There are several ways to answer that question. One way John answers it is by giving us a series of “I am” statements Jesus made about Himself (i.e., the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Resurrection and Life, etc.). One way Matthew answers it is with Peter’s confession that, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16.). And then there’s Paul’s answer in Colossians 1:15-20. It’s not as well known. It’s certainly layered and requires more unpacking, but Paul thought it important to the disciples at Colossae and God thought it important to us, so He preserved the letter.
Paul tells us that Christ “is the image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15. I hadn’t thought much about the time context of this statement, but NT Wright has convinced me that we should understand Paul to be speaking of Jesus as a human—as part of the first creation. As he points out, humanity represents the pinnacle of that creation and Jesus is the apex of humanity. In fulfilling God’s purpose for Himself, He also fulfilled God’s purpose for humanity (to image Him fully and completely). We were all created to do this, but Jesus did it in a way that none of us have come close to and that is just one of the things that sets him above everything. By virtue of this, He became the starting point for God’s new creation. Paul is laying the groundwork for v. 18-20.
He is also called “the firstborn over all creation.” “Firstborn” is one of those biblical terms that needs to be worked with. Literally, its meaning is simple yet qualified—it refers not simply to the first-born but to the firstborn son.
Deuteronomy 21:17 speaks of the “right of the firstborn.” Part of that involved a “double share” (v. 17). In essence, the headship in the family was being passed down and that is why it is often referred to as the blessing or the birthright. However, there were those who inherited the birthright even though they were not the first-born son. Jacob is an obvious example, but he also passed the blessing on to Judah, his fourth-born son (Genesis 49:1-12). Perhaps this explains why over time, “firstborn” began to take on the primary meaning of preeminence and authority and had very little or nothing to do with birth order. The nation of Israel is referred to as God’s firstborn in Exodus 4:22. In Psalm 89:27 God says of David, “I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.”
This is the context Paul is speaking from when He speaks of Jesus as “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Christ was not created (John 1:1-3). However, in regard to creation Paul tells us that:
- in Him all things were created (v. 16),
- all things have been created through Him (v. 16),
- all things have been created for Him (v. 16),
- He is before all things (v. 17),
- in Him all things hold together (v. 17).
Now go back and look at that list again–that’s what the title “firstborn of creation” means in reference to Jesus!
In physics there is a Unified Field Theory, Grand Unification Theory, and my favorite, the Theory of Everything. All of these are attempts to understand at the most basic, sub-atomic level, how the universe functions. The answer is right there in Colossians 1:16-17: JESUS! We may not understand the scientific specifics of how He does that, but He does it.
All of this means we need a Christ-centric view of the cosmos. Jewish believers needed to see Jesus as more than a national Messiah. Gentile disciples needed to see him as more than a global Savior. He’s Lord not just of the solar system or galaxy—He is Lord of the universe. This would be an absolutely staggering assertion to disciples with a pagan background where different domains were divided up among an endless number of deities. Jesus was not the “firstborn” of Israel, Rome or even the planet. He is the firstborn of creation!