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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Monday, August 28, 2006

Pentecost in I Corinthians 16

The Reformed tradition has been inconsistent when it comes to adhering to the traditional church calendar. The early Reformers sought to remove those things that were incompatible with the teaching of Scriptures, but they generally continued to hold to some form of church calendar. However, by the time that the Puritans came along, there was a strong movement to remove the calendar all together. The Evangelicals, who are for the most part heirs to the Puritan movement, have instinctively recognized the natural tendency of man to mark time. But rather than returning to some form of the historic church calendar, they have allowed the State to define their lives and order time for them.

There are many Reformed types, as well as some Evangelicals, who would argue that worship is to be taken from the New Testament alone, and that we are not told to practice the church calendar. There is first of all a misunderstanding in what the church calendar does in such an approach, a misunderstanding that those who hold to the church calendar may be in part to blame for. The church calendar isn’t just something we do in worship on Sundays. Rather, the church calendar should serve to structure our entire lives.

I won’t try to give an elaborate defense of the church calendar right now. However, I would like to bring up a section of Scripture that I have never heard considered with this in mind. The passage I am thinking of comes from I Corinthians 16. I will cite a few verses to give the context (from the ESV):

5 I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, 6 and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7 For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 8 But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, 9 for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

Here Paul is planning his journey to see the Corinthians and the Ephesians. That is plain in the passage. What is often overlooked, however, is how he orders time. He specifically mentions winter. But the thing that should strike us as unexpected is his reference to Pentecost. Pentecost was a feast in the Jewish calendar ordained by God. It was also the time of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the first establishing of the New Testament church. It is interesting to note that when God saw fit to give his Spirit and to bring the first converts into the church, he chose the Jewish feast day of Pentecost. Some might think that he had to do it on this day in order to fulfill the typology that he had intended in Pentecost. But there is nothing about typology that would require that. One main aspect of typology is that the type and anti-type don’t match in every detail. If they did, then the type would be the anti-type rather than a type. In other words, their would be no distinction; type and anti-type would be one. Some measure of contrast must exist. Besides this, God can do whatever He wants to. If he wanted to, he could have caused the fulfillment of Pentecost to take place on an entirely different day.

In our passage in I Cor. 16, Paul not only mentions Pentecost, but he orders time in relation to it. His plan, he says, is to stay in Ephesus until Pentecost. Why doesn’t he order time according to the Julian calendar, which was in place at the time? Certainly Paul, being a Roman citizen, would have thought along these lines first. But no, he is a Christian, and therefore he orders time according to the birth of the church.

We should also point out that the church Paul is writing to isn’t just made up of Jews. The Corinthian church was a mixed church, made up of Jews and Gentiles. The point being that Paul wasn’t just using a point of reference with a group of Jews that would be convenient and familiar to them. No doubt this would have been confusing for those Gentile believers who had only become familiar with the practice of Pentecost second hand. It seems clear to me that this was a recognized day that was used to order time by the early Christians.

Some may object that this doesn’t justify the elaborate celebrations that take place on church feast days. They may also object that this passage doesn’t defend the entire church calendar that has come to be observed. But those things must be derived (and I think they can) from other passages of Scripture. No doctrine I know of is drawn out of one passage alone. I don’t have time to get into those other matters now. But whatever a person might think of those other issues, it seems to me abundantly clear that the day of Pentecost was itself recognized in some fashion and used to mark time by the early church. This should cause those who reject the traditional church calendar to reconsider their position.

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