The subject of the 144,000 as firstfruits might require some more clarification.
We have to establish that the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4 are the same as those mentioned in Revelation 14:4. In the first instance, it is easy to determine that the 144,000 represent the full body of the elect, because they represent all those who receive the seal of the living God. The addition of the word ‘firstfruits’ in the latter instance, however, might cause confusion as if the latter 144,000 do not represent the full body of the elect.
Additionally, we see that Christ is referred to as the ‘firstborn,’ as we see in Colossians 1:15 and Romans 8:29, which should not pose a problem. But, then, we see in I Corinthians 15:20 and 23 that Christ is referred to as the ‘firstfruits.’
Can Christ be a firstfruit and a firstborn? Yes, depending from which perspective the context in which it is used is viewed. First, let us look at these two words, ‘firstfruits’ and ‘firstborn’ to establish their meaning.
Firstborn is translated from the Greek Prototokos derived from the word protos, which means ‘first’ in space, time, number or rank.
Let us look at the meanings of the word prototokos:
In the Old Testament.
Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well;
to humans with huios (son of man), or as a noun without huios but with a proper name…
Genesis 25:25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau;
Genesis 22:21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram);
Genesis 10:15 Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites.
b) These examples stress the great importance of the firstborn. God has a claim to the firstborn of humans and animals, as well as firstfruits. The firstborn of cattle are brought as offering. In the family, the firstborn take precedence.
c) The main Hebrew original, bekor, is not connected with terms for giving birth nor with terms for ‘head’ or ‘chief.’ A comparison with others is not necessarily suggested, since the first may also be the only one.
d) Calling Israel a firstborn son in Exodus 4:22, is not suggesting that other nations are also God’s children but is stressing the fact that it is the object of God’s special love. Similarly, in Psalm 89:27 the point is the closeness of the king to God.
Psalm 89:27 I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
In this context, a figurative birth is not present, nor is that of a priority in time over other sons. The thought is that of special dearness in God’s eyes.
e) The LXX also uses prototokeo, which means ‘to give birth for the first time’ as we see in …
I Samuel 6:7 "Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up.
Jeremiah 4:31 I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child--the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, "Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers."
Prototokeuo is used in Deuteronomy 21:16 to indicate ‘to grant the right of a firstborn.’
Deuteronomy 21:16 When he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.
Ta prototokeia is used in Geneses 25:31 to indicate ‘the right of the firstborn.’
Genesis 25:31 Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright."
In the New Testament.
John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
I John 4:9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
The way in which prototokos is used in terms of Mary and her Firstborn includes the possibility and expectation that other children will follow.
Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Revelation 1:5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.
Colossians 1:15, 16 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation 16for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
It does not imply that Christ is the first creature but that He is supreme, the first, over creation as its mediator. The word prototokos is used because of its importance as a word for rank. In spite of Colossians 1:3, ‘We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…’ prototokos does not here denote Christ’s special relation to the Father, but it rather emphasizes his supremacy. Christ’s supremacy stretches beyond that of the first creation; He is the Mediator of the old and the new creation with his resurrection from the dead.
Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Hebrews 12:23 To the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.
While prototokos is used here to describe the church, in Romans 8:29 it cannot be applied to the church, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Here prototokos can only mean Christ.
The important message from these definitions of the word prototokos is that it behooves one to look at the context in which the word is used to determine what the word signifies. It would result in erroneous interpretations if one would lock into a singular use of the word and apply it across the board.
Let us look at the meaning of ‘firstfruits’.
The word is translated from the Greek aparche, meaning the following:
Aparche denotes, primarily, "an offering of firstfruits" (akin to aparchomai, "to make a beginning;" in sacrifices, "to offer firstfruits").
Though the English word is plural in each of its occurrences except in some translations of Romans 11:16, the Greek word is always singular. Two Hebrew words are thus translated, one meaning the "chief" or "principal part," e.g., Numbers 18:12; Proverbs 3:9. the other, "the earliest ripe of the crop or of the tree," e.g., Exodus 23:16; Nehemiah 10:35; they are found together, e.g., in Exodus 23:19, "the first of the firstfruits."
Aparche has, therefore, a rank-definition and a time-definition.
The term is applied in things spiritual,
a) To the presence of the Holy Spirit with the believer as the firstfruits of the full harvest of the Cross, Romans 8:23.
b) to Christ Himself in resurrection in relation to all believers who have fallen asleep, I Corinthians 15:20 ,23;
c) To the earliest believers in a country in relation to those of their countrymen subsequently converted, Romans 16:5; 1Corinthians 16:15.
d) To the believers of this age in relation to the whole of the redeemed, II Thessalonians 2:13; James 1:18 and in Revelation 14:4.
We have determined that the number 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4, represents the entire body of the elect. The same number is used to describe those who appear on Mount Zion with the Lamb in Revelation 14:4, which, of itself, hints that it is the same body who is mentioned in 7:4. But John describes further who they are by saying they were purchased from among men. The only purchase price available for human salvation is the blood of Jesus Christ. His blood was effective for the obedient who lived before Christ’s sacrifice,
Galatians 4:4, 5 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law 5to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Hebrews 9:15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance--now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant;
and for those who have submitted to God’s will since his sacrifice.
I Peter 1:18, 19 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers 19but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Here, sealed, earnest, redemption and purchase are all included in one passage, showing they are inseparable! There is only one group of 144,000!
Ephesians 1:13, 14 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory!
If the second 144,000 are those whom Christ purchased, then it confirms our first indication that it is the same body of believers as those mentioned in Revelation 7:4.
Revelation 14:3 says of the second-mentioned 144,000, “…who had been redeemed from the earth.” Again, it can only be the same body of people who were mentioned in Revelation 4:7, because there can only be one specific body of believers who is “purchased,” “redeemed,” and “receive the seal of the living God on their foreheads.”
Now the words of Revelation 14:4 “They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.” The question we will address here is why would the entire body of the elect be referred to as ‘firstfruits.’
Scripture is unambiguous that the collection of souls from the world is like a harvest. All souls would be harvested and the chaff would be separated from the wheat, the first burned and the latter taken into the Lord’s barn.
Matthew 3:11, 12 "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, 12his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Matthew 13:30, 39 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn. 39And the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Matthew 9:37, 38 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few." 38Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
If we have to look at the concept of harvesting metaphorically, then it behooves us to look at the institution of the firstfruits in the Old Testament.
There are the firstfruits of the harvest:
Leviticus 23:17, 19 From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD. 19 "Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God…"
The sons and animals:
Exodus 13:2 "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal."
Exodus 22:29 "Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats. "You must give me the firstborn of your sons. 30Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day."
We see that it is a concept of the sanctuary system where the first of the harvest was dedicated to God, recognizing that He would provide the rest of the harvest and bless it.
Leviticus 23:10 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.
Leviticus 25:55 For the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Israel was holy and the firstfruits of God’s harvest. This passage prompted some to believe that the firstfruits of the 144,000 were the Old Testament saints, but it would contradict many other passages if that belief were applied to Scripture.
Jeremiah 2:3 Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,'" declares the LORD.
The context of prototokos as firstborn, does not differ from that of aparche, the firstfruits in these passages. They are the first in time that belong to God. There is no indication that the firstborn sons or animals have supremacy in rank.
As the firstfruits of these harvests belong to God, so, one may conclude, do the firstfruits of the eternal harvest, and such a conclusion would be correct.
In James 1:18 there is no indication of a time-interpretation of aparche, meaning that James had the entire body of the elect in view here, not only martyrs. He contrasts ‘firstfruits’ with all of creation, including the reprobate.
James 1:18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
The qualifying phrase, “a kind of” may suggest a certain falling short on the part of those mentioned, of what they might be, but it rather means that they will be what God promised regardless of the hatred they experience in this world.
The important use of the firstfruits here is that the rebirth (chose to give us birth) of the believer is the beginning of the renewal of all of creation. The Holy Spirit guarantees that it will take place.
Christians are a new creation. They are contrasted to the gathering of the earth's grapes, which are the unbelievers who are trampled in the great winepress of God's wrath. In the OT the firstfruits of the harvest were always offered to the Lord, Deuteronomy 26:9-10, and belonged to the Lord. The this sense the 144,000 are the firstfruits of the harvest of the earth, they belong to the Lord, the rest of the harvest does not; compare with the harvest of the earth (saints) in 14:14-16 with the harvest of grapes of 14:17-20 (men destined to wrath).
In this particular interpretation, the firstfruits are considered first in terms of rank because they are supreme because of their likeness to Christ and not because of the order in which they were harvested. They are firstfruits (aparche) of the harvest in the third sense of the definition given.
There is another perspective of the firstfruits of the harvest, which is that the firstfruits of the harvest represent only those who have been gathered before others. They are referred to as firstfruits not in rank but in time. When the firstfruits in this context arrive, they usually serve as the guarantee that the rest will surely follow.
It is an inescapable consequence of a harvest that there would be a first delivery of a crop and then the rest in stages or down payments of the entire harvest. The Levites received the tithes that the Israelites paid to God as their wages, of which they had to pay the Lord’s portion to Aaron. The Levites were a symbol of the holiness to which the whole nation of Israel was called, therefore, the firstfruits guaranteeing the rest of the harvest.
Numbers 18:26 - 31 "Speak to the Levites and say to them: 'When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the LORD'S offering. 27Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress. 28In this way you also will present an offering to the LORD from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes, you must give the LORD'S portion to Aaron the priest. 29You must present as the LORD'S portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you. 30Say to the Levites: When you present the best part, it will be reckoned to you as the product of the threshing floor or the winepress. 31You and your households may eat the rest of it anywhere, for it is your wages for your work at the Tent of Meeting.
Deuteronomy 18:4, 5 You are to give them the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, 5for the LORD your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the LORD'S name always.
It is common in Scripture that God provides not only a promise but also a guarantee that it would come to pass. This guarantee oftentimes takes the form of a sample or down payment of the entire promise.
The explorers Moses sent out to Canaan returned with a small sample of the fruits of the land of “milk and honey,” which served as a guarantee of that which they witnessed, confirming that the promise God made them is true.
Numbers 13:27 They gave Moses this account: "We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit."
The work of the Lord begins as a shoot that He planted, which grows for the display of his splendor. All the people will be righteous because they are the fruit of the shoot God planted.
Isaiah 60:21 Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.
If a deposit, or part of the whole, is holy, then the whole thing is holy. It is not an accident that Scripture also speaks here of the root and the branches in that context, referring to Christ.
Romans 11:16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
The Apostle Paul claims as his possession the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 8:23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
They were the ones who received the Holy Spirit and were the recipients of the first fruits of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that the promise (of having the Holy Spirit with them until the end of time) will be fulfilled. All the fruits of the promised Holy Spirit are guaranteed by these firstfruits.
The Holy Spirit is such a deposit, or down payment, that serves as a guarantee that the part that is still to come will definitely come.
II Corinthians 5:5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
II Corinthians 1:20 – 22 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. 21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
When the elect believe, they are marked with a seal, which is a promise of an inheritance to come. By the Spirit they receive now, they are assured that the rest of the promised inheritance will be forthcoming.
Ephesians 1:13, 14 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory.
Obedience, only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit, is another sign of assurance that the Holy Spirit lives in us, and that our inheritance is secure.
I John 3:24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
Scripture teaches us that God’s mystery was made known to the believers, and that act, purposed by Christ, brought all things in heaven and on earth together under Christ. Once again, the small guarantee resulting in the surety that the promise will be accomplished.
Ephesians 1:9 – 12 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
As we have seen, in the New Testament, oftentimes "firstfruits" is used as a metaphor for something given in advance, anticipating a greater benefit or "harvest" to come. This can be the resurrection of Jesus anticipating the resurrection of believers (1 Cor 15:23), the Spirit as a gift from God pointing to future resurrection (Rom 8:23), the first converts in a particular region holding out the promise of more converts to come (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15) or believers offering hope for the rebirth of God's creation (James 1:18).
There is also the application of aparche in terms of time, which is, there are some who are going to be in heaven, at the throne of God before others. The fact that the first ones are at the throne is a guarantee that the others would follow because all of the 144,000 were purchased by the same, sufficient sacrifice of Christ. There will be no distinction between those, who arrive before or those who arrive after others because of the time they went.
I Thessalonians 4:15 According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
At the Second Coming of Christ, there will be some of the elect who have not died yet, proving that the reference to all of the elect in the number 144,000 does not mean that all of the elect are present in heaven before the Second Coming.
I Corinthians 15:51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.
I Thessalonians 4:14, 16, 17 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
The mere fact that the reference to the 144,000 does not mean that all of the elect are present but some are yet to come, indicates that those already there serves as a guarantee that the rest will also come; a token of a greater ingathering to follow, because Christ’s salvation sacrifice redeemed the entire body of the elect, not only some. Also, Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to cover all the sins of all the elect from the fall to the end of time. So, there is no additional or subsequent sacrifice necessary to cause believers to come in.
I Corinthians 15:20 - 23 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep 21for since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
At the beginning of this part of the study, we looked at two the different references to Christ, namely, He is referred to as the firstborn, which we know, but he is also referred to as the firstfruits in 1 Corinthians 15:23.
Fruit is by consequence an effect, something that results from something higher or more supreme than the fruit. Vine and branches, sow and reap; the one goes before the other and is the cause of the fruit. So, if we see that something is a fruit of something else, it is easy to determine the cause from the effect, or the superior from the inferior.
When we are fruits, first or otherwise, it means that we came forth from something that was there before us, such as firstfruits of the Holy Spirit. When Christ is called the firstfruits in Scripture, it stands to reason that we ought to look at something higher than Christ to determine the cause. The only place we can go is the Father. Although consubstantial and co-equal with the Father, Christ is the second person and by virtue of his office, he is subject to obedience to the Father. By the eternal decree of the Father, that Jesus Christ would redeem the elect with his blood, He is the firstfruits of God’s eternal decree. The context of 1 Corinthians 15 is that of the Father’s eternal decree. The Apostle Paul speaks about Christ’s resurrection and the only context in which that can be placed, as a moving cause, is the eternal decree of the Father. Hence, Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. His resurrection from the dead is the first of its kind. Aparche, is therefore, here seen as to its rank differential because Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection brought his merits to all the saints that ever lived or will live.
We, on the other hand, have to look to the one superior to us to determine the cause of our firstfruit-status. We have to go nowhere else than Christ Jesus, because we are the firstfruits of all He created. Ultimately, our firstfruit-status is also a consequence of the Father, like Christ Jesus, but immediately the immediate moving cause of our firstfruit-status is the sacrifice of Christ.
How many of those God will save are "firstfruits," and where do they fit? Paul includes himself and the church as firstfruits (Romans 8:23), as does James and the converted Israelites scattered abroad (James 1:18).
In Romans 11:4-5, Paul refers to the 7,000 in Elijah's time who had not bowed their knee to Baal, and he uses this number to refer to his own time, saying, "Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace."
Romans 11:2 – 5 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don't you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah--how he appealed to God against Israel. 3"Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me" 4And what was God's answer to him? "I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.
Are these interpretations so different in their approach that they cause injury to the gospel? No, not at all. There is harmony in these differing interpretations, provided we harmonize that with the rest of Scripture, of course.
The firstfruits of any harvest are consecrated to God. Even if we extrapolate that thought throughout the harvest visions of John in Revelation 14, then we see aparche vividly present in terms of rank and time.
In terms of time, aparche is present identifying the time that the harvest is brought in. Abel was the first to fall asleep in Christ and his presence at the throne of God assures us that we will certainly follow. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee or deposit of that guarantee. At that time Moses, Abraham, Paul, Peter and other saints were not there yet, so there is an inescapable application of aparche as to its time definition.
Although we will later study the winepress of God’s wrath depicted in chapter 14, an angel had a sickle with which he harvested the reprobate. In terms of the time-definition of aparche, there, too, will be firstfruits, guaranteeing the others will follow. Here, however, the Holy Spirit is not the guarantee of the others to follow, but God’s justice and the execution of his wrath is the guarantee, that as sure as the first of the reprobate arrives in the winepress of God’s wrath, so the others will follow.
In terms of rank, aparche identifies for us those consecrated to God and they are destined to stand on Mount Zion with the Lamb, being gathered over time, the last ones even without dying but being changed in the twinkling of an eye when Christ returns.
The winepress of God’s wrath also will be filled over time with those who are not of the rank-definition of aparche.
From the foregoing, we are able to define some basic rules with which firstfruits can be understood.
Whenever we contrast the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit to all of creation, as we see in James 1:18, then aparche must be understood as a rank or supremacy differential.
Whenever we contrast the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit with other believers, as we see in I Thessalonians 4:15, then aparche must be understood as a time differential.
The same rule may be applied to the reprobate.
If the harvesting of unbelievers is contrasted with believers, aparche must be understood as a rank differential.
If the harvesting of unbelievers is contrasted with other unbelievers, aparche must be understood as a time-differential.