In 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul makes the triumphant declaration: ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’. But what did Paul actually mean when he referred to Christ’s resurrection as ‘the first fruits’?
Feast of the Lord
The ‘Feast of the first fruits’ dates from the time of Moses and is described in Leviticus 23. It was one of the seven ‘Feasts of the Lord’.
It took place annually, every Spring, on the day after the Sabbath following the Feast of the Passover – the equivalent of our ‘Easter Sunday’ following ‘Good Friday’.
Leviticus 23:9-11 gives the details: ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, when you come into the land which I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest; and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance; on the morrow after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it”.’
What a remarkable foreshadowing of Christ and his resurrection we have here – down to the finer details! The sheaf of the first fruits was waved before God ‘on the morrow after the Sabbath’ – that is, the first day of the week.
Likewise, Christ, ‘the first fruits’, was raised from the dead on the first day of the week – hence the ‘Christian Sabbath’ has always been Sunday, not Saturday.
Only the eternal God knows the end from the beginning. He alone could give this revelation to Moses and, in the process, provide a glimpse of the coming Christ some 1500 years BC (before Christ).
Such, remarkable prophecies are one evidence that the Bible is the written Word of God. In the Feast of the Passover we see Christ as the Lamb of God, shedding his precious blood to redeem his people.
In the Feast of the first fruits, three days later, we see Christ’s victorious conquest of the grave on the first day of the week.
Shadow and substance
The Feast of the first fruits was a harvest festival. At the very outset, before the grain was harvested, one sheaf of barley would be cut and waved before the Lord.
The sheaf was representative. It was a token of the whole harvest to come – a guarantee of the larger harvest to follow. The whole harvest was actually still in the fields, but as the first sheaf was waved – and dedicated to the Lord – the people of Israel knew that the whole harvest would surely soon be gathered.
In the Lord Jesus Christ we have the final fulfilment of the Feast of the first fruits. ‘Christ has been raised from the dead,the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’.
As Christ died on the cross for others, so also was his resurrection representative. The harvest of his people will surely follow! As God raised his Son, so likewise will he raise all who trust in Jesus to new life.
This is true spiritually already. Christ gives us new life now for, says Paul, ‘you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked … but God … made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him’ (Ephesians 2:5-6; see also Romans 6:4-14).
Awakened from sleep
But what is true spiritually now will one day be fulfilled physically. For, writes the apostle: ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
‘For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming, those who belong to him’ (1 Corinthians 15:20-23.).
As Christ rose from the grave and ascended to be with the Father, his people will surely do the same. The believer’s prospects are brighter than bright!
In John 20:17 the risen Christ explained: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’. Previously he promised: ‘In My Father’s house are many rooms … I go to prepare a place for you … I will come again and take you to Myself, that where I am, you may be also’ (John 14:2-3).
As Christ was raised from the dead, physically and bodily, on the first Easter Sunday – raised as the first fruits – so likewise every one of his people is promised a glorious, resurrection body in which to dwell on a redeemed earth.
Paul expands on this in 1 Corinthians 15. This chapter is justly known as ‘The Resurrection Chapter’, taken up as it is with both Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of his people as a consequence.
Perhaps we are inclined to forget that the full Christian hope is the resurrection of the body as well as the salvation of the soul.
Let us lay hold upon that hope, for ‘the Lord Jesus Christ … will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Philippians 3:20).
If we belong to Christ then our future resurrection is guaranteed. Why? Because ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’.
Christ is risen, Christ the first-fruits
Of the holy harvest field,
Which with all its full abundance
At his Second Coming yield.
Then the golden ears of harvest
Will their heads before him wave,
Ripened by his glorious sunshine
From the furrows of the grave