Jesus - The Firstborn
Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 22, 2010
What is the significance of the firstborn son in ancient culture and how does that relate to Christ?
In the Holy Scripture, Israel, the Israel of God, is called God’s Firstborn. In Exodus, the fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus, this is what is written:
The Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharoah, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I say to you, let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your firstborn son.’ ”
So you have, right in the Torah itself, in the books of Moses, in Exodus, you have this term used: “firstborn.” In Greek, it’s “prōtotokos,” “pervorodnoe” in Slavonic. “Prōtotokos”: and this expression, the firstborn, it’s used throughout the Scripture, and it’s used in a very, very particular, technical way.
The firstborn does not, in the Scripture, generally speaking, the accent is not on the “born” part, but on the “first” part, the “prōto”: the firstborn, because in the Scripture, the firstborn was the blessed one. The firstborn was the heir. The firstborn was the one who was favored. The firstborn was the one who received and inherited and had all that belonged to the father, the firstborn son.
So in calling Israel the firstborn son, what it meant is that Israel, of all the peoples of the earth, are God’s own son. In the Book of Esdras, it will connect the expression “firstborn” or “firstborn son” with “the chosen,” “the elect,” and with “the beloved.” The firstborn is the one that’s chosen; the firstborn is the one that’s loved. The firstborn is the one who has preeminence over all of the others, that among all those who would be born, the firstborn is the first.
That is what is being definitely, it seems very clearly, definitely taught here in the Torah, that of all the peoples of the earth, it’s Israel that is God’s chosen; it’s Israel that is God’s elect; it’s Israel that is God’s beloved. Here it says very particularly, specifically: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.” My firstborn: the one who is favored, the one who is chosen, the one who is loved, the one who is elect, the one who is preeminent over all the others.
Anyone familiar with Orthodox liturgy, especially during Holy Week, cannot but read that sentence without immediately coming to mind the hymn that is sung at the end of the matins of Great and Holy Friday, the matins at which the twelve Gospels are read, where at the end of matins, the praises and the aposticha, there is a verse there that says, “Israel, my firstborn son,” and then it goes on to say that this Israel was not, even though the Israel was chosen, elect, beloved, that this Israel of God was not faithful; that this Israel of God, who is the firstborn son, did not fulfill that firstborn position as a people; that there was a kind of betrayal of God by Israel, the chosen.
Here, also, it is certainly the Scriptural teaching that God does not reject Israel as his firstborn son, that the promise to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob remains forever. And then it came to be spoken in the Scripture, and certainly this would be the Christian and certainly the Orthodox Christian interpretation, that the firstborn son of God would exist, and that that would be the Messianic king who would fulfill all of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and to the people.
Here, just to do this very quickly, the text that is constantly used for this particular affirmation that one of the seed of Abraham, and the Apostle Paul says that seed is singular, will be Israel, that in some sense Christians interpret the Scriptures as saying that all of Israel and all the promises are ultimately fulfilled and reduced in one particular person, and that one particular person is a son of David, who will be the Messianic king, through whom all the nations of the earth and all the Gentiles and everyone will be called blessed, and that particular king of whose kingdom there will be no end, who will come from the very flesh of David, will be the one who will be made the firstborn. He will be the heir. He will be the elect. He will be the chosen. He will be the beloved.
Here we have the text in Psalm 89. Psalm 89 is one of the most important Messianic texts in the Holy Scripture, and those who are really interested in this topic should definitely read very carefully, because it’s a psalm of the promise to David. I think it’s worthwhile to read a good portion of this psalm, so we can understand what we’re talking about when we speak about “firstborn” generally and when we speak about Israel as God’s firstborn and then realize that it is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, in some sense, alone, but together with all those who will believe in him who will ultimately be the Firstborn.
So here is what the Psalm 89 says. It begins:
I will sing of thy steadfast love, O Lord, forever, and [with] my mouth I will proclaim thy faithfulness to all generations. For thy steadfast love was established forever; thy faithfulness is firm in the heavens. Thou hast said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one. I have sworn to David, my servant: I will establish your descendants forever and build your throne for all generations.”
You have in the beginning God saying he has sworn and will not change his mind. As it says in the very famous Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’ The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.” That there will be this priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, who will also be the son of David. All of those texts which are applied in the New Testament to Jesus.
Here you have it right from the beginning: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one. I have sworn to David, my servant: I will establish your descendants forever, build your throne for all generations.” Then it says:
Let the heavens praise thy wonders, O Lord, thy faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.
If you translate that literally from Greek, it would be: “thy faithfulness in the church of the saints.” The church of the holy ones, the qahal of the holy ones, the ekklesia tōn agiōn, the church of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord? God [is] feared in the council of the holy ones, great and terrible, above all that are round about, the Lord God of hosts. Mighty art thou, O Lord. Faithfulness round about. Thou rulest the ragings of the sea, the waves. Thou hast crushed Rahab, scattered the enemies. The heavens are thine, the earth is thine, the world and all that is in it, thou hast founded them. North and south thou hast created them. Tabor and Hermon joyously praise thy name.
And by the way, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, this is the psalm that is used and is read, because of the tradition that the Transfiguration takes place on Tabor: “Tabor and Hermon joyously praise thy name.”
Thou hast a mighty arm. Strong is thy hand; high is thy right hand. Righteous and justice are the foundation of thy throne. Steadfast love and mercy, faithfulness, truth go before thee. Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance.
And that’s used in our Church on the Ascension of Christ, when Christ is enthroned in glory: “the festal shout of the people.” Where he is exalted and he is put upon his throne. So this psalm is used about Jesus in the New Testament quite a bit. Then it continues:
For thou art the glory of their strength. By [your] favor their horn is exalted. Our shield belongs to the Lord our king, to the holy one of Israel. Of old, thou didst speak in a vision to thy faithful one and say, “Thou has set a crown upon one who is mighty. I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found David, my servant. With my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall ever abide with him. My arm shall also strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him. The wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him, and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his strength be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.”
So all of this is about David, David and the seed of David, the promise that is given to David. Now we come to the part we want to hear especially. This is how it continues:
“For he shall cry to me: Thou art my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.”
So here you have one of the few places in the Hebrew Scripture where God is called “Father,” and what it says is that this seed of David, the one who will sit upon the throne, will cry out, “Thou art my Father.” So Jesus, of course, calls God “Father” all the time: Father, the Father, my Father. And in the New Testament, it would be literally taught that God really is the Father of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth is God’s literal Son.
So he will say: “Thou art my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.” And here we should know that “salvation” also means “victory.” So it is the God and the rock who makes Christ the victor, who makes him the savior, who actually saves him from death and makes him the cause of salvation for everyone else through what he suffered. That, of course, would be the teaching of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. Then you have this sentence:
“And I will make him the Firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”
“I will make him the Firstborn.” So here you have that title: David’s son, the Messianic king, the great High Priest, God’s only Son, the one who addresses God as Father—he is made the Firstborn, the Prōtotokos, the Firstborn. “And I will make him the Firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth,” because the firstborn is the highest over all. He’s preeminent over everyone. That’s what “firstborn” means.
“My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm with him. I will establish his line forever, and his throne as the days of the heavens.”
And then it says:
“If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with scourges. But I will not remove my steadfast love from him, nor will I be false to my truth (to my faithfulness).”
“I will not violate my covenant (God says,) or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness. I will not lie to David. His line shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon, it shall be established forever. It shall stand firm while the skies endure.”
But then the psalm goes on and says how, at the present time, the wrath of God is upon the people, and the crown is defiled in the dust, and that the people have not been faithful to God, although God keeps his covenant and remains faithful to them, to the very, very end. So, just skipping over to the end of the psalm, you have the reference that is quoted in the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament:
Thou hast removed the scepter from his hand, cast his throne to the ground. Thou hast cut short the days of his youth, covered him with shame.
That’s Jesus who is being treated that way.
Nevertheless, the scepter endures forever because of the promise and the covenant of God.
What it says in the end is:
Lord, where is thy steadfast love of old, which by the faithfulness thou did swear to David? Remember, Lord, how thy servant is scorned, how I bear in my bosom the insults of the people, with which the enemies taunt, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of thy christ, thine anointed. Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and amen.
And that’s the ending, actually, of the third book of psalms. The psalter is divided into five books, just like the Pentateuch, and that ends the third one.
But the point here that we want to see is this: God’s covenant is forever. His promise is sure. No matter how unfaithful the people are, he remains faithful. No matter what is going on, even though his wrath has to come upon the people because of their sins and transgressions, nevertheless the covenant is not broken; and there will be that one son of David, who will cry out to God, “My Father, the God, the rock of my victory!” and that is the one who becomes the Firstborn. That is the teaching of the psalm.
In the New Testament, all of this is applied to Jesus, but before we get to the New Testament here, we want to say one more thing about the Old Testament and the use of the term “firstborn.” In the Old Covenant and particularly the law of Moses, the firstborn belong to God. The firstborn was a kind of a special one. And here you have the firstborn of the beasts, the firstborn of the sheep, the firstborn of the goats, and in the Law it says all of these belong to God, and therefore they had to be redeemed according to the Law. Whenever there was a firstborn son born, a sacrifice had to be made to God, to kind of buy back that child. The one that belonged to God had then to be kind of given back to its parents, when the parents make a sacrifice to God, acknowledging with gratitude and thanksgiving and repentance of their sins and so on, that this gift is a gift of God.
The firstborn was this symbolical treasure of the people. That is why, when the people were being held in Egypt, that God, when he delivers the people, he slays the firstborn of the Egyptians. He slays the firstborn of the beasts and of the people, and of the children. And he actually kills the firstborn. The firstborn of all the families, on the night of the Passover, are all slain by God when the people then depart. And then [it is] so God can liberate his firstborn Son.
But in the Christian exegesis, on the interpretation of that text, we can go on to say that all that takes place so that God’s firstborn can come into the world; that that promise to the covenant of David’s son can actually come: and that would be Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, the son of Mary. And we know and confess that that’s God’s own Son, who comes into the world to be the Firstborn. But he comes into the world as the Firstborn, also to be slain, and he gets slain, he gets crucified by the very will of God his Father. He offers himself completely and totally to the Father as the sacrificial firstborn Son, so that through him, all the sinners of the world and all those who have transgressed could ultimately be saved.
Here, I think we would have to say very directly that Jesus Christ, as God’s firstborn Son and the Heir, who dies on the Cross and is crucified and is raised, that he does that to save all the firstborn who were enslaved and slain, including the firstborn in Egypt. We must remember that Christ, being crucified, raised, and glorified, saves all humanity, saves the whole world, saves all the sinners, saves all the Egyptians.
In fact, in the Orthodox Church, on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, when Mary and Joseph go to offer the sacrifice for their firstborn son, and Simeon the Elder holds Christ in his hands, that firstborn son of Mary, and she goes and offers the proper sacrifice according to Mosaic law. On that particular feastday in the Orthodox Church, one of the readings of the Old Testament is read where it says in the Scriptures that “an altar will be set up in Egypt” and that all the Egyptians will worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses. The Egyptian people, the very Egyptian people will be the ones who will set up an altar to the God of the Jews, and that through the Jewish Messiah, the Egyptian people will themselves be saved.
We know how, as in Matthew’s Gospel as a child, Jesus has to be taken into Egypt and brought out of Egypt again. And the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Church, are the Egyptians who accept and glorify the God of the Jews, the God of Israel, and recognize the Firstborn, Israel the firstborn, is now the firstborn of Mary, Jesus, who then gets sacrificed in order to save them, thus fulfilling the prophecy that in Israel will come the salvation of the whole world, all of the nations. And you don’t get to be more of a “nation” than an Egyptian. The Egyptians are kind of the quintessential enemies of Jews, and that’s the case even to this present day, as we know from Gaza, the West Bank, and all of those kind of things that are going on still, in that part of the world, and will continue going on until the end of the age.
But the end of the age has come upon us when Christ comes, and here he comes: the quintessential firstborn—the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn of the dead and the firstborn of many brethren. All those three expressions that I just used: firstborn of creation, firstborn from among the dead, firstborn among many brethren—and simply “firstborn.” Just simply firstborn of everything, so to speak. This is what you find claimed about Jesus in the New Testament writings, in the New Testament Scriptures.
I’ll just begin with the Letter to the Hebrews. The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament insists, it begins, with:
God spoke in many various ways of old to the fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son whom he appointed the heir of all thing, through whom also he created the ages. This son is the reflection and radiance of the glory of God. He is the very stamp of God’s own hypostasis (God’s own person or nature). He upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Then it says:
But when he had made purification for sin…
In other words, when he was crucified, raised, and glorified.
...he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, becoming superior to all the angels. For it says, “To what angel did God ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’ Or again: ‘I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a son.’ ?”
Or as we read in Psalm 89: “He will cry out to the one God, ‘You are my Father, my salvation, the rock of my victory.” Then it says:
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all the angels of God worship him, but of the angels he says, “Who makes his angels winds and his servants flames of fire.” But of the son, he says, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever. The righteous scepter is the scepter of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. Therefore God, thy God, has anointed thee with the oil of gladness beyond all of thy comrades.”
And that, of course, is the psalm. So here it simply says when he brings the firstborn into the world, and that firstborn is his son. That firstborn is Jesus of Nazareth. In the same Letter to the Hebrews, when the author is comparing Moses to Jesus, and the worship of Moses and the commandments of Moses to that which Jesus brings into the world in the final and everlasting covenant, this is what he writes. This is in the 12th chapter. He says in the old times, Moses went up to that mountain and there was a blazing fire, and if anyone even touched it, they just died, and the magnificence and awesomeness of it was glorious and terrifying. But then the author says to the Christians:
But you have not come to what may be touched: a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them, for they could not endure the order that was given: if even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned. Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
“But you, Christians”—this is what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes. He’s obviously a disciple of Paul, and many think that the author is actually a Paulus.
But you, Christians, have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem…
Not the earthly Jerusalem; the heavenly Jerusalem.
...and to innumerable angels, and to festal gathering…
And then it says:
...and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood (his own sprinkled blood) that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.
“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking,” it says, and then it goes on to say how terrifying this is, because “our God is a consuming fire.” So that section ends with the words:
Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe (godly fear). For our God is a consuming fire.
What it says is that we Christians in the Church go to the heavenly Jerusalem. Not to the earthly one. We go to innumerable angels, in a festal gathering. And then it says we actually enter into the qahal—in Greek it’s church, ekklesia, the assembly—of the firstborn, the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. So the Church of Christians is the gathering of all those who are now firstborn. We have all become firstborn.
Well, how do we become firstborn? We become firstborn by becoming Israel, and being grafted to Israel, the beloved and chosen of God. How does that happen? That happens through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is himself personally, uniquely, exclusively, only God’s Firstborn. Jesus and Jesus alone is God’s Firstborn. He is God’s chosen; he is God’s beloved, and that’s how he’s spoken about in the New Testament. For example, at the Baptism of Jesus, or at the Transfiguration of Jesus. You have the voice of God the Father, saying, “This is my chosen. This is my beloved. Listen to him.” And that is the Firstborn. That’s what firstborn means.
Sometimes in the New Testament also, “firstborn” is also identified with “only-begotten, monogenēs, yedinorodnyĭ.” Not only pervorodnoe in Slavonic, but yedinorodnyĭ; not only the firstborn, but the only-born. Not only the firstborn of many brethren, who are brethren by faith, not by biology, but he is the only Son of God, and that would be clearly the teaching in the New Testament: that Israel was created to be God’s son; Adam was created to be God’s son, but did not fulfill it. And so God then sends his only-begotten Son, begotten by the Father before all ages and born of a Virgin, to be the New Adam, to be the New Israel, or the real Israel, to show what Israel is, as the anointed of God, the chosen of God, the elect of God, which is all contained in that word: “firstborn.”
Jesus is, technically speaking, and certainly, how can you say, literally speaking, that Jesus is not only the firstborn, he’s the only, he’s the only one born of God. The others are born through faith. He is born, begotten of the Father and born of Mary, by very nature. That’s who he is as the Messianic king, because no mere mortal man can be the Messianic king. That’s what Christians are convinced of. God had to send his own Son as, literally, his very Son, begotten by God himself. That’s why he’s born of a Virgin: to be the Firstborn, to be the chosen, to be the elect, to be the beloved, to be the one who was faithful, to be the real Adam.
Here the New Testament would teach that Jesus is not only Firstborn, he’s the only-born. There isn’t anyone like him. There’s no other one of that genus. There is no other “Son of God” except Jesus Christ himself. But the teaching, of course, would be—we’ve said this many times on Ancient Faith Radio—that we all become sons of God in him. We have the status of sons in him, including women, including Gentiles, including slaves.
Every single possible human being, by faith and grace, can become a son of God, and therefore have the status of an only-begotten son, and to have the status of a firstborn, and therefore to be the heir of all things and to inherit all things and to have everything that God himself has, which is what God wants to do. He wants to give us everything he has and to allow us to become by grace and faith everything that he is. That’s what that expression “firstborn” means.
In the New Testament Scriptures, this is said in a more explicit way. We heard it generally in the Letter to the Hebrews, that “I will make him the firstborn,” and that “he will be the firstborn of many brethren,” and we have this expression about Jesus used in that way. And, by the way, I should have mentioned that in the Old Testament, not only in the Psalm 89 and not only in Exodus 4, but in the Wisdom of Sirach you also have Israel being called the firstborn.
For example, in Sirach 36, it says, “Have mercy, O Lord, upon the people called by thy name, upon Israel whom thou hast likened to a firstborn son.” But actually in the Septuagint and in other authorities, it doesn’t say “likened to a firstborn son”; it says, “whom thou hast named thy firstborn son.” That firstborn son is the heir. It’s the one who gets everything. It’s the one who is what the Father is and has what the Father has.
In the Letter to the Colossians and in the Letter to the Romans, you have this said explicitly about Jesus as the Firstborn, and here I will read, first of all, to you from the Letter to the Romans. It is written:
We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him and who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren, and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
I just commented on this text on Ancient Faith Radio in my reflection on predestination, providence, and prayer, and you might want to listen to that particular podcast, because the claim is that God predestined, before the foundation of the world according to his foreknowledge, all thing that exist. And the claim is that, by his foreknowledge, he predestined all those who believe in him to be conformed to the image of his [very own] Son, so that all those who are elect and chosen and saved, because they are ready to suffer with Christ and to do the commandments of God and to pay whatever price is necessary, they will be conformed to the image of his Son, and his Son is Jesus Christ.
Then it says why; it gives the reason: “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Not simply the firstborn in and of himself, but many brethren will have the status of firstborn sons in and with him. That is what St. Paul says in that text in the Letter to the Romans: Jesus is uniquely the firstborn, the only firstborn, but he is the firstborn in order to become the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.
And “brethren,” by the way, in old English, includes women, because you have “adelphos, adelphoi, adelphē” in Greek; it’s all the same word. “Adelphoi,” and “adelphos” and “adelphē,” is male ones and female ones, and in English we say “brothers and sisters.” So if you say “brethren,” you are including women. If you say “brothers and sisters,” if you just say “brothers,” then you’re not including women. If you just say “brethren,” then you are including women. It’s important to understand that, especially in church, because sometimes the reader will say, “brethren.” Well, that means “brothers and sisters.” So now in many churches, they’ll simply say, “brothers and sisters,” and that will be clearer to American-English–speaking people.
But the text we want to see now, as we draw near on the end of this reflection and really get to the kind of, we might say, the punchline of it all, is found in the Letter to the Colossians, because this is what is written in the Letter to the Colossians. In the first chapter, Paul begins by speaking about the Gospel and about how we may be strengthened in the Gospel for all endurance and patience and joy, giving thanks to God.
And then he says, actually, “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us (redeemed us) from the dominion of darkness and transferred us”—and it says in the RSV—“to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” But literally it says in Greek, “He has transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of his love—ho huios tēs agapēs aftou.” So Jesus is the beloved Son, but in Scripture he’s not only called beloved Son; he’s called the Son of God’s love, the very product of God’s love.
Then it says, “In whom we have redemption,” the forgiveness of sins. And we reflected already on Jesus as our redemption, our Redeemer, the one through whom God redeems us, by his broken body and spilled blood on the Cross. Then it continues, and this is what we want to hear: “He is the image of the invisible God, the icon of the invisible God. He is the firstborn.” Here we’ve got it: the firstborn. “Prōtotokos tēs pasēs ktiseōs,” it says in Greek. He is the prōtotokos pasēs ktiseōs, the firstborn of all creation. “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities”—those are all names of angels. “All things were created through him and for him.”
So it’s an amazing text. He is the icon of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation because in him all things were created, and all things were created through him and for him. So all things are created in him, through him, and for him. This is what it says: toward him.
When it says “firstborn of all creatures,” this does not mean that he is the first of creatures. Jesus is not a creature. He’s God’s Son. He’s the Firstborn, but he becomes the firstborn of all creatures. He becomes the one who makes all creatures firstborn. He is the one who has preeminence over all creatures, all creation, and that’s what that text means.
If you take all of creation and you want to say, “To whom does it belong? Whose is it? How does it have its status? Who is the one, well again, to whom it belongs? Who is the Lord over it?” That would be the Firstborn. The image in Scripture would be, you’re talking about the Firstborn, because the Firstborn is the one who has that preeminence. Then the answer would be: That is Jesus Christ, because he is the one in whom, for whom, and toward whom all creation exists. All creation is his; that’s what it is saying: visible and invisible, angels and creatures, whatever it is.
Then it continues: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” That’s why he’s the Firstborn, because he’s before all things. He is before all things. He is not one of the things. He is before all things. And in him, all the things hold together. That’s a marvelous sentence in Greek: that in him all things hold together, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and all things hold together. “Kai ta panta en aftō synestēken—in him all things consist, in things are consisting, in him all things hold together.”
Then it continues: “And he is the head of the body, the Church.” So as Firstborn, he’s the head, and he’s the head of many brethren, as we heard in Hebrews, which is the Church, because we heard in Hebrews how we, who are the Church, enter into the qahal, into the assembly of the firstborn. The Church are all those who have the status of firstborn, in and through Jesus Christ who is the Firstborn of God.
So it says, “He is before all things and [in] him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church. He is the beginning.” So it says literally: “He is the beginning.” Now, what does that say in Greek? “Hos estin archē—he is the beginning.” And we know in St. John’s Gospel, it’ll say, “En archē en ho logos—in the beginning was the Word.” And the beginning was the Word. And so the Word of God is the archē, the beginning, the principle, the source of all creation and all things that exist. So he is the firstborn; he is the head; he is the icon; he is, well, ultimately, he will be the Lord over all things. But then it continues.
“He is the beginning (the archē), the firstborn from among the dead,” and in [Greek] that says, “Prōtotokos ek tōn nekrōn.” So he’s the prōtotokos tēs ktiseōs and he is the prōtotokos ek tōn nekrōn. He is the firstborn of creation and he is the firstborn from among the dead. And then the Apostle explains why: “in order that (so that) in everything he might be preeminent.” That he might be preeminent in everything. So he’s not only preeminent among creatures, or over all creatures, but that he would hold the first place even among those who are dead, that he might be the first en pasin, in all things: “hina genētai en pasin aftos prōtevōn,” holding the first place that he, the very one, may be all things, among all things.
And then it even continues. We should read it:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his Cross. And you, Gentiles, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you, holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel which you have heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
So you have a double teaching here, and it’s a very, very crucial teaching: that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, and he’s the firstborn from among the dead. And by the way, that expression, “firstborn,” is sometimes simply translated “firstborn of the dead,” but it really means “from among the dead.” And by the way, that’s what it means in the Paschal troparion in the Orthodox Church also. When we sing on Holy Pascha, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” actually, more accurately, it would be translated, “Christos anestē ek nekrōn—Jesus is raised from among the dead people.” “Ek nekrōn—from among the dead, trampling down death by death.” And here you have: “He is the firstborn from among the dead.” That’s what it actually says: “the firstborn from among the dead. “Prōtotokos ek tōn nekrōn—the firstborn from among the dead.”
So Jesus Christ is firstborn of creation and firstborn from among the dead. That means that he has preeminence by whom, through whom, for whom all things were created in the first place, and then he comes upon earth, he is crucified, he is killed, he is beaten, he is slain, he is murdered, he’s put into the tomb, and then, by being dead and raised from among the dead, he becomes then the firstborn among all who are dead. And that is, of course, the oikonomia, that is the plan of God, that the one by whom, through whom, for whom all things were created become on earth and lives a creaturely life himself, for he lives as a creature, he lives as a human being. He has every aspect of humanity that any human being has.
And then he even takes upon himself the sin of the world. He becomes a curse for those who are cursed. He becomes sin for those who are sinful. And then he even becomes dead and a corpse so that, in order that he might be the firstborn from among the dead, and then, as the Apostle says here, because he has to be the firstborn and preeminent and hold the first place in everything. You might dare to say not only in all the great and marvelous things of God, but even in the humiliation of suffering and death. He not only has preeminence over all creatures, as the Lord God, but he has preeminence over all things because he takes upon himself the sins of the world and dies on the Cross, and therefore, from among all the dead people, he is raised as the firstborn, as the one who is the first among them all, the heir among them all.
This is the teaching of the Holy Scripture: that Jesus is the firstborn in every single possible way; that he is the Israel, the chosen, the elect, the beloved of God who is the firstborn; that he is the firstborn over all creation, that all things belong to him. All things are his; he is preeminent over all creation, not being himself a creature, but then he becomes, as a created being, he becomes human, and then he suffers all things in order to become the firstborn among all who suffer, among all who die. And then, being raised from the dead, he becomes the firstborn of/among many brethren, who by faith and by grace—his grace and by faith in him and God’s grace in him—have themselves the status of firstborn of God in him, sons of God in him, heirs of God in him, Messianic kings in him. They reign with him, because he is the firstborn.
And then, in doing this, as we have said, he redeems all the firstborn in the whole creation. He redeems the firstborn of all that exists. In other words, he saves everything, and he saves even those firstborn in Egypt that were slain by God at the first Pascha. It’s very interesting that in the first Pascha, it’s the firstborn of Egypt who are killed, and Israel, God’s firstborn, is saved. And in the second Pascha, the final Pascha, the Pascha of Christ, it is God’s firstborn who is slain; it is Christ who is slain, and he is slain in order to save all those who were slain. He was slain in order to give victory over all those who were defeated by evil and sin and death. He is slain to become the firstborn of all creatures and the firstborn of all who are dead, the firstborn in all things, to have preeminence in all things.
And he does all of this for us and for our salvation so that we can be what he is by grace and have everything that he is by grace. We can be sons; we can be heirs; we can be firstborn [ourselves]. So the Church is the assembly of the firstborn. But we become firstborn in and through him. He is the Firstborn. We become firstborns, or have the status of firstborns, as children of God, sons of God, christs of God, anointeds of God, filled with the Spirit of God, beloved of God, chosen of God—in and through him, because that is who he is.
And then we will see, we have already seen, how he is the only-begotten Son, and therefore that makes him the Firstborn, too, but we will see also that, as Firstborn, he is chosen and he is elect, and we become chosen and elected in and through him also. He is the Beloved, and we become beloved in and through him also.
So what we understand today is that Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, is and has become the Firstborn. The Psalm is fulfilled. It says, “I will make him the Firstborn,” that son of David. He will become the firstborn of all creatures and of all those from among the dead. What’s so amazing is that that son of David is the very Son of God himself. And we know that from the Scripture, too, because when Jesus said to the leaders of the Jews—the scribes and the Pharisees—“When the Messianic king comes, when the anointed one comes, this Firstborn, whose Son will he be?”
And they answer, “The son of David, obviously, because David said, ‘I will make him the firstborn.’ ” And then the Lord Jesus himself says, “How, then, does David call him ‘Lord, Kyrios,’ saying ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand’? If David calls him ‘Lord,’ why do you say he’s David’s son?” And that, of course, is what got Jesus killed and allowed him then to become the firstborn from among the dead as well.
But the point being here is that this firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from among the dead is no one other than the Lord himself. It’s God from God, who becomes man of Mary, in order to be the Firstborn and the preeminent in all things. And that is who Jesus is: the Firstborn, the firstborn of many brethren, the firstborn of all creation, and the firstborn from among the dead. And all of this is so that we could become firstborn sons of God in and through him.