He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 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. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15–20 (ESV)
This beautiful passage exalts Christ as the head of Creation, the head of New-Creation in the Church, and the One who is reconciling all things to Himself. Nevertheless, the term “firstborn” used in both verse 15 and verse 18 can be confusing. First, there is the really sticky question of what we mean by the word “of” in English. The Greek grammatical structure behind this word can literally mean dozens of different things. The English “of” doesn’t have that many possible means – but it does have quite a range. Let’s consider two examples:
- The podium is made out of wood.
- President Obama is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
In the first sentence “of” referred to the material the podium is made out of while in the second sentence “of” means that the President is Commander in Chief over the Armed Forces. In the third and fourth centuries some heretics treated verse 15 like sentence number 1 and therefore made Christ the first part of God’s creation. The whole Bible, the meaning of the word translated “firstborn”, and the context of this passage all make it clear that the second understanding is the correct one. Here are just a few of the reasons why this is so:
- The term translated “firstborn” does not actually mean first in order but in pre-eminence. This term would be used in the Old Testament (the Greek translation) to refer to the one who had the right of inheritance. The point that Paul is making in verse 15 is that Jesus has the right to inherit everything because it was all made by Him and for Him.
- We see this term used in (the Greek translation) of Exodus 4:22 where God refers to Israel as His “firstborn son.” Rather than meaning that Israel was temporally before the other nations God was saying that Israel was the nation that He had set His special love upon.
- Psalm 89:27-28 uses the same term to refer to David (with Messianic overtones): “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him.” Neither David nor Jesus were the first kings in temporal order.
- Verse 17 tells us that Jesus was before all things. The word “before” is temporal. Jesus existed prior to creation. Indeed, it is natural to take this as referring to our Lord’s eternal existence.
- Rather than being less than God the Father, both Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 emphasize that Jesus was fully God.
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 51
Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.