Firstborn Sons: Our Family History and Our New Identity

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When we genuinely measure ourselves, we will find ourselves dreadfully lacking.

Although he never said it directly to me, I know that my dad wanted to have a son. He loved all three of his girls, there is no doubt of that, but every time we went fishing, or he had me help detail the van before a long trip, I wondered about my position in the family. If I had been the firstborn son, could my life have had more meaning, significance, and purpose?

Birth order plays a vital role in relationships throughout Scripture. The firstborn of Adam and Eve was a huge disappointment for his parents. Instead of the man who would restore a right relationship with God, Cain becomes the first murderer. Younger twin Jacob sneaks his older brother’s birthright. Favorite younger son Joseph shares his dream of being exalted over his father and brothers. Jesse did not even consider his youngest son worth gathering for Samuel when looking for a new king. These Biblical stories reveal the family tension that culminates when the firstborn son does not live up to the expectations set on him. This is just one example of how the family of God struggles to find their identity in their Heavenly Father. Instead, they settle for scratching their way to any type of greatness won on their own accord.

What about the theologians of the 16th century? What was their birth order? Martin Luther was the classic firstborn son. His father, Hans Luther, had high expectations for his oldest and invested in his education as a lawyer. But when Luther had a change of heart and decided to become a monk, Martin subverted his father’s expectations. Yet Luther’s father joined in the grand celebration of Luther’s doctorate feast, and they toasted his academic success together. Luther would go on to become a father figure to the reformers at Wittenberg.

Philipp Melanchthon was the firstborn son of Georg Schwartzerdt. At the tender age of 11, Melanchthon tragically lost both his father and his grandfather within eleven days of each other. Melanchthon’s great-uncle, humanist Johannes Reuchlin, stepped in as a supportive father figure. However, Rechlin eventually severed his relationship with Melanchthon during the Reformation because he stayed with the Catholic church and rejected the Wittenberg Reformation.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the influential Catholic priest responsible for essential Latin and Greek translations of the New Testament, was not the oldest son in his family. Known as the Prince of Humanism, Erasmus’s influence reached all over Europe. But Erasmus had a difficult childhood. He was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest. Erasmus and his older brother, Peter, were cared for by their parents until both died from the plague in 1483. Erasmus would have been about 17 years old.

When we genuinely measure ourselves, we will find ourselves dreadfully lacking.

Andreas Osiander was the oldest brother. Thomas Cranmer was a second son. Georg Spalatin was the illegitimate son of a tanner. Justus Jonas was a younger son who had struggles with his stepbrothers. Lucas Cranach the Younger was a second son. John Calvin was the second son of three boys who were all pushed toward the priesthood. Ulrich Zwingli was the third child and had eight siblings.

Each of us struggles to find our value. Going back to Scripture, examining the Reformation, even looking to ourselves today, our hunt for value and identity based on our heritage or our experience can only leave us seeking more. Measuring our worth by our family or by our own works of the law will lead us to the same place as the young Augustinian Luther: the acknowledgment and terror that we can never be good enough. When we genuinely measure ourselves, we will find ourselves dreadfully lacking. Thanks be to God that our true value does not come from ourselves, but only from the gospel gift of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Through the cross of Christ, we receive forgiveness, and we are made a part of Christ’s family.

In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther describes the Old Testament identity of firstborn sons as being set apart. Luther writes, “he received sovereignty and priestly authority. So the firstborn son was master over all his brothers and a priest before God.” This role points to Jesus, who is the firstborn of God, son of Mary, a priest and a king.

The gospel promise proclaims that we are each a precious child of God.

Jesus is the firstborn of creation, but instead of ruling over his brothers and sisters, he is the servant of all. He humbled himself, bore the cross, and died in our place. Because of Christ Jesus, we receive a new identity that Christ shares with us. We all become firstborn sons. Luther proclaims, “Now, just as Christ has the right of the firstborn with its honor and dignity, he shares it with all Christians so that by faith they too become rulers and priests with Christ.” Our role as rulers and priests is not earned but given to us because of what our brother has accomplished on our behalf. 1 Peter 2:9 reads, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.” Luther adds, “What happens then is that through faith, a Christian is lifted up so as to become sovereign over all things spiritual. Nothing can harm their salvation.”

So what is your identity? You are a sinner, yes. We are all born into sin, whether we are firstborn sons or youngest daughters—our inward focus on our own needs and worth damages our relationships with one another. We seek to be the greatest, improve ourselves, prove our worth. But the gospel promise proclaims that we are each a precious child of God. Not because of what we have done or what role we occupy in this life, but because of what Christ has done for us. In our baptism, we receive our new identity as the beloved firstborn of God.