What happened on the first Christmas? Mary had a baby!
And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 NASB)
Having your first child is always an emotional experience, a blend of anxiety and euphoria. You only get one firstborn, after all. In one sense, this birth was like billions of others down through the centuries. The baby’s name was Jesus, and he was the firstborn son of Mary and Joseph.
But was that all that was going on here?
Christians say that there was more to it. The Bible makes it clear that this was a miraculous birth. Jesus was conceived without the involvement of a human father; it was a direct act of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he could legitimately be described as the Son of God (Luke 1:35). The second Person of the Trinity had, in fact, become one of us, with a human body and a human nature. The divine Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
Jesus was the “firstborn” of Mary, but he was far more than just another baby.
That’s why a lot of controversy swirls around his identity as the “firstborn.” Colossians 1:15 calls him “the first-born of all creation.” Some groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses point to this phrase to claim that Jesus was not actually God, but was a created being. They teach that God created Jesus first, then worked with Jesus to create everything else.
Their New World Translation inserts the word “other” 5 times in Colossians 1 to make the point that God created Jesus, the Jesus created “all the other things.” The word “other,” however, never appears in the Greek. The translators just added it to reflect their theology.
What does the Greek word for “firstborn” mean?
The word is prōtotokos, which occurs about 8 times in the New Testament. In the Gospels, it appears only in the account of the Christmas story (Luke 2:7; Matthew 1:25) in the literal sense of “the first child to be born.” The same idea appears in Hebrews 11:28 to describe the firstborn Egyptians who were killed in the climactic plague sent by God to free the Jews. It refers to the oldest child in the family.
However, that’s not the only way the word is used. It not only means first in time sequence; it also means first in position or honor. A firstborn son in the Old Testament received extra blessings and a double share in the inheritance. Esau and Jacob battled over those privileges (Genesis 25:31-34). The firstborn son became head of the family when his father died.
Sometimes the position of “firstborn” went to someone who was not actually the first one born into the family. The patriarch Jacob bypassed his three oldest sons and bestowed the blessing of the firstborn to his fourth son Judah (Genesis 49:3-12). And Psalm 89:27 describes David as the “firstborn,” even though he was the youngest of eight sons!
Bottom line: prōtotokos can mean two things: (1) first in time sequence, the first to be born; or (2) first in position, the highest ranking person.
Five passages describe Jesus as the prōtotokos:
Romans 8:29 – God’s purpose is that Christ “might be the first-born among many brethren.”
Colossians 1:15 – Christ is “the first-born of all creation.”
Colossians 1:18 – Christ is “the first-born from the dead.”
Hebrews 1:6 – When God “brought the first-born into the world,” the angels worshipped him.
Revelation 1:5 – Christ is “the first-born of the dead.”
How should we think about Colossians 1:15 and the idea that Christ is “the first-born of all creation”?
The NIV provides a helpful translation: He is “the firstborn over all creation. He existed before the creation, so He could share with His Father in creating it (see verse 16). And He is sovereign over creation, ranking higher than anything in the created universe.
The baby born at Bethlehem was more than just a baby. He was the Creator and Monarch of the universe, who humbled Himself to become one of us. It was God’s great gift at Christmas!
Study Hint: When dealing with a controversial verse, you will often find that people on both sides of the issue build their arguments on only one of the possible meanings of a word. They look for the meaning that best matches their doctrinal position, often ignoring the fact that there are other possible shades of meaning.
In this case, you can simply show that “firstborn” has a perfectly good meaning that harmonizes with the deity of Christ. Then you may choose to go into a deeper discussion of how the context of the passage – or the overall teaching of Scripture – supports the orthodox position.
Q: Should John 1:1 be translated, “The Word was God” or “The Word was a god”?
A: Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the deity of Christ, and claim that John 1:1 merely calls him “a god,” but not full deity. They rest their case on three facts of Greek grammar:
There is no such word as “a” or “an” in Greek, so we sometimes have to add “a” to translate into English, (Acts 28:6).
The Greek word used here (theos) has two meanings: usually the supreme God revealed in Scripture, but sometimes lesser beings like the gods of Greek mythology.
The Greek word “the” is often attached to the word “God” or theos, but it does not appear in John 1:1. Hiding behind the Witness rendering of the verse is an unspoken equation: God + “the” (ho theos) = Jehovah, the Almighty God, God – “the” (theos) = a created being with divine qualities. Witnesses claim that the apostle John deliberately omitted a “the” in the final phrase to show the difference between God and the Word. As the New World Translation (p. 775) explains:
John’s inspired writings and those of his fellow disciples show what the true idea is, namely, the Word or Logos is not God or the God, but is the Son of God, and hence is a god. That is why, at John 1:1,2, the apostle refers to God as the God and to the Word or Logos as a god, to show the difference between the Two.
Is this the proper translation?
No. The equation underlying the Witness rendering breaks down within a few verses. John 1:18 contains theos twice, without “the” either time. According to Watchtower assumptions, we would expect to translate both as “god” or “a god.” Instead, the New World Translation says “God” the first time and “god” the second time. The context overrules their rule.
Why did John choose not to put “the” on the word “God”?
To show which word was the subject of the sentence. In English, we can recognize the subject of a sentence by looking at word order. In Greek, we must look at the word endings. John 1:1 is trickier than most verses, because both “God” (theos) and “Word” (logos) have the same ending. The usual way to mark off the subject clearly was to add “the” to the subject and leave it off the direct object. That is precisely what John did here.
To conform to standard Greek grammar. E.C. Colwell demonstrated in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1933 that it was normal practice to omit “the” in this type of sentence. John was simply using good grammar, and making it clear that he intended to say, “The Word was God” rather than “God was the Word,” a statement with some theological drawbacks. John constructed his sentence in the one way that would preserve proper grammar and sound doctrine, declaring that “the Word was God.”
We often say that the theme of Philippians is joy. And that’s a major feature of the book. However, there is another theme for Philippians that I want to propose – one that only shows up when you consider an unusual Greek word!
© Ezra Project 2020