Firstborn from 27.1.17
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Fighting together for a common cause can forge unbreakable bonds between comrades in arms; I saw this in my father’s life-long friendship with his World War II mates. Since believers are engaged together in a spiritual conflict far fiercer than any natural war our relationships should be indestructible (Phil 1:29-30). In nations where Christians are an oppressed minority their heart ties to each do seem to be deep and rich (1 Pet 1:22). This is not something that most of the Church in “peaceful Perth” could rightfully claim. Each Sunday many of us confess in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in…the communion of the saints”, but such a holy fellowship is rarely experienced. Is persecution the only way God can form us into a community of love and respect visibly different from the secular society surrounding us? In praying into these questions the Lord directed us to a great truth of who Jesus is for us, “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29).
In scripture “firstborn” is not primarily a statement about birth order but about inheritance. The firstborn is the possessor of a double portion of family property (Deut 21:15-17). More importantly however, “firstborn” comes to signify a very special relationship with God. Israel is God’s “firstborn son” whom Pharaoh will release at the cost of his firstborn (Ex 4:22). Even more intimately the Lord says, ““I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn”” (Jer 31:9). This endearing relationship climaxes in the bond between God and the Messiah; “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father… And I will make him the firstborn,the highest of the kings of the earth.”” (Ps 89:26-27). “Firstborn” then speaks of a son exalted by the love of God as a Father. This comes across most powerfully in the way “firstborn” is used of Jesus.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created…” (Col 1:15-16). Christ is also “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Col 1:18; cf. Rev 1:5). More than this, “when he (God) brings the firstborn into the world [the heavenly world at the ascension], he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”” (Heb 1:6). The Father’s great acts in creation, new creation and in shaping the life of heaven centre on the person of his “firstborn” Son. In the plan of God all honour, rank and dignity in heaven and earth is concentrated in the humanity of Jesus. The ultimate mystery of the firstborn Son however is the cross. Apart from his sacrificial death for us Jesus would merely rank over us rather than sharing his reign with us. In dying crucified in our place stripped of the Father’s loving presence and rising from the dead on our behalf Jesus transfigured the meaning of “firstborn” so that it might be shared with his brothers (Mark 15:34; 2 Cor 5:17; Phil 2:8). “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29). That Jesus’ shares his “firstborn” dignity with us is foundational for our fellowship together.
The Church of the Firstborn
The letter to the Hebrews presents a vision of the Christian life as sharing in “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:23). The Greek word translated “assembly” here is ekklesia i.e. “church”. The Father brings his “many sons to glory” by unashamedly making them “brothers” of the Son and members of his heavenly Church (Heb 2:10-11). This means all Christians are already sharing in the dignity of the glorified firstborn Son (cf. Rom 8:29). There are incredible dimensions of what it means for us today to belong to the heavenly assembly gathered around Jesus.
By its intense symbolism Revelation portrays Jesus as being brought to birth through Israel; “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains…. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Gen 37:9; Ps 2:9; Rev 12:1-2, 5). Sharing this perspective on spiritual maternity, Paul boldly states, “the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” (Gal 4:26). From the standpoint of the Church in the heavenly places it is true to say, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.” (Cyprian). Through the sacrifice of Christ the firstborn all Christians share his rights and dignity in approaching and serving the heavenly Father (Heb 2:11; 4:16). This is marvellously true; but it is at this point that the community character of the Church often breaks down in practice.
Seeing you in the Lord
Our congregations need an end-time vision of the destiny we all share; “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20-21). When we see in the Spirit each of our brothers and sisters as a firstborn person marked by God for glorious resurrection in Christ we will delight to honour and serve them as scripture prescribes; “Honour one another above yourselves.” (Rom 12:10), “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). Such selflessness is impossible apart from Jesus. Since Jesus honoured us as more significant than himself by dying for us through him we can likewise honour and dignify one other as fellow members of the Church of the firstborn in heaven (Phil 2:5-11). E.g. Paul commends Epaphroditus; “receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” (Phil 2:29-30). Where we follow the firstborn Son in sacrificing ourselves for others the Holy Spirit will create a community of great honour and love which the world can see is unlike any organisation it has ever known (Col 1:20; 24).
With such a heavenly vision there is no place for quarrelling over mere “opinions” (Rom 14:1) or pulling out of fellowship when we feel rights are not respected. “Rights” and “responsibilities” are never in tension as long as we centre on Jesus. When the Church’s political power games are put to death through the cross the power of Christ’s resurrection presence will return to our midst (Phil 3:10).
“he (beloved Son) is the head of the body, the church…the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18). We are called to a manner of life which faithfully witnesses to the mystery that Jesus the firstborn Head of the Church suffers in his Body. This is an immeasurable act of being honoured by God. The words Paul heard on the road to Damascus were unforgettable to him and should also be to us; ““Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:4-5). Every time we degrade one of Christ’s brothers/sisters by not treating them as Christ himself deserves we wound our Lord in heaven in the midst of an assembly in which we all share. The implications of this are profound and beyond my understanding, but one thing is clear, lest we grieve the Holy Spirit we must learn to honour one another more than ever before (Eph 4:30).