QUESTION: Colossians 1:15 says: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Is this saying that Jesus is a created entity? To be firstborn indicates that someone or something bore it, that the thing doing the bearing existed prior to the thing being born. Is it possible that Jesus and the Holy Spirit, while being fully God as well, we`re created by God initially?
ANSWER: Good question! I think, however, that to be created by God, means that Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) could not be fully God. So what should we make of this term, firstborn? Well, it is somewhat confusing and this is one of two key passages most often used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to try and disprove that Jesus was in fact, fully God. The JW’s know that if Jesus was a created being, he CANNOT be God, so they teach that “firstborn” must mean “first created thing.”
They presume that Jesus is the archangel Michael; a great being, but not God. To press their point, they actually add to the text of the Bible in this passage. In their special translation (the New World Translation) they actually add the word “other” 6 times in this passage, in order to emphasize that Jesus was just one of many created things:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; because by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him.” NWT
Now, their logic is correct, (if firstborn means first-created then Jesus cannot be God) but their understanding of that word “firstborn” is not correct and thus their diminishing of Christ from full Godhood is heretical, for three reasons:
First, their taking the liberty of adding the word “other” shows an inherent weakness in their interpretation. They have to tamper with the text to avoid the clear meaning of the ENTIRE passage in context: if ALL things were created through Jesus, (as the text actually says) then clearly Jesus was not one of the created things!
Second, while that Greek word “firstborn” contains the word ‘born’ inside it, we would be mistaken to infer that it must imply Christ had a beginning, like a ‘first born’ human child. In New Testament Greek, the word was often understood to indicate preeminence of rank, not chronological origin.
Some scholars see in the word an allusion to the ancient custom whereby the firstborn son in a family was accorded the rights and privileges the other children didn’t have. Thus the firstborn was uniquely the Father’s heir and representative. The emphasis then has nothing to do with a ‘beginning’ for the son, but rather is about rank, responsibility, rights and reflection of the Father. As further evidence that Paul means to communicate the supremacy of Christ and not the “origin” of Christ with this word, he goes to great lengths after verse 15 to emphasize that Jesus was responsible for the creation of EVERYTHING: invisible and visible, all spiritual powers, all worlds, all seen things in the universe we live in. He “existed before everything began and in him all creation holds together” (17). This is not a created being – clearly – since he is RESPONSIBLE for creation!
He cannot be responsible for all Creation and also be a part of it, just as God cannot be Creator of the Universe and also a part of it. This also echoes a psalm of David: “I will also make him My firstborn, greatest of the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27). And elsewhere, Israel is called God’s “firstborn” (Ex 4:22) – clearly not “first in a series”, rather preeminent.
Third, this entire passage is Paul’s treatise on the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. He is specifically comparing the greatness of Christ against the greatness of angels which the Colossian teachers falsely taught the Church to venerate (2:18). And this underlines just how egregious it is for the JW’s to call Jesus an angel, when the whole flow of this chapter AND Hebrews 1 is designed to tell Christians that Jesus is NO angel, and no mere human nor merely another one of many exalted powerful creatures. Rather, he is “the image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15), and, “the Son is exact representation of His being” (Heb 1:3). As if to put the matter beyond all doubt, Paul loses all restraint and says one chapter later, “For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Col. 2:9)
In fact, Paul’s use of “firstborn” in one sense matches Jesus own statement about himself in John 3:16 where is described as “begotten”. Again we might think begotten implies a time when Jesus was created, but in fact the real distinction is between something BEGOTTEN versus something MADE. A man begets what is like himself, a son, but he makes was is unlike himself, a house or a painting.
That’s why of all the analogies to apply to Jesus’s relationship to God, the one he gave himself, “Son” is still the best. Jesus is of the same stuff as the Father, begotten, not made. It’s true that while equal with the Father, Jesus’s sonship says that he proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit being the “Spirit of Jesus” and the “Spirit of God” must proceed from the Father and Son. They are separate persons as the New Testament shows, but that doesn’t mean they were created.
So ANOTHER biblical metaphor will help understand how Jesus could be begotten but not made. The Bible says Jesus is “the Word”, the Father then must be the Thought or Mind. One proceeds from the other, but from all eternity, if you have one, you have the other. As CS Lewis said, “Jesus is what the Father has to say, but there was never a time he wasn’t saying it.”
Why does this matter? Well, the sufficiency of the Redemption hangs on the truth of Jesus identity. If Jesus was a created being, he cannot carry sin, for any finite being cannot be the infinite satisfaction for God’s just demands offended in creation’s fall (Innocent lambs weren’t good enough to cover sin – Heb 9:23 – why would angels be?).
Also, any intermediary substitute who is NOT God cannot resolve a broken relationship with God. We say Jesus is a substitutionary sacrifice, and so he was, a substitute for US. But he was not a substitute for God! If he is some created thing, he cannot represent God’s interest in the cosmic conflict with fallen man, just as you can’t send an employee to offer vicarious forgiveness to your daughter when she messes up. You have to go in yourself.
If the fullness of the Godhead rests in Christ (Col. 2:9), then and only then can it be true that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor 5:19)