Birth of the Son of God: The Firstborn

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

One specific image related to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the firstborn. In Greek, the word typically translated “firstborn” is prwto/toko$ (prœtótokos), which is more accurately rendered “first-produced“. The component word to/ko$ (tókos), like te/knon (téknon), both derive from the verb ti/ktw and refer fundamentally to something which is produced, as in the concrete sense of something coming out of the ground (from a seed) or out of the mother’s body. The word te/knon (plural te/kna) is normally translated “child”, but I have tried to preserve something of the etymology by rendering it as “offspring”. The term prwto/toko$ is used eight times in the New Testament (Luke 2:7; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18; Heb 1:6; 11:28; 12:23; Rev 1:5, cf. also Lk 2:23). The corresponding Hebrew word is rokB=, referring to something which comes early (or first); the closely related plural word <yr!WKB! refers to the early/first ripened grain and fruit that is harvested (i.e. “firstfruits”). In Greek, a different word (a)parxh/) is used for “firstfruits”, unrelated to prwto/toko$ (“firstborn”); it specifically means the beginning of i.e. the harvest.

Significance of the Firstborn

The (theological) importance of “firstborn” in the New Testament and early Christian thought has to be understood in terms of the ancient cultural background of the idea, especially within the context of Israelite religion. Three aspects should be noted:

1. The uniqueness of the Firstborn

Until other children are born to a husband and wife, the firstborn is unique—an only child. This is a simple fact; and yet, the uniqueness of the firstborn/only child (especially of a son) becomes an important image in Judaism and early Christianity, in two respects—the uniqueness of Israel as God’s (chosen) people, and Jesus’ unique position as God’s “Son”. Both of these points are discussed below, but it is worth pointing out that an only child may be expressed in Greek by the term monogenh/$ (monogen¢¡s). Sometimes translated (rather inaccurately) as “only-begotten”, monogenh/$ literally means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and is often used in the general sense of “only (one), one of a kind, unique,” etc. It occurs in the New Testament with the basic meaning of “only (child)”—cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb 11:17; however, in the Gospel of John it is used in reference to Jesus as the only/unique Son of God (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; also 1 Jn 4:9). In this regard, it is significant that neither the Gospel nor the Letters of John refer to believers as “sons [ui(oi] of God”, always using “offspring/children [te/kna] of God” instead—only Jesus is truly the Son [ui(o$] of God.

2. The special position of the Firstborn

Apart from any theological or religious significance, the firstborn child is bound to hold a special place for its parents (particularly the mother). In the ancient Near East, far more than in Western societies today, there was a decided negative stigma attached to the woman who was barren or otherwise childless (cf. for example, the sentiment expressed by Elizabeth in Luke 1:25). Consider also the far higher rate of infant mortality, along with inherent dangers of childbirth, in ancient cultures—the birth of the first living child would have been a particular source of joy and relief. Within the family and household, the firstborn held a position of prominence, with the first born son being regarded as the primary (or sole) heir (cf. Gen 27:19, 32; 29:26; 43:33; 48:18; 49:3, etc).

Beyond this, however, according to the ancient tradition recorded in the Pentateuch (and preserved as commands in the Torah), God declared that all firstborn—especially the first born males, of humans and animals alike—are set apart, belonging specially to Him (Exod 13:2, 12). This is expressed dramatically within the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:22-23; 11:5; chaps 12-13) and as a legal-religious principle throughout the Torah (Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:12-13, etc). It would seem that, initially, the idea was that the firstborn sons would serve as priests before God for the family and community, eventually being replaced, within the priestly construct centered around the Tabernacle/Temple, by the members of the tribe of Levi (Num 3:40-50; 8:16-18). With the Levites now serving this role, but in order to preserve the consecrated status of the firstborn, a ritual was established by which the family would symbolically “buy back” the child—sometimes referred to as the redemption of the firstborn (cf. Num 3:46ff). Joseph and Mary fulfilled this regulation for Jesus at the Temple precincts (according to Luke 2:22b-23). Interestingly, Paul also connects sonship with redemption in Galatians 4:4-7, but in a different sense: Christ, through his sacrificial death, buys humankind out from bondage under the Law (and from slavery to sin), which makes it possible for believers (in Christ) to become sons of God. For more on this, see below.

3. Israel as God’s “Firstborn”

In several key Old Testament passages (Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Mal 3:1, also Sirach 36:17), the people of Israel (collectively) are referred to as God’s “son” in a symbolic or spiritual sense. Twice, however, Israel is specifically called God’s firstborn son—in Exod 4:22 and Jer 31:9—the reference in Exodus begin connected with the death of the firstborn in Egypt. It was through the Exodus that Israel, in a very real sense, was “born” as God’s children. For more on this association, see the deutero-canonical Wisdom 18:5-19 (esp. verse 13). Eventually, the righteous would be described as God’s “son” (or “sons, children”) in a similar manner (cf. my earlier note on this point).

Jesus and Believers as “Firstborn”

To begin with, simply on the historical level, Mary gave birth to Jesus as her “firstborn” child (Luke 2:7, cf. Matt 1:25). According to Gospel tradition (in the Infancy narratives), Mary was a virgin prior to conceiving and giving birth to Jesus (Lk 1:27, 34; Matt 1:18-25); this, in and of itself, provides special significance to the idea of Jesus as “firstborn”. As mentioned above, his parents faithfully fulfilled the religious and legal requirement with regard to the consecration and redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:22-23). The reference to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7) has prompted a good deal of speculation on the question of whether Joseph and Mary and other (natural) children together, especially in the overall context of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. There are several other ways that Jesus may be understood as the “firstborn”, that is, of God:

  • The use of monogenh/$ in reference to Jesus as the only (true) Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9, and cf. above)—reflecting a special relationship to God the Father, indicating divine nature and pre-existence. Cf. also the use of “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6.
  • The Anointed One (“Messiah/Christ”) as the “son of God”—drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern idea of the king as God’s “son”, a similar idea is expressed of the Israelite (Davidic) ruler in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14, both passages coming to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition (cf. 4Q174; Acts 13:32-33; Heb 1:5; 5:5), where it was applied to Jesus. In Psalm 89:27, this Davidic ruler is further called God’s “firstborn”; there may be similar ‘Messianic’ reference to a king as (God’s) firstborn in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q369 (cf. also 4Q458).
  • Jesus as “firstborn” (or “firstfruits”) in terms of the resurrection. As I have previously discussed, by all accounts, it is in the context of his resurrection (and exaltation to Heaven), that Jesus was understood to be “born” as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching—cf. Acts 13:32-37 (citing Psalm 2:7, and note a similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36, cp. Heb 1:5, 13; 5:5); and Romans 1:3-4. The same early kerygma would seem to underlie the references to Jesus as “firstborn” in Rom 8:29; Col 1:18; and Rev 1:5.

Along with the numerous passages in the New Testament where believers are called the “sons” (ui(oi/) or “offspring/children” (te/kna) of God, in several instances, the expression “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) is also used:

Romans 8:29

“…(the ones) whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) before(hand) (to be) together in (the) form/shape of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-produced [prwto/toko$ i.e. ‘firstborn’] among many brothers”

Here the key phrase is summo/rfou$ th=$ ei)ko/no$ tou= ui(ou= au)tou= (“together in the form/shape of the image of His Son”). Paul elsewhere refers to Jesus as the ei)kw/n (“image”) of God in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15—the last of these is noteworthy since it combines ei)kw/n specifically with prwto/toko$—and cf. also 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18, where likewise believers are said to become formed into the image of Christ. In Paul’s thought, this conformity with Christ is the result of our identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:5-11; 8:9-11; Gal 2:19-20, etc). This takes place through trust/faith in Christ and by the work of the Spirit, symbolized in the ritual of baptism (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:12). Earlier in Rom 8:18-25 Paul develops the image of creation groaning (like a woman in labor) waiting for the manifestation of (i.e. giving ‘birth’ to) the “sons of God” (believers); and we, too, groan within for the same thing (v. 23)—even though we are already God’s “sons/children” through faith in Christ and by the Spirit, this will not be fully realized until the resurrection at the end-time (described as “the redemption [lit. loosing from {bondage}] of our bodies”).

Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5

The expression prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n (“first-produced [i.e. firstborn] out of the dead [pl.]”) in Col 1:18; Rev 1:5 must be understood in a similar manner as the use of prwto/toko$ in Rom 8:29. Christ, in being raised from the dead, becomes the first of many “sons/children” (believers), who will likewise be raised at the end time—even now, we are united spiritually in his resurrection. In this sense, we, as believers, are not only “children of God”, but are in union with the true (firstborn) Son, and partake of this (collective) “firstborn” status.

Hebrews 12:23

The reference in Heb 12:22-24 is to the divine/heavenly inheritance that waits for believers, and that is already being experienced now, by faith (cf. chapter 11):

22but you have come toward mount ‚iyyôn {Zion} and (the) city of (the) living God, Yerûshalaim {Jerusalem} upon-the-Heaven(s), and the multitude of Messengers all gathered (in one place), 23and the assembly of the first-born having been written from (the list) in the Heavens, and God (the) judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just/righteous (one)s having been made complete, 24and Yeshua (the) mediator of the new (agreement) set forth, and the blood of (ritual) sprinkling…”

It may not be clear in translation, but the nouns throughout vv. 22-24 are in the dative case, each related back to the verb proselhlu/qate (“you have come toward…”)—that believers approaching Heaven will encounter:

    • Mount Zion, identified also as “city of the living God” and “Jerusalem upon the Heavens [i.e. Heavenly Jerusalem]”
    • The multitude of (heavenly) Messengers [i.e. Angels] all gathered together, as in the town/city square (a)gora/)
    • The assembly of the firstborn…the spirits of the just/righteous ones… (v. 23ff)

In context, the identification of the “firstborn” is not entirely certain. Some commentators have thought that it is parallel with the “multitude of (heavenly) Messengers” in v. 22, referring to the Angels. The reference to the firstborn being enrolled or registered (“written [down] from [the list]”) in Heaven, however, makes it more likely that human saints (believers) are meant—cf., for example, Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:29; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev 13:18; 17:8. It is interesting the way that verses 23-24 are structured:

    • Assembly of the first born
      —written down in Heaven
    • God the Judge of all
    • Spirits of the just/righteous ones
      —made complete
    • Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant

The parallelism seems to make clear that the “firstborn” are the same as the “just/righteous” ones—i.e., human believers. The basic scenario is that of standing before God as Judge, with Jesus in his mediating role as Priest, who has established a new covenant between God and His people (believers), through his sacrificial and atoning death (note the qualifying phrase in verse 24, “the blood of [ritual] sprinkling”).

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