The First-born to Save the Later-born
(1) First, the purpose of God by the first-fruits or first-born to save and bless the later-born.
This, which is in fact the substance of the gospel, like all God's secrets, comes out by degrees. Scarcely to be discerned, though contained, in the first promise of the Woman's Seed (Gen. 3:15), it shines out brightly in the covenant made with Abraham:—"In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18); for the seed, in whom all the kindreds of the earth are blessed, must be distinct from, and blessed prior to, those nations to whom according to God's purpose in due time it becomes a blessing. This purpose is then revealed with fuller detail in the law of the first-fruits and the first-born (Rom. 11:16), though here the veil of type and shadow hides from most the face of Moses. But in Christ the purpose is unveiled for ever, and the mystery, by the first-born to save others, is by the Holy Ghost made fully manifest. Christ, says the Apostle, is the promised Seed (Gal. 3:16), the First-born (Col. 1:18), and in and through Him endless blessing shall flow down on the later-born.
Now Christ, as Paul shews, is first-born in a double sense. He is first-born from above, first out of life, for He is the Only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; "for by Him were all things created, which are in heaven and which are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, all things were created by Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist" (Col. 1:15-17). But He is more than this, for He is also "first-born from the dead," first out of death, "that in all things He might have the pre-eminence" (Col. 1:18); and it is in this relation, as first-born from the dead, that He is the Head of the Church, and first-fruits of the creature. All things are indeed of God, but it is no less true also that all things are by man; as it is written, "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:21). Therefore as by one first-born death came into the world, so by another first-born shall it be for ever overthrown. Herein is love indeed, that the whole remedy for sin shall come through man, even as the sin did. Thus not only is there salvation for man, but by man, for the Eternal Son is Son of Man also; who by a birth in the flesh has come into our lot, that by another birth out of the grave He might also be the first-born from the dead; and it is in virtue of this relation that He fulfils for us all those offices which are included in the word Redeemer. The law of Moses is most instructive here: for while it is true that the letter of that law cannot be explained but by the gospel, it is no less true that the gospel in its breadth and depth cannot be set forth save by the figures of the law, each jot of which covers some blessed mystery.
What then does the law teach us of this First-born from the dead; for be it observed it is ever the first-born from the grave that the law speaks of,—therefore the woman's, not the man's, first-born, "the male which first openeth the womb" (Exod. 13:12; 34:19; Numb. 3:12-13), who might, though not necessarily, be also the father's first-born. For the law, as made for sinners only (1 Tim. 1:9), needed not to speak of the First-born as proceeding out of God, but only of the First-born as raised up by Him out of the grave and barren womb of this present fallen and unclean nature. According to the law, the First-born had the right, though it might be lost, of being priest and king, that is of interceding for and ruling over their younger brethren (Exod. 13:2; 24:5; Numb. 3:12-13; 8:16; 1 Chron. 5:1-2); on him devolved the duty of Goel or Redeemer, to redeem a brother who had waxen poor, and sold himself unto a stranger; to avenge his blood, to raise up seed to the dead, and to redeem the inheritance, if at any time it were lost or alienated (Lev. 25:47-48; Deut. 19:4-12; Gen. 38:8; Deut. 25:5-10; Ruth 4:6-10; Lev. 25:25; Ruth 2:20). To sustain these duties God gave him a double portion (Deut. 21:17). Need I point out how Christ fulfils these particulars; how as first out of the grave, that "barren womb, which cries, Give, give" (Prov. 30:15-16), He is the First-born through whom the blessing reaches us? In this sense no Christian doubts that God's purpose is by the First-born from the dead to save and bless the later-born.
But the truth goes further still, for there are others beside the Lord who are both "first-born" and "Abraham's seed," who must therefore in their measure share this same honour with and under Christ, and in whom, as "joint-heirs with Him" (Rom. 8:17), the promise must be fulfilled, that in them "all the kindreds of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). This glorious truth, though of the very essence of the gospel, which announces salvation to the world through the promised seed of Abraham, is even yet so little seen by many of Abraham's seed, that not a few of the children of the promise speak and act as if Christ and His body only should be saved, instead of rejoicing that they are also the appointed means of saving others. Even of the elect, few see that they are elect to the birthright, not to be blessed only, but to be a blessing; as first-born with Christ to share the glory of kingship and priesthood with Him, not only to rule and intercede for their younger and later-born brethren, but to avenge their blood, to raise up seed to the dead, and in and through Christ, their life and head, to redeem their lost inheritance. Thank God, if the elect know not their double portion, God knows and keeps it for them, and will in due time, spite of their blindness, fulfil His purpose in and by them. But surely it is a reproach to the heirs, that they know not their Father's purpose, and that through not knowing it they bear so imperfect a testimony as to His good-will to all His fallen creatures.
The whole old law beams with light upon this point, not only in its ordinances and appointments as to the first-born and their double portion, but also in the details of the oblation of the first-fruits, which is only another aspect and presentation of the same mystery. The seed of nature figures the seed of grace, and the first-fruits of the one are but the shadow of the other, that "seed of the kingdom" which is first ripe for heaven, ripened by the true Sun (Psalm 84:11) and Light (John 8:12) and Air (John 3:8), of which the sun and light and air of present nature in all their wondrous workings are the silent but ceaseless witnesses. The type is very full and striking here; for the law, which required the first-fruits, speaks of a double first-fruits (Lev. 23:10, 17). The first, the sheaf or handful of unleavened ears, the first to spring up out of the dark and cold earth, which lay the shortest time under its darkness, soonest ripe to be a sacrifice on God's altar, was offered at the first great feast of the year, the feast of unleavened bread, which is the Passover (Lev. 23:10-11; Luke 22:1). The other, which are also called "first-fruits," were offered in the form of leavened cakes, fifty days later at Pentecost (Lev. 23:17). Both in the law are distinctly called "first-fruits," though they are distinguished by a separate name, the ears at Passover being called Rashith, the leavened cakes at Pentecost, Bicourim; (Note: Rashith, or "the beginning," the title given in the law to the Paschal first-fruits, is the very word used by St. Paul of Christ in the passage already quoted,—"He is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead," &c.—Col. 1:18.) to which the gospel exactly agrees, saying, "Christ the First-fruits" (1 Cor. 15:23), and "we a kind of first-fruits" (James 1:18; See also Rev. 14:4): Christ "the First-born" (Col. 1:18), and we "the church of the first-born" (Heb. 12:23); words which carry with them blessings unspeakable, "for if the first-fruit be holy, the lump is also holy" (Rom. 11:16), the offering of the first-fruits to God being accepted as the sanctification and consecration of the whole coming harvest.
Need I say Christ is the Paschal first-fruits and first-born. The day of His resurrection was the very day of the offering of the first first-fruits. (Note: These first first-fruits were offered "on the morrow after the Sabbath" after the Passover, (Lev. 23:11,) that is the very day, "the first day of the week," on which Christ rose from the dead. I may, perhaps, add here, for it is most noteworthy, that in 2 Sam. 21:9, we are told that "all the seven sons of Saul fell together in the days of harvest, in the first day, in the beginning of barley harvest;" that is they fell on the day of the first first-fruits. The books of Kings, where this is recorded, are the books of Rule, shewing out in mystery all the forms of Rule under which God's elect have been either in bondage or liberty. The first form of rule is Saul, whose name means Death or Hell. He is the figure of the rule under which we all are at first, while "death reigns" by God's appointment. (Rom. 5:14, 17.) All his seven sons, that is, the fruits of death, fall in one day, under the reign of David, that is the Beloved; that one day being the sacred day of the Paschal first-fruits, the day of Christ's resurrection.) But who are those, who, as leavened bread, share the honour with and under Him of being the Pentecostal first-fruits? Who with Christ and through Christ are Abraham's seed?
First, the Jew is Abraham's seed,—"the people that dwell alone, and are not reckoned among the nations" (Num. 23:9); and though "all are not Israel who are of Israel" (Rom. 9:6), Scripture will indeed be broken, if Israel is not again grafted in; when, if the casting away of them has been the riches of the world, the receiving of them, as St. Paul says, shall be life from the dead (Rom. 11:15). "Israel is my son, my first-born, saith the Lord" (Exod. 4:22). All nations, therefore, shall yet be blessed in them. They are indeed only the earthly first-born, but as first-born, though of the least-loved wife, they must in their own sphere possess the double blessing (Deut. 21:15-16); being not blessed only, but made blessings to the nations, whose conversion the Church is rightly looking for, but whom the Church shall not convert; for the conversion of the nations is already promised to Israel, who, dwellers among all nations, yet not of them, are even now being trained and prepared for this, and who at their conversion, converted like Paul, who is their type, (Note: 1 Tim. 1:16; πρὸς ὑποτύπωσιν τῶν μελλόντων πιστεύειν—literally, "for a type of those who shall hereafter believe." Paul is not a type of "the first trusters in Christ," (see Eph. 1:12,) that is of believers now, but of "those who shall hereafter believe," when Christ reveals Himself in glory; and his peculiar experience, for he was "as one born out of due time," (1 Cor. 15:8,) as well as his conversion in an extraordinary way by a sight of Christ's glory, were earnests and figures of what should be wrought in Israel, who shall be converted to Christ in a similar and no less sudden manner. Isa. 66:8, 12, 18-19.) not by the knowledge of Christ in humiliation, but by the revelation of His heavenly glory, shall like Paul become apostles to the Gentiles, "priests to the Lord and ministers to our God" (Exod. 19:6; Isa. 61:6), to all upon the earth. (Note: Very wonderful is the statement in the Song of Moses, (Deut. 32:8,) addressed both to the heavens and earth, which declares that, "when the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel." Now the number of the children of Israel, when they went down into Egypt, was seventy; (Gen. 46:27; Exod. 1:5; Deut. 10:22;) and, answering to this, in Gen. 10, which gives the account of the peoples to whom the earth was divided after the flood, we read of seventy heads of nations. Surely there is a secret here, connected with Christ's mission of the Seventy, which was distinct from and followed the mission of the Apostolic Twelve, by whom and under whom the Church is gathered out. See Luke 10:1.)
But (and this concerns us) the Church is also Abraham's seed; for, as St. Paul says, "If ye be Christ's, ye are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). To the Church therefore belongs the same promise, as first-fruits with Christ, not to be blessed only, but to be a blessing, in its own heavenly and spiritual sphere. For if the Jew on earth shall be a "kingdom of priests," what is our hope but to be also heavenly "kings and priests" (Rev. 1:6; 5:10), as "kings," for the Lord shall say, "Be thou over five cities" (Luke 19:17-19; Psalm 45:16), to rule and order in the coming age what requires order; not only with Christ to "judge the world" (1 Cor. 6:2), but to be "equal unto the angels" and to "judge angels" (Luke 20:36; 1 Cor. 6:3); as "priests," for a priest is "for those out of the way" (Heb. 5:2), to minister to those who yet are out of the way. This is the Church's calling, to do Christ's works, as He said, "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also" (John 14:12); with Him to be both prophet, priest, and king, and this, not here only in these bodies of humiliation, but when changed in His presence to bear His image and do His works with Him. Christ barely entered on His priestly work till He had passed through death and judgment (Heb. 4:14; 7:15-17; 8:4-6); so with those who are Christ's, their death and resurrection shall only introduce them to fuller and wider service to lost ones, over whom the Lord shall set them as His priests and kings, until all things are restored and reconciled unto Him. It is, alas, too true that of the Church's sons, some like Esau shall sell their birthright for some present good thing, and that in this age as in the last some of the children of the kingdom shall be cast out, while others from the east and from the west press in and win the crown and kingdom; yet an elect first-born shall surely be preserved, who are sealed to this pre-eminence, to be priests to God and rulers of their brethren. To whom, I ask, shall the Church after death be priests? Shall it be to that great mass of our fellow men, who have departed hence in ignorance? Shall it be to "spirits in prison," such as those to whom after His death Christ Himself once preached? (1 Pet. 3:18-20). (Note: This passage, I know, is called "difficult," that is, it is one which it is hard and even impossible fairly to reconcile with the views called Orthodox. The words, however, are not difficult. They distinctly assert that our Lord went and preached to the spirits in prison, who once had been disobedient in the days of Noah. The "difficulty" is that Protestant orthodoxy has decided that there can be no message of mercy to any after death. Protestant commentators therefore have attempted to evade the plain statements of this Scripture, and their forced and unnatural interpretations shew how very strong the passage is against them. Any one who wishes to see a summary of these interpretations may find them collected in Alfred's Greek Testament, in loco. His own comment is as follows:—"I understand these words to say, that our Lord, in his disembodied state, did go to the place of detention of departed spirits, and did there announce His work of redemption, preach salvation, in fact, to the disembodied spirits of those who refused to obey the voice of God, when the judgment of the flood was hanging over them." The fact, that in the Prayer-book these verses are appointed to be read as the Epistle for Easter Even, that is for the day after the crucifixion, and before the resurrection of our Lord, shews plainly enough the judgment of the English Church as to the true sense and interpretation of this passage. The Early Fathers, almost without exception, understand it to speak of Christ's descent into Hades.) Shall not His saints, made like Him, do the same works, still following Him, and with Him being priests to God? Will not their glory be to rule and feed and enlighten and clothe those who are committed to them, even as Christ has fed and clothed them? For He is "King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Tim. 6:15), words which indicate the many kings and rulers under Him, of whom He is Head, and whom He makes heads to others.
I should perhaps be going beyond my measure were I to follow in detail all that the law says further as to the first-fruits and the first-born; but I may add here, that this same truth, that the first-blessed must save others, is set forth, though in a slightly different form, in the kindred law of redemption touching the firstlings of beasts, whether clean or unclean. The lamb redeems the ass (Exod. 13:12-13). So it must be. The clean are called, and content, to be sacrifices. For the law of redemption, which is the law of love, is this, that they who are first redeemed and blessed must bless others. And this is their joy, to be like Christ, that is to be channels of blessing to viler, weaker souls. For all higher and elder beings serve the lower and younger. The first-born therefore must serve and save others. Their calling is to be, like Christ, channels of blessing and life to thousands of later-born.
Such glories are in store, to be revealed when the two leavened cakes of first-fruits, then completed, shall together be offered up, in that great coming Pentecost, of which the fiery tongues of old, and the rushing wind, in the upper room were but the type and earnest: when the elect, Christ's mystic body, being raised with Him, the Head not born alone, but all the members with it, the Spirit shall be poured out upon all flesh, and, the first-fruits being safe, the harvest, already sanctified by the first-fruits, shall also begin to be gathered in. Oh glorious day, when our Lord and Head shall give of His treasure to His first-born, that they may with Him redeem all lands and all brethren (Lev. 25:25, 47-48); when with Him they shall judge their captive brethren, who through their unbelief have lost their own inheritance. Then shall the laver be multiplied into "ten lavers," (Note: Compare Exod. 30:18, which speaks of the wilderness, with 1 Kings 7:38-39, which describes the far larger provision made for cleansing in the glorious reign of the Man of Peace, the true Son of David.), till the water of life become a "sea of crystal," (Note: Compare 1 Kings 7:38-39; 2 Chron. 4:2-6; and Rev. 15:2.) large enough even for Babylon the great to sink into it, and to be found no more at all for ever. Then shall the elect "run to and fro as sparks among the stubble" (Wisdom 3:7-8); and as all sparks or seeds of light, though they may come forth at long intervals from one another, are yet congenial, if they have come out of a common root,—as they can not only mingle rays with rays and embrace each other, but in virtue of a common nature have the same power of consuming and purifying that they come in contact with,—so shall Christ's members judge the world with Him, and consume the evil with that same fire which Christ came to cast into the earth, and with which He is yet pledged to baptize all nations. For our Lord, who gave Himself, with Himself will give us all things, grudging His children nothing of that inheritance He has obtained for them.
Here then is the key to one part of the apparent contradiction between "mercy upon all," and yet "the election" of a "little flock;" between "all the kindreds of the earth blessed in Christ," and yet a "strait and narrow way" and "few finding it." Here is the answer to the question, "Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee? Shall thy loving-kindness be declared in the grave, or thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark, and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (Psalm 88:1-12). The first-born and first-fruits are the "few" and "little flock;" but these, though first delivered from the curse, have a relation to the whole creation, which shall be saved in the appointed times by the first-born seed, that is by Christ and His body, through those appointed baptisms, whether of fire or water, which are required to bring about "the restitution of all things." St. Paul expressly declares this when he says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, ... that in the dispensation of the fulness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are in the earth, even in Him." (Eph. 1:3-10. The same doctrine is stated in almost the same words, Eph. 2:4-7.) The Church, like Christ its Head, is itself a great sacrament; "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto men; ordained by God Himself, as a means whereby they may receive the same, and a pledge to assure them thereof;" and "the blessing" of the elect, "with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ," is but the means and pledge, as the Apostle says, of wider blessing; the means by which "in the dispensation of the fulness of times" God designs to "gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things which are in heaven or which are in earth, even in Him;" and the pledge that He both can and will do it, as He has already done it in some of the weakest and the worst; for "God hath chosen the base things of the world, yea and things which are not" (1 Cor. 1:27-28); to shew to all that there are none so weak but He can save, and none so vile, but He can change and cleanse them. Thus when "He comes with ten thousands of His saints," He will not only by them "convince all ungodly sinners of all their hard speeches, which they have spoken against Him" (Jude 14-15);—for if the thief be saved, and the Magdalene changed, who shall dare to say that the lost are uncared for or beyond the reach of God's salvation;—but He will by them also, as His royal priests, joint-heirs with Christ, fulfil all that priestly work of judgment and purification by fire, which must be accomplished that all may be "subdued" (1 Cor. 15:28) and "reconciled" (Col. 1:20). To say that God saves only the first-born would be, if it may be said, to make Him worse than even Moloch, whose slaves devoted only their first-born to the flames, founding this dreadful rite upon the true tradition that the sacrifice of a first-born should redeem the rest; a requirement, tender, as compared with that which some ascribe to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, who, according to their view, accepts the elect or first-born only, and leaves the rest to torments endless and most agonizing. The gospel of God tells us of better things, of a sacrifice indeed, even of God's Only-Begotten Son, who, because we were dead, came into our death to quicken us, who took on Him the darkness, and death, and curse, which bound and would have for ever held us, and broke through it in the power of His eternal life, not only reconciling us by His blood, but also shewing us by His death the way out of the bondage of sin and this world, and who having thus in His own person, as Man, broken through death, gives Himself now to as many as will receive and follow Him, that in and by His life they also in the same path may come forth as first-fruits and first-born from the dead with Him. But Scripture never says that these only shall be saved, but rather that "in this seed," whose portion as the first-born is double (Deut. 21:17), "all kindreds of the earth shall be blessed."
I fear that the elect, instead of bearing this witness, have too often ignored and even contradicted it. And yet the fact, that the Church for many hundred years has had an All-Souls Day as well as an All-Saints Day in her Calendar, is itself a witness that she may have been teaching far more than some of her sons as yet have learnt from her. For why did the Church ordain a celebration for All-Souls as well as for All-Saints, but because, spite of her children's contradiction, she believed that like her Lord she is truly linked to all, and with Him is ordained at last to gather all. And why does All-Souls Day follow All-Saints (November 1st is All-Saints Day: November 2nd, All-Souls), but to declare that All Saints should reach All Souls, going before them indeed, yet going before to be a blessing to them. For indeed All Saints are to All Souls as the first-born to their younger brethren, elect to be both kings and priests to them; or as the first-fruits to the harvest, the pledge of what is to come, if not also the means to bring it about in due season. I know of course, that, through the abuse of masses for the dead, All-Souls Day has since the Reformation been dropped out of the Calendar of our English Church. I neither judge nor defend our Reformers for what they did in a time of very great difficulty. I only say that the truth once taught by All-Souls Day, if ever a truth, must be a truth for all generations. And I thank God that the Church had, and yet has, such a day; and that, if not with English saints now living, yet "with all saints," as the Apostle says, "we may be able to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that we may be filled with (or into) all the fulness of God" (Eph. 3:19). And in faith of that love and fulness I look for the day when All Souls shall become the inheritance and prize and glory of All Saints, who by grace have gone before them.
Our knowledge however of this or any other mystery will serve us nothing, yea be far worse than nothing, if, instead of running for the prize which the gospel sets before us, we sit down content merely to understand how the apparent contradictions of Scripture can be reconciled. Not so do the first-born win the prize. Christ has shewn the way, and there is no other. He died to live—He suffered to reign—He humbled Himself; therefore God hath greatly exalted Him (Phil. 2:8-9). If we be dead with Him, we shall live with Him,—if we suffer, we shall reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:11-12),—joint-heirs with Christ, if so be we suffer with Him, that we may be glorified together (Rom. 8:17). Only by the cross can the change be wrought in us, which conforms us to Christ and His image,—which makes us, like Him, lambs for the slaughter (Rom. 8:36), and as such fitted to bless and serve others. And as corn does not grow by any thinking of the process; as gold is not melted by any speculation of the nature of fire, but by being cast into it; so the change required is only wrought in us through the baptism of fire, which is so sharp that even the blessed Paul could say, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Cor. 15:19), a trial very different from that of the mass of professors, who suffer no more than the common lot of humanity. And indeed so narrow is the way, and so strait is the gate, that leadeth to the life and glory of the first-born, who "follow the Lamb withersoever He goeth" (Rev. 14:4); so entire is the loss and renunciation of the things dear to the old man, whose will is entranced by the things that are seen and temporal; so bitter is the cross that few can bear it, and pass willingly through the fires which must be passed to win that "high calling" (Phil. 3:8-14). Here is the patience of the saints, to bear that fire in and by which the old Adam is dissolved and slain, out of which they rise, through "blood and fire and pillars of smoke," that is the Pentecostal offering (Acts 2:19; Cant. 3:6), as sacrifices to God, to stand as kings and priests before Him.
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