Have you ever been mischaracterized? Ever been prejudged, stereotyped, or carelessly lumped into a category that does not uniquely describe who you are? Well then, maybe you can relate with a Jewish believer in Jesus who is instructed by certain Gentile church traditions that his national identity as an Israelite means essentially nothing now that he is “in Christ” where there is neither Jew nor Greek (cf. Gal. 3:28). “What about the promise of the land under the Abrahamic covenant?” The befuddled Jewish believer might ask. In reply, the predominant Gentile answer throughout the centuries has been: forget about those earthly things—that was a mere shadow of the greater “spiritual” realities that have arrived and will ultimately trump any “carnal” notions such as the modern Zionist movement.
Or, perhaps you can empathize with the Gentile Christian who is caught up in a Hebrew Roots faction and feels compelled to learn Hebrew, keep certain regulations in the Mosaic law, and meet on Saturdays out of fear that he or she will become a second-class saint, or worse, eternally cut off from God’s people. After all, isn’t the Gentile believer in Yeshua (Jesus) grafted into “the commonwealth of Israel” and obligated to obey her covenanted laws?
And for those who are privileged members of the body of Christ during this present age of God’s grace and restraint, what is the rationale for reading the Church into the 70th week of Daniel? What if, as some might have you believe, there is no escape from the coming Tribulation. Must I endure to the end with my faith intact as the only way to be counted worthy of entering the kingdom? And after wading through all the cut-and-paste collages from Matthew and Revelation that isolate words like “elect” and “saint,” maybe you think it would be better to move to Israel or build a bunker in New Zealand. Call me a conspiracist, but among some of the more virulent, anti Pre-trib caricatures and portrayals out there, I suspect an intentional effort to obscure and avoid the clear dispensational distinctions among God’s people marked out in the rest of Scripture.
Sadly, the scenarios described above are all-too-common and stem from a haphazard treatment of the text of Scripture. To be fair, in some cases the confusion arises from those who have great zeal for the Lord, but lacking further knowledge on the subject, they persist in error and cause weaker brethren to stumble (cf. Rom. 10:2). A bird is a bird, some will say, and the elect are the elect—potato, potata. Ok, try telling an avid birdwatcher that all birds are the same and distinctions don’t matter. Is a blue jay a cardinal? Is a penguin a flamingo? Do all have the same form and function? Are all able to fly to great heights?
Alas, it’s this kind of glib response to eschatology that I want to address in this next series entitled “Church of the Firstborn.” In this post I’ll mainly focus on the implications of being identified with Christ as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). The Church’s connection with Christ, the ultimate firstborn, means that the body of Christ will be the very first group of God’s people to experience total redemption and glorification before Gentile believers who are saved during the Tribulation (the so-called “Trib saints”), the future remnant of Israel, Old Testament saints, and even Millennial saints.
The Church as the Firstborn Fellow-Citizen of God’s City
Mount Zion in Heaven. The New Jerusalem. The City of the Living God. Some call it a fantasy. The faithful call it: Home.
According to a fascinating passage in the book of Hebrews, we are shown a glimpse of God’s dwelling place on high that includes a diverse host of creatures. There is both unity and diversity. And so, for the purposes of our current study, let’s call it God’s DiverCity. Here’s the preview:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24, NIV).
Question: Why not save some ink and papyrus and simply state, “You have come to God and the elect of all ages”?
Answer: Because there are key distinctions to be made not only among the saints [holy ones] of God but also of God Himself, who is a Triune being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I believe the portion highlighted above from Hebrews 12:23 reveals an exclusive signification of believers in this present age [the Church/Christ’s body]. We who have been baptized by the Spirit into one body are given the same title as Jesus in other passages [“firstborn”; cf. Heb. 1:6]. Also, the mention of our names written in heaven alludes to a large number of Gentiles. I’ll address my reasoning on this point soon enough.
First, a word about the unity and diversity within God’s household:
Though some believe there will be a progressive blurring of the distinction between Israel and the church in the Millennium and eternal state, the biblical evidence seems to indicate that each group of saints will retain its identity (cf. Heb. 12:22-24). This can be inferred also from the fact that the names of the twelve tribes of Israel will be inscribed on the gates of the heavenly city and the names of the twelve apostles of the church will be inscribed on the city’s foundation (Rev. 21:12, 14)…[i]n short, in the eternal kingdom there will be one family of God with a diversity of members” (Donald K. Campbell, “The Church in God’s Prophetic Program,” from Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, 160-61).
Unquestionably, fellow members of the body of Christ have nothing to boast about except the sovereign grace and mercy of the LORD, and the same goes for the redeemed of all ages (cf. 1 Cor. 1:29-31). However, there is something truly unique and exclusive regarding the title, “church of the firstborn.”
By “firstborn,” we are talking about the Church’s spiritual union and co-heirship with the Son of God, the preeminent One (Col. 1:15; Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:12-13). More specifically, Jesus rose from the dead and was glorified first. And even though Paul can presently say we have been raised up with Christ and seated with Him in heaven (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1-4), there still remains an already-but-not-yet incompleteness to Christ’s glorification until He comes again to gather His body (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
As a consequence of failing to discern the mystical union of Christ and His body, the corporate representation of the firstborn “male-child” of Revelation 12:5 has been lost on many, though certainly not all (see Gary’s post, “Conservative Scholars Agree: The Male Child is the Church“).
The Church, the one new man of Ephesians 2:15, prior to Pentecost circa AD 33 had remained hidden, “a mystery,” but then God’s plan was explained and illuminated especially through the writings of Paul. The apostle excitedly proclaims that Gentiles together with Jews make up a new and distinct “body” (Eph. 2:16), “in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:13), who now have become “fellow citizens with the saints” and “members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).
While God’s household [i.e. the Father’s house] appears to be the overarching, unifying phrase for the redeemed of all ages, there is a sharper distinction when it comes to the Head of our current household, namely, Jesus, the Son of God. Once again, I give you a quotation from the author of the book of Hebrews:
Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s household, as a testimony to what would be said in the future. But Christ was faithful as a Son over his household. And we are that household…” (Heb. 3:5-6, CSB, emphasis mine).
Hmmm. Christ as head over a household? Where else do we find this tight-knit, familial relationship? Ah, yes. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
…the husband is head of the wife as also Christ is head of the church. He is the Savior of the body…Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy…to present the church to Himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless…we are members of His body…[t]his mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:23, 25-27, 30, 32, HCSB, emphasis mine).
You won’t find this kind of relationship in past ages [dispensations], and nor will it ever occur again in the ages to come. The mystery of Christ and His church is profound, indeed.
So, fellow-firstborn citizen of God’s household, does this mean that you are any better than Adam, Moses, David, or John the Baptist? Are you more fit for the kingdom than one who gets beheaded by the Antichrist, an Israelite who hides out in the wilderness during the final years of this age, or the last person saved at the end of the Millennium just before Satan is released from the abyss?
No, no. We won’t go that far (cf. Lk. 10:20). Nevertheless, we who are members of Christ’s body are a select group that will retain our unique identity throughout the ages to come (Eph. 1:20-23; 2:6-7). We did not do anything to earn or deserve this privilege, because all of what we receive is grace, grace, grace. So, just be thankful that you have been providentially born between Pentecost and the Rapture. What a blessing!
Born from Above: Super-naturalized Citizens of Zion
Recall the highlighted portion from Hebrews 12:23 above: The body of Christ is “the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven.” I believe the underlined phrase is an allusion to a great number of Gentiles who have been granted heavenly “birth certificates” by the God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Where is the biblical precedent for such a grand assumption? Back to the Hebrew Bible, we go! There is a little-known song tucked away in the Psalter, a prophetic piece of Scripture that essentially previews the well-known New Testament concept of being “born again,” or better yet, “born from above” (Jn 3:6-7).
Take a look at Psalm 87 (CSB):
(1) The city He founded is on the holy mountains.
(2) The LORD loves Zion’s city gates more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
(3) Glorious things are said about you, city of God. Selah.
(4) “I will make a record of those who know me: Rahab [Egypt], Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush
—each one was born there.”
(5) And it will be said of Zion, “This one and that one were born in her.” The Most High himself
will establish her.
(6) When He registers the peoples, the LORD will record, “This one was born there.” Selah.
(7) Singers and dancers alike will say, “My whole source of joy is in you.”
Did you catch the central focus of the psalm (verses 4–6)? Not only does the exclusive emphasis on Gentiles stand out amidst the other psalms, but also the brief list of nations that will enjoy the privileges of citizenship is striking: Egypt (cf. Isa. 30:7), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush? These cast of characters are usually the villains in the biblical narrative. What a turn of events!
I imagine this passage of Scripture was glossed over and avoided by scribes and prophets with attitudes like Jonah (cf. Jon. 4:1-4, 11). Frankly, for the Pharisee and ardent Israeli nationalist, there’s just too much grace here for comfort. You mean to tell me the LORD, the God of Israel, is going to be giving out birth certificates and citizenship privileges to people who were once His enemies? Yep, that’s always been part of the plan (cf. Rom. 5:10; Eph. 2:11-13).
Far from taking anything away from Israel by adding in the Gentiles, God’s eternal city has plenty of room to handle the masses:
Zion will be enriched in that day by this acquisition of new citizens. All nations in that day will look to Zion as the ‘mother city.’ God’s writing their names in a register figuratively describes His ensuring them a place in Zion” (Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, 857).
Zion is the mother city. This gives a whole new perspective on why many graduates refer to their former collegiate institutions as an “alma mater,” Latin for “nourishing/kind mother” (cf. Isa. 54:1, 11-13; 66:10-13). Now, if only we could transfer some of that passion and zeal that some have for their college sports teams into winning souls for God’s team and making new citizens of Zion…
This image of Mount Zion, the city of God, as a mother is really explicit in the Greek translation of Psalm 87(which is Psalm 86:5 in the LXX):
Mother Zion!’ A man will say. And [that] man was born in her. The Most High has established her foundation” (my translation, from Rahlfs and Hanhart, eds., Septuaguinta: SESB edition).
Among other OT passages and “Mother Zion” imagery, surely the apostle Paul had Psalm 86:5 (LXX) in mind when he wrote:
…the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26, ESV, emphasis mine).
And even though Paul benefited from his status as an Israelite, born a Hebrew of Hebrews (Php. 3:5), and though his Roman citizenship got him out of a pinch, a time or two (Acts 22:22-29), the apostle nevertheless kept his eye on the real prize (Php. 3:14, 20-21)—much like his physical and spiritual forefather in the faith, Abraham:
By faith he [Abraham] stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9-10, HCSB, emphasis mine).
Like the faithful men and women who have gone before us, do you also see what they saw from a distance (Heb. 11:13-16)? Will you be among those who rejoice in Zion, the mother city, whose names have been recorded in the book of life? If you are thirsty and longing for home, then take the gift of a permanent eternal residence with God being offered freely (Rev. 21:6-7; 22:17).
We are without excuse. Names are being added to God’s heavenly census across the world, and the Church of the firstborn is blessed to have even more insight than even Abraham or Paul, thanks in part to John, the author of the last book of the Bible (see Revelation chapters 21–22):
I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband…” (Rev. 21:2, HCSB).
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
The apostle John concludes the book of Revelation with the cry of every heart that longs for the promise of John 14:1-3 to be fulfilled, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). Our Lord is preparing a place for us, and He is coming back to gather His body, the Church of the firstborn, in order that we may be with Him at the Father’s house in heaven.
As firstfruits unto the Lord (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:20-23; Eph. 1:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; Jm. 1:18), we will be the first group of saints and fellow-citizens of the mother city to be resurrected/raptured/glorified. Our born again/born from above moment truly and ultimately occurs at the time of the resurrection and rapture—an event that takes place before the seven-sealed scroll is opened (see my previous post).
Let’s go over a brief rundown of the timing of our glorification as revealed in Revelation.
Jesus says to the churches (and the whole body) via Philadelphia:
All who are victorious will become pillars in the Temple of my God, and they will never have to leave it. And I will write on them the name of my God, and they will be citizens in the city of my God—the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven from my God. And I will also write on them my new name” (Rev. 3:12, NLT, emphasis mine).
Thus, the overcoming Church will be born [glorified] first and become citizens of Zion, because they are also promised an escape from the entire Tribulation period (Rev. 3:10). Note also the “crown” in Rev. 3:11 + the “white garments” + the recording of names in Rev. 3:5.
Next, we have the promise of sitting on Christ’s throne (Rev. 3:21). All in all, before we get to the open door of Rev. 4:1 (cf. Rev. 3:8), we’ve got crowns, white clothes, and thrones promised to the firstborn Church.
Turning over a new leaf now, we arrive at chapter 4 and the newly glorified body of Christ is represented by the 24 elders…wait for it…wait for it…wearing crowns, white garments, and sitting on thrones! (see Rev. 4:4). Yep, just as the Lord had promised.
* Note: The Church of the firstborn cast their crowns at the feet of the Father, despite the popular song, “We fall down, we lay our crowns, at the feet of Jesus…” (Rev. 4:10-11).
Then, in chapter 5 we see the elders again now pictured with the Lamb “in the midst of the [Father’s] throne” (Rev. 5:6). The verses of the song in Rev. 5:9-10 should include the first person plural pronoun in verse 9, “…[You] purchased/redeemed us by Your blood from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation…” and third person plural pronouns in verse 10, “[and] made them kings and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth.”* Notice how the song of the newly redeemed Church, which is loaded with Gentile representation, echoes the opening chorus of John’s letter to the churches in Rev. 1:5-6.
*For a detailed explanation of this antiphonal, call-and-response singing arrangement between the Church and the four living creatures, see Greg Lauer’s article, “The 24 Elders Revisited.”
The Church of the firstborn appears here and there as the visions of heaven develop throughout the rest of the book. A few other noteworthy passages are Rev. 12:5, 10-12; 19:4, 14-15. Finally, as the chronology of the Second Coming of Christ progresses; after Jesus and the holy ones of heaven physically return to earth to defeat the Antichrist and his armies, and after Satan is bound, look closely at what follows…
Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (NET, emphasis mine).
There are those thrones again. Those seated on them are given the authority to judge (Rev. 3:21; 4:4; cf. Matt. 19:28; 1 Cor. 6:2-3), and John sees this ruling authority take their place before the martyrs of the Tribulation are raised from the dead.
Yes, the Tribulation saints will co-reign with Christ and the Church of the firstborn during the Millennium. However, the Church and the Tribulation saints are two distinct groups within the fellow-citizens and saints of God’s household. Yes, there is only one “first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5-6). However, we should reject the idea that this is only a one-time event rather than something that will actually occur in phases, or progressive stages.
After all, are the saints born in the Millennium not afforded this privilege of taking part in the first resurrection? If the first resurrection was a one-time event and conflated with the resurrection/rapture of the Church and glorification of the Tribulation martyrs, what then about these Millennial saints not even physically born, let alone spiritually born? Alas, the truth of the critical phases of the first resurrection calls for wisdom and discernment.
If the rulers and judges of the first clause of Rev. 20:4 are already in a glorified state when the dust has barely settled after Armageddon and right before the Tribulation saints are resurrected, then that leaves only the Church of the firstborn to qualify for such a description.
Rejoice, you members of the Church of the firstborn! Your citizenship is assured and your names are written in heaven. You will also be the first to be glorified, and you are not appointed to wrath (the 7-year-long wrath of the seven-sealed scroll yet to be opened by the Lamb standing among His glorified body).
Are you ready? Have you grown weary of the wilderness wandering, and do you long for the city of God? Then you can join with the saint(s), who penned, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Set your sights on that which is above and lift up your voice in praise to our God. Give Him thanks, because He is good and His faithful love endures forever (Ps. 107:1-9). One day, one day very soon, we will see the glorious city for ourselves.
I think the writer(s) of “Come Thou Fount” may have had Psalm 87 in mind. In Psalm 87:7, the singers in the city of God sing (literally), “All my springs/fountains are in you.”
All together now: