After testifying to the reality of Christ’s resurrection (v. 20), the second thing Paul address in 1 Corinthians 15 is the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated by his resurrection. Verse 20 says that the Jesus who was raised from the dead is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
The Feast of Firstfruits
The word “firstfruits” is a harvest term. It is the produce that first arises from the ground. In Israel it was to be dedicated to the Lord, as an offering of thanksgiving. For instance, Leviticus 23 commanded Israel to bring an offering of firstfruits in a festival that followed Passover and preceded Pentecost (vv. 9-14).
Historically, the feast which occurred on the “day after the Sabbath” after the Passover (v. 11) corresponded to the day when Israel was brought out of Egypt as God’s firstborn. Notably, this timing indicates part of the significance of this festival and the meaning of “firstfruits.” One old commentator writes,
The offering unto God . . . commemorated Israel’s separation from the nations, as a firstfruits of redemption. [It] symbolically signified the consecration of Israel unto God as the first-born unto Him from the nations, the beginning of the world’s great harvest. (S. H, Kellogg, Studies in Leviticus, 468)
In Israel’s history, this feast was meant to remind Israel of the Exodus and how that event confirmed their status as the firstborn son of Yahweh (Exod 4:22). That Christ would be called the “firstfruits” in 1 Corinthians 15:20 corresponds to this reality. He is the Son of God; not only in his divinity but in his humanity. His resurrection designates him the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 1:3-4; 8:29-30).
In addition to its timing, the symbolism of the feast foreshadowed the resurrection of Christ. In Leviticus 23, the priest lifted up the offering and “waved” it before the Lord (vv. 11-12).
The imagery is striking: The fruit that came from the earth was lifted up before the Lord. The seeds that had died in the ground had arisen in new life and were now being presented to God.
Clearly, from the day after the Sabbath (which corresponds to Jesus’ resurrection day) and from the symbolism of the feast, it is evident what lays behind Paul’s language of “firstfruits.”
Paul calls Christ the firstfruits of God’s harvest, a harvest of living souls who will be raised to life because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ. His resurrection is not another resurrection. Better than that, it is the firstfruit of a harvest that will cover the earth and include believers from more than two thousand years.
Paul describes the harvest in verses 21-23. It is all the people whom the Second Adam is giving life. Notice how Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23).
In Adam, all have died. Because of his disobedience, Adam led the whole human race into death. By contrast, everyone who is in Christ (the second Adam) will be made alive. In fact, as 1 Corinthians 15:45 says, “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
To return to the harvest imagery, Christ as the firstfruits is both the source of life and the guarantee that a harvest of blessed souls is coming. Or to say it better: A harvest has already begun.
The Harvest Today
Though it may be difficult to see in our dying land, Jesus’ resurrection initiated new life. As the firstfruits his resurrection now gives resurrection life to those who died with him. In other words, when a man repents and believes in Christ, it is because they are sharing in the life of Christ. While they may be outwardly wasting away (due to sin), they are inwardly being renewed day-by-day (by the Spirit of Christ who was raised from the grave).
The resurrection of Jesus initiated God’s international harvest, and it continues to this day. While Jesus’ bodily resurrection is separated by at least two millennia from the bodily resurrection of his saints, the final resurrection is of a piece with the first resurrection. Jesus is the first tree that has flowered, but he is by no means the last.
A few years ago, I left Michigan in the month of March to go south. From the Michigan line all the way through Indiana, I saw no signs of life. However, when I got into the hills around Mammoth Cave, Kentucky I began to see flowers, buds, and little green leaves. The sight of these flowers brought joy and confidence that Spring was coming. A resurrection was taking place.
Something similar has happened in the resurrection of Christ. Jesus is the tree that stands closest to the Southern Hemisphere. In his human nature, he has received resurrection life first, and he is now giving that life to all those he is raising from spiritual death.
In fact, for those who have been born again—their inner man has already experienced this. As Ephesians 2:5 says, we have been made alive by Christ and seated at his right hand. Though we do not yet experience this bodily, there is a new vitality that Christians possess. Spiritually. Christ’s resurrection has made us alive and therefore we have confidence that on the Last Day we will be raised bodily to join him.
Gloriously, Paul tells us that Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest (1 Cor 15:20). And for all those who are united to him by faith, his resurrection secures our resurrection—in Spiritual life today and in bodily resurrection tomorrow.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss