The expression ‘the harvest of the earth’ comes from Revelation 14:15. Since the book of Revelation is highly symbolical and difficult to interpret in places, the expression immediately prompts the question of its meaning. As it happens, apart from OT references like Joel 3:13 and Jeremiah 51:33, a harvest (cf. vintage, ampelos, in Rev. 14:19) is referred to elsewhere in the NT. In the circumstances, it might well prove worthwhile setting the scene by examining the concept in a different context, not least since I take it that the book of Revelation is an apocalyptic summary or recapitulation of biblical teaching in general.
In Matthew 3:11f. John the Baptist, in the process of warning his fellow Jews to repent, tells them that he who is coming after him, that is, Jesus, will baptize them not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He adds that while Jesus will gather his wheat into the granary, he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John is clearly using figurative language. Bluntly, he is implying that good people will be saved for God but that evil people will be thrown on to the garbage heap (gehenna) to be consumed by fire. This of course fits in with the OT idea that God himself is a devouring fire (Dt. 4:24; 9:3, cf. Heb. 12:29).
In Matthew 13 Jesus himself takes up the theme of harvest. First, he tells the parable of the sower, which relates to fruit bearing (13:3-9), and explains it in verses 18-23. Then in verses 24-30, rather like John the Baptist in 3:12, he tells ‘another parable’ about wheat and tares representing good people who are sown by Christ himself and evil people who are sown by ‘an enemy’ during the course of this age. However, they are not to be separated until harvest time at the end of the age (cf. John 5:28f.). Then, like the chaff, the weeds will be burnt and the wheat gathered into Christ’s barn (cf. Mt. 13:47-50).
Next, when his disciples ask him to elaborate on the parable of the weeds, Jesus explains in verses 37-43 that he, the Son of man, is the sower of good seed in the field, which is the world (v.38), and that the weeds are the sons of the evil one. He goes on to indicate that at harvest time at the end of the age he will send his angels to do the reaping and to extract from his kingdom all those who have “done lawlessness” (cf. Zeph. 1:3) or have served as stumbling blocks causing others to do so (v.41).
In association with harvest we may well consider the first fruits. In Exodus 23:16, for example, the Israelites are commanded to keep the feast of harvest, of the first fruits of their labour. And in verse 19 they are told to bring the first of the first fruits of the ground into the house of the Lord (cf. Num.18:12). In light of this it is not at all surprising that Paul describes the resurrected Christ himself as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20), for he entered or returned to his Father’s house as the pioneer of those who belong to him (15:23, cf. Heb. 2:10-13; 12:2). Thus in Romans 8:23 Paul asserts that Christians, who have received the Holy Spirit as believers in Christ, have the first fruits of the Spirit and, in concert with the Spirit (v.26), groan inwardly as they await in faith the full redemption of adoption. This is in essence the scenario sketched by Jesus himself in John 14:2f.
Again James remarks in his letter (1:18, cf. v.21, Rev. 14:4) that those who are brought forth by God’s word of truth are the first fruits of his creatures suggesting, like Romans 11:16, that there are others to follow in their train. The same conclusion may be drawn from Hebrews 11 where it is indicated that those believers who were the beneficiaries of the covenants made historically before that made with Christ will nonetheless form part of the total harvest (Heb. 11:39f.). What this indicates is that just as Christ’s atonement covers the sins of the whole world horizontally so it does vertically (1 John 2:2, cf. Heb. 9:15; Luke 10:2; John 4:35). In other words, redemption by the blood of the Lamb covers all believers throughout history (cf. Rev. 7:9).
In John 15 Jesus describes himself as the true vine. Originally, of course, Israel, the seed of Abraham, was the vine (Isa. 5:1-7) stemming from Egypt (Ps. 80:8) meant to bear the fruit of blessing to the nations and to be their light (Isa. 42:6; 49:6,8). Israel himself failed, though the promise of better stood firm (cf. Zech. 8:12f.), and in the event Jesus who epitomized Abraham’s seed (Gal. 3:16) brought light and blessing to the world (John 8:12; Gal. 3:14). It follows from this that all who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are Abraham’s spiritual seed and heirs according to promise (Gal. 3:29).
Israel, the chosen nation, is also portrayed as an olive tree. In Romans 11 Paul, like Jesus in John 15, maintains that the root supports the branches. He stresses the fact that despite Israel’s disobedience God’s plan is served. If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump (v.16). Thus believers in Christ will be where he is and live as he lives (John 14:3,19). Again, the implication is that the true Israel, that is Christ, accomplished what Israel failed to do. And in the end despite universal disobedience (v.32) “all Israel” (v.26) will be saved.
If what we have gleaned from the evidence somewhat cursorily scanned above is in essence correct, then in light of it we are in a position to take a look at Revelation 14. In verse 3 we read that the forty-four thousand, that is, all believing Israel sealed by the Spirit (cf. 5:9; 7:1-8) are redeemed from the earth (apo tes ges). Then in verse 4 we are told that they are redeemed as first fruits from mankind. There appear to be at least two implications here. First, “Israel” is “first fruits” implying that there are others (cf. Mt. 25:31ff.) and, second, that as at Sodom and Gomorrah, while both wicked people and their (earthly) habitat are destroyed, righteous people are like Lot redeemed (cf. Luke 17:28-30). These conclusions would seem to receive general support from Revelation 14:14-20. For here the earth is first reaped when the harvest is ripe and then subjected to fire. This highlights the contrast between those who dwell on the earth (Rev. 6:10; 8:13; 11:10f.) whose portion is in this world (Ps. 17:14; Mt. 6:2,5,16) and those whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:1-5, cf. Rev. 11:12).
This seems to be the pattern throughout Scripture as an examination of passages like Mark 4, 13, 1 Corinthians 15:35-57, 2 Thessalonians 1:7f., 2 Thessalonians 2:8, 2 Peter 3:7,10-12, Hebrews 6:7f. (cf. Jude 12) and 12:27-29 seem to indicate.
The Redemption of Creation?
Having said this, we are forced to recognize that modern evangelical theology governed as it is by the Augustinian worldview apparently sees things differently. It talks in terms not simply of the spiritual redemption (which surely corresponds with spiritual regeneration) or of the believing man and woman made in the image of God but of the redemption of the material and even inanimate creation. In view of this it is necessary to examine some of its perceptions.
If we go back to the beginning of the Bible, we shall find, first, that there is no covenant with creation. (1* See further my articles Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?, The End of the World, The Corruptibility of Creation, Concerning Futility, etc.) Second, the flood threatens the total destruction of the earth (Gen. 6:13), apparently because it has failed to produce the required fruit (harvest) of godly men and women (Gen. 6:11f., cf. Heb. 6:7f.; Jude 12). Destruction is in the event averted by God’s gracious covenant commitment to Noah. This covenant, however, like that with Moses (cf. Mt. 5:18; 2 Cor. 3, etc.), though referred to as everlasting (Gen. 9:16) in a this-worldly sense (cf. Isa. 54:10), relates only to this age (Gen. 8:22) and stands in direct contrast with the Christian covenant which is eternal (Mt. 24:35; Heb. 9:15; 13:20). In other words, it will be effective only until God’s purpose of human salvation is accomplished (cf. Jer. 31:35f.; 33:19-22). At this point the inference would appear to be that the physical creation, which was according to Genesis 1 good or useful (cf. Gen. 2:9; 3:6), has now served its purpose and can be dispensed with. Once its harvest has been reaped, the earth, like the uninhabited wilderness which is desolate and fruitless producing only thorns and thistles (cf. 2 Sam. 23:6), can be obliterated (Heb. 6:7f., cf. Rev. 21:1-5). The partial destruction of the flood will be complemented and completed when both people and habitat succumb to fire (Luke 17:26-30; Mt. 22:1-10; 2 Thes. 1:7f.; 2:8; Heb. 12:27-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
On reflection, this is precisely what Paul seems to be implying in Romans 8:18-25. Despite the quite unwarranted (and to my knowledge totally unsubstantiated) traditional tendency to read Genesis 3:17-19, regarded simply as a punishment for sin, into this passage, Paul is contrasting the sufferings of the present age with the glory of the age to come. He noticeably fails to mention sin. This being so, the inference is that the physical creation, which is by nature temporal since it has both a beginning and an end (Gen. 1:1; 2 Pet. 3:7, 10-12), is also by nature corruptible and never intended like its incorruptible Creator to ‘remain’ (Heb. 1:10-12. It should be noted that creation stands in contrast with its Creator throughout Scripture. See e.g. Gen. 8:22; Ps. 90:2; Isa.13:9-13; 40:6-8; 51:6; 54:10; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Mt. 24:35; 1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17.).
But if creation, the earth in particular, is temporal and corruptible, so is the flesh it produces (cf. Gen. 2:7; Isa. 51:8). Here Paul again has something pertinent to say. He expressly denies that flesh and blood can inherit the (spiritual) kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50) and insists that transformation is inherent in the divine purpose and plan of salvation (1 Cor. 15:51). This is hardly surprising since Jesus, contrary to the assertions of Augustinian theology, taught the same thing. In John 3:1-8, he tells Nicodemus in no uncertain terms that it is necessary (not imperative) to be born again. And this rebirth or birth from above is, contrary to the vagaries of Nicodemus’ thinking (3:4), spiritual not fleshly. (It is sad to say that those who advocate the redemption of creation have taken their cue from Nicodemus instead of from Jesus. For the corollary of the regeneration of the flesh which stems from the earth is the redemption of the material world! See again below.) Furthermore, even the incarnate Jesus who daily grew older so long as he remained on the earth (cf. Luke 2:41-50; John 8:57) had also been subject to the same necessity. He too had had to experience new birth (= be acknowledged as God’s Son, Mt. 3:13-17, cf. our adoption, Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5f.), that is, to receive eternal life. In other words, he had to receive the fulfilment of the promise made to mortal Adam at his baptism, and this he did by keeping the commandment(s) (Gen. 2:17, cf. Dt. 30:15-20, etc.). With him his Father was well pleased and publicly acknowledged him as his Son. (Though Jesus was God’s Son by nature he had to prove himself such by action. In his case, ontology and function had to match. A sinless Father required a sinless Son. Had Jesus sinned he would have proved himself a fraud and his claims spurious.) Eventually, when he had laid down his life for his sheep, his resurrection, including his ascension, transformation, exaltation and heavenly session, made him first fruits indeed. And since this is so, we also through faith are united and belong to him. We too will undergo resurrection and change (cf. Phil. 3:21). We too, as the spiritual progeny of God (John 1:13; 1 Pet. 1:23; 1 John 3:9), will have spiritual or heavenly bodies (1 Cor. 15:35-57). But since these are destroyed as flesh (2 Cor. 5:1), they will require redemption (Rom. 8:23). (2* Those who appeal to Romans 8:23 to support the redemption of creation are surely misguided. The corollary of the latter is the redemption of the flesh, which Paul specifically denies, 1 Cor. 15:50, and implies in Col. 3:5, cf. Phil. 3:19; Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8. Dunn correctly distinguishes between sarx and soma and asserts that the force of sarx is precisely that it implies an unavoidable attachment to this age and must therefore perish before redemption can be complete, Romans p.391. See also his The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp.70-73. He alludes appositely to Romans 8:11,23. The latter verse suggests a distinction between the groaning arising from creation’s birth pangs, Mt.24:8, and that of believers who have the first fruits of the Spirit who intercedes for them, Rom. 8:26. The Spirit no more intercedes for creation than Christ dies for it! Creation was initially uncovenanted and only perpetuated for man’s salvation. Gen. 8:22.) Colossians 3:1-5, like Luke 13:1-5 and 1 John 2:15-17, implicitly distinguishes between sin and temporality/corruptibility.)
The truth is there is nothing in the NT to suggest that creation was once perfect (“good” in a moral sense) as opposed to useful but is now “fallen” and cursed on account of Adam, and thus requires redemption. What grows old, like the law which was temporal (cf. 2 Cor. 3:11), is by nature intended to pass away (2 Cor. 4:16; Heb. 8:13, cf. 1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17) quite irrespective of sin. Even Jesus, who as incarnate became part of creation only “for a little while” (Heb. 2:7,9) and himself grew older, failed to alter its corruptible constitution (cf. Heb. 2:8). God always had human transformation or what was new (to us) in mind from the start (2 Cor. 5:5). Sin was not in the picture except insofar as it prevented the fulfillment of the promise to Adam. But Christ remedied that.
The Goal of Creation
God formed creation to be inhabited by man created in his image (Gen. 1; Isa. 45:12,18; Acts 17:26f.). And since the goal of creation was the adoption of believers as his children (Rom. 8:19-21; Eph. 1:3-6) and their conformity to his moral and generic likeness in Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:24; Phil. 3:21), creation itself does not form part of the harvest. The field may be reaped (Mt. 13:38; Rom. 8:18-25) but once its harvest has been garnered its own preservation is as superfluous as it is purposeless (Heb. 6:7f.). What is inherently corruptible, cannot inherit incorruption (1 Cor. 15:50). What is ‘made by hand’ (Isa. 45:12; 48:13) must make way for what is ‘not made by hand’ (2 Cor. 5:1; Heb. 9:11,24). The first is abolished so that the second may be established (Heb. 10:9).
The picture painted by the Bible is consistent. Fruitlessness leads to destruction (cf. Gen. 6:13, cf. Heb. 6:7f.; Jude 12). This is true of Israel according to the flesh (Isa. 5:1-7; Mt. 21:23; 23:38, cf. the fig tree of Luke 13:6-9 and Mt. 20:1-15; 21:28-31,33-41), of the nations classified as goats (Mt. 25:41), of branches (John 15:6), of the flesh as such (John 6:63; Rom. 7:18,24; 8:6, cf. Gal. 6:7f.) and of the earth (Luke 17:27-30; Heb. 6:7f.; 12:27). Little wonder that Paul counted as rubbish all his fleshly attachments (Phil. 3:7) and could say that both the flesh and the world were crucified so far as he was concerned (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; 6:14f.). After all, as the slave of Christ he was but following in the steps of his Lord who epitomised slavery to his Father’s will (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; Rom. 15:3, cf. Phil. 2:7). The only apparent exception to the rule of fruitlessness that I can think of is to be found in 1 Corinthians 3:15 (cf. Jude 23) where Paul, wonderfully appreciative of the riches of God’s grace, entertains the notion of the salvation of believers who fail to produce good works (cf. Mt. 13:18-23 where only the first group, v.19, belong to the devil). Strictly speaking, only sons produce good works (Mt. 13:23; Eph. 2:10, cf. Mt. 17:26f.). Servants can only do as they are commanded, and at best they are unprofitable (Luke 17:7-10). They may be fruitless but this does not necessarily mean that they are faithless and reprobate (cf. 2 Thes. 3:2).
Salvation: Spiritual, Corporate, Corporeal and Personal
What all this points to is that salvation or redemption has to do with man as the image of God not as flesh in the image of Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-49). The latter, like the physical creation as such (Heb. 12:27), is removed and replaced by the former (cf. Heb. 10:9). God so loved the world (of man) that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. So, as God’s children born of the Spirit (John 1:13; 3:5f.; 1 John 3:9), we shall live in the spirit like God himself (1 Pet. 4:6). When this occurs, the old creation will have passed away and the new (to us) will be eternal reality (Rev. 21:1-5). The present age will have given way to the age to come which, since it is eternal, already exists (cf. Heb. 6:5). And Jesus, in returning to his Father, has gone ahead to prepare our place (John 14:2f.).
J.D.G.Dunn, WBC Romans 1-8, Dallas, 1988.
The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London/New York, 1998, 2003 ed.