Jesus is the “Firstborn of the Dead,” a reference to his past resurrection and the basis for the future resurrection of the saints – Revelation 1:4-6.
The first vision of Revelation is preceded by “greetings” from the “One who is, who was, and who is coming,” from the “seven spirits before His Throne,” and from Jesus, the “faithful witness” and the “firstborn of the dead.” In his sacrificial death, he bore faithful witness, which God vindicated by raising him from the dead.
But God did not just raise Jesus. His resurrection is the precedent for the future resurrection of his followers, and thus, he is the “firstborn of the dead,” the first of many over whom the “second death has no power.”
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul applied the same idea to the past resurrections of Jesus and the future resurrection of his followers at the “arrival” of Jesus, though he used the term “first-fruits” instead of “firstborn”:
- “But now has Christ been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of them that are asleep. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order – Christ the first-fruits, then they that are his at his arrival” – (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
Likewise, to the Colossians, he called Jesus the “head of the church, the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,” again stressing that he was the first of a great many who will be raised from the dead in the future – (Colossians 1:18).
All three appellations applied to Jesus by Revelation are derived from the eighty-ninth psalm (i.e., “faithful witness,” “firstborn,” “ruler of the kings of the earth”):
- (Psalm 89:27, 37) – “I also will make him my first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth… His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven.”
And his exalted position as the “ruler of the kings of the earth” is based on his “witness” in death, and on his subsequent resurrection. It was “by his blood” that the saints have been “loosed from their sins and made a kingdom of priests.” He “overcame” and qualified to reign from his “Father’s throne” through that sacrificial death – (Revelation 1:4-6, 3:21).
The importance of his past death and resurrection is reiterated by the figure of the “one like a Son of Man” who declared: “I am the Living One, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades!” His possession of absolute authority even over death is based on his own death and resurrection. And that is why the names of believers are “written in the Lamb’s book of life,” and also why though they die they will not “taste the second death” – (Revelation 1:18, 3:14).
Likewise, in the introduction to his letter to Smyrna, the Risen Christ described himself as the “first and the last, who was dead and lived.” “First and last” refers not to his divine nature, but to his position as the “firstborn of the dead,” the first one resurrected. And what he began he will certainly complete – (Revelation 2:8-11).
And this description was especially apt for the church in Smyrna. This congregation endured “tribulation” and was facing increased persecution, which is why Jesus exhorted its members to “become faithful unto death.” But death would not be the last word. Because he is the one “who became dead and lived,” faithful martyrs may rest assured they will receive the “crown of life,” for “he that overcomes will not be hurt of the second death.” And elsewhere, the “second death is identical to the “lake of fire.”
In Revelation, final judgment, punishments, and rewards follow the “thousand years” at the “Great White Throne of Judgment” when the “dead” stand before the throne and the “books will be opened.” Anyone whose name is not found “written in the book of life” will be “cast into the lake of fire” – (Revelation 11:15-19, 20:11-20).
But all men whose “names are written in the book of life” will find themselves standing before the “Lamb” and the “throne” in the “city of New Jerusalem.” There, God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” as Jesus “shepherds them to living waters.” In its detailed description of “New Jerusalem,” the book paints a vivid picture of resurrection life in the New Creation, where the saints will “tabernacle” with God and dwell with the “Lamb” forevermore.