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Jesus and Christians as "Firstborn"

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There are several places in the NT where Christ is referred to as the firstborn (πρωτοτόκος, prōtotokos). But what does this mean? Does it simply mean that after Mary gave birth to Jesus, she had other children as well? Or, does it carry a more theological sense? If so, does it indicate that Jesus was a created being? It seems that the natural sense of the English term, “firstborn,” would tend to point in this direction and certainly some people (groups) take it this way. But again, is this what the term means as it used in the NT? And, what is the background for the term and how does this set parameters on its usage in the NT? And finally, how is it applied to the church?

Texts and Discussion

The Use of Prōtotokos Outside the Bible

The term firstborn (πρωτότοκος, prōtotokos) does not occur before the Septuagint (undertaken ca. 3rd century B.C.). But in the instances where it does occur after this time, the idea of birth or origin is less prominent and privilege rather than birthright is denoted.1

The Use of Prōtotokos in The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX)

The primary influence upon the NT is probably coming from the use of the term in the Greek Old Testament (LXX). The term is used some 130 times there, most of which are in Genesis-Deuteronomy (74) and 1 Chronicles (29). The Greek term usually translates the Hebrew word rokB= (B=kor “firstborn”).2

Three texts are particularly instructive, namely, Exodus 4:22; 2 Chronicles 21:3 and Psalm 88:28 (English Ps 89:27). In the first text, Exodus 4:22, Israel is referred to not as one of God’s many sons, but rather as his special, beloved son. It reads:

4:22 And you will say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says Yahweh, Israel is my firstborn son; 4:23 and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me, but if you refuse to let him go, then I will surely kill your firstborn son’.” (NET)

It would have taken an enormous dose of courage to seek an audience with Pharaoh in order to tell him that he was not the “firstborn of the gods.” Further, it would have taken yet more courage to tell him that the Hebrew slaves, whom he was afflicting, were the true firstborn of God. But, the reference to Israel as YHWH’s “firstborn” is not a statement about being born first. On the contrary, it refers to the special relationship with YHWH which Israel enjoyed. This is clear since Jacob (renamed Israel) was actually born after Esau.

In 2 Chronicles 21:3 we get a glimpse of the special status enjoyed by the firstborn son in Israel; he was heir to the kingdom. The chronicler says:

21:2 His brothers, Jehoshaphat’s sons, were Azariah, Jechiel, Zechariah, Azariahu, Michael and Shephatiah. All of these were sons of Jehoshaphat, king of Israel. 21:3 Their father gave them many presents, including silver, gold and other precious items, along with fortified cities in Judah. But he gave the kingdom to Jehoram because he was the firstborn.

The third and final text we’ll look at comes from Psalm 89:27 (Ps 88:28 LXX). Here the king is also said to be the heir of the kingdom—an eternal dynasty—in keeping with the promises made to David (89:26-29). He will reign on earth as YHWH himself reigns in heaven.3 Thus it is interesting that he is referred to as “firstborn” (prōtotokos):

89:27 I will appoint him to be my firstborn son, the most exalted of the earth’s kings.

Michaelis summarizes the evidence from the Septuagint:

The idea of even a figurative birth or begetting is no longer a clear element in πρωτότοκος in these passages. It is nowhere set forth and in Ps 88:28 it is fact ruled out by θήσομαι, which rather suggests adoption, cf. also Ps. 2:7. The idea of priority in time over other sons is remote. The orientation of the word is no longer to the presence of other sons. It expresses the fact that the people, the individual, or the king is especially dear to God.4

This focus on the special filial relationship that Israel enjoyed with YHWH is carried on in the Old Testament Pseudepigraphical works as well (cf. Jubilees 2:20; 18:2; 19:28) and into rabbinic Judaism (Ex 4:22 Rabba).

Thus the focus of the term in the Septuagint is primarily on priority of rank, i.e., the one who has all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of an heir; one who enjoys a special relationship with God. It is not on priority in time or origin. This focused persists up to and into the time of the New Testament and provides, therefore, the most likely background to the meaning of term there. Indeed, we will see that Psalm 89:27 stands behind the NT usage of the term in reference to Jesus as the Messianic king.

The Use of Prōtotokos in The New Testament

Luke 2:7

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (NET)

Luke 2:7 refers to the literal birth of Jesus. There is no literary implication regarding the exalted status Jesus will play later on in the narrative of Luke-Acts (“Lord”). The use of the term, however, may prepare the reader for 2:23-24 in which case the emphasis would be on Jesus as the firstborn who is entitled to all the rights of a firstborn, including any regal rights.5

Romans 8:29

…because those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (NET)

The goal of all God’s plans is to have Christ as the all in all. At the present time, God is in the process of bringing all things under the headship of Christ (Eph 1:10). Similar statements can be made regarding the goal and termination of our salvation. Our predestination is not just to be with God, but rather to be conformed to the image of Christ himself. The reason God did this was so that Christ might be the firstborn among many brothers, that is, they he might be supreme among his brothers. Thus, while there is a distinctiveness to Christ in Romans 8:29 (i.e., in contrast to his brothers), there is nonetheless an intimacy that exists between the Lord and His people. The idea of “brother” means community and sharing in Christ’s glory, all of this being targeted under the electing and predestinating purposes of God.6 As Dunn argues: “Hence the more immediate parallels are Col 1:18 and Rev 1:5, and again the thought is of the resurrected Christ as the pattern of the new humanity of the last age, the firstborn (of the dead) of a new race of eschatological people in whom God’s design from the beginning of creation is at last fulfilled.”7

Colossians 1:15

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, (NET)

The question here concerns the meaning of firstborn over all creation (prwtovtoko" pavsh" ktivsew", prōtotokos pasēs ktiseōs). Does it mean “firstborn of creation” where Jesus is viewed as the first created thing in creation (a partitive genitive)? On the other hand, does it refer to a temporal priority where Jesus is said to be before all creation? Finally, does it mean “firstborn over all creation” where Jesus is viewed as Lord over creation (genitive of subordination) and distinct from it? This last option is the superior reading for several reasons.

First, the partitive genitive option is unlikely since it makes nonsense of the following because (ὅτι, hoti) clause (v. 16). Further, this interpretation would require the emphasis in prōtotokos to fall on tokos (“birth”/”origin”) which it never does in the NT or at the time of the writing of the NT (unless a literal birth is in mind such as Luke 2:7).8 Also, Jesus is said to be the creator of all things, not that he himself was created. If Paul were trying to say that Christ was created, we would have expected him to use prōtoktistos (“first-created”) and not prōtotokos (“firstborn”).9 Finally, this interpretation implies that Christ was a created being, that he is not eternal, and therefore not the second person of the trinity—a suggestion that runs directly in face of NT theology as a whole and Paul’s argument in Colossians itself (John 1:1; 2 Cor 4:4; Phil 2:6; Titus 2:13; Heb 1:3). In Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 Paul says that “all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in him bodily.” No clearer statements about the essential deity of the Son can be made than we have in these two verses.

Second, the genitive construction “of all creation” is not simply arguing that Jesus was before all things, though this is true. If all prōtotokos means is that the Son was before the creation, then v. 17 is redundant. Now that’s not necessarily impossible in a hymn, but when Paul says in v. 17, “and he is before all things,” it appears that he’s adding a new thought, not repeating an old one. Thus, temporal priority is not the point of prōtotokos in v. 15. The point is that Christ is preeminent in all things. He is the creator in vv. 15-18 and the Redeemer in vv. 19-20. Because he is divine, the roles and functions of deity are ascribed to him.

Third, the best interpretation, then, is the genitive of subordination where Christ is viewed as heir of creation and Lord over it, and all this vis-à-vis his special filial relationship with the Father.  Indeed, that special status is the nuance in Colossians 1:15 is clear from Colossians 1:13. Colossians 1:13 refers to the special filial relationship of the Father to the Son and alerts us to the context of the hymn to follow in 1:15-20. The mention of “kingdom of his Son” and then “firstborn” in the same breath (1:13) recalls Psalm 89:27 (LXX Ps 88:28): “I will appoint him to be my firstborn son (πρωτότοκον, prōtotokon), the most exalted of the earth’s kings.” With this OT passage as the background, the term prōtotokos in 1:15 is not referring to priority in time, but priority in rank—a special status enjoyed by the Son with respect to creation; He is Lord over it.10

Colossians 1:18

He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead so that he himself may become first in all things. (NET)

There is definitely a temporal priority in the use prōtotokos here in Colossians 1:18; Jesus was the first to rise from the dead. This is seen is its juxtaposition with the term, beginning (ajrchv, archē). But the fact that he is the firstborn from the dead (prwtovtoko" ejk tw'n nekrw'n, prōtotokos ek tōn nekrōn) indicates primacy of position or preeminence as well. This is confirmed by the next statement where Paul says, “so that he might become preeminent in all things.” Thus while he is certainly the first to rise from the dead, the greater truth being established here is that he is, therefore, the sovereign over all those who will likewise rise from the dead; he is preeminent in the new eschatological community.11

Hebrews 1:6

But when he again brings his firstborn into the world, he says, Let all the angels of God worship him! (NET)

There are several interpretive issues in this verse which we will not be able to consider. Suffice it to say that the verse as a whole seems to be pointing in the direction of Christ’s exaltation and enthronement in heaven. The following verses involving the worship of the angels, Christ’s Lordship over them, the establishment of his throne to perpetuity, the language of anointing, his immutability, and the nature of his cosmic rule (cf. the citation of Ps 110:1), bear this out.12

As far as the meaning of prōtotokos is concerned, it has to be seen in connection with “son” in v. 5b which itself arises within a citation from 2 Samuel 7:14 (1 Chron 17:13). The citation of 2 Samuel 7:14 is coupled with the earlier citation of Psalm 2:7 (1:4). In short, the Davidic regal context of this catena of OT quotations cannot be missed. This being the case, it is likely that Ps 89:27 (Ps 88:28 LXX) is in the author’s mind as well (see above under Col. 1:15). Taking all this together, the emphasis in prōtotokos in this context is surely on preeminence and sovereignty; Christ is the heir of all God’s messianic promises.

Hebrews 11:28

By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the one who destroyed the firstborn would not touch them. (NET)

A literal reference to the firstborn male children in Egypt and Israel.

Hebrews 12:23

…and congregation [church] of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, (NET)

When the writer to the Hebrews says that his readers have come to the congregation/church of the firstborn (ejkklhsiva/ prwtotovkwn, ekklēsia prōtotokōn) it is not easy, as Leon Morris has pointed out, to determine exactly who the referent is.13 But, since the term is plural, it does not refer to Christ, as it always does in the singular.

Some have suggested that the “highest created angels” are in view,” but this is unlikely since angels are never said to have their names written in heaven as the “church of the firstborn” is. That is, the angels are never referred to as “enrolled in heaven” (NET) whereas similar designations are made for believers (Luke 10:20; Rev 21:27).

It is best to identify “the church of the firstborn” with all the saints, both those on earth and those who have died and are now referred to as the “spirits of righteous men made perfect.”14 It includes the company of the redeemed from all ages.15 But the sense conveyed by firstborn should be derived from the use of the same term in 1:6. There it is singular and is used in reference to Jesus. It connotes special status as the firstborn and regal heir of the Davidic promises. The fact that the company of all redeemed people are so referred in Hebrews 12:23 indicates their connection to Christ and the fact that they too now enjoy special status as heirs of God.16

Revelation 1:5

…and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood… (NET)

It is quite likely that Psalm 89:27 (Ps 88:28 LXX) stands behind the use of the last two titles ascribed to Jesus in Revelation 1:5, both prōtotokos and “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” The expression, firstborn from the dead (oJ prwtovtoko" tw'n nekrw'n, ho prōtotokos tōn nekrōn), is a messianic title and, though time is involved in the idea of “firstborn from the dead,” the emphasis is placed on Jesus’ priority in rank.17 Thus, Christ is sovereign over the church of would-be resurrected saints. Further, the overall context points to the argument that suffering Christians need to know that Christ, the faithful witness (i.e., sufferer), has died, but has been resurrected from the dead in order to reign. So they too will reign, as believers connected to him by faith (5:10).18

The Significance of Jesus and Christians as Firstborn

What would happen if you didn’t think Jesus was God incarnate? What would happen if you believed he was a god, but not God incarnate? Would you still submit to him? Perhaps. But, would you worship him? I doubt it. It would be little different than your relationship to the government (think of Romans 13:1-7). But, the truth is: Jesus is the firstborn over all creation. He is heir of all that he has made and all things find their meaning and proper end in him. He is the sovereign we worship and the one to whose side we have been called. Let us worship him, therefore, unfettered, and let our view of him become only more exalted each day. May God smash all our “sacred idols” and turn our hearts to the adoration, worship, and obedience of the one whom we call the “King of kings and Lord of lords”; God of very God (Col. 1:15, 19; 2:6-9; 3:1-2; Heb 1:6)!

As we draw near to him, may God open our eyes to behold our rich inheritance—ours, I say, by virtue of our connection to the heir (Rom 8:29; Heb 12:23). As his brothers, we will share in his inheritance and rule. May God enable us to look heavenward (Phil 3:20) for significance instead of earthward for satisfaction. This does not mean that we somehow deny our human existence and responsibilities, but only that we remember—as we seek him passionately—that our life is hidden in him.

Finally, let us remember that our greatest enemy, death, has been defeated by our Lord. Our hope is secure. Christ is the “firstborn from among the dead” with the result that death no longer has the final say over those who trust in Christ. When we face death, and we all will someday (barring the rapture), let us remember that the “firstborn” has already passed that way ahead of us, victoriously I might add!

1 Wilhelm Michaelis, TDNT, s.v. πρωτοτόκος, 6: 871

2 Michaelis, TDNT, 6:872; BDB, 114a.

3 The text refers to him as /oyl=u# in terms of his relationship to the kings of the earth (v. 28 MT). While I agree with A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms 73-150, The New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Ronald E. Clements (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 2:643, that the title does not mean he is divine, it surely implies that he acts on earth as God acts in heaven.

4 Michaelis, TDNT, 6:874.

5 See Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1:206-7.

6 Cf. John Murray, Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 319-20; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans I-VIII, ICC, ed. J. A. Emerton and C. E. B. Cranfield (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 1:432.

7 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 38a (Dallas: Word, 1988), 1: 484.

8 Even here we saw that more is probably intended.

9 See Murray J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, ed. Murray J. Harris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 44.

10 Cf. Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 44 (Waco, TX: Word,1982), 44.

11 Cf. Curtis Vaughn, “Colossians,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 183-84.

12  See William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 47a (Dallas: Word, 1991), 1: 26-28; but cf. Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 73-75.

13 Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 142-43.

14 Cf. William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 47b (Dallas: Word, 1991), 2: 469.

15 This would involve a less technical and historically sensitive use of ekklēsia than one finds in texts such as Ephesians 3:10.

16 Lane, Hebrews, 2:469.

17 Cf. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977),  70-71.

18 Cf. G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John The Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. Henry Chadwick (New York: Evanston, 1966), 16-17.

Related Topics: Christology