Question: Why is Jesus called the “firstborn” of all creation?
Col. 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
The term “firstborn” (Gk. prototokos) in the Greek New Testament is used in a variety of ways—sometimes figuratively, meaning something like “the highest,” or “best,” or “preeminent.” In that case, the word can indicate the idea of supremacy above all else, or even as pre-existing all else.
Sometimes it is used at face value, meaning simply, “firstborn.” Even then, however, the sense of “firstborn” has to do with the privileges granted to the firstborn male in the Jewish family—the one who received the “greater” or “best” share of the inheritance.
Protokos derives from the more basic Greek word, protos, which means, “before, beginning, best, chief(-est), first (of all), former.” It is this fundamental meaning which is at the heart of ”firstborn.”
Fortunately, the verse does not exist in a vacuum. The meaning of the term is found in the immediate context of the passage where it occurs, and also in the broader teaching of the entire Bible regarding the nature of Jesus.
The whole point of Colossians 1:15-20 is that Jesus is not only a perfect representation of God in human form (15), but that Jesus is God in human form (19). And because Jesus is God, He has always existed, and therefore pre-exists all creation (17). Therefore, Jesus is not only “before” (protokos) all creation in time; He is “before” (protokos) all creation in importance. In fact, everything that exists came into being “through” Jesus—He is the Creator—and exists “for” Jesus’ purposes (16). Chief among Jesus’ purposes in creation is to re-establish a right relationship between Himself as the Creator and the sin-broken creation (20). This immediate context makes it clear that the term “firstborn” (protokos) is used as a title describing Jesus’ importance in relation to all creation. It is not used to mean that somehow He was the first thing God ever made. He is God, supreme above all, and the reason all else exists.
Overall Bible Context
The rest of Scripture agrees with this primary use of protokos as meaning “supreme,” “highest, or “best.”
Jesus is both God and Creator:
John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Jesus, the radiance of God’s glory, “sustains” creation. He holds it all together:
Heb. 1:3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word…
In His very nature, Jesus is God. Yet, out of His love for lost mankind, He “made himself” human and took the penalty for our sins upon himself that we might be forgiven and have everlasting life in him:
Phil. 2:6-8 [Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!