************ Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:20 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 4, 2010
1 Corinthians 15:1-34
1 Corinthians 15:20
"Christ: The Firstfruits"
We are looking at what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Corinth was a Greek city, and the Greeks did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. For instance, when Paul preached at Athens and declared the fact of Christ's resurrection, some of his listeners actually laughed at him (Acts 17:32). Most Greek philosophers considered the human body a prison, and they welcomed death as deliverance from bondage.
This skeptical attitude had somehow invaded the church and Paul had to face it head-on. The truth of the resurrection had doctrinal and practical implications for life that were too important to ignore. Paul dealt with the subject by answering four basic questions. First, are the dead raised (1 Cor 15:1-19)? Second, when are the dead raised (1 Cor 15:20-28)? Third, why are the dead raised (1 Cor 15:29-34, 49-58)? Fourth, how are the dead raised (1 Cor 15:35-48)?
In the middle of this discussion is our text for this Easter evening – a beautiful text:
(1Cor 15:20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.To understand this, we have to begin with a look at the Old Testament.
I Firstfruits in the Old Testament
A As you know, the children of Israel celebrated the Passover Feast the week that Christ died on the cross. By Easter, the Sabbath after the Passover had come and gone. In fact, Easter is the day after the Sabbath after the Passover. Do you know what was done in Israel this day? The first sheaf of the new crop of barley was presented as a wave offering before the Lord.
We know this as the "Feast of Firstfruits" (cf Lev 23:9-14; Deut 26:1-11) In Israel, this feast was celebrated in one of two ways. First, it was celebrated by the priests on behalf of the people – as a national celebration. Second, it was celebrated by each family or household.
First, it was a national celebration. Looking eastward from the Temple, one could see the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley. Across the Kidron, in an area known as the Ashes Valley, there was a small barley field cultivated by the priests for the national firstfruits offering. In the days leading up to the "Feast of Firstfruits," several sheaves were selectively marked and bundled. The night before the feast, the grain was harvested from the selected sheaves, dried over an open flame, winnowed to remove the chaff, and milled until the flour was extra fine.
On the morning of the feast, the firstfruits were presented to the Lord. About five pints of the barley flour were mixed with about a pint of olive oil, and a small amount of incense was sprinkled upon it. This became the firstfruits offering. The priest waved it before the Lord and burned a small amount upon the altar. The remainder was given to the Levites.
Secondly, each family also brought its respective firstfruits offering to the Temple. Each year, Israelite farmers would mark the best of their unripened barley crop. These were set apart to the Lord as each farmer declared, "Behold, these are the firstfruits." When the firstfruits were ripe, they would be harvested and the household would travel to Jerusalem.
On the morning of the feast, each man would stand face-to-face with the priest and repeat in Hebrew the firstfruits prayer from Deuteronomy 26:
(Deut 26:3) "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us."Then, the basket of firstfruits barley was handed over. The priest placed his hands under the basket and slowly waved it before the Lord as the worshiper continued his prayer by saying:
(Deut 26:5,9-10) "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous ... (9) He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; (10) and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me."With the thanksgiving prayer complete, the priest cast a handful of the grain upon the altar. The worshiper fell on his face to worship the Lord, then returned to the outer courts to rejoin his family.
B Many of you are probably aware that this was not the only firstfruits ceremony observed by the children of Israel. Do you remember what happened the first Passover? The angel of the Lord went through the length and breath of the land and struck down all the firstborn of Egypt. Escape – redemption – was possible only for those who, by faith, sprinkled the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their homes. Ever since then, all the firstborn males of Israel belonged to the Lord (Ex 13:2,12-15; 34:19-20; Num 3:13; 18:15-16) and were to be used in the Lord's service.
In His mercy, the Lord made provision for the firstborn son to be redeemed and thus freed from lifetime service to God. At this ceremony, it was possible to redeem the son out of full-time service through the payment of five pieces of silver to the priest (Num 18:16).
If you remember, at one month of age Jesus was also taken to the Temple for this redeeming ceremony. Mary and Joseph presented Him to the Lord:
(Lk 2:23) (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord")
So, in a very real sense, the first-born sons of Israel were a firstfruits offering unto the Lord.
C Now, what was the significance or meaning of the firstfruits? I want to highlight three things.
First, firstfruits is an acknowledgment that everything comes from the Lord. The milk, the honey, the grain, the lambs, the sheep, the goats, the olives, the wine, the children and grandchildren – they all come from the hand of God. As Paul puts it earlier in his letter to the church at Corinth:
(1 Cor 3:6-7) I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. (7) So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.What is true for Paul and Apollos is also true for the farmer. Only God makes things grow. God, and only God, is the Giver and Creator of life and growth.
Second, when did harvest-time begin in Israel? When could the farmers of Israel harvest their barley, wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates? Only after the firstfruits were presented to the Lord. In other words, the people were forbidden to use any part of the harvest in any way until the firstfruits were first offered (Lev 23:14). To neglect these firstfruit offerings was considered robbery of God (cf Mal 3:8). Today, this means the first check we write when we get our paycheck or pension check or milk check or welfare check is the check to the church.
Third, firstfruits was a promise to Israel of more to come. More barley, more wheat, more grapes, more figs, more pomegranates, more olives, and more dates. More milk, more honey, more lambs, more sheep, more goats, more wine, more children, and grandchildren. When the firstfruits were harvested everyone knew that the rest of the harvest was still to come.
II Jesus as Firstfruits
A With all of this in mind, let us go back to our text in 1 Corinthians 15:
(1Cor 15:20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.Notice, Christ is the firstfruits of those who have been raised from the dead.
When was Christ raised? He was raised on the day after the Sabbath after the Passover. He was raised on the day of firstfruits as the firstfruits.
If Christ is the firstfruits of those who have been raised from the dead, what are we to make of all the other resurrections in the Bible? In the Old Testament, I think of the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-22), the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37), and the man whose body was raised when it was thrown into Elisha's tomb (2 Kings 13:21); I also think of Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:9-11) whom God took from the earth before their deaths. In the New Testament, I think of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:35ff), the widow of Nain's son (Lk 7:11ff), and Lazarus (Jn 11:11ff); I also think of the many saints who were raised when Jesus died (Mt 27:52-53); I think of Dorcas raised by Peter (Acts 9:35ff), and Eutychus raised by Paul (Acts 20:9ff).
All of these resurrections were only a return to this life and this flesh and this body. All of these resurrections were not a raising to eternal life. After each one of these resurrections the person who was raised faced death again. Christ's resurrection, on the other hand, was not a return to this life and this flesh and this body. Christ's resurrection was a raising to eternal life. Christ's resurrection exempts Him from ever facing death again. Think of what Christ said in the Revelation – a verse I quoted this morning:
(Rev 1:18) I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!Christ's resurrection truly was a firstfruits – the first of the harvest, the beginning of the harvest, the only part of the resurrection harvest we have seen so far.
B Christ is the firstfruits. Remember what we said about firstfruits in Israel? Firstfruits is an acknowledgment that everything comes from the Lord. It is God Who gives the life and the growth. Look at our text:
(1Cor 15:20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.Christ "has been raised." Who did the raising? Our text does not tell us – at least not directly. But it certainly implies it. The verb "has been raised" is in the passive voice. It is understood that this is a "divine passive." It is understood that God is the One at work. It is God Who raised Jesus from the dead. By His power. According to His plan and will.
Christ is the firstfruits. Again, remember what we said about firstfruits in Israel? We said harvest-time did not begin until after the firstfruits was offered. One of the big questions of the Corinthian Christians – as I mentioned in my introduction – had to do with the timing of the resurrection: when are the dead raised, when is the resurrection going to happen? What is the answer? The answer is, "After the firstfruits have been harvested." As Paul puts it in verse 23:
(1 Cor 15:23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.Now that Christ has been raised, we can look forward to our own bodily resurrection.
Christ is the firstfruits. I want you, again, to remember what we said about firstfruits in Israel. We said that the firstfruits was a promise to Israel of more to come. More barley, more milk, more grapes ... Christ the firstfruits is God's promise of more to come. More resurrections. More life. More joy. More satisfaction. More fullness.
C Listen again to the words of out text before I make a very important point:
(1Cor 15:20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.Paul tells us there is a connection between Christ's resurrection and the believer's resurrection. Or, to put it another way, the future destiny of Christians is bound up with what has happened to Christ. Or, let me put it one more way: because Christ has been raised, the believer can expect to be raised.
With this in mind, did you notice what Paul calls death? Paul talks of those "who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15:20). Death is compared to falling asleep. Because of Christ's resurrection, that is what death is, that is all that death is. Because of Christ's resurrection, we know that some day the great divine alarm clock will sound – the trumpets will blow – and we will be shaken awake.
I want to conclude with Dr. Jon Rainbow. Ruth and I have visited him twice; two times he has visited with me here at our church building; and, he and his family send out emails. Listen to an email he sent out last week:
Just an update on my situation, illness, etc. I'm still feeling generally OK. No drastic new developments -- still eating well, sleeping well, and pain free. Lots to be thankful for. After radiation therapy, I was very drained and tired, and I've been working to rebuild some energy with walking, exercise and activity. It's slow, but I'm sticking with it.
In some ways, of course, my "story" is about sickness and healing. Of course it is -- how could it not be about sickness and healing? People are concerned. My family is concerned. This is new for them, and for me, and it's not pleasant. We try to remain "positive", optimistic, upbeat, and God is so gracious to provide the emotional support we need. We don't want to become negative, depressed, un-thankful, or morose.
But, the fact remains that we all live in a world of sin and death, and what we all really need is more than comfort. What we all really need is ... resurrection! The problem that lies at the very bottom of all of our problems is DEATH, death closeup, death far away, death. So, what we really need is not therapy, but resurrection. And what Jesus Christ has obtained for believers is not anything less than resurrection from the dead. To be clear ... resurrection for the dead, resurrection of the body, first Christ's and then, in God's ordained order, believers' too.
So, I've been talking a lot and thinking a lot, about resurrection. It's bigger than just an "Easter" theme. The traditional Easter is about only Christ's resurrection, but it's bigger than that! Christ must rise, the first fruits of them that sleep. Christ's body must rise, yes. But all bodies of all the saints must rise too! Christ is the harvest!
So, an update on Jon Rainbow ... still alive in the flesh, watching this cancer thing carefully ... trying to be a good patient ... thankful for my doctors. Thankful especially for my wife, who has ministered to me in extraordinary ways that I could never have imagined before. But mostly ... resurrection. There must be a resurrection from death!
As Easter approaches, we wish you all a blessed season of celebrating the Lord's victory over death! Thank you for your faithful prayers on my behalf.
Do you hear what Jon is saying? Jon says the same thing as Paul – but with a lot more words. Jon and Pat can look forward to resurrection, and so can Adrian and Ruth, and so can Robert and Catherine, and so can those who professed their faith this morning, and so can you. Why? Because Christ is the firstfruits!
Yes, there is death. "But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:57).
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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