In the comments, for the last several days there has been discussion over the meaning of Hebrews 12:23, particularly its reference to the “church of the firstborn.” Since I have access to more exegetic resources than most, I thought I’d poke around a bit in the text and the commentaries to see just what this is all about.
(Heb 12:22-24 ESV) 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
My first step is to check the Greek. What is the meaning of the word translated “firstborn”? Much to my surprise, it turns out that the word, πρωτοτόκων or prōtotokōn, is plural. We might better translate “firstborns” or “firstborn children.”
Plainly, the reference is not to Jesus as the first resurrected of God’s household (Rom 8:29 does refer to Jesus in this sense). In fact, somehow or other, this seems like an allusion to the first Passover, in which the firstborn son of each household was killed by the Destroyer or Death Angel unless protected by the blood of the Passover lamb — painted on the doorframe of each Israelite house to mark the home as belonging to a child of God.
But there’s another piece of the puzzle. Previously, the author of Hebrews has referred to Jesus as the “firstborn” — but singular. In some sense, the “firstborn children” are parallel with Jesus as firstborn Son.
(Heb 1:5-6 ESV) 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
The author refers to Psalms 2, 89, and 97 to describe Jesus as God’s “firstborn.” For example,
(Psa 89:26-27 ESV) 26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ 27 And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
In Psalm 2:7, the king is called God’s “Son.” Psalm 89 declares this son the “firstborn.”
The “firstborn” is also a reference to the oldest child of each household at the time of the Passover —
(Heb 11:28 ESV) 28 By faith [Moses] kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.
But God also refers to all of Israel as his “firstborn.”
(Exo 4:22-23 ESV) 22 “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.'”
It’s ironic, because Esau was born first, and then Jacob, later renamed Israel, was born second. Israel is God’s “firstborn” because Israel is the favored child of God, the one chosen by him.
So what is the “assembly” of the firstborn a reference to? The Greek is ekklēsia, often translated “church” or “congregation.”
(The word does not mean “called out.” That’s the etymology of the word, i.e., the origin of the word, but not the meaning of the word as used in scripture. The same word can refer to a mob (Acts 19:32)! The primary meaning is a gathering or assembly of people (whether or not gathered by a call). “The NCAA handed down sanctions against the football program due to flagrant violations of recruiting rules.” “Sanctions” is from the Latin sancire to make holy — hardly the meaning of the word in that sentence. Definition and etymology are two different things.)
The Septuagint’s use of ekklēsia in the Torah gives the word a special flavor in the New Testament —
(Deu 9:10 ESV) 10 And the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.
(Deu 18:15-16 ESV) 15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers — it is to him you shall listen — 16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’
(Deu 23:2 ESV) 2 “No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD.”
In Deuteronomy, the ekklēsia initially refers to the nation of Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, in awe of the presence of God. Later on, the term is generalized to refer to any assembly of the people at the tabernacle (or temple).
Thus, “to the assembly of the firstborn” does not mean “church of Jesus” so much as “gathering of Israel to worship.” But what about “who are enrolled in heaven”?
That seems to be a reference to —
(Exo 32:31-33 ESV) 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin
— but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.
Compare Psa 69:28; Rev 3:5. It’s God’s list of the saved. Therefore,
[I]t is best to understand the church of the firstborn as referring to ‘the whole communion of saints’. ‘All the people of Christ are the “firstborn” children of God, through their union with him who is the Firstborn par excellence’. ‘Firstborn’ and the ‘firstborn’ belong closely together, just as do the ‘Son’ and the ‘sons’ (Rom. 8:29). … Also numbered in this assembly of the firstborn are faithful Israelites, for although they are not yet perfected (11:40), the assembly in view is ‘an eschatological or heavenly entity’. The vision is of ‘the ultimate, completed company of the people of God, membership of which is now enjoyed by faith’.
When our author tells his listeners that they have come to this community, he means ‘not merely into its presence (as they have come into the presence of angels innumerable) but into its membership’. And although the heavenly city is still the goal of Christians’ pilgrimage (Heb 13:14), believers in their conversion have already come to that heavenly assembly.
Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 485-486.
In short, Jesus is the Firstborn, both as God’s oldest Son and as the firstborn among the resurrected. The church — Jews and Gentiles both — by their inclusion in Christ become the firstborn, favored children of God. Faithful Jews have been God’s firstborn since the Exodus, and the Gentiles are adopted and grafted into Israel, and so become firstborn, too.
And all are firstborn in the sense that they have been protected from the Destroyer by the blood of the Passover lamb.
In short, the Hebrews writer points to our future, when the New Jerusalem comes down to earth and God lives with man in a renewed creation — the new heavens and new earth. There the angels, ancient Israel, and the church will bow down in worship and eat at the wedding feast of the Lamb and his bride, the church.
And so, yes, it’s true that “assembly of the firstborn” refers to the church — but only if we think of the church as including faithful Israel going back to Sinai — an assembly that the Gentiles have been invited to join, who become firstborn by being incorporated into the Messiah by grace.