4.1.7 Firstborn: Preeminence
Volume 4: The Human Condition—Chapter 1.7
In our continuing study of family relationships, one subset of being a “son” stands out—that of being the firstborn. The birth of the firstborn is the singular event that transforms a couple (husband and wife) into a family. If I may be forgiven for stating the obvious, if life is not passed from one generation to the next, it ceases to be. And what is true in the biological realm is true as well in the spiritual, for the first is a God-ordained symbol of the second. Satan therefore works very hard to prevent life from being perpetuated (and failing that, he tries to make life as meaningless and painful as possible, using such means as broken or single-parent homes, the misuse of sex, government or societal interference into our children’s lives, etc.). Because families are the very image of our relationship with our Creator, the devil does everything he can to break them up, or prevent them from forming in the first place.
It may seem counterintuitive, but a large part of that battle strategy is the perversion of what makes couples into families in the first place—sex. Satan promotes any version of sex that doesn’t involve two heterosexual marriage partners—a husband and his wife—the sort of union that naturally leads to children being born and nurtured. Marriage (something we’ll cover in a future chapter) is discouraged in favor of non-committal “recreational” sex; if not promiscuity, then serial monogamy—one “exclusive” partner after the other in an endless string of faux relationships. Satan’s idea of procreation is rape—abusive sex without the possibility of family life or loving relationship. Homosexuality is even closer to the Luciferian ideal—sex without the possibility of procreation.
And failing all that, Satan’s “final solution” is abortion. The earth’s populations have been bringing forth an average of 133 million children annually in recent years—out of some 178 million pregnancies! That’s right: approximately 45 million unborn children are aborted—murdered in the womb—every single year. That’s one child out of every four conceived. Many of those would have been firstborn children, had they been allowed to live. But firstborn or not, every new life is a picture of God’s creative nature—and every death is a reminder of the sin that can separate us from His presence.
Every firstborn child represents a whole new generation, a continuation of the human race—one more chance to “get it right.” So it should not be surprising that God recruited the firstborn—and especially firstborn sons—as symbols designed to highlight what He considers an important and fundamental concept: preeminence. The ultimate “firstborn son,” of course, is Yahshua—and most of scripture’s “firstborn” examples point directly toward Him, one way or another.
But as usual, the symbol is based on an existing and universally understood cultural phenomenon. In the ancient (and not-so-ancient) world, the firstborn son held a special place in the family hierarchy. He would customarily receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance and the role of family patriarch when his father died. As with such institutions as slavery and monarchy, nowhere is it recorded that Yahweh originated the practice (as logical as it may have been), but He was happy to make use of it in order to make a point.
That being said, God more often than not has chosen one who was not a “firstborn son” to advance His goals in this world—as if to say, “My strength is perfected in your weaknesses, so I prefer to work through people who are not preeminent, privileged, or prominent. In reality, there is only one Firstborn who counts—My only begotten Son. He alone is preeminent.” Biological serendipity—a.k.a. “dumb luck”—has no role to play in our spiritual walk or our effectiveness in the work of the kingdom of God. We are not to see ourselves as incomparable (even if we are talented, gifted, or fortunate), for that attitude fosters pride—something that has no place in our walk before God. Our choices concerning what to do with God’s providence are all that matter in the real world.
So the list of younger brothers superseding their elder siblings in scripture is long and distinguished. (1) Seth—not the firstborn Cain—began humanity’s godly line after Abel had been murdered by his jealous older brother for honoring Yahweh. (2) Japheth was apparently (see Genesis 10:21) Noah’s firstborn, but the spiritual blessing and destiny fell to his brother Shem. (3) Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, but Isaac received the blessing—demonstrating that both parents, not just the father, are spiritually significant. (4) Esau cared nothing for Isaac’s birthright, selling it to his younger twin brother Jacob for a bowl of stew. (5) Reuben was Jacob-Israel’s biological firstborn, but his younger brother Joseph effectively received the firstborn’s double portion when Jacob “adopted” Joseph’s two sons Manasseh and Ephraim. But even then, (6) Jacob elevated Ephraim to the status of the firstborn over his older brother Manasseh. (7) Aaron was Amram’s eldest son, but Yahweh chose his younger brother Moses to lead Israel to the Promised Land. (8) Jesse’s seven oldest sons were rejected as “anointing material” by the prophet Samuel, who had to interrogate Jesse to make him admit that he had one more son—the youngest—he hadn’t thought enough of to bother presenting to the seer. But when David showed up, Yahweh told Samuel, “This is the one.” David would turn out to be Israel’s greatest king, birthright or no birthright. (9) David fathered many sons himself, but his firstborn, Adonijah was rejected in favor of Bathsheba’s son Solomon. (10) In the New Testament, it would appear (although it isn’t specifically stated) that Andrew was senior to his brother Peter, and James was John’s older brother—though for one reason or another Peter and John had the greatest impact on the early church.
Offhand, in fact, I can think of only three instances in which a biologically firstborn son is recorded in scripture to have significantly carried forward the mantle of service to Yahweh. All of them, as it turns out, were born to formerly barren though devout women (two during the age of the Judges, and one just prior to Christ’s advent). All three (and only these three) were lifelong Nazirites, dedicated from the womb. God, it would appear, was making a point, the same one He had in the rites of the Torah (which we shall review shortly): the firstborn belongs to Me. All three births were miraculous, all were announced ahead of time, and all of them were destined from the womb to live their lives in the service of God. Coincidence? I think not.
The first was Samson, whose “service” to God and Israel was as a warrior against the Philistines—to whom Yahweh had delivered Israel for punishment for forty years because of their idolatry. (His story begins in Judges 13.) God Himself had made Samson a Nazirite, and although Samson didn’t seem to make much of an effort to adhere to the outward signs of the vow (enumerated in Numbers 6), he did fulfill his mandate to single-handedly release the Israelites from the grip of Philistine oppression.
The second “firstborn lifelong Nazirite” was Samuel, whose story commences in I Samuel 1. His mother Hannah had been barren, and when Yahweh heard her plea and opened her womb, she dedicated her son to Him. As soon as Samuel was weaned, she took him to Eli the High Priest, saying, “For this child I prayed, and Yahweh has granted me my petition which I asked of Him. Therefore I also have lent him to Yahweh; as long as he lives he shall be lent to Yahweh.” (I Samuel 1:27-28) Samuel became both a judge and prophet in Israel, responsible for anointing both Saul and David as kings.
Finally, fast forward a thousand years and consider the case of John “the Baptist,” son of the aging priest Zacharias and his barren wife Elizabeth. Zacharias was told by the angel who announced the birth of his son, “He will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ [see Malachi 4:5-6] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for Yahweh.” (Luke 1:15-17) John was to be the forerunner of Yahshua the Messiah—the one who introduced Him to the world as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The “wine or strong drink” remark is our clue that John too was to be a Nazirite from his mother’s womb. The word we render “Nazirite” is the Hebrew noun nazir, derived from the verb nazar, meaning “to separate.” Depending on what preposition it’s paired with, it can mean “to keep oneself away from something,” “to abstain from something,” or “to be separated to something.” A Nazirite, then, is someone who is separated from the world and consecrated instead to Yahweh. Normally, of course, the Nazirite vow was voluntary, temporary (that is, with a planned, finite duration), and designed to be a “mountaintop experience” of intense concentration on the will of Yahweh. Paul is said to have taken such a vow in Corinth (Acts 18:18).
If considered together, the Bible’s three lifelong Nazirites—Sampson, Samuel, and John the Baptist—comprise a Messianic prophecy. Their story is a threefold cord revealing that: (1) Yahweh’s Firstborn will come (2) miraculously (3) in His perfect timing in order to (4) reverse the reproach of the world’s barrenness—sin—through (5) a life dedicated wholly to the will of the Father. Their shared Nazirite status speaks of (6) the single-minded fulfillment of the Torah’s requirements, specifying that (7) the Firstborn belongs to Yahweh, and (8) the sacrificial offering of the Clean redeems—buys back—the life of the Unclean from certain death. Sampson’s part speaks of our deliverance; Samuel highlights the King’s anointing; and John’s role was to proclaim His long awaited arrival.
Granted, you can only see this stuff in hindsight.
In Yahweh’s program, the firstborn was indeed “special,” but not merely as a leader or special recipient of temporal blessing. Because Yahweh’s idea of “leadership” is service (if Yahshua’s life, or even that of Moses, may be taken as a clue), then the preeminence resulting from firstborn status defines it as less of a personal blessing and more of a responsibility. Taken to its logical symbolic end, the firstborn’s birthright defines him to be as much a servant or sacrifice as it does an exalted leader. Christ’s two advents, of course, embody each of these seemingly contradictory attributes, in turn. As Yahweh’s “only begotten Son,” Yahshua is (by definition) His “firstborn.” Note, then, that the firstborn’s service and sacrifice must come first. The honor, exaltation, and inheritance follow in their wake.
But how did we even get here? How does God become a “firstborn son”? We read the angel’s words to a devout teenage Jewish girl: “‘Behold, you [Mary] will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.’ Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God…. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 1:31-35, 2:7)
Nobody would make up a story like this: the infinite, almighty Creator of the universe manifesting Himself as a mere mortal—a vulnerable human child, placed in the care of humble peasant parents. What could possibly be the point? There is nothing even remotely parallel to this in all of pagan thought. There, the “god” (if the priest were to be believed) demands the worship and sacrifice of his devotees, but gives nothing tangible or verifiable of himself. Pagans must use their most vivid imagination to conclude that just because “I didn’t starve to death this year,” or “my wife bore a child,” that his good fortune must be due to the blessing of his “god,” instead of dumb luck or human effort. It never occurs to the pagan that the real God—the one he doesn’t sacrifice to—sends life-giving rain on the just and unjust alike.
The idea of God becoming a human firstborn son—sacrificing Himself, and only then inheriting the Father’s birthright—was a concept unique to Israel through their scriptures (not that they really understood it). The angel stated outright to Mary’s that her Son would reign over Israel forever—making the whole idea a bit easier to fathom, considering the plethora of prophecies predicting just such a coming King. But the concept of Yahweh’s Messiah first redeeming mankind from the curse of sin through self-sacrifice (the real reason for His advent) was couched only in the most subtle of terms.
Note that the angel named Mary’s firstborn: “Jesus” (Yeshua, Yahusha, Yahoshua, or Yahshua) means “Yahweh is Salvation.” The question was, how could Yahweh be our salvation? We are guilty sinners. Justice demands our destruction, and Yahweh is nothing if not just. Mary learned from the angel that He would be the “Son of God,” but the reason for his coming wouldn’t really be clear until John the Baptist identified Him as the “Lamb of God”—the One who takes away the sin of the world. Lambs are sacrificial animals—the very symbol of the innocence required by God. Suddenly, the whole Torah began making sense—not as a litany of semi-pointless rules and rituals, but as a symbol-rich prophecy of the plan of God for the salvation of the entire human race. So Mary’s literal firstborn son Yahshua was also Yahweh’s figurative Firstborn: His preeminent representative and primary heir.
Mary and her husband Joseph went on to bear at least six other children, four of whom are named in scripture—James, Joses, Simon, and Judas—plus several sisters (plural—see Matthew 13:55-56). That is to say, the firstborn isn’t necessarily the only one born to a family (though he is by definition an “only child” when he first arrives). In the same way, the fact that Yahshua was Yahweh’s “only begotten Son” doesn’t mean God’s family ends with Him.
So Paul writes, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren….” We who answer God’s call upon our lives are destined to become Christ’s “siblings,” so to speak—to be like Him in some significant way. Even though the “many brethren” are adopted into God’s family (i.e., not “begotten” of God as Yahshua was), we still share His name, family identity, purpose, and inheritance—everlasting life. That’s what it means to be “called according to His purpose.”
Just because God “foreknew” who would accept His invitation to become His adopted children, it doesn’t logically follow that He was the one who decided who would receive Him and who would not. That choice is ours alone. But once we did receive His offer of salvation, our developmental path was determined—“predestined,” so to speak (though it has less to do with “destiny” than with God’s determination). We would become like His Firstborn: we’d be beacons of light, we’d assume the characteristics of salt (flavor and preservation), and we’d serve as mirrors reflecting God’s love in the world. So Paul describes the process of our transformation: “Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30) That is, having answered the call, we were declared righteous—cleared of all the charges laid against us (that’s “justification”)—and bestowed with the honor due our Heavenly Father by virtue of our familial relationship with Him (in other words, “glorification”). None of that would have been possible were it not for the service and sacrifice of God’s Firstborn—His preeminent representative.
Perhaps the clearest statement of this principle in scripture is Paul’s assessment in Philippians 2. Though he didn’t specifically refer to Yahshua as Yahweh’s “firstborn” here, the picture is identical: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross….” That’s the “representative” part, the sacrifice and service. Note that this is exhortation, not just information. Paul says that because Yahshua humbled Himself (since He was representing Yahweh before the world), we—His adopted siblings—should follow in His footsteps: we too should be humble (especially since we have so much to be humble about), and obedient to the point of death.
That rolls off the tongue smoothly enough, but few of us are really prepared to face that eventuality. Alas, as the days grow short and Christianity once again finds itself under siege, I’m afraid our humility and obedience are going to be tested to the limit. We cannot defend ourselves against the world without becoming like the world in some respects. How far are we willing to go? If God has called us to martyrdom, will we go cheerfully? The question is no longer academic.
Having represented the Father by serving mankind, the inheritance is now due our Messiah. “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11) Yahshua will rightly inherit “the glory of God the Father.” But amazingly, if His “mind is also in us,” we shall share in that glorious legacy.
In case you haven’t noticed, comparatively few knees “bow” at the name of Yahshua in today’s world. This is yet-to-be fulfilled prophecy. We believers can see it as a fait accompli only through the eyes of faith. God must deliver on His promise, or be called a liar. But prophetic scripture is seldom such a straightforward recounting of future events. One of the techniques Yahweh uses to “hide the truth in plain sight” (concealed from those who chose not to believe) is to speak plainly of one thing or person while referring only subtly to another, more distant fulfillment.
He did this all the time with King David—to the point that it sometimes becomes hard to tell when (or if) the prophetic narrative has shifted from David to his Heir, the Messiah. It can be confusing when the subject is referred to both as the “root of Jesse” (David’s father) and as the “Son of David.” To be both things, you’d have to be eternally existent, from eternity past to eternity future. David was not, but Yahshua was (or should I say, is.) Typical is this passage from the Psalms. “You spoke in a vision to Your holy one, and said: ‘I have given help to one who is mighty. I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found My servant David. With My holy oil I have anointed him, with whom My hand shall be established. Also My arm shall strengthen him….” So far, this is all literally true of David, past tense. Only in the light of subsequent prophecy and history can we hear whispered hints of the Messiah.
Then the transition begins. Here we see poetic exaggeration (if you’re speaking of David), morphing into prophecy (some fulfilled, some yet to come) concerning the Christ: “The enemy shall not outwit him [is there a Pharisee in the house?], nor the son of wickedness afflict him.” Really? Affliction was Yahshua’s middle name—He was aptly described as He who “bore our sorrows,” as the one by whose “stripes we are healed.” But Satan was able (and then only by permission) to afflict His body—not His Spirit. Only in His coming glory will this happen: “I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague those who hate him. But My faithfulness and My mercy shall be with him, and in My name his horn shall be exalted. Also I will set his hand over the sea [read: the gentiles], and his right hand over the rivers. He shall cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation….’”
We finish with an unabashedly Messianic description: “Also I will make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My mercy I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall stand firm with him. His seed also I will make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven.” (Psalm 89:19-29) David was never anybody’s “firstborn,” though he did (in prophetic anticipation of the coming Messiah) become preeminent in Israel. “Firstborn” was Yahshua’s title. Yahweh’s covenant with David can only be fulfilled in the person of Yahshua—not in his first-century persona as sacrificial representative, you understand, but as reigning royal heir. Service precedes exaltation, and sacrifice anticipates rewards—even (or should I say especially) for God’s Firstborn Son.
In Volume 1 of this work, we explored how Yahweh (who is described in scripture as an incorporeal Spirit by nature) occasionally manifested Himself to people—using either anthropomorphic theophanies, shekinah appearances, or dreams and visions—before revealing Himself in the form of a mortal man, Yahshua of Nazareth. In the Ten Commandments, the second entry (following the most fundamental: “Worship Yahweh alone”) was this: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5) Why was this so important? Why did Yahweh prohibit people from imagining what He might be like, so they could worship Him more easily? It was because He Himself was planning to provide for mankind a “carved image” of what He “looked like”—in spiritual terms, anyway.
Paul explains the connection: “He [Yahshua] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” The Greek word translated “firstborn” is prototokos. It is derived from protos—meaning first (i.e., chronologically), or preeminent in terms of priority, place, or status (in other words, foremost or chief)—and the verb tikto, meaning to bring forth. So although the word “over” is supplied here, it is not incorrect: this is not saying that Yahshua was the first thing God created, but rather that He exercises priority or preeminence over everything that was created, for in fact, He is the Creator: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible [or, I might add, physical or symbolic], whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers….”
Note that Yahweh’s “Firstborn” (Yahshua of Nazareth) is His “image.” That makes sense, I guess. My own firstborn son looks an awful lot like me, now that he’s a grown man. But unlike my son, Yahshua’s position as God’s “firstborn” doesn’t necessarily imply that He was “created” in any sense of the word. As a rank or station, the status of “firstborn” simply establishes His preeminence, His supremacy over all created things, His ascendancy and predominance. He is, in short, the first cause to which everything in creation can be traced—the action to which everything else is a reaction. Don’t let the fact that He manifested Himself as a lowly human being throw you. The next time you see Him, He will look decidedly more godlike.
And notice something else about the firstborn symbol. You’ll recall that in the ancient world, the firstborn traditionally received a double portion of the father’s inheritance. Our inheritance as God’s adopted children is eternal life—or more correctly stated, everlasting life. That is, our life in Christ is “eternal” in only one direction: the future. But Yahshua’s double portion consists of eternal life in both directions—past and future: “All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist….” Yahshua’s human body didn’t exist from eternity past, of course. But His soul—that component of His nature that comprises His life, thought, and will—did. “In the beginning…the Word was with God, and it was God,” (as John 1:1-2 puts it).
In our common experience, a soul is mortal. That is, if not made alive by an indwelling immortal spirit, it will die if separated from its body. This is what we see with animals (who have souls—the nephesh—but don’t, as far as we’ve been told, have the capacity for spiritual indwelling—the “breath of life”—something called the neshamah in Hebrew). But with Yahshua, Yahweh’s Spirit was one with His soul. Having no human father, Yahshua was born without Adam’s curse. In this respect, then, He was like Adam prior to the sin that separated God’s Spirit from his soul—emptying his neshamah. (This is the “death” about which Yahweh warned him in Genesis 2:17.) And we may safely presume that if Yahshua had sinned, his fate would have been the same as Adam’s—He would die for his own wrongdoing. But though tempted in ways Adam never could have dreamed of, Yahshua never transgressed Yahweh’s will. So His soul and Spirit remained an intact unit—even in the face of bodily death.
Paul therefore concludes his description of Yahshua’s status: “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” (Colossians 1:15-18) We can readily comprehend His place as “the Firstborn of life.” Everything we have ever experienced tells us that life comes only from previous life. Thus we, as living beings, must have had a first cause—a progenitor without a progenitor: the definitive foundation of life. Don’t look now, but Yahweh (manifested as Yahshua) is the only one who has ever even claimed to be the ultimate source of life. It is not for nothing that God’s self-revealed name means “I am.” He is self-existent—He has no “first cause” preceding, supporting, or generating Him—and He is utterly unique in that respect.
But being called “firstborn from the dead” opens a whole new can of worms.
Atheist pipedreams notwithstanding, it is a contradiction in terms to say that “God is dead.” Essential life cannot die. The first law of thermodynamics states that “the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.” And for the nitpickers and naysayers among us, let me point out that since the beginning of creation (a.k.a. the “big bang”), the entire universe has been one big “isolated system.” But Yahshua, who was God incarnate, did die. How, then, do I reconcile the two things—Yahweh’s essential, eternal life and Yahshua’s physical death?
The corner into which we’re being painted is the premise that biological life isn’t real—that is, though our bodies (and those of animals) seem to be “alive,” it is actually a force within them—and independent of them—that comprises the reality of our existence. I’m speaking, of course, of the soul. Without a soul, a body (whether human or animal) is merely a complex chemical construct—one that cannot do anything required of a living being—eat, grow, breathe, move, or reproduce.
In fact, if left to its own devices, a body without a soul will deteriorate quite rapidly—thanks largely to other bodies that still have their souls, whose job it is to clean up the mess. A while back, the smell of decomp alerted me to a deer who had had the temerity to crawl under my front porch and die. Curious, I hauled the corpse a few hundred feet off into the woods surrounding my home, and began checking its “progress” every couple of days. I was amazed how fast the disintegration process took place. Within four days, it was nothing but a skeleton. A few days later, the ribcage had collapsed into a pile of bones. Within three weeks, there was nothing left—no hide, no bones, not even any odor. Obviously, I had no way of tracking the deer’s soul, but one thing was certain: it was no longer with the body.
When Yahshua was murdered by Israel’s chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, using the cruelty and paranoia of their Roman masters as their weapon, a thief was crucified next to Him. When he repented (at the last possible moment) Yahshua promised him, “Today shall you be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) It was the usual practice of the Romans to take the corpses of their crucifixion victims to the Valley of Hinnom, south of town, and unceremoniously dump them for the vultures to dispose of—sort of like my poor dead deer. With his body in the dump, how could the repentant thief “be with” Christ, whose body would rest in the relatively opulent tomb of Joseph of Arimathea? Face it: neither place could reasonably be called “paradise.” Assuming Christ was telling the truth (which is something I always assume), the only conclusion we can draw is that He was speaking not of human bodies, but of the soul: the repentant thief’s soul (now made eternally alive via his new birth in the Holy Spirit) would be with Yahshua’s soul in paradise, just as soon as they had both died. That, after all, is the definition of physical death—the separation of the soul from the body.
But wait a minute! On the morning of the third day, the mourners had found the stone covering the door to Joseph’s tomb rolled aside, and the body of Yahshua was gone. Only 30 to 36 hours had passed since Christ’s body had been entombed—there wasn’t any natural decomposition by this time; rigor mortis may not even have fully passed. And the thief? If anybody had bothered to check, they would have found his body being reduced to a skeleton by well-fed buzzards and bacteria in the Valley of Hinnom. But Yahshua’s body was simply not there. The grave-clothes lay undisturbed (except for the napkin that had covered His head, which was folded neatly and laid to one side). But the corpse had vanished.
It wasn’t long, however, before the risen Yahshua began showing Himself to people who had believed in Him before the crucifixion. But although He was now alive and walking about in bodily form, it clearly wasn’t the same sort of body He had inhabited previously. Although it was definitely “Him,” His new body had completely different characteristics and capabilities than His old mortal body had. Paul describes it as an upgrade in “glory.” Though physical, solid and corporeal, it was no longer “natural” (that is, as we know our bodies to be) but now somehow “spiritual” in nature: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body….” That is, Yahshua’s soul, eternally alive because of its indwelling Spirit, had now taken on an immortal body with which to manipulate its environment (something a disembodied soul presumably cannot do). This body is built not just for the realities and limitations of this temporary earth, but also for eternity in heaven.
Paul contrasts this body with that of Adam—and us. “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’” This happened when Yahweh breathed into Adam the breath of life—the neshamah I spoke of, the thing that enables humans to have a spiritual existence. (See Genesis 2:7.) “The last Adam [Yahshua] became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual.” This, you’ll recall, is precisely what Yahshua had told Nicodemus in John 3: to be truly alive, we must be born not only of “water” (our physical, biological birth), but also of the Holy Spirit. “The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven….” He’s describing the contrast between the body that was born of Mary and that in which Christ appeared after His resurrection. Same soul, different body—as I said, a complete upgrade: Life 2.0.
We are “like” whatever family we are part of. All of us are born into Adam’s family—and thus will inherit death. But some of us are also adopted along the way into Yahweh’s family, making our inheritance eternal life. So Paul concludes, “As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” (I Corinthians 15:42-49) This is the key to that enigmatic description of Christ: “the firstborn from the dead.”
Though sinless (unlike Adam) He subjected Himself to death for our sakes—becoming the sacrificial “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But His resurrection in a new type of body—a spiritual body—defines Him as the Firstborn—both in terms of time and supremacy—from the mortal state. He is not only the first one (chronologically) to inhabit such a body, He is also first in priority—in a word, preeminent—teaching us through example what our mode of eternal life is destined to be. That is, we will not spend eternity as disembodied souls playing phantom harps (or is that “air guitars”?) on clouds in paradise. Rather, we will have real, physical bodies—though now immortal, sinless, and capable of comprehension and accomplishment beyond our wildest dreams as mortals. That’s what it means to “bear the image of the heavenly Man.”
Yahshua received His new “spiritual body” when He rose from the dead on the Feast of Firstfruits, which by definition is a promise of a harvest to come. Meanwhile, we—from Adam, to the repentant thief on the cross, right down to the generation of believers alive to this very day—must wait for another of Yahweh’s seven Holy Appointments, the Feast of Trumpets, to swap our old dust-bodies (whether dead or alive) for the “image of the heavenly man.” This event is popularly known as “the rapture of the Church.” The timely extrication of living believers from a disintegrating world (as it’s so often portrayed) is only a byproduct, a minor feature, of the Feast’s real purpose—installing our Spirit-quickened souls into these bodies built for heaven. I think of it as translation—being transformed from clumsy and imprecise “caveman” communication, little better than grunts and wheezes, into an expressive language of pinpoint accuracy, unparalleled power, and poetic elegance. All the better in which to say “Thank you” to our Heavenly Father.
Thus it should not be surprising that the risen Christ describes Himself as “the firstborn from the dead” in John’s apocalyptic vision on the Isle of Patmos. He greets us, saying, “Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 1:4-5) It’s a promise: since God’s Firstborn rose from the dead in an immortal body built for heaven, we who are adopted into His family, indwelled with His Spirit, will inherit the same destiny. Only Yahshua the Messiah, as the firstborn from the dead, can give us grace and peace.
During the age of the patriarchs, God apparently went out of His way to avoid using the “firstborn” symbol. Between Adam and Moses, the godly line was never (that we know of) associated with or represented by a family’s firstborn son. Nor during the ages of the judges or the kings did anyone’s biological status as a firstborn have any bearing on his role in Yahweh’s unfolding plan for our redemption. The reason, it seems to me, was that what people did, or how they performed before God, would have nothing to do with our salvation. It wasn’t about human performance. Rather, in the final analysis, the “firstborn” symbol would point us exclusively to the Messiah, to Yahshua’s relationship with His (and our) Heavenly Father. He was to be preeminent, first as His representative, and then as His heir.
But during Israel’s exodus and subsequent wilderness wanderings, and especially in the precepts of the Torah delivered at that time, Yahweh began explaining, little by little, what this symbol meant. Before Moses even left Midian to go and confront Pharaoh, Yahweh had told him how it was going to go: “He will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says Yahweh: Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.’” (Exodus 4:22-23) Of course, the negotiations didn’t begin there. We have no record of Moses playing the “kill the firstborn” card until the first nine plagues had come and gone.
Note, however, that as far as Yahweh was concerned, the “bottom line” of the whole process had to do with substituting one firstborn for another. Moreover, the firstborn symbol always included the concept of distinguishing one thing from another: separation, holiness, and judgment are related ideas. It wasn’t so much that the firstborn was to be separated from the other siblings; it was that he was to symbolize or personify the whole class or group that God was separating from the others. That is, he alone was to bear the brunt of judgment—representing his entire family. It’s a concept, of course, that would only make sense in light of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Until then, it all had to sound a bit unfair—which it is. God isn’t “fair.” If He were, we’d all be dead.
So Moses had announced nine plagues in turn, each of which was designed to demonstrate the impotence of one god or another in the Egyptian pantheon. Each plague had failed to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from bondage, just as Yahweh had told Moses before the process even began. “Then Moses said, ‘Thus says Yahweh: About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals. Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again. But against none of the children of Israel shall a dog move its tongue, against man or beast, that you may know that Yahweh does make a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.’” (Exodus 11:4-7)
This plague, like all the others, was structured to topple a false god—that of human pride. Yahweh was separating Israel from Egypt, despite Pharaoh’s stubbornness. The Egyptian monarch may have considered himself a “god on earth,” but in Yahweh’s plan, he was merely the last idol to fall. Everyone had suffered during the first nine plagues, but it was not God’s intention to annihilate Egypt because of Pharaoh’s hubris. The death of all the firstborn in Egypt—including Pharaoh’s own son and heir—would amply demonstrate that there was nothing Yahweh wouldn’t do to achieve liberty for His people. But it also established the principle that the firstborn could—and would—single-handedly shoulder the burden of guilt for his entire family, his nation, and his world.
How then did Yahweh “make a difference between the Egyptians and Israel”? He provided a means of defense, a way of escape from the plague. It wasn’t a real defensive mechanism, of course—it did nothing to diminish the actual power of the angel of death. It merely demonstrated to Yahweh that “the people in this house are trusting Me to deliver them, for they have obeyed My commandments.” These instructions, detailed in Exodus 12, entailed bringing an innocent, perfect lamb into each household, keeping it close for four days, and then killing it. Its blood was to be painted onto the doorposts of the house as a sign, and its flesh was to be roasted and eaten by those inside as they anticipated their impending deliverance. At the same time, all leaven (yeast) was to be removed from their homes: they were to eat their bread unleavened for the next seven days.
All of this, of course, comprised the inauguration of the first two of Yahweh’s seven holy convocations—Passover, followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. Yahweh told the Israelites, “I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am Yahweh. Now the blood shall be a sign for you [not for Me, but for you] on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12-13) It was all an elaborate dress rehearsal for the singular event that would deliver us all from our sins some fifteen hundred years later, when Yahweh’s Firstborn, Yahshua the Messiah, would be sacrificed on Calvary. By doing so He removed the corruption from our lives (that which leaven symbolizes), and with it, the barrier of sin that had kept us separate from our God. All we had to “do” was receive the gift.
Only the Israelites had trustingly obeyed Yahweh’s instructions, so only they were delivered from the plague. The Egyptians, not protected by the blood of the lamb, bore the brunt of it: “And it came to pass at midnight that Yahweh struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. So Pharaoh rose in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30) The Egyptians weren’t being singled out for slaughter because they were particularly bad—nor were their farm animals, who suffered the same fate. They weren’t even being punished for Pharaoh’s specific crimes against the God of Israel. Yahweh hadn’t changed anything about their ultimate destinies, except for the timing. We are all consigned to the same fate in this world: we all die, sooner or later.
God was simply making a point: it was not merely “one dead” in each household: it was the firstborn, the one who was assumed to be the preeminent hope for the family’s future, the holder of the birthright and the double portion of the inheritance. The simple, brutal lesson is that if we are trusting our humanity to save us, we will utterly fail. Only the blood of the Lamb (God’s “Firstborn”) can and will indemnify us from spiritual death. Therefore, Yahweh instructed Israel to institutionally remember that fact from the very beginning—before any “laws” other than the Passover principle had been handed down: “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine.’” (Exodus 13:1-2)
Okay, so what does it mean to “consecrate” something like that? Moses spelled it out a few verses later—and would revisit the theme many times in the Torah: “And it shall be, when Yahweh brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and gives it to you, that you shall set apart to Yahweh all that open the womb, that is, every firstborn that comes from an animal which you have; the males shall be Yahweh’s….” In a moment, that will be clarified further: the firstborn were to be sacrificed—slain, roasted, and eaten. But note the new wrinkle revealed here: only the firstborn males were to be sacrificed—that is, males who “opened the womb.” No instruction is given concerning firstborn females (something that happened about half the time), for they didn’t advance the symbol Yahweh was introducing—that His own Firstborn Son would redeem us from our sins.
Next, Yahweh makes a distinction between firstborn clean animals (like lambs, goats, and cattle) and unclean animals, like donkeys and horses. (The definition of what species were included in each category would be painstakingly defined in Leviticus 11. For now, donkeys represented the group.) “But every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck….” More symbolic fine-tuning: only clean animals could be formally sacrificed to God (the ultimate “clean animal” being Christ Himself). The point was that sinners could not atone for their own sins. As a firstborn male, the donkey had to die, but it couldn’t be “sacrificed,” if you grasp the distinction. So Yahweh provided a choice: the donkey could either be redeemed—exchanged for a clean animal like a lamb—or it could simply be wasted. The ultimate lesson is (potentially) good news for us “unclean donkeys”: somebody clean and innocent is qualified and willing to die in our stead—the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But if we will not accept this amazing gift and let Him stand in for us, we are dead where we stand.
The next logical question: what about firstborn people? Humans, born with Adam’s sin nature, are definitely “unclean” (regardless of how highly we regard ourselves) but here there was no option: firstborn males were required to be redeemed. “And all the firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.” Redeemed with what is a question that will be answered shortly. But for now, let us continue with Moses’ treatise, for he is about to explain (sort of) why the firstborn males belong to Yahweh. “So it shall be, when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ that you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that Yahweh killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to Yahweh all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes, for by strength of hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:11-16; cf. Exodus 34:19-20)
That was the impetus for the Passover rite, of course, but at this point, it would have been impossible (not to mention counterproductive) to reveal what was really going on—that the whole thing was a prophetic rehearsal of the coming sacrifice of God’s Firstborn, that which would buy back our freedom from the bondage of sin in the world. All Israel had to know at this point was that in God’s plan, the firstborn was inextricably linked to redemption—to the buying back of their freedom. The lamb died so that they might live, and live freely.
Moses would later point out that being the redeemer was the only function the sacrificed firstborn was to perform. It wasn’t an afterthought, or something in addition to (or subsequent to) other good things an animal might provide—like fleece or labor. Giving his life was his sole job. “All the firstborn males that come from your herd and your flock you shall sanctify to Yahweh your God; you shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.” But unlike some of the sacrifices and offerings that would later be defined (such as the olah, or burnt offering) the idea with the sacrifice of the firstborn animal was that he was to be eaten by the one (with his family) who presented him—his life was to sustain our lives. Once again, the concept of substitution is stressed—the “unfair” process of the clean and perfect sacrifice providing what was needed by the unclean and flawed worshiper. “You and your household shall eat it before Yahweh your God year by year in the place which Yahweh chooses….” People had to eat more than once a year, of course. So this tells us that the whole Passover process is meant to be taken symbolically, not literally. We are to ponder what it means—to ascertain what significance its Creator gave it.
Another factor: substandard candidates. “But if there is a defect in it, if it is lame or blind or has any serious defect, you shall not sacrifice it to Yahweh your God. You may eat it within your gates; the unclean and the clean person [that is, ceremonially undefiled or not] alike may eat it, as if it were a gazelle or a deer. Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it on the ground like water.” (Deuteronomy 15:19-23) A sacrificial animal needed not only to be defined as “clean” by species, it also had to be an unflawed specimen of its type—once again, reflecting a requirement that the Messiah would have to be sinless if He were to “take away the sin of the world.” You could eat a lamb or goat that had a defect (e.g., a limp or scar), but you couldn’t use him as a sacrifice. And as always, the blood was sacred, for in it was life (as God told us on numerous occasions).
Let us return now to the issue of what, precisely, was to be used to redeem the firstborn male children of the nation of Israel. If you’ll recall, unclean animals like donkeys were to be redeemed with clean ones like lambs. But God had something more provocative in mind for the redemption of firstborn people. “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am Yahweh.” (Numbers 3:11-13) Yahweh declared the firstborn males of Israel His own because they represented His only begotten Son, Yahshua. And then he substituted one whole tribe, the Levites, as redeemers in place of Israel’s firstborn males. The Levites would henceforth belong to Yahweh in a special way, serving Israel and the tabernacle. It mattered not that nobody would comprehend the significance of what He was doing for another millennium and a half. His plan is perfect, even if we can’t always see how it works.
The principle is repeated over and over again, presumably to ensure that God’s intent could not possibly be misconstrued. “You shall separate the Levites from among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. After that the Levites shall go in to service the tabernacle of meeting. So you shall cleanse them and offer them like a wave offering. For they are wholly given to Me from among the children of Israel; I have taken them for Myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel. For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine, both man and beast; on the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them to Myself. I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.” (Numbers 8:14-18)
Thus was introduced the concept of a “living sacrifice.” Paul would later bring the idea full circle: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove [that is, test, examine, analyze, and determine] what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:1-2) That’s right: the Levites were to be a picture of the church—we who are set apart for the service and honor of the Firstborn Son of God. This defines us as “heavenly” creatures: this world is not our home. Our only inheritance is Christ Himself, though of course the whole world is worthless in comparison.
The whole subject contains a cautionary tale: things can go terribly wrong if (or when) we take one bit of instruction on an issue, isolate it, and ignore both context and supporting scripture—not to mention Yahweh’s symbology. God had said, “The firstborn are Mine—they are consecrated to Me.” So Satan made the case that God actually wanted people to sacrifice their firstborn children. Yahweh was quite clear about what He wanted us to do, but Satan’s pagan counterfeits were widely practiced in Canaan—both before and after the conquest: Molech, Chemosh, or Ba’al worship demanded that one’s firstborn child be placed into the outstretched arms of a red hot metal statue until he burned to death. It was called “passing your children through the fire.”
Ezekiel explains: “They had not executed My judgments, but had despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols. Therefore I also gave them up to statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they could not live. And I pronounced them unclean because of their [pagan] ritual gifts, in that they caused all their firstborn to pass through the fire, that I might make them desolate and that they might know that I am Yahweh….” It’s not a pretty sight when God gives up on you. “For when you offer your gifts and make your sons pass through the fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols, even to this day. So shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, I will not be inquired of by you.” Pray to Me all you want, but don’t expect an answer. You idolatries have cut off all communication between us. “What you have in your mind shall never be, when you say, ‘We will be like the Gentiles, like the families in other countries, serving wood and stone.’” (Ezekiel 20:24-26, 31-32)
Need I add that America, who was once blessed with the very oracles of God, has, like Israel of old, turned to the same bloodthirsty idols? What else would you call it when we allow—and even fund—the abortion of as many as 1.4 million innocent children every single year, in the name of prosperity, pleasure, and something perversely called “women’s rights”? What else would you call it, if not Molech worship?
Speaking of a place just south of Jerusalem where these horrific pagan rites took place, Jeremiah writes, “‘Because they have forsaken Me and made this an alien place, because they have burned incense in it to other gods whom neither they, their fathers, nor the kings of Judah have known, and have filled this place with the blood of the innocents (they have also built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or speak, nor did it come into My mind), therefore behold, the days are coming,’ says Yahweh, ‘that this place shall no more be called Tophet or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.’” (Jeremiah 19:4-6) The place in question was recruited by Yahshua as a euphemism for hell—the place of well-deserved eternal torments. Transliterated through the Greek, we know it as Gehenna (e.g. Matthew 23:33).
So no. The last thing Yahweh wanted was for His people to actually sacrifice their firstborn to Him. Rather, God told Moses to take a census of the Levites—males only, one month old and above. By clans, their numbers were: 7,500 Gershonites, 8,600 Kohathites, and 6,200 from Merari, for a total of 22,300 (rounded down to an even 22,000 in Numbers 3:39). Then they counted all of the firstborn males of Israel’s other tribes, coming up with a total of 22,273—almost exactly the same number. “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock….” There’s the concept of substitution again. Note that initially, the livestock of the Levites would be substituted for that of all the Israelites as well (although subsequent births would be sacrificed per the Torah’s precept). For existing flocks and herds, it would be impossible to tell which animals had been firstborn—and the distinction was crucial to the symbol.
“The Levites shall be Mine: I am Yahweh. And for the redemption of the two hundred and seventy-three of the firstborn of the children of Israel, who are more than the number of the Levites, you shall take five shekels for each one individually; you shall take them in the currency of the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel of twenty gerahs. And you shall give the money, with which the excess number of them is redeemed, to Aaron and his sons.” (Numbers 3:44-48) Here we learn what was to be the ordinary, ongoing ransom for firstborn sons throughout Israel’s generations—the sum of five silver shekels. Aaron and his sons were Levites assigned by God as hereditary priests. So the five-shekel firstborn “fee” was intended for the upkeep of the sanctuary.
In hindsight, it is clear why God “rounded down” the number of available Levites: He wanted to establish a “redemption price” for future firstborns in Israel. In that first generation, He wished to set apart the entire tribe of Levi for His purposes (the ramifications of which are a rabbit chase I don’t intend to pursue any further at the moment). This would, of course, include the priesthood, a sub-set of Kohath, the clan of Moses and Aaron. But once the Levites were His (a status that would persist throughout their generations, passed father to son), He wished to perpetuate the idea of “redeeming” or “ransoming” all firstborn males in Israel. So He set a price: “Everything that first opens the womb of all flesh, which they bring to Yahweh, whether man or beast, shall be yours; nevertheless the firstborn of man you shall surely redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And those redeemed of the devoted things you shall redeem when one month old, according to your valuation, for five shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.” (Numbers 18:15-16) As we shall see (eventually), this establishes silver as a symbol for ransom or redemption, and five as the number of grace.
This (obviously) wasn’t a “fund raising” measure. The continuing idea was to establish that symbolically, the firstborn male was to be a substitute, a stand-in, a representative. I am told that the Biblical shekel was .364 ounce. Therefore, at this morning’s silver price ($14.42/oz.), the five-shekel ransom for one’s firstborn son was quite a nominal sum: only $26.25. At $20 per ounce, it’s $36.40—a sum even a poor family could afford (especially considering it only happened once—the “firstborn redemption fee” wasn’t required for subsequent children). All of this reminds us of Paul’s admonition to live godly lives—and why we should: “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own. For you [remember: the Levites were a picture of the church] were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)
Let us take a closer look at the birthright as an institution. Holman’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary reports, “Special privileges belonged to the firstborn male child in a family. Prominent among those privileges was a double portion of the estate as an inheritance. If a man had two sons, his estate would be divided into three portions, and the older son would receive two. If there were three sons, the estate would be divided into four portions, and the oldest son would receive two. The oldest son also normally received the father’s major blessing. Esau forfeited his birthright to his brother Jacob for the sake of a meal of lentil stew and bread (Gen. 25:29–34). Indeed, the Hebrew word for blessing (berakah) is virtually an anagram of the word that means both birthright and firstborn (bekorah). Legal continuation of the family line may also have been included among the privileges of the firstborn son.”
We have already seen how in the Old Testament, the plan of God was virtually never advanced through the firstborn. So we may find it odd to discover this precept in the Torah: “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the unloved, and if the firstborn son is of her who is unloved, then it shall be, on the day he bequeaths his possessions to his sons, that he must not bestow firstborn status on the son of the loved wife in preference to the son of the unloved, the true firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)
It’s as if the law was written as a slap in the face to Abraham, who favored Isaac’s mother Sarah over Hagar, the mother of his firstborn, Ishmael, or Jacob, who loved Rachel (whose firstborn was Joseph), but merely tolerated her sister Leah (who bore Jacob his firstborn son, Reuben). The reality was recorded elsewhere, e.g., “[Reuben] was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed [See Genesis 35:22], his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel [not to mention the firstborn of Rachel], so that the genealogy is not listed according to the birthright.” (I Chronicles 5:1)
As a practical matter, of course, the precept made perfect sense. It headed off all sorts of squabbling and bitterness when it came time to distribute the father’s estate among his heirs. It didn’t matter who the father liked best, or whose mother he was actually in love with, or even whether the holder of the birthright was a nice man or a total scoundrel—if he was the eldest male, the double portion went to him. End of discussion.
All of this fairly screams (to me, anyway) that temporal blessings—wealth or treasures gained on this earth—have absolutely nothing to do with one’s spiritual condition, receptiveness toward the things of God, anointing, or mandate to perform the work of Yahweh. And if the scriptural statistics themselves are any clue, material prosperity may actually an obstacle to overcome, not a mark of God’s favor. As Yahshua said, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God….” Fortunately, He added, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-24, 26)
That being said, I suspect the real reason Yahweh included this precept was prophetic. As we saw above, He had declared Israel to be His “firstborn son” (see Exodus 4:22). But Israel was never intended to be all there was to it. Yahshua revealed the converse reality: “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold [Israel]. Them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:14-16) The “other sheep,” of course, are the gentile believers who would come to faith throughout the ages, especially the millions who would join the family in the wake of Christ’s resurrection. King David wrote: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to Yahweh, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is Yahweh’s, and He rules over the nations.” (Psalm 22:27-28)
Israel, then, is God’s “firstborn,” dwelling among His other children—notably the church, the called-out assembly of Christ. Don’t look now, but for most of Israel’s history, there has been a state of animosity—if not downright estrangement—between Yahweh and His chosen people. Could God not be forgiven for saying to Israel, “You may be My firstborn, but sometimes I don’t like you very much”? According to His own rule however, Yahweh has guaranteed that Israel’s birthright as the firstborn son will not be set aside or infringed upon. In the end, Israel will receive the double portion of the inheritance of God.
So let us hear no more of this nonsense called “replacement theology” (a.k.a. supersessionism) that insists that the church has superseded Israel in the sight of God—that Yahweh has replaced Israel with the “more worthy” gentile believers. For one thing, we gentiles are not more worthy: we are every bit as vulnerable to deception and apostasy as Israel proved to be. Remember the parable of the prodigal son? But beyond that, His own law forbids it. The firstborn must receive the double portion.
But that begs the question: the double portion of what? Riches? Honor? Authority? Maybe, but what I’m thinking is that Israel will receive a double portion of what really counts—the real treasure: grace—the unmerited favor of God. After 3,500 years spent mostly in apostasy, it’s what Israel needs most. Don’t we all?
As Yahweh’s firstborn, Israel was held to a higher standard than were his siblings (Christ’s “other sheep”), for God was depending on him to show the other children what the Father’s will and plan were. Over the centuries, they made such a hash of it, it’s a miracle any of us ever found our way home. But although God sent Israel to the woodshed for his petty rebellions, He did not disinherit His firstborn son. So Isaiah says, “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. For she has received from Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:2) There’s something to ponder: the firstborn’s double portion begins with having been given double the responsibility—and failure is met with double discipline. To whom much is given, much is required, even though one cannot aspire to be gifted as a firstborn son—it is strictly at God’s discretion.
In the end, Israel will wake up and repent. It’s a prophetic fait accompli. And when that happens, the double discipline he has endured will turn into double blessings: “Instead of your shame you shall have double honor, and instead of confusion they shall rejoice in their portion. Therefore in their land they shall possess double. Everlasting joy shall be theirs.” (Isaiah 61:7)
If the arithmetic is any indication, the patriarch Job played the part of the firstborn son. His original blessings included being made responsible for 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 donkeys—making him “the greatest of all the people of the East.” We all know the story of how Yahweh allowed him to be tested—and in the process, lost it all. “Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.’ In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20-22) Having endured forty chapters of testing and trial, Job was finally vindicated before God—who restored what he had lost according to the firstborn’s “double portion” formula. In the end, he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys. Exactly double.
Note that, as with all of these illustrations, the responsibility, labor, sacrifice, and trial came first, and only then was the “inheritance” doubled. In what appears an anomaly at first, his children—seven sons and three daughters—who were lost in the disasters of the first chapter, were not doubled, but were directly replaced: seven new sons and three daughters, as before. (I can only surmise that his wife, Mrs. “Curse God and die,” may have been replaced as well—but we aren’t told.) The point (I think) is that unlike cattle and sheep, our sons and daughters are not our possessions, nor our inheritance, but are precious treasures lent to us by Yahweh for temporary safekeeping. They do not belong to us: like we ourselves, they belong to God.
Another permutation of the “double portion” principle is seen in the transfer of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha. Elijah had finished his race, and was about to be taken home. (It was an event virtually without precedent, and yet scores of prophets in Israel seemed to know what was coming—a dress rehearsal of the rapture. Well, what’s a prophet for, anyway?) Anyway, as they reached the end of their journey, “And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?’ Elisha said, ‘Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’” (II Kings 2:9) That was a tall order, for Elijah had been the recognized “Hand of God” in those parts for decades. Nevertheless, he promised his apprentice that his wish would be granted if he stuck with him until he was taken (II Kings 2). Elisha witnessed and recorded Elijah’s “rapture,” and as it turned out, his recorded miracles numbered precisely double those of his master’s.
According to the symbol, then, this defined Elisha as the “firstborn son” and heir of Israel’s greatest prophet. In the next generation, Elisha was indeed preeminent among the prophets of Israel, of whom there were many at the time. I can’t help but wonder if this too may be a left-handed prophecy.
Elijah had told Elisha, “If you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” (II Kings 2:10) In Revelation 2 and 3, we are shown seven spiritual profiles that would comprise the nature of the church over the course of its age. It is evident (in hindsight) that these seven assemblies also form a remarkably accurate timeline of sorts, beginning with the apostolic age (Ephesus) and running through the Great Tribulation—the last event preceding the Kingdom Age. The next-to-last assembly on Yahshua’s mailing list is that of Philadelphia, and it is obvious that this is the church that will experience the rapture. Christ tells them, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10)
But there is still one more church on the list, the tepid and disgusting lukewarm church of Laodicea. I have concluded that on rapture day none of its “members” will be saved (i.e., Spirit-quickened), but those who take Christ’s counsel to “buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (Revelation 3:18) will comprise the seventh and final church. Rather than being “kept out of the worldwide trial,” these will live through it—or not: multitudes of them will be slain for their faith (or will die in the general mayhem of the times).
So my question is this: will the belatedly-redeemed saints of Laodicea—those who have seen with their own two eyes the rapture of the Philadelphian Christians—receive a “double portion” of the Spirit’s power as they take on the most difficult challenges imaginable during the last few years of the age? Will they be (as Elisha was to Elijah) the “firstborn son” of Philadelphia, doubly tested and tried, but also gifted with a double portion of the Spirit’s power to help them endure the dark days?
Something tells me the answer is a big yes. The following prophecy from the prophet Joel definitely speaks to a spiritual reawakening nation of Israel. (It will, after all, doubtlessly take place during the last of Daniel 9:27’s “seventy weeks,” which define the course of Israel’s deliverance.) But it may also be a hint as to how the church of Laodicea will survive the satanic onslaught (to whatever extent it will). It is, after all, addressed to “all flesh.” “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of Yahweh. And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of Yahweh shall be saved.” (Joel 2:28-32)
I pray that those who come to faith after the rapture will indeed be granted “the firstborn’s double portion” of Yahweh’s Spirit as they face the worst persecution in the history of the church. They’re going to need it: “Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:4) With the firstborn, as we have seen, sacrifice and service precede exaltation and inheritance. With those who follow Him, the picture is even more astonishing: death precedes life.
Christ promised the belatedly repentant souls of the church of Laodicea, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” (Revelation 3:19-21) I must hasten to add, however, that one need not wait until the Tribulation’s terrors to become a child of God. One can avoid the chastening and rebuke by simply being receptive to the Father’s voice. There is no time like the present to “be zealous and repent.”
(First published 2016)