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We’re wrestling with Colossians 1.15, which says that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation.” What does that mean? We’ve determined that the word firstborn can mean two things: almost always, it means that the firstborn came into existence at a point in time, as the first sibling to be born; but very rarely, it can mean simply that the firstborn is pre-eminent or exalted over something else.
Which of those meanings applies here?
In the previous post I said that it is precisely at this point in the process where Christians make their big mistake. We’re talking to the Jehovah’s Witness, and we really want to win this argument, so we take them to Psalm 89.27 to show them that the word can mean “pre-eminent one,” and then we say triumphantly, “And that’s what it means here in Colossians 1.15!”
Now, hold on a minute. What did you just do?
You picked the meaning you liked the best. You picked the meaning that would help you win the argument. In other words, you didn’t do any exegesis; you didn’t “draw the meaning out of” the passage. You did eisegesis; you “read the meaning you wanted into” the passage. You made yourself the lord of the Scripture rather than its servant. You’re telling it what to say instead of listening to what it actually says.
You bad little Christian, you.
Look. The Bible is true, and the truth is our friend. We want to hear whatever it says. Every time.
So what should you have done?
You have two possible meanings, or nuances, for the word firstborn. How do you determine which one to read in this sentence?
Remember our sample sentence about the sun and chess and hair? How did you know what the word set meant in its 3 occurrences in that sentence?
Context. You looked for clues in the sentence to determine the proper meaning.
So finding that really useful nuance in Psalm 89.27 doesn’t mean that you’re done. On the contrary, it means that you’re just now ready to get started. You have the nuances; now you’re going to set out to determine the meaning. Time to look at the sentence, then the larger context of the passage, then the larger context of Paul’s writings, then the whole New Testament, and then the Bible as a whole. We have a lot of work to do.
Quick reminder. Who’s winning the argument at this point? On etymology and on usage frequency, the Jehovah’s Witness is winning by a mile. 97 to 3. Not even close.
Step 4: Intended meaning in close context
So to the sentence we go. How does Paul intend us to read this word?
If we follow the KJV punctuation, the sentence starts all the way back at the beginning of the paragraph, in verse 9. (Sentences of that length and complexity are not unusual in Paul; the longest sentence in the Bible runs for 12 verses in Ephesians 1, a sister epistle to our Colossians.) We need to read the sentence carefully, looking for clues as to whether Paul is talking about priority in time or priority in standing—whether he’s talking about being earlier or being higher.
So here we go.
- Col 1.13: the Son has a kingdom. The king is usually the oldest son of the previous king, and he’s certainly exalted, so this phrase could go either way. A checkmark for both sides.
- Col 1.15: this is the one we’re trying to figure out. No score.
- Col 1.16:
- The Son created everything. Well, now. If he created everything, then he couldn’t be created, could he? If you had written that, your freshman English teacher would have said it was a logical error. If he’s the first created being, then you should say, “For by him were all other things created.” Now, we know Paul. He’s a rabbi trained by the great Rabban Gamaliel. He wrote Romans. Even setting aside the factor of divine inspiration, how likely is it that Paul made a rookie logical mistake like that? Not very. Checkmark for “higher.”
- And one more thing. The verse starts with the word “For.” Paul is logically connecting the fact that Christ is firstborn with the fact that he made all things. Which reading makes better sense:
- “Christ was created first because he made all things.”
- “Christ is over all creation because he made all things.”
That question answers itself. Checkmark for “higher.”
- And another thing. The verse ends with the statement that all things were created “for” him. Checkmark for “higher.”
We’re just getting started. We’ll continue this little investigation next time.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash