In the last part, we saw how Jesus Christ as the Son of God created all things with the Father, and they both took different roles in creation. We saw that Yahweh said that He is the sole creator, forcing us to accept that the Father and the Son must be the same being of God. We saw that the writer to the Hebrews quoted words directed to Yahweh as the Creator in the Psalms and said that the Father spoke them to the Son. We also saw that “this day” that the Son was “begotten” was fulfilled when Christ was resurrected to assume His inheritance as being the One to reign over the nations from His throne in heaven. Keeping in mind the previous part, we will now look at some passages that appear to say that Jesus was created.
The firstborn of every creature
Mr. Burch quotes Colossians 1:15, and like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he zeroes in on a particular phrase. Here is the verse in question:
“Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:”
Commenting on this phrase, Mr. Burch declares the following:
“Of all the creatures, Christ is first. This puts God’s Son amongst the class of creatures.iii That is, He is a created being, which accords well with the idea that He is also ‘begotten of God’. Where else would He come from?”
With seven topics that Mr. Burch covers in his book, he includes only three end notes total. All three of these end notes deal with the section on the Trinity. In the quote above, the third and final note is referenced when he says that Jesus is, therefore, “amongst the class of creatures.” In this note, he contends with the wisdom of the translators of the NIV and the NKJV in rendering this phrase as “Firstborn over all creation.” Mr. Burch explains why he does not accept such a translation:
“The word creation or creature is in the genitive case, which is why almost all older translations render it firstborn of all creation or firstborn of every creature.”
This statement is correct. The Greek phrase is prwtotokos pases ktisews. The word prwtotokos (“firstborn”) is a nominative and the words pases ktisews (“all creation”) are both in the genitive case. As a standard rule of thumb, the genitive case would often be translated as an “of” preposition. The genitive case almost turns a noun into an adjective in that it functions to show how a noun relates to, or modifies, another noun. Therefore, a reasonable rendering of prwtotokos pases ktisews would be “firstborn of every creature.”
However, the Greek language is not always simple. In Greek, there are five cases (or eight cases) of nouns, depending on which classification system one uses. Of these cases, the genitive is the most versatile and difficult to master. It can perform at least five grammatical roles with many subtypes and usages. Most often, the type or usage of a genitive depends on (1) the meaning of the genitive noun itself, (2) the meaning of the noun to which it is related, and/or (3) the general context in which it is found. Therefore, to determine what this phrase means for sure, we will need to know what prwtotokos means and how this phrase is used in context.
The partitive genitive controversy
Jehovah’s Witnesses will cling to this phrase and assume victory by declaring that “every creature” is a partitive genitive. This would be the use of the genitive in its adjectival role that would indicate that it is the “whole” of which the noun it modifies is a “part.” In other words, the prwtotokos (“firstborn”) would be functioning as a “part” or a “member” of the set of pases ktiseōs (“every creature”), implying that Jesus Christ is a creature–the first of all other creatures. However, as mentioned above, nothing about the genitive case in the Greek here can ipso facto determine that the genitive here is partitive. This must be inferred from the context. The context would be the whole message contained in verses 15-18 and the historical use of prōtotokos in the Greek Septuagint.
Prwtotokos in the Septuagint
The fact is that the use of prōtotokos as a passive participle was absent before the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew Old Testament. In the Septuagint it is used about 130 times (it shows up 127 times on a Strong’s concordance search for entry G4416 in my LXX module for e-Sword). Of this total, about 70 times the word is used in its strictly literal sense to refer to genealogical descent. The Hebrew word bekor being translated as prōtotokos does not have this exact denotation (i.e. prōtos [“first”] + tokos [“born”]) and does not carry the meaning of either “first” or “born.”
One must remember that in Hebrew culture, the position of firstborn primarily had to do with rights of inheritance. This right naturally fell on the actual firstborn son barring complications. For example, if the firstborn son were to die very young, a surviving second son who reached adulthood would obtain the full rights of inheritance and would be, for all intents and purposes, the firstborn son.
A familiar actual example of the right of firstborn being transferred even while the biological first born son still lived is the account of Jacob and Esau. When Esau was weary and starving from a hunting trip, his younger twin brother Jacob convinced Esau to sell him the birthright for a bowl of soup. Jacob further tricked his own blind father Isaac into giving the customary blessing associated with this right of inheritance. Despite Jacob’s conniving personality, God blessed Jacob and renamed him Israel. The descendents of Jacob became known as Israelites and the descendents of Esau became known as Edomites. Nationally speaking, the nation of Israel became God’s “firstborn” among all the nations of the world, even though Jacob was not the biological firstborn! We see this reflected when God instructed Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt:
“And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn [LXX: prōtotokos]:”
There are other instances in the Old Testament where a son who was not the first one born is said to be the prōtotokos–firstborn. Jacob’s next to last son–and favorite–was named Joseph. Joseph had two sons: Manasseh, the firstborn, and Ephraim, the second:
“And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.
And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Yet, it appears the Ephraim actually obtained the right to be considered the firstborn:
“They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn [LXX: prōtotokos].”
Even though Saul was technically the first king of Israel, God said that He would “make [David] firstborn [prōtotokos], higher than the kings of the earth.” (Psa. 89:27) God also made an unconditional covenant with David that He would have a physical descendent who would sit on his throne (Psa. 132:11). The Apostle Peter declared that God fulfilled this promise when He raised Jesus from the dead and set him on the throne in heaven (Act. 2:30-36). In doing this the Father “hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” This resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign also fulfilled a Messianic prophecy (Act. 2:34-35 c.f. Psa. 110:1; Mat. 22:42-45; Mar. 12:35-37; Luk. 20:42-43; Heb. 1:13).
All “other” things?
Now, if we return to our main text in question–Colossians 1:15-18–we will look closer to see if the context of prōtotokos tells us if it means “firstborn” in the literal sense of being created, or if it means “firstborn” in the sense of the right of inheritance. What does verse 16 give as the reason that Jesus Christ is the prōtotokos pases ktiseōs (“firstborn of every creature”)? It says “for [because] by him were all things created…”! Verses 16 and 17 provide an exhaustive emphasis about how the Son created all things that exist.
The New World Translation from the Watchtower society inserts the word other in brackets as a commentary because the translators assume that Jesus is the first created being from the Father, and that the Father then created “all other things” through the Son. However, the Greek text does not warrant the word other. Inserting this word is simply reading into the text a presupposition that the Son has to be a created being and that prōtotokos proves this. The problem with this approach is that there are other passages in which everything created is mentioned regarding Jesus. The word other would have to be assumed in these cases as well, despite the Greek text not warranting this.
“All things were made by him [the Word/Jesus]; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Did Jesus make “all things” or did He make “all other things”?
“And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.”
Did “every creature” worship the One Who sits on the throne and the Lamb, or did “every other creature” do this? The verse is quite exhaustive and does not provide room for the word other to be inserted!
The firstborn from the dead
In Colossians 1:18, we see prōtotokos used again of Jesus Christ referring to His resurrection.
“And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.”
The phrase “firstborn from the dead” in the Greek is prōtotokos ek twn nekrwn. Just like “every creature” in verse 15, “the dead” is in the genitive case. However, here, tōn nekrōn (“the dead”) is preceded by the preposition ek, which means “from” or “out of.” This construction of ek + a genitive intensifies the fact that prōtotokos is being used in a somewhat more literal sense. The context is that of Jesus being raised from the dead to a glorified, immortal body, and all those who are in Christ will be raised in this fashion later. Although there is certainly a parallel intended in the “firstborn of every creature” of verse 15 and in the “firstborn from the dead” in verse 18, they are not completely parallel grammatically.
Christ is the firstborn of all creation by right of inheritance from the Father because He created it all with the Father. He is the firstborn from the dead because He rose from the dead first in victory and inherits all who are “in Him” and will follow Him in the resurrection. In fact, as the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:5-11 shows, Christ earns this inheritance by virtue of His humility in the incarnation, His submission to the death of the Cross, and His resurrection and ascension. Christ has always been the firstborn by right as the Triune God planned in eternity, but He assumed the right of this position through His incarnation, death, and resurrection. In the eternal covenant of redemption among the Persons of the Trinity, the Father would be the One known as Yahweh. Then, the Son in His incarnation in fulfillment of prophecy would be revealed as the One Who makes known the Father and was the One seen as Yahweh. The Father would declare that the Son inherited the right of firstborn upon accomplishing the divine act of redemption in humility. Jesus is now the name which is above every name. He has the revealed right to be worshiped as Yahweh, because the Son is Yahweh. At the culmination of His kingly reign, He will be the judge of the living and the dead and will relinquish this status back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:25-28). As Colossians 1:18 says, the purpose of the Son being “the firstborn from the dead” is that of “preeminence.”
Will the real genitive please stand up
If prōtotokos refers to the position rather than chronological creation, then “every creature” would not necessarily be a partitive genitive as the Jehovah’s Witness (and I assume Mr. Burch) would contend. It would either be a genitive of subordination, as Greek scholar and New Testament manuscript expert Daniel Wallace suggests, or it would still be a partitive genitive used figuratively in reference to the position of firstborn, or in prolepsis of the resurrection of the Son from the dead.
In conclusion, the Apostle Paul provides insight into the possibility that “firstborn” can be used proleptically of the exhaltation of Christ in His resurrection and assumption of the role of being “over all creation.” In Galatians 4:1-2 he tells the Galatians Gentiles that they were heirs along with the Jews of the promise to Abraham even when they were in the pagan world. They were legal heirs, but they just had to wait for the time when the Father appointed them to assume the role as kingly heirs and shed the role as servants. In the same way, the Son has always eternally been “the firstborn of every creature,” but He was declared to be “begotten” as “the Son” when He rose from the dead and took the throne just as the Father (and He) appointed.
“Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all;
But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.”
- Les Burch, It Isn’t The Way We Think It Is: Seven Common Beliefs That Aren’t in the Bible (Mustang, Okla.: Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC, 2013), 106.
- Ibid., 157. (emphasis in original)
- Ibid., 158.
- See http://inthesaltshaker.com/drills/gencase.htm.
- Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 114, 128.