Luke 2:7, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; …”
“Firstborn,” is the Accusative Singular of the Adjective PROTOTOKOS, πρωτότοκος. It is used 8 times in the NT. It is also used in some ancient manuscripts in Mat 1:25, but the oldest and most reliable texts do not include it there.
Luke notes that this was Mary’s first born son to continue the emphasis of the virgin birth. This leaves open the possibility that she had other children, as she did, as we noted in vs. 5. Otherwise, Luke would have stated that Jesus was her “only begotten son,” MONOGENES HUIOS.
Now, we see in Scripture that there is more to this title. Within ancient Israel there were basically two understandings of “firstborn.”
1. The first is the understanding as the “firstborn of the inheritance.” The ancient Jews regarded the firstborn male child as the “firstborn of the inheritance,” because the first male child usually received a double portion of the father’s inheritance and assumed the role of the father as head of the family upon his death.
2. The second understanding is the “firstborn of the sanctuary.” This is because the firstborn child of the mother was consecrated to the Lord and had to be redeemed through an offering. Joseph and Mary made such an offering for her firstborn child Jesus in vs. 22-24. In theory a lamb was to be offered, but in practice the poor were allowed a smaller sacrifice of two doves or two young pigeons. The offering they made for Jesus was a typical poor person’s offering.
Therefore, upon Jesus’ birth, He was consecrated, set apart, unto God the Father for a special work and service as the sacrificial Lamb, who would receive a great inheritance as the head of the Church!
Being “firstborn,” was also a part of and in fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus is the “firstborn” Son of God the Father, Who in Psa 89:27, prophesied that His first born son would be a great king. Psa 89:27, “I also shall make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” Thus, being the firstborn involved some measure of status and inheritance in this messianic prophecy, as we will note below.
Of the 8 usages of PROTOTOKOS in the NT, all but one refers to Jesus. The other usage refers to the firstborn of the Egyptians who were destroyed on Passover night, Heb 11:28. Of the other 7, (the number of spiritual perfection), only one refers to His birth to Mary, our passage, which is the first time it is used in the NT. The other six, (the number of man), refer to Him being the Son of God.
Each of the instances of PROTOTOKOS referring to Jesus Christ as the firstborn of God can be classified in 4 groups that essentially capture every understanding.
1. Christological, Col 1:15-17.
Col 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.”
Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, cf. Heb 1:1-3, the firstborn over all creation. By Him all things were created, and they were created for Him as well. With respect to the rest of creation, He is the firstborn, thus heir over all things. With respect to God He has been designated the only begotten of the Father, John 1:18. Thus, He is the first and the only Son of God. The meaning of PROTOTOKOS in Col 1:15, is a statement about the rights, privileges, and prerogatives of Jesus, the Divine Son of God. In addition, neither in this verse, nor in any other containing the word “firstborn” regarding His relationship to God, is there a suggestion that the 2nd Person of the Trinity was literally born, created, or generated, as God is eternal and never born. Therefore, this first category speaks to the Person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Who is God, the creator and sovereign of the heavens and the earth.
2. Soteriological, Col 1:18-20; Rev 1:5.
Col 1:18, “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”
Rev 1:5, “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood.”
Christ is also the “firstborn of the dead.” He is the first “in order” from the perspective of salvation history, to have risen from the dead. He rose victoriously, triumphing over death and having broken the power of death. Because His death was substitutional, it was also representational. He redeemed believers from sin through His death providing salvation for all who would believe in Him. Therefore, those who have believed in Him have been justified through His resurrection, Rom 4:25.
Rom 4:25, “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.”
Christians are dead and buried to sin with Him; in like manner they have been raised to the new life in and with Him, Rom 6:4; Eph 2:5f.
Rom 6:4, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
3. Ecclesiastical, Rom 8:29; Heb 12:23.
Rom 8:29, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.”
Heb 12:23, “To the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
Since Christians have been raised with Christ, they are also members of the body of the firstborn Son from the dead. We walk to be conformed to His image as the Son of God. This does not mean that we will be made Divine into gods. It means we have been placed into the family of God as brothers and sisters, of which comprise His Church or the “general assembly” of the firstborn of God, cf. Acts 20:28. As such, we are co-heirs in and with Christ, firstborn heirs, those to whom a double portion of the inheritance is due.
Rom 8:17, “And if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
4. Eschatological, Heb 1:6.
Heb 1:6, “And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, ‘AND LET ALL THE ANGELS OF GOD WORSHIP HIM’.”
This text recalls that God first brought His firstborn Son into the world called the 1st Advent, and then all the angels will worship Him, which speaks of His 2nd Advent. At His first coming, Christ was clothed in humility, but when He comes again, He will come with multitudes of angels who worship Him as the sovereign Lord on His throne, Heb 1:6-9; Rev 19:11-16. Likewise, “the world” is part of the inheritance of the firstborn which He will share with His brothers and sisters at His 2nd Advent, Rom 8:17; 1 Cor 3:21-23. The One whose head suffered under a crown of thorns will become King of kings and Lord of lords, Rev 19:16; Dan 2:37. Then the prophecy, “I will make Him My firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth,” Psa 89:27, will see its eternal fulfillment.
Therefore, the title, “firstborn,” has a Christological, Soteriological, Ecclesiastical, and Eschatological meaning. These tell us of the person and work of Jesus Christ who has redeemed mankind to build a church unto God that will be glorified and blessed for all of eternity.