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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Firstborn from the Dead
Text:LD 17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Death Defeated

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 18:1,2                                                                                    

Ps 24:1,5  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:12-28; Colossians 1:9-20

Ps 89:1,2,10

Sermon – Lord’s Day 17

Hy 31:1,2

Hy 68:1,4,5,7,8

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation, did you hear the greeting that God gave us, earlier in this worship service? It’s about fifty words that we hear almost every Sunday afternoon. Now, we can hear something so often that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. But when the living God greets us from his heavenly throne, we need to listen carefully.

Here it is again: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth.” That greeting, you might know, comes to us from the first chapter of the book of Revelation, verses 4 and 5. When you listen carefully, you notice that there’s a lot packed into those two verses.

It’s from our Triune God, in the first place, for we’re greeted by God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Son. The LORD God in all his glory address us—the God who is eternal, the God who is faithful, the God who is sovereign. And second, here’s the real miracle of it: we are greeted by this great God with a pronouncement of “grace and peace!” God’s greeting to us is much more than a passing “Hello” or “How are you doing?” This greeting is a declaration of God’s rich favour towards us. As we meet with God, we are assured that the one true God loves us, and that we enjoy peace with him, all through the saving work of his Son.

Yes, there’s a lot wrapped up in that greeting. Today we want to single out just one part. It comes toward the end, where we are greeted by Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead.” What does it mean that the Christ is the firstborn—and firstborn from “the dead”? It’s one of the glorious titles of our Saviour, the title of him who has conquered the last enemy, and achieved victory for God’s people!

This is what Lord’s Day 17 is all about: it’s about Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead. I preach the Word to you,

We believe in Jesus Christ, the Firstborn from the dead:

  1. Christ rose from the dead,
  2. so that we too might be raised up


1. Christ rose from the dead: When the Catechism deals with the resurrection of Jesus, you might think it’s forgetting something. With almost every other article of the Apostles’ Creed, the Catechism first addresses the fact of what is described. “What do you confess when you say… He was conceived… He suffered… He was crucified… He died… He was buried?” It begins with what happened, and then it looks at its meaning.

But in Lord’s Day 17 the Catechism jumps straight to the result or the consequence of the resurrection: “How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?” It doesn’t consider at all the actual event of Christ leaving the tomb. The line of thinking seems to run like this: “There’s no sense denying that Jesus came back to life. Everybody knows He rose from the grave—so then, how does his resurrection help us?” So confident that Jesus came back to life, the Catechism goes right to the “application,” to how the resurrection has saving power.

As we’ll see, that same movement is found in the special title of Christ, “the firstborn from the dead.” That title makes a direct link from the glories of our Saviour to how He redeems us sinners. In short: Because Jesus is no longer dead, we’re no longer dead! Because Jesus lives, we live! But we’ll get to that…

The first question we have about this title is around the idea of being the “firstborn.” What exactly does that mean? Those who are the firstborn in our families today like to think that they’re pretty important. Well, in the Old Testament that was actually true. The firstborn child—and especially the firstborn son!—had a special place. This was a place of privilege.

Even according to the law of God, the firstborn child was supposed to receive special treatment. In Deuteronomy 21 it says that a man, on the day when he officially gives his earthly possessions to his sons, “shall acknowledge the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his” (vv 16-17). Because he was the first to be born to the parents, he would be the principal heir of the estate. So this became an important matter in any family, who had the rights of the firstborn—remember how the twins Jacob and Esau fought about this.

Because being the firstborn meant so many benefits and honours, it was a way to describe not just the oldest son in a family, but anyone who had a position of great blessing. The “firstborn” is someone who gets to enjoy a special place of favour. It’s for this reason that God says about his chosen people in Exodus 4:22, “Israel is my son, he is my firstborn.” Not that God had other children and Israel was just the “first of many,” but “firstborn” means that God put his claim upon Israel, and He highly honoured them. And in fact there was a wonderful inheritance in store for Israel, his firstborn.

So when we come to the New Testament and we find Christ called “the firstborn,” we start to understand how important it is, telling us about Christ’s greatness and glory. Revelation 1 isn’t even the first place we find the title used. There’s two examples in Colossians 1.

In this chapter, like Paul does more often in his letters, he offers a prayer for the believers he’s writing to. And while he’s at it, Paul breaks into a hymn of praise all about the glory and grandeur of Jesus Christ. He praises Christ for two things in particular: his supremacy in God’s work of creation (vv 15-17), and his supremacy in God’s work of redemption (vv 18-20). And both times, notice that Paul describes Jesus Christ as the firstborn.

Consider verse 15 where Paul says of Jesus, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Some people stumble on that phrase: “firstborn over all creation.” They wonder, “If Jesus is the firstborn of creation, doesn’t that mean He’s the first created being? And then wouldn’t that mean that Jesus is not divine?”

But remember how the word “firstborn” means something more than birth order in a family. It speaks of someone having an exalted position and great honour. Paul isn’t saying that Jesus was the first being that was created. Why, the very next verse says He’s the one by whom all things were made! Jesus was God’s agent in putting the whole creation together; He’s the glue that holds it all together. Moment by moment, Christ sustains this entire universe.

This was prophesied about Christ already in Psalm 89. There God speaks of the great King in David’s line, and He promises, “I will make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (v 27). This is Christ our King: the leading one in creation—and also the leading one in the work of redemption.

For in Colossians Paul goes on and says of Christ, “He is the head of the body, the church, [He] is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (v 18). There it is again, the term we’ve been looking for. So what does it mean that Jesus is the firstborn from the dead?

Again, we’ll first say what it doesn’t mean. It’s not that Jesus was the first person who ever rose from the dead. Lots of Old Testament saints beat him to it. There were even some people during Jesus’ ministry who rose from the grave, like his friend Lazarus. Jesus wasn’t the first to rise, but his resurrection is the most exalted, the most illustrious event of its kind. It’s completely different than any other resurrection! Because when Christ resurrected, this was the beginning of something new.

Think about how those others were raised up for a while, but how they’d all die again before long. The sad day came when Lazarus would have to be covered for a second time in grave clothes, and put a second time into the ground. But Christ rises from the dead, incorruptible, never to die again. He’ll never return to the grave, because the power of sin is broken. Now Satan is defeated. Now death has its painful sting taken away.

This is why Paul, right after describing Christ as “the firstborn from the dead,” goes on to explain the amazing results of Christ’s life and work: “By him [God reconciled] all things to himself, by him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (v 20).

By his saving work, the Lord Jesus starts a new era—He begins the age of salvation. He forms a new creation. When Jesus rose from the grave, the Father was declaring that all the suffering and all the pain of his Son was enough. This was the divine stamp of approval. This was the certification that everyone needed. The resurrection of Christ means that He’s done his work. He has swallowed every ounce of God’s cup of judgment, endured every second of eternal death. The empty grave means the payment is full!

Christ’s glorious resurrection means that the Father is well-pleased with his Son. And the good news is that we can share in everything that Christ has done. You could say that He is the firstborn who takes his inheritance of glory—all of the honour and blessing and riches that are rightfully his—and He freely shares it with his brothers and sisters. By faith, it’s all ours! The Catechism says: “By his resurrection He has overcome death, so that He could make us share in the righteousness which He had obtained for us by his death” (Q&A 45).

Christ rose from the dead, and He stays alive forever, so that we can share in his life and his glory. We didn’t have anything to do with it, yet He grants us his reward. We didn’t even show up for the race, but we share in his victory. Now when God looks on us, He says, “You are my beloved sons and daughters. With you I am well pleased.” By faith in the risen Christ, we have already crossed over from death to life.


2. so that we too, might rise: If there’s a first, you know there’s going to be more. That’s the tantalizing hint we see in the title “firstborn.” It’s a hint that Jesus has started something great: He is the first to rise in this new era, the first among many.

We see this in 1 Corinthians 15. This has been called the Bible’s “resurrection chapter,” for in it the Spirit explains powerfully the fact and meaning of Christ’s resurrection. He insists most strongly that Jesus had to rise. There are very direct statements, like verse 14, “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.” Or verse 17, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” That’s serious business: our whole salvation stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. Put another way: If there’s no Lord’s Day 17, you might as well throw out the whole Catechism!

But there is salvation, and it’s not just for this life. For Christ has risen! To explain how that impacts us as believers, there’s another metaphor, related to the one we’ve been looking at. It comes in verse 20 of this chapter, “Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” He’s not just the firstborn, He’s the firstfruits.

That phrase too, brings us back to the time of the Old Testament. The Israelites were an farming people, busy with preparing the fields, planting the crops, praying for rain and sun, and then bringing in the fruits of the earth. At harvest-time every year, the Israelites would acknowledge God as the Giver of all blessing.

After that first day out in the field spent hauling in the grain or barley, the Israelites would set aside a big portion to bring to the place of worship. This was the firstfruits, and it was offered to God as something symbolic of the whole harvest. Like the down payment you make when you buy a house, the firstfruits was your pledge. It was your deposit, looking ahead to the remainder. The firstfruits was a humble acknowledgment: Everything that had been harvested, and everything that was still out in the field, all belonged to God!

So if Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” that means He’s the beginning of what is yet to come. The joyous event of his resurrection was the first and exciting day of the harvest. But it’s only a sign of what’s still around the corner. Christ’s resurrection is God’s own guarantee—the sure down payment—that all believers who are sleeping in the grave will one day rise up. This is why Acts 26 says that Christ “was the first to rise from the dead” (v 23). He’s the first in this new age of salvation. Because God raised Him, God will raise us also!

For the time being, Christians still die. We will all die, unless Christ returns first. But  there’s no need for a hopeless sorrow. Christ has already begun the glorious harvest. Like the Catechism explains, Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our own: “[It is] to us a sure pledge of our glorious resurrection” (Q&A 45).

Beloved, if we have really and truly put our faith in Christ, then there’s no reason to fear. He is our security for eternity, our deposit for deliverance. Even if we’re laying in our graves on the day of his return, Christ will not abandon us there. Even if we’ve rotted beyond all recognition, Christ will not let us see decay forever. Even if we’ve already returned to dust, Christ will be our resurrection, and He will be our life!

 Remember how with just a couple words, Christ raised people from the dead. Think of the synagogue ruler’s daughter: “Little girl, get up,” Jesus said. Think of the son of the widow of Nain: “Young man, I say to you, get up.” Or think of Lazarus, his dear friend: “Lazarus, come out!” That’s what Christ did then, and that’s what He’ll do again.

We await that day, when Jesus will show his full authority over death—when He’ll show it so gloriously. He himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, and the dead in Christ will rise. With just a word from his mouth, He’ll heal all the brokenness in this world that is caused by sin. With just a word, He’ll reverse completely what the last enemy has done in our families, and in the church, and throughout the world. With just a word, He’ll reveal to everyone how total his triumph really was.

What a great hope we have in Christ! Sometimes we talk about how unbelievers can do it. They’ve got no certainty for tomorrow, no confidence for eternity. And really, how can a person ever face the ultimate realities? How can an unbeliever ever deal with death? What can they really say when yet another life ends? Some people fear death and run from it. Others seem to ignore it, live in denial: “I won’t even think about it.” Still others cling to a false hope, through some naïve faith: “Death’s just a part of that big ‘circle of life.’ We’ll live on through our children, or by our legacy—or we’ll come back in the form of something else.” Very sad.

And if our hope wasn’t fixed on Christ, we could echo the questions of 1 Corinthians 15: “What’s the point? Why serve God, if there is no future? Why believe, if there is no resurrection? Why not just give up right now?” You can see why those who don’t know God will say to each other, “Let’s eat, drink and have a good time, because tomorrow we’re going to die anyway, and then it’s all over.” Beloved, we might as well live that way too, if Christ hasn’t risen—live for today, and forget eternity.

Isn’t it true that sometimes we do live that way? Don’t we act like these years are all we have, so we better fill them with good times? Sometimes we act as if Christ is still dead, and He’s not returning. For we seem to be bent on our own glory instead of his. We seem to agree that you only live once, so let’s make the most of it, and get all our pleasure in now.

But life changes when we’re joined to Christ. By faith in him, we’re already on the path to glory. By faith, our labours aren’t in vain, but have an eternal goal. For in the risen Christ we have the pledge from God that we shall live with him forever!

And don’t we see that victory already today? For Christ has already caused us to be raised, not physically but spiritually. “By his power,” the Catechism teaches, “we too are raised to a new life” (Q&A 45). Ephesians 2 puts it this way, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which He loved us, God, even when we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). By his Spirit, Christ has ordered us out of our spiritual graves. The new creation begins already now.

We see Christ’s resurrecting power, when a person rises up, and embraces Him as Saviour. We see it, when a person comes to humbly accept God’s Word. We see it, when a church rises up and gives God thanks, and when we trust in the Father. We see Christ’s resurrecting power when people become willing to sacrifice and serve.

Sometimes we forget this, that our new life is a miracle—it’s no less a miracle than driving by the local cemetery, and suddenly seeing the gravestones fall over, the tombs open up, and living people climb out. New life in Christ is no less a miracle than that! Faith in a person’s heart, and holiness in his life—these are supernatural events. Sometimes we assume that loving God is natural, or that faith comes as a standard feature. Sometimes we think our children too, will believe, just because we always have.

But such things will never happen without the working of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we’re harder than rocks, colder than ice. Without him, we’re six feet under. But “God has made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions.” It’s a resurrecting miracle of the Spirit that any of us have faith, or love, or hope.

And seeing our new life as a resurrection miracle leads to at least three results. First, it should make us deeply thankful for God’s grace. We should realize it again and again, that only by his grace in Christ have we become what we are. That calls us to endless thanksgiving.

Second, seeing our new life as a miracle should make us eager to work with this gift, to develop our new life in him. The Spirit has raised us up to accomplish great things for Christ! You have been raised up for a purpose, so live for that purpose!

And third, seeing new life as a miracle reminds us of that blessed teaching we find in the Canons of Dort, chapter 5: the “perseverance of the saints.” God has started a good work in us. And He won’t quit what He’s started—that’s his promise. The firstfruits are already brought in, and now God is going to finish the harvest. He’ll bring us to completion, until the day of Christ.

Brothers and sisters, how beautiful is that greeting of our Triune God! Every Sunday again, we’re greeted in the glorious Name of Jesus our Saviour, “the firstborn from the dead.” Because Christ is no longer dead, we’re no longer dead! Because Christ lives, we live! And because Christ is eternal, we too shall live forever and ever.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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