First Fruit principles
1. The promise of a future harvest
2. The offering that makes holy
The Festival of First Fruits
As the next three festivals in the Israelites’ calendar (First Fruits, Pentecost and the Intermediate Festival, the latter of which isn’t found in Leviticus chapter 23) are all types of first fruit offerings, a slight detour is here added which outlines the principles behind the offering of first fruits to the Lord.
There’s very little, ultimately, that needs to be said about the Festival of First Fruits outlined below because of the brevity with which it’s dealt with in the OT Law, but its importance shouldn’t be overlooked.
First Fruit principles
1. The promise of a future harvest
One of the principles that a first fruit offering taught was that a future harvest was promised - the first fruit were just a taste of what lay in store at the end of the full ingathering of the harvest. Therefore, when a first fruit offering was brought before the Lord, it represented a prayer to Him to watch over the future harvest that was there foreshadowed by the minute proportion that was being presented.
Certainly, the quantities of produce that were brought before the Lord as first fruit offerings were, at most times, unusable because of the quantities being brought - here, for instance, at the festival in question, just one sheaf of the barley crop was brought to be waved, a quantity that could hardly have been construed as being useful to produce a loaf from!
As previously noted, beginning with this festival and carrying through into the subsequent two, the reason behind the ceremonies is predominantly the anticipation of the future harvest which the first fruit offering looked forward to.
At the third Jewish festival (the festival which we’re dealing with on this web page), a sheaf of the first fruit of the harvest was waved before God (Lev 23:10). This festival marked the beginning of the reaping of the barley harvest and the sheaf was offered in anticipation of that final harvest of barley.
Then, at the fourth Jewish festival, the beginning of the wheat harvest, two loaves of bread made from the first fruit of the ripe wheat were offered to God in anticipation of the full harvest of wheat that was being gathered in (Lev 23:17, Ex 34:22).
And, finally, at the Intermediate Festival (which took place between the fourth and seventh Jewish festivals - that is, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles), the first fruit offering to the Lord was offered in anticipation of the overall harvest of all agricultural produce that was to be gathered in (Deut 26:2, Ex 23:19) or, perhaps, it’s more accurate to say ‘that had already been gathered in’.
This principle carried itself over into themes that run throughout Scripture. So, for example, Jer 2:3 tells us that
‘Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruit of His harvest...’
Because God chose Israel as the first fruit of all the nations of the earth, He was anticipating His plan for the final harvest in which other nations would be gathered in to the Kingdom of God. That Israel chose to reject the purposes of God for themselves doesn’t negate the declared will of the Lord (and, one day, the inclusion of the Israelites will spell the close of the age in which the final harvest of souls will come in to God’s ‘barn’, so to speak - Rom 11:12). Israel, the first fruit offering of men and women to God for His use and purpose as outlined in the OT, is a proof and guarantee to all believers that God had purposed a wider harvest to be reaped from every Gentile nation under the sun.
Rom 11:16,26 also picks up this theme of Israel’s standing before the Lord God when Paul records that
‘If the dough offered as first fruit is holy, so is the whole lump...and so all Israel will be saved...’
The first fruit of the Jews that have become believers (specifically referring to the patriarchs of the OT) are the promise that eventually all Israel will be saved. The concept of the first fruit offering being a small offering that makes the entire lump ‘holy’ and acceptable to God will be looked at under the next section but, for now, we need only note Paul’s argument that the Jewish believers that had, at that time, given themselves wholly to the Gospel that the apostles were preaching were seen to be the guarantee and promise that God had not once and for all rejected His people but that He would provide for a time when the nation that He primarily came to die for and to commission to spread the news of the work of the cross will take up their calling and fulfil their appointed destiny.
In James 1:18 (see also Rom 8:19-21) the author speaks of the believers that he’s writing to by saying
‘...that we should be a kind of first fruit of His creatures’
Followers of Jesus (not just the believers that James is writing to - though there’s specific significance in James’ words as he’s primarily addressing his teaching to Jews) are a type of first fruit of the entire Creation - they are the promise that the earth will be set free from its bondage to decay and will enter the liberty that the children of God, the first fruits, have received.
I Cor 15:20,23 (the Scripture which will guide us on to see how the Festival of First Fruits is fulfilled in Christ in a later section) tells us that
‘...Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep...Christ the first fruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ’
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the promise that believers, too, will receive bodies in the final harvest that will never again die. Had Jesus not been raised from the dead, there would be no guarantee for believers to point to and rely upon when they think about the final day that the Scriptures point towards. But, as it is, the first fruit resurrection of Christ guarantees that there will be a final harvest of bodies that will be raised from the dead in similar manner to that of Christ.
Both Rom 8:23 and Eph 1:13-14 talk of
‘...we...who have the first fruit of the Spirit...[who is] the guarantee of our inheritance...’
The Holy Spirit that believers have received is the assurance that the future inheritance/final harvest promised to them will be laid hold of and reaped. Again, like the resurrection of Christ, had not a believer something tangible to rely upon, ‘belief’ would then become grounded upon purely subjective criteria and statements that have no real provable worth.
But believers can know with a great deal of certainty that they’ll receive the final promised inheritance into their lives because they’re experiencing the first fruit of that inheritance - they aren’t just believing that they must have the first fruit because they’ve been told they should have it even if they can’t see the evidence for it, but they are living in the reality of the provision that’s poured out upon them now.
2. The offering that makes holy
Another principle of the first fruit offering is that it represents a part of the whole.
When that part is offered to the Lord, the remaining part becomes ‘holy’ to Him - it sanctifies the entire lump from which the first fruit offering comes. Some of those words I’ve just used may not mean too much to you so let me try and put it into ‘non-religious’ terminology.
If you were to have a bag that contained a hundred marbles you may consider offering part of them as a first fruit offering to the Lord - though just why the Lord would want marbles is beyond me - this is a hypothetical simplification, anyway, and probably somewhere, at some point in time in the earth’s history, someone did find a use for marbles in the Lord’s service. But I digress...
Let’s say you offered 5 marbles as a first fruit offering to God (and that the officiating priest was pleased to accept them from you - perhaps he’d discovered a use for marbles in the Tabernacle court that has not been recorded for us in the Torah) leaving 95 marbles in your bag. Because you’d given those 5 marbles to the Lord, they’re a representative proportion of the entire bag and, if the 5 are acceptable to Him, then so are the 95.
Indeed, if the 5 are accepted, the 95 have been accepted as well. As the 5 become set apart for use by the Lord (perhaps He plays marbles?) so, too, do the 95. In fact, you shouldn’t consider that the 95 are your own possession anymore for you to do with as you wish, but you should expect the Lord to use them for His will and purpose seeing as they have been set apart for Him by your first fruit offering.
Far from the first fruit offering being a ceremony where a believer gives to God a small proportion of what they have and then use the remainder for their own selfish gain and purpose, it is, in reality, a ceremony that reminded the Israelite that all things should be set apart for the Lord’s purpose. Therefore, I spoke of the remaining ‘lump’ from which the first fruit came as being ‘holy’ to the Lord - that is, ‘set apart’ for His purpose.
The principle is well brought out in Num 15:17-21 (NASB using alternative translations) which has Moses being commanded to say to the children of Israel
‘When you enter the land where I bring you, then it shall be that when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall lift up a heave offering to the Lord. Of the first of your dough you shall lift up a cake as a heave offering; as the heave offering of the threshing floor, so you shall lift it up. From the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord a heave offering throughout your generations’
The dough that was ‘lifted up’ to God made holy the entire lump of dough that it was taken from. In the days of the Temple, when the sacrificial system took place, the first fruit offerings were given to the Levites and they became their property (Num 18:12). After its destruction when no sacrificial system existed, the women of the house would throw a handful of the dough into the fire as the first fruit offering to the Lord so that the rest of the dough became holy to Him. In every kitchen, therefore, the hearth became an altar to YHWH.
Commenting on this passage, the apostle Paul writes (Rom 11:16)
‘If the dough offered as first fruit is holy, so is the whole lump’
The context of what he’s saying is that, if the patriarchs at the beginning of Israel’s history were set apart for the Lord and His service, then the entire nation must be considered to be set apart for the use of the Lord. This doesn’t mean that the existing Israelites are all ‘saved’ (that is, believers in the Gospel of the cross), but that God has set them aside to specifically work in so that He might save them dependent upon a correct freewill response in their lives.
The principle comes across in other passages throughout the Bible. In the previously quoted Jer 2:3 we note that Israel had the honour of being the first fruit of the nations that was separated to God, and so ‘made holy’ the rest of the nations of the earth. Israel was chosen as the first fruit in order that through them the entire lump of the remaining nations might become holy and converted to God.
His plan was to reach out to the nations through His holy nation, the first fruits. Being God’s special portion, all who laid hold of the Jews laid hold of God - all who harmed the Jews, sinned against God - for the Jews are His special portion in the earth - holy, set apart for His service. The Jews’ commission (which was to be initiated and fulfilled by Christ’s coming) subsequently fell not to the natural nation who rejected God’s purposes for them but to the spiritual nation - the Church - who took up the call of God. Even so, the unbelieving Jews are still set apart for a special work of God because of the faith of the patriarchs (see on Rom 11:16 above).
In recent weeks, I’ve read much animosity directed towards the labels ‘spiritual Israel’ and ‘physical Israel’ where the former refers primarily to the believers under the New Covenant and the latter to the Jewish people. I think that the main reason for the aggression is that the labels are usually misunderstood to mean that the Jews no longer have a place in God’s will and plan and that they open up a way for anti-Semitism to latch on to a believer’s way of thinking, ending, so the argument goes, in events similar to the Holocaust!
But any ‘believer’ who takes part in the murder of any other human has strayed away from the faith fairly drastically. As for the hatred of the labels, they still appear to me to be the best ones to be able to describe how the religious Jews and believers of both Jews and Gentiles are both related through Israel and yet distinct because of their response to the work of Christ.
I Cor 7:14 also speaks in first fruit terminology and gives details concerning marriage. Paul writes that
‘...the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife...your children...are holy’
The believing partner in a marriage relationship represents the first fruit offering to God that makes the unbelieving partner consecrated/set apart. Children, by being part of the family unit, are holy too. None of this means that the unbelievers are ‘saved’ but that God has earmarked them for special treatment because of His presence in and through the believer. The first fruit offered to God’s service (that is, the believing partner) means that the other parts of the family unit are set apart for salvation dependent upon a correct freewill response. But, whatever that response, God will move in the unbeliever’s life because the believer is set apart for His service.
Inferences in other Scriptures even where the phrase ‘first fruits’ isn’t used, also relate into such a concept. Col 1:18 runs that
‘...[Christ] is the head of the body, the Church...’
Because Christ is the head of the entire body of the Church and because He’s offered Himself to God as first fruits, the rest of the Church is holy, set apart to God for His service, sanctified by the offering of another.
Believers too, therefore, are called to be ‘sanctifiers’ of their society. They can bring cleanness back into their society by the Church being the part that’s offered to God. After all, each follower are both individually and corporately, in some way or another, a part of the whole. That is, through many individuals, they’re part of many situations that call out for God to move in them.
The more that a disciple of Christ is set apart for God, then the more those they have responsibility for will be sanctified. God will find opportunity to move out into the areas around them to do His work in others’ lives because the first fruit offering of their own lives to God paves the way for this to take place.
Jesus talked about this ‘sanctification’ of society in John 7:37-39. Speaking of the Holy Spirit, He said
‘Out of [a believer’s] heart shall flow rivers of living water’
According to Jewish tradition (Mikwaoth chapter 1 in the Mishnah) there were six grades of water that could be used for different types of ceremonial washing, but only one kind (Mikwaoth 1:8) was able to
‘...serve for the immersion of them that have a flux [Lev 15:13], and for the sprinkling of lepers [Lev 14:5] and are valid for mixing with the ashes of the sin offering [Num 19:17]’
It was only this type of water that could cleanse the uncleanness of people’s situations, and the Jews called it Living Water. Jesus’ words in the passage in John become plain and can be paraphrased
‘I will give you water that will not only cleanse you from all uncleanness but will flow out from you bringing cleanness into all the situations that you find yourself in’
Offering ourselves to God, setting ourselves apart for the work of the Lord, consecrating ourselves to His service - these things release the Holy Spirit to constantly flow out from us and bring cleanness into situations around us, making a highway for God to move out through and to effect His will in the society around (A detailed explanation of this passage in John must wait until the notes on the Feast of Tabernacles section 3bii, where we’ll consider other OT passages that substantiate the interpretation and which were spoken prophetically by various people in anticipation of what would become available in Christ).
Concluding, therefore, lifting one’s life to God (that is, giving oneself to God for His use - indicative of the heave offering) causes a follower of Jesus to sanctify (make holy or set apart) each situation that they’re a part of, bringing the Kingdom to bear on every level of our society.
A word about the Church and First Fruits
The first fruit principle is such an important one for the Church that we should have paid particular attention to it down through the years and realised the power that it gave both ourselves and YHWH to affect the way society was being driven.
Instead, we took verses that said something about our relationship with the world and interpreted them as if having even the slightest association with unbelieving men and women was equal to being an enemy of God (Rom 12:2a, James 1:27 and 4:4 for example).
But Jesus was careful to pray (John 17:15), not that His followers should be taken out of the world but that the Father
'...shouldst keep them from the evil one'
That is, we should go about doing the Father's will and that we should not be conformed to the ways of satan. And why was that? Because, without a first fruit offering of believers in the world's situations, society was not going to be influenced by the presence of God.
Withdrawal from the world, therefore, is not an option for the believer - rather, withdrawal from following the world's principles and methodology. We are called to be in the world but not living in the world's ways.
Removing ourselves from the world puts us on the sidelines where we can be safely ignored by society, while choosing not to live in the world's ways puts us at the centre of society where we have to be dealt with by the world - either positively or negatively, but certainly not with ignorance.
We have a vain idea that, when we're a part of a situation, everything will start to go well, that God will somehow step in and smooth out the problems. If anything has been predictable in my walk with YHWH, it's that, when God moves in to a situation through His people, it's the more likely that matters will start to become volatile.
If we are the first fruit offering that makes holy the rest of the lump that we find ourselves a part of, then do we really think that evil men and women, people who are living lives that are set in opposition to the ways of God, are going to calmly bow down to the Kingdom that's coming through His followers?
No, trouble can be expected. Always. But, if we stick at it and, as David did as YHWH's vassal king (II Sam 22:1ff), help will be given that the situation will be transformed - in the way of His choosing and not of our own imagining.
Effective prayer is not to stand outside a situation and petition God to act, but to be a part of the situation and rule with Him in it, bringing his presence to bear in the situation by being the offering of first fruits that makes a way for Him to move into it, to be the leaven that works through the entire lump until the Kingdom has fully permeated every corner.
The Festival of First Fruits
The first ripe barley was to be seen around April. It was these first ripe sheaves that were to be brought to the Lord and waved before Him as an anticipation of the harvest that was about to be reaped in the following month and a half. It also acknowledged that it was God who’d provided for them by offering back to Him first what He’d given.
Lev 23:9-14 is the only passage that gives us information as to what the events were, even though there’s been much additional tradition that has been added to the celebration of the festival.
The OT simply states the date of the festival as being (Lev 23:11)
‘...on the morrow after the sabbath...’
There arose a great debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as to what was meant by ‘the day after the sabbath’. The Sadducean view was that ‘Sabbath’ always referred to a Saturday and that, therefore, ‘the day after’ was always a Sunday.
And that this Sabbath was defined as the first natural Sabbath that fell during the seven day festivities of Passover and Unleavened Bread (Passover plus Unleavened Bread would equal either 7 or 8 days depending upon your interpretation - see Appendix 1 in the notes on Passover - so it had to include at least one sabbath either way).
The Pharisaic view, on the other hand, took the sabbath to refer to the first day of the festival of Passover that’s proclaimed by the words ‘a holy convocation’ in the Law (Lev 23:7 - that is, the 15th of Nisan). The ‘day after’, according to the Pharisees, must always refer to the second day of the festivities and was always on the same calendar date unlike the Sadducean interpretation (see Hagigah 2:4 note 12 and Menahoth 10:3 note 1 in the Mishnah).
It’s difficult to understand why the 16th of Nisan wasn’t specified in the Mosaic law if, like the Pharisees believed, the Festival of First Fruits always occurred after the ‘holy convocation’ (that is, the 15th of Nisan when the Lamb was eaten) - the Law gives us the impression that the feast was only fixed to the occurrence of a natural Sabbath.
In the year of the Lord’s crucifixion, the Pharisaic interpretation would have fixed the waving of the ‘omer’ as Saturday (the day on which Jesus remained buried in the grave), whereas the Sadducees would have seen Resurrection Sunday as the day of celebration.
When the ‘fulfilment’ of the festival is considered, the Sadducean view is seen to be correct and the correct interpretation of the phrase ‘the morrow after the sabbath’ becomes apparent (Lev 23:11 - see also Appendix 2 in the Passover notes).
The festival - similar to Passover, Pentecost, Trumpets and the Day of Atonement - was to be of one day duration (Lev 23:12) at which time the sheaf of the first fruit of the barley harvest was brought to the priest and waved before the Lord so that the offerer would find acceptance (Lev 23:10-11). The festival was considered in the first century from the viewpoint of the offering gaining national acceptance so that just the single sheaf was selected from the entire agricultural holdings of the Jews, even though the passage seems to indicate that individual acceptance is what is here in mind in Leviticus.
However, when we think of the lack of compulsion laid upon individuals to celebrate this festival ‘at the place which YHWH would choose’, a national celebration is probably the best way to interpret it. The individual males may not have been required to bring their own sheaves before the presence of YHWH because one single offering was to be waved on their behalf which would remember the nation before Him.
The Israelites were also not allowed to eat of the new harvest until the offering of the first fruit was brought and presented to God (Lev 23:14), impressing upon them the importance of giving to God first before they thought of themselves. Being the beginning of the barley harvest, the sheaf offered as the first fruit was the promise or guarantee of the harvest that was about to be gathered in.
In the NT, we find the fulfilment of this festival in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Sadducees, who interpreted the passage correctly (yet who, quite ironically, didn’t believe in the resurrection!), would have wanted to have celebrated the wave offering of the sheaf on the first day of the week (Sunday) when Jesus rose from the grave (and it seems less likely that the Pharisaic interpretation was that which was being observed in the Temple - see on ‘Pentecost’ under 'Date').
John 19:31 instructs the reader that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation (a title for the Friday which preceded the natural sabbath - see Appendix 2 ) and then goes on to note in John 20:1 that it was
‘...on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early...’
Friday is clearly the crucifixion day and the fulfilment of Passover but Sunday is the resurrection day and the fulfilment of the Festival of First Fruits. Therefore, the NT writers clearly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ as being the first fruit offering to God. Paul announces in I Cor 15:20 that
‘...Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’
and, again, in Col 1:18 that
‘...[Christ is] the first born from the dead...’
while Rev 1:5 also announces to the reader that Jesus is
‘...the first born from the dead...’
It isn’t just that figurative language is being used to speak of Jesus’ resurrection but that it took place on the exact same day as the festival of first fruits was commanded to be waved before God in the Temple. Just like the seed of barley that fell into the earth and brought forth a sheaf, so the seed of Christ’s body was sown into the earth and brought forth new life as it was raised in power.
There’s also an OT precedent for seeing in the mention of a sheaf symbolism for a life for Gen 37:5-11 records how Joseph had a dream in which he saw both himself and his brothers binding sheaves together and
‘...my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves gathered round it, and bowed down to my sheaf’
which is explained along with his second dream by his father who asks
‘Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?’
Clearly, a sheaf could be used as representative of a person and all that person represented and its significant, therefore, that it could be naturally thought to have applied to one individual. As I noted above, the command to Israel in Lev 23:9-14 mentioned a single sheaf and its possible that one stalk was brought to be waved as representative as the entire harvest of the nation.
If this could be shown to have been God’s original intention, it brings home even more forcefully the importance of one individual being acceptable to God and that, because of Him, the nation would be able to find acceptance.
The NT writers don’t stop at simply stating that Jesus has risen as a fulfilment of the festival for they use this as the starting point to say more about the implications of the resurrection for believers. Paul writes in I Cor 15:23 that
‘...Christ [is] the first fruits [from the dead] then at His coming those who belong to Christ’
In the eyes of the early Church, Jesus’ resurrection is the anticipation of or the promise that the final harvest of resurrected believers will take place. Just as the sheaf waved before the Lord was the promise of the future harvest, so, too, the acceptance of Jesus into Heaven through the resurrection and ascension is the promise to all believers that there’s coming a time when all those who die as part of Christ’s body (His Church) will similarly be raised from the dead into new life and be acceptable to God.
This future harvest will be dealt with in the notes on the Festival of Tabernacles as this final festival celebrated the reality of the final harvest that had been brought in. First Fruits, therefore, not only proclaimed a fulfilment in Christ through the resurrection from the dead, but it also pointed the believer forward to see the final resurrection of all believers at the Festival of Tabernacles.