In Colossians 1:15, Jesus is called “the firstborn over all creation” (CSB). If you’ve been to seminary, like to read books on the Trinity, or grew up with a good pastor, this question is seemingly easy to answer. Of course Jesus wasn’t created! He is God in the flesh, and God is eternal. He existed before the foundation of the world and he is called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”
This is obvious for some, but when I was pastoring in Texas, one of our pastors was teaching on this passage and asked, “What does it mean for Jesus to be firstborn?” And a lady in crowd, a Christian for 50 years and the co-leader of our kids’ ministry said, “Well, it means Jesus was created before any of us were.”
I was initially shocked that she said that, but it did help me realize that some of the basic doctrines many learned pastors and Christian leaders take for granted are never fully communicated to the congregation. Pastors, in an attempt to be “relevant” or “practical” avoid getting too “theological” in sermons, and this is always a detriment to the congregation.
The Bible is a theological book, and if we’re avoiding theology, we’re not being practical at all because we’re not pointing people to the ultimate truth behind what we’re preaching. Pick-me-up sermons that aren’t foundationally built on sound doctrine lead people to “be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit” (Eph. 4:14 CSB).
This is why Trevin Wax and I started the Word Matters podcast—to help Christians understand difficult passages of Scripture and to make theology accessible for pastors and laypeople alike. In an early episode of the podcast, we discussed this passage, and we looked at a few views of the “firstborn” language in relation to Jesus in Colossians 1:15 and elsewhere. Below are a few heretical views, followed by a case for the orthodox, Trinitarian view.
1. Jesus was actually created by God/the Father at some point.
This view comes from our favorite dinnertime evangelists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although they’re carrying this view from Arianism, which was deemed heresy all the back in the 4th century.
This is a non-Trinitarian view, which basically teaches that Jesus was, as that member of your church said, the first created being. So they take the word “firstborn” pretty literally. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their own Bible translation called the New World Translation, insert the word “other” a few times in this passage (e.g., BY MEANS OF HIM all OTHER things were created). So he’s part of creation—-he is created, and then there’s this OTHER creation Paul is talking about.
Mormons pick up on this, too, albeit a bit differently. They say Jesus was the first spirit child created by God and one of his spirit wives, and Jesus then became a god through obedience to the truth. But the same idea—Jesus was created.
Interestingly, the only direct interaction I had with Christianity growing up was a few Jehovah’s Witness Bible studies that my aunt led in our house when I was elementary-aged. I remember this conversation well.
2. Jesus is a “mode” or “face” of God, but not a separate being or person.
This view is also a non-Trinitarian view, called Sabellianism, which manifests itself in groups we now call Modalists, which we see most notably in Oneness Pentecostalism. They’re different than Arian-like groups that we mentioned before, because they actually say that God is one, and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are different modes or faces of God. We only perceive them as separate entities.
So for them, the “firstborn” language here and language Jesus uses like “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” is showing that they are literally the same. Somehow, Jesus being the “firstborn” assumes that he’s just a representation of God or a created façade, but not separate from him.
3. Jesus is the divine, eternal Son of God and therefore superior over all of creation.
We should call the Orthodox view, which is the Trinitarian view. This is the view that Christians should readily take.
This view says that Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God, existing in eternity past with the Father and Spirit. One God, three Persons—co-equal. As Matthew 2, John 1, Philippians 2, and a host of other passages say, he became a man in the incarnation, having existed with the Father before the foundation of the world. He is the God-man—fully God and fully man—who was there before anything was created.
Most Trinitarians take a general approach of saying that the “firstborn” language here is showing Christ’s superiority above creation, considering—as the text says—he was intimately involved in the creation of all things. A basic understanding of “firstborn” as the idea of superiority and inheritance, rather than a simplistic idea that it only means that someone is literally born first.
The following verses of Colossians 1 answer the question, saying that all things were created BY him. This pairs with John’s Gospel, which says the same type of thing about Jesus’s identification with God and his acts in creation. He is separate from creation, not part of it. We also have to remember the context of Scripture as a whole. Massive amounts of Scripture point to Jesus being God:
- The I AM statements in the Gospels
- The way Luke uses the word κύριος (“Lord”) in relation to the LORD of the Old Testament
- The way Paul ties his identity to God by quoting the Shema in 1 Cor. 8 (“the Lord our God is one”)
- The way the Book of Revelation uses Old Testament allusions to tie his identity to the Ancient of Days in Daniel and how it talks about Jesus sitting on God’s throne
- Etc., etc., etc.
So we have tons of Scripture to back up this view and we need to consider those clearer texts when we come across a slightly more confusing text. Further, Scripture proves the other views incorrect rather easily.
Again, it seems like pastors think people don’t need to get too far into the theological weeds, and I get that. They don’t need to learn everything and every view on every doctrine. Sometimes you’re just trying to get them through the next week.
But the Trinity has a gospel shape—or, rather, the Trinity shapes the gospel—and we can’t forget that. The Father sends the Son to redeem all things, and the Son sends the Spirit to seal our salvation and empower us to live out our salvation, which in turn enables us to live to the glory of the Trinitarian God. I think we’d be surprised how many people would respond to this passage the way that church member in my old church did. May we change this.
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