church history, pictured by the Church at Thyatira, was a time of ups and downs. It was a time when spiritual Jezebel, the false church of which ancient Queen Jezebel was a type, sought to allure God’s servants into compromise and idolatry. Though there were dim times, there were also bright spots such as the preaching of Peter Waldo and the emergence of the so-called Sabbatarian Anabaptists who flourished in the sixteenth century.
The story of God’s Old Testament Church continued after the end of the divided monarchy. In Ezra and Nehemiah as well as in Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi we read of the time of Judah’s restoration. Zerubbabel and Joshua led a contingent of Jews back from Babylon, and God’s people had a fresh start. After the death of Ezra and Nehemiah at the end of the fifth century BC, however, there began a long and steady decline. Particularly after Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian monarchy in the fourth century and paved the way for inroads by Hellenism, the influence of the society around took a terrible toll on the Jewish church. During much of the third century and the late portion of the second, the Congregation of Israel “had a name that it was alive” but was for all practical purposes, spiritually “dead.”
How similar this story sounds to what is related of the Church at Sardis in Revelation 3, the fifth era of the New Testament Church. There were a few among them who were spiritually pure, but most simply had the name without any sign of spiritual life (vv. 1, 4). That was the state of the Sardis era when Mr. Herbert Armstrong came among them in the 1920s.
It was when the Old Testament Church was at its nadir in the second century that God stirred up an elderly priest by the name of Matthias, along with his sons, to revive His flagging Work. This is known in history as the Maccabee Revolt. Daniel prophesied of this event in Daniel 11. Describing the Abomination of Desolation in verse 31, Daniel describes the actions of Antiochus Ephiphanes in profaning the temple and stopping the daily sacrifice. In the next verse he speaks of a people that knew their God and were therefore strong and did great exploits. This is a clear historical reference to the Maccabees and the work that they did which resulted in the cleansing of the Temple in 164 BC.
The sixth stage of the Old Testament Church, the Maccabees, clearly did a Work that preserved the knowledge of God’s truth, which was at the point of perishing. In so doing, they played a vital part in the years following, set-ting the stage for the time when the Messiah would appear. There are many parallels which might be drawn between the time of the Maccabees and the Church at Philadelphia, the sixth stage of the New Testament Church.
The seventh and final era of the Old Testament Church was the time of domination by the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:2, Jesus Christ told the people that the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat. How did they get there? The first-century Jewish priest and historian, Josephus, records the answer. “So Alexandria [widow of the Maccabee King Alexander], when she had taken the fortress [in 76 BC], acted as her husband had suggested to her, and spoke to the Pharisees, and put all things into their power, both as to the dead body [of her husband]and as to the affairs of the kingdom...” (Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, xvi, 1).
Christ rebuked the Pharisees of His day for their spiritual blindness (Matthew 23:16, 19, 24). They considered themselves spiritually rich and in need of nothing, yet they were spiritually destitute. Christ told them that the harlots and publicans would enter the Kingdom before them (Matthew 21:31). The Pharisees maintained the outward form of religion, but were inwardly barren. Christ called them hypocrites, a term that referred to the actors who played parts in the Greek dramas of the day. Similarly, the seventh and final stage of the New Testament Church is pictured by the Church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3 as a complacent church that has mistaken form for substance. It is also the most sternly corrected of the seven.
Looking at the Old Testament Church we are struck by its remarkable parallels with the story of the New Testament Church. The seven lamps of both Testaments point to God’s firstfruits and to their story through the centuries. Pentecost reminds us that God is calling out a firstfruits now, in this age. The great “ingathering” harvest pictured by the fall festivals lies yet ahead. The first-fruits are called out for a purpose, to accomplish a Work. In the course of carrying out God’s Work, the purpose for our calling now, we are to be a light to the world.
Just as the seven lamps of the Temple could not burn without oil, neither can the Church today shine forth without the illuminating power provided by God’s Holy Spirit. Pentecost certainly points to the Church and its calling into a special covenant relationship with God. It also points to the Holy Spirit, which is what makes it possible for us to fulfill our calling and our destiny. Let us be deeply thankful for the gift of God’s Spirit which He offers us. If we truly are thankful for this gift, then we will seek to stir it up and use it daily.