The First-Born

Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 2, 2020
Hebrews 7:7-17; Luke 2:22-40

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today we are present as the forty-day-old Christ is brought to the Temple to be offered by His Virgin Mother to the Father. And as the righteous priest Simeon receives Him into his arms, we are brought to contemplate this coming together of the Old Covenant and the New.

Christ’s being offered in the Temple is in fulfillment of the Law of Moses, which instructed that every first-born son should be offered to God. To understand what this means, we have to look a little into the vocation of the first-born son in ancient Israel.

The first-born in the family was the locus of inheritance. Now, if we think of the primogeniture rules of medieval Europe, then we may instantly think that this is very unfair. In traditional European primogeniture, the first-born son inherits everything from his father, and the rest of the children are just out of luck or dependent on the generosity of their eldest brother.

It was for this reason that second-born sons and others often would engage in more dangerous activities like crusading or being professional warriors so that they could establish their own households or perhaps get some lands that they would pass on to their own first-born sons.

But in ancient Israel, the position of the first-born was not the same as in medieval Europe. In the ancient world, the first-born did receive the inheritance from his father, but it was given to him as a kind of executor of the father’s estate. His job was to distribute the inheritance to his siblings in a just manner. And in return, his siblings acknowledges his headship and served him.

Jesus is the first-born Son of the Father, and so He is the recipient of all the promises and inheritance of God. His role is to distribute that inheritance to His siblings, His brothers and sisters who belong to Israel, which is the Church. That is why we are called the sons of God, adopted as co-heirs with Christ. This is the basis for the New Covenant. It is a covenant fundamentally of family.

Through Christ we can therefore understand the Old Covenant, which functioned in essentially the same way. Israel before the birth of Jesus was the first-born among the nations. Now, Israel is not the chronological first among the nations. God creates Israel as a nation for Himself long after the creation of the world with its traditional seventy nations. But Israel is given the place of the first-born as the heir of God the Father.

Many promises are made to Israel, contingent upon their obedience. Israel’s task as first-born among the nations is to receive the blessings of God and distribute them to the nations. Historically, this sometimes happened, but it often did not.

Therefore, many warnings are given to Israel if they are disobedient. The possibility of disinheritance is real, or even of having the birthright transferred. For instance, with Jacob and Esau, the chronological first-born was not the father’s chosen. Isaac chose Jacob to be the heir even though he was the second-born son. Esau still inherited but lost his place as first-born. And Edom (the nation that descended from Esau) initially inherited along with Israel but was disinherited by God when they turned against Israel.

Ultimately, the purpose of Israel during the Old Covenant was to produce Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets. But what does it mean that He “fulfilled” them? It does not mean that those books are closed and never read again and have nothing to do with us. Why? The Church is Israel. All that was promised to Israel is still current and is still promised to the Church. And all that was commanded of Israel is still current and still expected of the Church.

Certain things that were commanded were not commanded of the Gentiles who were among Israel, such as the kosher dietary laws and the laws about ritual impurity. But the commandments regarding idolatry and sexual immorality, for instance, are still current and were spelled out in the Old Covenant as applying not just to Israel, not just to Gentiles living in the midst of Israel, but even to the nations at large.

That is why, even though Israel under the New Covenant is not expected to keep kosher (especially because all animals have now been declared clean by God), Israel—that is, the Church—is still expected to remain chaste and to worship only God.

All these themes come together at the feast we now celebrate, both in the scene that unfolds in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel—where we see a priest of the Old Covenant take into his arms the High Priest Himself—but also in the reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which compares the old Levitical priesthood to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

In that latter reading, we see that the old priesthood was not perfected but only found fulfillment in the priesthood of Christ, which is called the priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek,” a priesthood, as it says, “according to the power of an endless life.” And there is only one Priest Who has that endless life in Himself—Jesus Christ.

Kingship and priesthood, which had been separated with Moses, are rejoined in Christ, just as they had been together in Melchizedek. And if we are in Christ, then we both reign with Him and make the offering with Him.

I know that there are many details here, and if you are not familiar with these images from Scripture, it may be difficult to follow them, but I wanted to present them to you—both for those who are more mature in their knowledge of the Scriptures and also for those who are receiving these things yet as new to the knowledge of God. As with all these teachings from the Scriptures, we grow in them and understand them more and more through repetition and commitment.

Let us now summarize how we may apply all these things to ourselves, for Scripture is always given for our repentance, growth and salvation.

First, as the Israel of God, we are co-heirs with Christ. What He has received from the Father He distributes to us as an inheritance. This does not mean earthly lands and goods, though He may choose to give us those things for our blessing.

Receiving the inheritance from the First-born is contingent on acknowledging Him as the head of the family and serving Him. Rebellion against the first-born means being cut off, which is why you are not part of Israel just by being born into a family of a particular ethnicity. Baptism (not ethnicity) brings you into Israel, but that membership has to be developed and maintained through obedience.

The inheritance is to become the Sons of God, ruling with God in this world. Those who are in Christ receive the rank of Sons of God, which is the highest rank of angels who assist God in His rule and sustenance of this world (Luke 20:36).

That means our task is to be as angels in this world, bringing God’s blessings and love wherever we go. It also means that we are tasked with speaking His words and teaching His commandments, remaining chaste and pure ourselves not just so we are credible but so we are not disinherited because of disobedience.

But we also function as priests of God, sharing in the one priesthood of Christ. And what does it mean to be a priest? It is to offer sacrifice to God and to distribute what He gives to us among the people. For those who are ordained deacons, presbyters and bishops, what we might call the “sacramental priesthood,” this task is very clear to us, as we literally serve at the altar, make the offering there, and then distribute what God gives to the people.

But even if you are not part of that ordination, you are still called to serve God in a priestly manner, offering every moment to Him with prayer, invoking the Holy Spirit on every task and every person in your life. You are called to share in Christ’s priesthood, the priesthood that is the power of an endless life. There are numerous ways to do this, but prayer is the most critical way. Never say, “Well, the least I can do is pray.” Prayer is the greatest thing that you can do. It is not the only thing, but it is the first and greatest.

Finally, given what we have seen about the essential unity between the Old and New Covenants of Israel, knowing that the commands given by God in the Old Covenant are now fulfilled in the New—which does not mean abolished but filled up to the full—we should also never dismiss any part of Scripture nor any part of Church life as not applying to us in some way. God is one, and so all His commands are one.

As co-heirs with Christ, today we are offered in His holy temple along with Him. Today we share in His place as the first-born, both receiving and distributing the inheritance of God to all our siblings. And today we do so as a royal priesthood, both priests and kings, bringing God’s presence even to the nations.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.