In a wonderful presentation of God’s continuous, unchanging goodness, James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:17–18).
James contrasts the new birth that Christians experience with what is “given birth” in the previous verses. Desire gives birth to sin, and sin gives birth to death (James 1:15). God, in contrast, gives birth to us—His redeemed, sanctified children. Sin brings forth death, but God brings forth life. And we are the “firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18, KJV).
Being called “firstfruits” sounds strange to our ears, but to the original readers of James’ epistle—Jewish believers—it was quite meaningful. James’ audience was familiar with the Feast of Firstfruits (see Leviticus 23:9–14). On the third day after Passover, the people brought a sheaf of grain to the priest, who would wave it before the Lord. A burnt offering, a meal offering, and a drink offering were also required at that time. The firstfruits was an offering of gratitude, as the first part of the harvest belonged to God.
How are believers considered “firstfruits”? A couple of ways:
Firstfruits of salvation. The first-century believers were the firstfruits of a spiritual harvest—they were the first to be saved and be part of the New Testament church. Of course, in calling these early believers the “firstfruits,” James implies that there would many, many more to come! Indeed, through the centuries, the gospel has circled the globe, and people have continued to be saved. One historian estimates that, at the end of the first century, there were not even ten thousand Christians in the world (Wilken, R., The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, Yale University Press, 2012, p. 65). In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, there were 2.3 billion people in the world who identified as Christians (www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe, accessed 6/7/22). The harvest continues to grow.
Firstfruits of the new creation. Believers are new creations in Christ (Ephesians 4:24). When God saves us and gives us eternal life, He cancels out the curse of sin in our lives. That change in the believer is a bellwether of a bigger change coming, because God will one day cancel out the curse of sin on all of creation, restoring nature to its former glory:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19–23).
In summary, the Father, who gives a continual stream of good gifts, began to do something completely new and wonderful through His Son and His Spirit. Namely, He gave birth to the church. The early church, although small in number and despised by the world, was the precursor to something much bigger: a worldwide “harvest” of people who follow the Lord and the beginning of God’s total restoration of the universe. In Revelation 21:5, Jesus says, “I am making everything new!” And He started with the firstfruits of the church.