The Church of the Firstborn (Hebrews 12:23)
The film ‘Abduction Club’ is set in 18th century Ireland and is about the exploits of two friends who are both Irish noblemen yet are younger sons in their respective families. Because they are younger sons they are not eligible to inherit titles or estates, and are therefore somewhat penniless. Like other second-born sons in the nobility of their day they are expected to become priests or soldiers.
In the film two men became members of an infamous society known as the “Abduction Club”, whose main aim is to become very friendly with wealthy heiresses and then abduct them in order to marry them and therefore provide themselves with position and financial security. In the film, and in medieval society, the firstborn got everything, and the rest, virtually nothing by comparison. But what was the original role of the firstborn as seen in scripture?
The role of the firstborn
In scripture we see that, on the death of his parents, the firstborn son would receive a double portion of his father’s estate (Deut 21:17), however this added blessing was not for personal gain. The firstborn would be responsible for ensuring the on-going well-being of the family, especially if other members ran into trouble. In light of this we see that the firstborn represented, in a very real way, the power and ability to continue life and secure the protection and well-being of the family in every way. All Christians are members of Jesus’ church - the church of the Firstborn (Heb 12:23). As such we are called to reach out in the love and power of the ‘Double-portioned-One’ who empowers us by the Holy Spirit, the ‘another comforter,’ who in nature and character is just like the Father and the Son.
In the Old Testament covenant we see that Israel was called as a nation to live out the role of the firstborn. In other words Israel was called to share all that she received with others and in so doing become a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). This heartfelt desire of God for His people to be a blessing to all people is captured in the words of Isaiah, who wrote: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7). Prayer is primarily about engagement with God; God wants everyone to engage with Him.
Through God’s gracious presence, the firstborn was able to empower, support, feed, and encourage others. Due to what he had received he was able to strengthen those who otherwise might have gone under, so to speak. In all things the firstborn was called to give out of what they had received an, in doing so, reveal the heart of God. This then explains why Elisha asks for a double-portion of the spirit when Elijah leaves (2 Kings 2:9). Elisha was not being greedy; he wanted to continue to be a blessing to others in the strength and power of the Lord and realised that only God could bring this about.
As the firstborn – those called to be a light to the world in both word and deed - Israel, often failed; yet there was hope. In grace and mercy God stepped in again and again, and often did so with the language of a Father speaking of the relationship He forged with His people. Take for example, his words through Moses to Pharaoh: “This is what the LORD says, Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go, so I will kill your firstborn son.” (Exodus 4:22-26). After many warnings God targeted Egypt’s firstborn because it was the firstborn that ultimately continued the family line. Let’s now turn to look at the firstborn of Egypt and the firstborn of God.
The firstborn of Egypt and the firstborn of God
The firstborn of Egypt were ultimately the ones who would continue to perpetrate the oppressive dominating system of beliefs that deified man, shook a fist at God, and abused others. They represented the continuation of a totally illegitimate rule and so God came against them in order to set his people free.
“He unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility — a band of destroying angels. He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death but gave them over to the plague. He struck down all the firstborn of Egypt, the first fruits of manhood in the tents of Ham. But he brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the desert. He guided them safely, so they were unafraid; but the sea engulfed their enemies.”
You and I are part of the church of the firstborn. Like Israel we have been brought out of our own ‘Egypt, yet this bringing out was not due to favouritism – nor was this the case with Israel.
Israel was God’s covenant people, yet the only real difference between Israel and Egypt at their time of the Exodus was the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. The blood spoke of temporary remission of sin, and ultimately points to God as the provider and Christ as the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7). Life continues because of God’s grace and mercy, and not man’s ability or achievements.
So! From what we have been looking at so far we see that one of the key ideas in the term ‘firstborn’ is the power to continue, and the power to bless. This continuing of life helps us understand why the firstfruits of the harvest were seen as belonging to God, as was the firstborn of every womb (Ex 13:2). All life ultimately continues because of God’s gracious intervention, and not because of man’s ingenuity or strength.
“Grandma Yod is 103 years old and she has been searching for the truth for a long time. Well, Grandma Yod saw a cross on a Christian school and prayed that the One who died on the cross would send someone to tell her about Him. One day she had bad asthma and could not breathe, so she went to the cross and prayed that he would heal her – and He did. So when her granddaughter told her the way of salvation through Jesus she was ready to be baptised immediately.”
World Outreach Magazine
Israel was collectively called God’s firstborn in that the nation received blessing from God in order to be a light to the nations, and blessing to others – in other words to share the inheritance. This is something we all need to note. If we are going to be those who walk in power and authority we need to be those who share our lives with others. We are the church of the firstborn (Heb 12:23), the church of those who have received and can, by nature of this receiving, give out, sometimes in unexpected ways.
During one of my stays in Korea I went on a tour to see a Korean pottery. The tour guide asked me why I was in S. Korea and what I did for a living. On telling her I was a minister she started asking all sorts of questions about Christianity. As lunch time approached she told me that although she was a Buddhist she believed that all ways led to God. She then said that she had found this even more confusing and had prayed, “If there is one God out there, please make yourself known to me.” She saw our encounter as an answer to that prayer, and said it was a pity that she did not have longer to talk, due to her afternoon appointment to attend. Within a minute of this her phone rang and, to her surprise, the afternoon appointment was cancelled. We were able to go for lunch and she was able to continue to ask her questions and find out more about Jesus.
God cares for all people, and reaches out in unexpected ways whereby we can share what He has given us with others. We are the church of the firstborn (Heb 12:23), whose names are written in heaven because of the work of another.
We are called to share
On occasion I watch a programme about house renovation. People purchase houses at auctions, do them up, sell them and make a great profit. I cannot remember much about the profits people made but one story sticks out from all the others. It is of a man who purchased a dilapidated house, repaired it and then gave it to his younger brother who was struggling. In his actions I was reminded of the love of God.
God shares so much with us, and in scripture we see again and again that He expects us to live the same way: to share our lives with others. An example of this sharing is seen in how God spoke to Israelite landowners in the past.
“'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.”
Psychologically it was going to be better for the foreigner and the poor to go out and collect the remnants of the harvest than just stand in a queue to get a hand-out. In collecting the remnants they would not be humiliated in having to hold out their hands for all to see, and would be engaging in a form of work that would prevent them from becoming isolated in their poverty. And yet there was help for the landowner as well.
Psychologically it was also going to be much healthier for the landowner to leave part of the harvest for others. We are those who have received and are ‘wired’ to give out. When we live according to the Kingdom there is great blessing as we recognise that ultimately everyone receives from God and is called to share.
This understanding that ultimately everyone receives from God in one way or another was underscored by the Sabbath year practice. Every seventh year the land was left uncultivated (Lev 25:4ff). The crops and the harvest for that year were available for everyone and none of the harvest could be stored for future usage. In all this there is the reminder: God is our provider and His ultimate provision to us is a Saviour: Jesus Christ.
“The man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The one with the cauliflower ear and split lip, by whose swollen eye and ruptured spleen we are somehow healed”.
F. Buechner in, ‘Telling the Truth’ p 21.
Jesus Christ: The Firstborn
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”
The title Firstborn over all creation speaks of power and position, as well as containing the idea of blessing. This can be seen, for example, in Psalm 89:27 where King David is spoken of as the firstborn, whilst, in the normal run of the family, he was actually the youngest.
The word ‘firstborn’ (prototokos) is a legal term and not a biological one, and means, “First in rank, status, supreme, pre-eminent, and unique. In Colossians Paul speaks of the pre-eminence of Christ in writing, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15). In this he speaks of the cosmic position and dimension of God’s work - the work of One who delights in sharing His goodness with others.
The point Paul makes is that Jesus stands in relation to creation as its supreme Head and as its mediator, who reconciles earth to heaven. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “When God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Heb 1:6.
No part of creation or any created being could possibly hope to redeem creation. Instead it required the Creator – the most offended party – to be willing to reach out to the most offensive party through great personal sacrifice – and that is exactly what has happened: God was willing.
“And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”
Jesus is the firstborn from among the dead – the supreme ruler – the supreme warrior who withheld His power and went to the cross and rose as the firstborn who restores us to fellowship with God, and empowers us with the Holy Spirit. In doing so He reveals a willingness to help us grow into maturity of thinking, emotional stability and action because in our salvation we are being brought back to the true dignity of what it means to be human – a son or daughter in fellowship with the living God.
God has dealt with the root of our problem through Christ and through Christ uproots us from the soil of self and establishes us in the soil of His blessing and promises (Psalm 1). Through His work alone we are the church of the firstborn (Heb 12:23).
In his book, “Doing Well and Doing Good” (p232), Prof Oz Guinness quotes part of an interview given by Henry Ford in 1924. In it, Ford, who often gave out to people said:
“I believe in living wages – I do not believe in charity: I believe we should all be producers. Organised charity and schools of philanthropy and the whole idea of “giving” to the poor are on the wrong track. They don’t produce anything. If a railroad had a bad piece of track that wrecked cars every day and piled them in the ditch it would cure nothing to merely build a fine repair shop. The track itself should be fixed. Charity and philanthropy are the repair shops and the efficiency, however high, does not remove the cause of the human wrecks. “
God has dealt with the root of our problem and has given us His Spirit so that we can give out to others.
What did the early church look like?
One of the first anti-Christian intellectuals who wrote against Christianity in the second century was a man called Celcus, quoted in the works of Origen. In his words, Celcus speaks against the early church saying it was made up of slaves, women, children and thieves. In this we see a radical upsetting of the social norms of the day where people had clearly defined boundaries when it came to mixing with other people. In the early church these boundaries began to be dissolved. For example, the rich mixed with the poor, the Jew with the Gentile, the slave with the free person and so it went on. This must have been very tough at times as people learned to reach out and mix with others and I am sure there would have been many ups and downs at times; yet despite all odds the church grew. This comes about through an openness and availability to the challenge and leading of the Holy Spirit.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
2 Corinthians 3:17
The early church was seen as a major threat in an empire often ruled through oppression and segregation because a people-group were speaking of the One true God and showing what He was like, even though death. In and through the witness of Christ in His church, men, women and children came to see that they had value, meaning and purpose and an eternal father. In doing so they changed (one of the key signs of genuine faith). They blossomed and flourished and reached beyond their social class with an open hand of invitation to all. Yes it was undoubtedly very very hard at times, but the church grew.
The Church of the Firstborn is a church that is constantly called to receive from God, and whose ability to submit and receive is seen in a changed attitude towards all people as the love and power of God is shared in simple acts of friendship. As we have already said, one of the key signs of God’s presence is the changing life of the believer.
A story of change that recently encouraged me is that of Professor Eta Linnemann, a German Liberal Theologian who rocked the liberal world of theology in the 1970’s when she became a Christian. Many years later, in 1985, she wrote these words:
“I have clear knowledge that my former perverse teaching was sin. At the same time I am happy and thankful that this sin is forgiven me because Jesus bore it on the cross ... I regard everything that I taught and wrote before I entrusted my life to Jesus as refuse.”
In speaking about her personal encounter with Jesus in her book, ‘Historical Criticism’, Linnemann later writes,
“He immediately took my life into his saving grasp and began to transform it radically. My destructive addictions were replaced with a hunger and thirst for his word and for fellowship with Christians. I was able to recognise sin clearly as sin rather than merely make excuses for it which was my previous habit. I can still remember the delicious joy when black was once more black and white was once more white; the two ceased to pool together as indistinguishable grey.”
Prof Eta Linneman, in ‘Historical Criticism of the Bible p18
As Christians we are to stand in an authority that does not leave us chained to the past, wrong attitudes, crippled ways of thinking, or the living out of labels that have been stuck to us by others. We are the church of the Firstborn and are called to know God as our Father and live like Jesus, speaking of intimacy with the Father and a total reliance on the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we find our true freedom and security as sons and daughters of the living God. When we see who we are in Christ, we can stand in His power and authority, no matter how loudly the voices from the past want to shout. He is with us and will help us in all things. He has broken the power that seeks to control us, equipped us by His Spirit and enables us to speak in authority as we do so out of the love of Christ for others. We are the church of the ‘have-received-and-are-receiving-ones’ and are called to reach out to others; we are called to love people.
“Jesus did not ask his friends to resuscitate Lazarus. He only asked them to roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb and that is what they did. When they moved the stone, Jesus spoke into the darkness and the stench of the tomb, calling Lazarus back to life. Jesus is the one who gave life to Lazarus. You and I can’t give life to anyone we can’t change their lives, only Jesus does that. What you and I can do, what Jesus asks us to do, is to roll the stones away. We are asked to love the obstacles that keep people from seeing and experiencing love, hope and light.”
Ron Nikkel, in ‘Radical Love in a Broken World, p 104
If we are to know the power and authority of Christ in increasing measure in our lives then we have to live like a firstborn son or daughter. We have to be willing to share our lives with those who may be nothing like us, to reach out even when we feel uncomfortable and in all ways encourage our brothers and sisters. Thankfully, we are not asked to do this alone. The Firstborn – the All-Powerful giver of blessing – is with us by His Spirit. We are the church of the firstborn (Heb 12:23).