Response to Chapter Four of the Bible Teach book
Who is Jesus Christ? In this chapter the Bible Teach book gives the Witnesses’ interpretation of who Jesus is. Due to the importance of this subject this response will be one of the most detailed we present. But, before we respond to their presentation it is important to get an understanding of him from the New Testament itself. This response chapter will be broken into sections which should help if you’re looking for a specific sub-topic or off-site links on that subject.
The name of Jesus
A study of how the New Testament emphasizes the name of Jesus is enlightening. The following is a lengthy quote from the article “Name” in the Dictionary of the Bible by John L. McKenzie, S.J. We read some of an earlier part of this article in the response to Chapter One. The Scripture passages cited in the text are linked for easy reference. Studying these passages will give a good overview and help clarify the place Jesus holds in the New Testament and in the life of the Christian. Father McKenzie writes:
“The most remarkable development of the concept of name in the New Testament is the way in which the theology of the name is applied to Jesus; this is a testimonial of the divinity of Jesus Himself.” He then lists “the use of the name of Jesus under the following seven themes; the texts are too numerous to permit more than a sampling:
(1) (1) The supernatural power of the name of Jesus. The invocation of the name of Jesus empowers the disciples to work wonders (Mark 16:17), in particular to heal (Acts 3:6; 4:12) and to expel demons (Luke 10:17). This power of the name is seen even when the one who invokes it is not a member of the company of the disciples (Mark 9:38). Jesus, however, tolerated this use of His name; it is evident that it was used in genuine faith. That any magic power was thought to reside in the name is explicitly repudiated in the episode of Acts 19:13-16, when the attempt of unbelieving Jews to use the name of Jesus in exorcisms brought disaster upon themselves. But the power of the name of Jesus appears most eminently in its quality as an instrument of salvation. Men receive forgiveness of sins in His name (Acts 10:43; 1 John 2:12), they are washed and sanctified in His name (1 Corinthians 6:11), and there is no other name in which salvation can be attained (Acts 4:12). The name here means Jesus in His character as savior, in which He is accepted by faith and invoked in the rite of baptism.
(2) (2) The name of Jesus is above every name. This is stated in the Christological confession of Philippians 2:9-11 and Ephesians 1:21. It expresses His total transcendence over every creature; the name here is the reality in the confessional formula of Philippians 2:11: “Jesus is Lord.”
(3) (3) The invocation of the name of Jesus. Christians are defined as those who invoke the name of Jesus. They invoke it in the confession of their faith and in ritual invocation, of which the most important is baptism “in the name of Jesus.” This does not identify the formula of baptism as such, which is the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19; but it is the common designation of the sacrament (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3). To be baptized “by” or “in” or “into” the name of Jesus is to be called by His name, according to the Old Testament usage…; by baptism Jesus accepts and recognizes the Christian as His own, and the Christian submits himself to incorporation in the community of which Jesus is the head. Anointing in the name of Jesus helps the sick and brings forgiveness of sins (James 5:14).
(4) (4) The preaching of the name of Jesus. The preaching of the gospel is compendiously defined as the preaching of the name of Jesus (Acts 5:40; 8:12; 9:15, 28), which is further defined (Acts 9:20) as “preaching Jesus as the son of God.” To preach Jesus is to declare who and what He is, and this is the content of the gospel, the good news, which is the object of faith.
(5) (5) Faith in the name of Jesus. In the same way, the belief of the Christian is compendiously defined as faith in the name of Jesus (John 3:18; 1 John 5:13); through faith in the name of Jesus the Christian obtains eternal life.
(6) (6) Jesus asks renunciation of the goods of this world for His name (Matthew 19:29) and His disciples must suffer for His name (1 Peter 4:14-16; Acts 5:42; 9:15; John 15:21). This does not mean suffering for the person of Jesus, but for the confession that Jesus is Son of God and Lord.
(7) (7) The name of Jesus in the life of the Church. Other passages which do not fall under the six themes previously mentioned illustrate the use of the name of Jesus in the Church and the conception of the name. The invocation of the name in prayer or in confession was not a casual matter; to utter the words “Jesus is Lord” demanded an impulse of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). The name of Jesus is the power in which the apostle commands (2 Thessalonians 3:6); as in the Old Testament…, the one who pronounces the name speaks with the power of the one who sends him. The prayers of the Church and of the individual Christian are uttered in the name of Jesus (John 14:13; 16:26); this is also an instance of the supernatural power of the name. The Church approaches the Father invoking the name of Jesus, which it bears and with whom it is identified; and it is assured of a hearing. The Christian acts in the name of Jesus and performs good deeds in His name (Matthew 18:5; Colossians 3:17), i.e., he acts in the character which he has received by his incorporation into Jesus and according to the teaching and example of Jesus, so that Jesus works in him. Finally, the name of Jesus is the principle of the unity of the Church, for He is present where two or three are assembled in His name (Matthew 18:20). This recalls the Old Testament use of the name of Yahweh to signify His presence.”
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and explained how the Old Testament had been fulfilled in him. We are told at Luke 24:45-48: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’” (Luke 24:45-48) Before he ascended to heaven, he commanded them: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) The book of Acts shows how these first Christians were witnesses to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and its meaning for mankind. (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39-43; 13:31) The book of Revelation mentions that many Christians sealed their deaths as “witnesses of Jesus.” (Revelation 17:6) (We get the word “martyr” from the Greek word for “witness.”)
Some preliminary questions for the Witnesses studying with you:
1) 1) Where in the New Testament does it speak of God’s people being “witnesses to Jehovah”?
2) 2) Weren’t the first Christians known as witnesses to Jesus?
3) 3) Why did Jesus tell the disciples to be his witnesses? Shouldn’t he have told them to be witnesses to Jehovah?
4) 4) Why does the New Testament emphasize the name of Jesus so much if he is only a creature?
5) 5) Are Jehovah’s Witnesses known for emphasizing the name of Jesus today?
For a listing of the 900+ occurrences of the name “Jesus” in the New Testament see this link from the Semantic Bible.
The Lord Jesus
So, who is this Jesus whose name is emphasized so much in the New Testament? Is he God? We will argue later that yes, he is God and that sometimes the New Testament calls him “God.” But, it’s important to also understand that Jesus is not the Father. While the Bible identifies Jesus with God it also shows a distinction between Jesus and the Father. The distinction between Jesus and the Father can be seen in how the terms “God” and “Lord” are normally used.
The title the New Testament usually reserves for Jesus is the title “Lord,” though the New Testament sometimes refers to the Father as “Lord.” “God” is normally used of the Father but is applied to Christ in some passages. This does not minimize who Christ is because oftentimes when the New Testament writers referred to Christ as “Lord” the context was Old Testament passages about Yahweh now applied to Christ. We will give a few of these passages taken from the New World Translation. (Links in the text are taken from the Revised Standard Version.)
For example, St. Paul quoted Psalm 68:18 and applied it to the Ascension of Jesus Christ. That Psalm says: “You have ascended on high; you have carried away captives; you have taken gifts in the form of men, Yes, even the stubborn ones, to reside among them, O Jah God.” (“Jah” is an abbreviated form of the name Jehovah.)
how St. Paul applies this passage at Ephesians
4:7-10: “Now to each one of us undeserved kindness was given according to
how the Christ measured out the free gift. Wherefore he says: ‘When he
ascended on high he carried away captives; he gave gifts in men.’ Now the
expression ‘he ascended,’ what does it mean but that he also descended into the
lower regions, that is, the earth? The very one that descended is also the one
that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might give fulness to all
Hebrews 1:8 introduces two Old Testament quotations: “But of the Son he says…” The second passage is Hebrews 1:10-12 which quotes the Psalm 102:25-27 (from the Greek Septuagint) applying it to Christ. “And, ‘You at the beginning, O Lord, laid the foundations of the earth itself, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They themselves will perish, but you yourself are to remain continually; and just like an outer garment they will grow old, and you will wrap them up just as a cloak, as an outer garment; and they will be changed, but you are the same, and your years will never run out.’” Not only do we here see a New Testament writer apply an Old Testament passage about Yahweh to Jesus Christ - notice to what lengths this New Testament writer will go in his scripture application. He openly identifies Christ as the Creator of heaven and earth. And he contrasts the impermanence of creation against its Creator, who is unchangeable and eternal. Does it make sense to think the writer of Hebrews felt Christ was only a creature after seeing how he applies Scripture?
Notice this comparison between 1 Peter 3:14,15 and Isaiah 8:12,13:
The passage from 1 Peter says: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are happy. However, the object of their fear do not you fear, neither become agitated. But sanctify the Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defense before everyone that demands of you a reason for the hope in you, but doing so together with a mild temper and deep respect.”
Now, Isaiah says: “‘You men must not say, “A conspiracy!” respecting all that of which this people keep saying, “A conspiracy!” and the object of their fear you men must not fear, nor must you tremble at it. Jehovah of armies - he is the One whom you should treat as holy, and he should be the object of your fear, and he should be the One causing you to tremble.’”
comparison is even more striking if one compares the Greek word order of 1
Peter with the Greek Septuagint
of Isaiah. The Hebrew says: “neither fear their fear, nor be in dread of it. Yahweh of hosts, him
shall you sanctify”
(New Jerusalem Bible)
but the Greek
Septuagint has “fear
not ye their fear, neither be dismayed. Sanctify ye the Lord himself” St.
Peter, writing in Greek, would most naturally quote from the standard Greek
translation of the Old Testament--the Septuagint. The Septuagint
here says: kurion auton hagiasate (Greek word order: “Lord
himself sanctify”). Peter’s quotation
in 1 Peter 3:14,15 is practically identical except here he exchanges the word auton--“himself” for de ton
is Christ.” Peter writes: kurion de ton christon
hagiasate (The Greek word order is: “Lord but the Christ sanctify.” This can be verified in the Watchtower
Society’s Kingdom Interlinear Translation.) St. Peter added a
parenthetical thought to his quotation from Isaiah: “The object of their fear
do not you fear, neither become agitated. The Lord (who is Christ) you should
sanctify. . .“ In this quotation from Isaiah, St. Peter clarified that the Lord
we are to sanctify is Christ!
Then there is the prophecy from Isaiah 40:3-5: “Listen! Someone is calling out in the wilderness: ‘Clear up the way of Jehovah, you people! Make the highway for our God through the desert plain straight. Let every valley be raised up, and every mountain and hill be made low. And the knobby ground must become level land, and the rugged ground a valley plain. And the glory of Jehovah will certainly be revealed, and all flesh must see it together. “‘ Matthew 3:1-3, Mark 1:1-4, Luke 3:2-6 and John 1:23 apply this passage to John the Baptist’s preparatory work before the ministry of Jesus.
It becomes undeniable that New Testament writers applied Old Testament passages about Yahweh to Jesus. Can we be sure they were thereby identifying Jesus with Yahweh? Consider this example:
Isaiah 6:1-10 describes a vision of Yahweh in his temple: “In the year that King Uzziah died I, however, got to see Jehovah, sitting on a throne lofty and lifted up, and his skirts were filling the temple. Seraphs were standing above him. . .And this one called to that one and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of armies. The fullness of all the earth is his glory’. . .And I proceeded to say: ‘Woe to me! for my eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of armies, himself!’…And I began to hear the voice of Jehovah saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I proceeded to say: ‘Here I am! Send me.’ And he went on to say: ‘Go, and you must say to this people, “Hear again and again, O men, but do not understand; and see again and again, but do not get any knowledge.” Make the heart of this people unreceptive, and make their very ears unresponsive, and paste their very eyes together, that they may not see with their eyes and with their ears they may not hear, and that their own heart may not understand and that they may not actually turn back and get healing for themselves .’”
this with John
12:36b,37,39-41. St John references this vision of Yahweh’s glory to an
incident in Jesus’ ministry: “Jesus spoke these things and went off and hid
from them. But although he had performed so many signs before them, they were
not putting faith in him. . .The reason why they were not able to believe is
that again Isaiah said: ‘He has blinded their eyes and he has made their hearts
hard, that they should not see with their eyes and get the thought with their
hearts and turn around and I should heal them.’ Isaiah said
these things because he saw his glory, and he spoke about him.” If the St. John had no
problem saying that Isaiah’s vision of Jehovah in His temple was a vision of
Christ’s glory, why should we? Even the Witnesses’ New World Translation
Reference Bible cross-references Isaiah 6:1 to John 12:41!
We are told at Isaiah 45:22-24: “Turn to me and be saved, all you at the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no one else. By my own self I have sworn - out of my own mouth in righteousness the word has gone forth, so that it will not return - that to me every knee will bend down, every tongue will swear, saying, ‘Surely in Jehovah there are full righteousness and strength.”’
Notice how St. Paul makes a direct allusion to this passage at Philippians 2:9-11: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” At Isaiah 45:23 we were told that every knee would bend in worship and every tongue swear to Jehovah. Paul alludes to this and says this would happen “at the name of Jesus.” Why? Because St. Paul adds that God has shared with Christ “the name that is above every name”--the Divine Name. (Interestingly, early editions of the New Testament part of the New World Translation had a cross-reference at Philippians 2:10 pointing to Isaiah 45:23. Their 1984 Reference Bible edition has removed that cross-reference.)
When every knee bows before Jesus and every tongue confesses Jesus Christ as LORD, does this detract from the Father? It does not. St. Paul said this would glorify God the Father. Jesus himself explained how this can be. At John 5:23 he gave this principle: “that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”
Ask the Witnesses studying with you:
1) 1) Does the New Testament quote Old Testament passages about Jehovah and apply them to Jesus?
2) 2) Who is Psalm 102:25-27 speaking about?
3) 3) Why does Hebrews 1:10-12 quote that passage and apply that to Jesus?
4) 4) Whose glory did Isaiah see in Isaiah 6:1-10?
5) 5) (Read context of John 6:36-43): Doesn’t John refer to this in John 6:41 and apply this to Christ?
Jesus the Son of God
But, doesn’t the New Testament refer to Jesus as the “Son of God” meaning he was created by God? Yes and no. Jesus is called the Son of God but that doesn’t mean he was created. Jesus’ sonship is unique. He told us to pray to “Our Father.” (Matthew 6:9) But he referred to God as “my Father.” For example, he defended his healing of a paralyzed man on the Sabbath by saying: “ But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working still, and I am working.’" How were his words understood? St. John tells us: “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:17-18)
Jesus himself referred to this unique relationship he and the Father have when he said: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22) Only the Father fully knows the Son and only the Son fully knows the Father. That is a unique reciprocal relationship that places Jesus above the level of a creature! Further showing this special relationship they share, Jesus prayed to the Father about his disciples shortly before his death: “All I have is yours and all you have is mine, and in them I am glorified.” (John 17:10, NJB) It is important we accept Jesus’ unique position as Jesus is the only revealer of the Father!
But, if Jesus is “begotten” doesn’t that mean he is created? No. Each Sunday millions of Christians profess their faith in Christ and affirm he is “begotten, not made…” The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis explains this distinction in his book Mere Christianity: "To beget is to become the father of something; to create is to make something. When you beget something you beget something that is the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, and beaver begets beavers, and a bird begets eggs that become baby birds. But when you make, you make of a kind different from yourself. Birds make nests, beavers make dams, a man makes a wireless set...What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man creates is not man." (Emphasis added)
“In the beginning the Word…”
So, is Jesus part a part of the created universe? Is he a level with creatures or is he on a level with Yahweh God? For example, when the Bible says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—was Jesus part of that creation? (Genesis 1:1) Did Jesus himself have a beginning? The Jehovah’s Witnesses would say yes, for the believe “he was God’s first creation.” (Bible Teach, p. 41) But, notice how the first lines of the Gospel of John borrows from the phrasing in Genesis 1:1 to describe how the “Word” (Jesus in his pre-existence) relates to the beginning:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.”
The Witnesses usually want to discuss the translation of the third phrase but we will leave that discussion for later. Concentrate on the first phrase. Genesis had said, “In the beginning God created…” St John did not write: “In the beginning the Word came to be…” Instead, he says: “In the beginning the Word was…” (New World Translation) Other translations make this point even clearer:
“When all things began, the Word already was.
The Word dwelt with God,
and what God was, the Word was.
The Word, then, was with God at the beginning,
and through him all things came to be;
no single thing was created without him.”
(New English Bible)
“When everything began, the Word already existed.
The Word was with God
and shared his nature.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things came into being through him,
and apart from him not even one thing came into being.”
(Translator’s New Testament)
Wherever you want to place the “beginning,” the Word was already there with God! He is not a part of creation but is outside of it. Compare one more version:
“When time began, the Word was there,
and the Word was face to face with God,
and the Word was God.
This Word, when time began, was face to face with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him there came to be not one thing that has come to be.”
(From The Four Gospels translated by James A. Kleist, S.J.)
Time began when creation began. Jesus, the Word, is outside of time! He predates time or creation. That means he cannot be a created thing. He is contrasted with creation as St. John said: “no single thing was created without him.”
[A note regarding the translations: “What God was, the Word was” and “the Word…shared [God’s] nature.” These renderings are attempting to bring out a nuance in the Greek text that the Word has the essence or nature of God but is to be distinguished from God the Father. Creatures (such as humans, animals and even angels) do not have the essence or nature of God. But, Jesus does! As one of the versions above stated: “what God was, the Word was.” What is true of God is also true of the Word. Is God eternal? So is the Word! Is God without beginning? So is the Word! There is no minimizing of Christ by bringing out this nuance from the Greek text. Rather, it emphasizes his position. The translation of the last part of John 1:1 by Kenneth Wuest brings this out forcefully: “the Word was as to His essence absolute deity.” We will come back to this verse later.]
Another passage that tells us that Christ had no beginning can be found in Hebrews chapter 7. In that chapter, the writer of Hebrews is speaking of an Old Testament king-priest named Melchizedek briefly mentioned in Genesis 14:18-20. Melchizedek was unique in the Old Testament as his priesthood was not inherited from others. In fact, we know nothing of his birth or death. The writer of Hebrews says that Melchizedek was a type (shadow or figure) of Christ. What was true of Melchizedek in a small way is even more true of Christ in the full reality:
“He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever.” (Hebrews 7:3)
The Witnesses’ Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures comments on this passage:
“Like other humans, Melchizedek was born and he died. However, the names of his father and mother are not furnished, his ancestry and posterity are not disclosed, and the Scriptures contain no information about the beginning of his days or the end of his life. Thus, Melchizedek could fittingly foreshadow Jesus Christ, who has an unending priesthood.” (Vol. 2, page 367) The Insight article goes on to explain how Melchizedek was a shadow of Christ. Yet, it doesn’t explain how in the reality Christ has “neither beginning of days nor end of life.”
A footnote to this verse in the translation by Joseph L. Lilly, C.M., explains the historical significance:
“Melchizedek is introduced in Genesis abruptly with no mention of his birth, parentage, or death. As far as Genesis’ testimony goes, he was eternal. This literary eternity makes him an apt figure of Christ who was in the real order all that Melchizedek was in the purely literary order. Our Lord was without father as man, without mother as God, without beginning or end of days, and without genealogy as God.”--The New Testament, translated by James A. Kleist, S.J., and Joseph L. Lilly, C.M., page 574.
St. John Chrysostom (a famous Greek-speaking Christian preacher who lived in the 300’s) explains the second part of that verse. What was true about Melchizedek because of the silence of Scripture (his birth and death) is actually true of Christ:
“As in case of this man [Melchizedek], we know not either “beginning of days,” or “end of life,” because they have not been written; so we know [them] not in the case of Jesus , not because they have not been written, but because they do not exist. For that indeed is a type, and therefore [we say] ‘because it is not written,’ but this is the reality, and therefore [we say] ‘because it does not exist.’”
Christ is the eternal Word of God who predates time and creation having neither a beginning nor an end! No wonder his name is emphasized in the New Testament for he shares the nature and essence of God and is identified with Yahweh!
Ask the Witnesses studying with you:
1) 1) What did St. John mean at John 5:18? He says that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” by calling God his own Father and this offended the Jews.
2) 2) Doesn’t the first part of John 1:1 (“In the beginning the Word was…”) indicate that Jesus was already in existence at the beginning of creation?
3) 3) What does Hebrews 7:3 mean when it says the Son of God (as the greater Melchizedek) has “neither beginning of days nor end of life”?
Christ, the “Beginning”
So, what of the Scripture verses used by the Witnesses to support their idea that Christ was God’s first creation? Since we have just talked about the Word already existing “in the beginning,” we’ll consider their interpretation of Revelation 3:14 (although it’s not discussed in the Bible Teach book).
In Revelation 3:14, Jesus calls himself “the beginning of God’s creation.” Witnesses understand that to mean that Jesus was the first one created by God. Is that the most likely interpretation of that verse? The Greek word translated “beginning” in that verse is arche which also means “ruler” or “source” or “origin.” That same Greek word is used elsewhere in the book of Revelation:
“And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the waters of life. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son.” (Revelation 21:6-7)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13)
The Witnesses understand both of these passages to refer to Jehovah. They do not believe that “beginning” in these verses refers to God’s beginning or his origin. Instead, “beginning” here refers to God’s primacy and power.
Similarly, with Revelation 3:14. As we read earlier in John 1:3: “All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that was made.” Jesus is the “origin” or “source” of God’s creation. He is also its “ruler,” which is another meaning of that Greek word arche.
Other Bible versions demonstrate this usage. The Holman Christian Standard Bible has: “the Originator of God’s creation.” A footnote at this verse gives: “Or Ruler, or Source, or Beginning.” The New International Version has: “the ruler of God’s creation.” The Contemporary English Version translates it as “the source of God’s creation.” (See also, the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible which has “the Principle of God’s creation.”)
The Witnesses’ insistence that the Greek word arche in Revelation 3:14 means “beginning” in the sense of “first one created” does not fit how that word is used elsewhere in Revelation or the clear statement in John 1:1 that Jesus, the Word, was already in existence “in the beginning.”
For a detailed (and somewhat technical) response to the Witness’ interpretation of Revelation 3:14 see this link at the Apologists' Bible Commentary. A less technical response on this verse and other similar verses can be found here.
The title “First-born”
Another passage that Jehovah’s Witnesses cite in support of their belief that Christ is a creature is at Colossians 1:15. Since they put such an emphasis on this passage we will quote it in its entirety. Speaking of Christ, St. Paul writes:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven.”
(Colossians 1:15-20) (New American Bible)
Emphasizing the first part of that passage the Witnesses conclude that “first-born of all creation” means Christ was “God’s first creation.” (Bible Teach, p. 41) The traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of “first-born” here is that it is a statement of Christ’s pre-eminence over creation. Before we go into the different meanings of “first-born,” re-read the entire passage above and consider these questions:
1) 1) What does it mean for Christ to be “the image of the invisible God”?
2) 2) So, the God who cannot be seen is visible in Christ?
3) 3) Who created “all things”?
4) 4) Who were “all things” created for?
5) 5) What does it mean that “all things hold together” in Christ?
6) 6) So, “all things” were created for Christ and are held together by Christ?
7) 7) What does it mean that “all the fullness was pleased to dwell” in Christ?
If, as noted above:
--Christ is the image of God,
--and created all things,
--and all things were created for him,
--and Christ is the cohesion of the universe,
--and all fullness dwells in him,
does it make sense to view Christ as a creature? Does it make sense that a created being would create “all things” for himself? What creature could “hold together” the universe?
Look at the passage one more time. St. Paul starts out saying Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for…” and then he goes on to enumerate why: he created all things; created them for himself; he holds all things together, etc. His conclusion:
“that in all things [Christ] might be preeminent.”
If Christ’s pre-eminence over all creation is St. Paul’s conclusion, how does “first-born of all creation” lead to that?
“Firstborn” can refer to being first in time. For example, in the Gospel narrative of Luke Jesus is referred to as Mary’s “first-born son.” (Luke 2:7)
“And I will make him the first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth.”
Here, “first-born” does not mean “first one born” as David was actually the youngest of eight brothers. Rather, it refers to David being “the highest of the kings of the earth.”
“First-born” is similarly used in the sense of “pre-eminence” in the New Testament. Did you notice when you read the passage from Colossians above it referred to Christ as “the first-born from the dead”? (Colossians 1:18) Christ was not the first one raised from the dead. Others had been raised from the dead before him. His rising from the dead is unique in at least two ways. Unlike others raised from death before him, he would not die again. But, more is involved. We can see this when the term comes up again at Revelation 1:5 when it refers to:
“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” How is he “first-born of the dead”? The Lord Jesus explains just a few verses later:
“I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18) It is because Christ has conquered Death and Hades that he is “first-born of the dead,” being also able to release others from death. Here “first-born” refers to a pre-eminence or a primacy, not to a priority in time.
As we discussed earlier when we read the context of Colossians 1:15-20, St. Paul was stressing the pre-eminence of Christ as Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, as the image of God and having all the fullness. “First-born” in Colossians 1:15 obviously has the meaning of pre-eminence over creation, not first-created.
This can be seen in how some other versions translate this passage:
“He is the image of the invisible God; his is the primacy over all created things.” (New English Bible)
The Holman Christian Standard Bible has: “The firstborn over all creation.” A footnote gives: “The One who is preeminent over all creation.”
For a detailed (and somewhat technical) response to the Witnesses’ interpretation of Colossians 1:15 see this link at the Apologists’ Bible Commentary. Less technical responses can be found here and here.
[to be continued]
[Scriptures used by JWs to “prove” Christ was created will be considered next]