Thursday, 3 September 2009

Son, heir and firstborn

These three titles from the first chapter of Hebrews have caused many to think that in some way Christ is inferior to the Father. In fact, all three titles are ancient ways of speaking about publicly acknowledged authority.

In 44 BC Julius Caesar 'adopted' Octavius. This was not the kind of adoption that we are familiar with today. Octavius wasn't a bouncing baby but a battle hardened soldier. In ancient times 'adoption' was a sign of favour and acceptance. Men adopted ‘sons’ to ensure the continuance of their empires and fortunes. Octavius became Julius Caesar's 'son', his heir and effectively his 'firstborn'; he is better known as Caesar Augustus. Many Roman Emperors were ‘adopted sons’.

So what point is being made by the author of this letter? In this passage the words son, heir and firstborn have nothing to do with biology but everything to do with a public acknowledgment of the relationship between Christ and the Father. He is publicly acknowledged, by resurrection and ascension, to be the rightful ‘son and heir’. He emptied himself to fulfil the Father’s will and thereby to gain our salvation and now the Father has given him ‘an inheritance’, the reward of his faithful service.

The title of 'firstborn' was used in a similar way in the Old Testament; Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. Ex 4:22-23. That is a good example of the nature of ancient adoption. The prophecy of Jeremiah has a similar comment about the northern kingdom of Israel; For I am a Father to Israel, And Ephraim is My firstborn. Jer 31:9. We could illustrate the theme from many an Old Testament passage. The ‘firstborn’ was the chief son who was commissioned to carry on the Father’s will into the next generation. Sometimes a first son who failed his father was dispossessed and another son was given the role of ‘firstborn’. The ‘firstborn’ had a double portion of his father’s estate AND his mother and other dependants to care for.

This does not diminish the person of Christ nor does it take away from his divinity. He is co-equal, co-eternal, co-substantial with the Father. Everything we mean when we say God the Father, is equally true of the ‘Son’. The author of Hebrews is consciously putting Christ ‘in his right setting’ so that there are no misunderstandings. He is greater than the angels, greater than Moses, greater than the Aaronic high priests. He has been entrusted with all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the unique expression of God in humanity and to be worshipped as God for ever.

There is an interesting post-script to this idea of ‘son, heir and firstborn’ Our author describes the true church... 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, Heb 12:23. That phrase ‘are registered’ is a verb in its plural form and gives us the clue to something easily missed in our English versions; the word ‘firstborn’ in this verse is plural, the firstborn-ones. What we have here is a whole company comprised of sons, heirs and firstborn ones. This is the constitution of the true church; each member (whether male or female) is acknowledged as one who has the Father’s favour and is entrusted with authority to act on his behalf… not to grow fat on double portions but to provide for the ‘dependants’.

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