The question of Jesus’s “origins” have been around since he walked the earth two millennia ago. In John 5 and John 8, for instance, the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy for claiming to be “equal to God” and being the “I AM” before Abraham (cf. Exod. 3:14). God is eternal, unchanging, perfect, etc. and no man could claim such a thing. Understandably, the Jews were perplexed by his claims.
Of the myriad passages on this topic, Colossians 1:15-20 might be the most confusing. Here, Jesus is called the “firstborn.” If we take this literally then we might be tempted to say that Jesus was, literally, born first in all creation. He is, as it were, the Father’s Son in a biological or material sense. We also see this language in Hebrews 1:6. This is admittedly difficult to understand, even for those of us who have advanced degrees in biblical studies and theology.
The first time I encountered this issue was during one of my pastorates in Texas. One Sunday night, a pastor was teaching on this passage and asked, “What does it mean for Jesus to be firstborn?” And a lady in the crowd, a Christian for over 50 years and the co-leader of our kids’ ministry said, “Well, it means Jesus was created before any of us were.”
I was initially shocked when she said that because this view was condemned as a heresy 1,500 years ago at the Council of Nicaea, and I’d been taught this clearly during my graduate work. But it did help me realize that some of the basic doctrines many learned pastors and Christian leaders take for granted are never fully communicated to the congregation. So, I hope that I can shed some light on this passage for those of you who have never considered it before, or those of you who have considered it but are still perplexed by it.
First, let’s take a look at a few ways people view this “firstborn” language.
The first view prevalent today comes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is a non-Trinitarian view, which basically teaches that Jesus was, as that member of my church said, the first created being. So they take the word “firstborn” pretty literally. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their own Bible translation called the New World Translation, insert the word “other” a few times in this passage (e.g., “by means of him, all other things were created). So he’s part of creation—he is created, and then there’s this other creation Paul is talking about. This is similar to the view of Arius—the one condemned at the Council of Nicaea—that Jesus is greater than us, but is nonetheless a created being who God used as an instrument to create everything else.
Mormons pick up on this, too, albeit a bit differently. They say Jesus was the first “spirit child” created by God with one of his spirit wives, and Jesus then became a god through obedience to the truth. But the same idea—Jesus was created.
The next view is also a non-Trinitarian view called Sabellianism, which manifests itself in groups we now call Modalists. We see this view most notably in Oneness Pentecostalism. They’re different from Arian-like groups that we mentioned before, because they actually say that God is one, and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are different “modes” or “faces” of God, rather than distinct persons. We only perceive them as separate entities in the sequence of biblical history. So, for them, the “firstborn” language here and language Jesus uses like “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 5, 12) is showing that they are literally the same.
Then there’s what we should call the Christian view, because it is the Trinitarian view held throughout church history.
This view says that Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God, existing in eternity past with the Father and Spirit. One God, three persons–each person fully divine. Most Trinitarians take a general approach of saying that the “firstborn” language here is showing Christ’s superiority above creation, considering—as the text says—he was intimately involved in the creation of all things (cf. John 1:1-3).
Jesus, the Firstborn Son
The following verses in Colossians 1 answer the question, saying that all things were created by him and that God’s “fullness” dwells in him. He is clearly separate from creation, not part of it.
Not only that, but the “firstborn” language throughout Scripture doesn’t always point to a literal creation. The term “firstborn” has two connotations in the OT: one more literal—the first-birthed child of a father—and one more metaphorical or figurative—the child who has the rights and privilege to the father’s wealth, even if not the one literally born first. In the OT, firstborn privileges can be taken away, as was the case with Reuben (Gen. 35:23), or even stolen, in the case of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:19-34).
Israel was given the privileged status as YHWH’s “firstborn” nation, which gives the word a more corporate meaning, based not on literal birth but on God’s election and plan. In Psalm 89:27, God’s covenant with King David includes an appointment to firstborn status—“I will make him my firstborn, greatest of the kings of the earth”—as well as a promise more generally to his throne. In the context of God’s faithfulness to and love for his people, the “firstborn” language takes on a more figurative meaning, as people and nations are chosen to advance God’s purposes as he moves history toward final restoration (Rev. 21-22). In every moment, God was drawing his people into his kingdom and offering grace in their missteps. Their inheritance was ultimately always from him (Eph. 1:3-14).
We also have already mentioned that even within biblical usage, “firstborn” is not always required to mean that someone was literally created. God has shown that he can providentially appoint someone to firstborn status as a way to move forward his plans of redemption. So, when we think about the firstborn designation for the Son in this passage, we need to consider the immediate context and broader biblical context. Immediately, we will see the clear divine language about the Son that is befitting of the eternal God, not a created being; relatedly, the broader biblical context helps us see that a literal birth is not required for someone to have firstborn status. So while the incarnation contains a real human birth, in which the Son was really born as a real baby, this passage speaks about his eternal firstborn status, given that the context is about his rank above all creation, not his place within creation.
We also have to remember the context of Scripture as a whole. Massive amounts of Scripture point to Jesus being God, including:
- The I AM statements in the Gospels, which is the name Yahweh uses for himself in Exod. 3:14.
- The way Luke uses the word “Lord” in relation to the LORD of the Old Testament.
- The way Paul ties his identity to God’s by quoting the Shema in 1 Cor. 8 (“the Lord our God is one”).
- The language about Jesus as the Creator (e.g., John 1:1-3).
So we have tons of Scripture—both in the immediate context and beyond—to back up the claim that whatever it means for Jesus to be the “firstborn,” it doesn’t have to mean he was created, which also causes several other problems with our views on God and salvation.
If Jesus is not fully God and one with the Father and Spirit, he does not have the power to save us. If Jesus is not fully God and one with the Father and Spirit, he is not the Creator the Bible says he is. No, he is the eternal Son of God who put on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-18). He is the God who saves, and the obedient Second Adam who shed real, human blood for our sins (Phil. 2:5-11).