On this Harvest Thanksgiving Service, I want us to think about what the Bible says about firstfruits. And the word ‘firstfruits’ is used in at least three ways in the Bible.
Firstfruits of the harvest
And the first use of the word ‘firstfruits’ is from the Old Testament where it refers to the firstfruits of the farmer’s harvest. That is to say: it refers to the first part of what the farmer produced. It included the first grain that was harvested in the fields. And the first grapes that were picked in the vineyard. And the first of any animals which were born in the year. It also included the firstborn son in any family. The firstfruits was the first part of what you produced; and whatever it was, it belonged to the Lord. And so, the Israelites were instructed to bring the firstfruits to the Lord and to offer it to him as a thanksgiving sacrifice. They would bring it to the priest, and offer it to the Lord as a way of giving thanks to God for his kindness to them and his faithfulness in providing them with everything they needed. And we can imagine them saying to the Lord:
Lord, here’s the first of my grain. Thank you for all the grain you gave me this year.
Lord, here’s the first of my grapes. Thank you for all the grapes you gave me this year.
Lord, here’s the first lamb of my flock. That you for all the lambs you gave me this year.
Wwhen it came to your firstborn son, there was a way to redeem your son. That is, a father and mother would pay a price so that their firstborn son could continue to live with them in the family home. But the principle was the same: your firstborn son, as well as the firstfruits of the harvest, belonged to the Lord.
And so, in the first reading today, we read about some of the festivals which the people were to keep every year. First of all, in verses 4 to 8 we read about the Feast of Unleavened Bread which included the Passover Meal at the beginning. This commemorated how the Lord brought the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. This festival did not involve firstfruits, but the second festival in verses 9 to 14 does refer to firstfruits. This was a festival which took place on one Sabbath Day. There’s some dispute over which Sabbath Day is meant: it’s possible it took place as part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; but it’s also possible that it took place on a separate occasion. In any case, we read in verse 11 how the people were to bring to the priest a sheaf, or a bundle of stalks, of the first grain. In other words, they were to bring the firstfruits. And they were to wave it before the Lord. Probably they were to bring the first of the barley harvest, because it ripened first in the year.
Thirdly, in verses 15 to 22 there was the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost as it’s also known which took place seven weeks, or fifty days, after the day on which the barley sheaf was waved. According to verse 17, on this special day, the people were to bring two loaves of bread as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord. This was probably the firstfruits from the wheat harvest, which was harvested slightly later in the year then the barley. And then, in verses 33 to 43 there was the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths, as it’s also known. It was also known as the Feast of Ingathering. It took place at the end of the harvest. So, whenever the harvest was complete, the people met again and worshipped before the Lord. That’s why this final feast was known as the Feast of Ingathering, because the harvest has been gathered in.
The Israelites were commanded to hold these Festivals and to bring these offerings to give thanks to the Lord for his kindness to them. But, of course, whenever they brought the firstfruits, they were bringing only a portion of the total harvest. They brought one sheaf, not every sheaf. They brought two loaves of bed, not every loaf of bread. They brought the firstfruits, the first part of the harvest. And once they had brought it to the Lord, and acknowledged his goodness to them, then they were free to enjoy the rest of the harvest themselves.
Now, that’s really the point I want to underline. The firstfruits in the Old Testament was the first part of the harvest. The firstfruits was the first part of the harvest, and there was more to follow. And that’s important for the way the word ‘firstfruits’ is used in the New Testament.
Christ the firstfruits
And so, let’s turn to the New Testament and to the reading from 1 Corinthians 15. This is a passage I often use at funerals. It’s a marvellous chapter. In the opening verses, the Apostle Paul summarises for the Corinthians the gospel message which he preached to them and which they had accepted and believed. And the gospel message is this: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; he was buried; he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures; and people saw him alive again. Jesus Christ died, was buried, was raised, and was seen.
The reason Paul summarised the gospel message at the beginning of this chapter is because he wanted to address a problem which had arisen among the believers in Corinth. It appears that some were saying that the dead are not raised. Some were saying that there’s no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. You die and your body is laid in the grave and that’s were your body will remain, because the dead do not rise.
And so, Paul was writing to them to remind them of the message he preached and which they had all believed. And that message was that Jesus Christ died and was raised. So, if you accept that Jesus Christ died and was raised, how can you now say the dead don’t rise? Do you see that in verse 12? Paul wrote:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?
He’s saying to them: I came and preached to you that the Lord died and was raised. You believed that message about his death and resurrection. So how can you now say there’s no such thing as the resurrection when Jesus Christ was raised?
And Paul goes on to argue that if it’s true — if it’s true that there’s no such thing as the resurrection from the dead — if that’s true, then the Lord Jesus can’t have been raised. If there’s no resurrection, he can’t have risen. And if he didn’t rise, then my preaching is useless, says Paul in verse 14, and so is your faith. My preaching is useless, because I’m preaching about a dead Saviour who cannot save you. And your faith is useless, because you’re trusting in a dead Saviour who cannot save you. If the dead don’t rise, then the Lord Jesus didn’t rise; and we’re just wasting our time if we preach about him and believe in him. That’s the consequence of not believing in the resurrection of the dead. If the dead don’t rise, then the Lord Jesus didn’t rise. And if the Lord Jesus didn’t rise, then we’re lost.
But look at verse 20 now. After explaining to his readers the consequences of saying that there’s no such thing as the resurrection of the dead, Paul comes back to this one fact:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.
And why is Paul so certain about that? It’s because so many people saw the Lord after he was raised. That’s why Paul, back in verses 5 to 8, listed all the people who saw him alive again. And when the Apostle wrote this letter, most of those who saw the Lord were still alive. So, it’s as if he’s saying to his readers:
Go and ask them what they saw! You say the dead don’t rise. Well, go and ask them and they’ll tell you how they saw the Lord Jesus who had died but who was raised.
They were eye-witnesses to the resurrection. And so, Paul is able to declare:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.
However, look what Paul went on to say in verse 20.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Here’s our second use of the word ‘firstfruits’. In the Old Testament, the firstfruits was the first part of the harvest. It was the first part of the harvest, only a portion of the whole. The farmer would look at the firstfruits and he’d know that there would be more to follow. And here’s Paul saying that the Lord Jesus, who was raised from the dead, is the firstfruits. What did he mean? Very simply: the Lord Jesus was the first to be raised from the dead, but he will not be the last. He was the first to be raised, and there will be more to follow. People were saying that there’s no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. Paul responds: We know that the Lord Jesus was raised, because people saw him. And he won’t be the only one to be raised. He’s the first of many, many, many more.
That’s why Paul can go on in verse 20 to refer to believers who have died as ‘those who have fallen asleep’. Mum shouts up the stairs, or she opens the bedroom door and calls out:
Come on, it’s time to get up now.
And the sleepy-head, who is fast asleep in her bed, knows that it’s time to get up for school. Well, one day, when the Lord returns to earth, in glory and with power, he’ll call his people who have died and he’ll say to them:
Come on, it’s time to get up now.
And the dead will be raised.
I love the way our church’s Larger Catechism puts it. It says of the wicked, who never believed in the Saviour, that when they die, their bodies are kept in their graves as in their prisons until the resurrection when they will face God’s judgment. You see, even unbelievers are raised; but they’re raised only to face God’s condemnation. But then the Larger Catechism says of the righteous — all those who have believed in the Saviour — that when they die, their bodies rest in their graves, as if in their beds, until the resurrection when they will be acquitted in the judgment and brought into eternal glory. For the unbeliever, the grave is a prison cell where they’re waiting to be sentenced. For the believer, the grave is a bed, from which they will one day rise to resurrection life.
The Bible teaches, and we believe, that when believers die, their bodies are buried, or cremated, but their souls go immediately to be with the Lord. That’s why the Lord Jesus was able to say to the thief on the cross that he would be with the Lord in paradise that very day. However, the Bible is also plain that our salvation is not complete, it’s not consummated, until Christ returns, and our bodies are raised and re-united with our souls. That’s the great hope the Bible gives to all who believe: just as Christ died and was raised, so all who believe in him will likewise be raised from the dead and we will live in body and soul with the Lord for ever.
People in Corinth were saying that the dead do not rise. But Paul reminded them of the gospel message and how the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead and people saw him afterwards. And so, the dead do rise. We know they will rise because Jesus Christ was raised. And he’s the firstfruits of those who are sleeping now in their graves, but who will be raised as well one day. He was the first, but he won’t be the last. He was the first, and there will be more to follow. The resurrection harvest has already begun, because Christ the firstfruits has already been raised. And we look forward to and we pray for his return, when the full harvest will be brought in and all of the Lord’s people will be with him in glory for ever and for ever.
Believers as firstfruits
In the Old Testament, we have the firstfruits of the harvest. And in 1 Corinthians we have the Lord Jesus as the firstfruits of all those who are sleeping now in their graves, but who will one day be raised. The third use of the word ‘firstfruits’ is found in the book of James. Let me read chapter 1 and verses 16 to 18:
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
This is a good text for a Harvest Thanksgiving Service because it reminds us that God fills our lives with good things. Every good thing which we enjoy here on earth has come to us from him. And so, we ought to be thankful to him for his good gifts which he freely bestows on us.
And his best gift to us is the new birth. What’s the new birth? It’s that moment when God made us new. Somebody was telling us about the Saviour. Or we were reading about him in the Bible. And whereas we’d heard the message before, and never believed it, this time, God worked inside us, by his Holy Spirit, and he enabled us, for the first time, to believe. On this occasion, he gave us a new heart to love and trust the Saviour. Once we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but on this occasion, God by his Spirit raised us to new life in Christ. He put his Spirit inside us and enabled us to believe and we began a new life with Christ. James says that God chose to give us this new birth through the word of truth. So, through the reading and preaching of his word, he worked in our lives and he made us new. Physically we’re the same, but spiritually, inwardly, we’ve been made new so that we become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth.
And those who have been made new by means of the new birth have become a kind of firstfruits.
Now, do you remember what we learned earlier from the Old Testament about the firstfruits? We learned that the firstfruits of the harvest belonged to the Lord. The people brought the sheaf of barley, or they brought the two loaves, or whatever it was, and they gave their offering to the Lord, because it belonged to him. And by saying that those who have experienced the new birth are the firstfruits, James is telling us that we now belong to God. We now belong to God and therefore we should give our lives to him; and we should live for him and for his glory.
But what else did we learn about firstfruits? We learned that firstfruits are the first part of the harvest. The firstfruits are only a portion of a larger, greater harvest. And so, when James says that those who have experienced the new birth are the firstfruits of all that God created, he’s saying to us that not only have we been made new but all of creation will be made new. So, we’re the first to be made new, but we won’t be the last. We’re the first to be made new, but there will be more to follow.
James is referring to what will happen when Christ comes again. He only mentions it briefly, but we learn more about this in other parts of the Bible. For instance, in the penultimate chapter of the Bible, John the Apostle overhears the Lord say:
I am making everything new.
And he will make everything new, because, when the Lord Jesus comes again, he’ll renew this world which has been spoiled because of sin. The Lord will renew it; he’ll recreate it; and he’ll remove his curse from it, the curse which he pronounced on the world in the beginning when Adam sinned against him.
Because of God’s curse on the earth, life in this world is frustrating and difficult. And it’s filled with sorrow and suffering and disappointment. And it’s full of sickness and disease and it ends in death. That’s the world we live in now, because of Adam’s sin in the beginning. But one day the Lord will come again and he’ll make everything new.
Now, those people who never believed in the Saviour will not benefit from this. They will be condemned and punished forever because of their sins. But the Lord’s people — all who trusted in the Saviour and who have been pardoned by him — will be part of this new creation and they will live with the Lord for ever and for ever in that renewed world where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.
That’s what John the Apostle discovered. And it’s what James is referring to here. God is renewing his people, right now, in this life, through the preaching of the gospel. He’s renewing us inwardly by giving us a new heart and by making us more and more obedient. And though Christians are the first to be renewed, we won’t be the last, because the Lord is going to renew his creation when he comes again. Our bodies will be made new when he raises them from the dead and re-unites them with our souls. And the heavens and the earth will also be made new.
Right now, the farmer goes out to the field to grow his crops. But it’s hard work. And it’s frustrating. And often he’s disappointed, because the weather wasn’t right and his crops were spoiled. Or his crops died because of disease. Something went wrong. Or you go out to work. And it’s hard. And it’s frustrating. And often it’s heartbreaking. And you drive around the city and you see so many things that aren’t right and are broken. And you go home, and there are things in your family which are not right and there are problems which overwhelm you.
And often we feel crushed. We feel frustrated. We feel broken-hearted. We know things are not right. But the believer looks at all these things which are not right, and he believes, she believes that the Lord — who gave me a new heart and who raised me to new life in Christ — has something far, far, far better in store for all his people in the future, because — when Jesus Christ comes again to gather together all of his people for eternal life — he will make all things new; and the old order of things, with its death and mourning and crying and pain will have passed away.
If you’re a believer, then you’re the firstfruits, the first of all that God is going to make new. You’re the first; and you won’t be the last, because God our Father has a a glorious future in store for the whole of his creation; and you will live with God in that new and better world to come. And so, as we give thanks to our loving Heavenly Father for all his good gifts to us in his life, we can give thanks to him as well for all that he is planning to give to us when Jesus Christ our Saviour comes again.
And since, through the new birth, we now belong to God, then we ought to give our lives to God and dedicate ourselves to living for his glory. Instead of living for ourselves, we should live for him and seek to do his will each day.