Revelation 1: 4, 5, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: 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 first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
The Apostle John is here referring to the risen Jesus as being the first one born of the dead.
The New Testament teaches that Jesus died or sacrificed his own human life to pay for the sinfulness of mankind. “Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death…might taste death for everyone,” Hebrews 2:9.
But how exactly was Jesus dead? What is death? Death is the opposite of life – a complete lack of vitality in any form. Ecclesiastes 9:10, 5, “…for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (state of death; grave) where you are going…the dead know nothing.”
When Jesus died he was completely dead. There was no spirit nor soul that lived on, indeed, no consciousness at all. He died the death that has befallen all humanity. He suffered our punishment. And He did so willingly. As He said, “…I lay down my life…” John 10:17,18.
When our Father in heaven resurrected Jesus, it was to the divine nature; he was no longer a mortal being. Philippians 2:8, 9 “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name…”
Never before had anyone had a true resurrection to life. There were some who were temporarily raised from the state of death. But those resuscitations could not be considered true or complete resurrections as those people eventually died again. Jesus was the very first one to be brought forth from the state of death (non-existence) to eternal, immortal life! (See 1 Corinthians 15:53.)
First-born also implies others will be resurrected, as was Jesus. Faithful Christians, called Christ's body members, will experience a resurrection to immortality, and become “sharers in a divine nature,” 2 Peter 1:4. “Now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is,” 1 John 3:2 (NASB).
Thus, Jesus has the pre-eminence as the first one to be resurrected, the first-born. Afterward, His body members will be resurrected. Romans 8:17, “if children, then…joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” This is what is meant by the first-born of the dead.