And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.'” Exodus 4.21-23.
Here, for the only time, God refers to the people of Israel, collectively, as his firstborn son. It is a striking expression and one that clearly does not here describe the chronological order of physical birth. Esau was actually the first-born son of Isaac, and Israel (as God re-named Jacob — Genesis 32.28) was Isaac’s second-born (Genesis 25.25-26). No, the term “firstborn” here describes rank. To the head of the mighty nation of Egypt, God is declaring Israel to be pre-eminent among all the nations of the world including Egypt. A first-born by order of birth had special rights, privileges and responsibilities. He was entitled to a special blessing (Genesis 27.34-37) and, most importantly, he was his father’s heir, inheriting a double portion of his father’s estate (Deuteronomy 21.15-17). So, here, God is telling Pharaoh that Israel as a nation is especially blessed and favoured by him, and is his heir.
In the fulness of time, of course, all that belonged to Israel in terms of rights, privileges and responsibilities devolved on Jesus as representative Israel — the one who became all that Israel failed to be. And so it is that Jesus becomes “the firstborn” (Hebrews 1.6) just as God had said he would: “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens” (Psalm 89.26-29).
Thus, Paul has no hesitation in declaring Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1.15). There, far from suggesting that Christ was the first created being (something that simply could not be true of someone who “is before all things” and in whom “all things hold together” — Colossians 1.17), Paul is saying that Jesus is pre-eminent over all creation and is now the Father’s heir. “In these last days,” says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, “God has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” That is what “firstborn” means when applied to Christ — the pre-eminent one, “the heir of all things”.
But he is not just the firstborn; he is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8.29). Because of Jesus, others will be born into God’s family too, but here is the wonderful thing: they … we … I … become a firstborn too. In Hebrews 12.23, the church is called “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” “Firstborn” is plural. You have become a firstborn son of God and I have become a firstborn son of God because Jesus has chosen to share his inheritance with each and every one of us who have accepted him as Saviour and Lord.