Friday, March 6, 2015

Jesus: Qualified to be Firstborn?

Do you remember your high school chemistry classes? If you're anything like me, experiment days were the worst. They never worked. Ever. As a teenager who was stronger in language arts, science was not my forte. I rarely got the results I was supposed to get. While other students got cool smoke or flames, I got a lecture from the teacher. Looking back, I'm sure I wasn't paying as close attention to the variables as I should have been.

Understanding doctrine can be a little like those science experiment. If you go into the equation with a variable that's off, you can't help but come to a wrong conclusion.

In recent weeks, we've been considering Herbert W Armstrong's teachings on "born again," which have largely been carried forward into the modern-day Churches of God. Today, we'll consider how some of HWA's beliefs about Jesus and what He accomplished at His first coming contributed to these flawed conclusions on when Christians are "born again."

In short, HWA taught that Jesus Himself was "born again" as a son of God when He was resurrected from the dead (of course, after being born the first time as a human). He claimed that Christians would likewise be "born again" when they are resurrected at Christ's return. Armstrong described Jesus as a pioneer who showed the example of how we humans can also be born as God's children.
"Jesus had to be the FIRST to be BORN of God - the FIRST-BORN of many brethren. That was His second birth, as the resurrection will be ours." (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 29). 
"He was only the first to be so born of God, of many brethren, We are to be in his same image - as He is, now! We are to be put on His same plane - as His brethren - to be also born of God - to become God's sons!"
-Herbert Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 42-43
Most of today's Churches of God have preserved Armstrong's teachings on this matter. One voice in the COG community, however, takes issue with his logic. John Ritenbaugh, founder and pastor of the Church of the Great God, has taken considerable effort to refute HWA's traditional teachings on regeneration in his series, "Born Again or Begotten?".

Unlike you and I, Jesus had no need to be "born again," Ritenbaugh says. Jesus had no need to be regenerated. He was our Savior, not a mere trailblazer.

"Since He never went through, or needed, a spiritual birth, His title of "firstborn from the dead" is not an instruction on how a Christian is spiritually born," Ritenbaugh says. "He was not born again by a resurrection, and thus the resurrection from the dead is not the model for how we are born again either."

HWA's misunderstanding greatly skews the way members of the Churches of God understand Jesus, the Kingdom of God and their role in attaining salvation. This is most dramatically illustrated in Armstrong's last book, Mystery of the Ages. Published the year before Armstrong's death, this book can hardly be waved off as ancient COG history (plus, UCG's Aaron Dean was a large contributor to the book).

HWA taught that Jesus came to "wrest the throne of the earth from Satan," (MOTA, p. 211), to qualify to replace the devil and set up the Kingdom of God. This quote from page 219 of MOTA, which follows a narrative of Jesus' encounter with Satan in the wilderness, gives us insight into Armstrong's gross misconceptions about Christ's role and humanity's role in salvation:
"Jesus Christ, the second Adam, had qualified! Never until that minute could the good news of the coming kingdom of God be announced to the world. Now the Son of God resisted and conquered Satan  had qualified to reestablish God's government and set up the Kingdom of God on earth! But now the church must also qualify to rule with him!"
Never until that minute could the good news be announced? The Bible is replete with verses that indicate otherwise. Though dramatic and inspiring, the incarnation was hardly history's greatest nail-biter.

•Genesis 3: 15: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” A prophecy of the victory of Jesus over Satan. The good news was announced at the outset.
•Revelation 13:8: "... whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." Scripture tells us that the outcome was determined since creation.
•1 Peter 1:20: "He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world..." Again, Christ's purpose and victory were foreordained.
•John 3:14-15: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." Christ's sacrifice and victory on the Cross were foreshadowed in this episode that occurred shortly after the Exodus.
•Isaiah 53:4-5: "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed." A favorite COG Passover passage, this Old Testament prophecy declared Christ's victory long before Jesus' incarnation.
•Genesis 15:6: "And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness." The righteousness imputed to Abraham, made available through Christ's sacrifice, was assured long before Israel was a nation, the Sinai Covenant was established or Christ was born.

Scripture plainly shows that Herbert Armstrong was wrong on this point. What else might he have misunderstood about Jesus and what He accomplished? And if his teaching on a subject this foundational is demonstrably off the mark, how does it affect his other teachings on salvation? For example, his belief that Jesus "was only the first to be born so of God," leads him to the belief that glorified church members will be called "co-saviors with Christ" (Mystery of the Ages, p. 240). Or for another example, his belief that Jesus has more to accomplish leads him to the belief that our sins will be placed on Satan's head (as the sins of Israel were placed on the head of the Azazel goat, which Armstrong claimed represented Satan) - in effect giving Satan the Devil a prominent role in our salvation and the remission of our sins. Find either of these details disturbing, possibly borderline blasphemy? We certainly do.

Jesus did not have to qualify "for the executive administration of the Government of God" to replace Satan as earth's ruler (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 8-9). God was always in control. Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. Satan could only attack Job within the parameters God allowed. His request to sift Peter like wheat was denied. Jesus could have called down angels to protect Him. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he could offer Jesus nothing that He didn't already possess. The earth is the Lord's and everything in it (Exodus 9:29), as are those who dwell upon it (Psalm 24:1). In no way was Satan in control. It was simply the place to which he fell. When Jesus refers to Satan as "the god of this world" do not mistake that as a claim that Satan is legitimately a god. He is not. When we take all of the evidence of the Bible and the universe into consideration we see that this statement was not a remark of the greatness or authority of Satan. No. It was a remark on the wickedness of the hearts of mankind. Our fallen hearts are so given to evil that we follow en masse after the lies of Satan rather than the love and charity of our true God - Jesus Christ. Satan is not a rightful ruler; he is a usurper. We make Satan into a god.

There's no doubt that the Bible associates Jesus with being a firstborn, Ritenbaugh admits. We agree. He was Mary's firstborn (Matthew 1:25), and Romans 8:29 calls him the firstborn among many brethren. He is called the firstborn from the dead in Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:15. But the Bible often discusses the concept of a firstborn in spiritual or figurative terms. Many verses aren't even talking about a literal birth, so placing undue emphasis on Christ as a literal firstborn can give rise to additional doctrinal problems, Ritenbaugh says.

Christ is called the "firstborn over all creation" in Colossians 1:15-20. If this is literal, then we must determine whose womb was opened so Jesus could be firstborn over creation? (Ritenbaugh, part 3). Likewise, whose womb was opened so He could be the firstborn from the dead? (ibid). God gave Israel His definition of firstborn in Exodus 13:12, which involves the first offspring to open the womb.

In Hebrew culture, the title "firstborn" indicated a position of strength, distinction and sanctity. It frequently referred to the son to whom the leadership of the family would pass when the father died.o

Further, as we examine the scriptures, we see that the one named as the "firstborn" is not always the one chronologically born first. Abraham passed the rights of the firstborn on to Jacob, not Ishmael. Jacob was not Isaac's firstborn, Esau was. Joseph was given firstborn status after Reuben disqualified himself; Jacob did not pass that honor chronologically to Simeon. Likewise, Manasseh was the firstborn, but Jacob gave Ephraim prominence. God does not necessarily follow the traditions of Hebrew culture, but sometimes awards prominence to the one prepared for the responsibility.

God Himself sometimes uses the term "firstborn" figuratively, as when He commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh Israel was His firstborn son (Exodus 4:22). Later, in Jeremiah, God describes Himself as Israel's father and calls Ephraim His firstborn.

In fact, the Bible sometimes uses the term "firstborn" in situations unrelated to birth. For instance, in Job 18:13 Job's friend Bildad the Shuhite is likely talking about a disease like leprosy when he says that the "firstborn of death" consumes one's limbs. In a message  to Philistia, Isaiah 14:30 says that the firstborn of the poor will be fed. Most scholars believe this phrase is talking about the poorest of the poor, not the literal firstborn of an indigent person.

So we can see that the word "firstborn" doesn't always mean literally, chronologically first. In many of the instances just listed, we see firstborn used to indicate a superlative quality, preeminence or significance to God. In referring to Jesus Christ, the term implies preferential status, priority, sovereignty and oneness with God. (Ritenbaugh, part 3). His relationship to God the Father, creation and His brethren are unique and cannot be forced to fit such a literal, finite definition.

Jesus always had been and always would be God. He existed before all creation, and was firstborn, or preeminent over all because He was the Creator, not because of a metaphysical birth order (Colossians 1:15-17). He was called the Son before His incarnation (Psalm 2:12) and certainly before His resurrection (Mark 1:11, John 5:19-27, John 15:10). He is firstborn, or preeminent among believers because of his role as Savior and Redeemer (Colossians 1:18-20).

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

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