The Future Hope and Present Reality of Jesus Christ the Firstfruits
Imagine the scene: Calloused hands rough from working the land. Stomaches weary of the dried grains pulled from the store houses. Mouths longing to know the satisfaction of tasting fresh produce. The fields ripe with the harvest, bursting with new fruit. Imagine the joy of bringing in that harvest, of preparing breads with new grain and knowing that your stores would be full for the season. Having been trained up by Paul who at one time was one of the most highly regarded Pharisees of his day, even the Greek Corinthians surely would have understood the intentionality of this use of the Mosaic Law. As they read Paul’s letter, they would have seen the pictures of a long awaited harvest being gathered from the fields. They would have felt the longing of the people to taste the fresh grains after a season of eating nothing but the dry remnants of the food reserves. The Greeks would have felt the anticipation of the Jewish patriarchs who eagerly awaited satisfaction as they presented the first sheaf of the harvest as an offering to Yahweh. However, Paul must have been wondering if the Corinthians would share the confidence of the Jews that they would indeed know that satisfaction; that the offering of the first sheaf was an act of trust, a statement of faith in God to continue to provide. Even though the Corinthians would have understood the imagery evoked by Paul’s mention of the Feast of the Firstfruits, would they embrace the reality of Jesus Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection? Would the Corinthian church translate the Apostle’s example of the Jew’s history into their own present reality?
to Over a short period of time the Corinthians had adopted practices which were contrary to the gospel Paul had preached to them. In writing his letter, Paul set out to correct and instruct against these errant practices and beliefs. There were many issues for the Apostle to address: division, fornication, and abuse of the sacraments, but the most troubling issue for Paul was that some of the Corinthians had come to deny the resurrection of the dead. When he addresses this issue in his letter to the church, Paul draws from the imagery of the Old Covenant feasts and declares that Jesus is the “firstfruits of those raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20, ESV). In so doing, Paul proves to the Corinthians that the resurrection of the dead is intrinsically connected to the resurrection of Christ Himself, and grounds them in a new reality.
Taking all of the various influences and conditions of their social context into consideration, for Corinth was a major tradeport and a veritable melting pot of various pagan religions and influences, one may understand how the believers in the city could fall into some of the error they were guilty of. Still, Paul seems more irritated than sympathetic that the Corinthian church had fallen into the sin they had, but was particularly aghast that they would deny the resurrection of the body. Was not the gospel he preached that of a resurrected Jesus? Indeed, he starts his reprimand and correction of the Corinthians in chapter 15 by making this very point. Paul does not present anything new, but rather reminds them of the gospel that they had already heard from him, and that they said they believed. “Now, I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel which I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…” (1 Cor 15:1-2b, ESV). In the verses following, Paul goes on to define that gospel again for his readers: that Christ died for our sins (15:3), that He was buried (15:4), and that He rose again on the third day (15:4), all according to the Scriptures (15:3-4). Further, Paul recounts the evidence that he offered of Jesus’s resurrection by speaking of the many who had seen the risen Christ: Cephas, the more than 500 believers, James, the Apostles, and, finally, Paul himself. Again, this was nothing new to the Corinthians, they had not only heard it before, but also embraced it. Paul reminds them of this when he writes, “Whether then it was I or [the other Apostles], so we preach and so you believed.” (15:11).
Having laid the foundation for his reproof of the Corinthians, Paul now addresses the problem directly in verses 15:12-13 by forcing the Corinthians to draw the logical conclusion of the gospel which he just reminded them of. “Now, if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” Paul points out to the believers in Corinth that if the gospel that he preached to them is true, and if they truly believed it, then it is impossible for them to say there is no bodily resurrection from the dead; for if Paul’s gospel is true, then Christ is certainly raised from the dead. And if Christ is raised, then those that believe in him will certainly be raised as well.
Having shown them the logical result of Christ’s resurrection, the resurrection of believers, he then walks them through to the logical conclusion of their belief that the dead are not raised: that Christ Himself was not raised (714). “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised,” (1 Cor 15:13, ESV). Paul continues to make his point by showing the Corinthians the consequences of believing in a Christ that is not raised.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only have we hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14-19)
In short, Paul is saying that the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of the gospel. If Jesus is not raised, then nothing else can be true and the gospel is a lie. If Christ is not raised, then God is not who they said He is, and death is not only final, but also inescapable as they are still in their sins. If Christ is not raises, then Paul and the Corinthians alike are the most hopeless and pitiful people in the world; indeed their faith is all in vain. Having brought the Corinthians to the ghastly result of their false beliefs, Paul concludes his reprimand and correction.
“But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead,” (1 Cor. 15:20)! With these climactic, joyful words of hope, the Apostle does not allow his Corinthian brothers to remain is despair, but now returns them to the truth of the gospel which he delivered to them as of the first importance (15:3). It is important to note the change in Paul’s language in this section of his letter. In the preceding text, the Apostle had assumed a hypothetical “what if?” posture. Here, that changes radically to a definitive, authoritative, and affirmative tone: Christ has been raised! Having shown them the dark, desperate results of their false beliefs, Paul now sets out to show them the hopeful promise and surety of the truth: that Christ, and therefore all in Him, is raised from the dead. And, to make his point, Paul draws upon the imagery of the Old Covenant and of the Mosaic Feast of Firstfruits.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 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 Cor 15:20-23)To feel the full weight of Paul’s imagery, to see the full scope of his reasoning and the full extent of his conclusions, we must first understand that which he is alluding to. Let us remember the reality of the Mosaic Jews.
As the newly liberated Hebrews made their way to the Promised Land, God delivered His Law to them through His prophet Moses. One of the central, possibly the central, aspect of the Law was that of the sacrificial system by which the Israelites were able to approach and dwell with God. The regulations of this system are found in the book of Leviticus. It is within this context that the celebration of the Feast of the Firstfruits, the imagery Paul draws from to describe Christ to the Corinthians, is commanded for the Israelites.
The institution of and instruction for the feast is found in Leviticus 23, starting in verse 9.
And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land that I give you, and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the Priest shall wave it…. And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched nor fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. (Leviticus 23:9-11, 14)The sense of the feast was this: The Israelites had spent the whole season planting and tending their crops as they ate the harvest from the previous season. Finally, after months of eating nothing but dry, parched grain, they were finally ready to fill their stores with the ripe produce and taste of the fresh grains of the current season. However, their own satisfaction would have to wait in order to fill that of their covenant God. Before they could partake of any of the new harvest, they first had to bring the sheaf of the first harvest to the priest to be offered to God. This was never seen as a gamble, a chance that there may not be a second harvest to partake of. Rather the offering of the firstfruit was seen as the surety of the harvest to come. As God was honored and obeyed through the offering of the firstfruits, He certainly would bring about the rest of the harvest. Indeed the celebration of the feast was an exercise and display of the faith of the Jews their God. Interestingly enough, though the institution of the Feast of the Firstfruits was commanded in the desert, it was not to be observed until after the Israelites had entered Canaan. This will later be shown to be a very important aspect picked up by Paul.
Only now that the context in which the Firstfruits was to be celebrated is understood, can the full bearing of Paul’s imagery can be realized. Do we see what Paul is doing here? In naming Christ as the “firstfruits of those raised from the dead”, Paul conclusively proves the reality of the resurrection of the body. Because the firstfruits of the Old Covenant was the surety of the harvest to come, and because Jesus defeated death and Himself was raised as the firstfruits, then all those who believe in Him Must also be raised. Jesus Christ is the surety; those who believe in Him are the harvest to come. In the same way that the Old Covenant Jews brought the sheaf before Lord as an act of faith that God would bring in the rest of the harvest, so the risen Christ presented Himself before God as the first of many to be raised from the dead. And as God raised Jesus, He will certainly raise those that are in Him. There is nothing more that Paul had to say, and there was nothing that the Corinthians could say against him.
Paul then takes the Corinthians beyond the assurance of their future hope, and shows them the present reality defined by Christ the firstfruits. “Therefore brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” (1 Cor 15:58). This exhortation comes after Paul’s description of the end times found in verses 24-57 which demonstrate Christ’s victory over death. Paul is telling the Corinthians that although Christ is the firstfruits of the harvest that will be reaped at the end (1 Cor 15:23-24), it bears heavily on their present reality. N.T. Wright puts it this way: “the resurrection is more than defeat of an enemy. It is the inauguration of God’s new world.” Paul tells the Corinthians that the resurrection of Jesus necessitates a present reality within the life of the believer: the reality of citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Remember that particular aspect of the institution of the Feast of the Firstfruits which was mentioned earlier: that it was given in the desert to be celebrated in Canaan. “When you come into the land that I give you, and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest,” (Lev 23:10, emphasis added). The firstfruits were not to be offered until God’s people entered into the land that God had promised them. Here, in 1 Corinthians, the very fact that the firstfruits have been offered in Christ speaks undeniably to the fact that God has brought His people into the land which He promised them. Though it is not the focus of this paper, it is necessary to note that Paul’s eschatological discussion in 15:23-28 of 1 Corinthians must be informed by this understanding. This is a precious and foundational truth for Paul, and through the imagery of the firstfruits, he clearly tells the Corinthians that the Kingdom is now, and that they, through Christ, are citizens of it, now. Again, N.T. Wright:
This passage is near the heart of Paul’s understanding of Jesus, God, history and the world. It’s near the heart of what Jesus himself spent his short public career talking about, too. It’s about the coming of God’s kingdom…..The order of events is explained first. Jesus, following his resurrection, is already the Lord of the world, already ruling as king (verse 25 is as clear a statement as anywhere in Paul of what he means when calling Jesus ‘Messiah’: he is God’s anointed king, already installed as the world’s true Lord). Paul understands the present time as the time when Jesus is already reigning.
In qualifying the Corinthian’s present reality, the Apostle Paul forces the church to see the contrast between their earthly, Corinthian citizenship and their Spiritual, Kingdom citizenship. In doing this, Paul is not only speaking to the church’s error of denying the resurrection, but effectually readdresses every problem he has dealt with throughout the body of his letter. Echoing his instruction in his letter to the church in Rome, which was written around the same time as his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is essentially telling the church in Corinth to “not be conformed to this [city of Corinth], but be transformed by the renewal of your (firstfruits secured, kingdom citizen) mind,” (Romans 12:2a, ESV, paraphrase).
The Corinthians’ Kingdom citizenship was eternally secured by Christ the firstfruits, and was therefore far more powerful that their Corinthian citizenship. Whether it be division, sexual immorality, abuse of the Lord’s table, whatever the particular sin issue may be, Paul’s exhortation that it can, and indeed must, be overcome and put aside is rooted in the fact that Jesus, the Christ, our King, is risen, and that He is risen as the firstfruits of a great harvest to follow. This risen Christ not only secures the future, but also defines the present Kingdom reality of not just the Corinthians, but the entire harvest of believers. With this, Paul closes the body of his letter.
Indeed, the imagery was powerful: Pictures of a long awaited harvest being gathered from the fields; the longing of the people to taste the fresh grains; the anticipation of God’s people who eagerly awaited satisfaction. But these images of the past were the reality of the present for the Corinthians with one major difference: the waiting was over. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In addressing the Corinthians errors, Paul draws from the Law and its feasts and declares that Jesus Himself is the firstfruits and has been offered up to God as the surety of their bodily resurrection. Brother and sister, we are from the same harvest as those Corinthians. The truth of the gospel of Christ, the risen Jesus is our surety as well. Take hope in tomorrow and be joyful and purposeful today knowing that you are citizens of a real and present Kingdom with a living and victorious King. Death is indeed swallowed up in victory.