Does Colossians 1:15 Say That Jesus Is a Created Being?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 3:10pm
QUESTION: Do NT references to Jesus as “firstborn” (e.g., Colossians 1:15) and “begotten” (e.g., Heb. 5:5) imply that he is a created being?
ANSWER: It is true that the human aspect of Jesus of Nazareth, and thus the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, had his beginning (came into existence for the first time) in the womb of Mary when the angel’s promise in Luke 1:35 was fulfilled. In that same moment the divine aspect of Jesus, namely, the second person of the Trinity, the eternally-existing Logos, entered into a relationship with the human aspect in the event we call the INCARNATION (John 1:14). Thus technically one could speak of the human Jesus as being “begotten” (metaphorically) by God the Father, and as being Mary’s “firstborn” son (Luke 2:7). It is unlikely, though, that texts such as Col. 1:15 and Heb. 5:5 are referring to this event. Since the full nature of Jesus is both human and divine, it is impossible to understand such texts as implying that Jesus Christ is a “created being.”
Careful exegesis of the passages in question also shows this to be true. Hebrews 5:5 is quoting Psalm 2:7, where God the Father as the Great King says to the Messiah (v. 2) at the event of his inauguration as co-King (v. 6), “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” Some think this refers to some eternal “begetting” event, on the basis of which they posit an “eternal sonship” relation between the Father and the Son (and thus an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). I disagree strongly with this interpretation. I believe the Apostle Paul shows us what the “today” in Psalm 2:7 is referring to when he quotes this in Acts 13:33 as referring to Jesus’s RESURRECTION from the dead. He says that God fulfilled his promises to the patriarchs “in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.’” This is what Heb. 5:5 is referring to. Jesus is thus the (first-)begotten FROM THE DEAD.
The language of Jesus as “firstborn” is also used of his resurrection, when he is called “the firstborn of the dead” (Rev. 1:5) and “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18). This is also the meaning of Rom. 8:29, where he is called “the firstborn among many brethren.” I.e., he was the first to receive a glorified human nature, but not the last. All the redeemed will in the end receive a glorified body like his (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:21), thus becoming conformed to his (glorified) image and being welcomed into the glorified family of God in which he is the elder brother (Rom. 8:14-23; Heb. 2:10-17). See also 1 Cor. 15:20, where the risen Jesus is called “the first fruits of those who are asleep,” i.e., dead.
This does not fully explain Col. 1:15, though, where Jesus is called “the firstborn [prototokos] of all creation.” This cannot be a reference to the NEW creation (begun in his resurrection), since v. 16 is clearly referring to the original creation of all created reality. However, Jesus (God’s “beloved Son,” v. 13) cannot be a part—even the first part—of these created things, since v. 16 clearly says that “BY HIM all things—ALL things—were created.” He cannot be both the Creator of all things and one of the created things. This is similar to John 1:3, which says of the eternal Logos, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” I.e., everything that has come into being (i.e., has been created, that has a beginning) came into being THROUGH the Logos. This means he himself cannot be among those things that have come into being. Rev. 5:11-14 also clearly separates Jesus the Lamb of God from the category of created things, since “every created thing” is pictured as worshiping the Father and the Lamb alike.
So in what sense is Jesus the “firstborn of all creation”? The answer is that the term “firstborn” (prototokos) carries another connotation besides priority in time; it also is used of priority in rank or hierarchy. (In this regard it is similar to the Greek word “arche,” which can mean both “beginning” and “ruler.”) The latter seems to be its intended meaning in Col. 1:15. When we examine the full context (vv. 13-20), we see that it is filled with references to Christ’s rulership, headship, and superiority over all things. Verse 13 refers to his Kingdom. Verse 16 pictures him as being the Creator of and thus superior to all created “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” Verse 17 says “He is before (“pro”) all things”; the word “pro” signifies not just priority in time but also in rank. In verse 18 he is the “head of the body, the church.” Contra feminist propaganda, the word “head (kephale) means “ruler, leader, one in authority.” All in all “He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (v. 18).
The NIV reflects this understanding when it translates Col. 1:15 as saying that Jesus is the “firstborn OVER all creation.” That this is the correct meaning is seen in v. 16, which gives the REASON why Jesus is the “prototokos” over all things: “For [“hoti,” because] by Him all things were created.” It would make no sense to say he is the first created being because he created all things. But it makes perfect sense to say he is the RULER of all creation because he himself is its CREATOR.
Wilhelm Michaelis’s essay on “prototokos” in the Kittel-Friedrich “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” (6:878-879) says that even in Col. 1:18 the word indicates more than priority in time. Here it “carries with it a reference to the superior rank and dignity of Christ,” with the word “arche” (translated “beginning” but also meaning “ruler”) in the same verse pointing in the same direction. Likewise “prototokos” in 1:15 “supports a hierarchical understanding. As Christ from all creation bears the rank of a prototokos in relation to every creature, so He does also and especially as the risen Lord.” Michaelis says that 1:15 and 1:16 together show that “Christ is the Mediator at creation to whom all creatures without exception owe their creation.” Hence “firstborn of all creation” “does not simply denote the priority in time of the pre-existent Lord. If the expression refers to the mediation of creation through Christ, it cannot be saying at the same time that He was created as the first creature.” The only possible meaning is that “firstborn of all creation” means “the unique supremacy of Christ over all creatures as the Mediator of their creation.”