The Feast of First Fruits
The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to the LORD a lamb a year old without defect, together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil-an offering made to the LORD by fire, a pleasing aroma-and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin of wine. You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. (Lev. 23:9-14)
Three Spring Feasts
Often overlooked because Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread over shadow and surround it, the Feast of First Fruits can nonetheless be called the most important Feast of them all, at least from a Christian point of view. This, even though the Gospel accounts don't even mention First Fruits and also seem to use Passover and Unleavened Bread interchangeably. It's easy to miss the fact that there were actually three feasts being celebrated at once.
Although it's not obvious from the passage above, The Sabbath the Lord was referring to is the one that comes after the Passover, meaning that while the Passover can fall on any day of the week which also happens to be the 14th day of the first month, the Feast of First Fruits is always the following Sunday, the day after the Sabbath after Passover. Unleavened Bread begins on Passover and lasts seven days, so First Fruits comes before Unleavened Bread ends.
The year the Lord was crucified, Passover fell on a Thursday. Three days and three nights later it was Sunday morning, the Feast of First Fruits. And for several hundred years after that, the Sunday morning after Passover was known to Christians as Resurrection Morning.
What Day Is It?
But at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, Eastern and Western bishops of the Church disagreed over the official date for the Church's most important Holy Day. Eastern bishops favored staying with the calculation involving Passover as Leviticus describes, since many of them were of Jewish origin, and since the gospels had placed Resurrection Morning just after Passover.
Western bishops, being mostly Gentile, favored a date closer to the beginning of spring because there were already a number of pagan festivals held during that time and a religious holiday would fit right in. Perhaps this is when the Western church began referring to Resurrection Morning as Easter Sunday, after the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. The Feast of Ishtar was always celebrated at the beginning of spring and involved eggs and rabbits and other signs of fertility. Even today, you can see how elements of the two have been merged together.
Eventually, due in part to their view that since the Jews had rejected Christ Jewish traditions shouldn't be used in selecting the date for Easter, the Western Church settled on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Soon Easter Sunday became disconnected from Passover by as much as several weeks.
The adoption of the Gregorian calendar (the one we use in the west today) in 1752 did nothing to correct this disconnect, and since the Eastern or Orthodox Church stuck with the earlier Julian calendar, we now have two dates for Easter in most years. (In 2004, the Feast of First Fruits, and Orthodox and Western Easter all came on the same day, a rare occasion.)
The Common Practice
But back to the Feast of First Fruits. Grains were planted in the fall in Israel. They germinated in the ground through the winter, shot up as soon as the weather got warm, and ripened in the spring, barley first and then wheat. The stalks were cut and stacked in sheaves for the harvesters to collect for thrashing. But harvesting or eating any of the grain was not permitted until a sample sheaf was brought to the Temple at sunrise on the first day after the Sabbath following Passover. This day was called the Feast of First Fruits. A similar ceremony for the wheat harvest took place on Pentecost, also a Sunday, seven weeks later.
As you know the Lord required that the first fruits of all their harvest be given to Him, whether plant or animal. (In the case of animals, only the very first offspring from each animal was required, not the first of each season. For humanity, a small ransom was paid at the Temple to redeem the firstborn son. The Lord expressly forbade any form of child sacrifice.)
The priest took the sheaf of grain and waved it before the altar of the Lord as a sample of the harvest. This was called the wave offering. To be sure it was acceptable to the Lord, a year old lamb was also offered, along with about 4 quarts of a flour and oil mixture and a quart of wine. The mixing fragrances of the roasting lamb, the baking bread dough and the steam from the wine made a pleasant aroma for the Lord and the offering was accepted. The Lord having received His required first portion, the harvest could proceed and the grain could be ground into flour for their daily bread.
The Prophetic Fulfillment
At sunrise on the morning of the Feast of First Fruits in 32 AD, as the priests were waving the sheaf of grain before the altar, the women arrived at the Lord's tomb to prepare His body for permanent burial. Remember, there wasn't enough time before sunset on the day He was crucified and the following two days were both Sabbaths, so no work was permitted. (Interestingly, work was permitted on the Feast of First Fruits, although not on Pentecost.)
But the tomb was empty. He had risen, the First Fruits of them that slept. (1 Cor. 15:20) Later that day many Holy people from Israel's past were seen in the city of Jerusalem, also having risen from their tombs. (Matt. 27:53) This was the Lord's wave offering, a sample of His harvest of souls. I'm thinking that the aroma of the Temple offering was especially pleasing to the Lord that morning. The days of substitutes were over; the real thing had come. (Hebr. 10:1)
The Ultimate Triple Play
For Christ, our Passover Lamb, had been sacrificed (1 Cor. 5:7), and on the very day, fulfilling the Passover Prophecy. For seven days beginning on Passover, the Israelites ate bread without yeast in celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and in fact went to great lengths to rid their homes of any trace of leaven. This Feast symbolized a promise that the sin of man, represented by the leaven, would be completely taken away. The Lord's death fulfilled this one as well, for He's the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) And take it away He did, as far as the East is from the West. (Psalm 103:12)
And right on schedule the Lord rose from the grave, fulfilling the Feast of First Fruits. He is the First Fruits of them that slept, and His resurrection confirmed His victory over sin and death. And ours too, for if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9) Selah 4-18-04