Who gets the best bite
Recently I had a conversation with a friend that left me a bit unsettled. We were discussing a mutual friend who was a successful banker and was considering leaving the financial industry to become a missionary. As my friend and I talked about how radical this transition would be, he made a comment that provoked my thinking:
“Since he is so educated and successful, it seems a waste of his training and potential for him to leave all that to become a missionary”.
On some level, I resonate with this rationale. I understand that his education was expensive and he might still need to pay off school loans. I also agree that he can honour God as a banker just as much as a missionary. (I really believe that). And true, he could make a lot more money in banking, and therefore contribute more financially to Kingdom work.
But what bothered me was that this reasoning fundamentally revealed that he felt our friend was somehow overqualified to be a missionary. Is that even possible? By implication, my friend was stating that the job of missionary should be filled by less capable, less qualified people—perhaps those who aren’t as educated or well trained.
Although my friend didn’t realize this at the time, he was in fact revealing something about his underlying priorities.
In the Old Testament, God wanted to ensure that his followers knew His priorities, and were able to line their life up with what is honouring of God. Therefore, He established a system called “firstfruits” to spell out exactly how and when the people of God were to give of their resources.
Most of us aren’t too familiar with the biblical concept of “firstfruits”.
An understanding of the concept will be helpful in determining our values and instructing us in our priorities.
A look at the Old Testament will help us understand the historical significance of this practice. In the book of Exodus, God commands the entire nation of Israel to honour God by bringing the first crops of their harvest to the house of the Lord.
“The choicest of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.” Exodus 23.19
In that agrarian culture, the awareness of God’s provision was much easier to see. Being highly dependent on weather for the success of their crops, in some ways people were privileged to realise their need for God on a daily basis. Most of us today have lost this sense of desperate dependence.
The people were forbidden to use any part of the harvest until the firstfruits were offered to the Lord. This concept is reinforced throughout the Old Testament:
“We obligate ourselves to bring the firstfruits of our soil and the first fruits of all fruit of every tree, year by year, to the house of the Lord.” Nehemiah 10.35
“Honour the Lord with your substance and with the firstfruits of all your produce.” Proverbs 3.9
The principle of firstfruits was instilled by God to ensure that the nation of Israel kept God as a top priority. He codified generosity. By ensuring that His people gave their first and best to God, He protected their hearts from becoming enamoured with themselves. He effectively declared, “I deserve your first and best. I hate leftovers”.
So, the question for us is, how do we apply this concept today? How does a firstfruits understanding really instruct the church in modernity?
After all, we’re no longer living under Old Testament law, right?
The concept of firstfruits is mentioned in the New Testament as well, but in a completely different usage.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he referred to Jesus Christ as the “firstfruits of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15.20 ESV). He likened the resurrected Jesus as a “firstfruit” since we too will one day experience the same resurrection. He was first, and we shall follow.
In the Old Testament, people were instructed to give of their firstfruits. In the New Testament, it is God who has given His firstfruit in Jesus Christ.
In our New Testament dispensation, with hearts that have been changed from stone to flesh (Ezekiel 11.19), God has removed legalistic demands such as “firstfruits” offerings. Our acceptance before a holy God has been secured by Jesus Christ alone.
But because of what Christ has done, our renewed hearts are freed from an insecure need to sacrifice. Instead, we are given the privilege of offering to God our very best, as an act of worship. Instead of trying to please God with our service, we respond to God’s acceptance with service. As John says, “we love because He first loved us”. (1 John 4.19)
So, although a firstfruits system is no longer required of us as Christ followers, it does stimulate our thinking and cause us to assess how our priorities of faith are expressed. Knowing that God deserves and desires our very best, our lifestyle and choices may be beautifully, and radically, altered. As we “seek first the kingdom of God”, it may have some far-reaching implications.
Here are some categories to help guide your thinking:
My children. A first fruit faith means that I desire my children’s spiritual success beyond all other kinds. It may mean that I release them to vocational ministry, if God should so lead in their lives. It means that I bless them to live far away from me as they reach adulthood, laying down my personal desire to have them nearby.
My time. I will choose to prioritise the amount of time I volunteer. And I will give God my best. I will come to church on time. I will get good rest on Saturday night, so I’m an attentive worshipper on Sunday. I will be a regular attendee at my care group, bible study, or service team. I will treat meeting with God as important as I would a meeting with my boss.
My money. I will give first, and spend second. By recognizing that my resources are from the hand of a generous God, I will worship God with my money. I will resist the idea that my giving is any sort of noble deed, but rather an act of worship to the One who is the giver of all good things.
My priorities. I will be diligent to ensure that God is my first priority. I will make sure that I spend quality time with Christian friends. I will value singing in worship, and will focus on the lyrics that are full of good theology.
My speech. I will speak of God often. I will let encouragement be on my lips. I will seek to be a blessing to others with the words I say. I will guard against gossip and deceit.
God has provided for us his firstfruit in Jesus Christ. And this demonstration of love compels us to think in generous terms of how we may respond. What used to be a biblical mandate for Old Testament followers to bring their “first fruits” is now an invitation to give God our first and our best as an expression of love and worship.
And to set the record straight, it is impossible to be overqualified to be a missionary.
Article by Brett Hilliard
With permission from IGO Global Outreach, Island Evangelical Community Church, Hong Kong.