There is no way to interpret Colossians except by bringing in the theology of death, resurrection, and the role of Christ, otherwise the claims made in Colossians about the godhead of Christ will seem too fantastical.
The Death and the Promise
Through Adam, sin and thus death entered the world ("thou shalt surely die"), and Adam's offspring were thus also dead ("brood of vipers" in Matt 23.33 or John 8.44). But there was at the same time a Promise of deliverance in Genesis 3.15:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed
and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his
It is this deliverance that is the true resurrection, and other forms of resurrection are types of this one.
Of course, a woman has no seed, so this is also a prophecy of the virgin birth. And over time, the Promise of that seed passed to Seth and Noah and eventually to Abraham, where it was again re-iterated "From thy seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed", and it was again confirmed to Jacob, and it was confirmed again to David. Always the Promise of the seed kept passing until the appointed time when Christ was born.
Physical Resurrections before Christ
Now before the birth of Christ, the Bible records three physical resurrections all by Elijah/Elisha and by touching their body in death or rest:
- The widow's son in 1 Kgs 17:17–22 when he is placed on Elijah's bed and Elijah covers him with his own body.
And he said unto her, Give me thy son. And he took him out of her
bosom, and carried him up into a loft, where he abode, and laid him
upon his own bed. [...] And he stretched himself upon the child three times,
and cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, I pray thee, let
this child’s soul come into him again. And the LORD heard the voice of
Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.
- The son of the shunammite, 2 Kings 4.18-34, when he is placed on Elisha's bed and Elisha covers him with his body.
And she went up, and laid him on the bed of the man of God [...] And
he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth,
and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he
stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed
- The man thrown into Elijah's grave, when he lay next to Elijah in the grave and touched the prophet's bones. 2 Kings 13.21
And it came to pass, as they
were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they
cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let
down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his
Physical resurrections during Christ's ministry
Similarly the Bible records three resurrections during Christ's ministry
- Jairus' daughter in Mark 5.41, after he told her to arise.
And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi;
which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And
straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of
twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment.
- The young man at Nain (Luke 7:14-15), whom he commanded to arise:
And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still.
And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead
sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.
- Lazarus, when Jesus cried "come forth!" in John 11.38-34.
When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice,
“Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, lhis hands and
feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.
Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Other types for the resurrection
There are many other types for the resurrection, that is, for the fulfillment of the Promise:
- The passing of Israel from Egypt to the promise can also be viewed as a type of resurrection.
- Similarly bringing Joseph's bones up from Egypt is a type of resurrection.
- The bones animated in the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel's prophecy
- Joseph being lifted out of the pit
- Daniel emerging from the lion's den
- The prodigal son returning to the father
Resurrection from Sheol
By this we mean, that traditional jewish beliefs were similar to beliefs held by the Egyptians and the Greeks, that there was a pit or cavern below in which the spirits of the dead resided, and then we can ask
about those being lifted out of those dim places and put next to the glory of God.
I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?
God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Similarly we see Jesus talking to Elijah and Moses during the transfiguration. (Matt 17.2-3)
What type of resurrection and from which death
So given that we have these six physical resurrections and several "spiritual elevations" and other deliverances that ocurred chronologically before Christ's death, in what way can we say that Christ was "firstborn" from the dead?
Let's go back and see what the context of the passage is (Col 1.13-18):
Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated
us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption
through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: Who is the image of
the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were
all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible
and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or
principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for
him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And
he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the
firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the
The key is the true resurrection, that is passing from the kingdom of darkness into life.
How does Christ relate to this true resurrection?
In the conversation with Nicodemus, when Christ explains that he must be born from above, he says (John 3.13)
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from
heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
So here Christ is saying that no man can go to heaven except for Christ. So then how can Elijah ascend to Heaven? How can Enoch be translated? It is only because they saw the promise through faith and thus Christ was born within them and it is Christ that is ascending.
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not
return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and
it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
There is a whole group of people who saw the Promise, from Abel (Heb 11.3) to Abraham (John 8.56 - Abraham rejoiced at seeing my day. He saw it and was glad) to Moses (John 5.46). This group of believers is called the body, and in the new testament, it is called the church, but Christ is the head of this body and Christ is the head, or first, because he came from God, gave life to these saints, and then their resurrection was his returning to God.
Now revival from physical death is just a temporary resurrection before eventual physical death and so is a type or pattern for obtaining eternal life, which is the true resurrection being discussed in Colossians. The "return of the word" is that resurrection, and we participate in it because the Father's word has descended, dwelt within us, and become our life, but as it is always the Word returning to the Father, he is always the firstborn of the dead, and we are second, participating in that resurrection only because the word has descended and dwelt within us, through faith.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand
Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we
testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our
testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not
believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the
Son of Man.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so
the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have
eternal life in him.”