ICEJ Feast of First Fruits Field of Grain

Feast of Firstfruits—the First and Best of What’s to Come

By: Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor 

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give to you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord a lamb a year old without defect, together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil—an offering made to the Lord by fire, a pleasing aroma—and its drink offering of a fourth of a hin of wine. You must not eat any bread, or roasted new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.’” —Leviticus 23:9–14

It was the day after the weekly Sabbath, what was biblically and in first-century Jerusalem “the first day of the week”—our Sunday. Jesus had already been in the tomb for a few days.

One of Jesus’ followers, Mary Magdalene, had come to the tomb while it was still dark and found the stone rolled away. She fetched the other disciples, and while they were looking in the tomb (only to find the linen cloths lying there without Jesus’ body), she saw a man she thought was the gardener.

But then the man called her by name: “Mary.”

Immediately she knew it was Jesus—alive! She reached out to Him out of compulsion, but Jesus’ response seems odd, even coded: “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17).

Theologians agree that interpreting the phrase “I have not yet ascended to the Father” is challenging. But read within the framework of the Feasts—specifically the Feast of Firstfruits—it begins to become clearer. So let’s explore that unique and often overlooked Feast, or “appointment,” and see what we can learn, starting with what the Old Testament says.

The Feasts of Firstfruits in the Old Testament

Exodus 12 tells the story of Passover and how God spared every Hebrew firstborn whose home had the lamb’s blood over its doorposts and lintel. It’s the foundation story of the Jewish faith, how He brought Israel out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Psalm 136:2). Right after that first Passover, God next instructed His people to dedicate every firstborn child and animal to him—a theme that would carry through the entirety of the Bible.

However, it wasn’t until Mount Sinai that God formally established all the Feasts, starting with Passover and Unleavened bread followed by Firstfruits. Leviticus 23:9–14 and Deuteronomy 26 detail out this third feast on God’s calendar, where He explicitly instructs the children of Israel not to celebrate it until they are in the promised land.

Once in the land, before reaping their early grain harvest (barley), they were to take a sheaf (in Hebrew, omer, which means “a dry measure”) of the best of the first grain of that harvest to the priest who would present it as an offering at the tabernacle and later, the temple. The firstfruits sheaf represented the entire crop, and waving it up and down, left and right, was an act of thanking and acknowledging the Lord for the coming harvest and requesting His blessing upon it.

God commanded Israel to celebrate this feast on a particular day, “the day after the Sabbath” following Passover on the first day of the week. Though Passover could occur on any day of the week, the first day of the week (according to biblical timekeeping) was always the day after the weekly Sabbath—which is Friday to Saturday, sundown to sundown. Thus, Firstfruits always occurred on a Sunday. God also said it was to be a statute forever.

The firstfruits offering, as well as the command to offer every firstborn male and animal to the Lord, was a continuation of an idea found early in Scripture: what is first and best belongs to God. God’s people were to give their first child or animal or barley sheaf to Him and trust Him to bless the rest. The children of Israel made their barley wave offering hoping that God would find it acceptable and extend His blessing for a later, abundant harvest.

Once they entered the promised land, the Jewish people started keeping the Feast of Firstfruits (in Hebrew, Yom HaBikkurim, or “Day of Firstfruits”) as instructed. By the time Jesus was born, though most Jews lived in Jerusalem, many were still scattered throughout the region, a result of Babylonian captivity hundreds of years prior. Because Passover was one of three festivals where God required all Jewish males to be in Jerusalem (see Deuteronomy 16:16–17), these Jews would travel from the nations to which they were scattered to be in Jerusalem as required. Undoubtedly, the week Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem was packed with people—I believe by God’s design—who had brought (or bought) lambs to be sacrificed for Passover.

God had set the stage before time began that the entire Jewish nation would be present to at least hear about Jesus’ death, if not witness it personally. And they would likely still be there a few days later over Firstfruits.

The Feast of Firstfruits in the First Century

Only a week after Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed King and Savior, He was dead and in the tomb. Passover was over. The disciples were grieving. And the people and priests were preparing for the next appointment on God’s calendar: the Feast of Firstfruits.

Before eating from their barley harvest, each Jewish family would bring their firstfruits offering to the priest. The Talmud gives us an idea of what this Feast was like in Jesus’ day while the First Temple was in use. The priest would meet Jewish pilgrims just outside the city and lead them up to the Temple Mount. They would take the sheaves of barley, lift some in the air, and wave them in every direction to acknowledge God’s provision and sovereignty and ask Him to bless the family’s whole harvest—just as in ancient times.

As they presented their offering, they recited Deuteronomy 26:3–10 that recounted their ancestor’s journey to and from Egypt, culminating with their arrival in the land of Israel, to remember and affirm their present reliance on God.

A Greater Harvest to Come

Recall that God specifically told the children of Israel they were not allowed to eat from their early barley harvest until the sheaf offering had been made and found acceptable to the Lord. Could it be that Jesus’ resurrected body needed to be presented before the Lord as an acceptable firstfruits offering before He could be touched? Was this why He told Mary not to cling to Him because He had “not yet ascended to the Father”? Quite possibly. (Consider that “doubting” Thomas was not restricted from touching Him a short time later.)

During Jesus’ last week on Earth, just before Passover, He said: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24). Indeed Jesus was the “grain” that had to die to “produce much grain.” Those who believe in Him are the “much grain” that will all physically die, too, but one day be raised like Him to new life.

This is why Paul could declare that Christ, risen from the dead, had become the “Firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5) and the “Firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). Speaking about the risen Christ, he said:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man [Jesus] also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20–23)

Here Paul links the Feast of Firstfruits wave offering with Jesus’ resurrection and recognizes there is an order to things: death comes before life.

The Feast of Firstfruits should receive our study and attention, for it points to a critical piece of God’s incredible plan of redemption. Jesus had to die so that many more might have life. And as the barley sheaves pointed to the promise of a greater harvest, so was Jesus’ resurrected life the first of a greater resurrection to come. He was the “forerunner” who entered heaven before us on our behalf (Hebrews 6:20) and found to be an acceptable offering, ensuring countless others could be resurrected to new life in Him and be forever in the presence of God.