Recently I was asked to explain what Paul meant when in Colossians 1:15 he refers to Christ as “the firstborn of every creature.” Is Paul saying that Christ was a created being, that he was the first being God created? Before proceeding to unfold what the term “firstborn” means, the answer to such a notion that Christ was the first creature God created or that He was a created being, is an emphatic, “NO.” As shall be seen, the term “firstborn” does not refer to Christ as created prior to all other beings or the world in general; the term denotes Christ’s authority and preeminence over all creation and all things.
Before delving into the meaning of the term “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 one must understand the reason the Apostle penned the letter to the Colossian church. Writing from a prison in Rome, Paul was seeking to combat an error that was beginning to rise in the early church, called Gnosticism. The term comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge. While there were many variations of Gnosticism, generally the Gnostics believed one gained salvation by obtaining special knowledge, such knowledge being gained from a myriad of intermediator “beings” called aeons or emanations. Since God was perfectly pure and transcendent, He could not have anything to do with this evil, material world or man; therefore, salvation was achieved by gaining special knowledge which would allow one to climb the hierarchical ladder of aeons or emanations that would eventually arrive at the “fullness” of God. In Gnosticism, Christ was an intermediator being created by God in whom was found the special knowledge needed that enabled one to climb the intermediator ladder to finally gain salvation. In Gnosticism the atoning death of Christ was denied, and, as well, Christ was a created being. While such concepts are foreign to biblical teaching and the Western mind, many eastern religions have concepts of achieving “salvation” that are akin to Gnosticism. Even the Jehovah Witnesses contain threads of Gnosticism as they believe Jesus was simply a created being who came to give us knowledge of how to obtain salvation.
So, Paul in Colossians is refuting the Gnostics who taught Christ, as an intermediator being, was created before all creation, He was the first creature God created. Paul in the first part of Colossians 1:15 refutes the claim of Gnostics when he writes that Christ “is the image of the invisible God.” Paul in essence is saying that Jesus is none other than God Himself. The word translated image was a word that was used to speak of an emperor’s image stamped on a coin, the coin bearing an exact image of the emperor. You could look at the image on the coin and tell who the emperor was. Jesus was the exact image of God the Father, He made visible to us the invisible God. We can look at Jesus and tell who the Father is! Isn’t that what Jesus told Phillip who wanted to see God? Jesus told him, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). The first part of Colossians 1:15 clearly pictures the Incarnation, that the invisible God became flesh in Jesus Christ.
The second part of Colossians 1:15 reads “the firstborn of every creature.” If Paul meant that Jesus was a created being, the first creature God created, then he just contradicted himself by stating Christ bears the very image of God, that the invisible God is made visible in Christ. That being said, the two statements in Colossians 1:15 must be interconnected not contradictory.
In striving to understand what Paul meant by using the word “firstborn” (Col. 1:15) in referring to Christ, it can’t be understood by imposing our Western thinking upon the text. The word “firstborn” (prōtotokos) comes from two Greek words prōto meaning “first or pre-eminent” and tokos meaning “born/bring forth” thus “firstborn.”
Now to understand the biblical concept of “firstborn” one must examine the word in the light of how it was used in the history of the Jewish people, which was portrayed in the word birthright. The term “firstborn” in Hebrew/Biblical understanding meant the prime person—the favored one, the one who inherited the rights to a better inheritance, which was usually the birthright of the oldest. The firstborn son in patriarchal society was regarded as special. From Abraham to the time of Christ, the word “firstborn” was understood in the framework of privileges and responsibilities. Furthermore, the term carried with it the meaning of primacy of status, of favor. It was a term that was related to primacy and priority.
There were privileges and primacy bestowed upon the firstborn son, that is why Jacob wanted the birthright of Esau, his brother. Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac, meaning to him was given the privileges of the birthright. By rights, Esau was to receive a double portion of his father’s estate when his father died. Along with the double portion came a special relationship between the firstborn and his father. The firstborn received a position of honor and preeminence within the family, such that when his father died, the firstborn was expected to take up the mantle of leadership and authority within the family, he was the acknowledged head.
In Psalm 89:27 the Psalmist writes in a prophecy about the coming Messiah, “Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.” The Psalmist writes in respect to the coming Christ, “I will make him my firstborn;” that is, He will be given priority of status, He will be the preeminent One in whom all authority will be bestowed. As Charles Spurgeon eloquently wrote of Christ being the firstborn, “In Him is constituted the chief of all creatures, and the depository of all power, and the possessor of all privileges, and the heir of all creation.”
The OT usage of firstborn was a Messianic title, the term “firstborn” used in reference to Jesus is indication that He is God. In fact, the ancient Rabbis called Yawhew Himself “Firstborn of the World” (Rabbi Bechai, cited in J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, 147). Reinecker and Rogers state, “The word emphasizes the preexistence and uniqueness of Christ as well as His superiority over creation. The term does not indicate that Christ was a creation or a created being” (Fritz Reinecker and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to The Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, 567).
With an OT understanding of how the term “firstborn” was used, it is clear Paul did not use the word in a time sense, inferring Christ was first to be created or the first creature God made (for all things were made by Him – Col 1:16), but in the sense of One who has supremacy over creation. Paul is saying that Christ occupies the position of authority, of preeminence, such as was afforded the firstborn in the OT, but of course in a much greater sense. He makes that clear in verse 18 when he states Christ is “preeminent in all things.”
Let it be added, that the Greek word “firstborn” outside of biblical usage, was used by the Greek writer Homer in the sense of “first Parent” or “first Creator” (Isidior Pelusiot, l. 3. Ep. 31). Such usage in regard to Christ is warranted, for Christ as the “firstborn” is the first Parent or Creator of all creation, the one who is the bringer forth of all creation into being, “for by Him were all things created” (Col 1:16). Christ as the “firstborn” is not only the Creator of all things, He is the heir of all things, the sustainer of all things, the Head of the Church, and holds the keys to life and death in His hands.
Paul in this magnificent passage, Colossians 1:15-22, sets forth the wondrous glories of who Christ is. The whole passage reads: 15Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: 16For 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: 17And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. 18And 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 preeminence. 19For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; 20And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. 21And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled 22In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight .
Listen to what Paul says about Jesus Christ: He is God become flesh in whom all authority dwells (v. 15), He is the Creator of all things (v. 16), He is pre-existent (v. 17), He is the Preserver of all that is created (v. 17), He is Head of the Church (v. 18), He is Lord over death (v. 18), He is the Preeminent One (v. 18), in Him the totality of the Godhead resides in fullness (v. 19), He has reconciled God and Man through His work on the cross (v. 20-21), and He is the Sanctifier of the saints (v. 22).
WOW, what a Savior! It should cause us to bow in worshipful adoration for who Christ is.
In verse 19 Paul says that in Christ “all fullness dwells.” In Gnosticism the totality of who God was, was called the pleroma (Greek word translated “fullness). Paul says Jesus is the fullness or pleroma of God, Jesus is the totality of the Godhead, of who God is!! Paul echoes the very words of John who calls Jesus the Word, who in the beginning was with God, was God, and by Him all things were created, and He became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-3; 14). John goes on to say, “Of His fullness (pleroma) we have all received” (John 1:16). John and Paul mirror one another in proclaiming Jesus is the totality of who God is, for He is the God who become flesh and walked among us.
In summary, Paul is crystal clear in Colossians of who Jesus Christ is – He is not a created being, He is God who became flesh and dwelt among us for the purpose of giving Himself for our sins to reconcile us unto Himself through the atoning Sacrifice of Himself! And He who is before all things, in Him all authority and preeminence resides.
O, what a Savior!