“The firstfruits” is a common expression found in both Old and New Testaments. It is used in Scripture with both literal and figurative meanings. So when Paul said Christ was “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), he was using terminology and imagery rich in history and meaning.
At least five kinds of firstfruits can be identified in Scripture:
1. The First Harvest
In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to give the first and best portions of the harvest as an offering to Him (Ex. 23:16; Neh. 10:35). This included grain (Ex. 23:16; 34:22), olive oil (Num. 18:12; Deut. 18:4), new wine (Num. 18:12; Deut. 18:4), honey (2 Chron. 31:5), sheep wool (Deut. 18:4), fruit (Neh. 10:35), and even their herds and flocks (Deut. 15:19).
By giving the firstfruits as an offering to God, the Israelites acknowledged that all the harvest—in fact, everything they had—came from God and belonged to Him. The offering of firstfruits was likewise an expression of faith that something else—the harvest of the rest of the crop—would come later. Therefore, the firstfruits offering acknowledged God’s ownership of everything, expressed thankfulness for His provision, and anticipated what was to come.
Firstfruits were given at the Feast of Harvest (Ex. 23:16), the second of three annual festivals. This feast is also known as the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (Ex. 34:22; Num. 28:26). It was normally celebrated seven complete weeks or fifty days after the Passover (Lev 23:16). In the New Testament it is known simply as Pentecost.
In a symbolic use of the term, Jeremiah called Israel the firstfruits of God’s harvest. “Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest” (Jer. 2:3). Just as the first and choicest crops were devoted to God, Israel was God’s chosen and set apart people. But the fact that Israel was God’s firstfruits, not His only fruit, also anticipated other peoples and nations coming to the Lord.
In Romans 16:5 and 1 Corinthians 16:15, the first converts of a particular area were called “the firstfruits.” Some translations use the term “first converts,” but literally it is “firstfruits” (KJV), the same word used in 1 Corinthians 15:20.
James 1:18 uses the term with reference to believers: “By his choice, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The new birth we have experienced is only a preview of the day to come when He will make all things new in a new heaven and a new earth.
4. The Holy Spirit
Paul said we “have the Spirit as the firstfruits” (Rom. 8:23). The Holy Spirit is a foretaste, the first installment of our future glory. He is God’s the pledge of more to come in our resurrection life.
When Paul said Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), he was drawing an analogy between the Old Testament offering and Jesus’ resurrection. As the Old Testament firstfruits symbolized and consecrated the entire harvest that was to follow, Christ’s resurrection was the foretaste of the resurrection of all believers yet to come. His resurrection is our assurance that one day all believers will be raised from the dead and will receive new, resurrected bodies.
“Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55)
Mike Livingstone works at LifeWay Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible materials.