Christ the Firstfruits

1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Romans 8:20-23 (texts); Leviticus 23:9-14

October 20, 2013 • Download PDF sermon

Beloved congregation of Christ: Today we come to the third of seven festivals that God appointed for Israel after the LORD redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. The first one was the Feast of Passover, a commemoration of the night when the Destroyer “passed over” their houses when he saw the bloody doorposts. The second feast was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a remembrance of the haste in which they ate the Passover meal. This feast also reminded them that they left their bitter and oppressed life in Egypt, and began their journey towards a new life in the Promised Land.

Passover was celebrated on the 14th day of the first month, and Unleavened Bread the next day. The New Testament connects the Passover to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the Passover Lamb. The next day, the start of the Unleavened Bread, Jesus lay in the tomb.

"Fruit Basket" by Balthasar van der Ast (1632) and "Peter and John Run to the Sepulchre" by James_Tissot (1896-1904)
“Fruit Basket” by Balthasar van der Ast (1632) and “Peter and John Run to the Sepulchre” by James_Tissot (1896-1904)

The Feast of Firstfruits was appointed as the next festival, the third day after the Feast of Passover. How is this festival celebrated? What is its significance for Israel then? What is its significance for Christians today? Sadly, whenever we hear “firstfruits” in churches, the topic is usually giving or tithing or prosperity. The website of John Hagee, a popular evangelical Zionist and prosperity gospel preacher, has this to say to promote his book about Firstfruits:

The quickest way to receive God’s blessing is through obedience. Pastor Hagee takes us through the Biblical explanation of firstfruits giving, and the prosperity that follows. In order to reap the blessings we all desire, we must put God first, not only in our living but also in our giving… What happens with the first portion of your income determines what happens to the rest.

As I suspected, a cursory search of sermons on firstfruits yielded the above kind of application. And as I also expected, Reformed sermons focused, not on giving and tithing and prosperity, but on the resurrection of Christ. Why? Because the celebration of the Old Testament Feast of Firstfruits coincided with the New Testament’s account of the resurrection of Jesus the third day after he was crucified on the day of the Passover feast.

So our theme this Lord’s Day is “Christ the Firstfurits” under three headings: (1) “The Firstfruits of Those Who Have Fallen Asleep”; (2) “Then at His Coming Those Who Belong to Christ”; and (3) “Who Have the Firstfruits of the Spirit.”

“The Firstfruits of Those Who Have Fallen Asleep”

In the Old Testament, there are two main texts that describe how the Feast of Firstfruits is celebrated: Leviticus 23:9-14 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11. In the Leviticus text, it was a national festival, while in the Deuteronomy text, it was celebrated by each household. Since Israel did not have farms until they settled in the Promised Land, they were to celebrate this festival only “when you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest” (Lv 23:10).

As a national celebration, the priests harvested a small barley field, dried the barley, winnowed it to remove the chaff, and milled it until it was very fine flour. On the morning of the feast, the priest mixed the flour with olive oil and a small amount of frankincense. The priest then lifted up the offering before the LORD in the tabernacle, and burned a handful on the altar. What was left was given as food for the priests. Afterwards, a series of sacrifices – a male lamb as a burnt offering, a grain offering, and a drink offering – were given to the LORD (Lv 23:12-13).

As a household offering, the offering was accompanied by prayers at each step. The farmer would set apart the best of his barley crop, saying, “Behold, these are the firstfruits.” After they were harvested, the whole household would travel to Jerusalem for the festival and presented their sheaf of the firstfruits offering to the priest, saying, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us” (Dt 26:3). The priest then “waves” or lifts the sheaf before the LORD. Then the offerer will say a prayer of thanksgiving to the LORD for delivering them from slavery in Egypt, saying,

the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God” (Dt 26:8-10).

After the basket of firstfruits was handed over to the priest, the priest burned a handful of the grain upon the altar. The worshiper fell on his face to worship the Lord, then returned to his home to celebrate the feast with his household, “And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (Dt 26:11).

Therefore, for Israel, the Feast of Firstfruits was a dedication and celebration of the entire spring harvest as a blessing from God given to his chosen nation Israel. It is also a call by the LORD to Israel to trust him, since they are not allowed to eat of their harvest until they have offered the first-fruits. What if there’s a storm that wipes out the whole harvest?

In the New Testament, the word “firstfruits” is used only seven times, but only one has a vague reference to the idea of offering. In Romans 11:16, Paul says, “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.” But he was most likely referring to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the firstfruits and root. We will look at the other verses later.

But our text in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter, mentions firstfruits twice, each time with reference to the resurrection. Paul intentionally uses the word “firstfruits” for Christ’s resurrection because Jesus was raised from the grave on the day of the Feast of Firstfruits. Verses 20 and 23 says:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1Co 15:20).

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ (1Co 15:23).

Our Lord is the first one to be raised from the grave. But weren’t there eight other people in the Old and New Testaments who were raised from the grave? These included the son of Zarepath’s widow whom Elijah raised; and Lazarus whom Jesus raised. But here’s the huge difference: only Jesus was raised to live forevermore! He will never die again, because he has conquered sin and death once for all.

Like the firstfruits offering, Christ arose from the dead, demonstrating that his “firstfruits offering” was pleasing to God. His sacrificial offering was accepted by his Father (Rom 1:4;), “what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus” (Ac 13:32-33), vindicating all his claims as the Messiah and the Son of God. This is why he is also called “the first to rise from the dead” to proclaim salvation to both Jews and Gentiles (Ac 26:23); “the firstborn from the dead” (Cl 1:18; see also Rv 1:5); and “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rm 8:29).

The firstfruits of a harvest that was picked by a farmer as the best crop in his whole field was also a foretaste of a great harvest. So Paul says that Jesus, being raised from the dead by God the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the firstfruits of a great harvest of believers. Since the resurrection of Christ, a great multitude of souls have been harvested by the apostles and ministers who have gone out into the whole world to preach the true gospel.

These believers already have a foretaste of the resurrection, since before they repented and believed, they were as walking dead people, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…” (Ep 2:1-2). But after they were saved, they became as resurrected people, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ep 2:5-6). Even while we’re here in this life, especially when we gather together on the Lord’s Day to worship God, we have a foretaste of heaven itself! “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hb 12:22).

If our foretaste of heaven now, in this age, is a glorious feast, how much more glorious will our Feast of Firstfruits be when Christ returns from heaven for the greatest harvest ever?

“Then at His Coming Those Who Belong to Christ”

In 1 Corinthians 15:23, Paul writes, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Christ was the first to be resurrected from the dead to live forever. And we who belong to him wait for our own resurrection.

When a Christian dies, his body returns to dust, but his soul returns to God in heaven. Those souls in heaven are now waiting for the last day (Rv 6:9; 20:4) when Christ will gather all the elect from the whole world, dead and alive, and bring them all to their eternal dwelling-place in heaven (Mt 24:31; 1Th4:13-18). When that day comes, our bodies will be raised from the grave and will be reunited with our souls.

John writes about Christians who are in heaven as those “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless” (Rv 14:4-5). Like the Old Testament soldiers, they are to be pure and clean before they go to battle (Dt 23:9–11; 1Sm 21:5). Believers who are redeemed from the whole of humanity are like blameless, pure virgins. They are the firstfruits out of the whole fallen world, and their number is a perfect number. These “144,000” belong to one church, one kingdom of God, made up of Old Testament saints represented by the 12 tribes of Israel, and New Testament saints represented by the 12 apostles. And their number is a multitude that no one can number, thousands upon thousands.

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2Th 2:13). Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians, whom he calls firstfruits, since they are a part of many in the early days of Christ’s church who believed and are saved.

James also uses the word, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jm 1:18). Christians are like newborn babies brought forth by the truth of the gospel. Like the firstfruits harvest, they are early Christians, and are a guarantee of a future great harvest of souls.

Therefore, Christ is the first of the firstfruits, then comes the Christians in the first century of the church who are also firstfruits. Then comes all the saints that include all of us who through the ages, have been redeemed out of all mankind. We too are firstfruits.

Are you one of those brothers of Christ – firstfruits – who will rise from the grave at his coming?

This is why Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 45 says that there are three benefits we receive from the resurrection of Christ. First, through his death and resurrection, we have been justified before God. Second, even in this life, we already have a foretaste of the resurrection, having been “raised up to a new life.” And third, his resurrection is “a sure pledge of our own blessed resurrection.”

This last benefit takes us to our last point.

“Who Have the Firstfruits of the Spirit”

Our reading in Romans 8 starts out saying that because of Adam’s sin, the whole creation was subjected to futility, and now groans, longing for that day of re-creation of a new heaven and new earth. On that day will begin an eternity of a perfect creation, without all the effects of the curse of sin and death for the whole world.

But in verse 23, Paul says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Ro 8:23). We too, like all creation, “groan inwardly” because of sin. We long with expectation – like a mother waiting to see her baby brought forth – for the redemption of our bodies, that is, our own resurrection at the coming of Christ. On that day, our salvation will be completed and perfected, just as Christ’s body was perfected at his resurrection. Then our adoption as sons, together with all the privileges of the firstborn (Hb 12:23), will also completed for eternity.

But Christ is not only the firstfruits of the resurrection. He guarantees our own resurrection through the sealing of the Holy Spirit, “In him you also… were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ep 1:13-14). Sealing with the Spirit means that we are spiritually preserved until we receive our heavenly inheritance. God also guarantees our salvation by giving us a “down payment” or “earnest money” by pouring out his Spirit on us, just as our down payment to a house or car is a promise, a guarantee, that we are committed to buying it.

We groan because we have the Spirit who indwells us. The Spirit makes us groan and long for the day when we will see Christ, when we will have resurrection bodies without pain and suffering, sin and death. Unbelievers do not long for this hope. Only those who have the Spirit of Christ do.

This is why the Spirit also helps us in our prayer, even praying for us when we do not know what to pray. Our prayers are imperfect, but the Spirit makes it perfect so that it reaches the ears of our Father in heaven.

The firstfruits of the Spirit is the benefit that we received after Christ ascended into heaven. He has poured out his gift, the Spirit on all believers. He now indwells his church. He enables each of us, and the church as a whole, to be holy, to pray for one another, and to mature and grow together. Paul says that we as the church, is “one body and one Spirit.” We have “one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all… But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ep 4:4-7). This gift is the Holy Spirit who gives grace.

But the gift of the Holy Spirit also comes with spiritual gifts. All the fruits of the Spirit that are given to us in this life in Galatians 5:22-23 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – will not be perfected until Christ comes. All of these fruits will always be tainted by sin until our resurrection.

Our resurrection. Groan for it. Pray for it. Hope for it. Our LORD, come! Maranatha!