Structurally, it forms an A-B-C-B-A pattern called a chiasm, in which the focus lies upon the center. In this case, the emphasis falls on v. 17, which says, “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
This hymn begins by saying, “He is the image of the invisible God, [the] firstborn of all creation.”
The term “firstborn” (prōtotokos) refers to the authority and preeminence of the oldest son, rather than suggesting that Christ did not always exist. Thus, he is first in rank (Gen 49:3; Ps 89:27), a common situation in agrarian societies like Israel’s (Deut 21:15–17).
In the context of this passage, “firstborn” signifies the supremacy of Christ over every creature, for he created everything.
Furthermore, as the “firstborn from the dead,” he heralds the future resurrection of those belonging to him (1 Cor 15:20–22).
They erected for [Marduk] a princely throne. Facing his fathers, he sat down, presiding…“Thou, Marduk, art the most honored of the great gods, Thy decree is unrivaled…
From this day unchangeable shall be thy pronouncement. To raise or bring low—these shall be [in] thy hand. Thy utterance shall be true, thy command shall be unimpeachable. No one among the gods shall transgress thy bounds!
…O Marduk, thou art indeed our avenger. We have granted thee kingship over the universe entire. When in Assembly thou sittest, thy word shall be supreme. Thy weapons shall not fail; they shall smash thy foes! O lord, spare the life of him who trusts thee, pour out the life of the god who seized evil.”
Having placed in their midst the Images, they addressed themselves to Marduk, their firstborn, “Lord, truly thy decree is first among gods. Say but to wreck or create; it shall be. Open thy mouth: the Images will vanish! Speak again, and the Images shall be whole!”
At the word of his mouth the Images vanished. He spoke again, and the Images were restored. When the gods, his fathers, saw the fruit of his word, joyfully they did homage, “Marduk is king!”
Although Marduk was not chronologically the firstborn, he received the supremacy and honor associated with the eldest son due to his mighty acts of valor.
Similarly, the Romans worshiped Fortuna Primigenia (“Firstborn” in Latin) because they viewed her as the origin of all things, the one who created the natural world which then fell into order by chance.
Paul proclaimed, “For in him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities. All things through him and for him were created. And he is before all things, and all things in him hold together. And he is the head of the body of the church. He is [the] beginning, [the] firstborn from the dead, that he might come to have first place in everything.”
Ingeniously, the author of this ode in Colossians focused upon the meanings which can be gleaned from the first word of Gen 1:1, “in the beginning of” (bereshith).
Using four meanings of the Hebrew preposition be (“in,” “by,” “for,” and “through”), the hymn writer amplified “in the beginning of” by the report that all things were created “in” Christ, “by” Christ, “for” Christ, and “through” Christ.
The author expounded upon these, saying that Christ “is before all things” (beginning); “in him all things hold together” (sum total); “he is the head of the body” (“kephalē,” meaning the source which supplies life); and he is “the firstborn from among the dead.” As one part representing the whole of God’s people (first-fruits), Christ ensures our resurrection (1 Cor 15:20–23).
Thus, Jesus fulfills every meaning of the first word in the Bible.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Read Col 1:15–18. How is the NT concept of “firstborn” similar to the ANE and Jewish views? In what ways does it differ from the Greek and Roman perspectives? How does knowing that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation affect your life? Why does it matter that he is the firstborn of the dead?
[Related posts include In the Beginning of God’s Creating (Gen 1:1–2); Dead in Adam but Alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:20–23); Equality with God (Phil 2:5–6); A Summary of Trinitarian Creeds (Appendix to Phil 2:5–6); The Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father: Orthodoxy or Heresy?; Taking the Form of a Slave (Phil 2:7); Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); The Name Above Every Name (Phil 2:9–11); and Ancient Literature]
[Click here to go to Chapter 1: God Establishes His Cosmic Temple through Creation (Genesis 1:1–13)]
David W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon (ZECNT; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 90.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2001), 173.
Danker, et al., “πρωτοτοκος” (prōtotokos), BDAG, 894.
Wilhelm Michaelis, “πρωτοτοκος” (prōtotokos), TDNT 6:871–82, 871.
Bill T. Arnold, “בְּכוֹר” (bekhor) in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE), Willem VanGemeren, ed., 5 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997): 1:658–9, 658.
Michaelis, “πρωτοτοκος” (prōtotokos), TDNT, 6:879.
Keener, IVPBBCNT, Col 1:15.
“The Creation Epic” (Enuma Elish), ANET, lines 1:1–10, 61. https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n85/mode/2up.
 “The Creation Epic” (Enuma Elish), ANET, lines 4:1–28, 66. Italics mine. https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n91/mode/2up.
Pausanias, Description of Greece (trans. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod; LCL; Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press; Heinemann, 1918), 5.1.3, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D5%3Achapter%3D1%3Asection%3D3.
Pindar, The Olympian Odes (trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien; 1990), 9.44, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DO.%3Apoem%3D9.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.1.3.
Plutarch, Aetia Romana et Graeca (The Roman and Greek Questions), in Moralia, Vol. 4 (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), 1.106, http://sacred-texts.com/cla/plu/rgq/rgq12.htm.
Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “בְּ” (be), BDB, 88–91, https://archive.org/stream/hebrewenglishlex00browuoft#page/88/mode/2up.
S. Rattray, and J. Milgrom, J. “רֵאשִׁית” (reshith), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT), 15 vols., G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), (Grand Rapids; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 13:268–72, 268–71.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 68.
C. J. H. Wright, “Family,” ABD 2:765–9, 765.
David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 85.