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?