Meditations in Colossians: 34. Jesus, first-born from the dead
Col 1:18b he is the beginning and the first-born from among the dead
The apostle Peter in his second letter commented of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand,” (2 Pet 3:16) and there are times when the lazy side of me wishes Paul had spelled out what he was meaning in much greater detail. He has just said, “he is the head of the body, the church,” and now says, “he is the beginning”. The temptation is to think he is referring back to Jesus before Creation that we have considered in verses 16 and 17 but coming after the reference to the church we take it to mean that he is the beginning of the church itself. Let’s ponder on that.
Matthew records an interesting interchange between Jesus and Peter: “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Mt 16:16-18) Now we won’t go in to the clever word play in these verses but simply note that Peter made a strong pronouncement about Jesus which Jesus said came from heaven and this pronouncement will act as a foundation stone on which the ‘church’ (the ‘called out ones’ of God) would be established. The word ‘church’ appears only three times in the Gospels, and that in Matthew.
“The Church” is, as I noted above, “the called out ones” of God, those God has called to Himself to be redeemed by the work of Jesus. The Church are those who relate to God through Jesus Christ. There is a sense by which Jesus coming to the earth modeled for us what it was like to have a relationship with the Father. The difference between him and us is that he already was related to the Father as the Son of God and needed nothing to bring about that relationship; we need the work of his death on the Cross to bring it about for us. Jesus draws us to himself and collectively we are his ‘body’ the vessel through which the Holy Spirit will bring about the will of God, or express the kingdom of God.
On one occasion Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed which was a single seed which grew into a great tree (Mt 13:31,32). Jesus himself has to be that mustard seed and his relationship with the Father grows to include many other people and we collectively become that ‘tree’. But he is the beginning. The Church, brought into being or reality by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, is a new creation. It had not existed before that day. Now, by the working of the Holy Spirit, this body of believers is brought into being to grow and grow across the world. But Jesus is the beginning of it all.
But then comes this phrase, “the firstborn from the dead”. This leads us to ponder on a physical reality that pictured and brought about a spiritual reality that in turn was a physical reality. Let’s explain.
First of all the physical reality that is implied in these words: the resurrection of Jesus. The record is clear: Jesus died on the Cross and the Father raised him from the dead after three days: “you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 2:23,24) Paul wrote, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11) it was the power of the Holy Spirit who raised the body that was Jesus from the dead.
Yes, Jesus has raised people from the dead (e.g. the young an of Nain, Lk 7:11- and Lazarus – Jn 11) but they were raised with the same physical bodies they had before, to just carry on the life they had before. When Jesus was raised from the dead it is clear that he had a different body that could do things it previously couldn’t do. Moreover his resurrected life prepared him to return later to the Father. In that this was a work of the Holy Spirit, Paul speaks of him being the ‘first-born’, the first one brought about by the work of the Spirit bringing new life.
Now I said this physical reality (Jesus’ resurrection) pictured and brought about a spiritual reality – that is us. We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1, Col 2:13) and when we were ‘born again’ the Holy Spirit brought us new spiritual life: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). We too have been raised from the dead, but whereas Jesus’ “dead” was physical, our “dead” was spiritual. But I also said this spiritual reality was also a physical reality and what I mean by that is that although we have been transformed spiritually, we live out our lives in a physical body and so the spiritual impacts all of the material aspects of our lives. Thus Jesus is and was, “the first-born among the dead.” We were the dead and so he died so that he may be raised to life to challenge us and show us the possibility in the spiritual realm, and so it has been. Hallelujah!