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Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.

Luke 2:7

A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

This taxation brought Joseph to the little town of Bethlehem. It was the custom among the Jews for taxes to be paid in the city from which one’s family originated. And Joseph was from the house of David. So to Bethlehem he went to perform his civic duty.

Mary accompanied him. Mary was the espoused wife of Joseph. According to the word of the angel, she had conceived as a virgin. The Old Testament prophets had spoken of this, and one of the prophets had gone so far as to indicate that her babe would be born in Bethlehem. And, because of the decree of Caesar Augustus, Jesus was. Mary, being Joseph’s espoused wife, accompanied him to Bethlehem.

While in Bethlehem Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.

We know what all this means. Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son. When He was born, she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.

But what is the significance of these things? Why are these facts mentioned? Obviously they are important or God would not have led the holy writer to make mention of them.

To understand the import of these facts is to grasp the purpose of Jesus’ birth and the gospel of salvation.

A miraculous birth!

On the one hand, there was something very natural about Jesus’ birth. Mary brought forth Jesus as her own son. With great pain and travail she gave birth to Him in Bethlehem’s stable. Physically He was her flesh and blood, as is any child the flesh and blood of his parents. Jesus also was Mary’s image. The resemblance between Jesus and His mother Mary was probably very striking.

On the other hand, there was something unique and miraculous about Jesus’ birth. We are reminded of this by mention of Jesus’ being Mary’s firstborn son.

Some think that Jesus is called Mary’s firstborn to emphasize that other siblings would follow. Contrary to the claim of some, Mary did have more children. We know that Jesus’ siblings did not believe on Him until after His exaltation. Two of them, James and Jude, were even inspired to write Holy Scripture. However, this is not the significance of mentioning Jesus as Mary’s firstborn. The firstborn can be an only child. Besides this, there is no significance for this passage in the fact that Jesus had brothers and sister.

That Jesus was Mary’s firstborn is mentioned here to emphasize the special character of Jesus’ birth. Mary was a virgin. The angel Gabriel, when he appeared to Mary, was very emphatic. She would conceive this child miraculously, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus would give birth to her child as a virgin. As a reminder of this the Scriptures here point out that Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son. Were Jesus not Mary’s firstborn, she would not have brought Him forth as a virgin. For Mary to be the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit had performed this unique miracle, Jesus must be her firstborn son.

And through the miracle of the virgin birth a greater miracle took place, namely, the incarnation.

Jesus is not a human person. He is divine. He is the eternal Son of God, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit possesses equally and eternally the one divine nature. Through the virgin birth the Son of God took upon Himself our flesh, the flesh and blood of Mary, so that He is truly the Son of God, but truly also the son of Mary. Jesus is God come in the flesh, Immanuel.

What an astounding miracle!

Of all this we are reminded by the mention of Jesus’ being Mary’s firstborn son.

A glorious position!

Of significance is the fact that Jesus is not only Mary’s firstborn but also God’s firstborn. Hebrews 1:6 identifies Jesus as God’s first begotten. Scripture uses similar terms elsewhere. Jesus is the firstborn of every creature (Col. 1:15); He is the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29). The church of Jesus Christ is even called the church of the firstborn (Heb. 12:23).

That Jesus is the firstborn of God does not mean that He is the first one born in history, for Cain was. Nor does this mean that Jesus is the first one born again. Jesus never was born again, for He was sinless from His mother’s womb.

Jesus is the firstborn of God in that He occupies the position of one who is firstborn.

In Bible times the firstborn son held a very special position. He was destined to be the ruler over his brothers and would receive a double portion of his father’s inheritance. This was a special blessing by reason of birth, the birthright blessing. Think of how important this was in the history of Jacob and Esau.

In similar manner, Jesus occupies the position of the firstborn.

As the firstborn, Jesus is the firstborn of the whole creation (Col. 1:15). This means that God the Father gives to Jesus the whole creation as an inheritance. The whole creation belongs to God, who is its Creator and Sustainer. This vast creation with all its power and splendor is God’s inheritance to Jesus Christ. Over that creation God gives Jesus the right of rule. Indeed, Jesus occupies the position of the firstborn of God.

Jesus is also the firstborn of the church. God has eternally chosen to Himself a church, which He has determined to save from sin and glorify in heaven. This church is an innumerable multitude — men, women, and children from every race and walk of life. God has given to Jesus the rule over this church. Better yet, God rules His church through Jesus Christ, whom He has exalted to His own right hand. But God will also bless His beloved church. He will shower her with blessings of salvation and life. He will exalt her with honor and glory. He will satisfy her with every good thing. But all these blessings come to the church only through Jesus. They are given first to Jesus Christ as an inheritance. And He shares them with the church. Jesus is the firstborn of the church, the firstborn among many brethren.

Jesus can occupy this position of the firstborn of God only because He is the firstborn son of Mary.

To receive the privilege and honor of God’s firstborn required that Jesus make atonement for sin. As we have already seen, God will save a church, chosen out of all nations, chosen to eternal life. This salvation requires the payment for sin. The sins of the church must be covered by one who will bear away all of God’s punishment for her sin. The church must be presented perfectly righteous to God. God has given this responsibility to Jesus Christ, placing before Him the reward of occupying the position of firstborn.

Jesus can accomplish all this, however, only if He is Mary’s firstborn son.

Jesus must have several qualifications, if He will render atonement for sin. He must be human. Only then can He bear the punishment of God’s people. God will not punish another creature for man’s sin. Jesus must also be perfectly righteous. Atonement requires Jesus is to walk in perfect obedience for all of God’s people. This He can do only if he is Himself sinless from birth. Finally, Jesus must be divine. The work of atonement requires that Jesus bear away God’s entire wrath against the sin of the church. It requires that He walk in perfect obedience for many, for as many as are ordained to eternal life. No mere creature can do this, only one who is divine.

To be all this — human, perfectly righteous, fully divine — Jesus must be conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin. Human conception could only produce another human, born in sin. Only the virgin birth can produce one who is qualified to make atonement for sin and attain the position of the firstborn of God.

Only Mary’s firstborn can be God’s firstborn!

A necessary humiliation!

God’s firstborn Son was born in very humble circumstances. There was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. Consequently, Jesus was born in a cattle stall. A manger or feeding bunk was His bed. This was not the cozy, warm setting pictured on many Christmas cards. This was a foul, dirty cave outside Bethlehem, used to house animals.

How fitting this was. As the firstborn of God Jesus must take upon Himself the poverty of our sin. He must carry the burden of our guilt and He must carry it all the way to the cross. All along the way, but especially at the cross, He must bear the terrible punishment of our sin. What shame! What humiliation! Nothing is more humiliating than to bear the fury of hell for sin. Of this greater poverty into which Jesus came, the poverty and humility of Bethlehem was but a faint picture.

Let us bow before the babe of Bethlehem.

Let us see His humiliation and shame.

He is the firstborn of God.

In Him we also become the sons of God.