There is a fascinating passage in Numbers. In chapter 3, verses 11–13, God says to Moses,
Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.
The Levites, of course, were the tribe whom God chose to carry out the priestly duties of the Tabernacle, where God’s Shekinah glory dwelt in the presence of Israel. As the servants of the Lord, they had no inheritance among the other tribes, for the Lord Himself was their portion and inheritance (Deuteronomy 18:1–2).
Here in this passage we have God substituting the Levites for the entire firstborn male population of Israel as His own possession. He therefore assumes that the Israelite firstborn males, both man and beast, are already His. How and when did He purchase them?
The passage alludes to the Tenth Plague, when God struck down all the firstborn males of Egypt, yet spared the firstborn males of Israel, to make a distinction between the Egyptians and God’s chosen people. By sparing the Israelites from death, God set them apart as His own possession. This very act of sparing them from death (and thus separating them out of the evil nation) is the definition of sanctification. To accurately describe what God did in this plague, He sanctified all the firstborn males—man and beast—of Israel by virtue of not destroying them along with the Egyptian firstborn.
For every firstborn among the sons of Israel is Mine, among the men and among the animals; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself (Numbers 8:17).
God again uses this language in Exodus 13:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me (Exodus 13:1–2).”
What became of those whom God had sanctified? By Levitical law, all the firstborn must be sacrificed as an offering to God. The firstborn of men, cattle, flocks, herds—all must be sacrificed to Him.
What mercy that God should chose to provide a way out for the sons of men! While the firstborn of clean animals were sacrificed on the altar, God substituted the entire Levite tribe for the firstborn males of Israel, for a ransom of money, and thus the Israelite parents redeemed (bought back) their firstborn sons. Since then, when the first son of an Israelite family was born, he was brought before the priest and redeemed with five shekels of silver (Numbers 18:15–16).
The Levites now became God’s permanent possession, though their sacrifice was of continual priesthood in the sanctuary—literally, the sacrifice of their entire lives to the service of God.
It is a beautiful picture, but of what? How is this of use to the Christian? “Much in every way!” to borrow the words of the apostle Paul. Observe the language the writer of Hebrew uses of Christ’s crucifixion:
Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate (Hebrews 13:12).
In order to sanctify us, God had to have a second party (in the Old Testament, the Egyptian firstborns) that received death, that He might spare us (like the Israelite firstborn). Sanctification is the sparing of one by the death of another to absorb punishment. Christ did in fact spare us by the sacrifice of Himself!
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...(Hebrews 13:22–23a)
Again, the language of the Old Testament reappears in God’s plan of salvation. He calls us as Christians the “Firstborn”, hearkening back to the Israelite firstborn sons who were spared from the Tenth Plague. God has now spared us from the death sentence that our sin entails by laying death upon Jesus—and giving us life instead.
What of our redemption? When Adam and Eve sinned, Scripture tells us that they sold themselves to the bondage of Satan and sin. Ever since, man has been under dominion of a foreign master, and as a sin-bound humanity our end was destruction (worse than the destruction of the Egyptian firstborn—eternal death in Hell). In order to free us from this destruction Christ used His own blood as a ransom (akin to the five shekels to redeem a firstborn son) to redeem us from the evil end allotted to mankind:
...knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18–19).
The blood of Christ therefore served two purposes—to sanctify man from death and destruction, and to redeem man from the bondage of sin and Satan (bondage that leads to death). We understand that the works of the Tabernacle were in fact a mere shadow of the work Christ accomplished in the Heavenly Tabernacle, which he entered as rightful High Priest with His own blood for the redeeming work.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption…[f]or Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (Hebrews 9:11–12, 24).
Like the Israelite males, we are the “Firstborn” who have been sanctified by Christ’s death and redeemed by Christ’s blood. The claim of death and sin is lifted from us, and now we are free as God’s children from slavery and destruction—free to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
If you desire to become the Firstborn of God, I would love to help you and walk you through the Gospel message; simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The salvation Christians talk of is so much more than a cross, and yet Christ’s death represents the most profound act of God in human existence.