If you’ve had much engagement with Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), you’ve likely been confronted with the Watchtower interpretation of Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The JW translation of the Bible (The New World Translation, NWT) reads the same as any standard English version of Scripture at this point, but JWs take the word “firstborn” as strong evidence that the Son is a created being. Firstborn in this passage, the argument goes, should be understood the way it typically is; namely, with reference to the time and order in which a person proceeds from the womb. “Firstborn,” therefore, is taken as another way of saying “first created.”
Although JWs view Christ as one who deserves distinction from every other creature due to his place as the first created being, they do not believe he is worthy of worship; at least not the same worship that one would give Jehovah—the Father—as the only uncreated being in the universe. Christ, though highly exalted among all creatures, is himself merely a creature who Jehovah created many years ago, prior to bringing this present universe into existence.
An Old Interpretation
This interpretation is not new, of course. It was Arius (245-336 AD) who first appealed to Colossians 1:15 to argue that “firstborn” should be read with reference to the beginning of Christ’s existence. Just like a father brings forth his firstborn son into existence, so the Father brought forth his firstborn son into existence. The church eventually classified Arius as a heretic and rejected the notion that Christ was a created being, formally renouncing such teaching in the Nicene Creed.
As we will see in a moment, the church had solid exegetical and theological reasons to abominate this heresy. I want to point out here, however, that the Arian/JW position flounders on the shoals of logic long before it gets to exegesis.
A Logic Problem
JWs may use the analogy of an earthly father begetting a firstborn son in order to provide an explanatory model for how we can make sense of Jehovah begetting his firstborn son. In our human experience, human fathers are the ones who bring forth their firstborn sons. When we speak of the firstborn, we are speaking with reference to the child who was first brought into existence by the father. We can assume that Paul is saying the same about Christ in Colossians 1:15.
At first glance, this reference to human begetting might appear persuasive. What’s not often noted, however, is that this analogy actually makes Jehovah a created being (a notion that JWs will not concede, for the un-createdness of Jehovah is the very basis of their religion). The problem is that in the analogy of an earthly father begetting his firstborn son, we are talking about two creatures: at one point in the past, the father himself was brought into existence by his father, and his father by his father and so on until we get all the way back to Adam. The earthly analogy of fathers begetting sons, therefore, adds no explanatory power to the JW argument about what “firstborn” means in Colossians 1:15. Indeed, it undermines their point.
A Word Problem
But this logical misstep is not nearly as problematic as the exegetical blunders that afflict JW’s interpretation of Colossians 1:15. The first thing we must note is the use of the word “firstborn” in the Old Testament.
It is true that when the word prototokos (firstborn) is used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), it most often refers to the child (or animal) who was born first in the family. The point of this designation of firstborn for humans, however, is not to emphasize the chronology of when the son came into existence, but to highlight the son’s status in the family as the one who retained special privileges in light of their birth order. Birth order is only important inasmuch as it serves as the basis on which son is designated as the one who bears unique status in the family. Implicit in the most common use of the word, therefore, is the notion of rank, not chronology per se.
That is why there are times in the Old Testament when the actual firstborn may lose their privileges to a younger son and thus no longer be treated like the firstborn. Reuben, for example, lost his firstborn status.
The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, so that he could not be enrolled as the oldest son…1 Chron 5:1
The firstborn privileges were not passed on to Reuben’s sons, but were, instead, passed on to Joseph’s (a younger brother) sons. In this case, a son not born first received the privileges of firstborn despite the fact that he was a younger sibling. Even among Joseph’s sons we learn that the title “firstborn” is transferable. Manasseh is the firstborn son (Gen 41:51-52), but Jeremiah designates Ephraim as the firstborn (Jer 31:9).
Also for this reason there are a few times in the OT where firstborn does not have reference to birth order but only refers to a status that God had bestowed upon a nation (Israel, Deut 4:22) or a person (the Messiah, Ps 89:27). It is likely that Paul has Psalm 89:27 in mind when he speaks of the Son of “firstborn” of all creation.
And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
Here we should note two things. First, “firstborn” in this case is a designation that is not dependent upon birth order, for God is going to make the Messiah (“David”) the “firstborn.” Secondly, firstborn is defined as “the highest of the kings of the earth.” In other words, the meaning of “firstborn” has to do with preeminence over all other rulers, not first in order of created beings.
A Contextual Problem
Finally, the context of Colossians 1:15 does not allow us to take “firstborn” to mean that the Son is the “first-created” of all creation. Paul follows his designation of Jesus as “firstborn” with a series of statements about the Son that essentially eliminate the possibility that Paul intended to communicate that he is a created being. Consider vv. 15-20:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.Colossians 1:15-20, ESV
Note that Paul immediately follows his designation of Jesus as firstborn with the statement, “For by him all things were created.” Paul then defines what he means by “all things” by broadening the scope of the Son’s creative activity to include all of created reality: “…on heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” Everything that exists by way of creation was brought into existence by the Son. It is simply not contextually possible to define firstborn as “first created” in this passage because Paul’s very point is to distinguish the Son from everything that has been created.
Indeed, the translators of the NWT recognize that their interpretation of this passage requires the insertion of the word “other” (a word not found in the original text) in order to make it sound like Paul is saying that Jesus is the first created being. It should be noted that in older translations of the NWT the word “other” is included in brackets in order to let the reader know that it isn’t in the original text but instead represents an interpretational decision by the translators. The following is the most recent translation of the NWT found at JW.org, but it doesn’t place “other” in brackets, thus making it appear that this word is in the original text. I think this is dishonest. Nevertheless, below I have highlighted the word “other” so you can easily spot where the translators have added it.
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16because by means of him all other things were created in the heavens and on the 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. 17Also, he is before all other things, and by means of him all other things were made to exist, 18and he is the head of the body, the congregation.Colossians 1:15-18, NWT
The reason for the insertion of the word “other” by the NWT translators is due to the fact that the thrust of Paul’s argument in Colossians 1:15-20 is to clearly demonstrate the full and unmitigated deity of the Son of God, and the primary way the apostle demonstrates Christ’s deity is by setting him in contrast to all created beings. This is Paul’s argument: any entity that that has come into existence has come into existence by the Son: there are no creatures that exist that do not have their origin in the Son. The Son, therefore, cannot be a creature because all creatures have their existence in the Son. The NWT translators are forced to make significant textual additions because the text itself meddles with their theological commitments.
What’s the Takeaway? Worship
What’s the takeaway from our brief excursion into biblical exegesis and systematic theology? It is to provide you with the unwavering conviction that Jesus Christ is fully God. He is the uncreated, independent, Creator and Sustainer of all reality, who has provided full atonement for your sin by his death on the cross and his victorious resurrection. He is the God who has made and presently rules all creation. You can trust him with your eternal life and your daily troubles; your present and your future; your life and your death. You can worship the Son with the same vigor you would the Father, with joy and without any reservation.
While they believe they are protecting the honor of the Father while diminishing the deity of the Son, JWs are actually robbing glory from both (see John 5:23; Phil 2:11). The result is a savior who cannot save and a God whose revelation is incoherent at best, deceptive at worst. James White emphasizes this latter point when he comments,
To hold that Jesus is a god is to abandon not only the historic Christian faith but it leads inevitably either to a denial of the inerrancy and the coherence of the Scriptures themselves or it leaves us without any meaningful mechanism whereby we can avoid idolatry. That is, if a creature, even a highly exalted creature, but still a creature, can be described as Jesus Christ is described in Scripture, then there is no meaningful way to identify the one true God in opposition to highly exalted creatures. No means exists to avoid the great sin of idolatry.Debate: Is Jesus God or a god? (White vs Stafford)
As White observes, if one attributes to Jesus an ontology that is anything less than uncreated deity, you have thrown the entire Bible into confusion. We would be right to ask how God can expect us to distinguish between that which is worthy of worship (God) and that which isn’t worthy of worship (non-God) when the Son is spoken of in such exalted language and described with terms that are, by definition, reserved only for deity.
Jesus certainly is the firstborn of creation. He is the preeminent ruler under whose authority every creature resides. He is God, and everything is his, for “everything was created by him and for him” (Col 1:16).