Rev. Toh Nee Lim | On 20, Jul 2018
Scripture Reading: Genesis 49:1-4; Deuteronomy 33:6
‘And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father. Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the Excellency of dignity, and the Excellency of power: unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.’
‘Let Reuben live, and not die; but let his men be few.’ (ESV)
Reuben is the firstborn of Jacob by Leah. Reuben is a masculine name and it is pronounced in Hebrew as Reuven. And it means ‘behold, a son’. This meaning was directed at Jacob by Leah. Jacob had intended to marry Rachel, but was tricked by his father-in-law into marrying Leah. When she gave birth to her oldest, she chose the name Reuben, saying in Genesis 29:32; ‘Because the LORD has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me’. The name is made of two halves; ‘re’u’ means ‘look’, ‘see’ or behold and ‘ben’ means ‘son’. Thus the name expresses the fact that ‘re’u’ – God saw my needs, and therefore blessed me with ‘ben’ – a son. I realized that my son-in-law is called Ben. Well he lives up to that name. He is a son. His parents have always seen Ben as special, above his younger brother, Bertram. His parents by their behavior have pronounced to the world about Ben saying ‘Behold, a son.’ He lives up to that name in his academic achievement and now in his secular attainment. What can we learn from these portions of scriptures?
1. The Status of the firstborn
We must understand that the firstborn status has special significance and is found 130 times in Genesis-Deuteronomy and 1 Chronicles 29. The word ‘firstborn’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘Bekor’ which means ‘firstborn’. It refers not to God’s many sons but rather as his special beloved son. The firstborn is seen as a special beloved son. Because of this special favor that was given, the term ‘firstborn’ could mean ‘most exalted’ or ‘closest in relationship’ or ‘preeminent in status’ even if it wasn’t literally speaking about somebody that actually came first (born first). In the Old Testament he is the eldest son of Jacob and Leah and the ancestor of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Now, take note. The firstborn son of a family had great honor and status, and usually received a double portion of the inheritance, unless the father decided that another son would be given that honor. And that has happened many times in the Old Testament as well as today. Here we see that status was given to Judah and Joseph. It has happened to Jacob over Esau, Ephraim over Manasseh, David over his seven brothers, Solomon over David’s heir apparent; Adonijah. The other children of the family would treat the firstborn with special honor and respect, reflecting his status as the successor to the patriarch of the family. We have seen this in the life of Joseph. Finally the other eleven brothers came and bow down before Joseph and said that their lives were in his hand. Joseph was most exalted, closest in relationship to Jacob and to God and definitely preeminent in status: he was Prime Minister of Egypt.
2. Three people classified as firstborn by YHWH
The firstborn status is given to three groups of people in the Bible.
The first group is Israel. Israel has always been considered as God’s firstborn. Israel is a corporate and national firstborn son of God. In Exodus 4:22-23 it states ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me. But you refuse to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ YHWH addressed the whole of the 3 million Israelites in Egypt as one entity; my son. YHWH will go to the extent of killing all the Egyptians’ firstborns to let them experience the pain of losing their firstborns; their firstborns were the most treasured possession to them. Likewise Israel as one entity is a most treasured possession to YHWH. YHWH is declaring; Israel is my firstborn and since you want to kill my firstborn I will kill your firstborn.
The second is Jesus. In the New Testament Christ has clearly been mentioned as the firstborn. Jesus is seen as the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead. Colossians 1:15-18 says, ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.’ Here it could mean that Mary after giving birth to Jesus (first) had other children as well. But more specifically it means that Christ is the firstborn of a new humanity which is to be glorified, as Jesus Christ himself is glorified. Christ is the firstborn of a new community of saints. This of course refers specifically to the church. The Rabbi said ‘the firstborn of all creation’ is a metaphor for preeminence over every creature by virtue of being their creator. He is also the firstborn from the dead; a promise that all who are a part of His Kingdom will rise too. Christ is the first to rise from the dead and never die again: those who believe in Him will likewise rise again from the dead one day. The firstborn in reference to Jesus has Messianic implication.
The next group is the church. The Church is also called the firstborn as is found in Hebrew 12:23; ‘to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.’ This is the emphasis of my sharing this morning. We made up the church. We are the firstborn. The church as firstborn is a reference to Christ, the firstborn.
3. The characteristics of the firstborn
The word ‘firstborn’ is used in the bible in several distinct senses. In the Old Testament it refers to the firstborn as belonging to YHWH. We belong to YHWH. God has told me specifically that I am his possession and YHWH is my inheritance. It also refers to the preeminence of the firstborn son of the family. We have preeminence in our family, over others and in life. In our cell group last Friday, we were talking about the state and condition of the Christians found in churches today. I do not know about you but we should be appalled at the present state of the Christian Church today; our ineffectiveness en masses, our arrogance and our sin and the sad spiritual state of the people outside the church. We were discussing about a Christian family, whose father was literally killed and the mum became a single mother (though she was really young) and went abroad to work and her two children grew up messed up and the relationship strained between the mother and the children. Finally the mother fell seriously ill and the two children were so unwilling to take care of her. This is not preeminence in the family, over others and in life. This is actually a total defeat in life. I want to declare that it is YHWH that wants you as his firstborn to have preeminence because you are His treasured possession.
To understand what is going on here, you need to understand the Jewish concept of being the first-born son. The first-born son received a double portion of the inheritance. Pastor Lily is very naughty towards my younger daughter Jan lim. She says that Joy is the firstborn and therefore she will receive double portion in her inheritance one day. She says that face to face to Jan Lim. Jan Lim responded by saying that is the reason she is working doubly hard in life. Everything we have is double portion. The firstborn was considered the favored one of God. I see God dealing with me and others in this church and I can only summed up in one word; favor. We are selected over others in this world even when we may not be naturally the firstborn. There is a LOT of symbolism here. God constantly reminded me even when I was working for the ex-church I have the characteristic of firstborn given to me; not because I am good or great but simply I am chosen as firstborn. YHWH told me so clearly when I was a very young Christian that I have not chosen Him but He has chosen me that I should go forth and bring forth fruit. I had the preeminence over all my colleagues who were missionaries to the Philippines. I have two children and all of them have one. The size of our church is double that of theirs. The number of churches that we planted is also double that of theirs. There were 600 churches among the 4 regions but our region has 300 churches. The evidences of double portion surround my life. But today as I grow older, I am asking myself, do I still have the evidences of the firstborn? Do you have the characteristics of the firstborn in your life? If your answer is negative, then you have to ask whether you have become a Reuben.
4. The danger of falling out of the firstborn
Before we go any further; all of us must understand, none excluded that we are all firstborn. We must believe this truth. The church is the firstborn belonging to God. As I prepare this message, I just suddenly realize how much we meant to God and what great endowments he has bestowed upon each and every one of us as firstborn. This great endowment is found in Genesis 49:3.
Now, going back to Genesis 49:1-4 a study of Jacob’s prophetic downloads on his 12 sons, the implication is that God is not only in control of the destinies of nations but also of individuals; literally it says what shall befalls you in the last day (what shall befall you in your future).
The context in which Jacob spoke these words was one of urgency. You will really notice in the first two verses the insistence of Jacob that his sons dropped everything and all of them come together to hear his final words. The phrase ‘Gather yourselves’ is repeated twice in Genesis 49:1-2. He was a dying man and it was impossible for him to travel to them. So he insisted that they came to him without delay: ‘Leave your flock and herds. You must even be tending Pharaoh’s sheep. Come from the fields of Goshen because I have something important to tell you.’ There’s this refrain in the opening verses; ‘he called for them’. He pleaded with them to listen to what he is about to say. There come a time in our lives when we must hear words which are of eternal significance to our lives, when the man speaking to us is in a spirit of deadly earnestness. I think this is the time for you to hear the words of YHWH concerning you his firstborn. God is going to speak about your individual future; more particularly in this last days.
In verse 3 Reuben is written in such glowing terms of the potential of Jacob’s firstborn. ‘Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the Excellency of dignity, and the Excellency of power.’ I want you to understand what Jacob meant by ‘the beginning of my strength’. Two sets of genetic information from Leah and Jacob in the form of a unique DNA code which, when spelt out letter by letter, would fill 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. These 24 volumes were all packed into the nucleus of the cell, which is one-5,000th of a millimeter in diameter, which cell has the ability to replicate itself within a few hours and divide billions of times, eventually producing the fully formed, breathing and moving Reuben. Jacob looked at his baby boy (his first child) and was filled with joy and thanksgiving. Reuben was healthy and strong, crying for food. It was this one who had the privilege of being Jacob’s first born son; “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength. This is how God views us as firstborn. The bible says the Angels in heaven celebrate over the birth a new Child of God. There is a Christian song that sings, ‘why have you chosen me out of millions your child to be.’ There are 7.6 billion people in this world, but God has chosen you his child to be; his firstborn, the first sign of his strength. That is you.
The message bible puts it as ‘Reuben, you’re my firstborn, my strength, first proof of my manhood, at the top in honor and at the top in power.’ By this it implied authority in the family, preeminence over his brethren, a double portion of goods, succession in government, and the exercise of priesthood. All these has YHWH preordained us to be. I remember when I was a young Christian, I felt that God believes in me and because He believes in me, I felt that I could do all things; I have faith for what task is given me. I have the spirit of the firstborn.
Look at us today. Is YHWH saying to you as His child the opposite, you are ‘the beginning of my grief or sorrow.’
Verse 4 is a drastic consequence of potential being flaunted. Jacob is saying ‘Reuben, look at what you have become.’ Is YHWH saying to you, ‘Look at what you have become.’ Reuben did a shameful deed of going in to his father’s concubine, Bilhah. It shows an excess of passion; it seems to apply more to sexual passion than to greed. The terms used for Reuben in verse 4 in various translation means uncontrolled, unstable, insolvent, wanton and went astray. Let’s look at our lives. Are we being described by God in Genesis 49:4? What is the consequences: you shall not have preeminence, you shall no longer excel. Once you excel but you shall no longer excel. You will not be the most important, you will not be foremost. Sin has consequences and leave lasting scars.
In Jacob’s dying blessing are three circumstances concerning Reuben that seem to summaries his tragic story.
Firstly the privileges that should have been his. As the eldest son he was entitled to three portions above his brethren, namely; the priesthood, the birthright and the kingdom. But all three were forfeited and given to others.
By right of birth, elevation to priestly preeminence should have been Rueben’s, but he proved himself unworthy of this ‘excellence of dignity’. Impetuosity and instability totally unfitted him for the priesthood which went to Levi.
By right of birth, royal dignity should have been his as the firstborn of his tribe, but Judah prevailed and the right of the scepter passed from Rueben to Judah.
By right of birth Reuben should have been the head of the representative tribe. He was the beginning of his father’s strength and though the eldest son, forfeited a double inheritance in the land. The right of firstborn became Joseph’s. Deuteronomy 21:17 says, ‘But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.’ Reuben carried little importance in the history of Israel. Reuben had to acknowledge the son of the hated; Joseph by giving him a double portion. Jacob made Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh to be his own; double portion.
Secondly, his irresolute and vacillating nature. Reuben revealed characteristics unbefitting one upon whom high responsibilities should have devolved. He lacked the tenacity and courage one expects to find in the firstborn of the family. He had none of his father’s transformed nature after he became Israel. Do you have none of Jesus Christ’s transformed or transfigured nature after you become a Christian? Jacob described him as being ‘unstable as water’. Water is a suggestive symbol of instability. Think of the waterfall, as it splashes against the ledges of a rock! The rock abides; the fickle stream moves on in never ceasing restlessness. Are we like that? Fickle and always restless. Although a double Excellency was within the reach of Reuben his father had to say of him,, ‘Thou shall not excel’ I think the saddest thing is for God to come to you and say, ‘Thou shalt not excel’ I can now understand the cry of Esau when he lost that firstborn birthright. Because he has really lost a lot. Genesis 27:34; ‘As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceeding great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father’. The reward of unreliability and instability is inferiority; thou shall not excel. For others you once excel, but YHWH comes to you and say, ‘Thou shalt no longer excel.’ When they reached the Promised Land, the Reubenites don’t want to stay in the Promised Land. They prefer to stay at the border of the Promised Land. The tribe of Reuben never rose to prominence and was among the first to be carried into captivity. You will be the first to fall into the hands of the enemy, especially the devil. In the blessing of Moses, Reuben’s doom is sealed. Nothing but a depleted remnant would be his. In some translation of Deuteronomy 33:6 are ‘though his men be few’; ‘although their people are few’. This is part of the lost of preeminence. This phrase often means ‘not very many people.’ What Moses meant was nothing but a depleted remnant would be his. No judge, no prophets, no hero sprang from the tribe of Rueben. By his sin Reuben has permanently impoverished his posterity.
Thirdly his despicable crime. Reuben lost all the honors that should have been his because of his adulterous act with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. He shamed his father. Have you shamed YHWH? Jacob, in his blessing, attributes Reuben’s forfeited privileges to this heinous sin – a sin which brought a curse upon him. This evil stream flowed on, for two Reubenites were ringleaders with Korah in assailing God’s established order, and perished because of their defiance of God. Deborah in her patriotic song, Judges 5, rebuked the children of Reuben for characteristic of selfishness. They lived for themselves. Again the innate fickleness appeared.
Thankfully there is a ray of hope for Reuben in the prophetic benediction of Moses, ‘Let Reuben live and not die’? Is this the evidence of divine grace – life for many of the firstborn in the church; whose sin merited death? There is a gate of Reuben in the Golden City, and a tribe of Reuben in the Israel of God. Reuben’s name is not first, yet through grace it is there. ‘Let Reuben live and not die.’ Heaven will be full of Reubens who should have died but who live forevermore to sing the praises of God’s redeeming grace. The bible talks about the defeated righteous man, Lot and how scarcely the righteous can be saved.
If you are convicted today, which I am very much convicted myself, the message is, “Do not despair.” This is a sorry tale a believer who compromised with the Lord and his word. He came out of the house of firstborn, a spiritual son of our father Abraham, a boy who was favored greatly as the firstborn who went astray and did not grow in grace for many years, but by the end we see that Reuben had changed. He stood in solidarity with Judah when Judah said brokenly to Joseph, “God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now your lord’s slaves – we ourselves” (Gen.44:16). There is no bluster now; there is repentance and shame. Then there was reconciliation and mercy from Joseph (a type of Christ), the brother much sinned against whom Reuben had thrown into a pit. So it will be with you. Maybe you have sinned like Reuben, or worse than Reuben, but when he humbled himself and repented of his heart sins and deeds then God made himself known to him and crowned Reuben’s life with loving-kindness and mercy. Bad old Reuben was ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven. He ended new Reuben, so why not you also? There is great hope for you now from the God of Reuben. Christ receiveth sinful men. For them he came, and those he seeks today, for them he died. Make him your God by bowing before him and serving him alone.