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James writes in 1:16, 17,
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.
The ultimate “perfect gift” of God is Jesus Christ Himself, who was sent from heaven. Jesus said in John 6:38,
38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
He also compared Himself to the manna in the wilderness in John 6:48-51, saying,
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever, and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.
The appeal here is for the dispersed Israelites to return to Jesus Christ, who, by His goodness and mercy, had purchased them by His blood, so that their captivity may come to an end. Through Christ, they were to be regathered to Him into the Kingdom of God. Through Christ, they could join with those brethren of Judah who had believed the gospel as well. In this way, Hosea 1:10 would be fulfilled, saying,
11 And the sons of Judah and the sons of Israel will be gathered together, and they will appoint for themselves one Leader, and they will go up from the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.
This is obviously a Messianic prophecy. There is no genuine regathering of Israel and Judah apart from the people appointing Jesus Christ as their Leader. The people of Judah were the first to have opportunity to declare allegiance to Jesus Christ. Some did so, while the majority refused. James was now writing to the twelve tribes of the dispersion in order to give them the same opportunity. Once again, a few did accept Christ, while the majority did not.
Those who did “appoint for themselves one Leader” became citizens of the Kingdom once again, even while they were yet dispersed. Their physical location no longer mattered, for Jesus had died to redeem them and rose again that others might believe that He was indeed the Messiah.
And so, as we showed earlier, when Peter wrote to the tribes in dispersion, he told them of their right in Christ to no longer act as slaves, but as free men in Christ (1 Peter 2:16). They had this right only as repentant Israelites who had accepted the New Covenant mediated by Jesus Christ.
James continues in verse 18, which we will quote from The Emphatic Diaglott, a more literal translation than the NASB:
18 Having willed it, He begot us by the word of truth, in order that we might be a first fruit of His creatures [ktisma, “created things,” that is, Creation itself].
Who are these first fruits? They are obviously believers. James recognizes that Israel itself was called to be the first fruit of creation. However, the Old Covenant plan had failed in its purpose and had ended with the captivity of Israel and Judah. With the establishment of the New Covenant, the way was made for them to “return” through faith in Jesus Christ, along with many other non-Israelite believers.
Though the New Covenant (like the Old) was specifically addressed to Judah and Israel, it was always God's intent that the twelve tribes should be the first fruits of a greater harvest. Creation is that greater harvest.
However, there are other first fruits as well. In his commentary on the resurrection, Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:20,
20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
Here we see that Christ was not the first fruits of creation, but only the first fruits of those who would afterward be raised from the dead. Again, in Rev. 14:4 we read of the overcomers:
4 . . . These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb.
Hence, we see differing sets of first fruits, each having a distinct purpose. Jesus Christ was the first fruits of those in general who should be raised from the dead, but more specifically, those who are to obtain the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). These are the overcomers, who are raised out from among the dead (Phil. 3:11). These leave dead people behind in their resurrection, showing that they are part of a limited number of people.
John 5:28, 29 says,
28 Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
This resurrection is clearly not the first resurrection of Rev. 20:4-6, for this one includes “all who are in the tombs.” In this resurrection, no one remains in the grave. It is in clear contrast to the first resurrection in which “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished” (Rev. 20:5).
Further, Jesus said that this general resurrection would include both good and evil, and that some would receive life, while others would receive judgment (John 5:29). This contrasts with the first resurrection, which only includes those who are “blessed and holy” (Rev. 20:6).
Hence, we must conclude that the first resurrection is limited to overcomers. The second is the general resurrection, which is said to occur at the end of the thousand years and will include the rest of the believers (who will receive life) as well as the unbelievers (who will be judged).
Therefore, the overcomers, who are given life in the first resurrection, are the first fruits of the rest of the Church, which is given life (immortality) at the end of the thousand years.
The purpose of the first fruits is to sanctify the harvest. Paul speaks of this in Romans 11:16,
16 And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too.
Paul was referring to the law found in Num. 15:18-21,
18 Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, “When you enter the land where I bring you, 19 then it shall be, that when you eat of the food of the land, you shall lift up an offering to the Lord. 20 Of the first of your dough you shall lift up a cake as an offering; as the offering of the threshing floor, so you shall lift it up. 21 From the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord an offering throughout your generations.
Thus, the small offering at the beginning is known as the first fruit offering. If it is “holy,” then the entire “lump” is holy. By the same principle, “if the root be holy, the branches are too,” Paul says. In the case of the great first fruit offerings given at the three main festivals, each offering sanctified the rest of the harvest.
There were three first fruits offerings in the law, each being given on a different feast day. Barley was the first fruits of Passover; wheat was offered at Pentecost; and wine (grape) was for Tabernacles. In each case, the acceptance of the first fruits sanctified the whole harvest of grain or wine. God's intent was not to limit Himself to the first fruits, but to use them to signal the start of the harvest season.
James applied this law of first fruits to the Church, which he said was the first fruits of creation. In other words, James expected the Church to be but the first of those who would be saved, for it would make no sense for God to receive the first fruits without expecting to receive the entire harvest of souls. In fact, the acceptance of the first fruits was the guarantee that the entire harvest was sanctified for harvest.
Conversely, without the first fruits, the rest of the harvest would be lost. 1 Cor. 15:17 says that apart from Christ’s resurrection, our faith itself would be worthless, because the first fruits are required in order to sanctify the harvest.