In ancient Israelite society the firstborn son had special rights that were highly valued. He was the head of the family in the father’s absence, and upon his father’s death he received an inheritance double that of the other sons (Gen 49:3; Deut 21:17). The firstborn could, however, lose his birthright, either by selling it or through misconduct (Gen 25:31-34; 1 Chron 5:1-2).

At the time of Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, God preserved the lives of the Israelites’ firstborn, both people and animals. From that time on, the firstborn of all Israelite families, and the firstborn of their flocks and herds, became God’s special possession (Exod 13:2). In the case of the firstborn of animals, the owner dedicated a clean animal to God by sacrifice. He dedicated an unclean animal by the sacrifice of a clean animal in its place (since an unclean animal could not be offered in sacrifice) (Exod 13:11-15; Num 18:17-18). In the case of people, the parents ceremonially presented their firstborn to God, and then bought the child back by a payment of money (Num 18:15-16; Luke 2:7,23).

For the service of the tabernacle, the Levites replaced the firstborn as God’s special servants (Num 3:11-13,45; cf. Exod 32:29). Because of the high status of the firstborn, the title developed a figurative usage. In Old Testament times, God considered the nation Israel to be his firstborn, his special people among all the nations of the world (Exod 4:22; cf. Deut 7:6; Hosea 11:1). In New Testament, times believers in Jesus Christ are God’s firstborn, his chosen and privileged ones (Heb 12:23). The Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as the firstborn of his Father. This does not mean that he came into existence later than his Father, but that he is head of the Father’s new people. He has authority over them, yet he graciously looks upon them as his brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29; Heb 1:6; 2:11-12). Jesus is also the firstborn of all creation. This means not that the Son of God was created, but that he existed before creation, has authority over it, and is its rightful heir (Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:2). Also, through his resurrection, he is the firstborn from the dead. He has authority over God’s new creation, the church, and guarantees its final victory (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5).

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