What about Jesus being “firstborn”?
When talking with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you’ll find that one of their key points to prove Jesus was a created being is that the Bible refers to him as “firstborn”. Two examples of this, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses often use as proof texts, are below:
Colossians 1:14-16 (NIV)
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Hebrews 1:5-7 (NIV)
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”?
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”?
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
On the surface, it certainly appears that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a point. Is Jesus truly the first of God’s creations, and does the term “firstborn” indicate that this is so?
In order to answer this question, it’s important to understand what the the significance of the term “firstborn” meant in the Jewish culture.
PROTOTOKOS and the significance of “firstborn”
In ancient times, the first born son was the inheritor of a double portion of his father’s estate and was expected to step into the role as head of the family upon his father’s death. So the term “firstborn” can have a dual meaning:
- The son who is the oldest child of his father
- The inheritor and heir of the father’s estate
To begin understanding which of these meanings of “firstborn” the New Testament indicates, it’s important to look at things in a bit more depth.
First, going back to the original Greek we see that “firstborn” is translated PROTOTOKOS (πρωτότοκος). While this word is used 130 times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), it is only used 8 times in the New Testament.
PROTOTOKOS comes from two Greek words, PROTOS and TOKOS. PROTOS means “first” (in time, place or rank) and TOKOS means “birth” (offspring).
In the Old Testament, PROTOTOKOS was used primarily to designate the oldest son born to a father (though there are some significant exceptions to this, as we’ll see). In the New Testament, however, this word is used primarily in the sense of preeminence and authority. To know which meaning of the word is intended, scholars look at which portion of the word is emphasized. If PROTOS, then the emphasis is on authority. If TOKOS, then physical birth.
So how is PROTOTOKOS used in the New Testament passages where it appears? First, in Luke 2 we see “firstborn” used in the sense of physical birth (the emphasis is on TOKOS).
Luke 2:4-7 (NIV)
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Other than this verse, however, every time PROTOTOKOS is used, the emphasis is on PROTOS, stressing superiority rather than birth. Below are the seven additional verses where PROTOTOKOS is used in the New Testament (all from the NIV):
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”?
“I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
NOTE: This verse can be a bit confusing, since the original Greek only include PROTOTOKOS once. The 2nd use of “firstborn” in the above passage is more frequently translated as “them”. For example, the HCSB wording is as follows:
28 By faith he instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.
Here it’s a bit more clear that “firstborn” only appears once in the passage.
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
All of these passages (with the exception of Luke 2) use PROTOTOKOS in the sense of authority and preeminence.
Strengthening the Case for Preeminence
While the Greek language is clear, and the context for PROTOTOKOS in the New Testament verses makes it easy to understand the author’s intent, this may not be enough for our Jehovah’s Witness friends. Because of this, a few additional bits of evidence may prove useful.
Israel as God’s Firstborn
Obviously, the Israelite nation was not the first physical nation upon the earth. And yet, in Exodus 4 we read the following exchange between God and Moses:
Exodus 4:21-23 (NIV)
21 The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’”
Obviously, if God meant that Israel was the first nation to exist on earth, He would have been mistaken. Instead, in this verse it’s clear that God meant that Israel was to be preeminent among other nations on earth.
Ephraim and Manasseh
Another highly interesting pair of verses to illustrate the point that “firstborn” is not exclusively tied to physical birth are the following:
Genesis 41:50-52 (NIV)
50 Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. 51 Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” 52 The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Here we see that Joseph had two children, Manasseh and Ephraim. Manasseh was his oldest son (his “first born”) and Ephraim is clearly designated to be the younger. But then look at how Jeremiah talks about Ephraim:
Jeremiah 31:7-9 (NIV)
7 This is what the LORD says:
“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘LORD, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
8 See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
expectant mothers and women in labor;
a great throng will return.
9 They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.
Jeremiah says that Ephraim is “firstborn” (PROTOTOKOS)! If the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right, and if “firstborn” refers to actual birth (or in Christ’s case, creation), then then the Bible is inconsistent. But we’ve already seen that PROTOTOKOS has another meaning besides birth order.
David, the youngest son of Jesse
Finally, one other verse provides additional context to help our friends understand this issue of “firstborn”. It deals with David, the king of Israel.
We know from scripture that David was the youngest of his brothers. We read this in 1 Samuel 16:
1 Samuel 16:8-13 (NIV)
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The LORD has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the LORD chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The LORD has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.
Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.
And yet, Psalm 89 says this about David:
Psalm 89:19-27 (NIV)
19 Once you spoke in a vision,
to your faithful people you said:
“I have bestowed strength on a warrior;
I have raised up a young man from among the people.
20 I have found David my servant;
with my sacred oil I have anointed him.
21 My hand will sustain him;
surely my arm will strengthen him.
22 The enemy will not get the better of him;
the wicked will not oppress him.
23 I will crush his foes before him
and strike down his adversaries.
24 My faithful love will be with him,
and through my name his horn[f] will be exalted.
25 I will set his hand over the sea,
his right hand over the rivers.
26 He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, the Rock my Savior.’
27 And I will appoint him to be my firstborn,
the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
So even though David was the youngest of his brothers, God considered him is “firstborn”!
Though at first glance the New Testament verses about Jesus as “firstborn” may seem to point to his being created by God, a word study and understanding of ancient culture (in other words, considering the context) has shown that these claims by the Jehovah’s Witnesses are, in fact, not true.
Jesus Christ was and is God Almighty. He is neither a created being nor merely an angel (more on that in the future). And when you walk our Jehovah’s Witness friends through this aspect of their theology, hopefully they’ll begin to realize this as well.