What is meant by "first fruits"?

The phrase is an old agricultural term. It refers to the first harvest of a particular crop. The first harvest is generally the best. The produce has just turned, so there hasn't been time for spoilage in the fields. Usually the produce harvest also had the best look and taste.

God required the Israelites to offer the first fruits of their harvest to Him. "The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God" (Exodus 34:26). This is a part of a continuing theme in the Scriptures. When people made sacrifices to God, they were expected to give of the very best. These, in turn, went to support the Levites as they served God. "All the best of the oil, all the best of the new wine and the grain, their firstfruits which they offer to the LORD, I have given them to you. Whatever first ripe fruit is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours" (Numbers 18:12-13). God became angry with the Israelites when they began to offer Him the leftovers. "And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?" Says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 1:8). Such showed disrespect for God.

First fruits were not restricted to just vegetables. "You shall give him the first fruits of your grain, your new wine, and your oil, and the first shearing of your sheep" (Deuteronomy 18:4). The first of anything produced belonged to God because He granted the ability to gain the produce. Hence, the first born among flocks or the first born child was seen as belonging to God.

You might think that it would be hard to give God the first after all the work a man goes through to gain his harvest, but God promised to amply reward a man's generosity. "Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10).

The symbolism carries into the New Testament.

"But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (I Corinthians 15:20). Jesus was the first raised from the dead to eternal life. He is the best of God's harvest of souls.

"I urge you, brethren--you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints" (I Corinthians 16:15). Stephanas' household were the first converts in Achaia and Paul is also implying that he thinks they are among the best Christians in that region.

"Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18). Since all Christians have dedicated their lives to God, those converted by the word of God are the "first fruits" of mankind. They are the ones God keeps for Himself.

"Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body" (Romans 8:23). Here Paul is referring to the first converts to Christianity; those who first experienced salvation (II Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30) .

March 15, 2005