A Study of Firstfruits in the Old and New Testaments

Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him 144,000, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads… These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:1-4).

According to the Israel Only (IO) movement, only natural Israel was ever part of God’s redemptive narrative, and this narrative ended in AD 70. As we will see later in this article, the 144,000 were on the scene during the great tribulation of AD 66-70, in what, according to IO, would be the very final moments of that redemptive narrative.  

What does it mean that the 144,000 were “firstfruits” to God and to the Lamb? Does it mean they were the best, superior, most favorable fruits? Does it mean they were the only fruits? Does it mean they were the last, final fruits? Or does it mean that they were among the first fruits and that more fruits were to follow? The following study takes a look at every reference to “firstfruits” in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, in an effort to see what we can learn about the meaning of this offering and this word in Scripture (and in Revelation 14 in particular).

OLD TESTAMENT

Exodus

Firstfruits were first introduced in Exodus 23. “Three times you shall keep a feast to me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread… and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering, which is at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field… The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 23:14-19). This is repeated in Exodus 34:22-26. Note that the Feast of Harvest (firstfruits) is much earlier in the year (Sivan – May/June) than the Feast of Ingathering (Tishrei – September/October), as Bill Bradford, pastor of the United Church of God in Queensland, Australia, explains:

“Shortly after giving the Ten Commandments, God gave Israel another command: “Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread … and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labours which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year …” (Exodus 23:14-16). At this Feast of Harvest, also called the Feast of Firstfruits or Weeks, the Israelites were to offer the FIRSTFRUITS OF THE LATE SPRING WHEAT HARVEST in the Holy Land (Numbers 28:26; Exodus 34:22). Months later they celebrated another festival, called the Feast of Ingathering or the Feast of Tabernacles. This came at “the end of the year”—the end of the agricultural cycle of the year AT SUMMER’S END in the Holy Land—when THE PEOPLE GATHERED IN ALL THE HARVEST” (Bill Bradford, “The Biblical Feast of Firstfruits: How it Explains a Great Mystery,” 2012, https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/the-biblical-feast-of-firstfruits-how-it-explains-a-great-mystery).

Leviticus and Numbers

Leviticus 2:12-14 stipulated that the firstfruits offering was not to be burned, and also stipulated how to offer it if it was in the form of grain. In Leviticus 23:9-22 the Israelites were instructed on how to celebrate the Feast of Firstfruits and the Feast of Weeks, with some overlaps in these two offerings. In describing the offerings for the support of the priests, the Lord added these instructions: “All the best of the oil, all the best of the new wine and the grain, their firstfruits which they offer to the Lord, I have given them to you. Whatever FIRST ripe fruit is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours” (Numbers 18:12-13). Firstfruits are also briefly mentioned in Numbers 28:26 with reference to the Feast of Weeks.

Deuteronomy

The offering of the firstfruits is further described in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. “And it shall be, when you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take some of THE FIRST of all the produce of the ground, which you shall bring from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide…”

II Kings, II Chronicles, and Proverbs

In II Kings 4:42 a man brought Elisha “bread of the firstfruits,” which was used to feed 100 men. II Chronicles 31:5 records that the children of Israel offered the firstfruits of grain, wine, oil, and honey in the days of Hezekiah. Proverbs 3:9 records Solomon’s instructions to honor the Lord “with the firstfruits of all your increase” so that barns and vats would be filled with plenty.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Jeremiah 2:1-3 records that ISRAEL ITSELF was a firstfruits offering. “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness to the Lord, the firstfruits of His increase. All that devour him will offend; Disaster will come upon them.” Ezekiel 20:40 speaks of “offerings and the firstfruits of your sacrifices” in reference to Israel’s restoration after the Babylonian captivity. The final OT reference is in Ezekiel 44:30, speaking of a temple which was future to Ezekiel. “The best of all firstfruits of any kind, and every sacrifice of any kind from all your sacrifices, shall be the priest’s; also you shall give to the priest THE FIRST of your ground meal, to cause a blessing to rest on your house.”

Two Brief Commentaries

Baruch A. Levine, Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University, wrote the following which was published in Encyclopaedia Judaica in 2008:

“The Hebrew term bikkurim and related terms for the “first fruits” derive from the same root as bekhor, “firstborn.” On the same general principle that the firstborn of man and beast belonged to the God of Israel and were to be devoted to Him, the first fruits, INCLUDING THE FIRST GRAINS TO RIPEN EACH SEASON, were to be brought as an offering to God. Every Israelite who possessed the means of agricultural productivity was under this obligation (Ex. 23:19; 34:26, Num. 15:17–21; 18:12–13; Deut. 26:1–11)” (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/first-fruits).

Rich Robinson, an author, professor, and senior researcher, explained his understanding of the firstfruits in Israel’s annual harvests in a 1997 article published by Jews for Jesus:

“‘Firstfruits’ refers to the first portion of the harvest which is given to God. Most notably the firstfruits are: [1] the first to come in time; [2] a pledge or hope of the greater harvest to follow; and [3] specially dedicated to God. …By giving God the firstfruits, Israel acknowledged that all good things come from God and that everything belongs to God. Giving the firstfruits was also a way of expressing trust in God’s provision; just as He provided the firstfruits, so He would provide the rest of the crops that were needed” (Rich Robinson, “First Fruits in the Bible: What Does it Have to Do with the Resurrection of the Dead?”, Jews for Jesus, 1997, https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/newsletter/newsletter-mar-1997/first-fruits-in-the-bible-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-resurrection-from-the-dead/).

NEW TESTAMENT

Let’s take a quick look at all eight reference to “firstfruits” in the New Testament. Before doing so, we can note that the word translated as “firstfruits” in each of the passages below is defined in the Greek Lexicon as “From a compound of apo and archomai; a beginning of sacrifice, i.e. The first-fruit.”

  1. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:22-23).

It seems likely that the commentaries (at BibleHub.com, etc.) are correct in saying that Paul was making a statement that he and his readers were among the first to know the blessings of the Holy Spirit. It would be out of place with Paul’s theology for him to say that the Roman believers were the only ones to have the Holy Spirit or that they had a greater measure of the Holy Spirit than believers elsewhere. It’s also significant that the Holy Spirit was first poured out on the Day of Pentecost, at the time of the Feast of Weeks when the firstfruits were presented as a wave offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23:15-20). For more on the linking of redemption with firstfruits, see this article: https://hope4israel.org/shavuot-the-firstfruits-and-law-of-redemption/.

  1. For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:13-16).

The firstfruit is compared to the lump in the same way that the root is compared to the branches. Clearly the firstfruit here is a small part of the whole, and is foundational to the whole. What was true of the firstfruit was also to be true of the rest.

  1. Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Asia to Christ” (Romans 16:5).

One commentary after another expresses the opinion that Epaenetus was among the first converts to Christ in his region, if not the very first. Certainly he wasn’t the only convert to Christ there, and again it would be out of character for Paul to imply that Epaenetus was superior to every other convert in his region. It makes much more sense that he was first in terms of sequence.

4-5. “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in His own order: Christ the firstfruits, AFTERWARD those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Corinthians 15:20-23).

In this passage it’s clear that “firstfruits” had to do with order and sequence. Christ, as firstfruits, was risen (verse 20), and Paul took that as a guarantee that those in Christ would be made alive “afterward” at His coming (verse 23). W. Harold Mare, Professor of New Testament and Archaeology at (and founding trustee of) Covenant Theological Seminary, comments:

“In 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23, Paul teaches that Christ in bodily resurrection is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” As such, he is the guarantee that all those who belong to him will be raised from the dead at his second coming. In the natural world, the first sheaf of the crop was to be brought to God (Leviticus 23:10, Leviticus 23:11, Leviticus 23:17) as a guarantee that the rest of the harvest was coming. So it is in God’s redemption harvest. First, Christ the “firstfruits” has triumphed in his resurrection; then, the rest of his “crop,” the redeemed, will be raised triumphantly at his second coming (1 Cor 15:23)” (https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/firstfruits/).   

  1. I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints…” (I Corinthians 16:5).

As is the case with Epaenetus in Romans 16:5, it’s believed that the household of Stephanas was the first, or at least among the first, to convert to Christ in their region. Certainly they weren’t the only household to convert to Christ there, and again it would be out of character for Paul to imply that this household was superior to every other converted household in their region. It makes much more sense that they were the beginning of the church there.

  1. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18).

Here, James, speaking to the 12 tribes scattered abroad (James 1:1), seems to be referring to himself and his readers as the first to respond to, and be transformed by, the word of truth. They were part of a whole (“of His creatures”), implying that many more of God’s creatures would experience the same transformation.

  1. Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him 144,000, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads… These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:1-4).

The 144,000 were from the 12 tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4-8). They were sealed on their foreheads by angels just prior to the harming of the earth and the sea (Rev. 7:2-4), which took place during the great tribulation (AD 66-70). This mirrors Ezekiel 9:1-11, where those who were grieved by the abominations in Jerusalem were marked on their foreheads for their protection just prior to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC. The 144,000 in Rev. 14:4 were “redeemed from among men,” again showing that the firstfruits were part of a whole. (Note: The text does not say that the “firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” were limited to the 144,000.)

CONCLUSION

A study of firstfruits in the Old Testament reveals that the Feast of Firstfruits took place early in Israel’s growing season, and was followed much later by the harvest of the Feast of Ingathering, at which time the bulk of the harvest would be gathered in. Several OT passages reveal that the firstfruits consisted of the first ripe crops, that is, first in terms of sequence. The firstfruits were to be given with the expectation that blessings and prosperity (“plenty”) would follow and characterize the rest of the harvest (Proverbs 3:9, Ezekiel 44:30). The nation of Israel itself was a firstfruits offering (Jeremiah 2:1-3).

A study of “firstfruits” in the New Testament reveals that this word often, if not always, clearly referred to being first in terms of sequence: first to have the Holy Spirit, first to be holy, first to convert, first to rise from the dead, first to be brought forth by the word of truth… The firstfruits were also shown repeatedly to be a small part of a whole, and to be a prototype of more fruits to come.

For at least the following four reasons, it’s fitting that the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel were among the FIRST fruits to Christ, but NOT THE LAST fruits to Christ:

[1] Jesus said at one point that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24) and He confirmed that the bread belonged to them – “the children” (verse 26). Yet Jesus also said, “Let the children be filled FIRST” (Mark 7:27). The bread was for them FIRST, but NOT EXCLUSIVELY.

[2] In Acts 3:25, Peter affirmed the covenant made with Israel’s fathers that Abraham’s seed would be the means by which all the families of the earth would be blessed. Here, as elsewhere, there’s a distinction between the seed of Abraham and “all the families.” Israel was just one of those families, the only family that God knew (Amos 3:1-2). Peter added, “To you FIRST, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:25-26). The other families, the other nations, were NEXT to be blessed in Christ.

[3] The Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-44) tells a story of two lease terms, one before the owner of the vineyard came (verse 33) and a new one after he came (verse 41). During the first lease the owner’s servants were beaten, stoned, or killed when they came to receive fruit from the vineyard (verses 34-36) and the owner’s son was also killed in an attempt to steal his inheritance (verses 37-39). Then those wicked men were destroyed miserably; this was the judgment that fell in AD 70 (verses 40-41). At that time the vineyard owner came, terminated the first lease, and leased “his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons” (verse 41; see also verse 43). AD 70 was THE BEGINNING of the SECOND LEASE, during which there would be SEASONS (plural) of fruit-bearing.

[4] New Jerusalem, the holy city, came down out of heaven at the time of the passing of the first heaven, the first earth, and the sea (AD 70), and at the time of the arrival of the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1-2; II Peter 3:7-13). In the street of this city and on both sides of its “river of water of life” is the tree of life which bears 12 fruits, “yielding its fruit EVERY MONTH.” The leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2). These are post-AD 70 realities.

Life in Christ didn’t end on planet earth in AD 70, as the Israel Only movement would tell us; it was just getting started. The 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel (as well as Paul’s readers in Romans 8:23 and James’ readers in James 1:18) followed the pattern of firstfruits seen throughout the Old and New Testaments. They didn’t represent the end of the story any more than all the other firstfruit offerings in Scripture did. The 144,000 were among the firstfruits to Christ, guaranteeing that many more fruits would continue to come to Christ. These fruits continue to come in to this very day.

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