- Grant R. Jeffrey, Heaven: The Last Frontier (Toronto, Ontario: Frontier Research Publications, 1990), 25-28.
The Firstfruits of Resurrection
The Bible uses the word “firstfruits” to describe this First Resurrection which leads to eternal life in Heaven. In Israel the Feast of Firstfruits happened in the spring of the year to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest. As the Jews brought these tokens of the bounty of the coming harvest to the Temple they were acknowledging that God was the provider of the harvest. This word “firstfruits” became a proper symbol of this first group of resurrected saints, a token of the great harvest when Jesus, the Lord of the Harvest, will come to gather the saints to meet Him in the air.
The writer of the book of Hebrews, after recounting the many acts of faith of Old Testament saints, told his readers about their life in Heaven. He declares “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). They still live! They have been transformed and are now in Paradise, watching our walk of faith. Many of those Old Testament saints participated in this first stage of the First Resurrection, when Jesus rose from the grave.
Matthew 27:52-53 describes the amazing and exciting events that happened after Jesus rose from the dead, during the Feast of the Firstfruits: “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His Resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
The various writers who observed this miraculous resurrection recounted it in their histories of the day. Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and won victory over death, not only for Himself as the Son of God, but also for those saints who had died centuries before and for all who would believe in Him as their Lord and Savior for centuries to follow.
Writings by Christians of that time have been collected in the Ante-Nicene Library. They describe that more than twelve thousand of these Old Testament saints walked through Galilee for forty days, appeared in Jerusalem before many, and later ascended into Heaven when Jesus Christ ascended to His Father.
This undeniable fact of Christ’s Resurrection and the resurrection of Old Testament saints who identified themselves to many Jews created a ground swell of belief in the claims of Christ that He was the Messiah and the true Son of God. The Lord proved forever that His power of resurrection and eternal life was available to all who would receive His offer of salvation. God will not force you to accept eternal life, nor will He force you to live in Heaven if you choose not to claim this “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15) as Lord and Savior.
These saints who rose from the dead when Christ arose were the “firstfruits” of the first resurrection to eternal life in Heaven. It is no coincidence that this seventeenth day of Nisan in A.D. 32 was the Feast of the Firstfruits. Other notable events connected with resurrection also happened on this anniversary.
On this day the ark of Noah rested on Mount Ararat and the human race was resurrected following the flood. Almost a thousand years later, on this anniversary, Moses led the people of Israel through the Red Sea to be resurrected as a nation from the bondage of Egypt. Forty years later, Israel crossed the Jordan on the seventeenth day of Nisan, and the people enjoyed the firstfruits of the Promised Land. In the sovereignty of God, He caused Jesus Christ to rise from the dead and to bring these saints with Him into new life on this same day, during the Feast of Firstfruits.
These resurrected saints had bodies that were real. Several documents from this era claim that among those raised by Jesus were the Temple priest, Simeon, who had once waited in the Temple to see the baby Jesus, and his two sons who lived in Arimathaea. The records state their resurrection was specifically investigated since they were well-known to the Sanhedrin because of their Temple service as priests. After so many centuries, it is impossible to ascertain the documentary accuracy of these ancient texts, but it is interesting to note that they confirm the details of the event which Matthew recorded in his Gospel.
These records in the Ante-Nicene Library claim that during the investigation each of the sons of Simeon was separately and simultaneously interrogated. They both told the same story, namely that Christ had appeared to them in Hades, preached to all, and that those who had earlier responded to God were miraculously given new bodies and resurrected when Christ rose from the grave.
Matthew’s record of this event is tantalising in both what it reveals and what it conceals. He states that these Old Testament saints “went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Remember that all the events involved with the death and resurrection of Jesus happened in Jerusalem during the busiest season of the year, the Feast of Passover. Every Israelite male who was capable made an effort to come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Deuteronomy 16:2 records this as a command of God. Each home in the holy city had upper rooms which were supplied without cost to fellow Israelites who came on these pilgrimages. Therefore, during this Feast of Passover, the population of Jerusalem had swollen to five times the normal number. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, says in his Jewish Wars that, according to Roman records, the number of sheep sacrificed during the Passover was 256,500. Since one sheep would serve as a sacrifice for five people, the conclusion is that during the time of Christ up to 1,250,000 people would come to the city during Passover instead of the usual 250,000 city dwellers.
Both the New Testament and letters of first-century Christians record that these resurrected saints identified themselves to the people as historical, biblical characters. With 1,000,000 visitors already in the city, obviously these resurrected saints must have appeared different in some way from other men, or they would simply have been lost in the crowd. Possibly their faces were transfigured with God’s reflected glory as the faces of Moses and Elijah were on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Those saints who rose with Christ did not die again, according to the writings of the first century. They were raptured to Heaven when Christ was raptured. These saints are now enjoying a “better that is, a heavenly country…for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16). These raptured believers are the firstfruits of the first resurrection, which is “the resurrection of life” (John 5:29).
Paul described this resurrection in his first epistle to the church at Thessalonica: “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” and if we are still alive on earth, “we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:14,17) in eternal life in the New Jerusalem forever. The rapture of the saints will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter. Those who miss the first resurrection will also rise again, but they will partake of the dreaded second resurrection, which is a spiritual, eternal death in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:15).