All the holy days point to Jesus Christ, often in multiple ways. For the soon-approaching Pentecost — the Feast of Firstfruits — Jesus is Himself “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” because He was the first of God’s people to raise from the dead to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:20-23). He’s also the one who redeemed us, making it possible for us to be firstfruits, and He’s the reason we receive the Holy Spirit, which was first given to the New Testament church on Pentecost (John 14:26; 16:7).
On the surface, the term “firstfruits” simply refers to the first agricultural produce of the harvest season. In the Hebrew scriptures, firstfruits were offered to God before you harvested anything for yourself. This offering occurred after Passover on a Sunday morning and kicked-off the 50-day count to Pentecost (Lev. 23:1-21).
Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks or Feast of Harvest, pays a key role in God’s plan. Even churches that no longer keep the other holy days often mark Pentecost because that’s when the Holy Spirit was given to the New Testament church (Acts 2:1-4). In Leviticus 23, instructions about the wave-sheaf, 50-day count, and Pentecost occupy more than 1/3 of the entire chapter. Clearly, there’s something here we’re supposed to take careful note of.
Gleanings and Ruth
Embedded in the holy days discussion of Leviticus 23 is a peculiar verse. It doesn’t seem related to the chapter’s subject, yet it follows immediately after the instructions about Pentecost.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 23:22)
Why would God put this law in place while discussing the holy days? It doesn’t seem to make sense. It does, however, connect Pentecost with the story of Ruth. In Jewish tradition, Ruth is read every Pentecost, and perhaps that’s a clue as to why the law of gleanings is discussed here.
When Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem they’re both poor and Ruth was a “stranger,” a Moabitess instead of an Israelite. She more than qualified for gleaning under the law given in Leviticus, as well as the repetition in Deuteronomy 24:19 which added the “fatherless” and the “widow” to the list of those who could glean.
Instead of just letting Ruth glean, Boaz offered her protection (Ruth 2:9), provided food for her (2:14), and told his reapers to drop grain on purpose so she could glean as much as she wanted (2:15-16). When she first meets Boaz, Ruth’s relation to him is strikingly similar to us when first encountering Christ. He is good, and wealthy, and powerful while we have nothing. We don’t deserve anything from Him, and yet He offers us blessings beyond expectation.
When Jesus died, He opened up the covenants to non-Israelites. Prior to accepting His sacrifice, we were all “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). We were the sort of people who couldn’t expect more than the gleanings.
But He answered [the Gentile woman] and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” (Matt. 15:26-27)
Jesus did honor this woman’s faith and heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28), but by-and-large people outside Israel didn’t have access to God before the cross. Strangers who converted, like Ruth (Ruth 1:16; 2:12), were the exception rather than the rule. That didn’t really happen until after Christ’s Passover sacrifice, His ascension to the Father on wave-sheaf Sunday (click here for a timeline), and the Pentecost recorded in Acts 2.
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)
Peter didn’t realize this included Gentiles until latter (Acts 10:34-35, 44-48; 11:18), but speaking by inspiration of the Spirit He still proclaimed salvation for all whom God calls. This was a huge step in God’s plan to save the world through Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 12:47), and it’s connected with Pentecost.
In the epistle of James, we’re told the Father “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). The church is composed of the first people God will “harvest” from the world. We’re a rather unusual sort of firstfruits, though.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
God picks us up from the things devalued and discarded by the world. In other words, He finds His firstfruits among the gleanings. He’s taking people who are underwhelming and overlooked and transforming us into something glorious. Like Ruth, we were strangers who are brought into fellowship with God’s people by a Redeemer (Ruth 2:20; Tit. 2:13-14).