Arlen L. Chitwood
The Rights of Primogeniture
By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord:
looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled;
lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.
For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Hebrews 12:14-17)
Esau and Jacob were twin brothers. But Esau, having been born first, was recognized as the elder and thus the one in line to receive the blessing of the father reserved for the firstborn. Esau though forfeited the rights of primogeniture, and his younger brother, Jacob, received the blessing in his stead [place].
Esau received a blessing from his father, but it was far inferior to Jacob’s blessing. And the blessing that Esau received was not connected in any manner with the rights belonging to the firstborn, for these rights had been forfeited.
Esau’s forfeiture of the birthright was foretold before he was even born. At a time prior to the birth of Esau and Jacob, the Lord had told Rebekah, “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). In order for this to come about, the older would have to forfeit the rights of primogeniture; and the younger would then have to receive the blessing in his stead (cf. Genesis 27:37)
When the time arrived for Isaac to bestow his blessings upon Esau and Jacob, he set about to bestow the blessing of the firstborn upon Esau, contrary to that which the Lord had revealed to Rebekah. But Isaac could not bless Esau as the firstborn, for Esau had previously forfeited these rights. And, although Jacob used deceptive means to obtain his father’s blessing as the firstborn (Genesis 27:18ff), he was merely taking what rightfully belonged to him.
Isaac’s faith in Hebrews 11:20 centers on God’s promise in the Abrahamic covenant. This covenant had been reaffirmed to Isaac, and the Lord had specifically told Isaac,
Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.
And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 26:3, 4)
Insofar as the promises in the Abrahamic covenant were concerned, Jacob was the only one recognized as Isaac’s seed. Esau, because he was Isaac’s son, received a blessing — as Ishmael, because he was Abraham’s son (Genesis 17:20, 21; 21:13) — but this blessing, as Ishmael’s, was completely outside the scope of the Abrahamic covenant and the rights of primogeniture.
The forfeiture of the birthright by Esau and the blessings bestowed upon both Jacob and Esau by their father are recorded in Genesis 25:27-27:40. These experiences of Jacob and Esau form the last of five major warnings directed to Christians in the book of Hebrews (12:14-17). Even though it had been revealed before the birth of Jacob and Esau that the older would serve the younger; Esau, by a willful act of his own, forfeited the rights of primogeniture.
And within this forfeiture lies the warning to every Christian concerning the possibility that a Christian, in like manner, can forfeit his birthright.
The word translated “birthright” is prototokia in the Greek text. Prototokia is a plural noun that should properly be rendered, “the rights of the firstborn.” This word points to the fact that the birthright consists of a plurality of rights.
1) Firstborn Sons — Israel
In the Old Testament the inheritance belonging to the firstborn in the camp of Israel consisted of three things:
a) The firstborn was to be ruler of the household
The firstborn held the position of authority among sons in the family. He was to rule the household under and for the father.
In the blessing bestowed upon Jacob, he was placed as “master” over his brother (Genesis 27:37). When Joseph’s brothers were seated at the table to dine with him in Egypt, they were placed according to their age and rank in the family. The firstborn was placed before him “according to his birthright” (Genesis 43:33).
b) The firstborn was to act as priest of the family
Israel — God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22) — was called out of Egypt to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Israel was to hold and exercise the rights of this position, under God, among the nations of the earth. Israel forfeited the right to exercise this position in Old Testament history. But during the coming age, following the nation’s repentance, Israel will occupy the firstborn position for which the nation was called into existence.
c) The firstborn was to receive a double portion of the father’s estate
If there were six heirs in the family, including the firstborn, the father’s estate was divided into seven equal parts. The firstborn received two of the seven parts, and the remaining heirs in the family received the other five parts, which were divided equally among them (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
2) Firstborn Sons — Christians
In the New Testament the inheritance belonging to the firstborn (Christians, as they will be seen following the adoption, at which time the inheritance will be received) is foreshadowed by the triple inheritance bestowed upon the firstborn in the Old Testament.
Christians, presently constituting “a royal [‘regal’] priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), are to be made “kings and priests” and receive a double portion of the Father’s estate.
a) The firstborn is to be made a ruler of the household
This was God’s purpose for the creation of man in the beginning (Genesis 1:26-28) — a purpose that will be realized in the coming age:
First, through Jesus Christ (God’s firstborn Son).
Second, through the Church (God’s firstborn son, following the adoption).
Third, through the nation of Israel (God’s firstborn son).
Christ is “the second Man,” “the last Adam,” who has paid the price to redeem that which “the first man,” “the first Adam,” forfeited in the fall. The time when the purchased possession will be received and God’s purpose for the creation of man realized in its fullness awaits the Messianic Era.
In that coming day, Christ will rule from the heavens over the earth, seated on His own throne (Revelation 3:21), along with ruling in Israel’s midst here on earth, seated on David’s throne (Luke 1:31-33). Overcoming Christians, who will form the Church in its ultimate manifestation — the “church of the firstborn [‘called out firstborn ones (sons)’]” (Hebrews 12:23) — will rule from the heavens with Christ; and Israel will be established at the head of the nations here on the earth.
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS.
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.
And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write . . .
And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations —
He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels — as I also have received from My Father. (Revelation 2:18a, 26, 27)
And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write . . .
To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. (Revelation 3:14a, 21)
b) The firstborn is not only to be a ruler, but he is also to be a priest in the coming kingdom of Christ
As Christ is to be the great King-Priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” Christians are to be “kings and priests” when they reign as “joint-heirs” with Christ (Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
There is a present existing priesthood in which all believers participate equally, and Christ is our great High Priest, ministering on our behalf in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle in heaven. Although Christ has already been made a Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20), He has not yet entered into this priestly office, for the Melchizedek priesthood has to do with a combined Kingly-Priestly function of Israel’s Messiah. Christ has already been anointed King, as He has already been made a priest after the order of Melchizedek. But the time when He will become King and exercise a Kingly-Priestly office — the Melchizedek priesthood — is yet future.
The ministry of Christ today is patterned after the order of Aaron, not that of Melchizedek. His present ministry in the heavenly tabernacle is being performed on the basis of shed blood — the blood that He shed at Calvary.
Aaron and the priests after his order alone occupied a ministry of this nature in the Old Testament. Consequently, the priesthood of Christ must undergo a change. (Note the word “unchangeable” in Hebrews 7:24. This is a translation of the Greek word aparabatos, which means, “without a successor,” i.e., “unchangeable with respect to a successor,” which was not possible in the Aaronic line [v. 23].)
Christ’s ministry in the Holy of Holies will continue throughout the present dispensation. At the end of this dispensation the present priestly ministry of Christ for Christians in the sanctuary will be completed, and a change in the priesthood can then occur. Following the seven-year Tribulation (which follows the present dispensation and completes the last seven years of the previous dispensation), Christ will come forth and appear to Israel as the great King-Priest after the order of Melchizedek. And Christians (presently priests) are, at the same time, to be made “kings and priests” — a change that will also occur in the priesthood of believers (Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
Thus, as the present priestly ministry of Christ is not patterned after the order of Melchizedek, nor associated with the inheritance that the Father will bestow upon the Son, neither is the present priesthood of believers patterned after the coming priesthood, nor associated with the inheritance that Christians will receive with the Son.
(Note that Christ can exercise a priestly ministry patterned after the order of Aaron, though not of the Levitical line, because He is exercising this ministry for those who are not under the Mosaic Economy. He is exercising this ministry for the one new man “in Christ,” for Christians.
When Israel is one day brought back into the picture, the priestly ministry of Christ, in this respect, of necessity, will have to undergo a change. Though Israel will be placed under a new and different economy, with the new covenant replacing the old covenant, the Levitical line will continue as the priestly line [Ezekiel 44:9-16]. Thus, for Christ to exercise the office of King-Priest in Israel in that day, His priesthood will have to change. And this is where the Melchizedek priesthood is seen — a Priest after an entirely different order, who is also a King.)
Melchizedek appears only two times in all of the Old Testament Scriptures (Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 110:4), and both passages are Messianic in their scope. In turn, Melchizedek appears in only one book of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit has inscribed the name “Melchizedek” nine times in the book of Hebrews (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10, 11, 15, 17, 21); and teachings surrounding his appearance in this book are to be understood in the light of that which is revealed in the Old Testament, for all New Testament Scripture is simply a continuation and an expansion of God’s previous Revelation, beginning with Genesis.
(Refer to Chapter 10 in this book for additional information on Melchizedek.)
1a) Melchizedek in Genesis (14:17-20)
Melchizedek met Abraham returning from the battle of the kings, and blessed him. Melchizedek was a king-priest. He was “king of Salem [a shortened form of the name ‘Jerusalem’],” and he was “priest of God Most High.” “Salem” appears in Psalm 76:2 referring to the tabernacle of Israel’s Messiah during the Kingdom Age — a Messianic passage referring to the King in Jerusalem.
Following the battle of the kings in Genesis chapter fourteen, Melchizedek brought forth bread and wine and blessed Abraham. Two thousand years later, the One whom Melchizedek foreshadowed partook of bread and wine with His disciples immediately before His crucifixion (Matthew 26:26-28). He then stated,
But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom. (v. 29)
This statement from the lips of Jesus clearly reveals that between these two times — between events surrounding the crucifixion and events surrounding the kingdom (a period covering the entire present dispensation, another 2,000-year period) — He will not bring forth bread and wine after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek’s ministry in Genesis centered on his blessing Abraham; the antitype of this ministry will center on the One who is greater than Melchizedek blessing the descendants of Abraham.
The day when Israel will experience this blessing at the hands of their Messiah is clearly revealed to be:
a) Following the battle of the kings (following the treading of the winepress, where the battle will be fought between Jesus [God’s true King] and the man of sin with his allies [Satan’s false king, with the “kings of the earth and their armies”]; Revelation 14:14-20; 19:17-21).
b) During that time after Israel’s Messiah has returned and dwells among the Jewish people (during that future time when Jesus is seated on the throne of His father, David, in Jerusalem [Luke 1:31-33; Acts 13:33, 34]).
Thus, the typology in Genesis 14:17-20 can only be millennial in its scope. When Jesus exercises the Melchizedek priesthood, He will be the great King-Priest in Jerusalem. In that day Jesus will go forth as “King of Jerusalem” and “Priest of God Most High” with bread and wine to bless the descendants of Abraham. None of this can occur during the present dispensation.
2a) Melchizedek in Psalms (110:1-7)
During the present dispensation the Son is seated at the Father’s right hand, on His Father’s throne in the heavens. He is to occupy this position until His enemies are made His “footstool” (v. 1). The time when His enemies will be brought under subjection (made His footstool) occurs at the end of the coming Tribulation, at the end of Man’s Day.
In the coming age, Jesus will exercise a rule that will issue forth from “Zion [Jerusalem; cf. Psalm 126:1; Isaiah 1:26, 27].” He will rule in the midst of His “enemies,” and “execute kings in the day of His wrath” (vv. 2, 5; cf. Psalm 2:6-12).
Thus, Christ is said to exercise a priestly office “after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 4) during the time when He rules from Jerusalem (vv. 2-7), not during the time when He is seated at the Father’s right hand (v. 1). The Melchizedek priesthood in Psalm 110, as in Genesis chapter fourteen, is associated with the coming age, not the present dispensation. Psalm 110:1 refers to events during and concluding the present dispensation; Psalm 110:2ff refer to events during the coming age.
3a) Melchizedek in Hebrews (chapters 5-7)
Hebrews is a book that aligns itself with the age to come. After four introductory verses, chapter one is composed almost entirely of seven Messianic quotations from the Old Testament, establishing a foundational premise for the remainder of the book. And the book itself is built around five major warnings, beginning with chapter two, which have to do with and find their ultimate fulfillment in the coming age.
The things revealed about Melchizedek in chapters five through seven, interpreted in the light of both the Old Testament and the book of Hebrews as a whole, likewise, have to do with a future ministry of Christ in the age to come.
These things can refer to no other period in the ministry of Christ, for the totality of Revelation concerning Melchizedek in Genesis and Psalms is Messianic; and so must the corresponding Revelation be in the book of Hebrews, which is in complete keeping with the book beginning with seven Messianic quotations from the Old Testament.
The writer of Hebrews introduced Melchizedek by quoting Psalm 110:4 (5:6). He then stated that there were numerous things that he would have liked to discuss concerning the antitype of the Melchizedek priesthood, but the ones to whom he was writing were not mature enough to understand.
Teachings of this nature had to do with “solid food [KJV: ‘strong meat’],” and the recipients of this epistle could only take “milk” (5:10-14). These teachings were further associated with the “hope” set before Christians, and the salvation of the “soul” (6:19, 20), things having to do with the coming age, not with the present dispensation.
The present ministry of Christ, our High Priest, is connected with the tabernacle; and the present ministry of Christians, as priests, is also connected with the tabernacle. Christ ministers in the Holy of Holies on our behalf, and we approach God through Jesus Christ on the basis of His blood on the mercy seat.
However, when Christ comes forth from the tabernacle to exercise the Melchizedek priesthood, His ministry as High Priest on behalf of Christians will have ended. A ministry of this nature is strictly for Christians during the present dispensation, as they reside here on earth in a body subject to sin and death (cf. Romans 7:24; 8:1ff).
Christians, in that coming day, will no longer need a priest. Christ’s past work at Calvary and His present ministry in the heavenly sanctuary make the things awaiting Christians in that future day possible. Because of Christ’s past and present ministries, Christians, in that day, will reside in sinless, glorified bodies in a city that has no temple (1 Corinthians 15:51-57; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 21:22). Christ will reign as the great King-Priest, and Christians will reign as joint-heirs with Him in the capacity of kings and priests.
(The preceding has been worded after a manner having to do with Christians who, during the present dispensation, avail themselves of Christ’s ministry in the sanctuary. Not all Christians though do this. And if a Christian doesn’t, Scripture is quite clear that such a Christian can have no part with Christ during the coming day of His power [John 13:8].
Such a Christian will be estranged from the Glory, the adoption, and the redemption of the body. All three are seen in connection with regality, with the kingdom; and the three are so inseparably related that one cannot be realized apart from the other two.
In fact, in Romans 8:23, “the adoption” is further explained as “the redemption of the body.” And the redeemed body will be enswathed [to enclose or cover] in Glory, as existed in Eden with Adam and Eve prior to the fall [with the enswathement of Glory evidently being part and parcel with the redemption of the body].
Thus, there can be no such thing as the existence of one apart from the other two [e.g., no such thing as the Glory apart from the adoption and the redemption of the body]. And, in another sense of the word, all three are so inseparably related that they can be looked upon and spoken of in a synonymous sense, as seen in Romans 8:23.)
c) The firstborn in the family is not only to be a ruler and a priest, but he is also to receive a double portion of the Father’s estate
This double portion undoubtedly has to do with both spheres of the kingdom — heavenly and earthly. The “kings and priests” who reign with Christ will rule from the heavens over the earth. Inheriting with Christ really means possessing both, for the Father has promised His Son,
Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations [Gentiles] for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. (Psalm 2:8)
This earthly inheritance and possession is open to God’s Son and those who rule from the heavens as “joint-heirs” with Him. Thus, a rule from the heavens over the earth will incorporate this double portion.
Warning: One’s Birthright can be Forfeited
There are two classic examples in the Word of God concerning the forfeiture of the rights belonging to the firstborn. One is the account of Esau, and the other is the account of Reuben.
1) Esau and the Birthright
Esau forfeited his rights as firstborn to his younger brother, Jacob. Esau forfeited his birthright to satisfy a fleshly gratification. He sold his birthright to Jacob for a single meal (Genesis 25:27-34).
Since the rights of the firstborn had ultimately been promised to Jacob (Genesis 25:23), some doubt that Esau ever actually possessed these rights. However, Esau was no pretender to the rights of the firstborn. The Greek word translated “sold” in Hebrews 12:16 is inflected in a tense implying that the article sold belonged to Esau alone, and he was fully aware of his actions when he sold his birthright to Jacob.
In Genesis 25:34 we read that Esau “despised his birthright.” The word in the Septuagint version (Greek translation) of the Old Testament translated “despised” implies that Esau regarded the birthright as paltry, a mere trifle. Esau regarded the birthright as practically worthless, and sold his rights as firstborn with the thought in mind that what he was selling was of no real value. It was only later, at a time when it was too late, that Esau realized the value of that which he had sold. As in Reuben’s case, the forfeiture of the birthright did not affect his sonship, but it did affect forever his relationship to Isaac as firstborn.
After Jacob had been blessed as the firstborn in the family, Esau, apparently for the first time, realized the value of that which he had lost. Esau then tried to retrieve the birthright, but the Scripture records that “he found no place of repentance.”
After Esau realized the value of the birthright and the finality of that which had occurred, he pleaded with his father, Isaac, to change his mind and bless him also. In Genesis 27:38, Esau cried out to Isaac:
. . . Have you only one blessing, my father? Bless me-me also, O my father! . . . .
And, because the rights of the firstborn were no longer his, and beyond his grasp forever, it is recorded,
. . . And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.
The word “repentance” means to change one’s mind. Esau repented; Esau changed his mind. But he could not get his father to change his mind. Esau, seeking to effect a change of mind on the part of his father, “found no place of repentance,” i.e., “he found no place for a change of mind.”
The American Standard Version of the Bible (1901 ed.), translating this verse, provides the meaning of “repentance” and adds the words “in his father” (in italics, showing that they are not in the Greek text), to clarify exactly what is in view. This verse in the American Standard Version reads,
For ye know that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place for a change of mind in his father, though he sought it diligently with tears.
Isaac could not change his mind. The birthright had been forfeited and was beyond Esau’s grasp forever.
2) Reuben and the Birthright
Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob, was in direct line to inherit the rights of primogeniture; but because of one grave sin committed during his life, recorded in Genesis 35:22, Reuben forfeited these rights. Reuben’s sin, resulting in the forfeiture of his birthright, was sexual impropriety of a nature that dishonored and shamed his father:
. . . Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine . . . .
Because of this one sin, years later when Jacob called his twelve sons into his presence shortly before his death to relate what would befall them “in the last days,” Reuben heard the words:
Reuben, you are my firstborn, My might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.
Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it - He went up to my couch. (Genesis 49:3, 4)
The tribe of Reuben, as Jacob prophesied, did not excel. From this tribe came no judge, no king, and no prophet. That which Reuben lost, he lost forever. But he himself remained a son of Jacob and was blessed in measure, but not as the firstborn.
Reuben’s birthright was divided among three of his brothers. The tribal rulership was bestowed upon “Judah”; the priestly office was bestowed upon “Levi”; and the double portion of the father’s estate was given to “Joseph.” The tribe of “Judah” became the kingly line; the tribe of “Levi” became the priestly line; and the tribe of “Joseph” received the double portion through Joseph’s two sons, “Ephraim” and “Manasseh,” who each received a full inheritance (1 Chronicles 5:1, 2).
During the Messianic Era the status created by Reuben’s sin will still abide. The King will be from the house of Judah (Revelation 5:5); the priests will be from the house of Levi (Ezekiel 44:15, 16; 48:11); and the double portion will be held by the house of Joseph through Ephraim and Manasseh (Ezekiel 47:13; 48:4, 5).
3) Christians and the Birthright
Within the minds of many Christians is the thought that after a person has received the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior it makes little difference how he conducts his life, for all Christians will inherit with the Son when He receives the kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. To reign with Christ is contingent upon identifying oneself with Christ and sharing in His rejection and reproach during the present day and time. If all Christians are to rule and reign with Christ in His kingdom, what does the Scripture mean when it states,
If we endure [patiently endure], we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. (2 Timothy 2:12)?
If a Christian lives an undisciplined life, following the carnal nature (typified by Esau’s attitude toward the birthright) rather than the spiritual nature (typified by Jacob’s attitude toward the birthright), fails to occupy until the Lord comes (Luke 19:12, 13), or fails to use the talent or pound entrusted to him by the Lord (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:15-24), that Christian will also fail to occupy a place in our Lord’s kingdom.
Christians are seen in Scripture as both “children” and “sons” (ref. Chapter 14 in this book), and as “sons” they are awaiting the adoption and inheritance belonging to firstborn sons (Romans 8:16-23, 29; Hebrews 2:10; 12:23). The adoption and inheritance are both future, and both can be forfeited, for, as previously seen, one is inseparably associated with the other.
A Christian’s present relationship to the Father as a child cannot be forfeited. But a Christian’s relationship to the Father as a son, to one day be adopted into a firstborn standing with the Father, participating in the rights belonging to the firstborn, can be forfeited. As in the account of Esau and Reuben, once this forfeiture has occurred, the rights belonging to the firstborn cannot be retrieved.
In that day when we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ there will be two classes of Christians:
1) Those who have retained their rights as firstborn.
2) Those who have forfeited their rights as firstborn.
Christians retaining the rights of the firstborn will exercise these rights as “joint-heirs” with the Son in the kingdom. But Christians who forfeit the rights of the firstborn will find themselves in the same position that Esau and Reuben found themselves following the loss of the rights belonging to the firstborn.
Such Christians will seek a place of repentance. That is to say, they will attempt to have the Judge change His mind and bless them along with the others who did not forfeit the rights belonging to the firstborn. But they will find no place for a change of mind. It will be too late.
The birthright will have been forfeited. The blessing pertaining to the inheritance awaiting the firstborn sons of God will have been forfeited, and those who forfeit this blessing will occupy no position among the “kings and priests” who reign over the earth with the Son. Christians in that day, as Esau in the type, when they at last realize what has been lost, will lift up their voices and weep.
Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. (Revelation 3:11).