Firstborn of Creation

February 7, 2020

The English phrase, “the firstborn of all creation,” is difficult in Colossians 1:15. Our English word, firstborn, simply means “the first to be born, the eldest.” If one stopped with the phrase, it could mislead someone into thinking that Jesus is the first created thing. But the context won’t allow this meaning:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16–17 ESV)

Paul proclaims Christ as the agent in creation. All things were created by him. He himself can’t be created, so we must do some research on the word firstborn.

Among translations that attempt to be form equivalent there is a great deal of consistency: “the firstborn of all creation” (ESV, NASB, NRSV) and “the firstborn over all creation” (NKJV, NIV, NET, CSB). When we turn to translations that are functional equivalent, that is that are trying to evoke the same meaning as the original readers would have had, we see a glimmer of another meaning for firstborn: “Supreme over all creation” (NLT) and “He ranks higher than everything that has been made” (NCV). This gives us a clue that there is more going on.

One tool that is accessible to English Bible readers is the footnotes of the NET Bible. They are very helpful because they deal with translation issues. The footnote at Colossians 1:15 reads:

The Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) could refer either to first in order of time, such as a first born child, or it could refer to one who is preeminent in rank.

Another example of this usage as noted by the NET footnote is Psalm 88:28 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It reads:

And I will place him as firstborn
High above the kings of the earth. (Lexham English Septuagint)

This is case where “firstborn” (prōtotokos) only refers to supremacy of rank. It does not seem to be concerned about time. Time of birth is missing from this passage. That means the Greek word “firstborn” has a range of meaning which are English word does not have. This makes it difficult for the English reader to get the right meaning without some checking.

Why does Paul use “firstborn” (prōtotokos)? Colossians 1:15-20 is poetic. My Greek text even prints it as poetry. For a discussion of the poetic nature of the section, see the NET Bible footnote. “Firstborn” in 1:15 is balanced by “firstborn from the dead” in 1:18, which doesn’t present problems for us in English. Paul links together in this wonderful passage creator and savior.

— Russ Holden

The Problem of the Fourth Day

September 18, 2015

The fourth day of creation in Genesis 1 raises a question. How do you have day and night before you have the sun and moon? Howard J. Van Till in his book, The Fourth Day, would basically say that you can’t. As an astronomer, he begins with natural processes and concludes that Genesis 1 is not to be taken literally. Instead, Van Till thinks the chapter is a literary picture of God as a craftsman going about his work week. He believes that God is the creator, but he can’t take Genesis 1 literally.

Others suggest that the sun and moon were created on Day 1. That what is happening on Day 4 is the appearance of the sun and moon from the vantage point of the earth’s surface and their appointment to the task of marking seasons, days, and years. The NLT captures this interpretation: “Then God said, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14, NLT). Questions arise as to how natural this translation is, and whether the approach violates the overall symmetry of the account.

I have to admit I was troubled by this question as a young man. But I wonder whether we are buying into a presupposition of natural processes that is not fair to the narrative. God is the one who begins the natural processes, but he does so by supernatural act. What do I mean by this?

Umberto Cassuto, a Jewish commentator, approaches the question like this:

… so throughout those first three days God caused light to shine upon the earth from some other source without recourse to the sun; but when He created the luminaries He handed over to them the task of separation, that is, He commanded that the one should serve by day and the others should serve at night, and thus they would all become signs for distinguishing the two periods of time.1

Others have made this same suggestion. There is nothing unreasonable about this interpretation (except to materialists and the media) once you begin with an omnipotent God. The question then becomes somewhat like complaining that Jesus didn’t use vineyards in turning water into wine. But that is the point. He didn’t use natural processes; he performed a miracle. God created the natural processes and an orderly creation, so that science is possible. But he started with a supernatural act.

Is our too small of view of the omnipotence of God the problem of the fourth day?

1Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: from Adam to Noah, p. 38.

The Habit of Thanksgiving

May 16, 2014

N.T. Wright in his mammoth work on Paul notes the practice of thanksgiving in Christian living. He writes:

Thanksgiving isn’t just a way of being a bit less grumpy and a bit more cheerful. It is a habit of the heart which indicates the nature and particular shape of the worldview. It is closely associated with joy, which for Paul is one of the primary signs of the spirit’s

What kind of a worldview elicits this thanksgiving? It is the view that God is the creator of the universe. Because there is a creator, there is someone to thank.

Wright cites a wonderful quote from the rabbis on giving thanks to God.

On comets, and on earthquakes, and on lightning and on thunder, and on storms say, “Blessed [be He] whose strength and might fill the world.” On mountains, and on hills, and on seas, and on rivers, and on deserts say, “Blessed [is He] who makes the works of the beginning.” R’ Yehuda says, “One who sees the great sea says, ‘Blessed [is He] who made the great sea,’ only if he sees it occasionally.” On rain and on good news say, “Blessed is He who is good and does good.” And on bad news say, “Blessed [are You] the true judge.”2

When we turn to the Bible, some form of the word thank, thanks, or thanksgiving occurs 170 times. Thanksgiving peaks in the Psalms for the Old Testament, and it peaks in the New Testament in the letters of Paul (the high point in Paul is in 1 Corinthians). Looking at these many occasions of thanks instructs us on how to be thankful.

The wisdom of learning to be thankful is important. The nineteenth century hymn lyrics by Johnson Oatman, Jr. pictures learning to be thankful even in times of discouragement. Because God is our creator there is always something that the Lord has done for which we can be grateful.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

“A bit less grumpy and a bit more cheerful” is good way to be when it is deeply rooted in the view that God is my creator. It is not just a doctrine to add to the check list, but a practice to live. It is a habit of the heart, the habit of thanksgiving.


1Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 412.
2Mishnah Berakhot 9:2

More Than Animals?

March 15, 2013

The Copenhagen Zoo’s exhibit of homo sapiens lasted only a few weeks in 1996. In a glass-walled cage located in the primate house, a pair of homo sapiens were on display. The zookeeper touted the exhibit as a way of forcing people to “confront their origins” and accept that “we are all primates.”

Humans and apes share 98.5 percent of the same chromosomes. Are we merely animals—the end of an evolutionary chain that began in the primordial soup and is merely the product of chance? Or are humans created in the image of God—are we more than animals?

The test of any worldview is how does it work in the real world, which brings us back to the homo sapien exhibit. The other inhabitants of the primate house, swung from bars, eliminated waste, and mated in full view of visitors. The homo sapiens needed privacy, and when asked if they would engage in intimate behavior in public, protested “That’s not interesting.” As the monkeys picked lice off each other’s pelts, the homo sapiens read books, checked their email, and worked on a motorcycle. They could adjust the air conditioning in their quarters or go out for a movie and dinner.1

Did the exhibit prove the zookeepers contention that we should just accept that we are merely primates, or did the exhibit’s failure suggest that homo sapiens are more than animals?

Genesis chapter one gives an explanation of why we are like the animals yet different. We are like the animals because we have the same Designer and are made from the same kind of material. We are different because “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27, NASB). Millard Erickson observes, “The image is the powers of personality which make man, like God, a being capable of interacting with other persons, of thinking and reflecting, and of willing freely.”2

This view sanctifies human life. It rules as out of bounds abortion and euthanasia. It also teaches that all people should be treated with dignity. Properly understood, it eliminates all forms of elitism because we are all subject to the same Lord. It also suggests that there is meaning beyond the material world. Our greatest purpose is to be in a relationship with our Creator. As Augustine observed centuries ago, “You made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” Humanity’s freedom of will grants the capacity for great nobility and extreme cruelty. The result often depends on whether we think we are “merely animals” or “created in the image of God.”


1Steve Weizman, “Copenhagen Zoo Displays the Most Dangerous Animals,” 12 September 1996, on-line Reuters North American Wire as cited in Chuck Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, pp. 129-130.

2Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 513.

The Author of Beauty

February 20, 2009

The wonders of creation are to be a pointer to the Creator. Humanity has frequently failed to see the meaning of beauty. The ancients worshiped deities that in many ways simply represented the forces within the natural realm. Although we are not likely to bow down to an idol, materialism means we often adore the gifts and not the Giver. Paul says that greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Here’s a great line reflecting on the idolatry of the past.

If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. (Wisdom of Solomon 13:3, NRSV)*

*BTW, I don’t believe that the Old Testament Apocrypha (what others call the Deuterocanonical books) is inspired by God. But the above is still a great line.