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)
Paul is is exalting Jesus Christ, which is important to his argument, as we see in chapter 2. First, we have the gospel, where truth concerning this situation resides. He exalts Christ by using the word translated "firstborn" two different times. In one section, he emphasizes chronological preeminence: Christ was before all. The second time, he gives status preeminence: Christ was not only before all, but He also has authority over all.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace and Law (Part 20)
Jesus Christ is not only our Savior but also our Creator. He is the subject of the powerful description in Isaiah 40:9-18, and it is into His Kingdom we have been translated, meaning conveyed or transferred. Paul must mean that this translation is spiritual because God's Kingdom has not yet literally been established on earth. God "calls those things which do not exist as though they did" (Romans 4:17). We are to conduct our lives and represent God before the world as though we were literally a part of it even now.
Philippians 3:20 reinforces this: "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." The Kingdom of God is still in heaven and will be established on earth at Christ's return. However, we are already considered its citizens. Thus, our loyalties and submission go to it before everything else.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sixth Commandment (Part 2): War! (1997)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Colossians 1:16: