May 2023

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them:
‘The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations,
these are
My feasts. (Leviticus 23:2)

In our newsletter last October, I wrote about the first of these three feasts, Passover.  I then said that the next month I would write about the other two.  I didn’t.  Thank God that his promises are more certain than my own.  Thank you for your patience.  I hope it pays off.  I’d like to pick up this three-part series again and finish it this month and next.  I pray that it proves enlightening and fruitful.  We continue now with the second of these three festivals in the Old Testament that were non-negotiable for pious believers.  Next month we will conclude with the third.  These three festivals are described in further detail elsewhere, but they are commanded and summarized soon after God spoke the 10 Commandments from Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20.  Here we read from Exodus chapter 23:

“Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year:

You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field.  (Exodus 23:14-16)

[If you would like to review the article on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, i.e. Passover, you can find it on the congregation’s website

Like with Passover being replaced by Easter, the Feast of Harvest is also more familiar than we might realize.  It is also called the Feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:9-22) and the Feast of Weeks (Hebrew, Shevuoth).  Its most familiar name to us is Pentecost (Acts 2:1) which is Greek for “fiftieth” since it takes place 50 days after Passover.  And so it does for us too.  50 days after Easter, we also celebrate Pentecost.  It was 50 days because it is on the fiftieth day that 49 days have been completed.  49 is 7 x 7.  So Pentecost was a sort of Sabbath of Sabbaths.  Sabbath refers to the last day of the week, the day of rest.  The word was also used simply to mean week.  Sevuoth in Hebrew is the plural of Sabbath – weeks.  So the names are all related. 

But the purpose of the feast is more interesting.  It was a festival of offering one’s first fruits as an offering to God.  Abel offered not only the fat of his sacrifices (the tastiest and most nutritious part), but also his first fruits (Genesis 4:4).  He gave his first and his best.  God commanded his people to do the same in order that they might mimic the action by which Abel expressed living faith.  The first fruits were the early harvest.  It was not the main harvest or necessarily the largest harvest.  But it was the riskiest, in a manner of speaking.  The first fruits were the early proof that the crop was successful.  And just as importantly, offering it up to God was a show of confidence that God would continue to make it successful (Proverbs 3:9-10).  Think about this Sabbath of Sabbaths.  Think about how the Sabbath led God’s people to ponder the same thing on a weekly basis.  By resting on the seventh day of every week, two things were acknowledged: 1st – that God had blessed one’s labor the first six days; and 2nd – that God would continue to bless the labor of the next week without one having to hurry up and begin that week.  God commanded a break.  This wasn’t just to refresh his servants physically.  It was also to teach his servants that refreshment came from God who prospered yesterday’s work, as well as from him who will prosper tomorrow’s.  The Sabbath therefore required that God’s people acknowledge both the past with gratitude and the future with hope.   What a kind way for God to teach that just as every day is sufficient for its own trouble, so is every week.  As the body sleeps at the end of every day, so the soul seeks rest as well.  God provides daily opportunity with nighttime, and weekly opportunity with the Seventh Day Sabbath. 

So it was with this Seventh of Sevenths, this Sabbath of Sabbaths called the Feast of Weeks or Sabbaths (Sevuoth, Pentecost), that a portion of the early reaping was given to God as a thanks for what had already been begun.  It was given also as a pledge of trust towards him who caused the initial growth that he would cause the rest to follow in due season (Psalm 145:15).  God who began the growth would surely bring it to completion.  This feast should remind us of when St. Paul writes:

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ… (Philippians 1:3-6)

On Pentecost God’s Old Testament people celebrated the first fruits that God supplied, by which he pledged that he would supply much more – they celebrated this by giving a portion of their first fruits to God.  They did so in the sure hope that, when the third and final non-negotiable feast arrived, they would have more than enough to give yet another portion.  We will consider this last feast more fully next month [June, 2023].  Let us focus now, on what God teaches his New Testament people about first fruits, and we will be all the better prepared for next month to learn what he means by the final harvest. 

We learn what God means by the first fruits not in regard to reaping what was sown in the field, but in regard to reaping what was sown in our hearts (1 Peter 1:23, Galatians 4:6).  If God supplies first fruits in the field and requires a portion to be offered in sacrifice as a vote of confidence that God will supply much more, see how he promises to do the same in spiritual matters.  St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:20-22)

This word for guarantee means pledge.  God has given us his Holy Spirit as a pledge that much more will follow.  Just as the early crop guarantees that a later and larger crop will follow, so the Holy Spirit is a guarantee that much more joy and certainty will follow — After this life of sowing will be many sheaves and much rejoicing! (Psalm 126:6).  St. Paul makes the same point in Romans chapter 8.  Except here, instead of calling the Holy Spirit a guarantee of more to come, he simply refers to the first fruits.  He is alluding to the festival under consideration: “[W]e also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23).  In other words, we look forward to the harvest.  And what is the harvest?  It is the final judgment which we will consider next month with the Festival of Ingathering.  To have the first fruits of the Spirit is nothing else than to have Christ, as the same St. Paul writes to the Corinthians in his famous resurrection chapter: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  Christ is risen!  Therefore we too will rise.  He is the first fruits!  We ourselves are the later harvest when we are raised from the dead too! 

This is what the Old Testament festival of Pentecost was intended to teach.  And it is exactly the hope that we express in the New Testament.  As Paul says again: “But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:23). 

St. James ties the Old and New Testament festivals together for us.  As in the Old Testament, they acknowledge God as the giver of all material things, so in the New Testament we more specifically focus on God as the giver of all spiritual things.  These two go together, of course.  They knew it before Christ and we know it today.  But the festival in the Old Testament was a shadow.  Ours today is the substance and fulfilment (Colossians 2:17).  St. James writes:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.

So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. (James 1:17-19)

And this drives us to the point of Pentecost.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” Jesus said (Matthew 13:9).  His desire to is to produce much fruit in, through, and for us when we do (Matthew 13:23).  As we will learn more clearly next month, the point of Pentecost is preaching.  It is that we hear what the Spirit has to say (Revelation 2 & 3).  The first fruits of the Spirit are none other than the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  It is Christ.  The Holy Spirit gives us Christ with the promise to give us much more when faith is turned to sight. 

When we give our first and best to God, we are entrusting to him our future.  We are expressing trust that if he can cause a beginning, he can bring what he started to a rich and plentiful end.  When we budget our offering to the church, we should not give what is left over.  This is an untrusting thing to do.  We should budget what is non-negotiable first.  And when we do, we express trust toward God that he can provide the rest – just as he provided the first.  In many ways, this festival is the most daring.  If I promise you a thousand dollars, but hand them to you one dollar at a time, will you give away the first hundred?  Perhaps you might be totally willing to give away 200 or even 300 dollars once you have the full thousand in hand.  But to give away 100 when all I’ve handed you so far is 125!?  That’s confidence!  That’s loving what is to come more than what you already have (John 12:25).  This was the purpose of this festival of our Lord.  God who teaches us whom to trust in on Passover teaches us on Pentecost how to trust him.  And he does so with the assurance of so much more to come!  Christ who rose remains with us.  Next month we’ll consider his promised return.

Yours in Christ — Pastor John Christian Preus