Firstborn of the Dead

To the Colossians, Paul emphasized the exalted position of Jesus that resulted from his death and resurrectionColossians 1:18-19

In Colossians, Paul stresses the exalted position of Jesus. Some members of the congregation were confused about Christ’s authority, especially regarding the spiritual powers that remain hostile to him and his people. Therefore, Paul reminds them of just how highly God has exalted the one who became the “firstborn of the dead.

Implicit in Paul’s statements is the assumption that Jesus did not always hold this preeminent position. His high status is the result of his obedience unto death, as well as his triumph over all the hostile spiritual powers achieved by him on the Cross. Moreover, he emphasizes what the Son of God has achieved on behalf of the church.
  • (Colossians 1:18-22) – “And HE is the head of the body, the assembly, who is the beginning, firstborn from among the dead, in order that he might become in all things himself pre-eminent; because in him was all the fullness well pleased to dwell. And through him fully to reconcile all things to him, making peace through the blood of his cross, through him, whether the things upon the earth or the things in the heavens. And you who at one time were estranged and enemies in your mind in your wicked works, yet now has he fully reconciled, in his body of flesh, through his death, to present you holy and blameless and unaccusable before him.”
In the Greek text, the pronoun rendered “HE” in the first clause is emphatic and stresses what God has accomplished in Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection. He is now - at present - “before all things” (present tense). Moreover, in him, all things “adhere” or “hold together.” This includes his subjugation of all hostile spiritual powers, and therefore, his people are no longer under the dominion of the “principalities and powers.” In fact, all such powers were “created” to serve him.

Here, the Greek term rendered “body” is used metaphorically for the church (sōma – Strong’s - #4983). In Paul’s view, a physical human “body” is something that God created, and therefore, it is inherently good regardless of its present mortal state.

Firstborn” points to Christ’s preeminence as the “firstborn of many brethren.” And he is the firstborn from the dead - the Son of God is the first man to be resurrected and to receive a glorious immortal body.

His past resurrection links Jesus to the saints. His resurrection is the model and the “first-fruits” of the future resurrection of the righteous, and his glorified body is of the same nature as the one that Christians will receive when he returns. Likewise, the book of Revelation labels him the “firstborn from the dead,” also in reference to his past resurrection:
  • (Revelation 1:4-5) – “John, to the seven assemblies which are in Asia, Grace to you and peace, from Him who Is, and Who Was, and who is Coming, and from the Seven Spirits which are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the Firstborn of the Dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
In Colossians, Paul also uses “resurrection” metaphorically. On some level, water baptism symbolizes the saints being “buried” with Jesus in his death so that now they should live in the newness of his resurrected life - (Colossians 2:9-14).

One result of his exaltation was the cancellation of the ordinances from the Law that governed food and the calendar. Such things were not inherently evil, and they were required by the Torah. However, their time came to an end with the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Such rituals amounted to “shadows” of the “substance” that cast them, namely, Jesus - (Romans 6:4-5).

Because of his victory, believers must not allow anyone to enslave them again to the very “rudiments” to which they have died in Christ (“For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”). Since they have been raised together with him, they must pursue the things above - “Where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God.”

When Jesus is again “manifested,” his people will also “be manifested in glory.” This “manifestation” refers to his return, and his people will receive “glory” at the “advent of Jesus” when they are raised from the dead. Paul links this future “glory” to the present glory of Jesus and the future resurrection. The connection is especially prominent in the designation “firstborn of the dead” - (1 Peter 5:4, 1 John 2:28, 3:2).

As in many of his letters, the future resurrection of the righteous is foundational to Paul’s understanding of salvation and of the Christian hope of life in the age to come.


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