“Firstfruits”

“Firstfruits” were important in the Old Testament.  “Firstfruits” were, of course, “first fruits.”  The first apples off the tree.  The first grapes off the vine.  The first sheaf of wheat from a field of grain.  There were also “firstripe,” “firstlings,” and “firstborn.”

And God said that they were His, Exodus 23:16, 19.

This was a reminder of where they came from.  The Israelite indeed had to sow the seed, but he was dependent on God for the rain and sunshine necessary to bring the seed to fruition and then to harvest.

They were also a promise of more to come.

I’m not so much interested in the Old Testament references to them as I am to the fact that the New Testament also has some things to say about “firstfruits.”

In the order, more or less, in which they appear in the New Testament, because I haven’t worked out a “logical” sequence for them, they are:

1.  Romans 8:23, …we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, [NKJV]

Romans 8 is a chapter on the Holy Spirit and His relationship to the Christian.  The section from vs. 18-25 deal with the earnest expectation of…creation as it looks forward to the time when it, too, shall be delivered from the curse brought on it by Adam.

In Ephesians 1:13, 14, Paul wrote that the Spirit is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession,… [emphasis added].  The word translated “guarantee” means “earnest money.”  We might think of it as a down payment.  When my wife and I bought our present home, we had to put down some money as “earnest money.”  This secured to us the right to move into the house, but it also led to an obligation of  30 years of payments to the lender who financed the purchase.

Without wishing to demean the ways of God in any way, or to teach that they are comparable to the way man does things, cf. Isaiah 55:8, 9, God has only given us the beginning or “down payment” of what it will take Him eternity to reveal to us, Ephesians 2:7, the exceeding riches of His grace.  It also, if I may be so bold, obligates Him to finish the transaction.  We have the Spirit until the redemption of the purchased possession.  In other words, once God has truly saved a person and given him or her “the earnest of the Spirit,” He can never take the Spirit away or “unsave” the person.  There will be no “foreclosures” in the real estate of heaven.  (That will be because the full price has already been paid.  There’s nothing left of the debt.)

2.  Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:15, firstfruits of Achaia.

These respectively are, the beloved Epaenetus, about whom nothing else is said in the New Testament, and the household of Stephanas, who are also mentioned in 1:16 as one of the very few households Paul personally baptized, and who, Paul said in 16:15, had devoted [“addicted”, KJV] themselves to the ministry of the saints.  A good “addiction” to have.  Stephanas was also apparently Paul’s secretary in writing 1 Corinthians.

3.  1 Corinthians 15;20, 23, Christ the firstfruits of the resurrection.

In this defense of resurrection answering those who denied it, Paul asserts that Christ has indeed risen from the dead, and, furthermore, is only the “firstfruits” of it.  As the firstfruits in the Old Testament were a harbinger of things to come, so also is Christ the promise of resurrection, each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.  Death isn’t the end of everything.  It’s just the “planting” from which will spring the harvest of eternal life and blessing for those who are Christ’s, those who have “the earnest of the Spirit.”

If I were to choose the epitaph for my tombstone, it would read, “This, too, shall pass.”

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

I believe James is here referring to all those Old Testament verses which promise a restoration of creation, mainly by the removal of the Adamic curse.  When that happens, the OT tells us that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.  They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as waters cover the sea, Isaiah 11:6-9. Life will also be greatly extended, so that a child will still be considered a child at 100 years old, Isaiah 65:20.

I think it does a great disservice to Christians, and removes the Old Testament from any intelligible understanding, to say that all this is “fulfilled in Jesus” and the church is “the kingdom.”  I know that many will disagree with me, and without wanting to get further into that discussion here, just let me say this.  That Jesus will indeed be instrumental in the actual fulfillment of these and similar verses should go without saying, but I believe we may also say that “the church” – believers – is “the firstfruits” of that worldwide kingdom the OT prophesies so often and so eloquently.  We are a “kind of firstfruits” of that harvest, but we’re not the whole harvest.

5.  Revelation 14:4, These  were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.

I realize there is considerable discussion about Revelation and what it all means.  What one believes about that will determine what one thinks about this verse.  As I understand Revelation, these 144,000, also see 7:1-8, are “the firstfruits” of that nationwide conversion of Israel that will take place at the Second Coming of Christ, Romans 11:25-27; Zechariah 12:10-14.

Conclusion

This world is not heaven. Nor, for that matter is it hell.  It’s just the preface, if you will, to eternity.  The blessings we have as believers, and they are without number, are nothing compared with what waits for us “over there.”  In Romans 8:18, Paul wrote, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.  Not “to us,” as some read it, but IN US. 

IN US!

IN US!

IN US!

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Passover

This is Passover week.  Passover itself was Tuesday.  I’m not Jewish, but as I read the Old Testament, I can sense the importance of this national festival.  A church I used to attend did a study on the Book of Exodus, and, of course, part of that study included ch. 12, the institution of the Passover, with instructions as to how it was to be performed and perpetuated.  As I read through this chapter in preparation for the lesson (as a student), I was struck by the absence of a particular phrase.  In all the instructions in ch. 12 and throughout the Old Testament whenever the Passover is mentioned, there is never a mention of forgiveness.  God never told the Israelites who were leaving Egypt that their sins were forgiven because they had partaken of the Passover sacrifice.  I found this fascinating.

The teacher of this class gave us something he had taken from the internet.  Among other things, the author of this article talked about how, through the Passover, the Israelites looked ahead to the sacrifice of Christ.  He talked about the Israelites being “saved.”

It’s true that Israel was being brought into covenant-relationship with God, which actually became effective at Sinai with the giving of the Mosaic Law.  Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was just the beginning of the process which was concluded at Sinai.  At the same time, according to Moses in Deuteronomy 29:4, they had no spiritual understanding of the nature of their relationship with God.  This is why they were so rebellious, why they so easily and quickly fell into gross sin, like what happened with the golden calf, or later, when they had finally entered the land of promise.  The Old Testament is filled with evidence of Israel’s failure to live righteously according to the Mosaic Law.  Yet, in spite of this, there were many individuals who did understand and who did “know God”.

The generation of Israelites who had celebrated that first Passover, for the most part, died in the wilderness under the judgment of God.  They were not “saved”, certainly not in any New Testament sense.  Israel’s national relationship  to God did not guarantee a “personal” relation with God.  The Law had no “help” when it came to keeping its requirements.  Israel was on its own.

While it is true that the Passover, in common with all the other Old Testament sacrifices, was a forerunner of the Final Sacrifice on Calvary, whenever it’s referred to, it was always a look back to the complete deliverance of Israel from Egypt, Exodus 13:8-10.  It looked back to something which had been completed, never to be repeated.

Our Lord celebrated the Passover just before His death.  But He took part of that ritual and made something new of it, something which celebrated Him, not just an historical event in the distant past.  The bread and the fruit of the vine picture a whole encyclopedia of truth about who Jesus was and what He did.  It’s continued observance also remembers His promise to return, which opens up another whole vista of truth.  But it also remembers a completed event.  It was never meant to be a “repetition” or “reenactment” of His death.  Just before Jesus died on the Cross, He shouted one word in the original text, “Tetelestai!!”  It was a cry of victory, not of defeat:  “It has been finished!!”  Redemption was accomplished, Ephesians 3:11.  Sin had been paid for.  God’s justice had been satisfied on behalf of those for whom He died.

The Lord’s Supper adds nothing to what Christ did on the Cross.  The elements themselves, the bread and the fruit of the vine, have no efficacy, no value, in themselves, any more than eating the slain lamb delivered the ancient Israelites from Egypt. There’s no mystical power in them.  Indeed, eating them can bring judgment, not blessing, 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. 

It was “the blood applied” that delivered the Israelites from the curse of death and slavery.  It is “the blood applied” that delivers believing sinners from the curse of sin and death.  In a couple of days, it’s Easter.  What does that mean to you?  Clothes?  Eggs?  Bunnies?

I hope it means faith affirmed.  Or even, faith applied, if you’ve never really thought about it before. 

Abraham and Isaac

This is about one of the more “difficult” passages of Scripture.

Genesis 22:2 (NKJV), “Then [God] said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

This is perhaps one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible.  “What kind of God would demand that you sacrifice your son?”  I heard this or something like it a few years ago on a popular TV show.  I’ve mentioned that I spend a lot of time on Yahoo Answers’ Religion and Spiritual section.  Two or three times, I’ve seen the question, “What would you do if God asked you to kill your son?”  You can imagine some of the answers.

It is a perplexing thing to many.  Why DID God require this of Abraham?  Without going into a lot of speculation. let’s see if we can make some sense of all this.  Note that there are three main characters in this scenario: God, Abraham, and Isaac.

God.  What was God doing, asking such a thing of a devoted believer?  Genesis 22:1 says that all this was a “test”.  There are some who use this verse and others like it to claim that God isn’t omniscient, that is, all-knowing.  He was testing Abraham, so these folks say, so He could find out what Abraham would do, what kind of faith he had.  I submit that this test was so that Abraham could find out what kind of faith he had.  It’s easy enough to say, “I believe God” when the Sun’s shining, but not so easy when things go South.

And God didn’t make it “easy.”  Notice the language: “Take now – your son – your only son Isaac – whom you love….”  Making sure that Abraham understood what he was doing.  Besides all that, Isaac was the channel through whom blessings were to flow to humanity.  Yet God said, “Take him and sacrifice him.”  It’s true that God had no real intention that Isaac should die, but Abraham didn’t know that.

Abraham.  Genesis 22:3 has got to be one of the most amazing verses in the Bible: “So Abraham rose early in the morning….”  I wish I could underline this:  “early in the morning.”  No hesitation, no questions, just got up to go and do what God had told him to do.  Four men on a three-day journey.  I can’t help wondering what thoughts went through Abraham’s mind.  

Isaac.  I’ve seen pictures showing Isaac as a young boy accompanying his father on this journey.  Some have pictured him as such, helpless and unable to defend himself from a cruel and heartless father.  However, v. 6 tells us that he was able to carry the wood for the sacrifice.  This was more than just a couple of sticks.  Isaac would have been well able to refuse and prevent his father from laying him on the altar when the time came.  His father was probably 115, or older.  Isaac was probably at least an older teenager; I heard one preacher say that Isaac was 33 years old, like Jesus going to the Cross, but there’s no way to know that for sure.  He was, however, old enough that he had to be willing to go along with his father.

He was also an observant young man.  In verse 7, we read of his asking his father, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”    This brings us back to Abraham.

Abraham, v. 8.  We mentioned a moment ago the thoughts that must have gone through Abraham’s head.  I think that by morning Abraham had already settled his mind on this matter.  Note what he told the two young men who accompanied him and Isaac on this journey.  When they got within sight of their destination, “Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you’,” v. 5.

 “WE will come back to you….”  The Hebrew text is even stronger: “We are determined to go, we are determined to worship, we are determined to return.”  Was this just something Abraham said to cover a bad situation, or did he really mean it?  Or, perhaps he was  delusional, an old man overwhelmed by a tragic situation?  

We can’t be sure of the exact sequence of Abraham’s thoughts, but the New Testament gives us some insight into them.  Hebrews 11:17-19 says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.”

In other words, Abraham knew God, he trusted God.  Now, the rationalists of his day, like those of our day, might have said, “Now, wait a minute, Abraham.  Show us tangible, verifiable evidence that God can raise anyone from the dead.  No one has ever come back from the dead.  It’s not scientifically possible.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.”  Granted, in Abraham’s case, he could have pointed to Isaac, who had been born miraculously, and said, “Here’s my evidence.”  The point is, in this case, Abraham trusted God in spite of “the evidence,” that is, that he was going to have to kill his son, so far as he knew, and no one had ever, up to that time, been raised from the dead.  He knew that God had promised great blessing through Isaac.  Indeed, he was to be the continuation of the Abrahamic line.  Perhaps Abraham reasoned something like this:  if God were to be faithful to that promise, then He would have to raise Isaac from the dead.

Abraham didn’t look at the situation; He looked at God.  God knows what He is doing, even if we don’t.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, how can we know – really know – what God is doing?

But that’s not the focus of this story; it’s on Abraham’s answer to his son’s question; his response to the query about a lamb:  Abraham answered, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering,” v. 8.  This brings us back to God.

God.  God stopped Abraham at the last possible moment, humanly speaking.  He doesn’t always act when, or how, we think He should.  Leaving aside what God told him about his obedience, there was “a ram caught in a thicket by its horns,” v. 13.  God had indeed “provided”.

Centuries later, John the Baptist cried out concerning the Lord Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world,” John 1:29.  The incident of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing, a “type”, of the Lord Jesus.  This is how Paul, in Galatians 3:8, could say that “God preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand.”  Granted, Paul doesn’t specifically mention the death and resurrection of Christ, but it’s only through that death and resurrection that “all nations of the earth shall be blessed,” Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4, where the promise is repeated and verified to Isaac himself.

As that ram became a substitute for Isaac, so the Lord Jesus became a substitute for sinners.  As the ram was sacrificed in the place of Isaac, so the Lord Jesus was sacrificed in the place of sinners.  The Gospel isn’t, “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  The Gospel is that God has provided a substitute and a sacrifice for those who believe on Him.  He has given the answer to our sin problem.  God imputed the sins of those who would believe to Christ.  As it were, those sins became His, even though He was sinless and perfect and holy.  Christ suffered the punishment due those sins.  Conversely, God imputed the righteousness of Christ to believers, though we are anything but righteous.  God looks at believers as being as righteous as Christ, because His righteousness has been credited to them.

When my firstborn son was just an infant, I was someplace where there was a crying baby.  He was having a fit about something, as babies know how to do! I had never liked crying babies, but as I looked at this red-faced little fellow, somehow I saw my own son – and it was alright.  God looks at believers and, instead of seeing our failings, sins, stubbornness and general all-around unworthiness, He sees His Son, in Whom He is well-pleased.  And it’s alright.  Not that we can live as we like, as some charge, or that we don’t have responsibility to live holy lives by the grace of God.  It’s that we’re accepted because of the Lord Jesus Christ, not because of what we do.  God has provided for Himself – and for us – a Lamb.

As I said at the beginning, this is a controversial passage.  I’ve tried to explain it Scripturally.  I hope it’s been a blessing to you.  If you still have any questions, I’d be glad to try to answer them.

“To the praise of the glory of His grace.”