The Apostle Paul calls Jesus the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can see the prophetic significance of the three main Jewish holidays.
A Guide to First Fruits
On the outskirts of the old city walls in Jerusalem, close to where Solomon’s temple once stood, there is a beautiful garden. Fruit trees and flowers grow year-round, lovingly tended by volunteers from around the world.
On the North side of the garden, there is a cliff face with inset features, which give it a distinct appearance of a giant skull. A short walk from the cliff to the south is an empty tomb, dating from the first century.
The case that the Garden Tomb is the authentic location of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus, is certainly very compelling, whilst not established beyond doubt.
As I sit writing this article in my Jerusalem apartment, I could be barely a mile from the site of the resurrection! The place where everything changed and a new chapter of the relationship between God and humanity began. It is a remarkable and humbling thought.
FIRST FRUIT AT PASSOVER
On the day of the resurrection in Jerusalem, Jesus became what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians as “the First Fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). First Fruits is a biblical festival celebrating the first harvest of crops and it is the second of three annual pilgrimage festivals.
But what does this ancient agricultural festival have to do with the resurrection of Jesus?
We all know that “firsts” are special. We all remember significant firsts in our lives such as our first car, our first home, and our first date. Firsts are significant to God too – and First Fruits is a phrase loaded with biblical significance. In Exodus 4:22, God calls Israel his “first born son”. As His first born, the Israelites were commanded to honor God by bringing “the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God” (Exodus 23:19).
This is the first and perhaps most obvious meaning of First Fruits. It is giving back from the best of what we have as a thank offering and declaration of faith. By using the term to describe Jesus, Paul is letting us know that God gave His best for us, He did not hold back. Paul links First Fruits to Jesus’ resurrection, and by doing so implies that it would be of life-altering significance in world history.
Passover commemorates the time the children of Israel were saved from death by the blood of an innocent lamb. It is no coincidence that Jesus’ death and resurrection took place on Passover.
We too are saved by the blood of an innocent lamb – Jesus’ blood.
And Passover is followed closely in the calendar by another major holiday – and one of its names is First Fruits.
DIVING DEEPER AT SHAVUOT
In the Hebrew language, the First Fruits festival is known as Shavuot (Hebrew for Weeks), which takes place in the late spring. During First Fruits in Biblical times, Jews from other regions would travel to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. First Fruits was the time of year when God gave the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses to the children of Israel.
This is perhaps the most significant event in the history of the Jewish people.
The giving of the law at Sinai has shaped Jewish identity, religious practice and culture for thousands of years since. In fact, First Fruits today in modern Judaism is known primarily not as an agricultural festival but as the “birthday of the Torah (law)”. As we’ll explore next, the Festival of First Fruits not only plays a key role in ancient Jewish history, but also in the founding of the church in the New Testament.
There are dramatic parallels between the biblical festival of Shavuot and the New Testament events that took place at the time of its celebration.
Moses’ giving of the law on Sinai at the time of First Fruits was accompanied by fire from heaven. So too as the Spirit fell in the upper room, the disciples spoke supernaturally in foreign languages, whilst tongues of fire descended upon their heads. (Acts 2:3) Secondly, on the day Moses came down from the mountain, three thousand Jewish souls were slain for their sin (Exodus 32:28). In contrast, on the day of First Fruits, weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, three thousand Jewish souls were saved from their sin!
The First Fruits pilgrimage was the reason why so many Jews happened to be in Jerusalem at that time. Therefore, First Fruits played a key role in the early spread of the Gospel. These early converts heard Peter declare that the barrier between God and man had come down forever.
With the resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit, First Fruits was transformed into a message of the endless fountain of God’s grace.
ALL ISRAEL SAVED AT SUKKOT
Sukkot, known in English as the Feast of Tabernacles, is the festival of the last harvest of the year. It invites us to remember that First Fruits is just that – only the first! During Sukkot, which we could call “Last Fruits”, God commanded the Israelites to live for a week in temporary outdoor dwellings, a tradition followed to this day by the Jewish people.
Once a year the streets of Jerusalem are overtaken with small booths covered in palm branches known as Sukkahs.
These temporary dwellings remind us that this world of struggle, sickness and pain is not our ultimate home. Just as he poured out his Spirit during First Fruits, he will return for us in fulfillment of the Last Fruits. Three thousand Israelites were saved during First Fruits; however, Paul reminds us that the last harvest will be far greater and that eventually “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).
By placing the outpouring of the Spirit during First Fruits, God chose to imbue the festival with new, resurrection significance, as He also did with the other two pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar, Passover and Sukkot. In them, we can also find deep significance for our lives as believers.
The three pilgrimage festivals beautifully illustrate the common thread of redemption, grace and future hope that God has woven throughout the story of humanity.
Perhaps First Fruits’ ultimate significance is in pointing us to the example of God giving his best for us by laying down the life of his only son in our place.
Until Jesus returns, we are to be busy as laborers in the harvest field (Luke 10:2). We echo God’s example by giving our best, our first fruits, by laying down our lives for one another. Just as the first disciples needed to be filled with the Spirit at First Fruits to build the early church, so do we, in order to give our first fruits.
Only with the Spirit’s indwelling power can we sow seeds of life in people’s hearts and play our role in God’s salvation story.
Have you ever wondered how Israel, Passover, and the Resurrection are connected in the Bible?
This article originally appeared on FIRM and is reposted with permission.