By Gordon Lyons
Frequently, the word “firstborn” has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by certain “Bible teachers”, including the followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.
I have written this short article to enable the Lord’s people, especially those still learning the basic teachings of the Bible, to interpret the word “firstborn” correctly within its context and according to the analogy of Scripture: That is, comparing related Scripture passages with one another.
Similarly, I hope the explanation provided here will help all believers to hold fast to the truth of God’s holy Word and to combat the error of those who deny the deity or co-eternity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Since it is of the utmost importance to understand correctly and believe what the Bible teaches, we will look briefly at the meaning of the word rendered as “firstborn” in the English translations. We will consider the two distinct meanings of this term in God’s Word. Firstly, we will consider Paul’s use of the term when writing to the Colossian church and explain how “firstborn” should be interpreted and understood.
Meaning of the Word “Firstborn”
COLOSSIANS 1:15 ESV
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
15a He is the image…. (ESV)
This profound statement by the apostle, made by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, makes it abundantly clear that—respecting his divine nature—the Lord Jesus Christ is equal with God himself. In the scriptural sense, one cannot be the “image” of a person without possessing all of that person’s character and attributes…
Or, as the writer of Hebrews asserts:
Hebrews 1:3a ESV
3 He (the Son of God) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
These verses clearly express the full equality of God the Son with God the Father.
In the latter part of Colossians 1:15, the apostle declares,
15b [He (the Son) is] …the firstborn of all creation (ESV).
Again, in verse 18b of the same chapter, the apostle declares:
18b He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (ESV)
In this context, what does “firstborn” mean?
In verse 15, is Paul teaching that Jesus was God’s firstborn Son, a created being who is not eternally existent with the Father?
Verse 18 refers to the Son as “the firstborn from the dead…” How are we to understand “firstborn” here?
Let us consider the meanings of the word, “firstborn” (Gk., πρωτότοκος prōtotokos, cf. BDAG:894).
- In a literal sense, “firstborn” refers to the firstborn child of a family. The firstborn son was entitled to special rights and privileges. This meaning of “firstborn”, of course, implies that the child had a beginning in time (unlike God, who has no beginning in time, being the Eternal God or the Ever-Living One)
- In a metaphorical sense, “firstborn” refers to a person’s pre-eminence, priority, rank or status—not their birth or time of origin (although the metaphorical use of the word is based on the special rights, status and blessings bestowed on a literal firstborn son).
In Colossians 1:15 and 1:18, Paul uses the term “firstborn” in this second (metaphorical) sense.
Examples of Metaphorical Use of “Firstborn” in Scripture
In several other places in God’s Word, “firstborn” refers to pre-eminence, priority, rank, or status. This metaphorical use of the word occurs in both the Old and New Testaments. The context must decide whether a particular use of the expression “firstborn” relates literally to a firstborn child in a family or metaphorically to a person’s pre-eminence, priority of office, rank, or status. In the context of this entire section of Paul’s letter, the latter use needs to be understood.
Concerning other instances in God’s Word of “firstborn” being used metaphorically, we need only consider the following examples:
In Exodus, the LORD declares:
Exodus 4:22-23a ESV
22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, 23a and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” (Emphasis added)
Here, the LORD refers to the entire people of Israel as his “firstborn son”. Clearly, this is a reference to the people of Israel’s eminence or status as God’s chosen people, not to their being firstborn literally.
Similarly, in Psalm 89, it is written concerning David, the Lord’s servant and king of Israel:
Psalm 89:27 ESV
27 And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
Here, “firstborn” is used metaphorically to refer to David’s status, rank, or priority to which the LORD appoints him as king.
Meaning of “Firstborn” in Colossians Chapter 1
It is in this metaphorical sense that “firstborn” is being used here in Colossians. The apostle Paul uses this term to refer to the Lord Jesus’ pre-eminence and supremacy over his entire creation (vs 15,18).
The apostle is not referring to a supposed time of creation of God’s Son but to the Son’s pre-eminence, rank or status. In other words, the Son of God is fully equal with God the Father in every respect. Furthermore, the Son of God has been and will be present with the Father and the Holy Spirit throughout eternity.
In declaring in Colossians 1:15a that the Son is the image of the invisible God, Paul makes it abundantly clear that the Son possesses all the divine attributes of God the Father—including his eternal existence.
God the Father is uncreated. So also is God the Son. God the Father exists throughout eternity. So also does God the Son—and God the Holy Spirit.
Further down, in the very same passage of Colossians, the apostle Paul makes the Lord Jesus’ position abundantly clear:
Colossians 1:19 ESV
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…
If all the fulness of God resides in the Son, then the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father and with God the Holy Spirit. The Son of God exists forever with the Father. As the eternal Son of God, he could not, therefore, have been created at any given point in time.
When, at his incarnation, God the Son took upon himself the likeness of a man (albeit as a perfect and sinless man), he veiled his glory temporarily. However, he did not divest himself of his eternally divine nature. The Son was truly God and truly Man, the God-Man. At his resurrection and ascension, Jesus returned to his Father’s presence, there to be highly exalted and given the name above every name—that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)
Interpreting God’s Word In Context
We must understand and interpret God’s Word correctly. The Greek word πρωτότοκος prōtotokos translates as “firstborn”. However, In English, as in Greek and Hebrew, “firstborn” bears different meanings depending on the context. In Colossians chapter 1, had “firstborn” been interpreted in context with the remainder of this passage, it would have been evident from verse 19 that the Son and the Father are co-equal and co-eternal. This fact rules out any possibility of Jesus, God’s Son, being created. Thus, taken in context, it is necessary to use the metaphorical meaning of “firstborn” in this passage and not the literal meaning.
What applies to the Son concerning his pre-eminence over all creation applies also to the Son concerning his being described as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18b). Jesus the Son of God was the first to rise from the dead never to die again. He is pre-eminent and victorious over death, sin, hell and the grave. He has priority over all others whose bodies will be raised from the dead, never to die again. He is the “firstborn” of many brethren (every regenerated believer) who will likewise be raised from the state of death, never to die again. Rather, they will dwell in the glorious presence of the Father and his Son throughout eternity.
Discerning Truth from Error
To insist that the Father created the Son as “a god” is to deny the deity (co-equality, co-eternity, etc.) of Jesus, the Son of God. This is a heretical teaching. We must learn to know all the truths of God’s Holy Word and interpret these truths correctly, as the Spirit of God teaches us. Only by knowing the truths of the Bible well and adhering to sound doctrine will we be able to discern truth from error. Only by a good, sound knowledge of the Word of God–the Sword of the Spirit—will we be able to defend the truth of God’s Word against the enemy of souls. Only by correctly interpreting and applying God’s truth will we be able to show others what God’s Word says and means. Thereby, we can refute false teachers and guide those who err in their understanding of God’s Word back to the paths of truth, righteousness and life—as, by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit convicts, convinces and converts them; or—in the case of erring believers–restores them to an accurate knowledge of the Truth.
(Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV, Copyright © 2001, 2011, 2016 by: http://www.crosswaybibles.org)
Author’s Article adapted from NT Expository Notes: Colossians & Philemon (second series / forthcoming),
© 2022 by Gordon Lyons.