According to Israelite law, the people had to present to God the first portion of the harvest, whether of grain or fruit, as an expression of thanks to him for the entire harvest (Exod 22:29; 23:19). This offering may have been in the form of a cake made from the cereal, or in the form of a basket of cereal or fruit (Num 15:17-21; Deut 26:2). In addition to the offerings of firstfruits by private individuals, there were offerings of firstfruits at Israel’s national festivals. These included the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Lev 23:10-11), the Feast of Harvest, or Pentecost (Lev 23:15-17), and the Feast of Tabernacles, or Ingatherings (Exod 23:16; Lev 23:39). (For details see FEASTS.) The firstfruit offerings became the property of the priests and so formed one source of their food supply (Num 18:12-13).
Since people had to present their firstfruits before they could use the remainder of the harvest for themselves, firstfruits had a symbolic meaning. They were a sign of hope, a guarantee of greater things to come. This is the meaning of the New Testament illustrations of firstfruits. The risen Christ is called the firstfruits of believers who have died, because his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all believers (1 Cor 15:20,23). The Holy Spirit, whom believers have already, is the firstfruits, or guarantee, of future glory (Rom 8:23). Just as the firstfruits of the Israelites were the finest from their harvest, so God wants Christians to be the finest creatures in all his creation (James 1:18). Like the firstfruits, they belong especially to God (Rev 14:4). Paul sometimes spoke of the first people who became Christians in a locality as the firstfruits of the church in that place (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15).