This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
The Firstborn of All Creation
Readers often pause and puzzle over Colossians 1:15 and its statement that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is “the firstborn of all creation.” Firstborn of all creation? Does that mean that Christ was “born” and that, therefore, there was a time when he did not exist? Sure, he would then still be the first to exist, which would be a place of primacy of sorts, yet he would be a created, finite being. But then wouldn’t that mean that he isn’t the second person of the Trinity, that he isn’t “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” as the ancient Nicene Creed puts it?1 What would this all mean for what the orthodox Christian church has always otherwise confessed concerning the person of Christ?
Such questions are not new. An influential theologian and church leader named Arius (ca. 250–336 CE) taught that Christ was an exalted yet merely finite being, denying the divine nature of Christ. No record exists of Arius directly commenting on Colossians 1:15, but he may have used it in support of his teaching or interpreted it along the lines of his position. Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in part as a response to the teachings of Arius, and he tasked the council (comprised of bishops from across his empire) to resolve the issue. The council upheld the divine nature of Christ and denounced Arius’s views as heretical, and it drafted what would eventually become the Nicene Creed to formalize and promulgate this decision. The creed has served as a fundamental and magisterial statement of orthodox Christian faith ever since.
Yet such questions about the person of Christ were raised much earlier than even the time of Arius. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a document providing a snapshot of the state of theological development of nascent Christian faith that had exploded upon the scene of history some thirty short years prior in the person, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul writes the letter to combat a false teaching (a “philosophy,” Col. 2:8) that denigrates the person of Christ. The details of the errant teaching are lost to us, but Paul composes (or inserts) the hymn or poem of Colossians 1:15–20 to combat it and reassert Christ’s supremacy.
This hymn, or poem, divides into two major sections. The first extols the Son’s preeminence over creation (Col. 1:15–17), while the second his preeminence over the inaugurated new creation (Col. 1:18–20). The hymn provides the theological ammunition needed to shoot down and destroy the errant teaching about Christ that was threatening the fledgling churches in Colossae.
Colossians 1:15 opens the first major section of the poem. The key to unlocking the meaning of the phrase “firstborn of all creation” found here is not merely to study the phrase itself but to take note of the immediately following verse, Colossians 1:16. Verse 16 begins with the word “for” (hoti in Greek) and thus indicates that Paul is about to provide the reason for why Christ is called “the firstborn of all creation.” That is to say, there is a logical relationship between verses 15 and verse 16 that we must grasp in order to understand the phrase properly. Many interpreters (perhaps including Arius?) overly focus on the phrase itself in verse 15 and overlook its larger immediate context. Yet context is king and determinative for meaning. We see that Paul states that Christ is called the “firstborn of all creation” because “by him all things were created . . . all things were created through him and for him.” This is why the Son is endowed with the title “firstborn of all creation.” The phrase therefore does not refer to a time that Christ did not exist but rather signifies “his primacy of rank as well as his temporal preeminence over everything in the created order (i.e., his preexistence; see also Col. 1:17a [‘he is before all things’]).”2 Psalm 89:27 uses the word in a similar way to make the point that God appointed David his “firstborn” son in his coronation, and the text immediately explains what this means: David has therefore become “the highest of the kings of the earth” (cf. Ps 2:6–7). The text defines the term for us. Again, primacy of rank is in view in context, and the begetting metaphor serves this end, building on the ancient and widespread view that the firstborn son in a family possessed great privileges and rank over all other siblings (cf., e.g., Gen. 48:17–19; 49:3–4). Moreover, in a stunning vista of the divine glory, the apostle depicts the Son as God’s preexistent agent of creation through whom and for whom all things exist. The latter language is reserved elsewhere in the New Testament for God alone (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 2:10).3
The logic of the text therefore explains what is meant by “firstborn of all creation.” The phrase has nothing to do with being “born” as a created being—certainly not in a special, direct way by God as a unique act of creation before creation, as Jehovah’s Witnesses assert (“The Scriptures identify the Word [Jesus in his prehuman existence] as God’s first creation, his firstborn Son. . . . Jesus’s existence as a spirit creature began thousands of millions of years prior to the creation of the first human”).4 Colossians 1:15–16 does not support this reading.
Our brief study of Colossians 1:15 shows that it is crucial that we not merely focus on words or phrases to understand Scripture but must also especially follow the flow of the author’s logical argument to grasp the meaning of any word or phrase in its immediate context. We must not succumb to word study as the be-all and end-all of Bible study. It has its place. Yet we must ensure we become diligent readers who slow down and truly read, in order to follow the author’s train of thought. If Arius did indeed read Colossians 1:15 and interpreted it along the lines of his heretical interpretation, perhaps if he had read on to Colossians 1:16 and noticed the “for” that begins the verse, the history of the Christian movement may have developed quite differently.
- “Nicene Creed,” Christian Reformed Church, https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/nicene-creed.
- Christopher A. Beetham, Colossians and Philemon: A 12-Week Study, KTB Series (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 29.
- Beetham, Colossians and Philemon, 29.
- “Jesus Christ,” Insights on the Scriptures (Warwick, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1988), 2:52 (available electronically at www.jw.org/en/library/books/Insight-on-the-Scriptures/Jesus-Christ/).
Christopher A. Beetham is the author of Colossians and Philemon: A 12-Week Study.
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