In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

Overview

John 1:1 is an important verse in the dispute about the deity of Christ (the Word), which is probably the oldest dispute in the Church.

The verse seems to contradict itself, for it says that Jesus was with God, but the traditional translation is “the Word was God,” which identifies Jesus as God.  Furthermore, when John referred to the Father, He wrote THE GOD, but when he referred to Jesus as GOD, he omitted the article.  Some use this omission as grounds for the alternative translation: “the Word was a god.”  This translation implies that Jesus is one of a greater number of powerful but created “gods.”

This article serves as an introduction to the series of articles on the translation of John 1:1.  It confirms that Jesus is distinct from God, but not created.  This article furthermore proposes that Jesus not only existed in the beginning, but that He Himself was the beginning of all things, and that there therefore was no time that the Son did not exist.

Introduction

Nicene CreedThe second phrase of John 1:1 (“the Word was with God”) makes a distinction between Jesus and God, but the third phrase (“the Word was God”) identifies the Word (Jesus) as God.  How can the Word be God if He is distinct from God?

This question resulted in much dispute over the past 2000 years.  The first church council, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, called by Caesar Constantine, specifically addressed the dispute about the deity of Christ, and resulted in the Nicene Creed of 325.

John 1:1 had a significant impact on the development of church doctrines on the nature of Jesus.  The proper translation of this verse is at the center of debate between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians.  Some view it as the clearest declaration of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture.  John 1:1 is the best known of the about seven verses in the New Testament where Jesus is called THEOS (GOD).  The other verses refer to Jesus as THEOS in the context of the time when the New Testament was written, but John 1:1 refers to Him as THEOS in the context of “the beginning;” when “all things” were created (1:3).

The translation dispute centers on the lack of the definite article (the) prior to the word GOD (THEOS) in John 1:1c.  John included the article prior to THEOS in 1:1b (literally, AND THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD), but omits it before THEOS in 1:1c.  Since ancient Greek did not have an indefinite article, some see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation: “the Word was a god.”  The purpose of this article series is to understand what John 1:1 means and how it is best translated.

Purpose of this article

Jehovah Witnesses While the majority of Christianity has a one-sided focus on the verses that emphasize the divinity of Christ, Jehovah Witnesses err to the other side, and only focus on the verses that show that Jesus is distinct from and subordinate to God.  To find the truth, we need to find an explanation that satisfies all statements about Jesus found in the Bible.

To write this article, the Jehovah’s Witnesses defense of their translation of John 1:1c was read.  Various other website resources were studied to identify the key principles.  Many experts are quoted in these websites, but this article does not always quote these experts.

Three Phrases

John 1:1This article often refers to the three phrases of John 1:1.  Below the majority translation is presented, together with the Greek transliteration.

To understand John 1:1 requires some understanding of some Greek words and grammar, but this article is intended for people that do not understand Greek.  Therefore, and since in the original Greek language there was no differentiation between lower case and capital letters, this article presents the Greek literally using CAPITALIZED ENGLISH WORDS:

(a) In the beginning was the Word,
(En arkhêi ên ho logos =
IN BEGINNING WAS THE WORD)
(b) and the Word was with God,
(kaì ho lógos ên pròs tòn theón =
AND THE WORD WAS TOWARD THE GOD)
(c) and the Word was God.
(kaì theòs ên ho logos =
AND GOD WAS THE WORD)

Some Preliminary Observations

In Greek there is no article before BEGINNING, but the translation inserts the article (“the”).  In 1:1b the Greek has the article before THEOS, but the translation omits it.  There is no article before THEOS in 1:1c, but it is translated the same as 1:1b.

In Greek, the word order in 1:1c is reversed.

The Greek word for GOD in 1:1c is THEOS, but in 1:1b the word appears as THEON.  THEON has the same meaning as THEOS.  Each Greek noun normally has 8 or 9 forms (cases) in which it can appear.  These forms do not change the meaning of the words, but define the roles which the words play in sentences, for example, to differentiate the subject from the object.

The implications of these observations are explained below.

Alternative Translations of John 1:1c

Three alternative translations may be considered:

The Word was God” is the majority translation. “God,” with the capital G, is the name we give to the Almighty.  We do not use “God,” with a capital G, for any other being.  “The Word was God” therefore identifies Jesus as the Almighty.

The Word was a god” is primarily found in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation. This implies that Jesus is one of a greater number of powerful but created “gods.”

The Word was divine” in Moffatt, Goodspeed and some other translations. This may be understood to imply that Jesus has divine attributes, but He is not the Almighty.

The Word

LOGOSThe Word” (Greek LOGOS) is widely understood as referring to Jesus, as indicated in John 1:14-17.   In the Book of Revelation, which has been written by the same John, “His name is called The Word of God” (Rev. 19:13).

Matthew Henry proposed that Jesus is “the Word” because He was sent to earth to reveal His Father’s mind.  In John 1:18 we similarly read that “no one has seen God at any time,” but Jesus “has explained Him (God).”  Jesus therefore said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  Jesus, as “the Word,” is God’s Communication to the universe.

The phrase, “the word of the LORD” is found many times in the Old Testament as an expression of divine power and wisdom.  By referring to Jesus as “the Word,” “we preach … Christ (as) the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

In the beginning

The “beginning” (1:1a) must be linked to John 1:3, which states that God created all things through Jesus.

The first words in the Bible are: “In the beginning God …” John 1:1 contains the same Greek words for “in the beginning” as are found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) of Genesis 1:1. “The beginning” in John 1:1a therefore refers to the Genesis creation account.

Genesis opens with “in the beginning God …,” but John elaborates on the creation account by saying “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God..  Later in Genesis 1 God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (v26).  John 1:1 implies that Jesus was included in the “Us” that made man in Their image.

With God

The phrase THE WORD WAS WITH GOD (1:1b) means more than merely that the Son existed with the Father.  The term translated “with” may be explained as follows:

The term translated “with” give “the picture of two personal beings facing one another and engaging in intelligent discourse” [W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John [Chicago: Moody, 1979], 49].

The NASB reads in 1:18 that He was “in the bosom of the Father,” but the NIV translation explains that He was “in closest relationship with the Father.”

Jesus prayed about “the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5).

Distinct From God

To say that “the Word was with God” (John 1:1b) makes a distinction between Jesus and God.  In other words, the title “God” is used here to refer to the Father alone.  Another clear example of this is John 1:18, which reads, “No one has seen God at any time.” “God” here excludes the Son, for the Son has been seen.  This is a general principle of the New Testament:  Of the about 1300 times that the title THEOS (GOD) is used in the New Testament, it almost always refers to the Father exclusively:

The Nicene Creed starts with the words, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty …”

Paul wrote, “for us there is but one God, the Father …” (1 Cor. 8:6)

For a discussion of this important principle, see Jesus is distinct from God or Jesus is subordinate to God.

Jesus was not created, and always existed.

The opening phrase of John 1:1 reads “in the beginning was the Word.” The thought is repeated in John 1:2a: “He was in the beginning with God.”  It does not say that the Word was created or came into existence at the “beginning; He simply “was.”  The tense of the Greek word translated “was” expresses continuous action in the past.  This implies that the Word (Jesus) had no beginning, but always existed.  This seems to be confirmed by the following:

He is before all things” (Col. 1:17).

All things came into being through Him” (Jesus), and if “apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3).  The Word therefore must have already existed prior to creation.

The Only Begotten

John 1:18 refers to Him as “the only begotten,” which seems to imply that Jesus had a beginning.  But some argue that the Greek word translated “the only begotten” (monogenēs) means “one and only.”  This is how monogenēs is consistently translated in the NIV, and does not imply a beginning.

If monogenēs must be understood as “the only begotten,” which implies that Jesus had a beginning, then it is preferred here to understand this as follows:

He was not created, for God created all things through Him (1:3).  Rather, He was born, which implies that He came forth from the being of the Father.

Using the literal translation of Colossians 1:18, He IS THE BEGINNING.  In other words; He not only existed in the beginning; He Himself was the beginning of “all things.”  By giving gave birth to His Son, God created the universe.  When we talk about the creation, we come face to face with eternity, which is a complete mystery.

The beginning” was also the beginning of time.  Therefore, even if He is “the only begotten,” it is still valid to say that there was no time that “the Word” did not exist.

Articles in the Christology series: Is Jesus God?

1.    The three views of the Son
  2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God.
  3.    Jesus in Colossians
  4.    Does the book of Revelation present Jesus as God?
  5.    Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God?
  6.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
  7.    Jesus is not God.
  8.    God is the Head of Christ.
  9.    Jesus is called God.
 10.   He is the Only Begotten Son of God.
 11.  God created all things through His Son.
 12.  Jesus is worshiped.  Does that mean that He is God?
Worship verses in the New Testament
 13.  Jesus has equality with God.
14. 
Firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15) 
15. 
Summary of the series of articles
  Interpretation of John 1:1
16. 
Introduction 
17. 
The Word was a god.
 18.  But THEOS is a count noun.
  Jesus in the Old Testament
19.
  Jesus in the Old Testament

Is the New Word Translation of John 1:1c as “the Word was a god” appropriate?

Overview

John includes the article (the) before THEOS (GOD) in 1:1b, but omits it before THEOS in John 1:1c.  Jehovah’s Witnesses see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation of this phrase: “the Word was a god.” 

The following objections to this translation are proposed:

Firstly, the ancient Greek language only has definite articles, and how Greek  uses the article is very complex.  It uses them in unexpected places and omits them where we would expect to find them.

Secondly, if John wished to say that “the Word was a god.” then there was another way in which he could have done that.  

Thirdly, the article is omitted for grammatical reasons, namely to identify THEOS as the predicate.

Fourthly, THEOS appears in other places without the article where it is clear that it must be translated as “God,” for instance, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). 

Fifthly, John 1:1c has a special grammatical construct, and in this construct predicate nouns without the article are more likely to be definite. 

Grammarians who have studied this special grammatical construct have concluded that predicates in such constructs are primarily qualitative in force.  That implies that 1:1c should not be interpreted as definite (“the god”).  Nor does John 1:1c mean that Jesus is one of a number of gods, and it therefore cannot be translated as “the Word was a god” in an indefinite sense, for a qualitative sense means that 1:1c describes god-like qualities to Him.

It is technically possible to translate 1:1c as “the Word was a god” to reflect a qualitative sense, but not in the context of 1:1c, for the Bible declares that only one God exists.  In general, if only one instance of a predicate exists, it cannot be translated to English by inserting the indefinite article “a.”

Lastly, Jesus is unique.  He is “the Only Begotten Son of God.”  “Through him all things were made.”  He is not just one of many such gods.  He is not “a god.”

Introduction

The Word was GodJohn included the article before THEOS in 1:1b (literally, THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD), but omits it before THEOS in John 1:1c, (literally, GOD WAS THE WORD).  Jehovah’s Witnesses see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation of this phrase: “the word was a god.”  This implies that Jesus is one of many similar created beings with divine qualities.  

If a translation was merely a matter of substituting words, 1:1c (THEOS EN HO LOGOS) could certainly be translated “the Word was a god.”  To pagan Greeks this would have been a perfectly sensible statement.  They would understand this as saying that “the Word” is one of the many Greek gods, such as Zeus, Poseidon or Apollo. 

The following objections to the translation “the Word was a god” are proposed:

This is a complex matter.

Firstly, how the ancient Greek language uses the article is a very complex matter.  It is notorious for not using articles where we would expect to find them: 

An example of a noun without the article that must be definite, is John 1:2.  In Greek, there is no definite article before BEGINNING.  It reads, HE WAS IN BEGINNING WITH GOD.  It makes sense to include the definite article “the” and to translate this phrase as, “He was in the beginning with God.”  If we insert “a,” it would imply that there was more than one beginning.

Greek also uses the article in places we never would.  For instance, a literal translation of John 1:12 reads: TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE INTO THE HIS NAME.  

Thomas Middleton has written an entire volume of over 500 pages solely on the uses of the Greek article in the New Testament [The Doctrine of the Greek Article, London: Rivington & Deighton, 1841].  Balz and Schneider concluded that THEOS is used either with or without the article “without any apparent difference in meaning” [Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 2. 140]

Thus, if an indefinite article (“a”) is assumed to be implied in every place where the definite article (the) does not appears in Greek, it will often corrupt the meaning of a passage.

Another way to say “the Word was a god.”

BibleIf John wished to say that “the Word was a god.” then there was another way in which he could have done that.  When the predicate without the article follows after the verb, then, as a rule, the predicate would be considered primarily indefinite.  Therefore, if John wrote HO LOGOS ÊN THEOS (THE WORD WAS GOD), that would have indicated an indefinite use.  But he reversed the word order and wrote, GOD WAS THE WORD.

The article is omitted for grammatical reasons.

In English the word order identifies the subject of the sentence, but Greek uses noun cases (word endings) for that purpose.  However, 1:1c is an example of a linking verb (“was”); as opposed to an action verb.  With linking verbs, the subject and predicate are in the same case.  In such instances, wherever the subject has the article and the predicate does not, the word with the article is the subject.  [Robertson, A. T. (2006). A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (pp. 767–769).]

In other words, in 1:1c, where LOGOS has the article, the article was omitted before THEOS not to make it indefinite, but to identify it as the predicate.

THEOS without the article is many times definite.

The Word of God

THEOS appears 1343 times in the Greek New Testament.  In 282 instances it is without the article.  If THEOS without the article must always be translated as “a god,” then one would expect to find “a god” in each of these 282 passages. But in 266 of the 282 instances we find THEOS translated as “God” in the New World Translation; not as “a god.”  “God” is a definite interpretation of THEOS, for “God,” with a capital G, is our English name for the Almighty; it identifies one specific Being.  The question is then, is the NWT inconsistent when it translates THEOS without the article in John 1:1c as “the Word was a god?”

Genitive Form

Jehovah Witnesses correctly respond that in many instances THEOS is in the genitive form, e.g. “from God” (John 1:6) or “of God” (John 1:12).  In this form THEOS changes to THEOU, and does not require the article to be definite.

But there also are many instances where THEOS is (a) without the article and (b) not in a genitive form, and where all agree this must be translated as “God;” not as “a god.” For instance:

No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). 
He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (John 20:38).
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Since non-genitive forms of THEOS without the article in these instances are translated as “God,” the question remains whether the NWT is inconsistent in translating 1:1c as “the Word was a god.” 

Special Grammatical Construct

Jehovah Witnesses (JWs) further respond that John 1:1c is different from these instances because 1:1c has a special grammatical construct, and in this construct unique rules apply.  It is true that 1:1c is a special grammatical construct.  In this construct the predicate (THEOS in 1:1c) precedes the verb “to be” (“was” in 1:1c).  This construct has been researched extensively:

EC Colwell published his study of the use of the Greek article in 1933.  He selected predicates which he identified as definite by virtue of the context and found that 87% of such definite predicates in such special grammatical constructs were without the article.  He formulated the following rule:

“Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article” (Colwell, p. 20).  

He concluded,

“The absence of the article does not make the predicate indefinite or qualitative when it precedes the verb … If the context suggests that the predicate is definite, it should be translated as a definite noun in spite of the absence of the article.”   [E.C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” JBL, 52 (1933), 12-21.] 

In another study, Harner found that 20% of the predicates in this special construct are definite. 

In conclusion, the absence of the article in such special constructs does not necessarily mean that such nouns are indefinite.  We cannot assume that John 1:1c must be translated “the Word was a god” simply on the basis of the absence of the article. 

The special rules which apply in the special grammatical construct of 1:1c is actually the opposite of what JWs would like it to be: 

As stated above, when a predicate without the article follows after the verb, the predicate is generally indefinite.  But the research mentioned above shows that THEOS (without the article) is more likely to be definite in this special construct than in the usual constructs.

Qualitative

Noun categories and the articles

Grammarians distinguish between:

Indefinite nouns, which identify any instance of a group or class.
Definite nouns, which identify a specific instance of a group.
Qualitative nouns, which attribute qualities of the noun to the subject of the sentence.

Qualitative nouns signify neither definiteness (a specific instance of a group), nor indefiniteness (any instance of a group).  It is, for example, possible to describe somebody, who is not actually a god, but who is a human being who is admired by many people for his or her god-like superhuman abilities, as “a god.”  In this case “god” is used in a qualitative sense; it does not identify the person as one of the gods.

The articles help to distinguish between definite and indefinite nouns.  For instance, “a god” is an indefinite use of the noun and “the god” is a definite noun.  But the articles do not distinguish between indefinite and qualitative uses.  For example, if “he” is one of the Greek gods, then “he is a god” is indefinite.  But, as explained above, “he is a god” may also be qualitative.

Probably Qualitative

Grammarians who studied the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c (predicate without the article before the verb “to be”) concluded that the predicates in such constructs are primarily qualitative in force:

Harner categorized such predicates in Mark and John and found [pp. 85, 87]:
     80% are qualitative.
     20% are definite.
     None are exclusively indefinite. 

He concluded: “anarthrous predicate nouns preceding the verb may be primarily qualitative in force.” (p. 75).  (Anarthrous means without the article.)

Dixon’s substantiated Harner’s findings: “When the anarthrous predicate nominative precedes the verb it is qualitative in 50 of 53 occurrences, or 94% probability.” (Predicate nominative is the case in which Greek nouns appear in such special constructs.  To simplify matters, this website uses the more generic term “predicates.”)

Hartley found that, in John’s Gospel, 56% of such predicates are qualitative, 11% are definite, 17% are indefinite and 17% are qualitative-indefinite. 

These findings mean that THEOS in John 1:1c is most probably qualitative.  If that is the case, then 1:1c does not mean that Jesus is one of a number of gods, and it cannot be translated as “the Word was a god” in an indefinite sense.  However, it may still be translated as “the Word was a god” in a qualitative sense.

Jehovah Witness response

To defend their translation of John 1:1c (“the Word is a god”) against the conclusion that this phrase is most probably qualitative in force, Jehovah Witnesses (JWs) point to other phrases in the New Testament with the same special construct as 1:1c, but that are translated by inserting the English indefinite article “a” before the predicate, for example:

The woman at the well said to Jesus, “I perceive that You are a prophet” (John 4:19; cf, 9:17; Mark 11:32).

When a snake bit Paul, but he did not die, the people said, “he was a god” (Acts 28:6).  This example is particularly relevant because the predicate in this phrase is also THEOS (GOD). 

Other examples are:
a liar” (John 8:44);
a Samaritan” (John 8:48);
a thief” (John 10:1; 12:6);
a hired hand” (John 10:13);
a man” (10:33);
a sinner” (John 8:24); and
a king” (John 18:37) 

JWs argue that 1:1c may similarly be translated as “a god” to convey the qualitative sense of THEOS. 

A may only be inserted if more than one exists.

It is only valid to insert “a” before the predicate if more than one instance of the predicate exists.  In other words, it is only valid to insert “a” before “god” if more than one “god” exist.  To illustrate:

The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28), also has the same special grammatical construct, cannot be translated as “a Lord of the Sabbath” because there is only one “Lord of the Sabbath.”

In Acts 28:6 “a god” is a valid translation because these pagan people believed that many gods exist.  When Paul did not die as result of the snake bite, they assumed he must be one of those gods. 

Since there are many prophets, it is also valid to say that somebody is “a prophet” (John 4:19; 9:17; Mark 11:32).

Similarly, because many murderers, ghosts, devils, thieves and robbers are believed to exist, it is also valid to say that somebody is “a murderer” (Acts 28:4) or “a ghost” (Mark 6:49) or “a devil” (John 6:70) or “a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).  The same principle applies to “a liar” (John 8:44), “a Samaritan” (John 8:48), “a thief” (John 10:1; 12:6), “a hired hand” (John 10:13), “a man” (10:33), “a sinner” (John 9:24) and “a king” (John 18:37).

These examples show that an “a” may be inserted in the translation of both indefinite and qualitative predicates:

The Jews said to Jesus “You are a Samaritan” (John 8:48).  This is an example of an indefinite use of the noun. 

Jesus said to the twelve, “one of you is a devil” (John 6:70) is an example of a qualitative sense, for Judas was not really a devil.

But irrespective of whether an indefinite or qualitative force is intended, “a” may only be inserted if more than one instance of the noun exist.

There is only one God.

This principle must be applied to John 1:1c.

If John 1:1c was found in an ancient Greek context, it would have been possible to translate 1:1c, as the New World Translation does, as “ the Word was a god.”  It would mean that the Word is one of the many Greek gods. 

But it is not valid to translate John 1:1c as “the Word was a god” because, in the context of the Bible, there is no group of true gods.  Both the Old and New Testaments teach monotheism; that only one God exists:

Before me there was no God formed; nor shall any be after me” (Is. 43:10).

I am the First, and I am the Last; and there is no God except Me” (Isaiah 44:6).

There is no god besides Me” (Deut. 32:39)

There is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him” (1 Cor. 4:6)

Jesus prayed to the “only true God” (John 17:3). 

Therefore, in the context of the Bible, Jesus cannot be described as “a god,” irrespective of whether “god” is used in an indefinite or qualitative sense. 

In exceptional instances the Bible does refer to people and angels as “gods” (John 10).  But those meanings cannot be applied to John 1:1 because this verse describes THE LOGOS, who existed with God in the beginning (1:1b), when he was WITH THE GOD (1:1b), and when God created all things through Him (1:3).

The Bible essentially is a book that tells about the one true God in contrast to a multitude of false gods.  In that context the translation “the Word is a god” actually implies that Jesus is a false god. 

Count Nouns

JWs have developed a sophisticated defense of their translation of John 1:1c, which argues that the word GOD is a count noun and count nouns must always be either definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.  And since “the Word” is distinct from THE GOD in 1:1b, He cannot be “the god,” and must be “a god.” 

This argument is discussed in a separate article which agrees that the word GOD is a count noun, that GOD is used in a qualitative sense in 1:1c and that the New Testament presents Jesus as distinct from God.  But that article uses a number of examples, such as, “Jehovah is God,” to show that it is not always possible to insert the indefinite article when translating anarthrous count nouns that are used with a qualitative sense:

Jehovah is God” means that He is the only true God; a statement which only a worshiper of Jehovah would make.  To insert an “a” and to translate this as “Jehovah is a god” completely changes the meaning of the phrase.

Jesus is unique

A last reason why it would not be appropriate to describe Jesus as “a god” is that He is unique. 

Jehovah Witnesses translates the phrase with “a god” because they assume that Jesus is one of many powerful created beings with godlike (divine) qualities.  In their view Jesus may be the divine person with the most power, but He is still only one of many.  But there are no other being like Jesus.  For example: 

He is “the Only Begotten Son of God.

In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). 

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3).  Through Him God continues to maintain all things (the universe – John 1:3; Col. 1:15).

The entire creation worships Him (Rev. 5).

UniverseIt is true that John 1:1b shows a distinction between God and the Word: As the Word was “with” God,” the Word could not be that “God.”   On the other hand, to refer to the Word as THEOS (GOD) in this context, which says that God began all things through Jesus, and which refers to the Father as TON THEOS (THE GOD), lifts the Word high above all other beings.  He is not just one of many such gods.  He is not “a god.”

Articles in the Christology series: Is Jesus God?

  1.    The three views of the Son 
  2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God. 
  3.    Jesus in Colossians
  4.    Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God? 
  5.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
  6.    Jesus is not God.  
  7.    God is the Head of Christ
  8.    Jesus is called God. 
  9.    He is the Only Begotten Son of God. 
 10.  God created all things through His Son. 
 11.  Jesus is worshiped.  Does that mean that He is God?  
                Worship verses in the New Testament   
 12.  Jesus has equality with God. 
 13. 
Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles 
 14.  Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?   
 15.  But THEOS is a count noun.    

Theos (God) is a Count Noun. Does that mean that John 1:1c must be translated “the Word was a god?”

Overview

Jesus is God

In most Bibles John 1:1c reads, “the Word was God.”  But the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ (JWs) New World Translation (NWT) reads, “the Word was a god.”  JWs understand Jesus to be one of many powerful created beings.

JWs have developed a sophisticated defense of their translation of this phrase, which argues that the word GOD is a count noun and count nouns must always be either definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.  And since the Word is distinct from THE GOD in 1:1, He cannot be “the god,” and must be “a god.”

This article agrees that the word GOD is a count noun, that GOD is used in a qualitative sense in 1:1c and that the New Testament presents Jesus as distinct from God, but does not agree that count nouns, when used with a qualitative sense, must necessarily be translated by inserting the indefinite article.  For this purpose, this article mentions and discusses a number of example:

Jehovah is God.
Jesus is Lord.
He is God.
God is God and man is man.”
The Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.

This argument is analyzed and discussed below.  First, some background information:

The word “god”

The Greek word translated “god” is THEOS.  THEOS is equivalent to our word “god,” with a small g, for it is used for all gods.  Since the Bible is a book about the true God, THEOS in the Bible is mostly used for the true God, but additional information is provided to indicate that the true God is referred to, for instance:

● Many times the New Testament adds the Greek definite article HO (the) to indicate that the god referred to is known to the reader.  
● The context could make it clear that the true God is intended.
● Descriptive phrases such as “the living God” identify the true God.

The Hebrew Scriptures similarly did not use the Hebrew word for “god” (ELOHIM) as the semantic equivalent to God’s personal name, Jehovah.  To identify Jehovah, without using His name, “god” was qualified, for instance, “I am the God of Bethel,” “God of Abraham,” “your God,” “the most high God” or “the God of gods.

The word “God”

We have something which the ancient Greeks did not have, namely the distinction between small and capital letters.  THEOS is therefore not equivalent to “God.”  THEOS is a common noun, but our word “God” is actually a proper noun: a name for the true God; perhaps equivalent to Jehovah in the Old Testament.  The word “God,” in a sense, therefore does not appear in the Bible.  The New Testament many times refers to the one true God as HO THEOS (THE GOD).  We translate this phrase by dropping the definite article HO and by capitalizing the G.

YHWH is a name, but ELOHIM is used in the OT is not as a name (a proper noun), as shown by the phrases “the most high God” and “the God of gods.

The Word is distinct from “God.”

The Word

John 1:1b, in most Bibles, read, “the Word was with God.”  Since Jesus was “with God,” “God” refers to the Father and Jesus cannot be “God.”

This conclusion is supported by the articles.  The Koine Greek of the New Testament has a definite article (“the”) but no indefinite articles (“a” or “an” in English).  Thus, a Greek writer could make a noun definite by use of the article, but would omit the article before non-definite nouns.  In 1:1b the article HO precedes THEOS, and is rendered in all translations as “God.”  But THEOS in 1:1c, referring to Jesus, is without the article, which supports a distinction between HO THEOS (God) and Jesus.

This distinction between “God” and Jesus is found all over the New testament.  Perhaps the best known is Paul’s definition in 1 Corinthians 8, where He makes a distinction between God (identified here as “the Father”), Jesus and false gods:

1 Cor. 8:4 … We know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

For a further discussion, see Jesus is not God and God is the Head of Christ.

God is a count noun.

A count noun is anything that can be counted, such as cats.  The opposite is called mass nouns, namely things that cannot be counted, such as courage.  Since gods can be counted, “god” (and THEOS) are count nouns.

The JW “position is that THEOS must always be a count noun.”  Hartley agrees: THEOS is a count noun because it can be both indefinite and plural, regardless of its context or understood “meaning.” 

The important point, for the discussion of the translation of 1:1c, is that “a countable noun always takes either the indefinite (a, an) or definite (the) article when it is singular,” for example “a cat” or “a category.”  Mass nouns, on the other hand, cannot be used with the articles.  One would not say ‘the courage’ or ‘a water’.  (Count and Noncount Nouns 1988, Purdue Online Writing Lab).

The reader will realize where the JW argument is heading, namely:

(1) If THEOS is a count noun, and if count nouns always always takes either the indefinite or definite article, then 1:1c cannot be translated “the Word was God.” 
(2) Since the LOGOS is “with” THE THEOS (1:1b), He cannot himself also be THE THEOS.  John 1:1c, therefore, cannot be translated “the god.”
(3) We need to distinguish between the HO THEOS of 1:1b and the anarthrous (without the article) THEOS of 1:1c.  John 1:1c must therefore read “the Word was a god.”  

There is, however, a complication:

Count nouns may be used with a qualitative sense.

This statement refers to when we use a noun to describe the subject of a sentence, for example, “that animal is a lion.”

Hartley concluded that all mass terms exude a purely qualitative force.  For example, the predicate “flesh” in the phrase “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) is a mass term, for one does not say “the flesh” or “a flesh.”  In this verse “flesh” exudes a purely qualitative force onto “the Word;” the Word (LOGOS) came to possess the qualities or attributes of “flesh.”

Count nouns as predicates generally do not have a qualitative sense, but are usually used to identify the subject, for example, “that animal is a lion” or “Jim is my son.”  But count nouns can also be used in a qualitative sense, for instance, “that rugby player is a tiger,” meaning that he is tough.   Here we use a noun (tiger) with a qualitative sense to describe the qualities of a tiger to the rugby player.

THEOS is used in a qualitative sense in 1:1c.

The JW argument does not state this directly, but implies this.  The background to this is that 1:1c has a special grammatical structure (noun without the article precedes the verb “to be”).  Phillip Harner and several other grammarians have studied phrases with this special grammatical construct.  They concluded that the predicates in such a construct function primarily to express the nature or character of the subject. 

This does not mean that THEOS in 1:1c definitely is used qualitatively, but the probability is high.  If it is a qualitative use, then 1:1c does not identify Jesus as THEOS, but attributes the qualities and characteristics of THEOS to Him. 

Count nouns must always be definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.

JWs admit that count nouns, such as THEOS, are sometimes used with a qualitative sense, but respond to this challenge that count nouns cannot be purely qualitative .  They argue that count nouns retain their “countability” when they emphasize qualities and must therefore still be either definite (e.g. the god) or indefinite (e.g. a god):

“Count nouns denoting persons such as theos and logos, must be either definite or indefinite, and a stress of qualitativeness is an additional characteristic, not an alternative one (Furuli, p. 217; emphasis in original).

“I view [the category Qualitative-Indefinite] as a noun with an indefinite semantic, having a primarily qualitative emphasis (Stafford, p. 344). [Note his distinction between semantic (definite or indefinite) and emphasis (qualitative).  Witness apologists Kidd, Stafford, and Furuli all make this distinction.]

Phillip Harner said something similar.  He said that qualitativeness may coexist with either a definite or indefinite semantic force, but this qualitative significance may be more important that the question whether the predicate noun itself should be regarded as definite or indefinite (p. 75). 

We see an example of how this works in the phrase “that rugby player is a tiger.”  Even though this a qualitative use of the noun “tiger,” an “a” precedes the predicate noun.  Simon and Gurfunkel similarly sang, “I am a rock, I am an island.”

However, it is proposed here that the definite and indefinite article cannot always be inserted when count nouns are used with a qualitative sense, for example:

Jehovah is God.

YHVH, pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh

Jehovah [the LORD] is God” (Joshua 22:34; 1 Kings 8:60, 18:21; Psalm 118:27) is comparable to 1:1c (“the Word was THEOS”).  Both Jehovah and “the Word” identify one specific being, and in both cases the predicate is “God,” which is a count noun. 

Jehovah is God” is a statement which only a worshiper of Jehovah would make.  “God” is here used with a qualitative sense to stress qualities, nature, or character.  It describes Jehovah as the only true God; the Supreme One who has all authority in heaven and on earth. 

To say “Jehovah is a god” would also be a true statement, but has a very different meaning; identifying Jehovah merely as another god; one of many.  Even a Muslim would be willing to say “Jehovah is a god.” 

Jehovah is God.” does have a definite semantic force, but to translate it as “Jehovah is the god” would also corrupt the meaning.  This phrase identifies Jehovah as the god we are currently speaking about, but this statement does not say anything about Him.  A Muslim may also make this statement. 

Other Examples

The following statements are similar to “Jehovah is God,” and also illustrate that, to insert an “a” or a “the” before the count term, would distort the meaning.

Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3).  [“Lord” is a count noun, for lords can be counted.  “Lord” is used in a qualitative sense, attributing the nature or character of true Lordship to Jesus.  To translate this as “Jesus is a lord” or even as “Jesus is the lord” significantly changes the meaning.

He is God” (Deut. 4:35, 39, 7:9; Joshua 2:11; 1 Kings 18:24, 39). 

God is God and man is man.”  Slaten offered a helpful example.  The first “God” is our name for the one true God.  The second “God” is a count noun used as a qualitative predicate; indicating God’s nature.  To say “God is a god” would distort the meaning.  The meaning seems best brought out by adding “by nature:” ” God is (by nature) God and man is (by nature) man.” 

Conclusion

JWs argue that count nouns, such as THEOS, in certain contexts emphasize qualities, but that count nouns cannot be purely qualitative, but retain their countability.  They argue that count nouns therefore always must be definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.  According to this logic, THEOS in 1:1c “is a count noun and therefore must be either definite (the god) or indefinite” (a god).

But we have seen that, to insert an article in the translation of a count noun that is used with a qualitative sense, would in some instances distort the meaning of the phrase.  In other words, when count nouns are used in a qualitative sense, it does not necessarily follow that the English indefinite or definite articles must be inserted in the translation from Greek.  Consequently, even though “god” is a count noun, it is perfectly possible to translate 1:1c as “the Word is God.” 

When is “a” added?

We have seen that sometimes the indefinite article “a” must be added and sometimes not.  Linguists are fond of classifying words and phrases, and they need to tell us when “a” is added and when not.

One option is that the indefinite article is not used in phrases such “Jehovah is God” and “the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath” because these phrases stress uniqueness. 

Another option is to distinguish between literal and figurative uses of the predicate:

● When we say ‘Jim is a god’, meaning that he is a human being with near superhuman abilities as a basketball player, then the count noun “god” is used with a qualitative sense.  It also is a figurative statement, for we know that Jim is not a god.  We then add the indefinite article.

● Similarly, if we know that Jim is not a murderer, but say ‘Jim is a murderer’ to predicate the qualities of “murderer” to him, in other words, to say that he destroys people’s lives, then this is a figurative statement, and we insert “a”.  But if Jim actually murdered somebody, then ‘Jim is a murderer’ is an indefinite use of the predicate.

● In contrast, the statement “Jehovah is god” is a literal use of the predicate, for we know that Jehovah is God Almighty.

● Similarly, when we say ‘Jim is man’, the count noun ‘man’ is used with a qualitative sense; John is fully human.  But it is not a figurative statement, but a literal one, and we omit the “a”.

These examples seem to imply that, when a predicate with qualitative force applies literally to the subject, “a” must be omitted, for if we insert “a,” the statement becomes indefinite.  This point is, however, not important for the purpose of this article.  The mere fact that sometimes the articles are omitted when a count noun is used with a qualitative sense, is sufficient to counter the JW argument.

How should 1:1c be translated?

Consider 1:1c literally translated from Greek, using the English word order: THE WORD WAS GOD.

From the majority perspective, where Jesus is viewed as God, THE WORD WAS GOD seems like a literal use of the noun, which means that “a” may not be inserted in the translation.

In the Jehovah Witness tradition, where Jesus is not viewed as God, THE WORD WAS GOD seems like a figurative use of the noun, implying that an “a” should be inserted.

The question is therefore what the Bible’s perspective of Jesus is.  We have to translate the phrase from that perspective.  If the Bible declares Jesus to be God, then it is a literal phrase, and an “a” may not be inserted, and vice versa.  In other words, the classification of predicate nouns as count nouns or mass nouns does not help us at all with the translation of 1:1c.

Articles in the Christology series: Is Jesus God?

   1.    The three views of the Son 
  2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God. 
  3.    Jesus in Colossians
  4.    Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God? 
  5.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
  6.    Jesus is not God.  
  7.    God is the Head of Christ
  8.    Jesus is called God. 
  9.    He is the Only Begotten Son of God. 
 10.  God created all things through His Son. 
 11.  Jesus is worshiped.  Does that mean that He is God?  
       Worship verses in the New Testament   
 12.  Jesus has equality with God. 
 13. 
Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles 
 14.  Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?

For a discussion of the major role which Caesar Constantine played in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325, listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios”  The famous church historian Eusebius tells us that it was the emperor Constantine who suggested using the word homoousios.  Chandler ventures an educated guess as to what Constantine was thinking… and it has something to do with Egypt!

For a discussion of the church fathers, showing that they all believed that Jesus is subordinate to the Father, and that the idea of Christ being equal to the Father only developed during the Middle Ages, see the discussion by Dr. Beau Branson on the Monarchy of the Father (Trinities 240).

Jesus is the firstborn of all creation – Colossians 1:15

Jesus Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15).  The purpose of this article is to determine what this means.

1. Summary of this article

1.1 Jesus is part of Creation.

That Jesus Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” means that He is part of creation. 

Since “by Him all things were created,” it is possible to argue that Jesus is not a created being, but that does not necessarily follow.  Absolute phrases, such as “all things,” are sometimes qualified by their contexts:  Technically, Jesus is included in “all things,” but He did not create Himself. Similarly, in verse 17, Jesus is before “all things,” but Jesus was not before Himself.  In this context Jesus is excluded from “all things.” Consequently, to say that Jesus created “all things” does not prove that Jesus is not part of “creation.”

It is proposed here that Jesus is part of creation, but not a created being; for He was “born;” not created.  Born and created are sometimes used as synonyms, but John emphasized that Jesus was begotten by the Father, while all other things were created.  He is the “only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:7).  What this means is beyond human understanding, for it is hidden in the infinity of God. 

1.2 Firstborn means Jesus was the first to exist.

Firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 means that Jesus was the first in time to exist.  This conclusion is justified as follows:

Firstborn” literally means the one born first. 

Firstborn” is also occasionally used figuratively in the Old Testament, meaning ‘first in importance’, but the dominant meaning is the one literally born first.

In the New Testament “firstborn” always means literally first in time.

Twice “firstborn” is used literally for people born first (Luke 2:7; Heb. 11:28).

Twice Jesus is called “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), which means that He was the first in time to be resurrected to eternal life.

God brought “the firstborn (Jesus) into the world” (Heb. 1:6; cf. 1:1), which refers to Jesus becoming a human being.  In this verse “firstborn” describes Jesus’ prior to His incarnation, and therefore implies that He was first is time. 

God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) to set the creation free “into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v21).  In this way Jesus became “the firstborn among many brethren” (v29). He literally was the first Son of God.

Jesus is the Old Testament Wisdom.

God brought Wisdom forth in the beginning. Wisdom worked with God in establishing all things (Pro. 8:22-31). The closest and most commonly accepted background for Colossians 1:15-16a is this Old Testament Wisdom. This implies that “the firstborn of all creation” refers to Jesus being “brought forth” “in the beginning.” In other words, Jesus is “firstborn” because He was first in time. 

The immediate context defines “firstborn” as first in time.

The phrase “the firstborn of all creation” must be interpreted in the immediate context:

He is … the firstborn of all creation,
for by Him all things were created…
He is before all things.” (1:15-17 NASB).

From this the following conclusions are possible:

Firstly, the word “for” means that Jesus is the firstborn because by Him all things were created. In other words, He is “firstborn” because He is before all things; literally first in time. 

Secondly, verses 15 to 17 form a unit, expressing a single thought.  Then the phrase “He is … the firstborn of all creation” can be understood as equivalent to “He is before all things;” literally first to exist.

Thirdly, “all things” include time itself.  This means that there was no time or object or thing before God “brought forth” His Son, and created “all things” through His Son.

The beginning of the creation

Revelation 3:14 contains a very similar statement:

The firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15);
The beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14);

The similarity implies that the “firstborn” is equivalent to the “beginning,” which again implies that Jesus was the first to exist. 

1.3 All things have been created “in” Jesus.

The second word of Colossians 1:16 is the Greek word “en.”  This means “in Him all things were created.” It is difficult to explain how the universe can be created “in” (within) the Only Begotten Son of God.  But it is equally difficult to understand how “in Him all things hold together” (v17):  These things are beyond human understanding.

What we learn from the fact that “in Him all things were created” is that an unexplainable, but close relationship exists between the Only Begotten Son and the creation.  God “brought forth” (Proverbs 8:24, 25) the Son to bring forth the universe. 

The message of the Colossian false teachers was that Jesus is great, but He is only one of many great ones.  To conclude, as the Jehovah Witness do, that Jesus is “a god,” is consistent with the Colossian heresy.  Jesus is not one of many; He is the Only Begotten Son of God.  God has begotten Him to bring the creation into existence through and in Him.

This concludes the summary. The points above will now be explained in more detail:

2. Prōtotokos

Prototokos

Firstborn” is translated from the Greek word prōtotokos (protos = first; tokos = born).  Literally, it means the one born first.  For example, Mary “brought forth her firstborn son” (Luke 2:7), namely Jesus.

The firstborn son, in the Jewish tradition, also received certain rights and privileges:

“In Jewish society the rights and responsibilities of being a firstborn son resulted in considerable prestige and status. The firstborn son, for example, received twice as much in inheritance as any other offspring.” [J.P. Louw and E.A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, Second Edition, 2 Volumes (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 1:10:43.]

Due to the prestige and status of the firstborn son, the term “firstborn” over time also came to be used figuratively as a designation of preeminence—one that stands out above his peers—for example:

► Manasseh was born to Joseph first, but Ephraim, his younger brother, was “firstborn” due to his position as given by their father Jacob (Gen. 48:13–20, Jer. 31:9).  Exodus 4:22 similarly speaks of Israel as God’s firstborn. Israel (Jacob) and Ephraim in these verses represent the nation of Israel.  The meaning would be that Israel has an exalted position among the nations.  It is as if the nations were all children and Israel was the firstborn among them: The one most highly esteemed in the eyes of God.

► David was the youngest son of Jesse, but God promised, “I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth.” (Psalm 89:27).  Here “firstborn” is explained by the phrase “the highest of the kings of the earth.”

► In Job 18:13 we read of a disease that is “the first-born of death.”

► Isaiah 14:30 refers to “the first-born of the poor,” meaning the poorest of the poor.

3. Part of Creation

firstborn

As already stated, prototokos may mean first in time or first in importance, but in both cases the firstborn is part of the group, for instance:



► The firstborn son is literally the first son, but part of the group of children.
► Jesus is literally “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). He is part of the group that is literally resurrected from death.
► Jesus is literally “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), which means that He is one of the brethren.
► David is figuratively God’s “firstborn,” but remains one of “the kings of the earth.”

Therefore, since Jesus is “firstborn of all creation,” He is part of creation.

Some argue that “firstborn” must not be understood literally as first in time, but figuratively; as first in importance.  But even then the “firstborn” remains part of creation.

Since “by Him all things were created,” some argue that Jesus is not part of creation, and that Jesus Himself was therefore not created.  Another statement that makes such a distinction between Jesus and all created things is Revelation 5:13, where “every created thing” worship “Him who sits on the throne, and … the Lamb (Jesus).”

But in these verses “all things” is qualified by the context. Technically, Jesus is part of “all things,” but He did not create Himself. In verse 17 Jesus is before “all things,” but Jesus was not before Himself.  He Himself is therefore excluded from “all things.”  Other examples of this principle are:

The phrase “all things,” without qualification, includes God, but obviously God is here excluded from “all things.”
1 Corinthians 15:27 reads, “All things are put in subjection,” but then continues, “it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him”. 
► The Septuagint version of Genesis 3:20 says that Eve is “the mother of all living.” But Eve was not the mother of Adam and herself.  The context of this statement excludes them from “all living.”

So, when we read that “by Him all things were created” (Col. 1:16), that logically excludes God and Jesus.  In other words, this phrase says nothing about them. It cannot be used to prove that Jesus is not part of creation.

Since verse 15 explicitly states that Jesus is part of creation, some argue that He is a created being; the first being ever created.  That proposal is not accepted here, for He was “born;” not created. This is reflected by the term “born” in “first-born”.  The article Only Begotten argues that His Son was not created, but eternally begotten by the Father.  He is the “only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:7).  “Begotten” must be understood different from created.  He was not born like a human child is born, but God brought forth His Son.  What this means is difficult to imagine, for it is hidden in the infinity of God.  For a further discussion, see Only Begotten.

4. Jesus was the first to exist.

The word “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 may be understood, either:

Literally, namely that Jesus was the first to exist, or
Figuratively, namely that Jesus is the most important.

Most non-literal translations render the phrase “firstborn of all creation” as meaning that He is superior over all creation, for instance:

Firstborn over all creation” (NIV);
Preeminent over all creation” (New Heart English Bible).

It is proposed here that “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 means that Jesus was the first in time to exist.  This conclusion is justified as follows:

4.1 “Firstborn” in the Old Testament

Firstborn” is occasionally used figuratively in the Old Testament, meaning first in importance, but the dominant use is literally as the one born first.

4.2 “Firstborn” in the New Testament.

According to Biblehub the word prototokos (firstborn – Strong’s #4416) occurs 8 times in the New Testament.  One of those is Colossians 1:15; “the firstborn of all creation.”  This section analyzes the other 7 instances to establish the meaning of “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15. 

Twice Literal

Twice “firstborn” is used literally for people born first:

1 Mary “brought forth her firstborn son” (Luke 2:7) Jesus.
2 Moses “kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that he who destroyed the firstborn would not touch them” (Heb. 11:28).  This refers back to the exodus from Egypt.

Firstborn from the dead

Resurrection of the Dead

Parallel to Jesus being the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15), He is also twice called “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5).  He is “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The implication is that believers will be resurrected because He was resurrected first.  Jesus triumphantly said, “I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18). 

Some people were raised from death before Jesus was, but to our knowledge they all died again.  Jesus is “the firstborn from the dead” in the resurrection to eternal life: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body” (1 Cor. 15:42).

Firstborn from the dead” must therefore be understood as first in time.  He is “the firstborn from the dead” because He was the first to be raised to eternal life.  There is also a causal relationship: Just as He was brought forth and all others created through Him, Jesus was resurrected and others are resurrected through Him (1Th. 4:16).  

Hebrews

The word firstborn is also twice used by the unknown writer of Hebrews.  God brought “the firstborn (Jesus) into the world” (Heb. 1:6; cf. 1:1), which refers to Jesus becoming a human being.  “Firstborn” here refers to Jesus’ existence prior to His incarnation, and therefore probably refers to the fact that He is first is time.   The second time “firstborn” is used in Hebrew is:

You have come to Mount Zion and to … the heavenly Jerusalem, and … to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:22-23).

Since the phrase “church of the firstborn” appears in the same letter, and since “firstborn” is never used for Christians in the New Testament, “firstborn” in this phrase is understood to have the same meaning as in 1:6, namely as a reference to Jesus, and therefore of Jesus as first in time.

8:29 Firstborn among many brethren

Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).

Verse 3 of the same chapter refers to God “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.”  This means that He was God’ “own Son” before He became a human being.  He sent His Son so that “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v21).  Verses 14 to 23 refer to Christians as “sons of God” or “children of God” about six times.  The “brethren” in verse 29 therefore consist of:

(A) Jesus, who was God’s “own Son” already before He became a human being, and 
(B) Christians, who became the “sons of God” through Jesus. 

This suggests that Jesus was “firstborn” in the sense of first in time.

Only Begotten Son

We have now discussed all 7 occurrences of “firstborn” in the New Testament—apart from Colossians 1:15—and we have discovered that in every instance it means first in time; not first in importance.  “Firstborn” is occasionally used figuratively in the Old Testament as meaning ‘most important’, but never in the New Testament. It uses this word only in the literal sense of being first in time.

We also notice that “firstborn” is twice used for people, but six times for Jesus.  It is surprising how often this term is applied to Jesus.   “Firstborn,” used for Jesus, may be a synonym for the phrase which John elsewhere uses for Jesus, namely the “only begotten from the Father.”  He is not only born first; He is the only One born of God.

4.3 Proverbs 8

Another way to think about Colossians 1:15 is to find its background in the Old Testament:

“The closest and most commonly accepted background for the description in Colossians 1:15-16a is the OT picture of personified female Wisdom, the image of God’s goodness (Wisdom 7:26) who worked with God in establishing all other things (Pro. 3:19), that Wisdom was created by God in the beginning (Pro. 8:22; Sirach 24:9).” [Raymond E. Brown, “An Introduction to the New Testament,” The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 803-804. 27 Burney, 173. 28 Ibid., 173-174.]

Proverbs 8 speaks about Wisdom that was “brought forth” (vv. 24-25) “from everlasting … from the beginning” (v22).  The Greek translation of the Old Testament, that was used by the apostles, and from which they most often quoted (the LXX or Septuagint), translates “brought forth” in these verses as “born.” 

If Paul thought of Jesus as the Wisdom of Proverbs 8, and if “the firstborn of all creation” is Paul’s interpretation of Proverbs 8, then Paul, when he referred to Jesus as “firstborn,” spoke of Jesus’ preexistence (His existence before He became a human being).  This supports the conclusion above that “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 identifies Jesus as first in time.

4.4 The Immediate Context

The phrase “the firstborn of all creation” must be understood in the immediate context, summarized as follows:

He is … the firstborn of all creation,
for by Him all things were created…
He is before all things.” (1:15-17 NASB)

Firstly, “by Him all things were created” refers to the creation event; the beginning of time. The first word in verse 16 is “because” or “for.”  This word means that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” because “by Him all things were created,” including time.  In other words, He is “firstborn” because He is before all things; literally first in time.

Secondly, verses 15 to 17 form a unit, expressing a single thought.  Then the phrase “He is … the firstborn of all creation” can be understood as equivalent to “He is before all things;” literally first to exist.

Thirdly, since “all things” include time itself, there was no time or object or thing before God “brought forth” His Son, and created “all things” through His Son.

4.5 The beginning of the creation of God (Rev. 3:14)

Revelation 3:14 contains a very similar statement:

The firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15);
The beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14);

The similarity implies that the “firstborn” is equivalent to the “beginning,” which again implies that Jesus was the first to exist.  There are, however, some dispute about the translation of the word arché as “the beginning.

One view interprets arché as that Jesus is the “Origin or Source” of creation (e.g. the Berean Study Bible.  However, the phrase “the beginning of creation of God” makes a distinction between God and Jesus. (It means that the creation belongs to God and Jesus is the Beginning of the creation.) God is therefore the Originator and Source of the creation; not Jesus.  This is also clear from the definition of God as the One “out of whom are all things” (1Cor. 8:6, literal).  

Another view, provided by the NIV, finds Jesus to be “the ruler of God’s creation.”  But, just taking the first 8 translations of this verse on Biblehub, it shows that the NIV translations is fairly unique:

New International Version – the ruler of God’s creation;
New Living Translation – the beginning of God’s new creation;
English Standard Version – the beginning of God’s creation;
Berean Study Bible – the Originator of God’s creation;
Berean Literal Bible – the Beginning of God’s creation;
New American Standard Bible – the Beginning of the creation of God;
King James Bible – beginning of the creation of God;
Christian Standard Bible – the originator of God’s creation:

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon gives 5 meanings of arché:

(1) the beginning of all things or of something specific,
(2) the first in a series of persons or things,
(3) the active cause of something,
(4) the extremity of a thing, or
(5) that which holds the first place, such as a ruler

For the following reasons it is proposed here that arché in Revelation 3:14 is correctly translated as “the beginning,” namely as a reference to time, meaning that Jesus was the first in time:

Out of the 56 occurrences in the New Testament, the NASB translates arché 38 times (68%) as “beginning” and 7 times (13%) as rulers or rule or principalities, as originator of an action.  The dominant meaning of arché is “the beginning.”

█ The New Testament never uses arché for the singular ruler.  Another word (archon) is used for “ruler.” For instance, Jesus is the “ruler (archon) of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5)

3The expression “the beginning of God’s creation” (Rev. 3:14) is probably an allusion to Proverbs 8:22: “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way.”  If this is true, then arché in the phrase “the beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14) means first in time; not ruler or origin or source.

4.6 Summary

In this section the following reasons were provided to support the conclusion that “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 means that Jesus was the first to exist:

4.1 In the Old Testament the dominant meaning of “firstborn” is literally as the one born first.
4.2 In the New Testament “firstborn” always means first in time.
4.3 Jesus is Wisdom, whom God “brought forth” “in the beginning,” and
who worked with God to create all things.
4.4 The immediate context identifies the “Firstborn of all creation” as “before all things” because “by Him all things were created.”
4.5The firstborn of all creation” is very similar to “the beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14), which implies that “firstborn” is equivalent to “beginning.”

In conclusion, the Son is “firstbornin terms of time. The meaning of ‘preeminent over’ cannot be found in the phrase “the firstborn from the dead.”

All things have been created “in” Jesus.

The second word of Colossians 1:16 is the Greek word “en.”  The NASB translates en here as “by”, but perhaps this is not the best translation:

█ The primary meaning of en is “in.”
█ “En” appears twice more in verses 16 and 17 (“in the heavens” and “in Him”), and in both instances the NASB translates it as “in.” 

So “in Him all things were created” could have been an alternative translation.  This is how the NIV, ESV and many other translations read.

By him” can be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus is the source of creation.  Rather, Jesus is the means by which God creates, as indicated later in that same verse: “All things have been created through Him.” See God created all things through His Son.

It is difficult to explain how the universe can be created “in” (within) the Only Begotten Son of God: 

█ Some propose that the Only Begotten Son is the pattern after which the universe has been created.
█ Others propose that the creation came forth from Him.  In other words, God begat (symbolically) the Only Begotten Son, and the universe came forth from within the Son.

But it is equally difficult to understand how “in Him all things hold together” (v17):  These things humans are not able to understand, for God is beyond understanding.  We cannot explain why God exists.  We cannot explain how the universe can be infinite.  Nor are we able to understand how He created.  Therefore, let us be content to interpret the Bible literally on this point, and confess our ignorance.

What we learn from the phrase “in Him all things were created” is that an unexplainable, but close relationship exists between the Only Begotten Son and the creation.  God “brought forth” (Proverbs 8:24, 25) the Son to bring forth the universe.   

The phrase analyzed by this article is found in the letter to the Colossians. The apostle Paul penned this letter to refute what is generically known as the Colossian heresy.  In general, the false teachers in Colossae argued that Jesus is great, but He is only one of many great ones.  This is perhaps similar to the Jehovah Witness understanding of Jesus as “a god.”  To conclude, as the Jehovah Witness do, that Jesus is “a god,” is to be consistent with the Colossian heresy.  As argued above, Jesus is not one of many; He is the Only Begotten Son of God.  God has begotten Him to bring the creation into existence through Him.  He is that which exists.  All else came forth from Him.

Articles in the Christology series: Is Jesus God?

For an overview of the articles, the reader may next read the summary, which is the 13th article, also called Jesus is not God, but He is God.

  1.    The three views of the Son 
  2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God. 
  3.    Jesus in Colossians
  4.    Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God? 
  5.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
  6.    Jesus is not God.  
  7.    God is the Head of Christ
  8.    Jesus is called God. 
  9.    He is the Only Begotten Son of God. 
 10.  God created all things through His Son. 
 11.  Jesus is worshiped.  Does that mean that He is God?  
       Worship verses in the New Testament   
 12.  Jesus has equality with God. 
 13. 
Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles 
 14.  Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?