The Birth of Death, The Birth of Life, The Death of Death!
James and the First Fruit of the Resurrection
The epistle of James is often overlooked, to some degree, in discussions of eschatology. When discussion does focus on the book, it normally turns, rightfully to a degree, to chapter 5:6-10 and James’ assertion that the parousia of Christ had drawn near, and that the Lord, as Judge, was standing right at the door. I suggest, however, that chapter 5 is the “back end” as it were, to an inclusio discussion of the resurrection harvest, and the new creation at the coming of the Lord. James begins his discussion of that theme by introducing an admittedly brief, but, powerful discussion of the overcoming of the Adamic Death Curse in the New Creation of Christ.
James 1:18: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.”
Here, we have explicitly stated that James’ audience – those from the twelve tribes (1:1) – who had been converted to Christ- were first fruits. Any first century Jew would recognize immediately (and undeniably) the reference to the harvest, and as a directly related theme, Israel’s festal calendar.
Notice that unlike Romans 15:6 where the “first fruit” were simply the first of a geographical region to be converted, those in James are the first of God’s creatures (ktismaton). The power of James 1:18 should not be overlooked. They were part of the New Creation!
I believe that there is another “layer” of thought in James’ reference to the New Creation. Not only does the author posit his audience as the New Creation, but, directly related to that is the concept of the New Israel. It must be kept in mind as Moses was sent to Egypt to deliver Israel from bondage, he was told: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). There is a close connection between first fruit and first born. Thus, just as Old Covenant Israel was God’s first born, the righteous remnant of the twelve tribes in James’ day, now followers of Messiah Jesus, were the first fruit of the True Israel (Acts 3:21-24). Added to this is the fact that in the Old Covenant prophecies of the New Creation we find the prediction of the destruction of Old Covenant Israel and the creation of a New People with a New Name. See Psalms 102 / Isaiah 62-65. In other words, the promise of the New Creation included the prophecy of the New People. James’ audience – the righteous remnant – was about to live through the parousia and judgment of the Old Covenant people, and along with the Gentiles comprise the New Creation of the Lord! This is a rich and important topic, but I will not develop it further at this time.
Notice that James contrasts the former life of his readers with their current status. They had once given themselves to temptation, lust and sin which had produced (given birth to) death (v. 14-15). Death was the “offspring” (the child, if you please) of sin. Sin “brought forth” death. This is patently the same death as Adam, since what we see in Genesis was temptation, sin and death there as well. James’ audience had, in their past lives, recapitulated the story of the Garden, temptation, sin, death.
The word translated as “brings forth” (James 1:15) is apokuei, from apokueo. It basically means “to give birth, to bring forth from the womb.” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1973), 64). Their former life had given birth to death. They had experienced the “wages of sin” i.e. death.
But, James then says that his readers had now been “begotten”- and he uses a cognate of apokueo. This contrast between a “birth to death” and a birth into Christ is extremely important. Their former life gave birth to death. But, now, through faith, they had been “begotten, brought forth”; another birth had taken place! They were the first fruits, the first born, of another creation.
Scholars have long recognized that creation language permeates James’ thought here. Thus, James is contrasting two creations, a creation (the Old Creation) of sin and death, and a New Creation of life. This is resurrection. Their former life had given birth to death. Their new life in Christ was bringing forth life. (See Ralph Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 48, (Waco, Tx; Word Publishers, 1988), 38+).
They had been delivered from the law of sin and death (temptation, sin, death, see 1 John 2:15) and were now a New Creation. Just as Paul spoke of being subject to the law of sin and death, and deliverance from it in Christ (Romans 8:1-3), James is contrasting their former “life of death” with their new found faith in Christ as the New Creation.
The “giving birth to death” motif is brought out very powerfully by James’ use of several words: sullabousa (from sullamabanao), tiktei, and the other words already noted, apokueo, etc.. The use of all of these words drives home the point that James is discussing two “creations”, two worlds. One is a world of death. This is nothing other than the Adamic world. The other is the New Creation of life in Christ. This is, in effect, a powerful discussion of the resurrection, the overcoming of the death of Adam.
James says that his audience were the first fruit, they were the first born of God’s creatures, His New Creation. This is directly parallel with Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 5:17– “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Thus, since they had gone from the Old Creation of sin and death, to the New Creation in Christ, they had become the first fruits of the resurrection into that New Creation.
Christ was the first fruit of the first fruit, they were the first fruit of the harvest, and they were living in the last days before the harvest at Christ’s parousia (James 5:6-10) which had drawn near.
Notice that there seems to be an inclusio in James. In chapter 1 he refers to them as the first fruit. This is harvest imagery. Then, in chapter 5 he urges them to patience:
“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:6-8).
So, he begins his epistle with a reference to harvest and he closes with an illustration and reference to harvest, assuring them that Christ’s coming (for the harvest) was near (cf. Matthew 13:39f).
We should not fail to see the connection with Revelation 7 and 14 here. Just as James was writing to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, and referred to them as the first fruit of God’s New Creation, in Revelation John saw the 144,000 out of the twelve tribes. And who were they? They were the first fruit:
“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:1-4).
Like James’ audience, these saints were the first fruit of those redeemed to God. They had once been dead in their sins and trespasses (like those in Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2) but, had been redeemed
to God from among men. They had patently not been raised from physical death. They had been redeemed from spiritual death. And there is something very important to notice in the text.
The 144,000 were the first fruit. It cannot be over-emphasized that “redemption” was the nature of their first fruit status. They were the first of those redeemed to God from man. But, to reiterate, they had not been raised from biological death.
If so, we have literally not a word to chronicle what would have been such an incredible, massive event. So, the nature of their birth, their resurrection, is patently not physical. What were they waiting for? They were waiting for the harvest, Revelation 14:
“Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and on the cloud sat One like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You to reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” (I suggest that we have here the “hearing the voice of the Son of God” for the resurrection of John 5:28f). So He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped” (Revelation 14:14-16).
So, the first fruit who had been born to life were not biologically dead people raised out of the ground. They were the beginning of the harvest and were waiting for the harvest. If they were the first fruit, which was not physical resurrection, then upon what basis do we say that the harvest – of which they were the first fruit, and of which Christ himself was the first of the first fruit – would be physical resurrection? That is changing horses in mid-stream. There is no justification for that in the text.
But notice that the 144,000 and those in James would be, in the typology of Israel’s festal calendar, the first fruit following the “first fruit of the first fruit.” In Leviticus 23:9f we find the commandment of the offering of the first fruit of the first fruit, which was to be offered on “the eighth day” – the day after the Sabbath. Thus, Jesus, as the first fruit of the first fruit (1 Corinthians 15:20) was raised on the eighth day (Matthew 28:1f). Then, on Pentecost, seven Sabbaths later, on another eighth day, they offered the first fruit (Leviticus 23:15f). And so, on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 souls turned to Jesus the Messiah as the first fruit of those redeemed to God from man to receive the forgiveness of their sin – to be raised from “sin-death.”
Now, we are constantly told that the resurrection harvest must follow and be of the same nature, as the first fruit. This would demand that the first fruit would be of the same nature as the first fruit of the first fruit, right? So, let’s test that and see if it works. Let’s begin with an examination of the nature of the first fruit saints in James and Revelation, and work our way back to the resurrection of Christ as the first fruit of the first fruit.
The 144,000 and James’ audience (James 1) were the first fruit of the harvest.
The first fruit were to be of the same nature as the first of the first fruit.
Christ was the first fruit of the first fruit of the resurrection, the first to be raised to die no more. (Traditional view).
But, neither James’ audience or the 144,000– as the first fruit – had been physically raised from the dead to die no more.
Therefore, the resurrection of Christ as the first fruit of the first fruit, was not focused on his physical resurrection. His physical resurrection was, as he said repeatedly, and as John tells us, a sign of the greater spiritual realities. His resurrection was out of Adamic Death, separation from the Father. (The same kind of death from which James’ audience and the 144,000 had been – were being – raised).
Let me state my argument even more succinctly:
If the harvest is of the same nature as the first fruit,
if the first fruit of James 1 and of the 144,000 were not raised from physical death,
the harvest would not be of a physical resurrection.
To counter this argument, one would have to demonstrate that there are two different harvests, two different first fruit gatherings in the NT. There is no merit, no evidence, no support for such a claim.
James’ language of birth and death, death and life in chapter 1 shows that he was dealing with the solution to the Adamic Death problem. James is not discussing some aspect of the Adamic Curse. He is speaking of temptation, sin and death, the very same kind of death that was introduced into the world through Adam (Romans 5:12).
In our next installment, we will examine James’ closing discussion of the harvest and the Day of the Lord. Stay tuned!
Be sure to order a copy of my book, Seventy Weeks Are Determined…For the Resurrection. This is a great study demonstrating that the resurrection had to occur no later than AD 70!