First or Firstborn?
What does it mean that Christ is called the “firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15)?
This verse is often used by those who deny the divinity of Christ, saying that He was the first being created by God. In searching for an answer I will summarize the use of the word “firstborn” in the Old Testament, its use in the New Testament, and its application to Jesus.
1. Firstborn in the Old Testament: The use that predominates in the Old Testament is that of firstborn animals and humans. They both belonged to the Lord because He preserved them alive during the death of Egypt’s firstborn (Ex. 13:15). The firstborn of clean animals were sacrificed to the Lord, while the unclean were to be redeemed (Ex. 13:13; Lev. 27:26, 27). Firstborn humans were also to be redeemed (Ex. 13:13, 15). Later the Levites were offered to the Lord to work in the sanctuary in place of the other firstborn of Israel, permanently redeeming them (Num. 8:16-18).
The firstborn of humans was “the beginning of my strength” (Gen. 49:3), meaning an expression of the procreative power of the father. From the perspective of the mother, the firstborn was “whatever opens the womb” first (Ex. 13:2). The significance of firstborn humans probably rested on the fact that the oldest son would provide leadership to the family after the father’s death. He received a double portion of the inheritance and the honor and respect of the family (Deut. 21:17).
The title “firstborn” emphasized the first as a symbol of the best; therefore it pointed to the uniqueness of the son and his preeminence over the rest of the family. This led to an understanding of the term apart from the idea of birth. Thus Israel was the “firstborn” son of the Lord (Ex. 4:22) in the sense that it would be God’s “special treasure,” “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5, 6). David is also called the firstborn in the sense that he is “the highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27).
2. Firstborn in the New Testament: Jesus is called the “firstborn Son” of Mary (Luke 2:7), the one who opened her womb. Other passages in the New Testament use the title “firstborn” metaphorically. According to Hebrews 12:23, there is a “church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” This is another way of saying that the Israel of faith is the firstborn of the Lord. Concerning Christ, He is the “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), thus pointing to Jesus’ preeminent position among those redeemed by His grace and constituted by Him as His brothers. Christ is also the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). The expression is used to indicate that He is the one and only one who overcame the power of death and made that victory available to others.
3. Firstborn of Creation: The context of Colossians 1:15 clearly indicates that the word “firstborn,” as applied to Jesus, points to His preeminence in creation and His power or sovereignty over it.
First, the passage is about the origin of creation, not about the origin of Jesus. He brought everything into existence, and He was before everything else (verses 16, 17).
Second, He is described as the beginning, that is, the one who created at the beginning (Gen. 1:1). Creation, not Jesus, had a beginning!
Third, Jesus is also “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).
The contrast is between the beginning of creation free from death and the eschatological work of Christ that overcame the power of death. As the firstborn from the dead He has power over it.
Fourth, the divine purpose in all of this was “that in all things He [Christ] may have the preeminence” (verse 18). As Creator and Redeemer, Jesus occupies the first place in the cosmos. He is the supreme ruler who holds together everything (verse 17).
Finally, Christ is the very image of God because the fullness of God dwells in Him (verses 15, 19). Therefore, His supremacy is grounded not only on His work, but on His very nature as God.
Now retired, Angel Manuel Rodríguez has served the church for several decades, most recently as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.