Some of the important distinctions between Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christians come down to the meaning of a word; this is nothing new.
In the early days of church history, there was a significant debate about the body of the Lord Jesus. Was it flesh and bone or did it just appear as flesh and bone? The issue centred on one Greek word in John chapter 1 verse 14, ginomai. The word can mean ‘became’ or ‘appear’, depending on the context. Ultimately, the church understood and agreed that the Word literally became flesh and thus Jesus is both fully human and fully God in one person.
One of the important passages of the New Testament which teaches us about the pre-incarnate Christ is Colossians chapter 1 verses 15 to 17. Paul describes the Lord Jesus as ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’1
The Greek word is prototokos, made up of two words, protos, meaning ‘first’, and tokos from tikto, ‘to give birth’. The word simply means to be born first. If so, could it be that Jesus was the first and greatest of God’s creations? That would have implications for just about every aspect of the gospel and confirm one of the basic teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It is worth noting that Colossians chapter 1 verses 15 to 17 is a key passage that is often used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to try and disprove that Jesus was fully God. In their ‘translation’ of the Bible (New World Translation) the word ‘other’ is incorrectly inserted in this passage to distort its true meaning.
So, we need to have a closer look at the use of the word ‘firstborn’ in the Bible, as the meaning of words are often determined by the context in which they are found.
In the family context, the firstborn was entitled to the double portion, Deut. 21. 17, to the blessing, Gen. 27, and to special treatment, Gen. 43. 33. It does appear that the firstborn son in a family had rights and privileges that the other children didn’t receive.
The firstborn was uniquely the father’s heir and representative. The emphasis had nothing to do with a ‘beginning’ for the son, but rather was about rank, responsibility and rights.
Israel was also referred to as God’s firstborn in the special sense of Israel’s superiority and exaltation above the nations of the earth. It was not the first nation to exist and so we can see that being a firstborn nation did not mean being the first nation to be born.
‘Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is My son, My firstborn”’, Exod. 4. 22.
Perhaps the most significant use of the firstborn in the Old Testament is in Psalm 89, where the psalmist is emphasizing the pre-eminence and superiority of the coming Messiah.
‘Also I will make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth’, Ps. 89. 27.
In the New Testament, the word prototokos appears eight times.2 On six occasions, it is in the singular and refers to the Lord Christ, with the other two in the plural form.
Luke chapter 2 verse 7 refers to Jesus as being the firstborn of Mary, using the word in its most basic form as it is used in the genealogical lists of the Old Testament. The other references, however, take on a far greater meaning.
As Paul teaches the deity of the Lord Jesus, he does so in His relation to the Father as ‘image’ and to creation as ‘firstborn’.
‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation’, Col. 1. 15.
This is seen in the following verses where the relationship of the Lord Jesus to creation is expanded.
‘For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist’, Col. 1. 16, 17.
Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize that the Lord Jesus was responsible for the creation of all things: invisible and visible, all spiritual powers, all worlds, all seen things in the universe we live in.
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.
As the Firstborn of all creation, the Lord Jesus has rights, responsibilities, and authority over all things. Perhaps the New Living Translation gives the clearest rendering of Colossians chapter 1 verse 15 for us today.
‘Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation’.
Quite remarkably, the firstborn of all creation could say, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’, Matt. 8. 20.
‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich’, 2 Cor. 8. 9.