- Commanded to do in: Leviticus 23:9–14 and Deuteronomy 16:9–12
The date of this feast is a bit tricky to cover, as there is some interpretational discrepancy (again) between Jewish sects. Leviticus 23:11 specifies that this annual feast should be observed “on the morrow after the sabbath.”
Which Sabbath is in mind, though? Was this original command referring to a literal, weekly Sabbath, or does this “Sabbath” refer to a day of no work? Is it 15 or 16 Nisan like the Pharisees believed, holding the day as a “holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:7) alongside the Feast of the Unleavened Bread because it, too, required that no work be done on that day? Or, should we be inclined to follow the practice of the Sadducees, who said that it’s simply whatever day in Nisan that lands on the Sabbath during Passover week?
This discrepancy has led to an enormous debate among Jewish authorities, and we have no intention of specifying a date in Nisan that would be most appropriate today for observance (though, without the temple, Jews have largely stopped observing this feast).
However, using the year AD 33 for example, the Feast of Firstfruits would have landed on the Sunday (literal day after Sabbath) halfway through 16 Nisan for the Judeans, or, for the Galileans, when 16 Nisan slipped into sunrise on 17 Nisan. Amazingly, upon analyzing the biblical narrative, that happens to be the very calculated moment when Jesus rose from the dead.
Quick note: Some people ask how Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday, yet the Word says He rose “on the third day” (Matthew 16:21, 17:23; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:22, 18:33). But just as we can’t consider Hebrew “days” in the same way as we would for the Gregorian calendar, we would be wrong to think that the Jews counted a “day” as “twenty-four hours” like we would. If Jesus was crucified on Friday, or “day one” of His death; remained in the tomb all day Saturday, or “day two” of His death; and then completed His work by returning to life on Sunday, or “day three,” then He was raised to life “on the third day,” just as Scripture says.
In thanks to God for His providence, and as a sign of their dependence upon Him, Jews reserved the first portion of barley grain to be cut from their fields and waved before the Lord as an offering in the temple of Jerusalem. The non-local Jews who were gathered in that city for Passover “were delegated to go after sunset into different barley fields with sickles and obtain samples from each field…[which was] lain together in a sheaf.”[i] Additionally, the nearby Kidron Valley held a reserved property specifically for the Jews to harvest at this annual event.[ii] These handfuls would be brought together to create only one barley bundle that represented all of the Jews together. God’s acceptance of this single barley offering meant the rest of the harvest was also satisfactory to Him.
This sheaf offering of grain had to be an omer, a unit of dry measurement equal to one-tenth of an ephah (Exodus 16:36). Once brought to the temple, the sheaf was treated with oil and incense, then the priest would wave it in the four cardinal directions, consecrating the harvest. Barnes’ Notes on the Bible commentary elaborates:
Until this was done, it was not lawful to partake of the harvest. The offering of this was regarded as rendering the mass holy, that is, it was lawful then to partake of it. The first-fruits were regarded as among the best portions of the harvest; and it was their duty to devote to God that which would be the best expression of their thanksgiving. This was the general practice in relation to all that the land produced.[iii]
(Note: As the readers will soon see, this feast is bridged into the next one, so much of the symbolism of fulfillment connected to the Feast of Firstfruits will continue into the next feast, Pentecost.)
Jesus’ Role and Fulfillment
The following are scriptural time stamps related to the Resurrection event: “In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1); “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark” (John 20:1); “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week” (Mark 16:9).
So far, Matthew says it was beginning to dawn, which is about 6 o’clock a.m. Gregorian time. John states that Mary came just before dawn, while it was still dark out, placing the time just prior to the moments when the sun lightened the day. Mark just says “early” on Sunday. The Greek word for “early,” proi, allows for slightly more precision to the timing of Mary’s arrival, as this was a technical word used to describe a Roman official’s watch post from three to six in the morning.
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Earlier, in the reflection on the Passover sacrifice, we noted that a spiritual transferal took place from the kosher knife of the Old Covenant Passover lamb to the forever-accessible grace of the New Testament Covenant Lamb. Here, we note another spiritual transferal. The Resurrection of the Messiah at the dawn of the Feast of Firstfruits profoundly changed the meaning from a merely agricultural holiday to a day when Jesus became the “firstfruits from the dead.” On this fateful day in spring, just as the very first light of day bled over the hills, Jesus sprang to life in His tomb, the stone rolled away, and He emerged both victorious over death and in fulfillment of the Feast of Firstfruits.
The apostle Paul said this was the case, literally, stating in 1 Corinthians 15:20–23:
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.
The high priest was in the temple, raising the sheaf in a wave-offering to God so that He might consecrate and accept all the new-life harvest of the fields. This sheaf was a single bundle representing all Jews, together, as one. Over in the tomb, Jesus, our High Priest, was raised from the dead; in this act, He conquered the grave, which completed the work He began as the Passover Lamb. He was now the New Life, through which the soul harvest could be equally consecrated and accepted from the fields of sinful mankind. He, as the Great Sheaf, would be found acceptable, this single bundle representing all believers who would then also be found acceptable to God, as Romans 11:16 states: “For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy.”
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In Jesus’ becoming the “firstfruits from the dead,” there was most certainly a spiritual and eternal fulfillment of the feast. However, His authority over life and death established a literal, physical fulfillment as well, involving more than just His own body. Note this bizarre turn of events found in Matthew 27:51–53:
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Emphasis added)
The Church Fathers also wrote about this event:
Ignatius to the Trallians (AD 70–115): “For says the Scripture, ‘Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,’ (Mat[thew] 27:52) their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude.”[iv]
Irenaeus (AD 120–200): “He [Christ] suffered who can lead those souls aloft that follow His ascension. This event was also an indication of the fact, that when the holy soul of Christ descended, many souls ascended and were seen in their bodies.”[v]
Clement of Alexandria (AD 155–200) “‘But those who had fallen asleep descended dead, but ascended alive.’ Further, the Gospel says, ‘that many bodies of those that slept arose,’—plainly as having been translated to a better state.”[vi]
So, as the Jews were celebrating the turnover of new grain on their lands, the graves were turned over as saints with new life flooded Jerusalem to be witnesses of Jesus’ power and authority over death.
What a picture! What a moment in time!
…And it’s a moment in time that we believers will also witness:
But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. (Romans 8:11; emphasis added)
For the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life. (John 5:28–29; emphasis added)
Until that day, we can remember the Supreme Sheaf who presented Himself as representative of all believers bundled with Him, to be accepted, made holy, and consecrated to God. We Christians observe this every year on Resurrection Sunday, even though most of us are unaware of the feast connection.
UP NEXT: Mystery of the Summer Feasts
[i] Nadler, Messiah in the Feasts of Israel, 63.
[ii] Booker, Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts, 81.
[iii] “Romans 11:16,” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Biblehub, last accessed June 5, 2020, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/romans/11-16.htm.
[iv] “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians,” as cited by Bible Study Tools Online: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Ignatius—Epistle to the Trallians, Chap. IX, last accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/early-church-fathers/ante-nicene/vol-1-apostolic-with-justin-martyr-irenaeus/ignatius/epistle-of-ignatius-trallians.html.
[v] “Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus,” as cited by Bible Study Tools Online: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus XXVIII, last accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/early-church-fathers/ante-nicene/vol-1-apostolic-with-justin-martyr-irenaeus/irenaeus/fragments-from-lost-writings-of-irenaeus.html.
[vi] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, Clement—Stromata, Book 6, Chap. VI., 1869.