How is Jesus is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15)?

Summary of this article

In a profound description of Christ in Colossians 1:15-17, He is called “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). This article discusses what this title means.

His role in the creation event

He is “the firstborn of all creation” BECAUSE “all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16). “Firstborn of all creation,” therefore, describes His role in the creation event.

The passive tense of Colossians 1:16-17 and the words “for Him” identify God as the Creator.

The meaning of “Firstborn”

Firstborn” is translated from the Greek word prōtotokos which literally means the one born first. The Bible uses the word “firstborn” mostly in this literal sense. However, due to the rights and responsibilities which the firstborn son enjoyed in Jewish society, the term “firstborn” also came to be used figuratively as a designation of preeminence – the one first in importance (e.g. Exo 4:22; Psa 89:27).

The question, therefore, is whether Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” in a literal sense of being the first to have existed or in a figurative sense of being the most important being in the universe.

The word prōtotokos occurs 8 times in the New Testament. Twice is describes ordinary people who were literally born first (Luke 2:7; Heb 11:28). In the other six instances, “firstborn” refers to Jesus. For that reason, perhaps “firstborn,” when used for Jesus, is a synonym for a related for Jesus, namely, “the only begotten from the Father.”

It is not conclusively clear, in these six instances, whether the Son is the firstborn is a literal or in a figurative sense. Rather, the meaning of “firstborn” in these six instances will largely be determined by the meaning in Colossians 1:15.

The first to exist

Jesus literally was the first being to exist and He is also the most important being in our universe. The question is, what did Paul mean when He wrote that Jesus is the firstborn? For the reasons below, it is proposed here that “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 means that Jesus was the first in time; the first being to exist:

(1) Linked to the creation event

Colossians 1:16-17 differentiate between the roles which God and the Son played in the creation event. They identify Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation” BECAUSE God created all things “through” Him. Since the focus of these verses is on the creation event, and since the creation of the universe was the beginning of time, the natural interpretation of “firstborn,” in this context, is literally first in time.

(2) Before all things

The next verse confirms this interpretation by saying that “He (the Son) is before all things” (Col 1:17) In other words, He literally was the first to exist. 

(3) Revelation 3:14

Compare Colossians 1:15 to a very similar statement in Revelation 3:14:

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.

He is the Beginning.

Both Revelation 3:14 and Colossians 1:18 identify Jesus as “the beginning.” That means much more than just that He was the first to exist. God had “begotten” Him to bring “all things” into existence “through Him” (Col 1:16). The Son is not only the first but also the Means through which God created everything else.

Is Jesus a created being?

Firstborn” may mean either first in time or first in importance but, in both cases, the firstborn is always part of a bigger group. For example, that Jesus is “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5) means that He is part of the group that is resurrected from death. Therefore, since Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation,” He is part of creation. However, that does not mean that He is a created being:

The phrase “all things,” without qualification, includes Jesus. But, in these verses, because “all things have been created through Him,” “all things” excludes Jesus.

In Colossians 1:15-17, “all creation” and “all things” have the same meaning. Therefore, since the Son is excluded from “all things,” He is also excluded from “all creation.” That implies that He is NOT a created being.

Colossians 1:15 describes Him as “the firstborn.” Since He was “born,” He was not created. Jesus is the “only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:7). The article Only Begotten interprets that title as meaning that the Son was generated out of the being of the Father. As “only begotten:” He is God’s only true family.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Purpose

In a profound statement (Col 1:15-17), Jesus is described as “the firstborn of all creation:”

15 He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
16 For by Him all things were created,
both in the heavens and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through Him
and for Him.
17 He is before all things,
and in Him all things hold together.
(NASB)

Jesus did not teach these wonderful truths. The Holy Spirit gave these insights later; particularly to Paul and John (John 16:12).

In these verses, the word “all” appears 5 times; once in “all creation” and four times in “all things,” implying that “all creation” and “all things” have the same meaning.

This does not refer to this world alone for these verses say explicitly that “all things” include “all things … in the heavens” (Col 1:16). “All things,” therefore, refers to the entire universe. The Bible writers had no idea how incomprehensibly huge the universe is.

The purpose of this article is to determine what it means that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). Does that mean that He was literally the first being to exist or that He is the most important being in the universe? And since Jesus is “the firstborn of” this universe, does that mean that He is part of “all creation” and, therefore, a created being?  

Jesus is not the Creator.

Colossians 1:16, in the NASB, first says that “by Him all things were created” and then repeats that “all things have been created through Him.” The “by” may sound as if Christ is the Creator but the word “through” indicates that Jesus is the means by which God created the universe. This is even more clear in the Greek. The word translated as “by” is the Greek word “en.” The primary meaning of “en” is “in.” The word “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 of the first part of verse 16. That is how the NIV, ESV and many other translations read. And that would be similar to the statement in verse 17:

In Him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).

The passive tense in these verses identifies God as Creator. This is confirmed by the statement that “all things have been created … for Him” (Christ). God created “all things” “through” His Son and God still holds “all things” together “in” His Son (Col 1:17).

For a further discussion, see God created all things through His Son. How the universe can be created “in” the Only Begotten Son of God is explored further below.

First in time or first in importance?

Firstborn can mean first in time or first in importance.

First in Time

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 word “firstborn” is mostly used in the Bible for one literally born first

First in Importance

In Jewish society, the rights and responsibilities of firstborn son resulted in considerable prestige and status. The firstborn son, for example, received twice as much in inheritance as any other offspring. Consequently, over time, the term “firstborn” also came to be used figuratively as a designation of preeminence – the one first in importance. 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. It means that Israel has an exalted position among the nations of the world. The symbolism presents the nations of the world as children and Israel as the one most highly esteemed by 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, the phrase “the highest of the kings of the earth” explains the meaning of “firstborn.

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.”

The question, therefore, is whether Jesus is the firstborn in a literal sense of being first in time or in a figurative sense of being first in importance.

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.” The other 7 instances are as follows:

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

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). Jesus was not literally the first person to be raised from death (e.g., John 11:43). He was not even the first person to be raised to eternal life (cf. Luke 9:30; Jude 9; cf. Matt 27:52). Consequently, He is “the firstborn from the dead” in the figurative sense, namely that He is the most important of the people that are raised from death.

In Hebrews 1:6, we read that God brought “the firstborn (Jesus) into the world” (cf. Heb 1:1). This refers to when Jesus became a human being. It implies that Jesus was already the “firstborn” before His incarnation. “Firstborn” in Hebrews 1:6 probably has the same meaning as in Colossians 1:16; either first in time or first in importance.

Hebrews 12:23 refers to “the general assembly and church of the firstborn.” Since Hebrews elsewhere refers to Jesus as “the firstborn” (Heb 1:6), and since the New Testament never uses “firstborn” for Christians, “firstborn,” in this phrase, refers to Jesus. This, therefore, also could mean either first in time or first in importance.

According to Romans 8, God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3) to bring the creation “into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Consequently, Jesus became “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:29). The “brethren,” therefore, consist of God’s “own Son” and those who became the “sons of God” through Jesus. The word “among” implies that “firstborn” here means first in importance.

We have now discussed all 7 occurrences of “firstborn” in the New Testament other than Colossians 1:15. What we notice is that “firstborn” is used twice used for ordinary people, and then in a literal sense for people who were literally born first. In the other six instances, Jesus is “the firstborn.” It is surprising how often this term refers to Jesus. Perhaps “firstborn,” when used for Jesus, is a synonym for the related title which John elsewhere uses for Jesus, namely “the only begotten from the Father.” This title implies that the Son is the only One who was born of God.

It is not conclusively clear, from these six instances, whether the Son is the firstborn is a literal sense of being first in time or in a figurative sense of being first in importance. Rather, the meaning of “firstborn” in these six instances will largely be determined by the meaning in Colossians 1:15.

Jesus was the first to exist.

Jesus was and is both literally the first being to exist and the first in importance in our universe. The question is, what did Paul mean when He wrote that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15)?

Most non-literal translations interpret the phrase “firstborn of all creation” figuratively as meaning that He is superior over all creation. For example:

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

However, for the reasons below, it is proposed here that “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 means that Jesus was the first in time; the first being to exist:

(1) God created all things through Him.

The statement in Colossians 1:16, that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation,” must be interpreted in the immediate context, which may be summarized as follows:

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

The word “for” means that Jesus is “the firstborn” BECAUSE God created all things through Him. It is still possible to interpret this both ways, namely that, because God created all things through Him, “firstborn” means:

      • That He Was the first in time OR
      • That He is the first in importance.

However, verses 15 to 17 form a unit, differentiating between the roles of the invisible God” and His visible “image” (Col 1:15) – Jesus Christ, in the creation of the universe. Since the focus of these verses is on the creation event, and since the creation of the universe was the beginning of time, the more natural interpretation of “firstborn,” in this context, seems to be literally first in time.

(2) Before all things

Verse 17 seems to confirm this interpretation because it says that “He (the Son) is before all things.” “All things” include time itself. There was no time or any other thing before God “brought forth” His Son and, through His Son, created “all things.” In other words, He literally was the first to exist. Since “He is … the firstborn of all creation,” “He is before all things.”

Bible writers do seem to repeat important concepts in different words. For example, John says the same thing and he also wrote it twice John 1:1-2:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God …
He was in the beginning with God
.”

(3) The beginning of the creation

Compare Colossians 1:15 to a very similar statement in Revelation 3:14:

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 the translation of the word arché in this verse as “the beginning:”

The Originator of God’s creation

The Berean Study Bible offers this interpretation which identifies Jesus as the “Originator” of God’s creation. But this seems a bit contradictory. How can one Person be the “Originator” of another Person’s creation? Furthermore, the identification of Jesus as “the arché of the creation of God,” makes a distinction between God and Jesus and, consistent with Colossians 1:16 (cf. 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:2; John 1:3), identifies God as the Originator of the creation.

The Ruler of God’s Creation

This interpretation is proposed by the NIV. But Biblehub shows that the NIV translation of this verse is fairly unique. Five of the first eight translations listed render arché in this verse as “the beginning.” Furthermore, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon gives 5 meanings of arché in priority order:

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

The NIV, therefore, to avoid the implications of Jesus being “the beginning of the creation of God” (Rev 3:14 – NASB) uses the least possible meaning.

Beginning of the Creation of God

For the following reasons, it is proposed here that arché in Revelation 3:14 is correctly translated in most translations as “the beginning:”

Out of the 56 occurrences in the New Testament, the NASB translates arché 38 times (68%) as “beginning.

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

Since Revelation 3:14 identifies Jesus as “the beginning of the creation of God,” which is a reference to time, it means that Jesus was first in time; the first Being to exist.

He is the Beginning.

Both Revelation 3:14 and Colossians 1:18 identify Jesus as “the beginning.” That means much more than just that He was the first to exist. The Son was not created but “begotten.” And Colossians 1:16 informs us that God had “begotten” Him to bring “all things” into existence “through Him.” The Son is not only the first but also the Means through which God created everything else; The Seed from which the universe grew.

Verses 16 and 17 also states that God created all things “in Him” (Gr. en) His Son and still holds the universe together “in Him” (Col 1:16-17). In other words, in some mysterious way, the Son is the entire existence of the universe.

There is much evil in this universe. But, in Christ Jesus – in His willingness even to die for people that do not deserve to live – we see the true nature of this universe. God be praised!

Is Jesus a created being?

The firstborn is part of the group.

Firstborn” may mean either first in time or first in importance but, in both cases, the firstborn is always part of a bigger group. For example:

The firstborn is literally the child born first.

That Jesus is “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5) means that He is part of the group that is resurrected from death.

Jesus is “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:29), which means that He is one of the brethren.

David is figuratively God’s “firstborn” (Psalm 89:27), but remains one of “the kings of the earth.”

Therefore, since Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation,” He is part of creation. Even if “firstborn” is understood figuratively, namely that Christ is the most important being in creation, then He is still part of creation.

Jesus is not a created part of creation.

But, argued as follows, that does not mean that He is a created being:

The phrase “all things,” without qualification, includes God. But, in these verses, the context, namely that God created all things, excludes Him from “all things.”

Jesus, similarly, because “all things have been created through Him” and because “He is before all things” (Col 1:17), “all things,” in this context, excludes Jesus.

These verses describe the Son as “the firstborn of all creation.” Since, in Colossians 1:15-17, “all creation” is equivalent to “all things,” Jesus is also excluded from “all creation.That implies that He is NOT a created being.

Similarly, “every created thing” worships “Him who sits on the throne, and … the Lamb (Jesus)” (Rev 5:13). This makes a distinction between Jesus and “every created thing,” implying that Jesus was not created.

Begotten; not created

Colossians 1:15 describes Him as “the firstborn.” Since He was “born,” He was not created. The word “begotten” means to be born. Jesus is the “only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:7). The article Only Begotten interprets that title as meaning that the Son was generated out of the being of the Father. As “only begotten,” He is God’s only true family

Christology – Available Articles

Summary Articles

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Specific Bible Passages

The origin of the Son

Christ is subordinate to God.

Christ is equal to God.

Jesus is called God.

      • Overview – Overview of the verses that refer to Jesus as theos.
      • Theos – The meaning of theos – the word translated “God.”
      • John 1:18 – The original text of this verse is in dispute.
      • John 20:28 – Did Thomas say that Jesus is God?
      • John’s gospel – Discussion of theos in this gospel.
      • Romans 9:5 – The translation depends on punctuation.
      • Hebrews 1:8 – The next verse says that God is His theos.

The translation of John 1:1

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For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.