Prōtotokos – The Firstborn Son

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&A

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.”

Coming Up

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

 

2 Responses

  1. All uses of the word πρωτότοκος shows that the first born (or first one brought forth) is always a part of a group.

    It is true that being first-born in a family was strongly connected with pre-eminence. The one born first was usually supposed to be the one to receive the birthright and pre-eminence within that family.

    But notice the blessings given by Jacob at Gen. 49:3, 8-12, 22-26. The blessings given to Judah and Joseph identify them as the true “pre-eminent ones” of his sons. Reuben, the literal first-born, lost pre-eminence even though he continued to be known as the “first-born” (prototokos in the Septuagint) in the family of Jacob and the “beginning” (arkhe) of Jacob’s family – Gen. 49:3, 4; 1 Chronicles 5:1-3 – RSV.

    Be careful not to confuse the rights usually given to the first-born with the person of the first-born. The one actually born first (or first in time in any figurative sense) was known as the “first-born.” In literal families this first-born was supposed to receive pre-eminence in that family upon the death of his father because of his being born first (in time).

    “The first-born son’s privileges and responsibilities are known as his `birthright’ (bekorah).” – New Bible Dictionary, 1982, p. 378.

    At times, however, a first-born would lose his rights (and pre-eminence over the other sons), and they would be given to another son. Even though this person had lost his birthright (and pre-eminence among his brothers), he was still the first-born! – Examine 1 Chronicles 5:1-3 in most Bible translations (e.g., Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV, NAB, JB, etc.) For example, even though Esau lost his birthright to Jacob, he still remained forever Isaac’s firstborn.

    Yes, the use of the word prototokos in the Bible always means one who has come into existence first in time – before all the rest of his “brothers” – the beginning (arkhe) of his father’s creative (or procreative) works

    I Colossians 1:15 we find the words πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως. This is a partitive genitive, thus, it teaches that the first-born is OF creation, that is a part of or a member of the group called creation.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree that a word like prototokos most often refers to the oldest son in a family, but the point of my post is that the word can be used in more than one way. It can carry two ideas: earliest born or highest in privilege. In most cases, the oldest son had a set of privileges (the birthright) that went with his position in the family birth order. But as you pointed out, an “earliest-born” son could lose those rights, as in the case of Esau and Jacob. You could have one without the other. And Psalm 89:27 uses the term to describe David, even though he was the youngest son. He had the position without the birth order.
      I also have a problem with the idea that prototokos always means someone who has come into existence in time. That makes sense only when you’re talking about typical human beings who have a moment of birth. If the context shows that you’re describing the One who created all things, as Colossians 1 repeatedly states, then we should recognize that the term refers to the position of privilege, not to the birth order.
      Regarding the idea of the partitive genitive, it’s important to remember that labels like that are a matter of interpretation. If you have already decided that Jesus is just another created being, then you might want to use that label, but there’s nothing in the Greek grammar that makes such a label certain.
      Anyway, I appreciate your point. The arguments are worth considering, but I am going to stick to my original explanation. Thanks!

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