May 6, 2023

Why Does Saint Paul Call Christ the "Firstborn From the Dead"? (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)

"He Became the Firstborn of the Dead."

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The Resurrection of Christ, the supreme event in the mystery of the divine economy, gives us every year the opportunity to delve deeper into this event and little by little to share in the mystery of the Resurrection with our own resurrection. This, after all, is the purpose of establishing the annual Paschal celebration cycle.

In the joy of the Resurrection of Christ, we should remember that Christ in Holy Scripture and in the liturgical texts is described as "firstborn". After all, in one of the resurrection troparia we sing: "He became the firstborn of the dead."

The word "firstborn" denotes the first of the children in a family. This name is attributed to Christ in many ways. The Apostle Paul writes that the Son and Word of God is "the firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15), "the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29) and "the firstborn from the dead" (Col. 1:18).

Saint John of Damascus, analyzing these scriptural phrases, says that the Son and Word of God is called "the firstborn of all creation," as the only begotten who was born of God the Father before all ages, while creation itself was created within time. Thus Christ is called the firstborn and not the first-created. Also, He is characterized as "the firstborn among many brethren," because in His incarnation He took on flesh like ours, when He was born as the only-begotten of His mother, and therefore we are brethren, with the difference that He is by nature the Son of God, while we are by grace sons of God. This is why He said to His Disciples: "I ascend to my Father and your Father" (John 1:17).

In this perspective, Christ is also "the firstborn from the dead," because He first resurrected Himself as God, and then gave this gift to us as well. The Apostle Paul confesses: "He is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence" (Col. 1:18). Christ is the Head of the Church and He is preeminent to all. As Christ is the firstborn of all creation, because He was born before all ages, so He is the firstborn from the dead before others. And although before Him some were resurrected by His power, but again they died, yet He, by the power of His Divinity, resurrected His Body and remains alive throughout the ages. He was first who came out of hades and was resurrected. Saint John Chrysostom writes that He who is superior to all that is in heaven connected Himself to those on earth and thus "everywhere He is first; the first above, the first in the Church... first in the resurrection."

From this teaching we derive many spiritual meanings which are good to learn.

The first is that Christ is the first in the Church. The Head of the Church is the Risen Christ and no one else. The Bishops are in type and in place of the Head of the Church and cannot exceed Christ. No one can surpass the Head of the Church, which is Christ. We must all obey His commandments and Christ acts within the Church which is His Body. Christ and the Church are closely connected.

The second is that the Resurrection of Christ heralds our own resurrection at the appropriate time, when Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. Since our big brother was resurrected, that means He will resurrect us too. The image of the swimmer is very appropriate. First the swimmer's head emerges from the water, then his body emerges. Thus, Christ was resurrected first and then the members of His Body will follow, all His brethren, who from now long for this life. Because those who are members of the Body of Christ can live resurrected, even if they are in the salty sea of this life, since their Head, Christ, is outside the sea and thus they breathe spiritual oxygen. That is why the sacred Chrysostom in his Catechetical Discourse writes: "Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." Thus, Christ is the firstborn from the dead, that is, the beginning of those who are asleep.

The third spiritual meaning is that the phrase "firstborn from the dead," which is connected with the verse "whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:24), declares that the resurrection of the dead is a birth. According to Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, man receives three births, namely the physical birth from his parents, the spiritual birth from Holy Baptism and the eschatological birth from the resurrection that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ. But Christ is also called the firstborn in relation to these three births, i.e. after His birth from the Virgin He was offered in the Temple, after His baptism He offered God perfect love with His victory over the temptations of the devil, and with His resurrection He was taken up into the heavens and offered to God and Father as the beginning of those who are to be resurrected and lifted up. That is why the day of the death of the saints is called a birthday and is thus celebrated; it is a birth in the Kingdom of God.

The Risen Christ whom we celebrate these days is the firstborn from the dead, He is our firstborn and elder brother who rose, defeating death, sin and the devil. And we, His brethren, with His own power can be resurrected and defeat death, sin and the devil. This is our greatest consolation, our only hope. By being born to our parents we are human. With Baptism we became Christians. And with our resurrection, first the spiritual one from sin and in due time the physical one, we will live eternally with the risen Christ. Our purpose is always to live as brethren with Christ, so that He, our first brother, will help us to share in His own victory, and gain hope, light and life.

: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, April 2008. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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