What Does It Mean That Christ Is the Firstborn of All Creation? (Colossians 1)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

ESV Expository Commentary

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Confession and Worship of the Church

This passage is often described as a “hymn” because it appears to reflect the confession and worship of the church and because it clearly has been crafted with some care. Some commentators have argued that, while all these observations are true, we should be careful not to rush too quickly to use the term “hymn.” To use this term, they argue, seems to imply a work of poetry intended to be sung, and it is not at all clear that such is the nature of this passage.1Pao argues, however, that the term “hymn” is appropriate if understood in its literary context. Many scholars have also claimed that this text is “tradition.” By this they mean that Paul has adopted material already in circulation and incorporated it into his letter. Once again, we should be cautious about this view. The supposed prior history of this text is entirely conjectural. Regardless of any possible history of the text or certain parts of it, we can say that it is now fully integrated into its context and so expresses just what Paul intended to say. Whether others had a hand in shaping the passage at an earlier stage is irrelevant. It is Paul’s thought now, and all that we know of the richness of Paul’s theological thought leads us to conclude that he is entirely capable of producing such a glorious passage of praise.2

This passage is carefully constructed, characterized by general balance across two sections and by repetition of key terms and phrases. We will summarize a number of these features here. First, the passage begins in verse 15 with the nominative masculine singular relative pronoun (hos). This particular form is repeated in verse 18. These two verses mark the beginning of two sections, roughly similar in length, that have some thematic coherence. Three instances of the nominative masculine singular personal pronoun (autos) occur in verses 17 and 18. Forms of this personal pronoun, in three different prepositional phrases, occur in verses 16 and 17 and then again in verses 19 and 20. The repetition of the important term prōtotokos (“firstborn”) in verse 15 and in verse 18 is likewise a significant marker of the two sections. In the first part of the passage, the ktis- root (create/creation) is repeated three times in verses 15 and 16. We also see repetition of the adjective pas (“all”), particularly its substantival form, ta panta (“all things”), in verses 16 and 17 and again in verse 20.

All of these features justify the description of this passage as “exalted prose” (or “hymn,” used cautiously). Paul is so captivated by the wonder of the person and work of Jesus that the expressions of his thought in writing are raised to new heights.

A Figurative Firstborn

The initial relative pronoun refers to “the Son” mentioned in verse 13. It points, therefore, to a different “he” than the same relative pronoun at the beginning of verse 13 does, the antecedent of which was God the Father. The Son is described as the “image” (eikōn) of God, immediately followed by a further description: “firstborn of all creation.” The phrase eikōn tou theou (“image of God”) recalls the language of Genesis 1:26–27 (cf. also Gen. 5:1; 9:6). The phrase prōtotokos pasēs ktiseōs (“firstborn of all creation”) is infamously highlighted by Jehovah’s Witnesses and others with Arian sympathies who claim that it teaches that Christ is the first and greatest of all God’s creatures. While it is true that the phrase is somewhat enigmatic, the most fundamental principle of biblical interpretation demands that it be understood in the context of the whole of Scripture. Following this principle leaves the Arian interpretation untenable. A particularly important text for understanding this difficult phrase is Psalm 89:27: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” This verse appears in a section of the psalm speaking of Yahweh’s covenant with David. It is perfectly clear from the biblical accounts of David that he was not physically the firstborn of his family. In fact, he was the youngest of his brothers. This demonstrates that the term “firstborn” may be used in a figurative manner. Further, the term “firstborn” is qualified with the phrase, “the highest of the kings of the earth.” This indicates that, in the context of Psalm 89, to be made “firstborn” by God means to be exalted to the highest place. Such a reading of “firstborn” makes perfect sense in the context of Colossians 1.

In verse 16, Paul now explains the Son’s exalted status over all creation (beginning with hoti, “because”). The first explanation is that all things were created, in Greek, en autō. As in verse 14, this prepositional phrase might legitimately be translated as either “in him” or “by him.” In this context, the phrase should probably be treated as instrumental (“by him”), showing that the Son is the agent by whom the creator God brought all things into existence (cf. John 1:3).

How should we understand ta panta (“all things”) in this passage? The phrase is used several times in this passage, and in most cases it seems fairly clear that it should be read as an all-inclusive term. “All things” are created by the Son (v. 16). This is then unpacked by paired phrases making the sense as inclusive as possible (v. 16b). The Son has created all things in heaven as well as on earth, visible as well as invisible. He has created all authorities and powers (understood to be “cosmic” or “angelic” beings and powers.3 Likewise, according to verse 17, he is “before all things,” and in him “all things hold together.” It is inconceivable that Paul would suggest that any aspect of creation existed before the Son or that any aspect of it is self-sustaining apart from him. All of this is fairly uncontroversial. The difficulty arises when exactly the same phrase is used in the second part of the passage (v. 20). There God is said “to reconcile to himself all things” through the Son and to make peace through the blood of his cross. Does this text teach universal reconciliation, universal peace with God? In other words, does it teach universalism?

All things were created not only by the Son but also “through him” and “for him” (di’ autou and eis auton). These two prepositional phrases communicate significant ideas in extremely condensed form. Dia followed by the genitive case indicates agency or means.4 The most natural reading is that the Son is the active agent of creation. Wallace suggests eight possible uses of eis followed by the accusative.5In this case, the construction should be read as indicating advantage (“for him”).

Primacy of Christ

What is more, he is “before all things,” and “in him all things hold together.” “Before all things” might be read in a temporal sense (meaning prior to all things) or a hierarchical one (meaning superior to all things). The temporal sense seems to be implied by the declaration that the Son is the one who created all things. The repeated use of the term “firstborn,” however, when understood in light of Old Testament usage, suggests the primacy of the Son’s importance is being emphasized. The statement that in the Son “all things hold together” is paralleled in thought in Hebrews 1:3.

Verses 17 and 18a of Colossians 1 form a transitional section in the passage. Both verses begin with the phrase “And he is” (kai autos estin), using the third-person personal pronoun rather than the relative pronoun used in verse 15. These verses mark a shift of theme from the Son’s relationship to creation to his relationship to the church. This close connection may imply that Paul regards the church as the new creation. (Compare 2 Cor. 5:17 and Gal. 6:15, where Paul speaks of the experience of being in Christ as “new creation.”)

Paul’s description of the Son as the head of the body is very similar to his description of Christ elsewhere (cf. esp. 1 Corinthians 12). The significance of the metaphor of the body is made explicit by the articular noun standing in apposition to “the body,” thus explaining that the body is “the church.” Of the four occurrences of the term ekklēsia in Colossians (Col. 1:18, 24; Col. 4:15, 16), the first two refer to what we might call the “universal church,” that is, the single church composed of all believers throughout all ages. The latter two, on the other hand, refer to local expressions of the church: the church that meets in Nympha’s home and the church of the Laodiceans. This is somewhat different from Ephesians, where all nine references to the ekklēsia are to the universal church. Paul apparently was quite content to recognize a breadth of meaning in the word.6

Verse 18b completes the transition by using the relative pronoun hos (“who” or “he”) in a manner parallel to verse 15 and by repeating the use of prōtotokos (“firstborn”), so that “he is the image of the invisible God, . . . firstborn of all creation” (hos estin eikōn tou theou tou aoratou, prōtotokos pasēs ktiseōs; v. 15) is complemented by “he is the beginning, . . . firstborn from the dead” (hos estin archē, prōtotokos ek tōn nekrōn; v. 18b). The sense of primacy communicated by prōtotokos7 is further highlighted by the phrase, “that in everything he might be preeminent.” There is a measure of similarity of sound between the two terms (prōtotokos, firstborn; and prōteuōn, preeminent) to further link them together. So the meaning of the participle prōteuōn (from the verb prōteuō, “to hold the highest rank in a group, be first, have first place”) should govern our understanding of the meaning of prōtotokos, ruling out any suggestion that Christ is a created being.

In Verse 19, Paul now provides further explanation of what it means for the Son to be preeminent, opening with a clause that begins with hoti (“because”). The verse is difficult to translate and interpret because there is ambiguity concerning the function of the phrase pan to plērōma (“all the fullness”). Since the noun is neuter in gender, there are two possible readings. We could read the noun as (a) in the nominative case (indicating the subject of a sentence in Gk.), giving the meaning, “All the fullness was pleased to dwell in him.” Alternatively, we could read the noun as (b) in the accusative case (indicating the direct object of a sentence), giving the meaning, “He [God, supplied from context] was pleased to have all the fullness dwell in him.” The arguments for the two positions are quite even, and Moo suggests there is substantial measure of overlap in the two meanings if the phrase “all the fullness” is understood as shorthand for “God in all his fullness.”8 On that basis, I am inclined to adopt position (a), as does the ESV. While the fine point of syntax may be challenging, the general sense of the verse is reasonably clear: God has ensured that in Jesus is found all that makes God to be God. As Moo points out, there is an interesting similarity between the wording of this verse and the Greek translation of Psalm 68:16: “the mountain that God desired to dwell in it.”

Thus, Moo says, “In a typical New Testament emphasis, Christ replaces the temple as the ‘place’ where God now dwells. . . . This is now where all that can be known and experienced of God is to be found.”9

The sentence expressing God’s good pleasure or choice is continued further with a complementary infinitive that completes the train of thought: “and through him to reconcile all things to him [or, himself]” (AT). The compound verb apokatallassō is used twice in close proximity here in Colossians 1. The only other place in the New Testament where it is used is Ephesians 2:16. The pinnacle of this remarkable passage is the accomplishment of reconciliation.

Notes:

  1. Pao, Colossians and Philemon, 90, for discussion.
  2. Ibid., 90–91.
  3. Cf. Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians–Philemon, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 46–47.
  4. Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 368–369.
  5. Cf. ibid., 369.
  6. Cf. O’Brien, Colossians–Philemon, 57–61, for a good discussion.
  7. Cf. BDAG, s.v. πρωτότοκος.
  8. Moo, Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 133.
  9. Ibid.

This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton, Jr., and Jay Sklar.



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