“First Fruits” entry for Lexham B.D.

February 7, 2011

(Note: Please undeerstand that this is copyrighted material.)

*First Fruits (Heb bikkurim, “first-ripened,” resit, “first” [i.e., “beginning”], sometimes “choicest”; Gk aparche, “first-fruits”) The first, and best, part of the harvest of crops or processed produce, as well as firstborn son and animals, including the wool of sheep. The term “first fruits” also refers to ceremonies required in relation to the initial portion of the harvest. Both senses of priority and best quality are present in the regulations of the Mosaic Law related to first fruits.  With this literal usage as background, Israel as a nation, the believing remnant within Israel, the 144,000 in Revelation 14, Christians in general, certain individual Christians, Christ and the Holy Spirit are all referred to in Scripture figuratively as “first fruits.*

!! The Literal Usage in the Old Testament. The concept of “first fruits” was a crucial aspect of putting the Lord first in every part of life for Israel, whether the harvest, the shepherding of flocks, or child-bearing, especially in regard to the feasts and sacrificial system of the Law of Moses. This is seen clearly from one of the first uses in the Hebrew Bible: “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your land to the house of the Lord your God” (Exod 23:19, HCSB).  Both bikkarim and resit are used here, with the meaning being something like “the best of the best.” Ultimately, the firstfruits were used for the support of the Levitical priests, as their inheritance among God’s people (Deut 18:4). Deut 26:1-11 specifies how individual first fruits offerings were to be brought before the Lord.

Of special note are the wave offering and its companion festal offering. During the Passover, Lev 23:10-14 stipulates that all Israelites were to “bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest” for him to “wave the sheaf before the Lord” (HCSB). This is referring to the barley harvest, which began to come in several weeks before the wheat harvest.  Exod 34:22 tells of the bringing of the first fruits of the wheat harvest during the feast of Pentecost, which is elsewhere called “the day of firstfruits” (Num 28:26, HCSB).

!! The Lone Figurative Usage in the Old Testament. The only non-literal use of “first fruits” in the entire Hebrew Bible is in Jer 2:3.  Early in his ministry, the prophet Jeremiah announced to the people of Judah: “Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of His harvest” (HCSB). The mention of holiness infers that the primary meaning intended here is that Israel is best in quality spiritually.  However, the sense that Israel might only be the initial part of the Lord’s spiritual harvest cannot be excluded.

!! The Figurative Usage in the New Testament. The eight inclusions of aparche in the New Testament, all in the Epistles and Rev, cover a surprisingly wide range of subjects called “first fruits.” The nuance of “best” from the Old Testament usage is seen in Jas 1:18, where Christians are called the “firsfruits” of God’s creation.  However, the remaining uses all emphasize the “first part of a larger harvest” meaning. Christ raised from the dead is the “first fruits” of the future resurrection (1 Cor 15:20, 23).  Paul calls Epaenetus and the household of Stephanas “the firstfruits of Achaia” (i.e., among the first to come to faith in Christ in southern Greece [Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15, HCSB]).  In Rom 8:23, the Holy Spirit is described as the “first fruits” of all the spiritual riches believers will have in the presence of the Lord.  It appears that Paul is here employing aparche interchangeably with his uses of arrabon (“earnest, down payment”) elsewhere (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:14).

The remaining two uses both play off the only figurative use in the Old Testament (Jer 2:3).  In Rom 11:16, the believing remnant (“firstfruits”) of Israel is said to be “holy,” echoing Jer 2:3. A few verses later in that context, the promise is laid out that a time will come when “all Israel” in 11:26a “will be saved” and made holy (11:26b-27). But, more (but not less) than the end-times conversion of at least much of Israel is in view in Rev 14:4. The 144,000, who are earlier said to be Israelites (7:4-8), are now described as having been “redeemed from the human race (i.e., all humankind) as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (HCSB). This is just before the mention of “the eternal gospel” (14:6) and the final two-sided harvest of salvation (14:14-16) and judgment (14:17-20).  This final preaching of the gospel before the end fulfills Matt 24:14 will bring in the climactic spiritual harvest of human history to complete the “firstfruits.”

–A. Boyd Luter

!! Bibliography

Burge, Gary M. “First Fruits,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Eds. G.F. Hawthorne, R.P. Martin, and D.G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993: 300-01.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958.

Donald Guthrie. New Testament Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981: 549-66.

Gerig, Wesley L. “First Fruits,” in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Gen. Ed. W.A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988. I: 791-92.

Ridderbos, Herman. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Transl. J.R. DeWitt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975. 

Rigsby, Richard O. “First Fruits,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Gen. Ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. II: 796-97.

Rigsby, Richard O. “Firstfruits.” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament, Eds. T.D. Alexander and D.W. Baker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003: 313-15.

Walker, Larry. “Firstfruits,” in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, gen. eds. C. Brand, A. Draper, and A. England. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2003: 577-78.


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