Who Is Jesus? The Preeminent One

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 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. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

As we look into Colossians 1:15 again this morning, we are going to see in the second phrase of the verse a truth that is really important to our understanding of who Jesus is. That is the question we are trying to answer over the next several weeks: “Who is Jesus?” Not who is He according to the culture, or according to other people, or according to our desires or imaginations, but who is He really. And the only way we can get to the heart of the answer to that question is to go to the source of truth, which is God’s Word.

Last week we saw that He is the image of God, or as we read in Hebrews 1:3, He is the exact imprint of the Father’s nature. That is important to know about Jesus Christ. He is, by His nature, in agreement with God the Father in every way, exactly so! They have no disputes, no disagreements, no personal struggles with each other. The Father does not have to argue and convince the Son of anything. They, being one and fully united in nature, they hold the same views on everything!

Who are you most like? Who do you agree with most often? A brother, a sister, your spouse, a really close friend? Whoever that person may be in your life, do you and that person agree 100% of the time? If you think you do, then maybe you really don’t know that person as well as you think! Even if you do know someone well and agree with them almost all the time, people change, thoughts and ideas evolve over time. I have friends, and you probably do too, that I thought I would always be really close with, and after many years we have nothing really in common. Agreements can turn into differences over time. Not so with the Father and the Son. They don’t change, and they fully agree.

This is what it means to understand the unity of the Father and the Son. This is what is meant by Christ being the image of the invisible God. This may, for some of us, change how we read and understand our Bibles. An important doctrinal, theological truth.

There is no unity like the unity found in the Trinity, which includes the Father and the Son. There is no earthly example that fits what they share perfectly, it is a extraordinary commonality between them. We should find great comfort in this unity. We don’t have warring deities with unpredictable behaviors, we have three persons of the Trinity perfectly at peace, and we too should find great peace in that truth.

Another answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” is found in the second phrase of verse 15.

[He is] the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15b)

There are a few verses in the Bible which have been difficult to understand, and even wrongly understood to the degree of becoming phrases that work counter to God’s truths. What I mean is a passage taken, lifted out of its context, and distorted in its meaning so that it becomes a weapon against truth. And it is interesting that some phrases that may seem confusing are also, or can be, some of the most glorious truths if we understand them rightly. This is one of those phrases. Some have taken this phrase to mean things that it does not mean. Here the harmful falsehood that has come from this verse is the idea that Jesus Christ is a created being, that He is not a part of the divine Trinity, that He is not an eternal being, but was created as a man by the Father.

Many have argued this point about Jesus, taking the phrase, “the firstborn of all creation” to mean that Jesus is not divine, but created. And by doing so some have tried to devalue our Lord, making Him a mere human like you and like me. It is easy to see that if we lift this phrase out of the Scripture and take it alone, we and others could conclude that Jesus was a created being, born into this world like us. To think that, like us, He did not exist, and at birth came to exist. We could take it that way if we only look at this phrase. But to interpret it that way would be to ignore and/or reinterpret many other passages that teach otherwise.

If you have ever had many conversations with people who belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you may have heard them make this argument that Jesus is not God. They argue that He was instead a good man, a prophet even, but not God incarnate. They will go to this very passage to try and make their point. Others will do the same. They will say, “See, he is just a man, created like you and me.”

Context is so very important here. The context that surrounds this phrase in Colossians and the context of the Bible in general greatly dispute such a view. We don’t want to miss the magnificent truth that we have here, what is true about it, so let’s take a few minutes and look at what it means that Jesus is described as the firstborn of all creation.

Let me first say that firstborn here, the Greek word from which we get the word firstborn, it can mean firstborn chronologically. For instance…

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

In that passage, Mary gave birth to her very first son, chronologically. This son, actually born first, was, of course, Jesus. We can easily see from the context what is meant here.

But “firstborn” has a wider meaning throughout the Bible that carries with it great significance. Firstborn is often used to describe a prominent position, or you could say rank. Children in ancient cultures, and even in some today, were ranked. The rank went like this: there was the firstborn, and then there were all the others. Two positions: the firstborn, then everyone else. You may say, “Well, I am the number two child out of five children, so I would be of a higher rank than number five, right?” Well, not really, you might as well have been number five because all children after number one fall into the same bucket. I know we may look at that as unfair, but that is how it was. This does not mean the firstborn was more loved than the others, only that they had distinct privileges as the firstborn.

It was the firstborn who had the right of inheritance. And what is interesting is that in some cases, the one spoken of as firstborn, or who had the rights of firstborn, was not the firstborn chronologically. For example, Esau was born first chronologically, but Jacob ended up being the firstborn in rank and received the inheritance. What did it mean then to call Jacob the firstborn? It meant that he had rights over the other, Esau in this case. He had the right of inheritance, so in that sense he was higher in rank.

Let me show you another use of “firstborn” in the Bible. When God spoke to Moses and was giving him instruction as to how to approach Pharaoh and what words to speak, this is what He said…

22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.” (Exodus 4:22-23)

God identifies Israel, His people, as His firstborn. God is giving them a certain rank and is communicating to Moses and Pharaoh the great position that Israel holds in His eyes. “These are not just any people, not just any children, they are my firstborn.” It is like, “Don’t mess with my firstborn.”

Now these, the Israelites, were not firstborn in creation, they were not God’s first creatures, that is not the point. The point is the position that God has given them; they held first place with God in rank and position. The point is that God is using the word “firstborn” to speak of rank and position, not of literal birth or chronological birth.

John MacArthur makes a great point on this from Psalm 89:27, where the Father speaks of Jesus as His firstborn. That passage says, “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”

“When the Father says He will make the Messiah His firstborn, He defines it or explains what He means by that when He says that He will be, ‘the highest of the kings of the earth.‘” In other words, firstborn here means rank. He will be the highest of all the kings on the earth!

We don’t have to be confused over this word firstborn. We can easily, as context supports, understand it to mean “position” or “rank.” But that is a view somewhat foreign to most of us and to our culture.

I don’t think there are many of us who would write out our wills and only include our firstborn as the recipient of the family inheritance. I am the youngest sibling in my family, I’m glad we don’t tend to think that way now! But even if we did, it would be kind of that firstborn to share his inheritance with the others, right? We will see later that that is exactly what Christ will willingly do as the one who has the right to all of the inheritance of the Father!

So we can see that in the Bible, firstborn in general has been used to define rank and position.

We can also see and understand this view of the word firstborn from the New Testament and from the book of Colossians. From the New Testament, the Gospel of John chapter 1 helps us with this. We see from John 1 that Jesus cannot be a created being or firstborn in that sense.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

And then in verse 14 we see that the one described as the Word in verse 1 is Christ Himself.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

So Jesus, the Bible says, was or existed in “the beginning.” And even further, that He was in the beginning with God and that He was God. Then in verse 3 that all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.

When the Jehovah’s Witness or anyone else tries to argue that Jesus was a created being or firstborn in that sense, we can point to this and say, “No, the Bible says that everything that was made was made through Jesus. And that without Him nothing was made or created.” Jesus existed before creation began, and was the one through whom all was created.

The problem exists theologically when we or others try to use the term “first created” in place of “firstborn,” or if we try to define those the same. Jesus was not first created, but He is firstborn. He was not created, but He does hold first place in rank and position over all that has been created.

I hope you don’t see all this discussion today as overkill on this topic. You may say, “I get this, I believe that Christ was from the beginning, not a created being, now let’s move on to something else!” But I just want to be sure we are all clear. I can’t tell you how many people I have spoken with who have been really stumped over this passage and similar ones. I would like us to not only believe the truth about Jesus in this regard, but to also be able to explain why, to even help others here, not to be thrown off when someone approaches us and argues that Jesus is simply a man, a created being like the rest of us. I want us to be able to stand and say, “No! He is not just a man, He is the preeminent one, He is of highest rank and position, He is the one who inherits the earth and all things, He is not a mere man.”

Now let’s look at some context from Colossians and see where that leads us in this discussion. What Paul so wants the Colossians to grasp is that Jesus is it! I mean that He is everything! He is above all, He is preeminent over them, over their city, their culture, over all the earth, over the universe, over all! He is the one to be admired, to be pursued, to lead us to higher thoughts, to reign over our public life, our private life, our world of entertainment, work, rest, over everything.

How does Paul set this up for us? Let’s look at three phrases from this paragraph, from Colossians 1:15-20, that give us this indication of the meaning of firstborn that is indicative of His position and rank among creation.

The last three words from verse 16 – “and for him.” The whole phrase is, “all things were created through him and for him.” The fact that all things were created for Him indicates Christ as the firstborn in rank and position, and in His inheritance. He gets everything! Everything is for Him, for Christ! By the way, that even includes you. This is the ultimate inheritance! The entire universe and all that is in it! It is all His. In this sense He is the firstborn.

This gives us perspective concerning who this Jesus Christ is, and what His place is in the world. It also gives us perspective regarding His life lived here and His death on a cross. This preeminent one, Creator, King, inheritor of all things, the firstborn, of highest rank and order, this prestigious one over all, He willingly gave Himself to suffer and die for you and for me. Where else do we see such a thing? The greatest giving himself for the most lowly? It is not foreign to us to consider great, wealthy, prestigious people, but it is foreign to us to see such a person of the highest order laying himself down for the most lowly. Christ did such a thing. The firstborn for the lowly. The preeminent one for the most undeserving of creatures. 

Another phrase that helps us understand his position as the firstborn is the first phrase of verse 17: “And he is before all things.” Christ being before all things speaks of His place as not a creature, but as creator. He was before any creation took place. So even from the context of Colossians, we see this continued theme that Jesus is from eternity. Therefore, being described as “firstborn” cannot be intermingled with “first created.” He was before all things.

Another phrase, one more for today, found in verse 18: “that in everything he might be preeminent.” The whole verse says, “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. This word “preeminent” is an important one regarding Christ. It basically means having paramount rank, dignity, or importance. It goes right along with what our understanding is to be regarding the ancient idea of firstborn.

There is no one greater, higher, of more significance than Jesus Christ – no one. Not your spouse, your child, your best friend, your fiancé, no one. This is not only His place in the universe, but is to be His place in your heart, in your life, and in my life.

This is the awesome truth of the gospel, that this Christ would enter into a relationship with us and share what is His, His inheritance with you and me.

Do you remember in Luke 12 when a man in a crowd shouted out to Jesus regarding his brother who did not want to share the inheritance? Apparently the man shouting was not the firstborn, and was feeling like he deserved more. The firstborn can always choose to share, his brother could have graciously shared his inheritance with his siblings, but I guess in this case he chose not to.

But with us, in our relationship with Christ, we have become joint heirs. He is of highest rank, the inheritance of all things is His, and yet our Lord, our Savior, by His grace and in His kindness, does not withhold from us what is rightfully His. The preeminent one, the firstborn, shares with us!

11 In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)

giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:12)

and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17)

Who is Jesus? He is the image of the invisible God, an exact imprint of His nature. He is the firstborn of all creation, the preeminent one, deserving of all things. And He is the one who has loved us and brought us into His inheritance!

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)