WHO’S FIRST? AN EASTER REFLECTION

The media recognized Jeanne Calment in 1997 as the oldest living human whose age could be verified. She died on August 4, 1997, at the age of 122 years and 164 days. On her 120th birthday, she was asked to describe her vision for the future. “Very brief,” she replied.
 
Life is brief from earth’s perspective but not from Christ’s. Paul wrote that Christ was the “firstborn out of the dead ones” (Col. 1:18). The resurrection of Christ changes everything about our future. Easter teaches us that there is hope for the future beyond the grave, and our hope is grounded in Jesus Christ.

The word “firstborn” is a common Greek word used 130 times in the Old Testament and nine times in the New Testament. Paul used the word just a few verses earlier in a slightly different expression where he called Christ the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). The two expressions are parallel to each other. The firstborn of creation and the firstborn from the dead should be interpreted in similar ways. Does Paul mean that Jesus is the first person created and the first person resurrected?

 EARLY GNOSTICISM

Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians in the face of an early form of Gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics based their philosophy on two principles. God is spirit, and all matter is evil. Therefore, Jesus Christ could not have been fully God and enter this world physically for God is spirit. Therefore, the Gnostics said, Jesus was a created being who could not have physically risen from the dead because all matter is evil.

Paul addresses both of those issues in his letter to the Colossians, and the key to his answer is to understand the word “firstborn” correctly. The word, as Paul uses it here, does not refer to priority of time but rather priority of position. This understanding is consistent with the Old Testament pattern of usage. The “firstborn” was the position of honor in the ancient world. The position of the firstborn was not always conferred on the first person to be born. For example, when Jacob gave his blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh, he deliberately crossed his hands to deliver the right of the firstborn to his younger son (Gen. 48:8-22).

God chose the nation of Israel as His firstborn even though they were the least of the nations of the world (Ex. 4:22). King David is called God’s firstborn king (Ps. 89:27) even though he is not the first king to rule over Israel. David is above all the others. He is preeminent. David is the “highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27). God stresses David’s supremacy by designating him as God’s firstborn.

 LORD OF THE RESURRECTION

Therefore, Jesus Christ is the “firstborn of all creation” because He occupies the position of supremacy over all creation. And Jesus Christ is the “firstborn from the dead” because He is Lord of the resurrection. Jesus is not the first human ever resurrected. God resurrected others before Him, but He is the leader of the resurrection. He is in first place among the resurrected ones. Jesus is the guarantee of our future resurrection because He is the leader of all those God raises from the dead. He possesses eternal life in Himself and offers eternal life to all who follow Him.

Jesus Christ has broken the stranglehold of death for all who follow His leadership. Peter in his first sermon after Pentecost compared the resurrection to physical birth when he said, “God raised Him (Christ) up again, putting an end to the birth pains of death, since it is impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). Death is like birth. There is pain. We struggle. Fear overwhelms us. Humans, cannot understand the resurrection life any better than a fetus in the womb can understand life in this world. We enter this world kicking and screaming as we leave the comfort of the womb. We enter death gasping and grasping as we leave the comfort of this life. People seek answers to death everywhere but Christ.

 HEAVEN’S GATE

Thirty-nine people from a group called “Heaven’s Gate” thought they could rendezvous with an alien space ship following the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. Led by Marshall Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister who became obsessed with biblical prophecy, they committed mass suicide. Just before the suicide, the group posted a note on their website. “Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate … Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion – ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”

There is a far better way to leave this world. Heaven’s gate is Jesus. Christ put an end to the birth pains of death. All who follow Him live forever. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25). Easter is the celebration of resurrection life. People don’t have to search for exotic alien space ships passing by the earth. Christians don’t have to face death kicking and screaming to avoid leaving this world. We know resurrection hope. We have eternal life.

 LORD OF LIFE

On Easter Sunday, however, we celebrate more than our escape from death. Easter is the celebration of Christ’s preeminence over life. Jesus Christ is the “firstborn from the dead so that He, Himself, will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18). We do an injustice to Easter when we end our message with Christ’s victory over death as important as that message is to proclaim. The message of the “firstborn” is that Christ must occupy first place in everything. He is preeminent. There are two critical implications of His preeminence for us as Christians.

First, whatever we have, we have from Him. Sometimes we clutter our lives with so much stuff that we lose sight of what is essential. Easter reminds us that Christ is the Lord of life. Whatever we have, we have from Him so let’s not lose sight of Him in all our accumulation of stuff.

Second, whatever we do, we do for Him. One of the saddest mistakes we can make as Christians, and particularly pastors, is to think that when we work in a church that we work for the church. No! We work for Christ and Christ alone, or our work is worthless. He made us for Him, and He called us to serve Him. It is His glory that matters not our credit. C.S. Lewis wrote, “A mole must dig to the glory of God, and a cock must crow.” If Christ made us hands in His body, we must serve Him. If Christ made us tongues in His body, we must speak for Him.

Who’s first? Jesus Christ is #1! Our time on earth is brief – very brief. Easter reminds us that we serve the Lord of life with every breath of life as we experience the joy of life through the hope of life which is worth the price of life!