“So where do you go to church?” A seemingly innocent question, and one that will be familiar to followers of Jesus Christ. But if, like me, you’re one of the growing number of believers who choose to refrain from participation in traditional local church life, it’s too often a question that sets alarm bells ringing. Why should that be? It’s because when asked by a regular church-attending believer, nine times out of ten you know whatever answer you give will be judged unacceptable. And nine times out of ten their response will be one or more of the following: a) judgment b) preaching c) condescension d) rejection e) withdrawal of fellowship.
And yes, I speak from oft-repeated experience, the latest of which involved a new-found Christian acquaintance knowingly moralizing about we ‘’wounded Christians’’ without the least attempt at further discussion. But the saddest thing about this encounter, and others like it, was the fear I sensed in this man and his wife as they then proceeded to physically distance themselves from me and my husband. Obviously, no fellowship around Christ was to be offered from that particular neck of the woods (sigh)!
For the record, a great many of us dwelling with Christ outside the institutional church camp are not here because we are bitter and wounded. Yes, there are many wounded, unhealed Christians, both inside and outside the walls of institutional Christianity. In fact the most wounded Christians I’ve ever met I met in local churches. We are not ‘’out of church’’ nor have we ‘’left the church’’. If we are in Christ, we are in church. Period. It can’t be any other way, check your Bible. But our understanding of what constitutes church may not fit the common stereotype.
I remember the days of being suspicious of Christians who weren’t “committed” to any one local church. “Church-hoppers” they were labelled (when out of earshot of course). And I recall the inner sense of heightened caution around such ones, as if becoming close to these wayward people might lead to all kinds of backsliding, a message local church leadership were all too eager to reinforce. I was there too once, long ago. If they weren’t part of our particular Christian tribe (i.e. denomination, tradition, stream) their commitment to Christ was at best questionable, at worst non-existent. It was our Christian duty to try to bring them into the safety of “our fellowship”, meaning indoctrinating them into our particular religious lifestyle, before the world outside claimed them forever.
(There’s not space in this post to go into detail about my own journey out of the modern institutional church, except to say every day I thank God for calling me away from it. If you wish to know more about my background feel free to go here.)
But rather than dwell on where I and many others have come from, my purpose in this post is to call attention to where we who follow Christ have actually come to – church-goer and non-church-goer alike. You wish to know what church I’m part of? Let me tell you something about it. The Holy Spirit calls it ‘’the church of the firstborn.”
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. Heb. 12:22-24 NASB
You see, I no longer believe it when I’m told I need to be in relationship with a local church in order to be a fully-fledged Christian. I have already come to Jesus, my mediator of the new covenant, and my deepest and most treasured relationship is with Him. I don’t agree my name needs to be on a church membership role to be assured of my eternal future, for I have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God (Heb. 11:16; Rev. 3:12) where my name is recorded in the Lamb’s book of Life (Phl.4:3; Rev. 21:27).
I know the worship at my local church may be heavenly, and the preaching may be uplifting and even on rare occasions Biblical, but I have discovered I belong to a numberless cloud of righteous ones who are made complete by the Blood of God’s perfect Lamb, Jesus Christ. Spiritual Mt. Zion, the inner sanctum of God’s very Presence, has been opened to me by the sprinkling of that Blood, where tens of thousands of angels celebrate in worship with glorious abandonment (literally ‘’angels in festive gathering’’ – cool!).
At this point someone will inevitably throw out a comment about Hebrews 10:25, a Bible verse much misused and often applied completely out of context to somehow shame believers into church attendance. If we genuinely study the verse in the context of who the writer was addressing, the current events of the day and the surrounding verses, we will find it has nothing to do with local church attendance¹.
Fellowship is important and I love to enjoy true Spirit-led fellowship with any other committed follower of Jesus over coffee, a glass of wine, or a fast-food menu, without the need to explain why I don’t get excited about church buildings or Sunday gatherings. I won’t, however, compromise truth to gain fellowship.
This church of the firstborn is not my exclusive domain. It is in fact where every redeemed child of God has a right to membership…. not after we die, not when we get to Heaven, but NOW, here, today, this very hour. And that is the truth on which we find and build our fellowship, not which church we attend, or if we attend one at all.
If we can’t meet one another, learn from each other, bless and edify each other on the foundation of Christ in us, then we have greatly underestimated the magnitude of our salvation.
By the way, the term “church of the firstborn” is not a reference to Jesus Christ in His role as Firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18, Rev. 1:5), Firstborn over creation (Col. 1:15) or Firstborn of many brethren (Romans 8:29). No, this particular passage refers to that company of redeemed human beings God sees as His own ‘’firstborn’’, for the word firstborn as expressed here is plural – not One, but many, meaning “church of the firstborn ones’’.
The Principle of the Firstborn
To gain some understanding of what God means by ‘’firstborn ones’’ we need to take a brief look back at the Old Testament. We know that the laws and ordinances practised under the Old Covenant were a shadow, or picture, of spiritual principles that would become evident under the New Covenant to come. To the Israelites therefore God’s commandments regarding the firstborn were to be applied literally, i.e. to the firstborn son born into a marriage².
However, there is a spiritual sense in both the Old and New Testaments, where firstborn does not mean the first physically born child, but rather one who has God’s favour.
Physically Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve, but he was also the first murderer. Abel, the second-born, found more favour than Cain in God’s sight when he presented the firstborn of his flock in sacrifice (Gen. 4:4). We often acknowledge that Abel’s sacrifice hints at the sinless Blood of Christ being shed through an innocent lamb. Less often do we consider Abel’s sacrifice was also a firstborn, but I believe this too pleased God, reflecting His own heart.
In some way Abel understood something of God’s character in a manner his older brother Cain did not. By setting aside the firstborn of his flock for God he was acknowledging God’s sovereignty as Creator. Cain on the other hand brought a bloodless sacrifice stained with the sweat of his own labour, as though he could earn God’s favour by working for it, and his sacrifice was not respected by God.
Several generations later Esau, also a firstborn, in a moment of weakness sold his firstborn rights (i.e. inheritance) to his younger brother Jacob (Gen. 25:33; Heb. 12:16). And so the Old Testament records “God loved Jacob but hated Esau” (Mal. 1:2,3). We may not approve of the manner in which Jacob obtained the firstborn’s birthright from his brother but nevertheless it was Jacob, and not Esau, who God blessed and prospered (Genesis 28:10-22).
Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob’s twelve sons, lost his birthright to the youngest, Joseph (1 Chron. 5:1). Ishmael also was a firstborn son, but God’s favour fell on Isaac (Gen. 17:18-21).
And David was the youngest and last of seven brothers in a physical and chronological sense, yet is called by God a ‘’firstborn’’ (Psalm 89:27).
So even in Old Testament times, God bestowed firstborn status on those who pursued a relationship with Him over those who were firstborn by their chronological birth date. Similarly, the ‘church of the firstborn’’ is made up of all believers, those who through grace are “first” in terms of God’s favour and fellowship.
Entitlements of the Firstborn
To gain further insight, let’s take a closer look at what it meant to be a ‘’firstborn’’ in Old Testament times:
Firstly, it means these were ones who belonged to God. They were His exclusively (Exodus 13:2; Ex. 13:13; Num. 3:11-13).
Secondly, the firstborn were those who had been redeemed, or paid for (Exodus 13:12-14; 34:20).
Thirdly, the firstborn were those entitled to a greater inheritance (Deu. 21:15-17)
Fourth, the firstborn were set aside for priesthood. Prior to the Levitical priesthood the firstborn was also the priest of the family or clan (Ex. 13:2; Ex. 19:24).
Belonging, redemption, inheritance, universal priesthood. These then are the birthright of the church of the firstborn.
The Church of the Firstborn
So there you have it. This is my church and the only one I lay claim to. If you are serious about following Christ, it’s the church you belong to also.
When I meet other believers, I want to come together with them on the basis that we, together, ARE the church. I’m not after an invite to the Sunday service or Wednesday Bible study, I just want to partake of the fruit of the Spirit growing within them as we become the two, three or more gathering together in the Name of Christ……anywhere, anytime!
Personally, I don’t give a donut where you go to church. I want to know if you’ve come to Mount Zion, the spiritual dwelling place of God’s Presence. I want to hear your testimony of who Christ is in you. I want to rejoice with you that our names are written in Heaven and through the Blood of Christ we are overcoming the trials and difficulties of this short life on earth. I want to ask you how we can support one another in all these things.These are the concerns that should be in our hearts if and when we meet, be it for the first time or the one hundredth time.
As disciples of Christ we all share a magnificent birthright. We have a common inheritance that cannot be taken from us. We are of Christ, Who is of the line of Jacob, not of Esau. Esau is said to have despised his birthright (Heb. 12:16). He thought so little of it that he gave it up without a second thought. Our English Bibles describe him here as immoral and godless. The original Greek is somewhat stronger, meaning male prostitute, and a profane or unholy person. Strong words.
This glorious birthright, this common inheritance we have obtained through no merit of our own, is clearly spelled out for us. We are honorary members of the church of the firstborn. We are chosen participants in a royal priesthood, worshiping with angels, in the company of the righteous redeemed of all history. We have direct access to the very Presence of God. Our mediator is Christ, not priest, pope, prophet, pastor, or apostle. Notice there is no mention of our local church building, our grand tradition, our state-of-the-art equipment or even our community programs. This birthright comes through the shed Blood of Jesus Christ and nothing may be added.
This birthright belongs to all believers to cherish, honour and defend….together! Let’s not devalue it by preferring the traditions of men and things which are passing away. And let’s not reject those who are pressing into it.
¹ The writer to the Hebrews was writing to Jewish believers who for various reasons were apparently resisting fellowshipping with Gentile believers. Traditionally, Jews did not mix with Gentiles and these new Jewish believers were conflicted between the old ways and their new lives in Christ. Furthermore, this group were experiencing persecution and some commentators believe they did not wish to meet with other believers to avoid being persecuted. Scripture should not be taken out of context. This verse was never a reference to local churches which did not exist at that time.For more on this please see these excellent articles: https://www.wordofhisgrace.org/wp/hebrews_1025/ https://www.chipbrogden.com/gathering-but-not-for-the-better/
² In Exodus 13:2 when God instructed the Israelites to consecrate the firstborn to Him, the Hebrew word often translated ‘’man’’ is “adam’’ meaning human, not male child. The word for a male child was ‘’zakar’’. He was claiming all the firstborn, regardless of gender, as His own. He then goes on to command that the male firstborn of animals should also be consecrated to Him. Elsewhere when we read ‘’firstborn son’’ the Hebrew word is ‘’ben’’ meaning child, not specifically a male child.
For example: “’And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man (adam/human) and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males (zakar/male offspring) that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons (ben/children) I redeem.’’ (Ex. 13:15) Israel was a patriarchal society where males held all authority. It would appear that what God originally commanded regarding firstborn children was over time changed to apply only to firstborn sons.
Related Post: Somewhere A Church
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