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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The Battle Belongs to God! (Wright)

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative I mentioned this book a few years ago: The Mission of God by Christopher Wright.  Since it is an excellent resource, I’ve used it again from time to time in my studies.  This morning while studying the “nations” theme in Luke 24:47 (…repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations… NIV), I ran across this great reminder:

“God’s battle with the gods is an essential part of God’s mission.  God’s mission is the blessing of the nations.  And the blessing of the nations must ultimately include ridding them of gods that masquerade as protectors and saviors, but are actually devouring, destroying, disappointing deceptions…..”

“The battle and the victory belong to God. …By putting our emphasis again on the mission of God, not on human mission, we preserve the right biblical perspective on this matter.  For we need to be clear that in the Bible the conflict with the gods is a conflict waged by God for us, not a conflict waged by us for God.”

“To be sure, the people of God are involved in spiritual warfare, as countless texts in both testaments testify.  However, it is assuredly not the case that God is waiting anxiously for the day when we finally win the battle for him and the heavens can applaud our great victory.  Such blasphemous nonsense, however, is not far removed from the rhetoric and practice of some forms of alleged mission that place great store on all kinds of methods and techniques of warfare by which we are urged to identify and defeat our spiritual enemies.”

“No, the overwhelming emphasis of the Bible is that we are the ones who wait in hope for the day when God defeats all the enemies of God and his people, and then we will celebrate God’s victory along with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.  Indeed, in the company of heaven we already celebrate the victory of the cross  and resurrection of Christ, the Easter victory that anticipates the final destruction of all God’s enemies.”

“God fights for us, not we for him.  We are called to witness, to struggle, to resist, to suffer.  But the battle is the Lord’s, as is the final victory.”

C. J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 178.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Missions, the Far East, and Bruce Hunt

I recently read this fascinating account of 19th century Presbyterian (OPC) missionary Bruce Hunt: For A Testimony.  This book is Hunt’s account of his mission work in the Far East in the 1930’s-40’s.  Hunt (along with his wife and children) was laboring in Harbin, Manchuria during the Second World War.  Hunt, along with other Christians in the area, was opposed to the Japanese government’s attempt to force everyone (Christians included) to worship the emperor.  He was imprisoned in 1941, and spent the next few months suffering specifically for the sake of the gospel.

One time, when Japanese authorities were interrogating Hunt, he was asked this question:

“Do you believe, according to the verse you have just quoted [Acts 4:12], that the Japanese emperor would be lost if he did not believe in Jesus?”

Hunt, a prisoner for his testimony, replied,

“Yes.  I believe the emperor is a mere man like any of us, and that unless he believes in Jesus, the Son of God, he will suffer eternal punishment.”

After his answer, Hunt said the interrogator “looked at me with raised eyebrows as much as to say, ‘I wonder if you realize what you are saying!’”

While Hunt did stand firm in his faith, it wasn’t easy and he was challenged in many ways.  I was encouraged in my own Christian life by Hunt’s faith – and I’m thankful that Christ’s church in this part of the Far East stood firm under fire.  Hunt wasn’t alone in his convictions, and he gives credit to other saints who walked the path of suffering with him; some walked even unto death for the sake of the gospel.  Ultimately, Hunt gives credit to God, his Word, and his promises in Christ that gave him strength in suffering and brought him through the ordeal.

If you’re looking for a story of Presbyterian missions in the Far East, or if you just want a faith strengthening story, I highly recommend this one: For A Testimony.  You can find new copies for $9 (shipped) on the OPC’s website (HERE).

shane lems
hammond, WI

“The Abrahamic Position in Babylon”

 I recently spoke to a friend about how Jeremiah’s letter (Jer. 29) to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is quite applicable to Christians today – in whatever country they live.  I like how Christopher Wright talks about this on pages 99-100 of The Mission of GodNote: I’ve edited it slightly for the purpose of space.

“Babylon was not their permanent home, but it was their present home.  This, however, was far from a despairing resignation to their fate.   Jeremiah goes on: ‘Increase in number there; do not decrease’ (Jer. 29:6).  The echo of the Abrahamic covenant is surely not accidental.  …Israel would not die out but prosper – as other prophets likewise affirmed (Is. 44:1-5; 49:19-21; Ezek. 36:8-12).”

And based on Jeremiah 29:7, we can say this:

“The exiles had a task – a mission no less – even in the midst of the city of their enemies.  And the task was to seek the welfare of that city and to pray for the blessing of YHWH upon it.  So they were not only to be the beneficiaries of God’s promise to Abraham…they were also to be the agents of God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants the nations would be blessed. …So let Israel assume the Abrahamic position in Babylon.  …Let them be a blessing there to those they live among by seeking and praying for their welfare.”

“There is something deeply ironic about this since of course the whole story of Israel had begun with Abraham being called out of the land of Babylon-Babel.  It might seem that history is going into reverse, with Israel being exiled ‘from Jerusalem to Babylon’ (Jer. 29:1, 4) – the opposite direction from the whole narrative of Israel thus far.  But in the mysterious purpose of God, the descendants of the one called out of Babylon in order to be the fount of blessing to the nations now return to Babylon in captivity and are instructed to fulfill that promise right there.  There is a typically divine irony, possibly noticed by Jesus, in this challenge to Israel to be a blessing to the nations by first all praying for their enemies (cf. the combination of blessing and prayer in Mt. 5:11, 44).”

“Such teaching, conveyed by Jeremiah’s letter, turned victims into visionaries.  Israel not only had a hope for the future (in the famous words of vv. 11-14), they also had a mission in the present.  Even in Babylon they could be a community of prayer and shalom.  As Ezekiel saw, YHWH was just as much alive and present in Babylon as in Jerusalem.  His universal power and glory would be felt in judgment, but would also protect and preserve his people through judgment for the sake of God’s own name, and for the fulfillment of his wider purposes among the nations.”

Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

shane lems

Missionaries and the Mission Field: On Leaving

As I’ve mentioned before, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen is an absolute must-read for missionaries, evangelists, church planters, and others involved in mission work.  Though it might be a bit dated, the content is more than a little valuable.  For example, near the end of the book Allen talks about how a missionary should – following the Apostle Paul’s example – prepare the way for his retirement right from the outset of his work.  “Retire” in this context means “leave a particular mission work.”  Here’s Allen:

“He [the missionary] can live his live amongst his people and deal with them as though he would have no successor.  He should remember that he is the least permanent element in the church.  He may fall sick and go home, or he may die, or he may be called elsewhere.  He disappears, the church remains.  The native Christians are the permanent element.”

How can a missionary practice this type of retirement?  Here is some of his advice (edited/abridged for the purpose of this blog).

“He can associate the people with himself in all that he does and so make them thoroughly understand the nature of the work. …He can educate the whole congregation.  What is needful is to begin from the bottom.  Leaders must be thrown up by the community, not dragged up by the missionary.  It is necessary to make the whole body realize its unity and common responsibility.”

Allen also says the missionary should teach the congregation about finances/stewardship, Christian baptism and discipleship, appointing church leaders, and administering church discipline.  The missionary should do these things so the church can carry on without him.

A missionary can train them for his retirement by retiring.  He can retire in two ways, physically or morally.  He can retire morally by leaving things more and more in their hands, by avoiding to press his opinion, by refusing to give it lest he should, as is often the case, lead them to accept his opinion simply because it is his.  He can retire physically.  He can go away on missionary tours of longer and longer duration, leaving the whole work of the station to be carried on without any foreign direction for a month or two.  He can do this openly and advisedly because he trusts his people.  Only by retirement can he prepare the way for real independence.”

Obviously there is more to the discussion – you’ll have to read the entire section for the rest of Allen’s helpful counsel (it is in chapter 13).  Again, if you are involved in missions of any sort, be sure this one is on your list of study materials: Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours?

shane lems

Evangelism, the Church, and the Holy Spirit (Newbigin)

Here’s a great section from a great book: A Word in Season by Lesslie Newbigin.

“We have good news to tell.  Before we begin to think about how it is communicated, it is well that we begin with a negative point.  It is not communicated if the question uppermost in our minds is about the survival of the church in the inner city.  Because our society is a pagan society, and because Christians have – in general – failed to realize how radical the contradiction is between the Christian vision of what is real and the assumptions that we breathe in from every part of our shared existence, we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking of the church as one of the many ‘good causes’ that need our support and that will collapse if they are not adequately supported.  If our ‘evangelism’ is at bottom an effort to shore up the tottering edifice of the church (and it sometimes looks like that), then it will not be heard as good news.  The church is in God’s keeping.  We do not have the right to be anxious about it.  We have our Lord’s word that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  The crux of the matter is that we have been chosen to be the bearers of good news for the whole world, and the question is simply whether we are faithful in communicating it.”

“Evangelism is not some kind of technique we use to persuade people to change their minds and think like us.  Evangelism is the telling of good news, but what changes people’s minds and converts their wills is always a mysterious work of the sovereign Holy Spirit, and we are not permitted to know more than a little of his secret working.  But – and this is the point – the Holy Spirit is present in the believing congregation gathered for praise and the offering up of spiritual sacrifice, scattered throughout the community to bear the love of God into every secular happening and meeting.  It is they who scatter the seeds of hope around, and even if the greater part falls on barren ground, there will be a few that begin to germinate, to create at least a questioning and a seeking, and perhaps to lead someone to inquire about where these germs of hope came from.  Although it may seem simplistic, I most deeply believe it is fundamental to recognize that what brings men and women and children to know Jesus as Lord and Savior is always the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, always beyond our understanding or control, always the result of a presence, a reality that both draws and challenges – the reality who is in fact the living God himself.  And his presence is promised and granted in the midst of the believing, worshiping, celebrating, caring congregations.  There is no hermeneutic for the gospel but that” (p. 41-42).

Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season.

shane lems

Church Planting Teams

Product DetailsThere are several different methods of church planting.  One method worth discussing is church planting teams.  Craig Ott and Gene Wilson have a helpful chapter on this topic in their book Global Church PlantingHere are a few highlights from that chapter.

“A team is a group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose and work together in agreed-upon ways to achieve that purpose, holding each other fully and jointly accountable for the team’s results. …A church planting team is a group of Christians who work together purposefully, under Christ, to start one or more new churches.”

“Multicultural teams counteract the perception of cultural superiority, favor mutual learning, model unity and diversity in the body of Christ, and can open doors to diverse communities in urban settings.  A broader pool of resources can be brought to the task.  They send the message that Christianity is not a Western religion.  Furthermore, members from different backgrounds bring broader perspectives to decision-making and can relate in different ways to the local people.  Multicultural teams can also decrease suspicion.”

In this chapter, Ott and Wilson also discuss some of the problems church planting teams face as well as ways to avoid problems in a team.  Here are a few ways they suggest to keep a church planting team strong and unified (I’ve edited it a bit).

1) Have regular meetings.  During these meetings (up to 4 times per month), the team members can pray for one another, discuss church related items, and make plans and decisions together.  This would be something like a weekly prayer and fellowship meeting.

2) Have enjoyable social gatherings from time to time.  For example, take turns hosting meals and a game night, birthday parties, or holiday parties.  A gathering like this would tighten the relationships among the families on the team.

3) Have team workshops at least once per year.  This would be the time to discuss in-depth church planting items, including finances, visitors, counseling situations, outreach, and so forth.  It would also be the time for prayer and further training in church planting.

4) Have visits to members of the team.  In other words, the team leader (the pastor, elder, or missionary) should personally meet with the various team members from time to time.  They would pray, talk about life, health, frustrations, joys, and so forth. In other words, in doing this, the pastor would be shepherding the team.

There is, of course, more to this chapter.  I’m simply highlighting a few things here because I think that as we plant solid Christian churches – even in the United States – church planting teams is one tool in the toolkit we can utilize with good results.  For one thing, it would fight against the rugged individualism in some church planting circles.  A church planting team would also be a big blessing to the pastor/planter, since he would have others to help him through the burdens and blessings of church planting.  I could go on!  I recommend this book (Global Church Planting), and this chapter specifically, if you want to think more about church planting teams.

shane lems