Gabriel N. E. Fluhrer
Reformed churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have rightly frowned upon the celebration of feast days such as those found in the Church of Rome. But long before the unbiblical additions of Rome, feast days themselves were ordained by God for his old covenant people. Stated simply, the lives of the ancient Israelites were scheduled around the feasts that God prescribed in his word.
Given the monumental importance of the festal calendar in the life of Israel, it is not surprising to find that this ordering of life shaped the structures of the apostle Paul’s thinking. Indeed, his theology of resurrection life in 1 Corinthians 15 is subtly yet powerfully shaped by the festal calendar of Israel.
As a Pharisee and a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5), Paul knew much about the feasts of Israel from places like Leviticus 23. There God outlines in more detail what he previously told the Israelites (see Ex. 23:10–19), giving specific instructions for the festal calendar his people were to follow. There was the weekly “feast” of the Sabbath. In addition to this creation ordinance and weekly feast, there were three spring feasts and three fall feasts. The three spring feasts were Passover, Firstfruits, and Weeks. The three fall festivals were Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Booths.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives perhaps his most systematic, startling, and spiritually rich teaching regarding the resurrection. Throughout this pivotal chapter, the festal calendar of Israel lies just beneath the surface of the apostle’s thinking. In verse 20, Paul says that Christ was raised from the dead as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection. Since the Feast of Firstfruits was a celebration of the goodness of God’s provision in the coming harvest, represented by those firstfruits, the connection to Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is clear. Paul is telling us that Christ’s resurrection, promised by the inerrant word of God and fulfilled in history (vv. 1–5), is the guarantee of an eschatological resurrection harvest that surpasses any abundance of wheat that would have been brought into the granaries of Canaan. Because of Christ’s resurrection, believers have the firm and unshakable assurance that they will be gathered in the Father’s harvest to the greater Canaan, the new heavens and the new earth.
Paul goes on to speak of Christ’s reign and the nature of the resurrection body. He speaks of an extended period of time until Christ’s final triumph (vv. 24–28), and thus we must not pass by another rich connection with the festal calendar of Israel. The feast that followed that of Firstfruits was that of Weeks or Pentecost. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word that means “fiftieth.” The Feast of Weeks occurred fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits. When we turn to Acts 2:1–14, we read of the early Christians gathered together in one place on the Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them.
John the Baptist had told the early disciples that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). This Spirit-fire-baptism took place on the day of Pentecost. But the timing was significant: it happened after Christ’s resurrection. Again, the festal connection illumines the underlying unity of God’s revelation. Fittingly, the risen Christ, the firstfruits of the coming resurrection harvest, now sends the Holy Spirit to begin the great ingathering of that resurrection harvest on the day of Pentecost. As Israel’s calendar prescribed in types and shadows, so Jesus fulfills in reality.
Today we are still in the reaping phase of that great harvest. Our sickles and scythes are the same as those of the infant church at Pentecost: the preaching of the word of the crucified and resurrected firstfruits Savior. Understanding this festal connection to Pentecost also enriches our understanding of our Savior’s missionary words, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). Christians now do not labor under oppressive spiritual “sun,” plowing spiritually dry ground, awaiting an unsure harvest. Instead, in the power of the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45), the gospel is preached and Christ’s laborers work under the glad rays of a smiling heaven for a worldwide harvest that will bear the best of fruit.
Returning to 1 Corinthians 15, the festal cycle is completed in Paul’s thinking as he informs us that this resurrection harvest will continue until that moment—“in the twinkling of an eye”—when the trumpet sounds (v. 52) and believers are gathered to the Lord. Again, the festal connection here, though subterranean, characterizes Paul’s thinking. In Leviticus 23:24, God tells the Israelites that, following the Feast of Pentecost, the trumpets were to sound, calling the people to a holy convocation and Sabbath rest.
Similarly, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:52 that the eschatological resurrection harvest will be completed in God’s good time, and then the trumpet will sound. Believers will immediately enter into the greater Sabbath rest of the new heavens and the new earth, with glorified resurrection bodies that are like that of Christ, the firstfruits. All of this is accomplished in the power of him who is the life-giving Spirit. By calling Christ the life-giving Spirit, Paul does not exhibit Trinitarian confusion, but rather shows us the unity of the work of the Spirit with the work of Christ in a seamless robe of eschatological, resurrection life.
Gathering together these various biblical strands, a striking tapestry of revelation emerges. Israel’s feasts governed her entire existence, reminding the people every season that God was the God who blessed them. He called them to rest in him and enjoy his bounty. By connecting these Old Testament festal types and shadows with Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 15, we also see afresh why the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that the covenant of grace was
differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament. (7:5)
The feasts of Israel therefore provided “types and ordinances” that were “sufficient and efficacious,” by the power of the Spirit, to bring Christ to old covenant believers. By contrast, we live, not in the time of types and shadows, but in the time of resurrection fulfillment.
For those of us who live after Christ’s resurrection, there is much to learn from this festal structure of Paul’s thinking in 1 Corinthians 15. First, we can better understand Paul’s closing verse in chapter 15 (which was the favorite verse of OPC founding father Cornelius Van Til): “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58). Paul encourages the Corinthian believers—the same group with all of the horrible sins detailed in the earlier chapters—that their labor is not vain. Why? Because they labored in light of the coming resurrection harvest, as certain as Christ’s firstfruits of the same. Similarly for us, who live in the same redemptive-historical situation as the Corinthian believers, between the firstfruits and the final trumpet blast, our labors are not in vain. Whether we struggle to overcome a besetting sin, to reach a hardened neighbor who will not listen to the gospel, or to deal with the daily grind of disappointment, grief, and toil, we must remain steadfast, immovable, and abounding in the work of Jesus. Just as the ancient Israelites rejoiced with great joy as they held a handful of good grain at the beginning of the harvest and went on to labor all the more gladly because of the firstfruits, so we can rejoice in knowing that as the firstfruits are, so will be the harvest. Since Christ has been raised, our labors are certain to produce fruit. This fruit may be invisible in this age, for we walk by faith and not by sight; nevertheless, it is as certain as the empty tomb.
Second, and amplifying the previous point, the festal structure of Paul’s theology of resurrection should renew our sense of mission. Since the Messiah has begun his great eschatological harvest, let us be found to be faithful laborers. Let Easter be a joyous reminder that, no matter how small the work may seem in the world’s eyes, the truth is that our Savior is reaping an eternal harvest in our midst! Overarching years of ministerial and congregational toil with seemingly little result is the gargantuan, all-conditioning reality of the feast of resurrection. Therefore, let us remain steadfast, immovable, abounding in the work of Christ, the firstfruits of the resurrection, as we await the next feast in redemptive history: the trumpet blast calling us to the marriage supper of the Lamb!
In sum, Israel’s festal calendar was a graphic portrayal of the end of time brought into the present. It was an eschatological calendar. It was and is the Christian calendar.
The author is the pastor of Shiloh OPC in Raleigh, N.C. New Horizons, April 2014.