The Firstfruits of the Spirit

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. – Romans 8:23 ESV

Many modern people, particularly those living in urban settings, are far removed from the natural world and what has to happen to before you get food on the table (and no food does not grow in the market in plastic packaging.) It’s only fairly recently in human history that a large section of society is not engaged in agriculture but even today a lot of people are involved in the actual production of food, not only for their livelihood but sometimes it is their meal for the day. In a world where people directly depend on the soil for their daily bread, firstfruits are very important. So while it might not seem much to us but for Paul’s audience “firstfruits” is a very potent metaphor. As the name suggests it is quite literally the “first fruits” i.e. the first crops that are ripe for harvest.

As you can imagine, for agrarian communities the appearance of the firstfruits is very exciting because it indicates the harvest season is near and they are finally going to reap the rewards of their hard labour. In the modern world, we have access to technology which allows us to exercise some limited but very effective control over the natural world for our benefit. Ancient agrarian societies did not have those advantages and were very much at the mercy of mother nature. So across many cultures the firstfruits were offered to the gods as a gift of gratitude for the natural blessings they so graciously bestowed. By showing their appreciation for their benevolence in the present they were also saying to the deities they would very much appreciate their provision in the near future. In ancient Israel it was no different except for them they had one deity to thank: YHWH.

Honour the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. – Proverbs 3:9-10 ESV

Paul’s audience in Rome was probably predominantly Gentile but it would have had a significant number of Jewish Christians. Paul himself was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” so the mention of ” firstfruits” would immediately have invoked certain Jewish cultural ideas and practices concerning it. There are very important references that Paul is alerting his audiences to which we will take a good look at in a moment. But before then, even Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah Jesus would still recognize that the “firstfruits” is a metaphor for “this is only the beginning and there is more to come.” Other New Testament writers use “firstfruits” with that metaphorical meaning in mind e.g. James 1:18 and Revelation 14:4. The “firstfruits of the Spirit” therefore means there is more in store for believers from the Spirit of God. Earlier on Paul says,

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:11 ESV

The “firstfruit of the Spirit” is by the power of the resurrected Jesus the Spirit of God dwelling in a believer. What the indwelling of the Spirit anticipates is God resurrecting the believer just as he resurrected Jesus by the power of the Spirit. This future resurrection is what he later calls in 8:23 the “redemption of our bodies.” The future world will share in this resurrection life where Paul says “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21.) Paul in other places uses a comparable metaphor to say that the indwelling of the Spirit guarantees resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5 as well as Ephesians 1:14 he refers to the Spirit as the “down payment.” He uses “firstfruits” a few times but the only instance where it does not metaphorically refer to people in the whole New Testament is in Romans 8:23. As we have already mentioned firstfruits has religious significance but in every other instance it appears in the New Testament it is primarily an agricultural metaphor and the cultic notions attached to it are very much in the background. In Romans 8:23 Paul uses the word in the context of a chapter which is particularly thick with allusions to the events of the Exodus, which are theologically and ritually crucial to the biblical worldview. They are the founding stories of Israel as a nation. As I have mentioned else where, Exodus affects the entire biblical landscape. I simply cannot understate its importance. As we will soon see, there is an important connection between the Exodus and firstfruits. Given the particular wrinkle in how the “firstfruits” metaphor was used, and that it appeared in a particularly sophisticated section of Paul’s writing theologically and rhetorically speaking, I think the phrase “firstfruits of the Spirit” deserves closer inspection.

The only other place in the New Testament where there is a plausible connection between firstfruits, the Holy Spirit, and is related to the events of Exodus, all in close literary proximity, is Acts 2. It may not be quite obvious how Acts 2 has anything to do with the Exodus but a ready point of comparison between Romans 8 and Acts 2 is they both talk about the Holy Spirit a lot. Another similarity is they both have strong eschatological themes. Peter’s explanation for what happened on Pentecost was this is what the prophet Joel prophesied would happen in the last days: God will pour out his Spirit on all people (Acts 2:16-17.) Romans 8 talks about resurrection and the transformation of the world through the power of the Spirit. In both Peter and Paul the Spirit is a key agent of God initiating end time events. We can also reasonably deduce that what Peter calls the prophetic outpouring of the Spirit on all believers is what Paul calls the indwelling of the Spirit. This is because Paul also uses a very similar fluid metaphor in describing the Spirit’s relationship with all believers. In Romans 5:5 he says the Spirit has been “poured into our hearts.” While they are saying different things in different ways, Paul and Luke are very theologically compatible in this case. This makes the rhetorical connection I am proposing between Acts 2 and Romans 8 more plausible because there are important similarities between the theological issues they address which can be observed rhetorically.

For what it’s worth, Paul and Luke were missionary companions (Acts 20:6) so it might lend a little extra plausibility and make the connection I am suggesting more likely. If I am right there is already precedence for direct literary connections between Luke and Paul since it is not the first time Paul has alluded to Luke or at least to an event Luke recounts (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.) Now to Pentecost and the connection it has with Paul’s “firstfruits of the Spirit.”

Pentecost is the Greek name for the Feast of Weeks. The “Weeks”, Shavuot in Hebrew, refers to the count of seven weeks (49 days) from the day after Passover to when the festival starts (Leviticus 23:15-16.) That is why it is also called “Pentecost”, meaning 50th in Greek, because that is the number of days it happens after Passover when you count from the day of Passover. Passover is not only linked chronologically with Pentecost. They are two of the three major pilgrimage and agricultural festivals in the Torah, the other being the Feast of Ingathering which is also known as the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles (Sukkot in Hebrew.)

“Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labour, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God. – Exodus 23:14-17 ESV

Another name for the Feast of Weeks is the Feast of Harvest. He calls the harvest “the firstfruits of your labour, of what you sow in the ground.” The agricultural year began with the grain harvest so that is when firstfruits were gathered and were offered before God. Passover was connected with the barley harvest (Levitius 23:10-14; Ruth 1:22, 2:23) at the start of the grain harvest, while Pentecost was for the wheat harvest at the end of the grain harvest. So the Feast of Weeks is called the Day of Firstfruits (Numbers 28:26) because that is when all the firstfruits of the grain harvest were gathered and offered to God. Ancient Israel’s calendar was both liturgical and agricultural.

In Acts the Spirit came on Pentecost, the Day of Firstfruits, and in Romans Paul speaks of the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” The semantic connection with the word “firstfruits”, given what we already know, suggests it is not sheer coincidence. Paul is known to mix his metaphors but he does not utilise his usual financial metaphor for what a person is assured when they have the Spirit. When he talks about there being more to come from the Spirit for those who possess him, the metaphor Paul usually uses is a “down payment” which I have already mentioned. Instead, he uses an agrarian metaphor, the “firstfruits.” As I have already mentioned, he departs from the regular theological use of the “firstfruits” metaphor in the New Testament where it refers to humans and rather applies it to the Spirit. This is the only time in the New Testament the metaphor of “firstfruit” does not refer to people so that is significant. Moreover the phrase “firstfruits of the Spirit” is unique. It appears only once in the New Testament and no where else so it demands special attention. As I earlier said, Romans 8 is heavy with references to Passover and as I just pointed out Pentecost is intimately connected with Passovers. This makes it more likely the peculiar use of “firstfruits” in that context refers to Pentecost, the Day of Firstfruits. In Romans one receives the Spirit as a consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The same is true in Acts 1 & 2. The Spirit is poured out by the heavenly Jesus because he was crucified, raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand in heaven. Because of these converging semantic, rhetorical, thematic and theological lines of reason, as well as other evidence, I think when Paul says “firstfruits of the Spirit” he is alluding to the seminal events that happened on the Pentecost after the Messiah’s Paschal sacrifice. On the Day of Firstfruits God gave his people the firstfruits of the Spirit.

The significance of the Day of Pentecost itself as the day the Spirit came is often overlooked. We know the biblical authors are capable of delightful, sophisticated, theological rhetoric. Luke is certainly capable of doing this so I think it is important we take note that he prominently refers to the moment. He says “when the day of Pentecost had fully come.” He seems to be saying in hindsight the Spirit was supposed to come on Pentecost. It was a significant and necessary historical moment in God’s plans for the Church and the world. Luke on his own is enough to pay attention to Pentecost but I think recognising that Pentecost features in Paul’s theology of the Spirit is added reason to take it seriously. We need to therefore go back to the Hebrew scriptures to find the meaning of Pentecost and look forward to what it means for the Church of Christ in the Spirit.

In the Torah there is both strong agricultural and obviously chronological continuity between Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) and Pentecost. Not only is one set to happen a set number of days after the other, they both constitute the beginning of the Jewish calendar and agricultural year. There is also strong theologically continuity between them. Pesach marks the beginning of the first harvest season. Shavuot marks the culmination of the first harvest season of the year with a thankful offering of firstfruits to God. Both these festivals require a pilgrimage to the Lord’s house, which at the time Paul and Luke were writing was the temple in Jerusalem. (In the context of Luke-Acts this is a very important point but we will visit it later.) There is a very explicit theological connection that is made in the Torah between Pesach and Shavuot as key events in the story of Israel.

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. “And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord , have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-10 ESV

In this ritual it is clearly explained that there would be no Pentecost without Passover first. God rescued them from slavery in Egypt so they could be free in their own land and enjoy the fruits of their labour. Pentecost was for Israel to testify of YHWH’s deliverance and the fulfilment of his promises. It commemorated the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord bringing them into the promised land.

In both Paul and Luke, the spiritual Pentecost also looks back to Passover. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul eagerly displays how deeply steeped he is in the Hebrew scriptures. As I have already mentioned he speaks of the firstfruits of the Spirit in the immediate literary context of where he is heavily alluding to and referencing the Book of Exodus. So for such an acute Jewish theological mind I am confident that when he mentioned firstfruits he was certainly aware of Deuteronomy 26 and the relationship it drew between Passover and Pentecost. With Luke, Acts is a direct sequel to his Gospel. His account of the Pentecost is in narrative continuity with his account of the preceding Passover. This is not something you even have to infer. He literally repeatedly says the coming of the Spirit is a result of Jesus who died on Passover, being resurrected and ascended to God’s right hand and in his name God sending his Spirit. Romans 8:11 famously says by believing in Jesus we receive the same Spirit that raised him from the dead. Christ’s death and resurrection in Romans is portrayed as redemptive (Romans 3:24.) It specifically uses the word “redemption” which is what the events of the Exodus are specifically described as (Exodus 6:6.) In fact, the exodus from Egypt is the paradigmatic act of divine redemption and deliverance in the Bible (Exodus 3, 20:1-3) so Paul’s description of Christ’s sacrifice as salvific actually echoes Exodus. Just as Pentecost happens because of Passover, the Spirit came on Pentecost because of the Messiah’s redemptive sacrifice as the Passover lamb.

While Luke makes it front and centre, in both writers the spiritual Pentecost is also a historical Pentecost. The outpouring of the Spirit and his indwelling in believers is a spacetime event, something that happens in embodied human persons, and as such is a public spiritual phenomenon that has a definite historical starting point. In other words the Spirit came to dwell in particular people, in a particular place, at a particular time, in a publicly observable manner. As I have already said, Luke indicates that the Spirit was meant to come on Pentecost and the event was a sequel to previous events that had happened to Jesus. In the New Testament’s view of history, Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation, was where history was always heading, the eschaton (Hebrews 1:1-3.) It is no coincidence that Jesus chose Passover to do the events that would fulfill what he thought was his divine mission to rescue Israel. Passover is the basic story of redemption for the Jewish people. The Exodus was how they were formed as a people. When the nation was dissolved through exile, God through the prophets promised his people that they would be restored through a new Exodus. Jesus believed his death was the ultimate redemptive act that would bring lasting restoration. Just as the first Passover became the beginning of the Jewish calendar, the new Exodus would mark the beginning of a new eschatological age, the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one. Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of a new creation powered by his redemptive death which resulted in glorious eternal life. This is what theologians call an “inaugurated eschatology” where the new world bursts into the old one ahead of time before the new age completely takes over.

As I have I have just mentioned, Acts 2 and Romans 8 both have strong eschatological themes. The first Passover was the beginning of a new time for the people of God and the first Pentecost was when the people of God finally began to reap the benefits of it. They were delivered from hard labour in one land to be led to another where they could enjoy their labour. Similarly the Messianic Passover is the beginning of the world to come but the Messianic Pentecost in the Spirit is when the people of God start to participate in this new age. New Testament scholars call this “participatory or collaborative eschatology“, where believers are empowered by the Spirit of the resurrected Lord to live in the present in the light of the future age that has already begun in Jesus. Pentecost is the start of a new beginning for all.

As I have just demonstrated, it is possible to arrive at a thoroughly Jewish Pentecostal theology of the Spirit in Acts 2 and Romans 8 separately but together they reinforce one another. What I think is significant about reading Luke’s account in the light of Paul’s insights is that the apostle explicitly calls the Spirit the firstfruits. It indicates that in Acts Luke is telling us the Spirit is the firstfruits. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ is the Passover Lamb God provides for his people so it makes thematic sense that on Pentecost God also provides the offering, which in this case is the gift of the Spirit. The Son of God and the Spirit of God, received in the Son’s name, are both God’s ultimate gift to the world to save it (John 3:16; Acts 2:37-39.) It is very important that God himself provides this saving gift because in the Hebrew scriptures the eschatological salvation of Israel, the final redemptive act of YHWH, is a sovereign act that only God Almighty can accomplish.

While it happened on God’s initiative, it was not an arbitrary choice of his or merely a convenient coincidence that the Spirit came on Pentecost. God chose to act in a particular historical moment so the circumstances of that event, the narrative that it inhabits, are inextricably tied to the meaning and significance of God’s action. I have tried to demonstrate that in Romans 8 and Acts 2 both authors make that implicit assumption. The presence of the Spirit is therefore not merely some private mystical experience but a public historical phenomenon with a definite historical origin. Pentecost is the start of collaborative eschatology, God acting in human history through his church to fulfill his planned purpose for history. The fact it happened on that day means Pentecost is fundamentally part of and advances the theologically storied history of Israel. It marked the beginning of a pivotal stage in the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, where all nations can now participate in the covenant promises. Firstfruits after all was the first sign God had been faithful to his promise of the land. God offering the firstfruits of the Spirit was an invitation to all humanity to participate in the world to come ahead of time. What Acts 1 and 2 makes clear but is more hidden in Romans 8 is that it is not a passive kind of participation. It is an invite to collaborate with God by the power of his Spirit, working for him as he implements the new world order of the rule of his exalted Messiah Jesus. The New Testament teaches that God has sent his Spirit into the world among believers in the Lord Jesus in fulfilment of God’s eschatological purposes (Hebrews 6:4-5.)

Even if you do not think “firstfruits of the Spirit” is a subtle Pauline reference to the events of Acts 2, it is clear that Paul believed, along with Luke, that the coming of Spirit was a public historical event. Paul in Romans 8 sees the indwelling of the Spirit as a direct consequence of the resurrection of Jesus which he clearly thinks is a bodily, historical event. He also agrees with Acts that preaching the gospel is by the power of the Spirit and it is a global mission (Acts 1:8; Romans 15:19.) The reception of the Spirit, which Paul sees in some form as a historical event, is therefore related to the start of the global mission to proclaim the gospel of the lordship of Jesus since the mission depends on the public activity of the Spirit. He also believed the gospel message first came to Jews then to Greeks (Romans 1:16.) This is because he believed Jesus was the divinely promised Jewish messiah (Romans 1:1-4.) So we can infer Paul believed the Spirit first came in a Jewish setting since the preaching of the gospel, which depends on the power of the Spirit, began among the Jews in the faithful fulfilment of God’s covenant promises to them. Paul clearly believes that Jesus is exalted with God as Lord (Romans 11:26-27.) If the Gospel he preaches by the power of the Spirit is that Jesus is Lord, we can again infer the coming of the Spirit to empower that mission was associated with Jesus’ heavenly exaltation. So from looking only at Romans we can reasonably infer that Paul possibly believed that the Spirit first came to believers in a Jewish setting due to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. This is pretty close to what happened in Acts 2 which offers the same theological rationale for the Spirit’s outpouring. We can still take things a bit further but this is more speculative. Paul believed God raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Spirit, not only him vindicating as the Jewish messiah but as the long awaited Davidic messiah. You cannot talk about the Davidic line without the City of Jerusalem and Paul being soaked in the Jewish scriptures would have held that association. Since Paul believed that in Jesus’ resurrection the Spirit of God was historically present and active in fulfilling the messianic Davidic narrative, it is therefore possible that Paul would have theologically associated the coming of the Spirit with the royal city of David, Jerusalem.

In short, the coming of the Spirit fulfilled a particularly Jewish script of how God is supposed to act in human history. In Romans 8 it is the narrative substructure that informs how Paul thinks and talks about the Spirit while in Acts 1 & 2 the narrative is explicit. Luke recounts historical events through a biblical and Jesus-shaped theological lens. Therefore the details of Luke’s Pentecost story matters. I cannot spell out all the biblical resonances of Acts 1 & 2 and their theological significance. I do simply want to say they are there and we need to explore them. Even subtle details like Luke using the Hellenistic name “Pentecost” for the Jewish festival is a way for the author to emphasize the global orientation of the supernatural event, since Greek was the lingua franca of the larger world, all the while maintaining its Hebraic roots.

Perhaps part of the reason why Pentecost is not that significant for us is because the Church has lost touch with its Jewish heritage. The Church is the new Israel in the exalted Messiah Jesus, made up of both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. While we may not present agricultural firstfruits offerings to God, we do enjoy and participate in an eschatological feast that began in the City of Jerusalem and spread to the entire world, where God gave the firstfruits of his Spirit on the Pentecost after God offered his own paschal lamb, which all happened as the prophets said. (Isaiah 32:15, 33:20; Ezekiel 39:27-29; Zechariah 12:10.)

3 thoughts on “The Firstfruits of the Spirit

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