Frequently employed in the Bible in the literal sense of offspring, "firstborn" acquired metaphorical applications over time. Two such New Testament uses, as a term for the church and as a title for Christ, are theologically significant.
The firstborn son in patriarchal society was regarded as special ( Gen 49:3 ; Exod 13:2 ). He became the head of the family upon his father's death, having received his father's blessing ( Gen 27 ) and a double portion of the inheritance ( Deut 21:17 ).
After the Passover event in Egypt, every firstborn male belonged to God. This implied priestly duties, an obligation later transferred to the Levites ( Num 8:14-19 ).
Of special significance is the divine claim that Israel was God's firstborn ( Exod 4:22-23 ). This signified Israel's favored status among the nations to be in covenant relationship with God. But it also meant Israel had a priestly function to perform as God's saving light to Gentile peoples.
In the Book of Hebrews the author appears to call Christians "firstborn ones" (prototokon) in virtue of their relationship to Christ, whom he has already called the "firstborn" (prototokon) in 1:6. Through him they have been "enrolled in heaven."
The context of Hebrews 12:18-29 gives substance to this expression as a term for Christians. The spiritual nature of the church is underscored. "Mount Zion" is a "heavenly Jerusalem, " a "city of the living God" (v. 22) contrasted both to Mount Sinai where the Law was given (vv. 18-21) and to the earthly Jerusalem and its temple worship.
Christian life and worship occur in a spiritual community that includes God, angels, and human beings (vv. 22-24). The hosts of angels are in festal array, reminiscent of their task of worshiping the Son brought into the world for human redemption ( 1:6 ), rather than as the mediators of the Law during the awesome display at Mount Sinai. The church is composed not only of present earthly believers but also of the "spirits of just persons who have been made perfect." This latter expression likely refers to the Old Testament faithful who could not reach completion until the Christian dispensation ( 11:40 ); these now comprise the cloud of witnesses who applaud the race of the earthly Christians ( 12:1 ). The "church of the firstborn" does not displace faithful Israel, but joins with them in perfect worship to God through the mediation of Christ.
The "church of the firstborn" lives in humility, gratitude, and awe (vv. 26-29), for in Christ they have received a kingdom that will endure the judgment of the eschaton. Christ has given them both the gift of his salvation and the obligation to be his priestly community among unbelieving peoples ( Heb 13 ).
Christ is called God's "firstborn" in Hebrews 1:6. This is a metaphorical use of the term and does not imply that Christ merely was created prior to other beings or the world in general. Rather it connotes his special status as the unique Son of God.
Luke L. Keefer, Jr.
See also Jesus Christ, Name and Titles of
Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Firstborn'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".