Defining the key terms
So you’re deep in conversation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and you’re discussing the deity of Christ, and the spokesman clobbers you with Colossians 1.15: Christ is “the firstborn of all creation.” He’s the first created being.
Well, you treat this passage like any other. You follow the exegetical process to determine what it means. Since this is a short passage and a simple statement, the process will be a little simpler than if you’re working in, say, Ezekiel 40-48, so this shouldn’t take long.
Step 1: Identifying the key words
You begin by looking at the words. (Were you expecting something more, well, profound?) What are the key words in the passage? You’re going to start with the subject and the main verb, then other nouns and verbs, then adjectives and adverbs. If you were dealing with a longer passage, you’d look closely at conjunctions as well, to see how the statements fit together.
The main verb of the verse is simply a form of “to be,” which in this case is fairly simple. There are nouns—image, God, creature—which here have fairly plain meaning (image excepted, perhaps) and in any case are not the focus of the theological disagreement. Both you and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are going to agree that the key word, the central character in the disagreement, is the adjective firstborn. What does it mean that Jesus is “firstborn”? Everything hangs on the answer to that question.
Step 2: Possible meanings–etymology
Now that you’ve identified the key word(s), you need to find out what they mean. This process will involve multiple steps.
You begin with a critical observation: words mean more than one thing. If you look up any word (in any language, come to think of it) in the dictionary, it’s pretty much always going to have more than one definition. There are exceptions, mostly very technical terms—deoxyribonucleic, for example—but every biblical word I’ve ever studied has multiple definitions (or, as the scholars like to say, “nuances”).
It might seem like the logical place to start is with the question, “Well, where did the word come from?” Or, to put it more technically, what is the word’s etymology? The word firstborn looks pretty obvious, and it is: it comes from two words meaning, um, “first” and “born.” So, the first one to be born, or to come into being. Jesus is the first one to come into being.
Who’s winning so far? The Jehovah’s Witness.
Hmm. Well, how about the Greek? I don’t recommend that people who don’t know Greek set out to “check the Greek,” for reasons both practical and professional, but I’ll save you the trouble. The Greek word is prototokos. Proto, “first.” Tokos, “born.”
He’s still winning.
I’ll tell you a little secret, though.
Etymology is a lousy way to find out what a word means. There’s even an exegetical error called the “etymological fallacy.” The reason for that is really simple: we’re in the image of God, and God’s creative, and consequently so are we. One of the ways we show that is by coming up with creative uses for our existing words. One reason you can’t understand half the things your teenagers say is that they’re using existing words with meanings that only they and their friends know. Back in the 80s Michael Jackson decided that the word bad actually meant “good,” and we’ve been messed up ever since.
If I were to say, “When the sun set, I polished my chess set while my wife set her hair,” you wouldn’t have any problem understanding the sentence, although it would seem like an odd juxtaposition of observations. The word set occurs in that sentence with 3 completely different and unrelated meanings (to go down; a collection of objects; and to harden in place), but if you’re a native speaker of English, it didn’t even slow you down. How did you sort out the meanings?
Context. The accompanying words sun, chess, and hair told you which meaning, or nuance, I intended in each instance.
So to find out what our word firstborn means, we’re going to have to do some work with context.