Q. In Rev 1:5 what does it mean Jesus is the firstborn of the dead?
A. The phrase “firstborn of the dead” translates the Greek prototokos ton nekros. A similar expression prototokos ek nekros appears in Col 1:18, translated firstborn from the dead in the NAS:
• Col 1:18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
• Rev 1:5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—
Prototokos comes from protos “first” and tikto “to begat”. It speaks of His priority to, & preeminence over, creation, having first place in everything. Nekros means dead. So both verses refer to His resurrection.
Since there are people raised from the dead in the OT e.g. the Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:32-37), & Jesus Himself raised a number from the dead e.g.
• Jairus’ daughter (Mk 4:35-42),
• the widow’s son at Nain (Lk 7:14-15),
• Lazarus (Jn 11:43-44),
in what sense is Jesus the firstborn from or of the dead?
All the others were resuscitated temporarily to live for a time, only to die again later. However, Jesus was the first to be raised to eternal life, the guarantee of a better covenant. He was not prevented by death from continuing His priesthood, which He holds permanently (Heb 7:22-24).
• 7:25 Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
Thus “Firstborn of the dead” speaks of both who He is, the preeminent One, and what He did, saving, offering sacrifice as priest, & interceding. It tells us His Person & His work. It is a very rich title.