1 Corinthians 15:20-23 presents Jesus as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. What is the significance of 'firstfruits?' Is this related to instructions in the Hebrew Bible about firstfruits (e.g. Exodus 23:14-18, Exodus 34:22-26, Leviticus 2:12-14, Leviticus 23:9-21, Numbers 28:26, Deuteronomy 26:1-11)?
Have you ever noticed how when folks are in a certain season, that season, and the prominent themes of that season tend to infiltrate their thoughts and speech? The book of I Corinthians is peppered with thoughts of the Spring festivals of YHWH and those in order as well! Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the context of these spring feasts and I believe, in part, his thoughts reflect this context; in part, he is teaching the Gentiles how to apply the principles of the law given to the Jews regarding the spring feasts, to their gentile life; and finally, in this particular passage, he is demonstrating how the feasts speak of Jesus fulfills them.
Passover/Feast of Unleavened bread:
1 Corinthians 5 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Corinthians 11 23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread
Firstfruits/The day after the Sabbath of Passover:
1 Corinthians 15 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming.
1 Corinthians 16 15 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 ---
1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the [day one of Sabbaths] let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. 3 And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem. 4 But if it is fitting that I go also, they will go with me.
5 Now I will come to you when I pass through Macedonia (for I am passing through Macedonia). 6 And it may be that I will remain, or even spend the winter with you, that you may send me on my journey, wherever I go. 7 For I do not wish to see you now on the way; but I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits. 8 But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. 9 For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
Cross reference Hebrew Testament:
Deuteronomy 16:9-17 "You shall count seven weeks for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you. 11 You shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide. 12 And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes. 13 "You shall observe the Feast of Tabernacles seven days, when you have gathered from your threshing floor and from your wine press. 14 And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant and the Levite, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who are within your gates. 15 Seven days you shall keep a sacred feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD chooses, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely rejoice. 16 "Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. 17 Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.
This is the historical literal background that provides meaning to what Paul is saying when he uses "Firstfruits." Though Paul appears to apply the principles of the Spring feasts, (ie setting aside (counting the omer) to send money to the saints in Jerusalem). Paul's usage of "firstfruits" extended beyond grains and herds/flocks:
The first fruits are an acknowledgment to YHWH for His blessing which He has given you. It is the first; thus, more is to follow. The first belongs to God. The first is the beginning of the harvest.
Answer: In this particular passsage, Jesus is presented as the "firstruits" of those who have fallen asleep. He thus would be the first of many who have died and will rise from the dead. He ascended to the Father on the day after the Sabbath of Passover just as the first fruit is waved by the priest before YHWH.
cf. John 20:17 contrasted with John 20:27:
17 Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.' "
27 Then He said to Thomas, "Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing."
So we see, Paul's writing is definitely related to the instructions of YHWH in the Scripture portions you listed. Paul, a Jewish Pharisee, teaches from Scripture which is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in what is right. His letters are very definitely better understood having a knowledge of the Hebrew testament. These are, after all, those that speak of Yeshuah/Jesus (John 5:39)!
The first fruit(s), under the Law of Moses, guaranteed the rest of the "crop" (see Leviticus 23:9-14). Jesus was the first fruit from the dead in His resurrection because His resurrection provides His own with the certain hope of the same. But not just that, He was the first to be raised to never die again (Colossians 1:15-18; Revelation 1:5), and then now provides hope of the same resurrection to immortality to His followers.
How are we to understand 'firstfruits' in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23?
20 But the fact is that the Messiah has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a man, also the resurrection of the dead has come through a man. 22 For just as in connection with Adam all die, so in connection with the Messiah all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: the Messiah is the firstfruits; then those who belong to the Messiah, at the time of his coming; —CJB
First, as touching the passages from the Hebrew Bible such as those from Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; we must first address two significant facts.
- These passages are a part of Jewish law which is never imposed upon gentiles (cf. the Jerusalem counsel, Acts 15:6-35). This is not to say that those laws may not be applied in some manner to non Jewish worshipers, but non Jews (Gentiles) are not bound by them.
- The firstfruits being offered to God were typical of the ministry of Messiah. The offering of firstfruits required that only the best of the best be offered to God, and that offering must be done with thankfulness.
One key to understanding is found in the words, "...each in his own order..."
Messiah was (and remains) the best of humanity, and he was offered to God by, and on behalf of sinful humanity. Messiah being the one who did the "work" of salvation is naturally the first to partake in the resurrection of the righteous dead. After that, and each in his own order, the resurrection will occur for others, both righteous and unrighteous.
The apostle Paul had a marvelous insight into this when he stated:
For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. 23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. —Romans 8:22-23 (AV)
Paul's emphasis on “together” in these verse 22 does not include believers in Messiah, who are specifically mentioned in verse 23, but rather points to the various parts of the natural Creation.
Paul began this section in verse 18 by referring to the believers’ “present sufferings," a subject to which he now returned to in verse 23.
Believers are described as the ones having the firstfruits of the Spirit. This is a declaration that the Holy Spirit is “the firstfruits” (aparchēn) of God’s work of salvation and re-creation in believers. Believers "spirits" have been resurrected from the dead and we are now spiritually alive in the Messiah. Believers are therefore awaiting the ultimate fulfillment of their sanctification, i.e., the redemption of their mortal (death doomed) physical bodies.
Yeshua Messiah has already received his glorified body and, as such, is the firstfruits of those who believe on him. And now believers groan together with all of creation in hope of receiving our immortal bodies and becoming fully conformed to the image of Messiah (Romans 8:29).