Jesus as the firstborn

This is another in a series of excerpts from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.

As we have seen in previous columns, the Bible declares Jesus the eternal Son of God. Even so, why does the apostle Paul depict Jesus as “the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15)?

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a disturbing take on this. Consider how the Watch Tower renders Colossians 1:15-17 in its New World Translation:

“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 on earth, the things visible and the things invisible, whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All other things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all other things, and by means of him all other things were made to exist …” (emphasis added).

Note the unjustified insertion of the word “other” before “things” four times in the NWT.

The Watch Tower’s official website explains: “Jesus is very precious to Jehovah. Why? Because God created him before everything and everyone else. So Jesus is called ‘the firstborn of all creation.’ Jesus is also precious to Jehovah because he is the only one Jehovah created directly. That is why he is called the ‘only-begotten Son.’ Jesus is also the only one Jehovah used to create all other things.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is the first created being, whom they identify as Michael the archangel. Michael is sent to earth temporarily as a man, then recreated as an exalted archangel after his death on a torture stake and subsequent annihilation as a human being. But is this the proper way to understand Paul’s meaning of firstborn?

In a word, no.

Firstborn in context

There are two primary reasons the Watch Tower’s interpretation of “firstborn” is deceptive. First, context. The word “firstborn” is used in a variety of ways in Scripture.

Usually, “firstborn” means the first male child born into a family, but the word can be used in other ways. It may denote rank, position, or prominence. King David, for example, who is the last in his family’s birth order, is called “firstborn, greatest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27).

The same is true for the nation of Israel. The Israelites are not the first people group to populate a region of the earth. Even so, the Lord tells Moses to tell pharaoh that “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22). That is, God established the Israelites as a special people for whom the Promised Land is prepared.

These examples show that birth order is not always in view when writers of Scripture use the word “firstborn.” What’s more, the context of Colossians 1:15-17 makes it clear that Jesus is the Creator who is “before all things.”

The New World Translation’s use of the word “other” numerous times in these verses is unwarranted. Earlier versions of the NWT bracketed the word “other” and argued that “other” is implied, but the 2013 revision boldly leaves the brackets off. “This amounts to nothing less than academic dishonesty, because the word otherneither exists in the original nor is implied by anything else in the text,” writes Eric Bargerhuff.

Paul clearly describes Jesus as the Creator who is “before all things” and by whom “all things hold together.”

Doctrine before Scripture

A second reason Jehovah’s Witnesses are guilty of deception is because they have imposed their errant doctrine on Scripture rather than allowing God’s Word to speak for itself. If Paul had meant to say Jesus was a created being in Colossians 1:15, he could have used the Greek word protoktisis rather than prototokos.

Renowned Bible scholar F. F. Bruce writes, “The word first-born had long since ceased to be used exclusively in its literal sense, just as prime (from the Latin word primus – ‘first’) with us. The Prime Minister is not the first minister we have had; he is the most preeminent…. Similarly, first-born came to denote [among the ancients] not priority in time but preeminence in rank.”

As firstborn, the fullness of deity always has rested in Christ (Col. 1:19; 2:9). There has never been a time when Jesus did not exist or was not God.

Once you deny a clear doctrine of Scripture, you may find it necessary to alter Scripture to conform it to your beliefs. That’s why Jehovah’s Witnesses use the NWT to equate Jesus with created wisdom (Proverbs 8); reduce Him to “a god” (John 1:1 NWT); deny He is the “I AM” by calling Him the “I have been” (John 8:58 NWT); and say “God is your throne” (Heb. 1:8 NWT) rather than “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (CSB).

These are dangerous deceptions that deny the deity of the “firstborn over all creation.”

Next: Jesus as the “only begotten”