By Pastor Glenn Pease
The simple truth is that the truth is not always simple. In fact, simplicity can sometimes be the result of ignorance. In science, for example, the old Ptolemaic view of the universe was much more simple than that which Copernicus championed. Ptolemy had the earth as the center of the universe standing still. And all else revolved around it. Copernicus came along and said the sun was the center and the earth and planets went around it, and it also was moving. It was a far more complicated system, and it was harder to understand. The simple view had only one drawback, however, it was false. Since truth is of greater value than simplicity, men must often forsake what they thought they understood, and move on with new discoveries.
There is a parallel of this in theology. Not too many years ago the popular view of inspiration was what was called the dictation theory. It was so simple anyone could understand it. It said God used the authors of the Bible like machines. He dictated His Word to them, and they put it down in writing. It was simple, but didn't fit the facts of Bible study, and so almost everyone has developed a more complicated but more accurate view of inspiration. The more one studies great doctrines like the atonement or the trinity the more one realizes the spiritual realm, like the physical, gets more and more complex as you go deeper.
One would think that the life and nature of Christ would be subjects that the simplest minds could grasp, and they are if one is content to believe. If one presses on to understand, however, he discovers that nothing short of omniscience will be able to finish the whole puzzle. It is one thing to explain how to turn on a radio, and another to explain how the radio works.
Our text deals with a subject that is taken for granted by most believers. That Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God is such a basic and obvious truth that many would be surprised to learn that it was a question hotly debated in the fourth century. It has been revived in many groups since, and today we have the Jehovah Witnesses who deny that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. They do not deny that He is the Son of God. What they deny is that He is God, and that He has existed for all eternity. They say He is the very first being created, and, therefore, has pre-eminence, but He is not eternal. This, of course, is why they do not believe in the Trinity. If the Son is not of the eternal essence of God, than God is not three persons. We want to show from this text that Scripture teaches that Jesus is the eternal Son of God.
The first thing that we need to do is to understand why Paul used a word that could lead to such confusion in the first place. All commentators recognize that Paul is writing against the Gnostic heresy that was endangering the truth in the Colossian church. The Gnostics tried to mix pagan and Christian theology. They started off with the Persian concept of an absolute dualism. Good and evil were eternal. Spirit was good and matter was evil. Matter, being evil, could not have been created by God. So they had a whole series of emanations from God, a hierarchy of spiritual beings, and Christ was near the bottom. He was so far removed from God that He could create matter and take on the form of flesh.
This kind of teaching degraded Christ, and put Him at the end of a chain of spiritual beings. Paul in this passage makes it clear that this is a great lie, and just the opposite of the truth. Christ is not the end of the line, He is the beginning. He is the first born. He is the origin, not only of matter, but of all that is invisible. He is Lord in the hierarchy of heaven, and all the powers that are, are made through Him and for Him. Paul makes it clear that in absolutely everything Christ is pre-eminent.
It is against this background of controversy that we must understand Paul's use of the word first born of all creation. It is in contrast with the Gnostic teaching that He was the last born. Paul's purpose here is to assure the Colossians that any teaching that does not make Christ pre-eminent in every way is corrupted by pagan and non-Biblical sources. It's value for us today is the same. We can judge the validity of any teaching or group by the place they give to Christ in their theology. If He is not in all things pre-eminent, we know it is in some degree perverted.
What do we do with those who may agree that Christ is pre-eminent, but who insist that the language here implies that He is not eternal? One needs to go to a concordance and begin to study the use of the term first born. He will discover that it is used not only to describe chronology, but relationship. In Exodus 4:22 we read, "Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the Lord says: Israel is my first born son.' " In Jer. 31:9 God says, "because I am Israel's Father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son." Everyone knows that these cannot be pressed to be chronological statements, as if they prove Israel was born before any other nation.
If you ask a Jehovah Witness to interpret every use of firstborn as he does in this passage of Colossians, he will come to utter confusion. We know that God had other children on earth before He chose Israel. In Luke 3:38 Adam is called the son of God, and Enoch, Noah, and many others were children of God before Israel. Therefore, we see that the word firstborn is not used only to give chronology, but to designate a relationship. Israel was chosen by God to receive the inheritance. The firstborn was made lord over the household, and was heir to all the father had. Israel was made the firstborn of the nations, and was made heir of the promises of God.
Applying the idea of position or relationship to our verse, we see that for Christ to be the firstborn of creation does not mean He was first to be created, but that He is Lord of creation. He is sovereign, and heir to all creation. It was all made through Him and for Him. The majority of commentators interpret firstborn here as a term of relationship, which means Jesus is Lord of all creation.
It also means He was prior to all creation, but it makes clear that He is not Himself a part of creation, for verse 16 says in Him all things were created. Nothing was made without Him. He is the source of all that is. Jesus is the very essence of God, and as the theologians call it, eternally generated from the Father. In other words, God by His very nature is a Trinity. Three Persons in one Godhead, and so the Father and Son relationship in God is eternal. If God at some point brought His Son into being, then there was a time when God's nature was radically different. This means God had to change in His very nature which is contrary to all the Bible says about His being unchangable in His nature. Firstborn, then, is a term of relationship and here it means Jesus is Sovereign over all creation.
If men insist that the term be taken literally and Christ is the first created being, then to be consistent they must also believe He will come to an end. In Rev. 1:11,17 Jesus says, "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last." In Rev. 22:13 He says, "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." Unless you take these as expressions of rank you end up with a theology none are willing to hold. It would lead to the view that in the end there would be total annihilation of all creation including the Son of God. God would be left alone in the universe to start all over again. Such nonsense would be rejected by all, but it should also lead them to reject the nonsense that Jesus is a created being rather than the sovereign of all being.
Philosophers have always spoken of the first cause, which was itself not caused, but which was the cause of all else. This is the ideas we see here with Christ. He is the first born in the sense that all else is born from Him, but He is not Himself born. There never was a time when He was not. He was the firstborn of Mary, but He existed before this. He was the firstborn of the dead, but He existed before this. Jesus is called firstborn three times, but that was never the beginning of His existence, but rather the beginning of a relationship that made Him supreme in that relationship.
In John 17:5 Jesus said, "and now, O Father, glorify Thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was." This puts Christ back before the beginning that we read of in John one were it says Jesus was in the beginning with God and was God. He was before the beginning. Combine this with the statements like we read in Phil.2:6, where it says of Christ, "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God..", and we are compelled to see Jesus was eternal, for no created being can be equal with God.
In Heb.1:8 we read that God addresses the Son and says, "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Thy Kingdom." The eternal Christ already reigns in an eternal kingdom. Jesus claimed to be equal with the Father, even though in the Incarnation He was subordinate to the Father. In John 5 we are told the Jews sought to kill him because he was making himself equal with God. In Isa.9:6 the Messiah is actually called the Mighty God and Everlasting Father. There are many other Scriptures that make it clear the Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father. Any text needs to be interpreted in the light of the whole revelation of God. This text cannot be used to deny the clear revelation of all the rest of the Bible. It has to be interpreted so as to be consistent with the rest of the Bible, and, therefore, it has to be seen that firstborn means that Jesus is sovereign over all that is.