Colossians 1:15,16 – Is Jesus the eldest creature or is He preeminent over all

Featured verse:
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:
(Colossians 1:15-16)

Similar References:
2Co 4:4, Phi 2:6; Heb 1:3, John 1:18, John 14:9

The firstborn of every creature?
To have the preeminence means, “to be first, to have the first place” (Bauer-Danker Lexicon), that is, to be held in highest honor or position (Study Notes – Gary Everett). When Colossians 1:15 calls Jesus the “firstborn of every creature” this simply means that He has preeminence over every creature by virtue of being their Creator. In fact, this is the same reason Paul provides in Colossians 1:16 for calling Christ the “firstborn of every creature” in the prior verse. Whatever the Greek word for “firstborn” (“prototokos”) turns out to convey semantically, we must remember that the phraseology of the term “firstborn” is Jewish. The rabbis said that “firstborn” figuratively meant preeminence (Rabbi Bechai) and for good reason; it is used this way in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament (Exodus 4:22). This means that we must keep in mind how ‘firstborn’ was used in the Hebrew so that we do not unwisely limit its semantic scope in the Greek. After looking at verses like Exodus 4:22 and Psalm 89:27  it is clearly seen that when the parent of the “firstborn” is something or someone who cannot literally give birth in the traditional sense then one is not bound to the customary meaning of “firstborn.” Consequently, and if consistency is the goal, then in Colossians 1:15 since creation cannot literally give birth it stands to reason that we should take the term “firstborn” in a figurative sense.

Logical reasons why Jesus cannot be considered a creature:
The very next verse, Colossians 1:16, asserts that Jesus created all creatures; therefore, He cannot rationally be part of His own creation. This truth is echoed with more devastation to the Arian mindset in Ephesians 3:9 where it is stated that God “created all things by Jesus Christ” and in John 1:3 where it is stated that “all things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made.” Now if God created ALL things by Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ cannot be a creature since that would mean that He created Himself along with ALL other things.

Would those who assert that Jesus was created have us believe that “firstborn” means all creatures were literally born of God, and that Jesus was the first-born among them? This is impossible! One cannot speak of the birth of the earth, ocean, stars, moon, etc. These have all been created, not born; they are creatures rather than children of God. Jesus cannot rationally be the firstborn of all creation in the sense that He is the eldest in the group of all created things. Moreover, not all human creatures are spiritually born of God; Jesus admonishing the Pharisees stated,”you are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). Did the Pharisees have two spiritual fathers? As Dr. Henry Morris states: “Some are sons of God by creation (e.g., angels; see Job 1:6), and we CAN BECOME sons of God by adoption (e.g., Rom 8:14-15), but He [Jesus] is the Son, by eternal generation (or eternal relation) the only-begotten of the Father. (New Defenders Study Bible)”  Therefore, we must conclude that the word “born” in “firstborn” is used in an entirely different sense than what is meant by traditional birth.

In the Jehovah Witnesses’ Reasoning From The Scriptures book (page 408, paragragh 2) the following three challenges are made in order to establish that Christ is a created being and not the eternal self-existent Being of Micah 5:2 Who has existed “from everlasting to everlasting”:

(1) Trinitarians say that “first-born” here means prime, most excellent, most distinguished; thus Christ would be understood to be, not part of creation, but the most distinguished in relation to those who were created. If that is so, and if the Trinity doctrine is true, why are the Father and the holy spirit not also said to be the firstborn of all creation? But the Bible applies this expression only to the Son. According to the customary meaning of “firstborn,” it indicates that Jesus is the eldest in Jehovah’s family of sons.

This objection to the Godship of Christ betrays a misunderstanding of the Trinity doctrine. According to Scripture, each member of the Godhead is eternally distinct and may thus do things that other members are not said to do (Isaiah 48:16, Genesis 19:24). For instance, Jesus says that God the Father will judge no one but instead has committed all judgement unto the Son (John 5:22); yet, God the Father still holds the title of Judge and does so vicariously when not doing so directly (Romans 2:16). Likewise, God the Father has every right to be called the firstborn of every creature since He too created all things (Genesis 1:26, Ecclesiastes 12:1). In fact, it is said that the Jews called YHWH the “Firstborn of the World” (Rabbi Bechai).  Moreover, Psalms 104:30 and Genesis 1:2 indicate that the Holy Spirit is the Creator as well. So we see that each Person in the Trinity has claim to the title “firstborn of every creature” yet, in Colossians 1:18 we are told that it pleased God the Father that Christ should have the preeminence and thus the title in question. Secondly, because the holy names for God (i.e. YHWH, Adonai) can simultaneously refer to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is not always immediately clear which Person of the Trinity is referenced when reading certain parts of the Old Testament (i.e. Gen 19). For example, since all three Persons of the Trinity are the Creator, in Isaiah 42:5 it is not immediately clear Who is speaking since the singular word for God (‘El”) is employed to qualify YHWH. Even if all the above were not the case, the fact that other persons in the Trinity do not have the same title as Christ could never necessary lead to a conclusion that Jesus is a created being. At worst, we would be left to wonder about such a question the way we do about the preponderance of knowledge that has yet to be revealed by the Only Wise God.

In the Jehovah Witnesses’ Reasoning From The Scriptures book, the second objection declares:

(2) Before Colossians 1:15, the expression “the firstborn of” occurs upwards of 30 times in the Bible, and in each instance that it is applied to living creatures the same meaning applies—the firstborn is part of the group. “The firstborn of Israel” is one of the sons of Israel; “the firstborn of Pharaoh” is one of Pharaoh’s family; “the firstborn of beast” are themselves animals. What, then, causes some to ascribe a different meaning to it at Colossians 1:15? Is it Bible usage or is it a belief to which they already hold and for which they seek proof?

The “firstborn” must indeed be “part of the group” if in fact the word “firstborn” is used in a literal sense; otherwise, this rule does not necessarily apply. Consequently, the reason why we ascribe a different meaning to the phrase “the firstborn of” than the meaning which requires the firstborn to be “part of the group” is because the phrase “the firstborn of” is found to have different non-literal usages throughout the Scriptures. As was stated earlier, creation cannot literally give birth so the phrase as used in Colossians 1:15 is not a literal one and must therefore be understood in a figurative sense. In light of this, it would be inappropriate to force the literal meaning upon the non-literal passage of Colossians 1:15. Instead, we should examine the different ways in which this expression is used non-literally throughout the Scriptures.  This conclusion is confirmed by analyzing the Greek word for firstborn (pro¯totokos) in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon (or any Greek Lexicon). Upon examination the reader will discover that there is no definition that allows one to use this word in a literal sense when it is not applied to man or beast. This reason alone allows us to discount the idea that the firstborn is necessarily part of a group. Several times in the bible, God uses the term “firstborn” in a figurative sense but each time He does so He always explains what is meant by the figure of speech. Three types of examples are:

 1. The Honorable distinction or preeminence usages include: Exodus 4:22, Psalm 89:27, Jeremiah 31:9,  Heb 1:6; Hebrews 12:22-23, Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:18, and Revelation 1:5. Regarding these verses and the reasons why they do not fit into the literal usages category, 19th century pastor and theologian, Dr John Morison states:
Hence God said to Pharaoh, “Israel is My son, My firstborn,” because they were in distinction from other peoples the recipients of the advantages which were the natural prerequisites of primogeniture (the right of inheritance which belongs exclusively to the eldest son). Again in Jer 31:9 the idea of priority in birth is entirely shaded off, for that priority could not be affirmed of Ephraim–the reference is to peculiarity of prerogative and honour. Take again Heb 12:22-23. Here Christians are called the firstborn, and not Christians in heaven, (for they are distinguished from the “spirits of just men made perfect,”) but Christians on earth. All such Christians, though scattered, and variously denominated, are “the one general assembly and Church of the firstborn.” This shows that the term may be and is used without priority of birth, and in the sense of being God’s very highly-favoured children. All the blessings of primogeniture are theirs because they are Christ’s, the Firstborn. As He is the Crown Prince of the universe, the Prince Imperial and hereditary Lord of the whole creation, they are constituted joint heirs with Him of the “inheritance incorruptible,” etc. Again, this interpretation is supported by Rom 8:29. “Firstborn among many brethren” is a notable expression. We cannot suppose that God desired to secure the Saviour a relation of chronological priority. Jesus was already before all. -Biblical Illustrator, 1 Colossians 1:15.

2. Firstborn is also used as a superlative form of an adjective in verses like Isaiah 14:30 and Job 18:13. The “first-born of the poor” signifies the most miserable of the poor (Isa 14:30). The figurative phrase, “the firstborn of death,” means the deadliest disease that death (personified) ever gendered (Job 18:13). See Easton’s Bible Dictionary and Fausset’s Bible Dictionary for more information.

 3. Firstborn is used as the title given to the birthright owner who is not necessarily the eldest (Deuteronomy 21:16). In some instances where the father can literally give birth in the traditional sense, “firstborn” is not meant literally. For instance, In Deuteronomy 21:16 the “firstborn” is used of the heir or the person given the birthright and not necessarily of the eldest born even though the son in question is truly born of a man capable of fathering children.

So, since there are such non-literal usages of the word “firstborn” found in the Scriptures, it is prudent to distinguish which usage fits best with the context. The most helpful part of the Colossians 1:15-16 excerpt is the beginning of verse 16; there lies the reason that Paul gives for using the appellation “firstborn”, namely, because Christ created all things. Consequently, it behooves us to consider the expression “firstborn of” as a title bestowing the unique honor of priority and superlative dignity since this conclusion is faithful to prior biblical usage. And if we do so, how can Jesus have the preeminence over EVERY creature without being God?

The third objection of the Watch Tower Organization is:

(3) Does Colossians 1:16, 17 (RS) exclude Jesus from having been created, when it says “in him all things were created . . . all things were created through him and for him”? The Greek word here rendered “all things” is pan’ta, an inflected form of pas. At Luke 13:2, RS renders this “all . . . other”; JB reads “any other”; NE says “anyone else.” (See also Luke 21:29 in NE and Philippians 2:21 in JB.) In harmony with everything else that the Bible says regarding the Son, NW assigns the same meaning to pan’ta at Colossians 1:16, 17 so that it reads, in part, “by means of him all other things were created . . . All other things have been created through him and for him.” Thus he is shown to be a created being, part of the creation produced by God

This interpretation could not have been reached “in harmony with everything else that the Bible says about the Son” for we read in John 1:3 that “without Him was not any thing made that was made”; this verse alone militates against the Watch Tower’s peculiar interpretation of Colossians 1:16-17.  In the referenced verse of Luke 13:2 a comparison is made between a group of 18 deceased Galileans and “all other Galileans” which is why some bible translations include the word “other” next to “all” when interpreting the Greek word pan’ta. Likewise, in Luke 21:29 another comparison is made, this time between a single fig tree and “all other trees.” Finally, in Philippians 2:21 we also see yet another comparison being made between Timotheus and “all other people.” So in all three verses that are mentioned as references, the pattern observed is that comparisons are being made which convinces a minority of bible versions to insert the word “other” so that the comparison is amplified. However, in Colossians 1:16, no comparison is being made so these three comparison-oriented verses seem wholly irrelevant.  Nevertheless, bible versions that employ the technique of formal equivalence (as opposed to dynamic equivalence) and include the word “other” for Luke 13:2 put it in italics which informs the reader that it does not appear in the original text. It’s also worth pointing out that the dynamic equivalence method of translation, unlike the formal, does not aim for literal, word for word interpretation but instead paraphrases the original words for the purpose of making the text easier to read. The RS (Revised Standard Version), the NE (New English Bible) and the JB (Jerusalem Bible) bibles all employ the dynamic equivalence method so it is not surprising that they would at one point or another paraphrase the Greek word pan’ta. Notwithstanding, it is quite curious that the Watch Tower Organization tells us what these three bible versions say regarding verses like Luke 13:2 and Luke 21:29 which are not contextually pertinent to Colossians 1:16-17 and yet does not disclose what the NE and JB bibles say regarding the actual passage in question. After all, if these versions are good enough to quote for unrelated verses then perhaps they could serve our purpose all the more for the verses that we actually care about, namely, Colossians 1:16-17. Below I have included the text from the three bible versions cited by the Watch Tower Organization on the disputed verses of Colossians 1:15-16.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:15-16 RS
 (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Col%201:15-16&version=RSV)

 He is the image of the invisible God; his is the primacy over all created things. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, not only things visible but also the invisible orders of thrones, sovereignties, authorities, and powers: the whole universe has been created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:15-16 NE
 (http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/master.html?http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/IntroContents.php)

He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers —all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:15-16 JB
 (http://64.62.200.70/BOOK/PDF/Bible-1966v02/343-349/)

Judging by the Colossians 1:15-16 text of the very versions cited by the Watch Tower Organization, we see that they all three render the word “pas” (pan’ta) as “all things” and not “all other things” like the NWT (New World Translation) does. This revelation obviates any attempt by the Watch Tower Organization to use these (unnecessary, obscure and thus out of use) bible versions as supporting evidence for a particular way of misinterpreting Colossians 1:15-16.

Lastly–and I almost hesitate to bring this up since this is speculative and unnecessary but–there is a sense in which even if one were to go along with the idea that Jesus was the first thing created there would still exist an explanation that reconciles this conjecture with the rest of Scripture. Once the reader remembers that in the beginning was the Word of God [Jesus] and this Word was with God and this Word was God, then it becomes clear that Jesus, before the foundation of the world, is not a man but is instead identified as the Living Word of God. Jesus taking on the form of a Man could have in fact been the Word’s first creative act which would in a strange way mean that Jesus as the Word of God created a new aspect to Himself, the aspect of being a man. This would not be a contradiction in the sense that we disallowed earlier since He is not creating Himself but rather a new aspect to Himself. We must remember that in the Bible many times before Jesus is born through Mary, He appears as a man to Old Testament saints such as Abraham, Jacob, Isaiah, Ezekiel etc. Again, this explanation is probably sailing into unchartered waters and should by no means be asserted dogmatically. I only bring it up to show that the interpretation sought after by the Watch Tower Organization has further obstacles to overcome beyond what has already been stated. It is simply impossible to escape the many verses of Scripture that assert Jesus is YHWH the everlasting and Almighty God. So we see that even if one were to allow the interpretation that Jesus the Man was the first thing created it would still not necessarily warrant His exclusion from being YHWH the Almighty God which is ultimately what this Arian-minded argument seeks to accomplish through this peculiar interpretation.

Other Voices on this topic:

Firstborn is very commonly a title of honour. Israel, for instance, as a nation is the firstborn son of God (Exo 4:22). The meaning is that the nation of Israel is the most favoured child of God. Second, we must note that firstborn is a title of the Messiah. In Ps 89:27, as the Jews themselves interpreted it, the promise regarding the Messiah is “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.” Clearly firstborn is not used in a time sense at all, but in the sense of special honour. So when Paul says of the Son that he is the firstborn of all creation, he means that the highest honour which creation holds belongs to him. -William Barkley

In no way does the title firstborn indicate that Jesus is less than God. In fact, the ancient Rabbis called Yawhew Himself “Firstborn of the World” (Rabbi Bechai, cited in Lightfoot). Ancient rabbis used firstborn as a Messianic title: “God said, As I made Jacob a first-born (Exodus 4:22), so also will I make king Messiah a first-born (Psalm 89:27).” (R. Nathan in Shemoth Rabba, cited in Lightfoot)
– David Guzik

The first-born of every creature. The reason of this appellation is immediately added — For in him all things are created, as he is, three verses afterwards, called the first-begotten from the dead, because by him we all rise again. Hence, he is not called the first-born, simply on the ground of his having preceded all creatures in point of time, but because he was begotten by the Father, that they might be created by him, and that he might be, as it were, the substance or foundation of all things.
-John Calvin’s commentary

“the firstborn of all creation” This was an OT metaphor for Jesus’ unique and exalted position.
1. the rabbis said it meant preeminence (cf. Exodus 4:22)
2. in the OT it was used for the eldest son as heir and manager of the family
3. in Psa_89:27 it was used in a Messianic sense
– Bob Utley

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