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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

Although the apostle Paul did not write Hebrews, the theological viewpoints of the two authors are often remarkably similar. This theological consonance is seen especially in Hebrews 12 and Romans 8. The overall theme of both chapters is that of suffering. Specifically, both authors claim that, far from evidencing God's removal from and lack of concern for us, suffering is the very means by which we prove to be God's own sons and daughters:

"It is for discipline that you have to endure [suffering]. God is treating you as sons.” (Heb 12:7a)

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16-17)

Romans 8 draws out the link between sonship and inheritance, which was understood so naturally in the ancient world. For them, the significance of the inheritance was at least twofold. First, whereas today we depend primarily on our own retirement funds for financial security in the future, those in the ancient Near East depended heavily on the anticipated inheritance from their father just to make ends meet. Second, whereas we moderns tend to vie for a personal achievement independent from our parents, these ancients mainly found significance in connection with the approval and blessing from their parents and the family lineage they represented. The moment of inheritance thus represented the pinnacle declaration of their long-lived faithfulness as sons or daughters. It should be noted that the “firstborn” son was regarded with such a special status among the family as to receive a double portion of the inheritance.

Hebrews 12 and Romans 8 provide us with examples of two firstborn sons and each one’s relation to a future inheritance. The difference is that one is a negative example (inheritance denied) while the other is positive (inheritance obtained). The negative example comes via Esau (Genesis 25:29-34), who, in a flash of hunger and exhaustion, “sold his birthright for a single meal” (Heb 12:16). Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac and therefore the apparent heir—yet this was permanently forsaken by the fateful trade with his younger brother.  Hebrews finds this story relevant for a group prone to turn away from the sufferings entailed by commitment to Christ. As they are tempted to trade away their eternal inheritance for a “bowl of porridge,” the author supplements the inheritance metaphor with one of running a race: “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet!” (Heb 12:12-13) While the author certainly regards his congregants as “sons” of God (12:5-7), there is still a sense in which sonship is a thing to be proven—inasmuch as the future inheritance and blessing is obtained by perseverance, the very quality Esau lacked.

Turning back to Romans 8, Paul presents us with a more positive example of a firstborn son than old Esau:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”  - Romans 8:28

Verse 28 is well known, but what exactly is the “good” for which God works “all things” together? In verse 29 “good” is identified with being “conformed to the image of his Son.” But notice the further purpose: “in order that he [Jesus, the “Son”] might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This last phrase has everything to do with inheritance. This is a fleshing out of what Paul already stated in Romans 8:17: that those who “suffer with [Christ]”—which is to say, suffer with Christ-like, cruciform faithfulness—become “heirs with Christ.” Christ, as the “firstborn among many brothers,” but quite unlike faithless Esau, was “faithful…as a son” (Heb 3:6). As a result, he is the first one in all creation—the first of all God’s “sons”—to receive the glorious inheritance hinted at in Romans 8:18-25. But, being a generous firstborn son, Christ is more than willing to share his inheritance with his younger siblings!

The call to perseverance is truly a gospel demand (note the conditional “provided we suffer with him…” in Romans 8:17), but it is not the demand to work for God’s future approval as much as the call to work out his past approval (cf. Phil 2:12). Regarding our future inheritance, then, may we live in accordance with this: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12).

Jesse Peterson
Ministry Fellow at Columbia
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