This passage clearly demonstrates that, just because the term "firstborn" is used, it does not mean the subject was literally born first, as occurs physically to mammals. In terms of a mammal's birth, Exodus 13:12 provides God's initial definition of a firstborn: "That you shall set apart to the LORD all that open the womb [that open the matrix, KJV]." So we must ask: Whose womb was opened so Jesus could be firstborn over creation? Whose womb was opened so Jesus would be the firstborn from the dead? Of course, Jesus did not have to be born again because there was never a time when He was not already and still God.
Colossians 1:15 makes this especially clear. How can the Creator possibly have been born when He is before all things? He existed before all things as God (John 1:1-3). Colossians 1:18 uses the term again, but also answers why the Greeks used the term in this manner. They used the term to indicate preeminence, priority, and first in rank from a beginning. In this case, the beginning is when the things that were created came into existence.
Thus, in verses 15-17, Christ is preeminent over the physical creation by virtue of His being Creator. In verses 18-20, Paul shows Christ as being preeminent in God's plan of redemption because He is the Savior/Redeemer. How could He be born into God's Kingdom when He was never apart from it (Luke 17:20-21)? Jesus indeed was Mary's firstborn, but He was never born again as His spiritual brethren are, as His teaching in John 3 shows. When resurrected, He was not literally born, but was transformed and glorified—changed, as I Corinthians 15:51-54 clearly describes, from being physically dead to the fullness of spiritual life. He was not born into the Kingdom of God as humans are physically born in this life.
When describing spiritual realities, the use of the term "firstborn" changes. Spirit beings are not born; they are created, changed, or transformed, and come into existence. The Bible says nothing of angels, which are spirit beings, being born. Born can, on some occasions, simply mean "to come into existence; to be delivered, to begin." The "birth" of the United States was in 1776. It was a beginning, but it was not born as a baby is. We might say a person is a "born musician" or say a concept or idea was "born." Each simply indicates that a state of prominence began at a particular time.
Romans 8:29 uses "firstborn" in this manner. It is not indicating a literal birth, as in human families, but that Jesus is preeminent over all who follow Him in God's Family by virtue of Him being Savior and Redeemer. In relation to Jesus, the Bible uses "firstborn" in its figurative sense, not its literal one. For example, Hebrews 1:6 reads, "But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, 'Let all the angels of God worship Him.'" Here, "firstborn" is being used in the same manner as in the Old Testament when God calls Israel and Ephraim "My firstborn." He is establishing priority, uniqueness, and preeminence for His Son over all others. He is not saying He is literally a firstborn.
In Hebrews 12:23, the entire church is named as the "church of the firstborn." This is clearly not indicating a literal birth, but the title is used to give significance to, elevate, and indicate the Christian church's association with Jesus Christ and His priority and preeminence.
If one still desires to believe that "firstborn" may indicate, in some isolated contexts, a literal spiritual birth, then one must ask, "When does the birth take place?" Everything we have seen so far shows that the Bible directly says it takes place at the beginning of the salvation process, not at its end. The end of the process is a glorification through a resurrection. The Bible describes this as a change (I Corinthians 15:51-54) or a transformation (Philippians 3:21; II Corinthians 3:17-18), not in terms of birth.
Jesus Christ was never "born again." He had no reason to be regenerated. He always had a spiritual mind to enable Him to "see" the Kingdom of God, and He was always in the Kingdom of God, so there was no reason for Him to enter it again. Since He never went through, or needed, a spiritual birth, His title of "firstborn from the dead" is not an instruction on how a Christian is spiritually born. He was not born again by a resurrection, and thus the resurrection from the dead is not the model for how we are born again either.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)
"Firstborn" is a term that appears quite frequently in Scripture. People most frequently think of it in terms of Jesus. He was Mary's firstborn (Matthew 1:25). He is also referred to as being "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). In Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5, He is called "the firstborn from the dead." These biblical references are then linked in the minds of some with the belief that the resurrection, as described in I Corinthians 15:50-53, is a Christian's birth into the Kingdom of God, despite the fact that Paul never mentions being born in the context of resurrection (in fact, in I Corinthians 15:8, he uses "born" in terms of his calling!). So is this conclusion correct?
The Bible uses the term "firstborn" in a way that some may not realize, and in this way, "firstborn" may not indicate a literal birth at all! Once again, we are dealing with a term that has a spiritual meaning different from its literal one. Clearly, in the earliest parts of the Bible, "firstborn" indicates the eldest son. Within the Hebrew culture, it indicated a position of strength and the son to whom leadership of the family would pass when the father died. Thus, firstborn was a position of distinction and a fair measure of sanctity.
However, as one continues through the Bible, one begins to find that "firstborn" does not always mean that the person so named is literally the first born. Abraham passed on this right to Isaac, not Ishmael, who was the actual firstborn. Jacob was not Isaac's firstborn ("the older shall serve the younger"), but God certainly esteems him above Esau ("Esau I have hated").
Joseph, son of Jacob from Rachel, was not literally Jacob's firstborn. When the true eldest son, Reuben, disqualified himself, the right of firstborn did not automatically pass on to the second born, Simeon. Instead, Jacob passed that title of prominence and its prerogatives on to Joseph (I Chronicles 5:1-2). Surely, God had a hand in this transference. This clearly shows that God Himself does not necessarily follow the traditions of Israelitish culture but awards this prominence to the one prepared for the responsibility.
A great deal of further evidence of the use of the term "firstborn" flows directly from God Himself. Ephraim was not Joseph's firstborn, as Genesis 48:13-22 clearly shows. Jacob gave him that prominent position and title by God's inspiration. God commanded Moses to say to the Pharaoh of Egypt, "Israel is My son, My firstborn" (Exodus 4:22). Many nations were "born" long before Israel, but God gave the title of preeminence, "firstborn," to Israel. Later, in Jeremiah 31:9, God says, "For I am Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn."
God uses "firstborn" in ways that we are generally unfamiliar with but that are nonetheless consistent with its use elsewhere in both Scripture and secular writings:
» Job 18:13: "It devours patches of his skin; the firstborn of death devours his limbs." Here, Bildad refers to a disease that he describes as powerful and deadly.
» Isaiah 14:30: "The firstborn of the poor will feed, and the needy will lie down in safety." The phrase indicates the poorest of the poor.
» Psalm 89:27: "I will make Him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth." This refers first to David, who was not himself a literal firstborn son, but also and more importantly, to Jesus Christ.
In these examples, "firstborn" is being used as a superlative, indicating preeminence, special quality, or significance to God. When it refers to Jesus Christ, it implies a preferential status, priority, dignity, sovereignty, and oneness with God. His relationship with God is unique, of the highest and greatest significance and quality. His relationships to creation, man, and especially to His brethren are also unique.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Colossians 1:18: