What does Paul mean in the book of Colossians when he uses the word “firstborn” to refer to Jesus? That is an important theological question. Is Paul suggesting that Jesus is created by the Father? Is Paul suggesting that a time in eternity exists when the Son of God did not exist?
Colossians 1:15-16 – 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
That phrase, “firstborn of all creation,” is a tough one if it is lifted out of context without biblical light shined upon it. If a person from a religious cult lifts that phrase out on its own, they make an argument that the Son of God does not exist in eternity past. But there are many reasons not to think that the phrase means that Jesus was created.
Simplest among the reasons not to be confused by “firstborn of all creation” is the fact that the next lines from Paul’s pen indicate that all things that have been created are created by Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus. If Jesus created all things, if nothing was created that he did not create (c.f. John 1:1-3), it makes no sense to call Jesus created. If he created all, he cannot himself be created.
The other argument comes from the differing uses of the word “firstborn,” and it was this thought that came to my mind during my daily reading. You see, I was reading through Psalm 89, and was reminded of another biblical use of the word.
Consider the fact that the same word or phrase can mean multiple things in our language. What does the word “run” mean? It might be how you move quickly. It might mean to try to be elected to an office. It might mean what your nose does when you have a cold. It might mean that your car’s engine is on or your refrigerator is working properly. It might mean how you oversee your business. It might be what a river does. It might mean a number of different things, though it is actually only one word.
If we can easily understand that a word can have more than one meaning, we can be content not to let the word “firstborn” throw us for a loop. Yes, in my family, when I think of my 3 children, I know who the firstborn is. And, in my family context, that means that my firstborn is the first child to enter our family. But there is another biblical use of that phrase that has nothing at all to do with coming into existence. An alternative biblical use of the phrase firstborn means to be of the highest rank.
Psalm 89:27And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
In Psalm 89, God speaks of David. He says that he will make David his firstborn. He says this, though David had clearly already been born. What does he mean? He means that David will be given the highest rank among the kings of the earth. David will be given a special rank in the relationship between God and national Israel. It has nothing to do with David coming into existence. It has everything to do with the position that God will allow David to occupy.
Similarly, when Jesus is called firstborn of all creation, it has nothing to do with Jesus beginning to exist. Jesus is eternal, the Creator God. But Jesus is also the firstborn, the highest ranking human ever. Jesus is the number 1 human even as he is eternally God. Jesus is not a creation of the Father. Jesus is, however, granted by the Father to be the one who rules over all creation too. That is what it means that Jesus is “firstborn of all creation.”