The obvious answer to the question for any Bible-believing Christian is, “Jesus!” And while that is true, the answer could potentially be otherwise, which raises another question: How can there be more than one firstborn? A legitimate question in its own right. After all, politico-national Israel is also called the “firstborn” son of God in Exodus 4:22, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn.”’” Are there two firstborn sons? It would appear so. The question, therefore, is, In what sense(s) are either really ‘firstborn’?
The law of identity tells us that a thing cannot be what it is and yet another thing at the same time and in the same relationship. A door cannot be an elephant at the same time and in the same relationship. Could a door turn into an elephant? It would be highly unlikely, but at least framing the door-elephant situation in terms of transformation wouldn’t necessarily violate the law of identity since the door may become the elephant but would not be the elephant at the same time and in the same relationship. Can Israel and Christ both be the “firstborn son” at the same time and in the same relationship or sense? No. Otherwise, all reasoning, biblical and otherwise, would collapse upon the hypothesis that the law of identity does not hold. We would essentially be granting that anything could be anything. In such a case the very concept of “rationality” would explode into nonsense. “Coherence” itself would become ridiculous. To grant the violation of the formal laws of logic is to grant the reality, possibility, existence, and non-existence of everything and yet nothing at once. A foolish prospect to be sure.
So, what should we think about the relationship of Israel to Christ? If they are both called “firstborn” sons of God, in what sense is it so?
An Analytical Truth
An analytical statement occurs when the subject necessarily and definitionally entails its predicate. “All bachelors are unmarried men,” is the most popular example of an analytical statement. A bachelor just is an unmarried man. Likewise, “the firstborn son is primary in the order of filial relation,” is an analytical statement. To be “firstborn son” just is to be “primary in the order of filial relation.”
The Hebrew term used for “firstborn” in Exodus 4:22 is בָּכַר and means “firstborn” or “eldest” offspring. Jesus is likewise called the firstborn in Romans 8:29, “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.” The term πρωτότοκος, or “firstborn,” is the Greek equivalent to the aforementioned Hebrew term. These terms substantially carry the same meaning. And so, beyond the shadow of any doubt, we can affirm that both politico-national Israel and Christ are called “firstborn.”
It is important, therefore, to discover in what sense both can be “firstborn” given that to be “firstborn” just is “to be first in the order of filial relation. There can only be one. If both were “firstborn” at the same time and in the same sense, then a logical contradiction would appear in the pages of holy writ. And we can’t have that! To be “firstborn” just is to be “first in order of filiation.” So, who is really first? Israel or Christ? How should we overcome this dilemma?
An Important Qualification
Before we travel any further, I would like to avoid the risk of confusing the divine and human natures of Christ. There are two senses in which the Son of God is “firstborn.” Romans 8:29 calls Christ the “firstborn among many brethren.” And in Colossians 1:15, we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Romans 8:29 seems to link His “firstborn-ness” to His human nature in relation to the resurrection whereas Colossians 1:15 appears to link His “firstborn-ness” to His begottenness of the Father, which serves as a reference to the eternal relation of origin—of Son from the Father (cf. Jn. 1:18).
Our Lord, according to His divinity, is not “firstborn” in the sense of coming into existence, but only in the sense of eternal generation. According to His human nature, however, our Lord is a creature, born into this world through the womb of His virgin mother by the power of the Holy Spirit. These two natures, divine and human, are ineffably united in His Person “without conversion, composition, or confusion (2LBCF, 8.2).”
In this article, I speak about “firstborn” as it relates to Christ. And when I do this, I refer to both senses—that He is begotten before all ages, consubstantial with the Father according to His deity, but also that He is firstborn by special creation of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin by incarnation and then firstborn from the dead through His resurrection. These taken together signify Christ’s ultimate, true status as the firstborn of God the Father.
We might add at this point that if this consideration establishes Christ as the firstborn, we are then left wondering in what sense Israel was or is God’s firstborn son according to Exodus 4:22.
A Proposed Solution to the Dilemma
Remember the dilemma: Both politico-national Israel and Christ are called God’s “firstborn son.” But, as we’ve seen, the notion of “firstborn son” is analytical. There can only be one at the same time and in the same relationship. How do we break the tie?
First, it would be helpful to state at the outset that there is no tie. Israel and Christ are not in competition for first place. Rather, politico-national Israel is an historical institution whose divinely-appointed purpose was to reveal the true firstborn Son of God to the Old Testament elect saints. I do not merely mean that Israel is the earthly origin of divine revelation concerning Christ. That much is trivially true (Rom. 3:2). I rather mean that Israel itself is an historical institution that types forth Christ through its mission and movement. This is, perhaps, most clearly seen in the purposeful parallels between Jesus’ wilderness temptation in Matthew 4:1-11 and Israel’s wilderness temptation recounted in Deuteronomy 6-8. It is also made quite clear in Matthew’s record of Christ’s own exodus from Egypt where Hosea 11:1, a text about national Israel, is said to have been fulfilled in Jesus’ return to Israel (cf. Matt. 2:15).
This is the sum and substance of typology. A type is a person, place, institution, or event that figures another and greater person, place, institution, or event. Examples include the first Adam as he types forth the last Adam (Rom. 5:14), Israel as the land of rest as it types forth glory as the land of rest (Heb. 4), David as king as he types forth Christ as king (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 2:45), etc. The type is the thing that reveals, the antitype is the thing that is revealed. Adam is the type, Christ is the antitype; David is the type, Christ is the antitype, and so on.
But wait, there’s more!
It’s not altogether uncommon for the type to bear the names or titles of the antitypes to which they look. For example, Jesus is the King, but David is still yet a king. Jesus is the prince of peace, though Melchizedek is called the king of Salem (or the king of peace). Therefore, when politico-national Israel is called the “firstborn” in Exodus 4:22, it is actually bearing the filial title of the antitype to which it looks—the Lord Jesus. This especially becomes clear in the way in which Christ recapitulates the acts of Israel in His baptism, wilderness wandering, and wilderness testing. These three basic acts repeat Israel’s passage through the red sea, wilderness wandering, and wilderness testing. What is more, Christ successfully thwarted Satan’s agenda whilst Old Testament Israel failed time and time again.
Politico-national Israel, then, is the type of its other and greater antitype, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the true and only firstborn Son of God. Israel’s purpose was revelatory in nature. Israel revealed something of what Christ would do, but it also revealed man’s desperate need for Christ through its failure to attain that to which it was called—obedience and the land of rest promised as a result. Israel failed in its obedience. Christ succeeds. He is the new and greater Israel, the firstborn Son of God.
Typology is a valuable tool in the Bible-reader’s toolbox because it gives us a category to understand the way in which an all-sovereign God uses history itself for His own revelatory purposes. Scripture is not a document among other human-authored documents, like Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. As great as both those works are, they cannot touch Scripture. Scripture is the sovereignly-inspired record of sovereignly-affected events in history established by an all-sovereign God. God uses things to signify other and greater things. In this case, God has chosen the physical descendants of Abraham to reveal and signify our great need for Christ and what Christ would do. They further typed forth a people not born of genealogical descent, but by the Holy Spirit of God.
God has not only worked in history, but has molded history itself to reveal yet more glorious historical developments. Israel of old, as sinful as it was, has been employed under divine providence to reveal something of our Savior and what He would accomplish on behalf of the entirety of God’s elect.