What does the word firstborn in Colossians 1:15 mean?

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“Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Colossians 1:15).

Firstborn is “prōtotokos” in Greek. In Matt. 1:25 and Luke 2:7, prōtotokos is used of Christ as the firstborn of Mary. In Heb. 11:28 the word is used of the firstborn of Egypt who perished in the plagues. In Heb. 12:23 the word describes the members of the “church of the firstborn.” In the remaining references (Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5) the word firstborn prōtotokos is applied to Christ.

There has been much dialogue as to the meaning of prōtotokos in Col. 1:15. The early Church Fathers applied the expression to Christ as the eternal Son of God. The Arians used this verse to show that Christ Himself was a created being. But such an interpretation contradicts all what was revealed in the Scriptures (John 1). Therefore, this passage should be understood in a way that brings it wholly in harmony with the general teaching of Scripture. For this complies with sound principles of scriptural exegesis.

In Heb. 1:6 prōtotokos clearly refers to the incarnation, and some have tried to make the same application in Col. 1:15. Others believe that, in Colossians, Paul is referring to the resurrection (Acts 13:33). However, neither interpretation fits the context, for Christ is here presented as the Creator (Col. 1:16), and as preceding creation (John 1:1–3, 14).

So, the best explanation, therefore, is to regard prōtotokos as a figurative expression describing Jesus Christ as first in rank, the figure being drawn from the dignity and office held by the firstborn in a human family, or the firstborn in a royal family. Christ’s position is unique, authoritative, and absolute.

Check out our Bible Answers page for more information on a variety of topics.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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