We have difficulty, in our typically "Western" way of thinking, understanding the biblical concept of "firstborn," particularly in how the word functioned in the history of the Jewish people. To understand why and how the apostle Paul used the term firstborn in Colossians 1:15 we need first to consider what the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about the term.
Not surprisingly they have a great deal to say. From the nascency of the nation of Israel in the person of Abraham (who, by the way, was the firstborn of his father Terah), to the time of our Lord Jesus, the Scriptures framed the concept of firstborn in terms of privileges and responsibilities.
PRIVILEGES and RESPONSIBILITIES
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the privileges of the firstborn son are encapsulated in the word birthright. Esau, we are told, was the firstborn son of Isaac. As such, to him were accorded the privileges of the birthright. By rights, to Esau would belong a double portion of his father's estate when his father died (see Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
Along with the double portion came a special relationship between the firstborn and his father. While the Bible does not condone favoritism, it did accord to the firstborn a position of honor within the family, such that when his father died, the firstborn was expected to take up the reins of leadership within the family. He was expected, for example, to provide for his grieving mother and for his siblings. Even while his father was still alive, the eldest son was expected to lead by example within his family.
The elder son in Jesus' story of the "prodigal son" (which could just as accurately be called the story of the firstborn brother) gave his father all the reasons why he thought the father should be feting him and not his wastrel of a brother.
"Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him" (Luke 15:29-30 NASB.
Notice how the father in Jesus' parable responds to his elder son's complaint:
"Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found" (vv.31-32).
Now obviously, the purpose of Jesus' parable was not to teach us about the cultural significance of being the firstborn in a Jewish family in the first century. The subtext of Jesus' parable originated in the reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to the popularity of Jesus among the "tax collectors and sinners" ).
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).
Jesus wanted the grumbling Pharisees and scribes to understand the privilege which was theirs by virtue of being God's firstborn.
Paul, in summarizing that privilege and the accompanying advantages, asked,
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God (Romans 3:1 NASB).
In other words, God had entrusted his holy word to a people who, ironically enough, failed to recognize the living Word of God when he was in their midst. Like the firstborn son in the parable, they resented Jesus for turning to the Gentile "dogs" with his message of love and forgiveness, not realizing that in their rejection of Jesus they were forfeiting the privileges of their firstborn status.
Just as a firstborn could forfeit the privileges of his status as the firstborn, whether through sin, as happened with Reuben, Jacob's firstborn (Genesis 25:32; 49:3-4), or as a result of either the sovereign choice of Almighty God (see Genesis 25:21-26) or by the will of the earthly father, as in the case of Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48:13-22), so did the religious Jews of Jesus' day forfeit the privileges of being, as it were, God's firstborn nation by not believing in God's Firstborn Son.
APPLICATION AND CONCLUSION
While some of the firstborn sons we read about in the Tanakh lived lives worthy of firstborn status, not one lived a perfect life. Even the gods have feet of clay, as the saying goes. Only one firstborn fulfilled his role as the perfect
Firstborn Son of the Father, and that of course was Jesus Christ.
Notice that Paul, in the section of Colossians Chapter 1 entitled "The Incomparable Christ" in the NASB, describes Jesus first as God's "beloved Son," the one in whom all true believers have "redemption, the forgiveness of sins (v.14). Being the only begotten and eternal Son of God, Jesus' relationship to his Father came first, so to speak.
After the Son brought everything into being and thus became "the firstborn over all creation" (Colossians 1:15), with his Father's blessing he began to put into motion the plan of redemption by which he would one day become
. . . the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29 KJV).
In conclusion, the honorific title of firstborn belongs first and foremost to the Son of God. As the writer of Hebrews expressed that thought,
For to which of the angels did He ever say,
“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”?
“I will be a Father to Him
And He shall be a Son to Me”?
And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says,
“And let all the angels of God worship Him” (1:5-6 NASB).