The term firstborn is used extensively throughout the Bible, and God makes it clear that He holds a unique interest and affection for those who are His firstborn, whether of man, plant, or the animal kingdom. It is written, “Then the Lord 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 the Lord’” (Numbers 3:11-13, NKJV).[i]
It is interesting that God not only assumed physical ownership and possession over the firstborn of Israel, including their livestock, but He exchanged their ownership for the Levites and their livestock.[ii] Was this necessary? After all, God owns the whole creation. What is so special about God’s firstborn? We will find out.
God gave the firstborn Israelite males special status concerning inheritance rights, including herds and flocks that were desirable for sacrifices. In Deuteronomy 21:15–17, a father was obliged to acknowledge his firstborn son as his principal heir, and to grant him a double portion of his estate as an inheritance.
In Genesis, however, we see that the primogeniture was disregarded in the lineage of Abraham. Here the firstborn was chosen based on the offspring’s predestination to promulgate the lineage of the Messiah through their faith and belief in the one true God. It is written, “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21). Later in the story, Jacob contended with Esau over the birthright (bekhorah), which Jacob secured from Esau, who despised it and contended for the blessing (berakhah).
In Judaism, the understanding of the term “firstborn” (bekhor) is a mystery. The Hebrew word for “first fruits” (bikkurim) derives from the same root as “firstborn” (bekhor), as do the terms “birthright” (bekhorah) and “blessing” (berakhah). Therefore, there is a correlation between all that comes first in the creation, including their birthright and associated blessings.
While the firstborn of both man and animal belong to God, the first fruits, including the first grains, were brought as an offering to God in the Temple from Pentecost (Shavuot) to the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). They were also accompanied by other “peace offerings “(shelamim).[iii] These gifts, both plant and animal, were given to the sons of Arron, the priests (Kohanim), as a gift. The Levites, who were taken by the Lord as a possession in exchange for the firstborn of Israel, were also given to Aaron as a gift to serve in the Temple. Therefore, it is apparent that we who are predestined to become God’s possession are privileged to partake in all that belongs exclusively to Him—“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” (Romans 8:29).
The Lord made a promise that Israel would be to him (future tense) a kingdom of priests—“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6)—future signifying that God’s promise was conditional upon the fulfillment of a mystery that was yet to be revealed.[iv] Paul affirmed this when he declared, “…the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began” (Romans 16:25).
Indeed, Christ was that mystery to Israel and the world, and so was the church, for it is written, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). A token of this future promise was bestowed upon the sons of Levi, specifically the sons of Aaron, as an eternal priesthood.[v] The Aaronic priesthood and the Levites who served in the Temple, were a type, a shadow of the priesthood of both Christ and His church—a priesthood established by an eternal order that was set apart from the creation, without beginning and end.[vi]
In Jewish tradition, the characterization of “first fruit of vigor” (bekhor reshit on) is like the relationship between a father and his firstborn heir in royal succession.[vii] Similarly, the specification of “firstborn” (bekhor) is also akin to the first issuance from the womb, signifying religious or priestly significance, and stressing the biological link to the mother.[viii] The correlation is intriguing, revealing two varying characteristics of Yeshua’ ministry—the royal and priestly successions.
Studying the genealogy of Christ, we find in Matthew and Mark two different accounts of His lineage. Matthew emphasizes Christ’s title and lineage through His adopted father, Joseph, as the anointed Messiah of Israel, calling Yeshua the “son of Abraham” and “the son David.” The narrative reveals that Yeshua was an Israelite and the son (descendant) of both Abraham and King David, affirming His royal succession as the King of Israel. “Also I will make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27). Notice how, we, the sons of Adam, are now adopted into God’s kingdom, as it is written, “You received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15).
Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes Christ’s lineage through His natural mother, Mary. This narrative does not refer to Yeshua as the “son of David,” but rather as the “son of Joseph.” While it does follow the Davidic line through Nathan, it ultimately links Yeshua’ lineage to Heli who is descendant of Levi and the father of the Aaronic priesthood given to Israel.[ix] The narrative reveals that Yeshua was a Levite, affirming His priestly succession as the rightful high priest of Israel. This priesthood, however, reveals an order that was not created but has eternally existed with God—the order Melchizedek, the King of Righteousness. Notice how, we, the sons of Adam, have now become a Kingdom of Priests, as it is written, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people…” (1 Peter 2:9).
We can take this teaching to an even deeper understanding of God’s character. In Jewish tradition, the right arm of God is considered the “arm of kindness” (Chesed), while the left arm of God is viewed as the “arm of stern justice” (Gevurah).[x] It is written that Yeshua has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father, therefore, “The law [stern justice] was given through Moses, but grace and truth [kindness] came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).[xi]
How does this relate to Yeshua’ maternal and paternal lineages? His father’s lineage associates Christ with the royal succession. When Yeshua returns to the earth, He will execute His Father’s stern justice upon the nations. Until then, Yeshua’ maternal attributes are revealed during the dispensation of God’s grace; the dispensation is Christ’s priestly succession, which is His kindness bestowed upon the nations, forgiving and atoning for the sins of the world.
At the center of God’s arms is the body, called “mercy” (Rachamim), a royal priesthood in Christ that serves both man and God. Therefore, God’s mercy is manifest through His kindness that was justified by the stern judgment that He propitiated through the blood of Christ. “The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). We, the church, are the recipients of that mercy and are therefore called to demonstrate God’s mercy to a fallen and sinful world.
While Israel was revealed as God’s firstborn amongst the nations,[xii] her promise to receive the “Spirit of adoption” through Christ remained a mystery until her Messiah would come and fulfill the law of atonement regarding sin and death.[xiii] It is written, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7). Paul affirmed this promise to Israel when he said, “…my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises…” (Romans 9:3-5).
The sons of Jacob were to become rightful heirs to the Kingdom of God through Christ. Therefore, all who are in Christ have received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out “Abba Father,” and not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles.[xiv] This was another great mystery hidden from Israel, God’s sovereign work of salvation amongst the nations, as it is written, “To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
The Apostle Peter had such an encounter at the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46). Cornelian feared God and had shown favor to the Jews. Still, the Jews were not expecting this outpouring. God had demonstrated His sovereign work of salvation amongst the nations without any requirement for the Gentiles to become Jewish. They were now, in Christ, part of God’s firstborn family.
God’s firstborn is Christ, for it is written, “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). On a personal level, we can also conclude that God’s firstborn are all who are in Christ. These are the church, for it is written, “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 1:18).
The church has not replaced Israel, but rather the promise of the church, the promise of Christ and the Holy Spirit, which was for Israel, has now been extended to the Gentiles. In other words, Israel was to become the church—an assembly (ecclesia), a great multitude of every tribe and tongue and people and nation that would worship the God of Abraham, and join themselves to God’s firstborn nation, Israel.[xv] Israel is still God’s firstborn nation, firstborn however amongst many nations as was promised to Abraham, “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).
God still has a promise for Israel, as It is written, “I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). Yes, the day is approaching when the Lord will again turn His face towards Jerusalem and the Jewish people. “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26).
There is an ancient Jewish custom for firstborn Jewish men to fast on the day before Passover, commemorating the miracle which spared the Israelite firstborn males from the tenth plague that struck down the Egyptians. Some rabbis contend that firstborn sons should not fast for the entire day, and therefore, in the synagogue after the morning prayers, the firstborn sons participate in a festive meal, breaking the fast early, and continue eating for the remainder of the day.[xvi] This festive meal is reminiscent of a parable we read about in the New Testament:
“Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:14-15).
The rabbis are prophetic in their understanding of the significance of God’s firstborn. The firstborn male sons of Israel, who belong to God, were exchanged for the sons of Levi. God made a substitute for them, which is also a picture of Christ’s substitute for us, as it is written, “It pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin…” (Isaiah 53:10). For this reason, the disciples did not fast in the presence of Yeshua—God’s firstborn Son.
What is so special about God’s firstborn? It is Christ Yeshua. He is God’s special and only begotten Son. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). “When He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him’” (Hebrews 1:6). And because we are the bride of Christ, we are also special.
Therefore, let us adore Christ Yeshua, the firstborn over all creation, and honor His bride, the church, the firstborn from all creation, Jew and Gentile together as one new man.[xvii] For it is written, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
[i] All Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Bible (NKJV) unless otherwise noted, Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982.
[ii] Numbers 3:45.
[iii] First Fruits. JewishVirtualLibrary.org.
[iv] Isaiah 42:9, 43:19, 48:6, Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:7-9.
[v] Exodus 40:15, Numbers 25:13.
[vi] Hebrews 7:1-13.
[vii] The Israelite kings were often polygamous, and the relative status of several royal wives figured in determining a succession, making the Deuteronomic law appear more like an ideal than a reality.
[viii] Firstborn. JewishVirtualLibrary.org.
[x] Leviticus 14:15-16, 26-27.
[xi] Acts 2:33.
[xii] Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 31:9.
[xiii] Luke 2:22-23.
[xiv] Romans 8:15, 9:24.
[xv] Revelation 5:9, 7:9.
[xvi] Kitov, Eliyahu. The Fast of the Firstborn. Chabbad.org.
[xvii] Ephesians 2:15.