What does the firstborn of creation mean in Colossians 1:15? Part One

What does the firstborn of creation mean in Colossians 1:15?                        By Jack Kettler

Does firstborn mean that Jesus created? Proponents of the ancient Arian heresy make claims that firstborn means first created. Nothing could be further from the truth. This study should be considered an entry-level research primer. The reader will be introduced to traditionally orthodox commentary entries on the subject at hand.

We read:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn (πρωτότοκος) of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15 ESV)

First, according to the Englishman’s Concordance, we have three occurrences of πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) the Greek word for firstborn:

πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) — 3 Occurrences

Colossians 1:15 Adj-NMS

GRK: τοῦ ἀοράτου πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως

NAS: God, the firstborn of all

KJV: God, the firstborn of every

INT: invisible [the] firstborn of all creation

Colossians 1:18 Adj-NMS

GRK: ἡ ἀρχή πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν

NAS: and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,

KJV: the beginning, the firstborn from

INT: the beginning firstborn from among the

Revelation 1:5 Adj-NMS

GRK: πιστός ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν

NAS: witness, the firstborn of the dead,

KJV: witness, [and] the first begotten of

INT: faithful the firstborn of the dead (1)

There is nothing in the occurrences of the Greek word prōtotokos that demand an understanding of first created. First created is an idea that certain people with an agenda try to smuggle into the text. If first created were intended, why was not the Greek word protoktistos used? Protoktistos, means first created. Significantly, it is never used for Christ in the New Testament. Protoktistos does not even appear in the New Testament.

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers enlightens us regarding the Colossians passage and the term firstborn:

“The firstborn of every creature (of all creation).—(1) As to the sense of this clause. The grammatical construction here will bear either the rendering of our version, or the rendering “begotten before all creation,” whence comes the “begotten before all worlds “of the Nicene Creed. But the whole context shows that the latter is unquestionably the true rendering. For, as has been remarked from ancient times, He is said to be “begotten” and not “created;” next, he is emphatically spoken of below as He “by whom all things were created,” who is “before all things,” and in whom all things consist.” (2) As to the order of idea. In Himself He is “the image of God” from all eternity. From this essential conception, by a natural contrast, the thought immediately passes on to distinction from, and priority to, all created being. Exactly in this same order of idea, we have in Hebrews 1:2-3, “By whom also He made the worlds . . . upholding all things by the word of His power;” and in John 1:3, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made which was made. Here St. Paul indicates this idea in the words “firstborn before all creation,” and works it out in the verses following. (3) As to the name “firstborn” itself. It is used of the Messiah as an almost technical name (derived from Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:28), as is shown in Hebrews 1:6, “when He bringeth the first begotten into the world.” In tracing the Messianic line of promise we notice that; while the Messiah is always true man, “the seed of Abraham,” “the son of David,” yet on him are accumulated attributes too high for any created being (as in Isaiah 9:6). He is declared to be an “Emmanuel” God with us; and His kingdom a visible manifestation of God. Hence the idea contained in the word “firstborn” is not only sovereignty “above all the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:28; comp. Daniel 8:13-14), but also likeness to God and priority to all created being. (4) As to the union of the two clauses. In the first we have the declaration of His eternal unity with God—all that was completely embodied in the declaration of the “Word who is God,” up to which all the higher Jewish speculations had led; in the second we trace the distinctness of His Person, as the “begotten of the Father,” the true Messiah of Jewish hopes, and the subordination of the co-eternal Son to the Father. The union of the two marks the assertion of Christian mystery, as against rationalising systems, of the type of Arianism on one side, of Sabellianism on the other.” (2)

Digging deeper with Vincent’s Word Studies on Colossians 1:15 further enlightens:

“The image (εἰκών)

See on Revelation 13:14. For the Logos (Word) underlying the passage, see on John 1:1. Image is more than likeness, which may be superficial and incidental. It implies a prototype, and embodies the essential verity of its prototype. Compare in the form of God, Philippians 2:6 (note), and the effulgence of the Father’s glory, Hebrews 1:3. Also 1 John 1:1.

Of the invisible God (τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου)

Lit., of the God, the invisible. Thus is brought out the idea of manifestation, which lies in image. See on Revelation 13:14.

The first born of every creature (πρωτότοκος πασῆς κτίσεως)

Rev., the first-born of all creation. For first-born, see on Revelation 1:5; for creation, see on 2Corinthians 5:17. As image points to revelation, so first-born points to eternal preexistence. Even the Rev. is a little ambiguous, for we must carefully avoid any suggestion that Christ was the first of created things, which is contradicted by the following words: in Him were all things created. The true sense is, born before the creation. Compare before all things, Colossians 1:17. This fact of priority implies sovereignty. He is exalted above all thrones, etc., and all things are unto (εἰς) Him, as they are elsewhere declared to be unto God. Compare Psalm 89:27; Hebrews 1:2.” (3)

Cross References to Colossians 1:15 from the Old Testament:

“And I will make him the firstborn, (bekor) the highest of the kings of the earth.” (Psalm 89:27 ESV)

Strong’s Concordance on the Hebrew:

bekor: first-born

Original Word: בְּכוֹר

Part of Speech: Noun Masculine

Transliteration: bekor

Phonetic Spelling: (bek-ore’)

Definition: first-born

As the reader can see from the Strong’s entry on the Hebrew word “bekor” there is nothing that demands an understanding of first created.

As Matthew Poole’s Commentary demonstrates, first born in Psalm 89:27 is a reference to Christ:

“As he calls me Father, Psalm 89:26, so I will make him my son, yea, my first-born, who had divers privileges above other sons. This and the following passage in some sort agree to David, who may well be called God’s

First-born, as all the people of Israel are, Exodus 4:22; and so is Ephraim, Jeremiah 31:9. Nor can I see fit wholly to exclude David here, of whom all the foregoing and following verses may, and some of them must be, understood. But this is more fully and properly accomplished in Christ, and seems to be ascribed to David here as a type of Christ, and that our minds might be led through David to him whom David represented, even to the Messias, to whom alone this doth strictly and literally belong.

Higher than the kings of the earth: this also was in some sort accomplished in David, partly because he had a greater power and dominion than any of the neighbouring kings, yea, than any other kings of his age, and in those parts of the world, except the Assyrian monarch; nor is the expression here universal, but indefinite, and if it had been said higher than all the kings, yet even such universal expressions admit of some limitation or exception, as is manifest and confessed: and partly because David had many privileges, wherein he did excel all other kings of the earth of his age without exception; which probably he did in the honour and renown which he got by his military achievements, and by that wisdom and justice wherewith he managed all his dominions; but certainly he did in this, that he was a king chosen and advanced by the immediate order and appointment of God himself, that he was set over God’s own peculiar and beloved people, that he was intrusted with the care and patronage of the true religion and the worship of God in the world, and especially that he was not only an eminent type, but also the progenitor of the Messias, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, and God blessed for ever.” (4)

Cross References to Colossians 1:15 from the New Testament:

Colossians 1:15 is crossed referenced to John 1:1 in many cross-referencing systems.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 ESV)

This cross-reference is because, the firstborn of all creation is the Word, and He also God!

“And from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” (Revelation1:5 ESV)

Does firstborn in Revelation mean anything different from other usages of the word in other texts? The Pulpit Commentary’s entry will be helpful.

From the Pulpit Commentary on Revelation 1:5:
“Verse 5. – The faithful Witness. This was his function – “to bear witness unto the truth” (John 18:37). The rainbow is called “the faithful witness” (Psalm 89:37). The Firstborn of the dead. Christ was the first who was born to eternal life after the death which ends this life (see Lightfoot on Colossians 1:15, 18; and comp. Psalm 89:27). “The ruler of this world” offered Jesus the glory of the kingdoms of the world, if he would worship him. He won a higher glory by dying to conquer him, and thus the crucified Peasant became the Lord of Roman emperors, “the Ruler of the kings of the earth.” The grammar of this verse is irregular; “the faithful Witness,” etc., in the nominative being in apposition with “Jesus Christ” in the genitive (comp. Revelation 2:20; Revelation 3:12; Revelation 9:14; Revelation 14:12). Unto him that loved us. The true reading gives “that loveth us” unceasingly. The supreme act of dying for us did not exhaust his love. In what follows it is difficult to decide between “washed” (λούσαντι) and “loosed” (λύσαντι), both readings being very well supported; but we should certainly omit “own” before “blood.” The blood of Jesus Christ cleansing us from all sin is a frequent thought with the apostle who witnessed the piercing of the side (Revelation 7:13, 14; 1John 1:7; 1John 5:6-8).” (5)

 In closing:

 Firstborn is a unique biblical word. Modern readers, at times, are confused or at a loss on how to understand the word, especially if they have encountered an unscrupulous Arian heretic. The above commentary evidence is historically and biblically sound in the information presented on the Greek word firstborn. For those interested in in-depth debates on the subject of firstborn versus first created, see the “for more study” sections at the end of this primer.  

 Consider the Colossians text in context with the adjoining verses:

 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Colossians 1:15-18 ESV)

 Christ is the image of God, i.e., God Himself; everything was created by Him and through him. In Him, all things hold together. Moreover, in everything He is preeminent. The context provides no support for the heretical notion that firstborn means first created.      

 “To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) And “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

See part two next week.

 Notes:

 1.      Wigram-Green, Englishman’s Concordance, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson publishers, 1982), p. 766.

2.      Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Colossians, Vol. 8, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 100.

3.      Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies In The New Testament, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARY, e • Albany, Oregon), p. 508-509.

4.      Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Psalm, vol. 2, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 141-142.

5.      H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Revelation, Vol.22., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 3.

 Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

 For More Study:

 Sources for answering Arian heretics:

 Arianism and its influence today https://carm.org/arianism-and-its-influence-today

 Modern Day Arians: Who are they? https://www.watchman.org/articles/other-religious-topics/modern-day-arians-who-are-they/

 Heresy and Those Who Fought It https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/heresy-and-those-who-fought-it/

 Is Arianism is Consistent with Scripture? https://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2010/01/04/arianism-is-consistent-with-scripture/

 Trinitarian Heresies Trinitarian Heresies | Monergism

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