First Fruits in the Old Testament
Should Christians today give a first fruits offering?
The first fruits offering was an offering required by God of the Israelites. It's mentioned several times in the Old Testament law:
Exodus 23:19a: "The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God."
Leviticus 23:10: "'Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest."
Proverbs 3:9-10: "Honor 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."
The most comprehensive passage about the first fruits offering is found in Deuteronomy 26. It explains that the purpose of the first fruits was to acknowledge how God took the Israelites down to Egypt, multiplied their number, released them, and gave them the land of Canaan for an inheritance. Canaan was a fertile land that was already settled by people who did horrible things like sacrifice their children. For their sin, God had the Israelites destroy the Canaanites, and then He gave the Israelites the land.
God told the Israelites that the first fruits offering was to be given in thanks for "cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant…" (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). The offering was brought to the temple where it was displayed before God, and then given to the priests for their sustenance (Numbers 18:11-12). Proverbs 3:9-10 does say that offering first fruits will bring blessings, but it's unclear if this is a general proverb or a specific promise of God to His people; in the majority of appearances, first fruits is associated with thanks to God for bringing the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan.
The law is somewhat vague in the specifics, and has opened itself up to rabbinic interpretation. For instance, Scripture does not dictate how much the first fruits offering should be in comparison to the harvest. Leviticus 23:17 mentions two loaves of bread for an offering for wheat, and rabbinic custom stated the minimum offering should be 1/60th of the harvest, although this is not in the Bible. Rabbis decided that only the seven species characteristic to Canaan were required: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates (or honey). The offering could be brought anywhere between late spring and the fall. If the giver lived far from Jerusalem, the fruit could be dried.
The most significant aspect of the first fruits offering was the reason behind it: it was designed to acknowledge and thank God for providing the Israelites with the land flowing with milk and honey after their captivity in Egypt. It was a ceremonial act for the nation of Israel. It was not meant to be an act of faith that God would provide in the future, nor even to honor God as first in their lives. It was an act of obedience, and while that obedience was part of God's promise to Israel that He would bless them, it was the faithfulness of obedience that ensured His blessing, not the offering itself.
The term "first fruits" is used in another, somewhat metaphorical way in the Old Testament. It refers to the firstborn son of each human man or female animal. All firstborn males belonged to God, but depending on the species, they could be redeemed—that is, a sacrifice could be made so they could stay. God provided the redemption for the "first fruit" sons by taking the Levites for Himself to care for the tabernacle and the temple (Numbers 3:12). The firstborn male of each female herd animal had different standards depending on what they were. For instance, a firstborn male donkey could be redeemed by donating a lamb (Exodus 13:12), but cows, sheep, and goats were to be sacrificed (Numbers 18:17). Use of "first fruits" in this manner does not directly relate to the first fruits offering. The firstborn animals were dedicated in remembrance of God taking all the firstborns of men and animals in Egypt while the first fruits produce were given in remembrance of God providing for Israel in Canaan.
First Fruits in the New Testament
First fruits are mentioned in several ways in the New Testament:
- Romans 8:23 states "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit…" As in other passages, Paul is using "first fruits" as a metaphor for the first appearance of a promised blessing. Here, it is the Holy Spirit, the "helper" who Jesus promised in John 14:26. The very first followers of Jesus were also the very first to experience the blessing of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—they received the "first fruits" of the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of believers.
- In Romans 11:13-16, Paul makes a confusing statement in regards to the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. It was always God's intent to bring salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jews). It was not His intent that the Jews would reject that salvation. But, since they have, God hopes that His new relationship with the Gentiles will make the Jews jealous—envious—and cause them to want that relationship for themselves. Apparently some Gentile Christians turned their acceptance of Christ into pride and harassed the Jewish Christians. God is for all, and even the Gentiles who accepted Christ should not have treated the few Jewish Christians they came into contact with arrogantly.
Verse 16 continues: "If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump…" The phrasing is odd, but it's believed that the "dough" refers to the first Jewish Christians and the "whole lump" to Jews in general, meaning that God has not abandoned the Jewish nation indefinitely. If the first Jewish Christians were redeemable, then the Gentiles needed to remember that every Jew is redeemable. "First fruits" is used as a metaphor to mean the first part of the harvest of Jewish souls that are to be saved through Christ's sacrifice.
- 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23 refer to Jesus as the "firstfruits" of those who will be raised from the dead. He is the firstborn Son of the Father, and His resurrection is the first of the promise that all who follow Him will also be raised. He is a guarantee of our future blessing.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and James 1:18 call New Testament saints "firstfruits." They were the first to follow Christ, and act as a promise that there will be more to come. In fact, James 1:18 infers that the Christians in the early church were the "firstfruits" of all of creation and the promise that creation itself will be restored.
- The final mention of firstfruits in the Bible is in Revelation 14:4 and speaks of the 144,000 Jewish witnesses who will spread the Gospel during the Tribulation. They will have a special role in Heaven and are claimed by God and Jesus as special representatives of those who are saved.
All to say that although the term "firstfruits" is used in the New Testament, it does not refer to giving, whether to the Temple or the church. It acts as a metaphor to mean those who experience God's blessing first or in a special way.
First Fruits Today
The concept of first fruits is sometimes used by preachers today to encourage their parishioners to give an offering above and beyond tithing.
The first fruit itself may vary:
- First paycheck of a new job or the first paycheck of the year
- Portion earned from the sale of something
- Portion of each subsequent paycheck
- Take a Sabbath the first day of the week, and/or have a quiet time in the morning
The reasons stated for giving a first fruits offering also vary:
- To show sacrificial faith that God will provide
- To give thanks that God did provide
- To "sow a seed" so that God will make the giver rich
- To ensure God will bless the giver's plans for the new year
The problem is, the first fruits offering was for the Jews for a specific purpose. Nowhere does the New Testament mention that the church is required or even encouraged to give a "first fruits offering." Like tithing, giving to the church is left up to the personal convictions of the individual believer. There is no blanket policy for giving.
This presumes that the work of God be understood in a dispensational manner instead of following the teaching of replacement theology. Replacement theology teaches that the church has replaced Israel in God's plan for the world. All of the promises God gave Israel (including material blessings for obedience) are transferred to the church. Dispensational theology claims that God gave Israel and the church different promises, and many of Israel's promises will not come to fruition until the millennial kingdom. It is the belief of this ministry that dispensational theology best interprets the Scriptures. The church cannot claim all the promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament.
That doesn't mean that giving a first fruits offering is bad in and of itself. Like the term (or even the practice) "tithing," "first fruit" can be used as a sort of shorthand to mean "voluntary offering given in thanks or faith." There's nothing wrong with giving above and beyond what is regularly budgeted for—as long as the motivation is personal and not pressured by church leadership.
The ways in which churches use the phrase (and the practice) vary in theological truth. To say that "laying down a seed" so that God will make someone rich, or that you can pay off God to bless future plans, is an abusive lie from adherents of the prosperity gospel. To give sacrificially is to follow in the example of the widow of Mark 12:41-44, and is commendable as long as it isn't coerced. To give an offering in thanks that God provided is perfectly acceptable. But if a church wants to have a period of fund-raising, it would be better to have a specific purpose and not just try to spiritualize the desire to have more capital in the bank.
This brings to mind the purposes the New Testament gives for church offerings. First Timothy 5:17-18 says that the church should support those who run the church. First Corinthians 9:14 says that those who preach the gospel should be supported by their work. Several times the New Testament exhorts believers to give to those who are in need (Matthew 25:34-36; 1 John 3:17-18). The New Testament says we are to give in faith, but it doesn't say that we are to give to the point of destitution so that our faith can grow (1 Corinthians 16:2). There is a difference between faithful sacrifice and bad resource management.
As far as the first fruit offering as described in the Old Testament, the church is exempt. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but He did come to fulfill it—including being the first fruit, Himself (1 Corinthians 15:20). If the usage of the term "first fruit" in the New Testament is to be considered, the manifestation of first fruit in the church age means that those who were saved in the early church were a promise that more would follow. And Jesus' resurrection is a promise that we, too, will be resurrected. Any other use of "first fruits" is either abusive or careless. There are better terms to use when a church collects a special offering, and there are more biblical ways to do so than to insist, cajole, and threaten people to give.
Ironically, what the New Testament teaches about giving is more extreme. God wants all of us (Romans 12:1). Because of that, every monetary blessing we have is His, and we should do with it as He leads—whether to use on ourselves or to use for others. Matthew 25:14-30 tells us that we should be responsible with His blessings. This would include giving for a purpose, giving by the leading of the Bible and the Holy Spirit, giving for the spread of the Gospel and the aid of the needy, and giving cheerfully. Whatever you choose to call that, it's simply Christian giving.
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