The Church of the Firstborn
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - The Church Foreshadowed by the Levites

Reading: Heb. 12:18-29; Matt. 18:1-3; Num. 3:5-7,9,11-13,41,45.

"...to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven...".

In that designation there are two things; firstly, the church, which is the supreme object of God's concern throughout this dispensation. Then, secondly, the words "the firstborn" set forth the nature of that object. It is the "church of the firstborn". The word is in the plural, and the more perfect translation would be: "The church of the firstborn ones, whose names are enrolled in heaven". Thus the second part of the statement gives character to the first part; it is the church of the firstborn ones.

Being in the letter to the Hebrews, and being, as it is, a part of a large statement which goes right back to the beginning of the history of the nation, when they were constituted a nation under the government of God at the Mount, it is easy to see that this phrase, "the church of the firstborn ones", links immediately with the Levites, of whom we read in the book of Numbers that they stood for the firstborn ones. They were a representative company in whom all Israel were gathered. So that, away back there in the constituting of Israel as the people of God under His government - and for our present purpose, especially the Levites - there are bound up spiritual, heavenly and eternal principles.

You will be familiar with the object of this letter to the Hebrews, and the last part of chapter 12 very largely expresses that object; that is, an earthly representation of heavenly things, which has served its purpose was passing or had passed; that a great shaking was to come, in which all that was not spiritual, heavenly and eternal would pass away and only that which was other than of this world would abide. The Jewish system, as a system of representation and of type, was a part of this earth and was to perish. It had passed in the coming of Christ, but as a system it was about to be entirely broken and scattered. And the letter was written to seek to hold these Hebrew believers to the heavenly and the spiritual and the eternal realities as their earthly system was passing, and to show them that Christ had taken up all the spiritual values of the Jewish system, had embodied them, and carried them into heaven and that now for them everything was in Christ above in heaven: "we see Jesus, crowned with glory and honour...". He, there in heaven, was the centre and fulness of the life of His people, and the earthly was passed.

We are familiar with all that, but our object is to see the abiding spiritual principles which have been introduced by figures and types and representations, "patterns of things in the heavens", and to seek to be in the value of these spiritual principles, for they endure. They are eternal, they are heavenly, they are unshakable, immovable; they abide all that is of the shaking of the heavens and the earth. So we are to be occupied in these meditations with this phrase, "the church of the firstborn ones".

We take the second half of the phrase first - the firstborn - and observe that it embodies several things.

The Firstborn Relates to
(1) A New Beginning

God begins in, and with, a firstborn. The firstborn shows where and how God begins. Israel's beginning as a nation, as a people before God, was bound up with the firstborn: "all the firstborn are mine; on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn to Israel" (Numbers 3:13). By the taking of the firstborn God began the history of that people. Thus the phrase speaks of God's new beginning. The Lord Himself said, "Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).

We shall speak more of these things as we go on. For the moment, we want to indicate something of what is represented.

(2) The Rights of God

The second thing set forth by the firstborn is that God's place, God's rights are represented by them. The thought, the idea of the firstborn ran throughout everything in the life of Israel. It commenced with the firstborn of the family, and then it extended over the flock and the herd to the field, so that the very first fruits of all their labours in the field, and in the vineyard, were claimed by God, and had to be brought into the presence of God before anything else could be appropriated. Indeed, God held them so much to this principle that, if they failed in the firstfruits, in the course of their history they lost the whole harvest. You remember what the Lord had to say to His people through the prophet Malachi, at a time when a blight lay upon everything, and the crops failed, and failure was seen in all directions. In answer to the question, Why? the Lord said it was because of their tithes and offerings. Bring the whole tithe, said the Lord, and you will have the whole blessing. It was a question of the Lord's people, and of the Lord's rights, so that the firstborn represented or symbolized God's place and God's rights as first, supreme.

The church of the firstborn ones represents these two things to begin with; firstly, that God begins with birth (first-born), and never takes up anything at any later date. It is a law with God that He will never take up a thing at an advanced point. He will start right at the beginning, no matter how long its history, no matter how long-standing its tradition. If God is going to take it up He will bring it right back to the beginning, where it is born out from Himself, and He never accepts anything else.

The church is the embodiment of that truth, and of this also: that God has the first, the pre-eminent place. The church stands for God's place, God's rights.

(3) Death and Resurrection

Israel is represented as being a people which has come out of death by a mighty intervention of God, out from where death was raging, active, spread like a blanket over the land. There was this act of God which meant that people were given power to overcome death. There was that in them of God which defeated and defied the other, an ultimate work of death, and they are regarded as a people who have been in death, and have been taken out of death in resurrection. That very truth is set forth in their own history again at the Red Sea, and yet again at the Jordan. It is basic to their life at every stage. At its inception they are a people brought out unto God, and are brought out unto all that is of God. In the stages from Egypt to the land, everything is based upon the great truth of death and resurrection.

Mark it in the case of the Lord Jesus. While by birth He is the Son of God, there is that particular attestation of Him in resurrection: "set forth (or designated) the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead"; "God raised him from the dead"; "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." - Begotten again from the dead, and designated in a particular way the Son of God.

So that with regard to the firstborn, whether it be in the type in the Old Testament or the Antitype of Christ, or in the church which is the corporate expression of Christ, the principle underlies all; that the firstborn are invariably with death and resurrection. Therefore, the church of the firstborn is the embodiment of that truth of death and resurrection, or the power of life which conquers death.

(4) The Inheritance

Then the next thing about the firstborn is that they are related to the inheritance. It is a matter of honour, position, government, and administration. There is no need for us to trace that through the Word. We know that it is always so. The firstborn represent the inheritance. The inheritance belongs to them. What is the inheritance of the saints? It is the place of honour in glory, the place of the government in the ages to come. The church of the firstborn is chosen unto this.

Thus in this letter to the Hebrews you find that from the outset Christ is presented as the Son. Then reference is made to His brethren: "He was not ashamed to call them brethren"; "Wherefore, holy brethren, partners in a heavenly calling". Thereafter the inheritance comes into view, and we hear the echo of Paul's word to the believers in Rome: "heirs... and joint-heirs with Christ". All that is in this letter and then it is all gathered up at the end in this comprehensive statement of chapter 12, what the church is: "the general assembly and church of the firstborn ones...". We are come to that.

There is one all-governing fact which runs right through the ages. It is that Christ is in all the thoughts and ways of God. That is a statement that is comprehensive. Through all the ages, in all the thoughts of God, and in all the ways of God, Christ is central, Christ is supreme. Everything relates to Him, and everything connects with Him; Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning. If we could stand by the side of God and see through God's eyes, and become governed by God's mentality, we should recognise that God has but one thought and that one thought is influencing Him in every one of His dealings with men, with nations, and with the world throughout all the ages. That one thought centres in His Son, Jesus Christ, and therefore the very essence of revelation, and the very heart of spiritual enlightenment is that you see Christ in all those thoughts and ways of God as they are expressed in His Word and in His activities. If you ask: What is revelation, what is it to have spiritual enlightenment? the answer is this: that you are able to see in a living and ever-growing way God's thoughts as centred in Christ. We could put that in another way, and say that you are growingly able to see Christ and His place and His meaning in this universe, that this universe is interpreted and explained in the light of Christ, and that everything in our own lives in God's dealings with us, is connected with Christ in some way. If that is true universally, and if that is true sovereignly and providentially; if that is true not only in the whole history of things in this universe, but true in a special way in human life, it is true, perhaps, in the most essential way in the Word of God as the expression of God's thought. So that revelation, spiritual illumination, is to see Christ in all the Word of God; not truths, not doctrines, but Christ.

Here we have a concrete and very clear instance and example in the case of the Levites. The Levites are a divine thought. They are set forth as having come out of the mind of God. Everything concerning them that is written is a part of that mind of God. Now if what we have said is true, then everything to do with the Levites is the expression of a divine thought concerning Christ, and we too look to see what of Christ there is in this and in that. The end is Christ. The question then, that we ever need to ask, is: In what way does this or that lead us to Christ? In what way does this mean an increase of Christ, a knowledge of Him in a living and experimental way? We are looking for what is of Christ. We are not interested in anything else, because God is not interested in anything else. God is not interested in merely running a wonderful universe, in seeing His sovereignty operating in this world, in just seeing how He can bring good out of evil, and overrule everything to His own ends. God is interested in one thing, and that is in bringing all things to His Son, and bringing His Son into all things. He has one thought - comprehensive, vast, many-sided, but one thought.

Now then, we have one thought, and only one. This is not how much we can do for the Lord, and how much we know of Christian truth; it is not things at all, it is Christ. Our whole course here is to learn Christ, and with our latest breath we shall still, if we are living in a spiritual way, cry, "That I may know him". The longer we live, and the more we know, the more we shall be made aware of how little we do know, and how vast this Christ is.

Now we see in the Levites as a type a concrete example of God's thoughts leading to Christ.

The Levites Represent
(a) The People of God Related to Him in Christ

In the first place they set forth in representation the people of God as connected with God in Christ. They were taken in the place of the firstborn, which means that they represented all Israel. They were, in the thought of God, not a class called ministers, separated from all the others, but a spiritual representation of God's thought concerning all His people, that all His people should be Levites.

God had other ways of doing this if that were not the truth. The Lord could have said: "Now, I understand that you cannot all be My servants, for you have other things to do; therefore I would have you ordain a certain class, a certain company to be ministers, and they shall minister and be a class by themselves in this kind of service!" No such thought is ever expressed or hinted at. On the contrary, God gets right down to the bottom of things and says: "Now in the very birth of Israel, they are a priestly people, they are a kingdom of priests. It is not that they have a class in the midst of them who are priests, but that they are a kingdom of priests." The Levites are but the expression of God's thought concerning all His people, and inasmuch as it is priestly in nature and function, it is Christ, and Christ at the centre; God and His people brought into oneness on priestly ground, on a priestly basis, a mediatory basis, a sacrificial basis, a basis of blood. They are one, and the Levites declare this great truth, that man and God have been made one in Christ; and that is the church of the firstborn. That title is the title of Jesus Christ, and the title of the church; it is one title. He is the Firstborn, they are the firstborn ones; the one title governs them both. It is not the case that there are some apart; all are that. It is the oneness in Christ of God and His own that is set forth by the Levites.

(b) God's Thoughts as to His People in Christ

Then as you look carefully into their life, their order, their function - and it is a very wide-ranged function, it has to do with everything that represents God - we see that they set forth God's thoughts as to His people in Christ. It is not only that God and His own meet and are one in Christ, but there all God's thoughts concerning His own are set forth - what God's thoughts are for His people. They are centred in Christ, and the Levites bring out into view all the thoughts of God which are centred in Christ concerning His own people.

(c) The Vessel of Testimony

Then further, the Levites represent the vessel of the testimony of Jesus, one with Him. That is central to this universe. The testimony of Jesus is the occasion of the terrific conflict throughout the ages in the spiritual realm. John says, "I was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the... testimony of Jesus." Later again, he says, "I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus", speaking of that rage of the adversary against that which is so designated.

What is the testimony of Jesus? The testimony of Jesus is what God has determined in the eternal counsels that Jesus shall be in this universe. It is the place which God has eternally given to His Son. Now, the Levites are the vessel of that testimony; that is, that in them God's intention for His Son is set forth, and they are called into being to preserve and maintain that testimony. When you have those things, you have just got the ground prepared for the practical values that arise. The Levites set forth God's thoughts in Christ concerning His own people. Where do you begin with God's thoughts? You begin when you look at the Lord Jesus, and take Him into account. You begin with the altogether otherness of Christ so far as the whole race and the whole world are concerned.

It is important to see where likeness between Christ and the rest of the human race begins and ends. There is likeness and difference, and you have to see where the one ends and the other begins.

In what way is Christ like the rest of us? He is like the rest of men inasmuch as He is constituted on the same principle. He is a Man, a human being, and the make-up of His humanity is the same as that of all other men. He is spirit, soul and body. We would call that the vessel. He has a mind, a heart, and a will, as the constituents of His human soul. He is like all other men, that is, as to His form; He has a body like our body. As to appearance there is no difference. He has a soul like our soul, capable of feeling, reasoning, choosing and determining. He has a spirit - yes, so far as the entity is concerned, a human spirit, as we have. In all these respects He is like us.

That is where the likeness ends, and then the difference begins. What is the difference? The difference is in the inner man. We have spoken of that as the vessel, but what is in the vessel? What kind of thing is working in the vessel? Therein lies the vast difference between Him and ourselves. In the New Testament a great principle, indeed the governing principle of the old-creation life in man, a very great deal is spoken of under the title of "the flesh". That is the inner thing with us, it is a principle, a power, something in us: intangible, but very real and very strong; and in the fallen creation wholly evil. That is the difference between Him and us. There was no such thing in Him. He is altogether other. There is the vessel, the same, similar, but the actuating power (that which moves in the vessel) is entirely different, belonging to a wholly different creation. A wide unbridgeable gulf is fixed between Him and ourselves in the matter of the dominating, governing nature. We call it, in the language of one who has invented this phrase (and it is a useful one): the "altogether other-ness".

That is where God begins with the firstborn. The firstborn from God's standpoint is an "altogether other" than the old creation. Now this is not just doctrine, technique; it is something of tremendous value. I do not know of anything of greater importance than this particular thing upon which we bear for this short time.

The church of the firstborn from God's standpoint is something altogether other than we are by nature, and that altogether other-ness is what Christ is. Perhaps the major problem of most of the Lord's people is to keep that line of division between what we are in ourselves and what Christ is in us. The great line of attack on the part of the enemy is to bring what we are ourselves continually up into view and occupy us with that, and by so doing obscure Christ. The great object of the Holy Spirit in His opposing of Satan is to bring Christ into view and to occupy us with Him to the obscuring of ourselves. That is where the great difficulty arises for most of the Lord's people. There is always this beat back, this drive back to get us occupied with ourselves, as to what we are, to keep us from being occupied with Christ and what He is; in some way to get that gap, that gulf, that separation filled up, and the line of demarcation obliterated, so that there is confusion. God begins with the firstborn. That implies something altogether other than what we are, and it is important to see what God says, and how God views those who are represented as being in Christ, and in whom Christ is.

As a type (not spiritual reality, but as representing this truth) think of that tremendous statement which was forced through the lips of Balaam, in spite of himself, concerning Israel: "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob." Read those terrible Psalms about Israel's forty years in the wilderness, and all the terrible things that are said about them, of their heart not being steadfast toward God, and all their constant declension. Terrible things are said; and then you have a statement like this coming up by the compulsion of God as Balaam looks over the whole camp of Israel, standing as it were by God's side, and saying: "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob." Why? The Levites were in the midst, and all that they stood for, and God did not look upon what the people were in themselves, but upon what they were as having His thoughts in the midst of them in living expression, in active expression. He had His thoughts embodied.

When Christ is in us, God views us through Christ. Oh, that we might recognise this, that in Christ in us, there is the embodiment of God's thought, and He is able to speak so of us. His activities with us are all in relation to the Christ who is now by the Holy Spirit in us, and in Whom we are.

The fact that the Firstborn is invariably connected with death and resurrection is God's way of saying that what we are in ourselves by nature is buried from His standpoint, and it is His Son alone who obtains where we are concerned as a risen One, the only One who lives before Him. All else are dead and buried in the sight of God, and God would have us take that attitude. Remember that we are dead and buried.

The Root-cause of Trouble amongst Believers

Now you can see the reason of all the confusion, all the trouble amongst the Lord's people. It is because they will bring over on to the other side of Jordan what they are by nature. Have we not yet recognised the terrible complication of the old creation, what a complicated, inextricable tangle the old creation is? If we were the most adept at introspection, and could analyse ourselves to the most minute point, we should never have got to the end of that complication.

We talk about our motives, and we say, Our motive was right! We talk about our conscientiousness, we talk about our intentions; but you and I do not know what lies behind what we call our good motives. There is a deceitfulness about this human heart that defies our greatest attempt at tracking it down, and we shall never do it. It takes Him that hath the seven Spirits of God, with the seven eyes, the perfect insight, to see through you and through me. We shall never see through ourselves, and you and I can never talk with any certainty about our good motives, our pure motives, our conscientiousness, because of this tangle of the old creation. This soul life of ours is such an awful mixture that you never, never know when you are on safe ground with it. It will lead you into all kinds of deceptions as to yourself, and as to others, and if you begin to live in your soul life, and assert it and develop it, you are developing what is capable of leading you into the greatest confusion and contradiction and mixture. There is an alliance with this fallen creation of forces that are not the forces of God, and you and I cannot break in between the two and sort the matter out. God Himself has not undertaken to do that. God Himself has not undertaken to disentangle this network of confusion in this old creation. God is not going to get to work like a great surgeon and drive in between this part and that part, and separate the good from the bad. He is not going to excavate and analyse and rearrange this whole tangled mass; He has not undertaken to do it. God's whole attitude is (and this is the revelation of God's Word) that that tangled mass is finished with, dead and buried, and God brings in something that is altogether other than that: a new creation, even Jesus Christ. There is no tangle in Him, no confusion in Him, no mixture in Him; there is perfection of harmony, a balance of order, of arrangement. All the rest is put out.

Here is where the church has become such a confused thing, and such a tragedy; for the prevailing idea is that if you give yourself over to God He will take you up and use you: "Bring over your humanity and consecrate it to the Lord! Consecrate your old man to the Lord, and go out and serve the Lord, with a consecrated old man!" it is utterly contrary to the teaching of God's Word. The result is that in the work of God all the world over you have people serving the Lord in the energy of the flesh, in the reasoning of the flesh, in the emotions of the flesh. Meet them, counter them, frustrate them, and you meet something evil; you meet with a fight, a division, a schism, a scattering, and wholesale resignations.

Do you see what a havoc the enemy can make in that which is called the church, because people with best intentions, purest motives have come to serve the Lord with all their own intelligence, their own strength, and their own emotion? They have not seen that God has closed the door to the old creation, and that God's attitude is this: "The only thing that can satisfy Me, that can serve Me is My Son, and if you are going to come into My service, He has to be the energy of everything, the Life of everything, the Wisdom of everything!" He has to be the governing, ruling reality in everything. It is not to be a matter of your impulses, but of His urgings and leadings by the Holy Spirit; not your sitting down to reason out what it would be good to do for the Lord, what ought to be done, what needs to be done, but what He shows you, nothing more. It is Christ who is God's thought, and only Christ, and He is "altogether Other".

He lived on that principle Himself, when He was here. Great appeals were made to His sympathies, but He never responded to those appeals until He had weighed the thing up before the Father and obtained the Father's mind about it. Appeals were made to His reason, that He ought to do certain things: He ought to go up to the feast, it was the recognised thing, everybody was going up. If He was not going up He was laying Himself open to misunderstanding and misrepresentation! "Mine hour is not yet", He said. And when they had gone up then He went up secretly. He was not playing a trick, acting a deception; He was making sure that the voice governing His movements was not the voice of popular habit, but was the voice of the Father governing Him. See how other Christ is from men, from what we are.

You and I must not bring over our old creation and give it to God, expecting God to use it. God begins with birth. The church of the firstborn is something quite new, and it comes out of a death. That death is the death of an old creation, and the resurrection is of something that is not the resuscitation of an old creation, but the resurrection of something wholly of God.

The Way of Deliverance

Now, of course, that is very largely the negative side, the side which forbids, which counters, which sets back. There is the other side, the great, the blessed reality, that over against what we are by nature there is Christ as God's object of concern, and the Holy Spirit's object of interest. The Holy Spirit has been sent from God in relation to, and on behalf of, Jesus Christ, for one purpose only. We should not be taken up with the Holy Spirit Himself, nor with the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. We should be solely occupied with the object of the Holy Spirit, and the sole purpose of the Holy Spirit's coming is to make Christ everything, to conform us to the image of Christ, fully to form Christ in us. The Holy Spirit has the view of God, that Christ is the object always in sight.

Do we want to know the only way of deliverance? It will never be by going round ourselves, being occupied with ourselves, sorting ourselves out, and just weeping and mourning over ourselves; it will be by occupation with Christ. That is the only way, but it is the Way. Paul in Romans 7 tells us of the one side of things. He says he had longings in a certain direction, but his longings were frustrated by what was in himself. He had loathings in other directions, but even his loathings led to no deliverance, for what he loathed he did, what he longed for he never did. At length in despair he cried, "who shall deliver me?" Then, espying a way out, he said: "Ah, I see, I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord". There are no divisions into chapters in the original, you must read straight on. Because people have not been led straight on they have been left in doctrinal confusion. It should be, "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord... There is therefore no condemnation to them that are..." - longing to be like Christ, and deploring how unlike Christ they are? No! "...to them that are in Christ Jesus". Why no condemnation? Because God is looking upon the One in Whom there is no ground of condemnation at all, and He says: "Your deliverance is to be occupied with the ground where there is no condemnation, that is Christ." Every secret of the life of the believer is there.

Our greatest need is to be delivered from ourselves into Christ. There we find all God's intentions and activities concerning His Son. It is "Christ in you, the hope of glory", that is the great secret, and there is no hope of glory anywhere else.

What does this mean? Not that I come before God saying, "I have had pure motives; I have been very honest, earnest and conscientious, and my intentions have all been of the best." Let us stop talking nonsense. It is utter folly to talk like that. We do not know ourselves. Only God knows the truth about us, and none of that finds a place with Him or counts with Him for a moment. The point is, have I recognised that the Cross of the Lord Jesus was the smashing and ending of me, good and bad, so that I am not holding up before the Lord anything? I am as capable of the worst as any being in God's creation is. For anybody to take the attitude that they are not capable of the worst is an attitude of the deepest deception. We do not know the power in our beings until we are put to it. If we have never committed the worst, it is because we have never been put to it in the mercy of God, but it is all there. The Lord puts His finger upon it in principle when He says, "He that hates his brother is a murderer." It is the same spirit. You have only to extend that, provoke that anger enough, put that nature into certain circumstances, and you will discover that you are capable of things of which you would have stood in utmost horror at one time. You and I have got to come down before God and admit that we are capable of the worst, not standing on the ground of our right. The only right one is Christ from God's standpoint. The only safe one is Christ, and therefore the only one who stands in God's eyes is Christ, and it is as you and I, in all the brokenness, frailty, conscious weakness and humility of our own beings, by faith cling to Christ that we shall find the way out, the deliverance, the salvation. We must look behind God's words to see bigger things than words on the surface indicate. "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembles at My word." That statement embodies all that we are saying.

To what one will He look? To the one who never says, "I am right!" but to the one who says, "I may be as wrong as ever man or woman was wrong, there is nothing of which I am not capable; my only ground is Christ; so help me God, Christ is my ground!" To stand on Christ is to stand always in the consciousness and recognition that this other ground, ourselves at any point, is dangerous ground. He is so Other, and there is the great divide, there is no overlapping. Between Christ and us there is a gaping chasm. God never sees that bridged, but thank God He will put Christ into us by the Holy Spirit, and while the two will ever remain apart, the old creation will go one day and that which is of Christ, as wrought into us, will abide.


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