Jesus the Firstborn
"And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation." Colossians 1:15
An interesting verse, and one that is not so easy to understand at first glance. This passage is often used by Mormons in an attempt to support their doctrine of Jesus being a created being, essentially an exalted angel. But is that what the passage is saying?
In order to ferret out the real meaning, let's use the first three rules of Bible interpretation -- context, construction, and custom. We'll start with the verse's context. Following are the three verses that come after our subject verse.
"For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth...all things have been created through Him and for Him." Colossians 1:16
"He is before all things..." Colossians 1:17
"He is the beginning...first place in everything." Colossians 1:18
Here we have the three verses that immediately follow the verse in question. And what do they say about the context? All of these verses, like the entire book of Colossians, and particulary the first chapter, communicate Jesus' preeminence, that is, His sovereign rank as compared with other faith objects, persons of authority, kingdoms and systems. Okay, so the context says the subject in question is Jesus' ranking. But what about the other two interpretation rules, construction and custom? What do they tell us?
In regard to the verse's construction, i.e. a study of the words themselves, a superficial look seems to agree with the Mormons, that Jesus is the first of many created things. But that is true only if the word "firstborn" means what we think it means, i.e. "the oldest child." But does it? The Greek in the original passage is prototokos, literally, "first child" (proto="first", tokos="child"). Hmm, seems to mean the oldest, doesn't it? Even prototokos' Hebrew equivalent, bekor, means literally, "break womb," appears to reinforce this "oldest child" rendering.
But let's dig a little deeper. There is still the custom interpretation rule, that is, how did Hebrew society actually use the word firstborn? To use this rule, we'll cast a wider net in search of throughout the whole Bible, looking for the customary usage of the word. A look at the common use of the word firstborn by the Jews of Bible times shows something very interesting. The ancients did not limit their use of the word "'firstborn" to simple chronology. Far from it. The first proof of this is found in Genesis chapter 5.
"When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he begot a son in his own likeness...and named him Seth." Genesis 5:3
What is interesting about Seth is that he was not Adam's first son, but his third. Cain was the first. Despite this, no more is said of of Cain, but the chapter goes on to explore the line from Seth onward, the line of the promised Messiah. Seth is given prominance. The same thing happens with Jacob, whom God chooses instead of his older brother Esau (Gen 25:23~25; Gen 27:30). Likewise also Joseph's son Ephraim receives the firstborn's blessing instead of the elder Manasseh (Gen 48) and Joseph's line is blessed instead of that of the oldest brother Reuben (Gen 49:1~4, 22~26). Interesting. Though the term firstborn likely originated in a literal context, the Jews quickly associated the idea to something more important than mere birth, and that is plainly rank. Preeminence. That is, where justified, the firstborn in Hebrew culture was at all times the most important, regardless and at times in stark contradiction to actual birth order. In other words, "firstborn" was used in the same way that we use the phrase "first and foremost" today, or First Lady, or first class. There is ample proof of this exact usage in several more places in Scripture as well, with the following one, in which God Himself is speaking, being perhaps the most enlightening.
"I also shall make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth." Psalm 89:28
Here is a verse in which we have not only the fact that David, the youngest of Jesse's sons, is called the "firstborn" by God, but in addition we have God defining for us just what He meant by the term, i.e. "...the highest..." The following two verses bring this into yet sharper focus, by showing that even as early as Moses and Job, the word was used to mean rank and not chronology.
"Then you shall say to Pharoah, Thus says the Lord, Israel is My son, My firstborn." Exodus 4:22
"His skin is devoured by disease, the firstborn of death devours his limbs." Job 18:13
In the first of the examples above, God is calling King David His firstborn, though certainly not in a literal sense because David in now way was literally born of God. The meaning is then the cultural one that we have been finding in other places. In the second example, perhaps the earliest recorded use of the term, a use that is so early as to even be outside the culture of Hebraic custom, is the instance of Job's tormentors accusing him of earning God's punishment, by ascribing to a hypothetical suffering person the deserving of the world's most dreaded disease, or literally, "...the firstborn of death..." As in the other cases, the ancients are here using the term firstborn as a ranking, not a chronological description. They certainly couldn't be speaking of the first disease to appear on earth...
So our subject verse in Colossians, given the passage's context, construction, and culture, is not communicating anything near to putting Jesus on equal terms with creation. Just the contrary, it speaks to His preeminence, His superiority and ranking over everything. It sometimes takes a more than superficial look at the Bible to get what it is saying. Many non-Christian groups aren't willing to take the time, for various reasons. With the Mormons, it's because frankly they have an agenda, an already-established doctrine, one developed completely apart from the Bible and thus badly in need of support. Others simply don't look at the Bible as a whole, and thus fall victim to all kinds of interpretive errors. The simple truth is the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as the head of all things, and the most important One. It's that simple, and that real. Is He the most important One in your life? Have you discovered the meaning life has when its Originator takes His rightful place as the Firstborn of your life?