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How Is Jesus the 'Firstborn of the Dead'?

The title “firstborn of the dead” for Jesus is of great theological importance, especially with Easter in the background. It’s a concept with great significance in the Bible.
Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 04, 2023
How Is Jesus the 'Firstborn of the Dead'?

At the beginning of the book of Revelation, John writes this greeting to the churches he’s addressing:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. (Revelation 1:4)

The title “firstborn of the dead” for Jesus is of great theological importance, especially with Easter in the background. The Greek word for “firstborn” that John uses is prōtotokos, a word that literally refers to birth order—the first child born. This is a concept of great significance in the Old Testament, where the firstborn son inherited his father’s place as head of the family, receiving the father’s blessing and a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). After the Passover in Egypt, God told his people that every firstborn child was set aside as his own (Exodus 13:2), and the nation of Israel as a whole was referred to as God’s “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).

Because of the biblical significance attached to the concept, the word “firstborn” acquired a metaphorical sense and came to also refer to the special status of the firstborn as the preeminent son and heir. In the New Testament, Jesus is shown to be the “new Israel,” the culmination and fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the nations through the offspring of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). Jesus fulfills the intended role of Israel as God’s faithful firstborn son in his perfect life and sacrificial death, and he is vindicated by God in his glorious resurrection.

In referring to Jesus as the firstborn of the dead, John is drawing words and imagery from Psalms 89:1 which celebrates the kingship of David and his line with phrases like “the firstborn,” “the highest of the kings of the earth,” and the idea that the Messiah’s throne will be a “faithful witness in the sky.” Calling Jesus firstborn portrays him as the heir of David, exalted and lifted up as the representative of his people.

Numerous other times in the New Testament Jesus is referred to as prōtotokos, firstborn:

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 8:29)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)

He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:18)

When he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Hebrews 1:6)

Two other passages convey the same idea with slightly different language:

“[The prophets and Moses said] that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:23)

In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:20)

As “firstborn of the dead,” Jesus is both first in time and first in preeminence. As the first to be raised from the dead, Christ is the founder and initiator of the new era God is bringing about through Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Jesus’ resurrection from death opens the way for all who trust in him to follow him in a resurrection like his when he returns. This is important because it shows that our ultimate hope is not just for our souls to go to heaven, but for our physical bodies to be raised to new life like Jesus’ was. He is the firstborn of the resurrection.

In Revelation 1:5 we also see the metaphorical sense of the term, showing Jesus’ supremacy in authority and kingship after his resurrection. Biblical scholar G.K. Beale explains,

John views Jesus as the ideal Davidic king on an escalated eschatological level, whose death and resurrection have resulted in his eternal kingship and in the kingship of his beloved children . . . . “Firstborn” refers to the high, privileged position that Christ has as a result of the resurrection from the dead . . . . Christ has gained such a sovereign position over the cosmos, not in the sense that he is recognized as the first-created being of all creation or as the origin of creation, but in the sense that he is the inaugurator of the new creation by means of his resurrection.

We can draw all this together to see that there are two central ideas in the title “firstborn of the dead” in Revelation 1:5. First, the allusion to Psalm 89 shows that Jesus fulfills all history as the messianic King descended from the line of David. Second, being the “firstborn of the dead” means that Jesus is both the first to rise and the first in supremacy. He is the first to rise from the dead and thus the first of the new creation. He is also the inaugurator of the new creation and sovereign over everything. He is the rightful heir to it all.

Christians have a sure hope that one day we will follow Christ into the resurrection and new creation, and, because we are in Christ, will reign with him as the firstborn of God, heirs of all things in heaven and on earth. Rejoice! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. 

(First published on Christianity.com on January 14, 2015)

How Is Jesus the 'Only Begotten' and 'Firstborn'?

Interview with Doug Bookman

(The following is a transcript from the video above)

[One of the first] principles of biblical interpretation in my mind, is the importance of reading the Bible in terms of its own culture. And one of the problems that we have is that we read the Bible in terms of our Western culture. And one of the places where historically that has been really, really problematic is with reference to the term "only begotten." Jesus is referred to as the "only begotten of the Father" in John 1, and John 3, and John four, and so on. And the word in the Greek is monogenes. And it means basically only begotten, the only one born. But it has a cultural nuance, which was so familiar and so rather peculiar to the Jewish world that it's really important to take it into account.

In the ancient world, men lived as clans and a clan was an extended family. Basically, the male, the sons born into a clan would, would find a wife many times from another clan and bring her and become part of that clan, and thus the clan would grow. And your whole life was dependent upon the size and the influence and even the security and prestige of your clan. You wanted your clan to get large.

And each clan was ruled by the eldest male citizen of that clan, basically. One of the very, very oldest citizens of the clan would be the ruling father. And I always ask people, can you say that in Latin? And yes, you can because ruling father is, pater ergos or patriarch. And so the patriarch of the clan rules the clan. And one of the very important prerogatives and responsibilities of the patriarch was to choose a successor. And there were a number of pictures and, and even ways in which that one was identified. And one of the most important was he was given the title only begotten.

It doesn't mean he's the only son. This is why in Hebrews chapter 11, Isaac is called the only begotten son of Abraham, though Abraham has other sons we know and, and yet Isaac is not the only son Abraham ever bore, but he is in fact the only begotten. He was the one who is given the blessing. That's another term, the one to who the blessing was given. That is the blessing of succeeding to the place of leadership.

And, it's interesting, another name that could be given this individual that would be given that son not a name, but a title, is the firstborn. And that, in spite of the fact that in many cases, it might not be the eldest, and that's why you have in the case of Joseph, who is number 11 of Jacob's children, nonetheless, he has given the place of leadership. The point of the—it's usually called the coat of many colors, but it very possibly in the Hebrew has the idea of a coat with big sleeves. And I know that's hard on our flannel graphs, but the fact is that was a royal coat given him to identify him as the one who would succeed.

Another element or another biblical word picture there is the double portion. Because that one son was going to succeed to the place of leadership or perhaps it was time for that, he couldn't be as busy about whatever he did to make a living. And so he was given a double portion—which does not mean he was given twice what his father had, that how could a man die and leave his son twice? What he had, it meant that he was given twice what his brothers were given. So if the man had six sons, his inheritance would be divided seven ways and one would be given a double portion. Now all of that is a picture of authority, the firstborn.

When Paul says in Colossians, it's so interesting that Paul in Colossians 1 is practically ransacking the scriptures and his own culture to make the point that Jesus is God, very God. And one of the pictures that he gives us in it's a blessed picture is he is the firstborn over the entire created sphere. Now, who can rule in authority over all creation, but God? And so when he says he is the firstborn over all creation, it means he's the one who sits in with divine authority over all creation.

But that verse, as much as any in the New Testament, has been twisted to mean that he was the first one brought into existence. That's not what it means to a Jewish mind. But in point of fact, if we understand it from a biblical or Jewish Hebrew perspective from that culture, all it means is that he is the son who will bear the authority of the Father. And he does that because he is intrinsically, he is essentially one with the Father, and therefore he is qualified to bear that authority and thus he is both only begotten and the firstborn over all creation.

 ("How is Jesus the 'Only Begotten' and 'Firstborn'?" first published on Chtristianity.com on September 1, 2010)

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