Our God is not a legalistic God. If the obvious condemnation of legalism (like Jesus’ scourging renunciation of the Pharisee mindset) isn’t enough, we can find plenty of more subtle reminders that God’s grace has far-reaching effects. The message of His mercy shines forth in so many layers that, as we read the Bible, we sometimes have to step back from details and notice big picture symbolism to discover lessons.
In closing out the book of Genesis today, I was contemplating the failure of so many firstborn children outlined in these stories. We read in Genesis 49 of Jacob’s censure of Reuben, his “firstborn; my might and the beginning of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power…” It starts off so exciting… only to end in a puddle of disappointment with, “uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence…” The double portion was vested on Joseph – not Jacob’s firstborn son. Is there a lesson here? I began considering other Genesis stories and came up with some interesting thoughts. I hope you find them so as well. 😀
Apparently, even in the time before the Law, there was an unwritten understanding that the firstborn son would receive special inheritance from their fathers. (Compare Jacob buying Esau’s birthright in Genesis 25) The Law of Moses codifies the rule like this:
If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.
Now if this is the “rule” then there were certainly many exceptions. God is not bound by rules. Here is a list of what I would call “usurped firstborns” in Genesis alone:
Cain (& Abel), Ishmael (& Isaac), Esau (& Jacob), Leah (& Rachel), Reuben (& Judah & Joseph), Manasseh (& Ephraim)
Now the circumstances are unique for each of these cases, but I find this to be an impressively long list of firstborn “rights, blessings or privileges” being given to younger siblings, don’t you? And the list would expand if we included later Bible characters in our survey. David and Solomon, for example, were given supremacy over their older siblings. Or take the consistent Old Testament theme that God considered Israel His firstborn, and yet the New Testament gives preeminence to the Bride of Christ. (Ex. 4:22, Eph. 5:23) What do we make of this deviation from the “right” of double portion inheritance to the firstborn?
Well, I’m certainly open to input, but I have some thoughts I will share here. We know that the Apostle Paul outlines the idea of the calling of God being irrespective of other considerations when he discusses loving Jacob and hating Esau:
for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.” Just as it is written, “JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.” What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.” … 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?
So one answer to our question is the all-pervading umbrella of the fact that God is God – and He will make His selection based on that simple fact. Some people are chosen. Some people are not. But I believe the lessons go beyond this as well. The rest of Romans 9 gives further insight.
What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
So we are told that God was longsuffering with people like firstborn Esau (called an immoral, godless person in Hebrews 12:16) so that He could show mercy to people like Jacob. He was also longsuffering with His usually immoral and godless firstborn, Israel, so that He could reveal His glory to believers that included Gentiles. Gentiles like you and me.
So there is this principle at work that overrides the Law of the firstborn. It is the “Natural and then the Spiritual Principle.” And sometimes the natural child happened to be born before a child of blessing. So God transferred that blessing in a great variety of ways to the spiritual/called person. Consider these words of 1 Corinthians 15:
So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.
And that brings us to another set of firstborn vs. younger sibling that originates in Genesis – arguably the greatest type of all. Adam was the natural firstborn of Creation – made in the image of God. But he chose to disobey his Father and thereby lost the potential double portion of blessing. Even in his sin, however, God’s mercy prevailed in promising another greater spiritual firstborn who would crush sin forever. The true begotten son of God died on a cross to save and usher in a New Creation.
For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
He will cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.’ I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth. My loving kindness I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall be confirmed to him. So I will establish his descendants forever, and his throne as the days of heaven.
So God gives us many repetitive reminders imbedded in the life stories of men of old. The reminders are to point us to the fact that all the types of firstborn sons in scripture are imperfect. Only Jesus was truly deserving of the abundant provision, responsibility and blessing granted to the firstborn son. Only Jesus. That is what these multiple stories should lead us to consider.
In His abundant mercy, God showers His grace on those who would approach Him (in their grave imperfection) through the glorified brilliance of His only begotten son – The Firstborn of His New Creation. The one who is given the double portion – a Kingdom where he is established forever as the highest of the kings of the earth – his well-deserved birthright.
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach– if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven