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23 August 2019

Firstborn of the Dead

Synopsis:   Paul emphasizes the exalted position of Jesus that resulted from his death and resurrectionColossians 1:18-19.

Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash
By Einar Storsul on Unsplash
In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul stresses the exalted position of Jesus Christ that resulted from his obedient death and, subsequently, his resurrection from the dead.

Apparently, some members of the congregation remained confused about the authority of the Son of God, even over the spiritual powers hostile to God and His people. Therefore, Paul reminded them of just how highly God has exalted Jesus, who has become the “firstborn of the dead.”

(Colossians 1:18-19) – “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.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

The pronoun from the preceding passage rendered “he” (twice) is emphatic in the Greek text (or, “he himself”); the stress is on Jesus and what God has accomplished in his death and resurrection. Jesus is now, at present, “before all things” (present tense); moreover, in him, all things “adhere” or “hold together.”

Implicit is that Christ did not always have this preeminent position. His high status is the result of his Death and Resurrection, as well as his triumph over all hostile powers. However, even more so, the passage emphasizes what he has achieved on behalf of the church, including the small congregation at Colossae.

The Greek term rendered “body” is used by the Apostle metaphorically for the church (sōma – Strong’s #4983). The metaphor is fitting. In the theology of Paul, a human and physical “body” is something created by God and, thus, inherently good regardless of its present weaknesses. The concept of an embodied existence is something to be embraced, not shunned.

Firstborn” points to the preeminence of Jesus as the “firstborn of many brethren.” However, the clause also stresses that he is the firstborn from the dead. That is, the Son of God is the first man to be resurrected and receive a glorious immortal body.
This theological concept links Jesus to the saints. His resurrection is a forerunner of their own, and his glorified and resurrection body is of the same nature as the one that believers will when he returns at the end of the age. 

The Book of Revelation also labels Jesus as the “firstborn from the dead” in a reference to his resurrection:

(Revelation 1:4-5) – “John, unto the Seven Assemblies which are in Asia, Favour 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” – (The Emphasized Bible).

Paul does use the term “resurrection” metaphorically in this letter, though this usage stems from the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 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) – “Because, in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily, And ye are, in him, filled full,—Who is the head of all principality and authority, In whom, ye have also been circumcised with a circumcision not done by hand, in the despoiling of the body of flesh, in the circumcision of the Christ,— Having been buried together with him in your immersion, wherein also ye have been raised together, through your faith in the energising of God—Who raised him from among the dead. And, as for you—who were dead by your offences and by the uncircumcision of your flesh, he hath brought you to life together with him,—having in favour forgiven us all our offences, Having blotted out the handwriting against us by the decrees, which was hostile to us,—and hath taken away, the same, out of the midst, nailing it up to the cross.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

One result of his exaltation is the cancellation of ordinances from the Law that had to do with dietary restrictions and calendrical observations. Such things were not inherently evil and were required by the Torah; however, their time had come to an end with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus; they amounted to “shadows” of the “substance” that cast them – Jesus (Romans 6:4-5).

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

When Jesus is again “manifested,” his people will, likewise, “be manifested in glory.” This “manifestation” refers to his coming in glory at the end of the age. This “glory” will be received collectively at the advent of Jesus, not when an individual believer dies (1 Peter 5:4, 1 John 2:28, 3:2).

Paul associates the future “glory” for believers with the present glory of Jesus and the promised bodily resurrection that will occur at his return. This link is especially prominent in the designation, “the firstborn of the dead.”

As in many of his letters, the future resurrection of the righteous is foundational to the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian hope.

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