Secrets of the Feasts: Firstfruits

9On December 17, 1927, a tragedy took place at sea. One of our early S-class submarines was accidentally rammed by a Coast Guard destroyer off the coast of Cape Cod. Realizing what had happened, the destroyer immediately stopped and lowered its life boats to rescue the crew. But all they found on the surface of the water was a little oil and air bubbles. The sub had sunk to the bottom of the sea with the crew trapped inside like a prison of death. Every effort made to rescue them was thwarted by bad weather. So, finally, a deep sea diver was lowered down to the sub to see if he could find a way out, but he also failed. Near the end of the ordeal, he heard what sounded like tapping coming from inside the sub. Realizing it was Morse Code, he leaned his helmet against the side and spelled out in his mind what the crew was saying. It was the same question over and over again: “Is…there…any… hope?” The sad fact is there was no hope for those men. All the members of the crew died inside the sub that day.

In fact, that tragedy and their response to it serves as a sober parable of the human condition which brings heartache to everyone. So how do we cope with it? Hal Lindsey warns, “Man can live 40 days without food; 3 days without water; 8 minutes without oxygen; but only about 1 second without hope.” I think that’s true. Life deals us one sharp blow after another, but as Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” We remain convinced that tomorrow is going to be a better day and that the answer to our problems is waiting just around the next corner. But is that true? Is there any genuine hope in this world? The answer to that question is both yes and no. No, there is nothing in this world on which we can ultimately hang our hopes, because this world is not our home. In fact, the Bible says it’s enemy territory for those of us who love Christ, and we need to wake up and smell the coffee or it’s going to break our hearts. As Solomon put it, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

12 And yet, there is great hope and encouragement for everyone who loves Christ, because as bad as this life gets, the truth is we’re going to live with Him forever. And the reason we know that is because of His resurrection and His promise that because He lives, we will live also. Jesus said, “In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” And He added, “In My Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus is coming again to remove us from this broken world and give us a glorious new home and glorious new bodies just like His own. That has been the blessed hope of believers for over two thousand years, and it’s still our hope today and the focus of our study this morning.

The last two weeks we’ve been studying the feasts of Israel. But what we learned at the outset is that even though Israel was the nation told to keep the feasts, the feasts don’t belong to Israel, nor are they about Israel. Leviticus 23:4 says they belong to the Lord and are visual aids picturing what the Lord Jesus promised to do for us. The first feast was Passover picturing Him as the Lamb of God whose blood, just like the blood of the lambs on the doorposts in Egypt saved the firstborn of Israel from death, so the blood of Jesus shed on the cross for us saves us from our sins.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the other hand, takes place the day after Passover picturing the burial of Christ and our sins which were buried with Him. That is pictured in the matzah bread eaten during the meal, the middle piece of which was broken and hidden in a napkin just as Jesus was wrapped in linen and laid in the tomb.

But this week we come to the third feast which is largely ignored by the Jewish community around the world today. But it’s absolutely vital to our faith as Christians. In fact, Paul says if what’s pictured in this feast didn’t happen then we are of all people most pitiable because what’s pictured in the Feast of Firstfruits is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which was both the greatest event in history and the miracle that gives us new life today. After all, a dead Savior can’t save anybody, nor can He give us new life or promise to raise us from the dead! But the truth is Jesus has risen from the dead, and because He lives, we live also—a victorious new life of fellowship with Him today and everlasting joy and glory in His kingdom to come. That’s what caused Paul to say what he did: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” That’s what’s pictured in the Feast of Firstfruits, and to see it, I want to look first at the feast itself, then we’ll see how Jesus fulfilled it and how it ought to impact our lives today.

1.            The Feast

11The name of this feast in Hebrew is Reishit. It takes place at the beginning of barley harvest which was the first crop in Israel ready to be harvested in the spring. Like our Thanksgiving, it was a time for gratitude to the Lord for His faithfulness in providing for them another year. It was to take place on Sunday during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. If you’re trying to keep track of how they all line up, Passover is the first feast in the spring. It takes place on the 14th day of Nisan which is immediately followed by the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread which begins the very next day. Then on Sunday during the week of Unleavened Bread comes the Feast of Firstfruits. So they are all bundled together very closely within an 8-day period of time.

The feast is described in Leviticus 23:9, where “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath (Sunday) the priest shall wave it.”’” This, by the way, was the one great feast the Israelites never celebrated during their wilderness wanderings for two reasons: 1) As verse 9 says, they had to be in the Promised Land to celebrate it; 2) There had to be crops to harvest in order to celebrate it, and there was no farming during their forty years in the wilderness. Instead, what did they eat during that time? The manna or bread from heaven which God provided for them!

In fact, do you know when God finally stopped providing them with manna? Joshua 5:12 says it was on this very day, the Feast of Firstfuits, after they crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. The manna ceased and they ate the food of Canaan for the very first time. So this was a great day in their history.

13The priests had very strict guidelines for how it was celebrated, each one providing a prophetic picture of what Jesus did for us. As I said a moment ago, the feast revolved around the barley harvest which involved three stages: the marking, the gathering, and the presenting. The marking took place on the Passover and referred to judging the crops to see which stalks were fit to offer to the Lord. The chosen stalks were then tied with a red cord to make them easier to spot and left standing alone in the field. Then on the next day, the first day of Unleavened Bread, the chosen sheaf was cut and prepared for offering on the next day, the Feast of Firstfruits, when it was taken to the Temple and given to the priest who waved it before the Lord as a way of dedicating the entire harvest to Him. And only after the firstfruits were presented to the Lord in the Temple was anyone allowed to touch the rest of the barley.

2.            The Parallels

I imagine by now you’ve gleaned some of the parallels between the Feast of Firstfruits and the last hours of our Lord’s life. But let’s make sure by spelling them out. First, there was the marking of the crops in the fields, judging which ones were fit for offering in the Temple. That was taking place just about the time Jesus was put on trial by Caiaphas the high priest and his cronies. The binding of the sheaf with a red cord pictures how Jesus was bound and handed over to the Romans for execution.

14The red cord, of course, is the scarlet thread of redemption which is seen throughout the Old Testament foreshadowing the blood of Christ shed for our sins. It was first seen in the Garden when God Himself sacrificed an innocent animal to clothe the nakedness of Adam and Eve. Later it was also seen in the blood sacrifice offered by Abel, then the blood on their doorposts in Egypt, the scarlet rope Rahab the Harlot was told to hang from her window so that she and her family would be spared when the city of Jericho was destroyed, as well as all the lambs and bulls and goats that were sacrificed in the Temple. All of it led up to and pointed to the blood of Jesus Christ which was shed for our sins—first in the Garden of Gethsemane when He sweat great drops like blood and prayed, “Father, not My will, but Thy will be done.” Then when He was beaten and scourged with 39 lashes by the Romans. Blood also flowed from His head when the crown of thorns was pressed into his skull and His hands and feet were pierced by the nails and the spear was driven into His side.

But there is more. You remember I said that no one was allowed to touch the rest of the barley until the sheaves were first offered in the Temple. Well, I think that may explain the strange statement Jesus made to Mary Magdalene when He appeared to her after His resurrection. She was the first person He appeared to when He rose from the dead, and He said to her, “Do not touch Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” You see, as the firstfruits of the great resurrection harvest, Jesus had to present Himself to His Father before anyone was allowed to touch Him. But once He did that, He said to Thomas the Doubter, “Put your finger here. See My hands. Reach out your hand and put it into My side. Stop doubting and start believing.”

15By the way, do you know what Mary Magdalene was also the first person to see? John 20:11-12 says, “But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” Do you realize what she was seeing? I think she was seeing a live display of the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies with an angel sitting on each side of the place where the sacrifice of Jesus was finally offered.

3.            The Guarantee

So what does all of this mean for us? Because as I stated at the outset, life is hard and without something to keep hope alive many of us are tempted to give up in discouragement and defeat. So how does this help us summon up the spiritual strength to get out of bed in the morning and face the problems of another week? The answer is it ought to fill us with hope overflowing no matter what we’re facing today, because it means the future is not only certain for those of us who love Christ, it is certain to be filled with a glory and joy that is never going to end but only grow greater and greater with ever deeper waves of bliss sweeping over us that we can’t begin to imagine right now. How do I know? I know because of who Jesus is! He is the firstfruits of the barley harvest, guaranteeing that we the rest of the barley harvest will be resurrected along with Him the moment He returns for us.

Paul refers to this in 1 Corinthians 15:20 where he assures us, first of all, that Christ has indeed been risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” How could Paul be so sure about it? Because he saw Him with His very own eyes, first on the road to Damascus where he first met the Lord and then again years later when he was caught up to heaven in a vision. So he promises us, “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.” Some people assume that there will be just one final judgment and resurrection for everyone at the end of time. But that isn’t what the Bible teaches. Paul says there are several stages in the resurrection, and that each one will be resurrected in his own order.

16 Jesus, for example, was the firstfruits, and you’ll remember when Jesus was raised from the dead, so were many other believers who were buried in Jerusalem. Matthew 27:50 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Can you imagine that? The sky turns dark in the middle of the day, a huge earthquake shakes your city, and then the graves of dozens of believers open up—maybe several of the prophets—and they along with Christ come back to life and wander into Jerusalem showing themselves alive to believers and unbelievers alike. I mean, how could you possibly doubt the deity of Christ with all these miracles going on?

I know one person who didn’t doubt it. The Roman centurion and his soldiers who stood guard at the cross and later at the tomb! Matthew says, “When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

So there’s a sequence in the resurrection. Paul says Christ was the firstfruits, and then whose turn is it next? He says, “Afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” And who is that? It’s you and I, those of us who’ve turned to Christ during this present church age. We’ll be resurrected the moment Jesus returns for us. But I think it’s also important to point out that not everyone will be resurrected at that time. The Bible says there’ll be many stiff-necked people who will refuse to turn to Him in these relatively peaceful and pleasant times, and that the only thing that will bring them to the end of themselves is tribulation. C.S. Lewis put it like this: “Pain is God’s megaphone. He whispers to us in our pleasure, but shouts to us in our pain.” And unfortunately, that’s all that gets through to many of us. Thank the Lord if that isn’t true of you. Because you and I are what we are only by the grace of God!

So what will happen to those who are stiff-necked and fail to turn to Christ during the last days of this age of grace? That’s pictured in the wheat harvest, which takes place in Israel later in the spring. There are two obvious differences between the wheat harvest and the barley harvest. For one thing, if you look at a field of barley, you will see the heads of grain are bent down as if they’re bowing in humility, whereas the stalks of wheat stand straight up looking stiff-necked. It reminds me of Moses’ words to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 31:27. “I know your rebellion and your stiff neck. If today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord, then how much more after my death?”

17 Maybe you have loved ones like that—stubborn and unwilling to consider anything you say about Christ. But don’t give up on them! Pray and pray and pray for them, because there’s another harvest coming after a period of great tribulation on earth. I don’t believe the church will be here for that, because I believe we’re the barley harvest who have bowed our hearts to Christ and will soon be caught up to heaven with Him. But shortly after that, after a period of great tribulation on earth, a harvest of stiff-necked people—including the nation of Israel—will turn to Christ, go through great tribulation, and be resurrected at the end of that time.

You see, the head of the wheat is hard and isn’t easily winnowed like the barley which is simply tossed into the wind and separated from the chaff. The wheat has to be threshed or crushed to separate it from the chaff. The way they did it in ancient Israel was to sit or stand on a large board which had bits of glass underneath it. That board was then pulled over the wheat to crush it. That board was called the “tribulum” which is the Latin word from which we get our word “tribulation.” That’s a picture, I believe, of the great tribulation during which a great multitude of stiff-necked people will turn to Christ as their Savior.

18 In fact, Revelation 7 says it’ll be the greatest harvest of souls the world has ever seen. John describes it like this. “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands. Then one of the elders (said) to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?” And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

But here’s the good news. Nobody here this morning has to go through that kind of tribulation, not if we bow our hearts in humility to Jesus Christ. We’ll be part of the barley harvest instead. And what will that mean for us? Let’s take a final look at 1 Corinthians 15 before we finish—first at verse 51 where Paul says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

We’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when we study the Feast of Trumpets. But for now, ponder with me for just a moment what this great change will mean for you. No more backaches, headaches, or heartaches! No more vision, hearing, or memory problems! No more arthritis, asthma, or anger problems! No more cataracts, cancer, or cardio-vascular problems. No more diabetes, dieting, or desire to sin forever! We’ll never be tempted again! Furthermore, on the positive side, you’re going to be like Jesus because you’re going to see Him just as He is—1 John 3, verse 2—which means you’re not only going to be perfect in every way; you’re also going to be ecstatically happy and experience unending pleasure and joy—body, soul, and spirit—shining with the very glory of heaven itself!

You can see a hint of that in verse 40 where Paul scrambles for words trying to help us envision the glory of our new bodies. The best he can do is point to the glory of the night sky. Have you ever done that, stood outside away from the bright lights of the city marveling at the glory of the stars? That’s the closest he can get in telling us what we’ll be like. Verse 40: “There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.” Do you get what he’s saying? You and I are going to be like stars! Not the kind who live in Hollywood. Do you know how many young people crave that kind of celebrity? But that kind of stardom is as short-lived and self-destructive as a bottle rocket, whereas Paul says we’re going to be like the stars of heaven!

20That’s fitting because do you remember what Jesus says about Himself! “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” Jesus will always be the brightest star in heaven but we too will shine with glory. How bright we are then depends on how faithful we are now. Daniel wrote, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.” So take courage, my hard-working and long-suffering Christian friend! Jesus is coming soon, and when He does, you’ll be so glorious that if we could see you now the way you’ll be then, we’d be tempted to fall down and worship you. You’re going to enjoy a degree of physical and spiritual bliss that you can’t even begin to imagine right now. So stay strong. Keep trusting and serving Him, because it’s all going to be worth it then.

(To read or download the written message, click Written Message. To listen to or download the audio message, click Audio Message.)

Sources used in this sermon series: “The Seven Feasts of Israel” by Zola Levitt, “Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts” by Richard Booker, “Unlocking the Secrets of the Feasts” by Michael Norten, and “Life Principles for Worship from the Feasts of Israel” by Rick Shepherd.

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