AN INTERPRETATION OF CHRIST
Dr. J. E. Rosscup
I. The Problem
Interpreters differ greatly. As in II. below, some in church history have
viewed Christ as first to be created, thus a created being, one having high privilege
before God but not God. Most take the phrase to mean that Christ is “firstborn” in
the sense of prior in time before creation, distinct from it, and also “firstborn” in the
sense of having supreme dignity or rank over all creation. What, then, is the
II. Two Views
A. Jehovah’s Witnesses hold the first view above. Christ is a high, first angel
God (Jehovah) created, then later Christ who is not God created all other things.
Jesus is the eldest among Jehovah’s family of sons. The advocates are as follows:New World Translation which Jehovah’s Witnesses accept; Aid to Bible
Understanding, Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society,1971, p. 918; Reasoning From the Scriptures, (Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989, p. 408); Steven T. Byington, The Bible InLiving English, (Brooklyn, 1972), on 1:15 and 2:9, etc.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view is along the lines of Arius’ error in the fourth century. Arius was a preacher in Alexandria, Egypt. He said that Jesus Christ was
a created product of God, higher than other created beings. This was a grave error, not smoothed by Arius’ belief that such a view would relieve Christianity of the accusation of being polytheistic (three persons as God). The church rejected
the view of Arius in A. D. 325.
B. Normal Interpretation, second view in I. above (Edmond Gruss, Apostles
of Denial, 120-21, and on deity of Christ 105-35; Ron Rhodes, Reasoning from
the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 129-31; J. B. Lightfoot, Saint
Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, on 1:15-17; also cf. Peter T.
O’Brien on Colossians, and F. F. Bruce on Colossians, as well as a host of
interpreters on the passage and similar ones such as 1:19 and 2:9; Walter
Martin, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Minneapolis, Bethany House, 1957, 38.)
III. Interpretive Supports for View B (Christ is God)
A. Near Context
1. “Image” (eikon) in v. 15 (cf. also Heb. 1:3) refers to the exact
representation, or impress of an image, as on a coin or in a mirror (cf. Curtis
Vaughan, Colossians and Philemon (Bible Study Guide), 38. J. B. Phillips in his NT
translation says that Jesus is the “visible expression.” Similarly in Hebrews 1:3,
Jesus as the “image” [same word as Col. 1:15) is the “exact representation” of
God. As in John 1:18, Jesus has made God known (lit., “exegeted” Him); the word
for exegesis, leading Scripture forth, declaring what is really in the text, is the idea
of this Greek word).
2. All things are claimed to be created by Him. It says this, not “all other
things” (as if He Himself were created earlier, distinctly). He is carefully kept
separate, and not a part of the totality of created things. The point made is that He
is Creator, not created. In Hebrews 1:6, as well, Christ is kept distinct from
all creation. In 3:3, Christ of v. 2 was faithful to Him (God) who appointed
Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house. “For this one” (v. 3), Christ, “has
been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the
house has more honor than the house. For [v. 4] every house is built by someone,
but He who built all things is God.” Christ is evidently God who built the house.
Then in v. 6 Christ is “a Son over His own house,” the house referring to believers
in the household of faith as the verse goes on to clarify.
3. He is said to be “before” all creation. No creation is contemplated in
which He, Himself, would be one created.
4. He is never said here (or anywhere in Scripture) to have been created.
5. The passage says, “In Him all things consist” (v. 17). In the sufficiency
and ability and wisdom (all the capacity) that is in Him, and by Him as Creator, all
things have their being and establishment. His supremacy over them is in view.
6. “He is the head of the body,” the church (v. 18). Again the focus is on
His supremacy, rank, dignity over this group. For the passage goes on, “that in all
things He might have the preeminence.”
7. He is “the firstborn (prototokos, as in v. 15) from the dead (v. 18). This
concentrates on Christ’s being first in sequence as the One who came forth to
immortality, i.e. never to die again, unto life that is a final and unchangeable state.
It also focuses on His being supreme over all who come forth from the dead. Some
others died before Jesus Christ did, and rose from their death, as the boy God used
Elijah to bring back from death (I Kin. 19), Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the
son of the widow at Nain. These, however, did not rise to immortality; they died
later to end their earthly careers. Jesus was the “firstfruits” of resurrection (I Cor.
15:23 ) unto immortality, and after Him all who are His people who have died will
become an entire harvest of resurrected ones.
8. “That in all things He might have the preeminence” (v. 18) emphasizes
the supremacy, dignity or rank above all, not His being first in sequence.
9. Christ is “the beginning” (1:18) as in Rev. 1:5 and 3:14. The idea of the
Greek word arche is the moving cause, the one responsible for things beginning,
headship, as forms of the word refer to princes, dignitaries.
B. Wider Context in Colossians
1. 1:19. After the many phrases about Christ’s preeminence, or
supremacy in vv. 15-18, v. 19 says, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the
fullness should dwell . . . .” This appears to be elaborated in 2:9.
2. 2:9. Christ has all treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Him (v. 3),
faith is in Him (v. 5), He is Lord (v. 6). Traditions of men that Christians are to
beware of in v. 8 are not according to Christ, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of
the Godhead bodily . . . .”
Despite JW ideas, the most natural idea fitting near context and wider
context of 1:15 above, and the context in and other input (cf. III. C., D., and E.),
2:9 refers to Christ having all the fullness of the divine nature in the bodily
existence He took on the earth as the God-man; the fullness of deity dwelt in Him
God took on a human body, and the fullness of deity was in that body. After
v. 9, v. 10 draws a natural privilege for believers; in view of Christ’s greatness,
even as God, “and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and
power [i.e. has supremacy over even angelic powers].”
3. Other statements that reflect Christ as God
a. Paul as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” has his commission as a sent
one from the authority of Christ, and an apostle is never said to be an apostle
of an angelic being (Col. 1:1).
b. That believers are “in Christ” (1:2) recognizes the greatness of
Christ; they are by contrast not said to be “in” an angel. Compare this with being
“in the Lord,” “in God,” etc.
c. Grace and peace from the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2)
sees Christ as associated with the Father, as source of grace and peace as the
Father is. Angels are not said to be such a source.
d. Faith in Christ (1:4 and often in Colossians) recognizes Christ as the
object of faith, a privilege higher than angels, and with God as object of faith.
e. A church leader is a “minister of Christ,” not of an angel.
f. Redemption and forgiveness of sins is through Christ’s blood (1:14). Of
no angelic being can this be said. Only God can redeem in this sense, or forgive in
terms of eternal acceptance. That Christ’s blood reconcile all things is an
astounding statement recognizing a status of infinite sufficiency (1:20).
g. “The mystery of God the Father and of Christ” (2:2) places Christ on a
par with God, again a description not made of even a high angelic creature.
h. That in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”
(2:3) shows a fullness not true of angels.
i. Christ gives reward (3:24), a role God has.
C. Word Study
“Firstborn” (prototokos). The term appears ca. 130 times in the LXX
(O’Brien, Colossians, 44).
a. Used of first in sequence to be born in a family (many OT references).
Romans 8:29 has this idea in regard to Christ, “the firstborn among many
brethren.” Cf. b. on next page.
b. Used of first in the sense of supremacy, dignity, headship, or rank.
(1) A son is exalted to a supreme position in the family even if
he was not first in order to be born.
(2) God refers to Israel as “my firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22), not
the first of nations in order, but the preeminent one, the one having a supreme
place in His sovereign plan.
(3) A rabbi referred to God as “beginning of the world” in the
sense of being prior to and responsible as Creator bringing the world into exis-tence, yet not the first part of the world (Bereshith Rabba, 38 (23b) in H. L. Strack
and Paul Billerbeck, Kummentar zum NT aus Talmud und Midrasch, III, 626). Cf.
also J. B. Lightfoot’s citation on Rabbi Bechai, on the Pentateuch, calling God
“firstborn of the world” due to God’s supremacy and responsibility for creating the
world (Lightfoot, Colossians, 47).
Judaism as distinct from the OT used “firstborn” of the Messiah/King, of
Israel, of the patriarchs, and of the Torah, in each case to focus on their special
exalted place (Strack/Billerbeck, Kommentar, 3:256-58, also 626; also cf.
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6:873-76).
(4) Ps. 89:26-27. The context refers to the kingdom line of
Solomon in the Davidic lineage. God says of the future son in this line, possibly
Messianic expectation of One in this dynasty, “I will make him my firstborn
[prototokos], highest of the kings of the earth.” The last statement reflects the
idea of the supremacy to which God will place the king in this line, in rank
surpassing that of other earthly kings.
(5) Gen. 41:50-51. Manasseh was Joseph’s first son born. Yet
in Jer. 31:9, Ephraim is called “firstborn” to emphasize his preeminent position.
(6) Heb. 1 recognizes Christ’s place as supreme. In context
Christ is God’s heir of all things (a supreme dignity) in v. 2, the One through whom
God made the worlds [framed the ages] in v. 2, the brightness [effulgence] of
God’s glory and the express image of His person in v. 3, and upholds all things by
the word of His power in v. 3. (a role with a sustaining power no created being
has). Christ by Himself purged men’s sins in v. 3, an accomplishment no angel has
made or could make. He is “so much better than the angels” in v. 4, all of the
angels, and not just the highest angel as in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view. Christ
is, in v. 6, the “firstborn” that God brought into the world.
In v. 6, Christ receives worship even by angels, “all the angels of God” (not
all the other angels, as if Christ Himself is a high angel), a privilege angels do not
receive. To direct worship to Christ is to point worship to God, as only He is to
receive worship (Exod. 20). A bit later in Hebrews 1, Christ the Son is called God
in v. 8, and it is God Himself who calls Him this.
(7) Prototokos occurs in the plural in Heb. 12:23 for “the
church of the firstborn,” i.e. believers who in God’s grace have received a status of
high ranking privilege.
▪ A word for “first created” (prototiktos) might have been used if Paul had
meant this. Cf. Lightfoot.
▪ “Image” (ikon) in 1:15. Christ is the image of the invisible God. Cf. more
on “image” above under III. A. 1.
a. True, God made man in His image (Gen. 1:26-27) in a sense. Paul
mentions that man is the image and glory of God (I Cor. 11:7).
b. True, even believers are being changed into the image of God (2
Cor. 3:18). They will reflect Christ’s mage in the heavenly life (Rom. 8:29; I Cor.
D. Historical Background
The Gnostic errorists whom Paul was combating in Colossians saw Christ as a
created being, an emanation out from the pure fullness of God. Paul would play
right into their hands, agree with them, and not answer them if he presented Christ
as a created being (cf. J. E. Rosscup, “Firstborn,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia
of the Bible, ed. M. C. Tenney, I, 540).
E. Cross Reference
Christ is seen as deity in many passages (cf. W. Martin, above, 33-47;
Gruss, above; C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, on Hebrews
passages, 237-38; and the standard theologies by L. Berkhof, C. Hodge, A. H.
Strong, W. Grudem, L. S. Chafer, etc.
1. Isa. 9:6-7, the future Messiah/King is seen as “the mighty God.”
To call this One “mighty hero” or a similar rendering to escape His being God runs
into inconsistency in view of Isaiah 10:21.
2. John 1:1, 18. Cf. Gruss, above; 5:18, note “making Himself equal
with God.” In 1:18, more weighty mss. read “the unique God” (monogenes), i.e.
“one of a kind.”
3. John 20:28, “My Lord and my God.” Cf. also Acts 20:28, “the
church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
4. Phil. 2:6, He existed in the very form [morphe] of God.
5. Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 1:3-14. Father, Son and Spirit
are mentioned together, as co-equals.
6. Titus 2:13. The Grandville Sharp rule of grammar is relevant here.
The “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God [one
noun] and [connective] Saviour Jesus Christ [second noun] . . .,” meaning that “our
great God” and “Saviour Jesus Christ” are the same person. One can also observe
2:10, “God our Saviour,” referring to the same Person as “Saviour Jesus Christ” in
v. 13. The student further can find in 2 Peter 1:1 the construction that occurs in
Titus 2:13, and compare 2 Peter 1:11, 2:20 and 3:2, 18.
7. Heb. 1:10. God the Father speaks to the Son as “Lord” during a
citation of Psalm 102:25. In the Psalms context, v. 24 calls the person being
spoken to “God.”
8. I Pet. 2:3. In a fairly close citation of Psalm 34:8a in which “Lord”
(Jehovah) appears, Christ is apparently the Lord (God), as the verse in I Peter is
clarified when vv. 4-8 refer to Jesus as “Lord.”
9. Rev. 3:14. Christ is “the beginning of the creation of God.” The
word “beginning” (arche) is from a word family that is used for princes, high
officials. The idea in 3:14 is not that Christ is the beginning one be created, but the
“origin, source, moving cause,” or the one from who creation stems, the creating
The phrase “firstborn of all creation,” featuring a genitive, has been
grammatically viewed as having a partitive genitive (“firstborn part of all creation,”
so Arius and Jehovah’s Witnesses, or as a genitive of reference, i.e. “firstborn with
reference to all creation.” The latter fits better with other evidence from context,
word study, background, etc.
1. After Col. 1:15, v. 16 opens with a causal clause supporting
Christ’s high rank: “because [hoti] in Him [en auto] all things were created.” The
idea of being created is passive; God is the One by whom creation was done.
Christ is the One prior to and in rank over all creation. The “in Him” might have the
idea of (a) instrumental usage of the preposition, “though Him,” or can also make
good sense if (b) focusing on the sphere (“in the sphere of Him”). In (b), God’s
creative work as in Ephesians 1:4, occurs in Christ, not in a way independently
from Him (cf. O’Brien, 45).
2. Ta panta (“all things”) of creation are distinct from Christ.
The “all things” are defined in a way that covers all possibilities:
a. in heaven, and invisible (these two correspond)
b. on earth, and visible (these two also correspond).
Between these phrases, Paul covers the entire sweep of places and possibilities for
created things. His statement is a very strong and carefully considered way of
leaving no created thing out, recognizing Christ as doing the creating of all, and
keeping Christ distinct from all that was created, as not created Himself.
3. Even further to define the matter, Paul says “whether thrones or
dominions or principalities or authorities.” All the cosmic powers that people
responsible for the Colossian error would recognize were parts of the creation which
in its totality is distinct from Christ, the One who created, and subservient to Him.
All owe their being and allegiance to Him. Since all of creation is in view, it is
probable that not just evil celestial beings but good forces in the heavenly hosts are
included (so O’Brien, 46; Heinrich Schlier is cited there as favoring only the powers
at enmity with Christ, those of Colossians 2:10, 15 and Ephesians 6:12-14).
4. Eis auton (“unto Him,” Christ as the ultimate goal) all things were
created. Christ is similarly seen as the goal of creation in other NT passages (Rom.
11:33-36, “of Him, through Him, to Him”; I Cor. 8:6). This is in harmony with Paul
expecting all things to be headed up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
5. Christ is “before [pro] all things.” As to order, time-wise, Christ is
prior to all things in the universe, things just defined. It is to intrude what is untrue
to the flow of thought to say, as Arius did, “there was once when he [Christ] was
not” (O’Brien, 47). Since Christ is “before,” all things that He created are subject
to Him; He has supremacy in order and rank. As Jehovah in Exod. 3 claimed to be
“I AM,” Christ is eternally existent, distinct from all in creation who had a time of
6. And “in Him all things are held together.” The idea is that they are
sustained, or have a unifying principle of being maintained. Paul’s thought seems to
be along the lines of Hebrews 1:3, where Christ “upholds all things by the word of
His power” (cf. also Heb. 1:10-11). “Are held together” (sunesteken) is in the
perfect tense, here placing a focus on Christ’s continuous sustaining work that
keeps all things He created from coming apart.
This is a summation principle. The evidence from the various considerations,
when followed to the clearest or most fitting explanation, points to Christ as
“firstborn of all creation” being the Creator, God, Himself responsible for all
creation, not Himself a part of creation.
© Dr. J.E. Rosscup, 2008
Professor at The Master’s Seminary