Does Colossians 1.15-19 Mean Jesus Preexisted and Created the Universe?

ApostlePaulMultiple issues arise in Colossians 1.15-19 that have caused many Bible readers to think Paul therein teaches that Jesus preexisted and created the universe. From this they conclude that only God does that, so Jesus must be God. But Paul does not mean any of that. This text, which is about Jesus, reads as follows in the New American Standard Bible:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first born from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.

We must always remember when reading a Bible version, such as an English Bible, that it is a translation of the accepted text. All of the books and letters of the New Testament have come down to us beginning in the koine Greek language. That was the common tongue of the Eastern Roman Empire during the first century BCE. Translators use mostly or entirely the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament or the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament. Nestle-Aland is now in its 28th edition, and UBS is now in its 5th edition, and both are exactly the same. For Bible readers who don’t know koine Greek, when reading a Bible translation, especially to determine proper theology, they should compare translations. The four leading English Bible translations in the U.S. are the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, and the English Standard Version.

Now let us consider briefly the issues that arise in Colossians 1.15-19. First, in v. 15, the NASB, NRSV, and ESV have “first born of all creation.” The Arians and today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses have cited this reading to support their teaching that Jesus preexisted as a personal Logos but that he had a beginning before creation, thus being “firstborn.” But the NIV has “first born over all creation.” Thus, the difference is “of” or “over.” The Greek text is prototokos pases ktiseos. These three words are literally translated “firstborn all creation.” So, the Greek text does not have a preposition, which is unnecessary in Greek. But for it to be grammatically correct in English, a preposition must be added. I think supplying the word “over,” as in the NIV, is best because it signifies rank, which corroborates “firstborn.” Both words indicate Jesus is supreme. Paul affirms this in v. 18, saying of Jesus “that he might come to have first place in everything.”

Second, the NASB begins Col. 1.16, as above, “For by Him all things were created.” But the versions differ considerably here and in v. 17. The following table shows this difference:

First Prepositional Phrase in Colossians 1.16Later Prepositional Phrase in Colossians 1.16
“by Him/him” (KJV, NASB, NIV, ESV)“by him (KJV, NIV)
“in him” (NRSV)“through Him/him” (NASB, NRSV, ESV)

The Greek word translated “by” or “in” in the first prepositional phrase is en, which usually is translated “in” in the New Testament. Translating it “by” suggests that Jesus preexisted and created the universe. But the word “in” allows for the idea that God (the Father) created the universe and that he did it having Jesus in mind, i.e., to make him first in rank and thus head of creation. And, again, this is what Paul says later, that Jesus will “have first place in everything” (v. 18). Since this is Paul’s overall thought in Colossians 1.15-19, he likely means “in” for this first prepositional phrase in v. 16. Peter T. O’Brien agrees in his Word Biblical Commentary on Colossians and Philemon. He compares this prepositional phrase (p. 45), here, with “through (him)” in John 1.3 and 1 Corinthians 8.6 and concludes, “the preposition ‘in’ (en) points to Christ as the ‘sphere’ (cf. ‘in him’ of v 19) within which the work of creation takes place.”

Third, regarding the second prepositional phrase we are considering in Colossians 1.16, the words “by” or “through” translate the Greek word di, which usually means “through.” For instance, di or dia in the Greek New Testament is translated “through” 219 times in the NASB, but “in” only three times. In translating this clause, “all things have been created through him,” O’Brien says, “God’s creation, like his election, takes place ‘in Christ’ and not apart from him.”

Fourth, in harmony with what I have explained above, the clause in Colossians 1.17, “He is before all things,” does not mean that Jesus preexisted but that he is preeminent in rank or supreme over all creation. C. F. D. Moule, in his Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary on Colossians and Philemon (p. 66), concludes concerning what we have examined in this Pauline epistle, “the cumulative effect of this catalogue of powers is to emphasize the immeasurable superiority of Christ over whatever rivals might, by the false teachers, be suggested.”

Fifth, many Trinitarian scholars have cited Colossians 1.19 and its corollary, 2.9, as evidence of the supposed “deity of Christ,” meaning Jesus is God. Paul uses the word “fullness,” here, which translates pleroma in the Greek text, to oppose the proto-Gnostic view that Jesus is one of many aeons linking God to his creation. Yet Paul means no more than that God fully and mystically indwells Jesus (cf. John 10.38; 14.9-11; 17.21). The apostle means the same in 2 Corinthians 5.19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (NASB, cf. KJV). Cf. John 3.34 and Hebrews 1.3.

Also, click here to see a list on October 4, 2015, of over seventy posts on how the Bible does not say Jesus is God. You can easily click on any of them.