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AN INTERPRETATION OF CHRIST

AS ‘FIRSTBORN’

(Col. 1:15)


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 proper view?

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 “bodily-wise.”

         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. 15:49).

         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 one.

         F. Grammar

         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 being created.

                  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.

         G. Clarity

         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