Jesus: First-Born or First-Created?

Jeff Guleserian

Since the modern revival of Arianism by Charles Taze Russell in the latter nineteenth century, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses), continues to make great efforts to challenge orthodox Christianity. Their most violent attacks are against the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ (Reasoning from the Scriptures, Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989, pp. 212, 405). Their efforts to undermine the deity of Christ mock the biblical languages themselves as well as the body of modern scholarship and historical consensus on the subject.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the Watchtower's attacks. Salvation depends on who Christ is, and His divine nature. An infinite atonement cannot be made by any other than an infinite Being. The Watchtower's doctrine transforms the Divine God-man Jesus Christ into a mere creature. By denying Christ's divine nature it eviscerates the Gospel. It therefore stands as a serious threat to all who seek salvation in Christ, and should provoke in them a powerful response far surpassing any Watchtower zeal, to preserve and teach sound biblical truth.

Jehovah's Witnesses rightly assert that there can only be two types of entities in existence: a Creator and creatures. Then, following a line of reasoning first made popular in the fourth century A.D. by the heretic Arius, of Alexandria, they presuppose (a priori) that any one being cannot be more than one person, and therefore, that God cannot exist as more than one person. Since Jesus identified God as His Father, another person, Watchtower reasoning declares Jesus Christ cannot be God and must therefore be a creature. To justify their erroneous conclusions the Watchtower resorts to dangerous proof-texting, hoping to win "biblical" support.

One important passage they use is Colossians 1:15; "Who [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:" Seen through the Watchtower's presupposition that Christ is a created being, the "firstborn" of this passage means "first created." In other words, Christ was the one first created by Jehovah God. It is only after Christ's creation that God made everything else, using Christ as an instrument. This is a very faulty interpretation.

Understanding the Scripture

Proper understanding of Colossians 1:15 is primarily an issue of context, both literary and historical. One must begin by understanding how words derive and convey meaning. Most words in any language are not isolated, mechanical entities with a singular meaning. They usually have at least two levels of meaning. The first level is the pool of associated meanings that may attach to any given word. For instance, in English the word "love" has a wide variety of meanings that range anywhere from emotional bliss to preference in what one eats. The meaning of, "I love my wife" is quite different from, "I love tuna fish sandwiches." Consider also such words as "state," "pen," "truth" or "home." Like "love," these words carry multiple nuances of meaning, depending on their usage.

This suggests the second level of the meaning of words, which is the precise meaning determined by context. Many words are somewhat nebulous in meaning until they stand in relationship to other words. When one fills out a job application and comes to the part that asks him what state he lives in, he knows to answer, for example, "Colorado," but not "Solid" (a state of matter). Words in literary context (i.e. their relationship to words around them) are what deliver meaning.

Naturally, this analysis of word meanings holds true for the scripture as well. Finding truth in God's Word depends on first finding the intention of the inspired author, based upon his word usage and its syntax (relationship to the other words in the context).

The Watchtower neglects this understanding and basis of all language, and opts for what some call an "absurd literalism," which unnecessarily forces literal and singular meanings upon words regardless of context (Anthony Hoekema, The Four Major Cults, p. 249). This drives the meaning of some words to absurdity. Such is the fate of the word "firstborn" in the hands of Watchtower dogma.

Linguistic Context

The argument that "firstborn" means "firstcreated" in Col. 1:15 can seem true when one considers the pool of meaning for the word (although "first offspring" would better reflect the meaning of the Greek word used here: prototokos). "First created" is one of the many, and even more literal meanings of the word. The problem is that the context clearly shows that "first created" was not Paul's intended meaning in Colossians.

Paul uses the same basic word for "all things" in vv.16-17 as he used in his expression "every creature" (all creation) in v.15. Syntactically then, Paul says Jesus existed before (v. 17), created (v.16) and sustains (v.17) that set of things of which he is the "first born" (v.15), i.e., the set of "all creation." This agrees with John, who says, "In the beginning was the Word (literal Greek "...was existing the Word." John's use of the imperfect tense shows continuous duration of existence in the past).... All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:1,3).

If Paul had meant "first created" when he wrote prototokos, at Col. 1:15, then his following statements make Christ Himself a part of those very things which Paul says Christ created and sustains, and before which He existed.

Watchtower leaders themselves evidently understand this fact and have felt the need to resolve the logical conflict. To justify their position, the Watchtower, in its New World Translation (NWT) of the Scriptures, does violence to the verses that follow. The word "other" is inserted four times, to alter their meaning: "Because by means of him all (other) things were created....he is before all (other) things" etc. (Colossians 1:16, 17, NWT). This is notably different from what the Apostle Paul actually wrote, an "all" inclusive of everything ever created. There is no "other" in vv. 16 and 17 in the Greek text, either latent or explicit, and there is no way to justify its insertion. It is scholastic dishonesty.

So then what does prototokos mean if not "first created?" The best way to determine this is to choose from the word's pool of meaning the idea that flows best with what Paul is saying. He uses the word again in v. 18, where he also provides forceful evidence of his intended meaning with the words, "that in all things He might have the preeminence." The literary context shows Paul's usage of prototokos in Colossians 1 refers to Christ's supremacy.

Historical Context

The historical context bears out this conclusion as well. There is a strong association of the firstborn child with preeminence and inheritance in Hebrew culture (W.E. Vine, Merril Unger, Wm. Whice, Jr., eds., Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, p. 240-1). The firstborn male inherited a double portion of his father's estate and became the new leader at his father's death (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). His right of primogeniture made him preeminent in his family.

The term gradually came to refer to the one who was the heir and had the right to rule whether or not he was literally the first one born ("first created"). The most striking example of this is in the Old Testament from where the idea originally derived. Genesis 41:51-52 says, "And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Mannasseh:...and the name of the second called he Ephraim..." Yet in contrast to this, speaking in Jeremiah God says, "For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn." Evidently, there is more to the term "firstborn" than the first offspring.

Additional support is found in the fact that the Greek word prototokos occurs nine times in the New Testament _ ten times if you include the related word for "birthright" (prototokia). Seven of these nine times the word refers to Christ. Out of these seven only two refer to Christ as one who is firstborn in a physically literal sense, and these refer to Him being Mary's firstborn son (Matthew 1:25; Luke 2:7). Otherwise the use is obviously one of preeminence and cannot refer to some presupposed creation (e.g. Romans 8:29; Revelation 1:5). Once this word even refers to believers as belonging to "the church of the firstborn ones" (literal Greek, Hebrews 12:23). Again, the emphasis here is on preeminence and privilege, not order of creation.

The Context for Sharing

As God's ambassador's, how should Christians respond to Jehovah's Witnesses who attack the deity of Christ? It is most important to keep in mind that sharing the truth with a Jehovah's Witness is not merely proving a case, but a battle to save his soul. The scriptures are not an instrument of torture, but an instrument to "judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

The best strategy regarding this "firstborn" issue is not a long explanation of grammar and linguistics, but a demonstration of the clear teaching of the scripture, in context. Start with the context of Colossians 1. Show that the word cannot have two different meanings in the same context, and then try to plug in the "first created" meaning into verse eighteen, to read "first created from the dead." This is obviously meaningless, so there must be more to the idea of "firstbornness."

If they still want to defend their ungrounded position, have them read Genesis 41:51-52. Then have them read Jeremiah 31:9. Reminding them that these are the words of God, ask, "Did God make a mistake, or is He using 'firstborn' in the sense of 'preeminence'?" Obviously, the latter is true. This coordinates exactly with the context and obviously intended meaning of Paul in Colossians.

Paul spoke in the same manner as God had spoken in the Old Testament, making Christ the Heir of all creation, the One not only by whom, but for whom everything was made (Col. 1:16). He is the head, the ruler, the creator, the preeminent One over all creation. Indeed, the central thrust of Paul's arguement throughout the doctrinal portion of Colossians is the preeminence, superiority and sufficiency of Christ. In no way does he reduce Christ to anything less than Deity. Christians should likewise lift up Christ to Jehovah's Witnesses, that they might be drawn to Him.
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