RPM, Volume 13, Number 30, July 24 to July 30 2011

Fundamental Structures

The Firstborn from the Dead

By Herman Ridderbos

Excerpted from Chapter 2 (Fundamental Structures) of Herman Ridderbos' book, entitled, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, translated in 1975 by John Richard De Witt, published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Herman Ridderbos taught New Testament at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in Kampen.

The Firstborn from the Dead. The Last Adam

When we attempt to analyze further what we have met with in the preceding sections and ask ourselves why and in what respect, according to Paul, the fullness of the time has been entered upon and the new creation has dawned with the advent of Christ, it is clear at once that we have to do with a total vision of the whole redemptive action of God in Christ... Paul's gospel has its starting point and center in the death and resurrection of Christ, and that only from thence does the proper light fall on the whole of the fulfilling and consummating activity of God...

...For Paul Christ's death is determined primarily by its connection with the power and guilt of sin. It is characteristic of this emphasis that again and again he relates Christ's death to the cross and can therefore qualify the whole of his gospel as "the word of the cross" (I Cor. 1:17, 18; cf. Gal. 3:1). He declares that in the church he will know nothing other than Jesus Christ and him crucified (I Cor. 2:2), and he calls the enemies of the gospel "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18). It is this special death of Christ, qualified by the cross, which further determines the significance of Christ's resurrection and the new life that has come to light with it, in its forensic, ethical, and cosmic aspects...

As often, therefore, as Paul mentions the resurrection as the great central redemptive fact (Rom. 1:4; 2 Cor. 4:13, 14), calls it the content of "the word of faith, which we preach," "that Jesus is Lord," and "that God has raised him from the dead" (Rom. 10:8,9), and describes the faith itself by which man is justified as "faith in him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Rom. 4:24; cf. v. 17), this is only to be understood adequately if the specific significance of Christ's death, as that is developed by the apostle in a great variety of ways, is never for an instant detached from this eschatological gospel of the resurrection...

...Because Jesus was the Christ, his resurrection is not, as previous raisings of the dead, an isolated occurrence, but in it the time of salvation promised in him, the new creation, dawns in an overwhelming manner, as a decisive transition from the old to the new world (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. v. 15). It is in this light too, that those passages are to be understood where Paul calls Christ the Firstborn, the Firstfruits, the Beginning:

...that he might be the Firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29).

...but now Christ has been raised from the dead, the Firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15:20).

...who is the Beginning, the Firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be the First (Col. 1:18).

In connection with the name Firstborn one is not to think here merely of an order of birth but, as may appear from a comparison with certain Old Testament pronouncements (as, for example, Exod. 4:22; Ps. 89:22), of an order of rank or dignity. To be sure, this name also indicates the relationship to others who in Romans 8:29 are called "many brethren." As the Firstborn among those many, however, Christ not only occupies a special place and dignity, but he also goes before them, he opens up the way for them, he joins their future to his own.

Now, while in Romans 8:29 the thought is of the glorification that is still to be expected, in Colossians 1:18 this position as Firstborn is related specifically to the resurrection, and this pronouncement is amplified still further with the words "who is the Beginning." We shall have to understand both qualifications in close relationship with each other, and must thus see in "the Beginning" a denotation of the significance of Christ's resurrection as well. Our word "beginning" is no adequate translation of it.

For what is intended is not merely that Christ was the First or formed a beginning in terms of chronological order; he was rather the Pioneer, the Inaugurator, who opened up the way. With him the great Resurrection became reality. And very similar is the meaning of Firstborn from the dead; he ushers in the world of the resurrection. He has brought life and incorruptibility to light (2 Tim. 1:10). In a somewhat different way the same idea is given expression by "Firstfruits" (of those who have fallen asleep). Here the picture of the harvest is in the background. The firstfruits are not only its beginning, but its representation. In the firstfruits the whole harvest becomes visible. So Christ is the Firstfruits of them that slept. In him the resurrection of the dead dawns, his resurrection represents the commencement of the new world of God.

Nowhere is this more clearly voiced than in the passages in which Christ is set over against Adam. Paul speaks in I Corinthians 15:45 ff. of Adam as "the first man," and of Christ as "the last Adam," the "second man." The expression "the last Adam" is again highly typical of the eschatological character of Paul's preaching: Christ is thereby designated as the Inaugurator of the new humanity. And it is once more his resurrection from the dead that has made him this last Adam:

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (I Cor. 15:21,22).

...the first man, Adam, became a living soul; the last Adam a life-giving spirit... The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven... And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly (I Cor. 15:45 ff.).

The intention of the apostle is here again not merely to point to the resurrection of Christ as the token or as the possibility of the future resurrection of all believers. Rather, Christ as second man and last Adam is the one in whose resurrection this new life of the re-creation has already come to light and become reality in this dispensation.

This is also the clear purport of Romans 5:12 ff. As Adam is the one through whom sin entered into the world and death through sin, so Christ is the one who gives righteousness and life. Christ and Adam stand over against one another as the great representatives of the two aeons, that of life and that of death. In that sense, as representing a whole dispensation, a whole humanity. Adam can be called the type of "him who was to come" (v. 14), i.e., of the second man and of the coming aeon represented by him. For as the proto-father brought sin and death into the world, so Christ by his obedience (that is, by his death) and his resurrection has made life to dawn for the new humanity.

In summary we can say, therefore, that Paul's kerygma of the great time of salvation that has dawned in Christ is above all determined by Christ's death and resurrection. It is in them that the present aeon has lost it power and hold on the children of Adam and that the new things have come. For this reason, too, the entire unfolding of the salvation that has dawned with Christ again and again harks back to his death and resurrection, because all the facets in which this salvation appears and all the names by which it is described are ultimately nothing other than the unfolding of what this all-important breakthrough of life in death, of the kingdom of God in this present world, contains within itself.

Here all lines come together, and from hence the whole Pauline proclamation of redemption can be described in its unity and coherence. Paul's preaching, so we have seen, is "eschatology," because it is preaching of the fulfilling redemptive work of God in Christ. We might be able to delimit this further, to a certain extent schematically, by speaking of Paul's "resurrection-eschatology." For it is in Christ's death and subsequent resurrection that the mystery of the redemptive plan of God has manifested itself in its true character and that the new creation has come to light.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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