Jesus, the “Firstborn”?
Bible Gems #88
Question: If Jesus is God why is he called the "firstborn" of all creation (Col. 1:15; Rev. 3:14)?
This question is taken directly from a pamphlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses use to train their door-to-door evangelists when responding to Christians who believe in the deity of Christ. The questions on that pamphlet will serve as future Bible Gems questions from time to time, with the hope that it will serve to strengthen our understanding of Scripture on this incredibly important topic.
Several times in the New Testament Jesus is referred to as God’s “firstborn.” The classic example is in Colossians:
Col. 1:15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature… (see: Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:18; Heb. 1:6; 11:28; Rev. 1:5).
The JW’s pamphlet also includes Rev. 3:14, although the term “firstborn” is not used there. Rather, the phrase “the beginning of the creation of God” is used, which the JW’s cite to demonstrate that Jesus cannot be both God and the “beginning of the creation of God.”
The word for “firstborn” in the Greek is “protokos,” which can be used either as a noun or as an adjective. Here in Colossians it is an adjective describing Jesus as being ‘first in time,’ and ‘first in rank or importance’ in comparison with the rest of creation. It is the comparison with creation that is in view, not that Jesus Himself is created.
Revelation 3:14 uses an entirely different word: “arche.” This is used as a noun, meaning “head of,” or “ruler,” and again has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus being created by God. Jesus is being compared with creation, not being identified as part of it.
The term “firstborn” in the Bible, when used as an adjective, typically describes the ideas of ‘seniority’ and ‘privilege’ that went along with being a first born male. The firstborn received the larger portion of the family inheritance (Dt. 21:17), and the younger children were expected to serve the firstborn son (Gen. 25:23).
Most importantly, the use of the word “firstborn” for the messiah is actually from the Old Testament, where the term has nothing to do with actual birth, but is used as a title of appointment by God:
Ps. 89:27 I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
In the other New Testament passages where “firstborn” is used of Jesus, the context always makes it crystal clear that this idea of His preeminence, His appointment by God, His seniority over all things is what in view. Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29); “the firstborn from among the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5); and He is the one whom all the angels are to worship “when God brings his firstborn into the world” (Heb. 1:6). All these references recall Jesus’ messianic title, appointed to Him by God (Ps. 89:27).
There is absolutely no contradiction here between the very clear claims of Scripture that Jesus is God and the use of the term “firstborn” as a messianic title, or as an adjective describing Jesus’ supremacy over all creation. Jesus is God incarnate—God in human flesh—and all that God is dwells within Jesus:
Col. 1:19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him…
John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made… .