The Descent of God as Fire: Pentecost and the Exodus

Sunday of Pentecost, June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-11; John 7:32-57, 8:12
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In his commentary on the events of that first Pentecost, the Venerable Bede, who was an English saint and Biblical scholar and commentator in the early eighth century, makes a curious connection between the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and one of the events of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

We see at Pentecost how the Holy Spirit, with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, descends on the disciples of Jesus Christ in the form of tongues of fire, filling them with power from on high. It is this detail of the vision of God in fire that Bede connects with the events of the Exodus, and he quotes the Book of Exodus here, citing the eighteenth verse of chapter nineteen: “Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.”

This connection he made isn’t just from the fire, however. He is actually drawing on a larger story that connects the Exodus with the Pentecost of the New Testament Church. To understand Bede’s parallel, we have to know something about the Exodus.

When the Hebrew people were in bondage in Egypt, God raised up Moses from among them to lead them out of slavery and to the promised land. As part of the process of Moses leading them out, he demanded of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, that the Hebrews be allowed to leave. Because Pharaoh refused, God sent ten plagues upon Egypt to wear down Pharaoh’s resolve. These plagues were terrible and included an invasion of locusts, destructive hailstorms and the turning of the water of the Nile River into blood.

The tenth and final plague was the killing of the firstborn sons of all Egypt, which claimed the life even of the crown prince of Egypt himself. When this was about to happen, God spoke to the Hebrews and told them to kill a lamb in sacrifice and to wipe the doorposts of their houses with its blood. As the angel of death passed through Egypt, the homes which had this sign would be passed over. This was the first Passover, and with this plague, Pharaoh finally let the people go. The Exodus finally happened, and Israel kept this remembrance as a great feast ever after.

In the Passover, we see a clear prefiguration of the slaughter of the Lord Jesus Christ, the final Passover Lamb. He is also slain, and any who are marked sacramentally with His blood are spared from spiritual death because of His conquest of death in dying and rising from the dead.
But this is not the only feast that begins at this time for the Jews. Seven weeks later, on the fiftieth day from the slaughter of the lambs for that first Passover, Moses brings the Hebrews, having escaped slavery in Egypt, to Mount Sinai. And this is the first Pentecost, a word which means “fifty,” referring to those fifty days. It is also called the Feast of Weeks.

That Pentecost is what the Venerable Bede is referring to in his commentary. All this takes place in the nineteenth and twentieth chapter of the Book of Exodus. In these chapters, God tells Israel that He has delivered them out of Egypt. He also says that, if they keep His covenant, He would make them a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

Thus, when they approached Mount Sinai, that was when God came down in the form of fire upon the mountain, and it began to smoke. And Moses goes up on the mountain and there the Lord begins revealing to Him the Law, given in the form of what we call the Ten Commandments. It is an outline of the covenant God is making with them.

All this is a prefiguration of what was to happen at the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ passion and resurrection. One thing that is different, though, is in how the feasts are numbered. In the Jewish tradition, it was from the slaughter of the lambs that Pentecost was counted. But in the Christian reckoning, it is from Christ’s resurrection that this is counted. And indeed, our term Pascha, which is related to the Hebrew for Passover, is now a word that refers not to Christ’s death but to His resurrection.

So we ourselves have now come to this Pentecost. And we stand mystically and liturgically with the disciples of Jesus and participate in what they experienced. And what is it? We hear the mighty rushing wind and see the tongues of fire. But because we know about that first Pentecost as part of the Exodus, we also see more.

We see the New Israel, the Church, has been brought out of slavery not to Egypt but to sin. And the Lord did not send Moses to us this time but rather a New Moses, His own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And Christ heralds plagues just as Moses did, which is the suffering that comes upon mankind because of sin, because of the rejection of God.

And as death and judgment approach, a Lamb is given. It is no longer many lambs whose blood smears the doorposts of the Hebrews, but rather one final Passover Lamb Whose blood flows out and covers any who would approach and receive. Christ says in John 6 that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life within us, and He is thus shown forth as the true Passover Lamb. And thus when the angel of death goes among mankind at the end of time, sending some to eternal spiritual death, those who are marked with the blood of Jesus and have kept His covenant will be spared.

We have also received a new and everlasting covenant. With the coming of the Prophet-Priest-King Jesus, a new Kingdom has been declared. As we approach the fire of Pentecost, we approach knowing that He calls us to obedience. We have to obey His covenant by keeping His commandments if we want to be included in this Kingdom. You do not get to stay in the Kingdom if you do not keep the covenant.

We also experience God as mighty wind and as fire, but now it is the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, which Bede says (quoting St. Gregory the Great) signified an internal change in the apostles and disciples of Jesus. They were changed into men and women of zeal. As he says (again quoting Gregory), “The elements, therefore, were put to use in signification, so that those who in their bodies perceived fire and sound might indeed be taught in their hearts by invisible fire and by a voice without sound.”

And we also must have that same change, being filled with fiery zeal for Jesus Christ and taught by the Holy Spirit so that we also may preach the true word to all the nations. And this power is given to us so that we may also become a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

And at the giving of the Law to Moses we see a prefiguration of what has now happened in fullness at Pentecost. That Law then given was a law of precepts that revealed sin to the world in all its horror. But the Law now given is the Law of Love, the Law of Grace. And it is not a lower Law but a higher one! Sometimes people think that Christians don’t have to follow the moral commandments of the old Law, but those were not abolished. Rather, the bar was raised in every way.

We are now shown that following all of God’s moral commandments is possible if we follow but one commandment—to love. And it is only possible to love truly if we receive God’s love, the love given first, the love given even while we were yet sinners. This is not a love that excuses but forgives. This is not a love that gives license to sin but rather freedom from sin. This is a love that accepts you as you are but will not leave you that way.

In the passion and resurrection of Christ along with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see the coming of the New Covenant. We have been released from slavery to sin and are now given power to be a royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. Christianity isn’t about feelings, but we really should have a sense that we have entered into something new. And even if you are not a new Christian but have been one for many years, we are still renewed by the coming to Pentecost. We begin once more. And once more, we set out into the world, filled with power from on high.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Life-giving Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.