What Are First Fruits?

I’m still making my way through this helpful book: Images of the Church in the New Testament by Paul Minear.  One image he talks about is the image of the first fruits.  This is a rich theme in the Bible that applies to various concepts in the Old and New Testaments (see Gen 49:3, Ex 23:16, Lev 2:12, Jer 2:3, Rom 8:23, 1 Cor 15:20, etc).

Here’s how Minear nicely summarizes the different nuances of the meaning of first fruits:

It recalls a pattern of Jewish thought in which the first produce, whether of grain, flocks, bread, or children, was specially given by God and therefore must be given back to him as a token of total indebtedness.  This conception had played a central role in national festivals and in temple liturgy.  In Christian imagination the picture fused together several basic conviction:

1) God’s lordship over all and his gift of all.
2) The Passover requirement of the sacrifice of the first-born.
3) Man’s dedication to God of all his ‘produce.’
4) The appearance and presentation of the first fruit as a pledge of the coming harvest.
5) The power of the first to represent all others in the series.
6) The power of the first to sanctify and to cleanse the whole series.

These assumptions permeate the following appearances of the idiom in the New Testament: Christ is the first fruits of the dead (1 Cor 15:20-23); the Spirit, which is at work within the Christian community, is the pledge and guarantee, the ‘down payment’ of the coming redemption, which is designed to reach the whole creation (Rom 8:23; cf. also ch 11:16); the first converts in a providence embody the promise and power of salvation for the whole province (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15); the Christian community as a whole is begotten in order to serve as the first fruits of all God’s people (James 1:18; cf also Rev 14:4).

Minear then notes how “first fruits” is a biblical way to think about Christ’s church: “It locates the historical present of the church as lying between what God has done and what he will surely do.  It suggests that God is now active in social history.  It identifies Jesus Christ as the agent through whom God’s hand is at work” (Minear then cites Eph 2.10, Rev 3:14, Col 1:16).

So the imagery of “first fruit” is found in the OT and ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the Spirit’s work, the church, and God’s mission to the world!

Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, p 112-113.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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