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.