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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, April 25 2024

The wave sheaf offering: how an ancient ceremony foreshadowed Jesus role

On the first day of the week following Jesus' death and resurrection, an unusual and significant event occurred.

As Mary Magdalene was standing by Jesus’ empty tomb, Jesus appeared and called her name, telling her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God'" (John 20:17). Then, later the same day, as she and the other Mary "went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them saying, 'Rejoice!' And they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him" (Matthew 28:9).

Between these two episodes Jesus must have ascended to the Father, as He had told Mary Magdalene, because He had allowed His disciples to touch Him when they met the second time. The significance of these events is revealed in a little-understood Old Testament ceremony that prefigured the purpose of His ascension.

In order to correctly understand these events, it is necessary to be aware that the common belief Jesus rose from the dead at sunrise on the first Sunday after He was crucified is inaccurate. The biblical account makes this plain: "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed….So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.' Then Peter and the other disciple…went toward the tomb ... .the other disciple… bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came…and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed" (John 20:1-8).

Before sunrise that Sunday morning, Jesus had already been resurrected and His tomb was empty. His resurrection had actually occurred near or at sunset the previous day as the weekly Sabbath day was ending (see "The Son of Man Will Be Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth"). Therefore, the first day of the week (Sunday) is not the anniversary of His resurrection, but on that Sunday morning a significant event did occur. 

On that day Jesus ascended to the Father to be accepted as the first to be raised from the dead in God's spiritual harvest of humanity, opening the way for all of us to have the opportunity for eternal life: "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him" (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

Jesus Christ's preeminence as the first of a larger body of "firstfruits" is significant. The Apostle John describes these faithful servants as "redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb" (Revelation 14:4). James 1:18 also refers to those called to salvation in this present age, "Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures." 

Jesus died and was placed in a tomb just before sundown (Luke 23:50-56)—immediately before the beginning of the annual "high day" (John 19:31) that commenced the Days of Unleavened Bread, which began at sunset. Three days and three nights later—near sundown on the afternoon of the weekly Sabbath (Saturday) during the Days of Unleavened Bread—Jesus was resurrected. The next day—on the first day of the week (Sunday)—He appeared to Mary and some of His disciples just before He ascended to the throne of the Father in heaven.

A unique ceremony, instituted by God and observed by the Jews for more than a thousand years, was being carried out in the temple at the very time Jesus was ascending to the Father. It symbolized the importance of Christ's presentation of Himself to the Father as the first of the "firstfruits" resurrected from the dead to eternal life. Each year in the spring, ancient Israel was not allowed to eat any of the new grain harvest until the commanded wave-sheaf offering was offered during the Days of Unleavened Bread. It was offered in conjunction with the daily morning sacrifices at 9 a.m.—the third hour of the day.

This was also the time of year when the ancient Israelites had first taken possession of the land of Canaan. God had then instructed  them: "When you enter the land…and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath" (Leviticus 23:10-11). The "day after the Sabbath" referred to here is the Sunday that fell during the Days of Unleavened Bread. As mentioned earlier in this article, Jesus rose from the dead near sunset on the weekly Sabbath during the Days of Unleavened Bread and appeared to His disciples the next morning—the  same Sunday mentioned here.

This passage in Leviticus 23 describes the same offering that was being waved before God in the Jewish temple at the same hour on the same Sunday Jesus ascended to the Father. Christ's presentation of Himself to the Father as the real "wave sheaf" had been planned in advance as a vital aspect of God's plan of salvation. The phrase "on your behalf" (Leviticus 23:11) is significant, referring to what the wave-sheaf offering symbolized when it was lifted up and waved before God by Israel's high priest. It represented Jesus Christ who, as our resurrected High Priest, ascended to the Father to present Himself on our behalf, the perfect and unblemished Sacrifice for our sins, and the first Son of all of the future sons and daughters of God – His firstfruits. 

This acceptance of Jesus Christ as the first sheaf of the harvest, as the Captain or Author of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10), was necessary before the rest of the spiritual harvest could begin, just as in the physical parallel (Leviticus 23:14). The symbolism of the physical wave-sheaf offering was fulfilled in reality by Jesus "that He might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). Paul explained that "...he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Colossians 1:18-20).