The Firstborn

19 “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. 21 But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer. 23 Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. – Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ESV

Moses returns to a subject that he had brought up earlier: The offering of the firstborn.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:6 NLT

“But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings.” – Deuteronomy 12:17 NLT

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

But what is the offering of the firstborn and why was it so important? To understand its significance we have to look back to the book of Exodus and the final plague that God brought upon the people of Egypt.

And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died. – Exodus 12:29-30 NLT

This devastating event took place in conjunction with the establishment of the Passover. God had warned the people of Israel that He was bringing judgment upon the land of Egypt and He had mercifully provided the people of Israel with a means of avoiding His wrath. When His judgment came, it would be non-discriminatory, bringing death to the firstborn of every family living in the land of Egypt, whether Egyptian or Jew. Even the animals belonging to the Egyptians and Jews would suffer under God’s judgment…unless.

The truth was that all deserved God’s judgment. Even the Israelites had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh for the false gods of Egypt, and they stood fully condemned before God. But He provided them with a means of escaping His judgment – if they would trust His word and obey His command.

“Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. If a family is too small to eat a whole animal, let them share with another family in the neighborhood. Divide the animal according to the size of each family and how much they can eat. The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects.

 “Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” – Exodus 12:3-10 NLT

As long as the Israelites did exactly as God had commanded them to do, the firstborn of their families and flocks would be spared. The blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the doorframes of their homes, would cause the Death Angel to “pass over” them. They would be spared the judgment of God.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were preserved by God, while the Egyptians suffered tremendous loss of life. And devastated by the loss of his own son, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israelites to leave. And God commanded the people of Israel:

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared from death the firstborn among the Israelites and, therefore, considered them as belonging to Him. But later on, God would set apart the tribe of Levi as the surrogates or stand-ins for the rest of the firstborn of Israel.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

The tribe of Levi would serve in the place of all the firstborn of Israel, and from within the Levites would come the priests who served in God’s tabernacle. They would dedicate their lives to the service of the people of God.

But the firstborn of the animals would always belong to God and He required that the people of Israel dedicate them to Him through sacrifice. It was to be an act of obedience and gratitude to God for His having spared them during that fateful night when the Death Angel passed over all the homes in Egypt. As long as the firstborn lamb or bull was alive, they were to be preserved for God. The Israelites were not allowed to shear their wool for clothing. They could not use a firstborn bull to pull a plow. These animals were to be seen as the permanent possessions of God.

And all of this foreshadows another firstborn who would also be dedicated to God and destined for sacrifice. Jesus Christ is described by the apostle Paul as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV).

Elsewhere Paul writes that “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT). Jesus was the sinless lamb of God, who offered His life as a substitute for sinful mankind. He stood in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. And when we place our faith in Him, the wrath of God passes over us. His blood, sprinkled on the doorframes of our hearts, serves as a payment for our sin debt, satisfying the just and righteous wrath of God and allowing us to enjoy new life, rather than death.

And as a result of our faith in Christ, we become the firstborn, dedicated to God for His service. Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. – Romans 8:29 NLT

We belong to Him. We are His holy possession and our lives are to be dedicated to His use.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

The Levites became the firstborn of God, serving in the place of all the other Israelites whom God had deemed as His own. They sacrificed their lives in service to God on behalf of all the people of God. And the firstborn bulls, sheep, and goats were dedicated to God, reserved for His use and destined to give their lives in worship of Him.

But today, those of us who are in Christ, enjoy a relationship with God due to the substitutionary death of the firstborn, the sinless Lamb of God. And now, we find ourselves living as the Levites did, set apart by God for His glory. And Peter would have us remember that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). We belong to Him. Our lives are to be set apart unto Him. We are not our own, but we belong to God, having been bought by Him at a very high price: The death of His own sinless Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

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Render Unto God.

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. –  Matthew 22:15-22 ESV

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It’s probably safe to say that none of us actually enjoy filing our taxes. We see it as a necessary evil and a burdensome obligation. We do it because we have to. It’s required by law and that law carries some pretty stiff penalties for those who choose to ignore it. Taxes were no different in Jesus’ day. In fact, they were worse. The Romans levied heavy taxes on the Jews. On top of that, the Jewish tax collectors added their own exorbitant fees. And then there was the Temple tax that every Jew had to pay, which in actuality, was used to support the lavish lifestyles of the priests themselves. These men lived in luxury while the average Jew barely made ends meet.

In his book, The Message and the Kingdom, Richard Horsley writes, “…impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences show how elegant their lifestyle had become. In spacious structures unhesitantly dubbed ‘mansions’ by the archeologists who uncovered them in the 1970’s, we can get a glimpse of a lavish life in mosaic floored reception rooms and dining rooms with elaborate painted and carved stucco wall decorations and with a wealth of fine tableware, glassware, carved stone table tops, and other interior furnishings and elegant peristyles.”

This staggering combination of tax obligations were overwhelming to the Jewish people, making everyday life practically unbearable and the very mention of taxes intolerable. Palestine was a veritable powder keg waiting to ignite and, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus, the refusal of the Romans to lessen the tax burdens would result in the Jewish War and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

By now we know that the Jewish religious leadership were looking for any and all opportunities to trick and trap Jesus in order that they might have Him arrested and eliminated. They were certain that it was just a matter of time before He said something that got Him into trouble with the people or with the Roman authorities. If they could get Him to say something the people would disagree with, He would lose His popularity and His growing following. If they could trick Him into saying something that could be taken as divisive or potentially anti-Roman, then they could enlist the aid of the government in getting rid of Him. So they sent some “spies pretending to be honest men” (Luke 20:20 NLT). In other words, they didn’t come dressed as priests, Pharisees, or religious leaders. They disguised themselves as average Jews, hoping to blend in with the crowd and catch Jesus off-guard and unprepared. Their question was well-planned and had a clear motivation behind it. “They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus” (Luke 20:20 NLT). After attempting to butter Him up with false flattery, they asked their question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17 ESV).

Render-Unto-CaesarBut Matthew makes it clear that Jesus saw through their ruse. He knew they were trying to trick Him and even accused them of hypocrisy. But in spite of His awareness of their less-than-sincere motives, He chose to answer their question. He asked for a Roman coin, which have have carried the image of Caesar, a fact that He got them to verify. Then He told them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 ESV). The simple interpretation of this passage would be to say that Jesus is simply encouraging civil obedience. The people of God must be good citizens. They must set a good example, even if the government is corrupt and oppressive. But I think Jesus has an even more important point to His statement.

It’s interesting that He pointed out that the Roman coin carried the image of Caesar, the Roman emperor who was also considered a god by his own people. Jesus told them to give this coin to Caesar. It is stamped with his image and, therefore, belongs to him. But Jesus also stated that they were to give to God what belonged to God. What is stamped with God’s image? Back in the book of Genesis, we read, “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every good Jew would have known this story and would have understood what Jesus was saying. Men and women are made in the image of God. They are stamped with His image. Therefore, they belong to Him. Jesus seems to be teaching, that instead of worrying about the temporal things of this world, like money and taxes, the people needed to give themselves to God and His Kingdom. All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).

Not only were those in Jesus’ audience that day made in the image of God, but as Jews, they had been chosen by God as His special people. They had been handpicked by God and then redeemed out of slavery in Egypt. They were His people – His prized possession. He had told them, “For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT). These people had been oppressed and burdened before, and God had rescued them. They were being oppressed and burdened now, but it had far less to do with taxes than it did with sin. God wanted to rescue and redeem them from slavery to sin and death, which is why He had sent His Son. But their minds were elsewhere. They saw their burdens as earthly, not spiritual. They wanted a Messiah to rescue them from taxes and the tyranny of the Romans. But Jesus had come to rescue them from a life enslaved to sin and a sentence of death.

Jesus wanted these people to give to God what was rightfully His – their lives. He wanted them to turn over their lives to the very one who could save them. Jesus stood before them as the Son of God and their Messiah. He was the answer to their problem, but they failed to recognize Him. Jesus had not come to foment insurrection, but to provide salvation. He had not come to lead a revolt against Rome, but to provide restoration with God. His was a spiritual revolution, not an earthly one. And He was subtly reminding His listeners that God, in whose image they were made, required what was due Him. And just as Caesar would punish any and all who refused to pay his mandatory tax, God would punish any and all who refused to give Him what belonged to Him. God had warned the people what failure to obey Him would result in. “Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 NLT).

As believers, we have a spiritual obligation to God. He has made us and He has redeemed through the precious, priceless blood of His own Son. Our lives are not our own. We belong to Him because He has paid for us at a great price. He has redeemed us from slavery to sin and made us His own. We are stamped with His image and so we should “give to God what belongs to God” – our very lives.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson