"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation."
(Col. 1:15, NASB)
Many read Colossians 1:15 and get hung up on the term "firstborn". What does that mean? How is "He" the firstborn?
Jehovah Witnesses believe and teach that Jesus is the “first creation” before all creation through which all other things were created.(1) Mormons believe and teach that Jesus was created in the image of God like we are and is the “firstborn child” of God (the Divine Father) and Mary (a mortal human).(2) And know that there are others who butcher this as well. This is what led me to post this today. May we come to properly understand the enormity and beauty of the truth in this verse.
As biblical believers, we should understand the use of the term "firstborn" in its original language and in its proper context. The Greek term for "firstborn" used here in Colossians 1:15 is prototokos. I'll start with what it does not mean.
"does not mean"
First, in context, it does not mean "first-birth". We know that the "first-birth"—the first human to be born from the womb of a woman—would be Cain (Gen. 4:1). There is no biblical evidence of Jesus being "born" at any time before Cain.
Second, we know it does not mean "first-created". Theologically we know this isn't the case because Scripture is clear that Jesus, God the Son, is eternal, He has no beginning, and He is the "is, was, and is to come" (Jn. 1:1-2; 17:5, Rev. 1:8, 17; 22:13). Furthermore, since Scripture teaches that Jesus is in essence/nature God, then He could not have been created, for God is self-existing (Ex. 3:14, Isa. 40:28; 43:10-13). Philippians 2:6 explains that Jesus has always existed in the nature of God and equal with God. Even in the beginning phrase of Colossians 1:15 it says He is the image of the invisible God. The word "image" here in Greek is eikṓn, and in context it is conveying the exact reflection of the source, as in a mirror reflecting the exact image of the real person standing in front of it.(3). Thus, because the source here is the invisible God, Jesus is then the invisible God reflecting His own image visibly (cf. 2Cor. 4:4). And 1Timothy 1:17 additionally explains that God is eternal and immortal. Concluding that Jesus cannot be the "firstborn" (prototokos) as in the "first-created".
So now knowing what it does not mean, what does this prototokos in context mean? If we look at this term in context with the four verse passage (vv. 15-18) and in context with the whole scope of Scripture we'll see that this term is conveying "firstborn" as first in placement or position.(4). Edwin Lutzer says, "It's not a matter of time but status that determines who the firstborn is."(5). Additionally, Israel is called God's firstborn (Exod. 4:22) and David is referred to as the firstborn (Ps. 89:27). Both are in context with "first in placement or position". This four verse passage is about Jesus being over all, creating all, holding it all together, and all things being for Him. Paul culminates his point in the last part of verse 18, Jesus Christ is the "firstborn" that He may in all things have the preeminence, the first place. Thus, we can very well read Colossians 1:15 as...
"He is the image of the invisible God, the preeminent (prototokos) of all creation".
As biblical believers, when confronted with this verse by Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons or some other dissenter, we should take them on the journey of proper interpretation. We should ask them questions and show them what this verse is not saying first, then go on to show them what it is saying in context. If they still refuse it, leave them to the Holy Spirit and keep them in prayer. Hopefully a seed was planted and they begin to question their faulty beliefs. It is not us who will open their eyes, but the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit that will.
2. www.mormon.org/beliefs/godhead || www.lds.org/scriptures/nt/col/1.15?lang=eng || www.lds.org/manual/jesus-christ-and-the-everlasting-gospel-teacher-manual/lesson-7-jesus-christ-gods-only-begotten-son-in-the-flesh?lang=eng
5. Lutzer, Edwin. (1998). The Doctrines that Divide. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. p. 32.