"Firstborn" (prototokos) is an integral part of the Father = Source idiom so common in the Bible and is closely associated with "beginning" (arkhe) and "only-begotten" (monogenes).
Jehovah (who is the Father alone) is never referred to as "first-born" in any sense. Any person, animal, or thing who is ever called "first-born" in the Bible is always a part of Jehovah's creation and is literally the very first one born in a family with other children following (or figuratively the very first one in a line of others who share the quality or attribute under consideration).
If we are to understand the literal "first-born" to sometimes figuratively mean "pre-eminent" (as some trinitarians attempt to do - primarily to avoid the literal meaning of Col. 1:15: Jesus "the first-born of all creation" - see RSV), certainly it should, occasionally at least, be applied to the truly pre-eminent one of all, The Most High. But this never happens in the entire Bible!
The Most High (Pre-eminent One) is always the Father (Jehovah only) alone- see Mark 5:7; Luke 1:32; Luke 8:28; the parallel accounts of Luke 6:30-35 and Matt. 5:42-45; Ps. 83:18; and Ps. 7:17. But He is never called "firstborn" (or "only-begotten")!
The source or originator of all creation is the Father as the very title itself, "Father," tells us. Prototokos or "firstborn" is nearly always used, as the word literally tells us, to mean one who is the beginning of his Father's creative (or procreative) power. And, in fact, arkhe (obviously meaning "beginning") is often used in conjunction with prototokos. For example, the Greek Septuagint says at Gen. 49:3, "Ruben, thou art my first-born [prototokos] ... and the first [arkhe - 'beginning'] of my children." - Septuagint Version.
"He [Christ] is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation,.... As he is the beginning [arkhe], he was first to be born [first-born] from the dead, so that he should be first [proteuo] in every way" - The Jerusalem Bible.
Prototokos, used twice in this scripture, literally means "born first" - see Young's Analytical Concordance - or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. The New Testament in the King James Version and most other trinitarian translations use this meaning throughout. Here are all the instances of prototokos in the NT: Matt. 1:25 (King James only); Luke 2:7; Ro. 8:29; Col. 1:15; Col. 1:18; Heb. 1:5, 6; Heb. 11:28; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 1:5 (compare Col. 1:18). None of them clearly means "pre-eminent" (although you might be able to "interpret" a few of them as either "first-born" or "pre-eminent" if you tried).
Not only do all of these scriptures that use prototokos have either the certain or the most probable meaning of "first-born," but we rarely (if ever) see any Bible translate them as anything but "first-born" or its literal equivalent except at Col. 1:15-18 where the actual meaning would disprove a trinity concept! A few trinitarian translations force an improper interpretation for prototokos at this scripture only (e.g. NIV, NEB).
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. - see pp. 77-88 in Dr. Jason BeDuhn's Truth in Translation, University Press of America, 2003.
Some trinitarians, however, still insist that the Biblical use of the Greek prototokos can, sometimes, mean "pre-eminent" because they dare not admit the obvious, true, literal meaning of Col. 1:15. Their "evidence" for an interpretation of "pre-eminent" for this word boils down to only 7 examples. Five from the Old Testament (Ps. 89:27; Ex. 4:22; Jer. 31:9; Deut. 21:16, 17; and, rarely, Job 18:13) and, sometimes, an appeal to Ro. 8:29 and Col. 1:18 in the New Testament. - See Walter Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 123.
"he shall call upon me, saying, `Thou art my Father, my God.... And I will make him firstborn [prototokos], higher than the kings of the earth.... my covenant shall be firm with him." - Septuagint. (Cf., KJV, ASV).
It is true that David was not the firstborn of his father Jesse, nor was he the first king of Israel. However, the first king of Israel, Saul, was rejected by God and removed from God's throne, no longer God's king. The second king of Israel, David, was the first king to remain faithful until his death and, hence, the "firstborn" of all the faithful kings of Israel who will be resurrected by God. He will be "firstborn" (first in time on Israel's throne) among all those kings who will return. However, he certainly will not be pre-eminent over one of those other kings who is his descendent: Jesus Christ.
We also find that David is the first king whom God made a covenant with for an "everlasting kingdom" - 2 Sam. 7:12-16. [He is also the first of the descendants of Judah who are to rule forever (Saul was descended from Benjamin) - Gen. 49:10] He may be considered "firstborn" in this sense, also.
The second example (Ex. 4:22) is probably the most-used by those trinitarians attempting to prove a "pre-eminent" meaning for prototokos. Here is how it is worded in the Septuagint: God says, "Israel is [the] firstborn [prototokos] son of me." Context reveals that this is the nation of Israel which Jehovah is calling his "firstborn." So in what sense was Israel first in time in relation to Jehovah? It was the first nation to be chosen by him. It has always (since the time of Moses) been the first, but it has certainly never been "pre-eminent" among the nations!
And, of course, we must not change the inspired writer's genitive noun ("of me") in this verse to "over me" as has been done at Col. 1:15 in a few trinitarian Bibles (e.g. NIV). How ridiculous to "interpret" this so that God says: "Israel is the `pre-eminent one' OVER me"! (But, of course, this is precisely what some trinitarians have done with Col. 1:15 - "the pre-eminent one over all creation"!!
God's calling the nation of Israel his "firstborn son" obviously means the first nation he has caused to come into existence to be his own (and others must someday follow).
So how can we understand Ephraim being Jehovah's "firstborn"? - Jer. 31:9.
Here Ephraim is obviously called Jehovah's firstborn in some figurative sense. (The person, Ephraim, was, of course, long dead at this time.) Certainly neither Ephraim, nor even the tribe of Ephraim, was ever Jehovah's "pre-eminent one" or (more parallel to the trinitarian interpretation of Col. 1:15) "the pre-eminent one OVER Jehovah"!
So to explain the use of "firstborn" at Jer. 31:9, the very trinitarian ecumenical study Bible, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1977 ed., tells us that
"as [the tribe of] Ephraim is restored, so is all Israel" - p. 954.
This interpretation shows the understanding that the tribe of Ephraim is to be restored first in time ("firstborn"), and then the rest of Israel is to be restored. Notice there is no "pre-eminence" interpretation by these highly respected trinitarian scholars!
Another possibility suggested by trinitarians for "firstborn" at Jer. 31:9 is that, since the land of the tribe of Ephraim is where "the original [first] place of worship [the tabernacle] from the time of Joshua to that of Samuel" - (NAB, St. Joseph ed., p. 902) - was located, in Shiloh, it is God's "firstborn" in that respect (again in the sense of first in time). Or, as explained in Jer. 7:12,
"Go now to my place that was in Shiloh [in `Ephraim'] where I made my name dwell at first" - RSV, NRSV, NIV, and cf. NAB (`91) "in the beginning."
But the trinitarian reference work, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, p. 306, Zondervan, 1986, gives us the most probable explanation: the nation of Israel was also called `Ephraim' "by the contemporary prophets, e.g., Isa. 7:1-9, after the central region associated with the name of the younger of the two sons of Joseph."
So we merely have a parallelism at Jer. 31:9 - (1) "I, Jehovah, am a father (I created it) to the nation of Israel, and (2) `Ephraim' (`Israel') is the first nation I have created (`first-born')." - Compare the parallelism at Hosea 11:8. Again we see a confirmation of Ex. 4:22 (the 2nd "example" above) that Israel was the first nation formed at God's direction, and no hint of "pre-eminence" but only the meaning of first in time for "firstborn"! (This is simply one of the many scriptural uses of "Father," "Son," [or "Firstborn," "onlybegotten," etc.] and "brought forth" [or "begot"] to figuratively describe the CREATOR of something and his CREATION!)
And, again, how absurd it would be to interpret this as "Ephraim is the `pre-eminent one' over me [God]."
The 4th example seems, perhaps, the weakest of all of those cited in the OT, but no less an authority than the very trinitarian Biblical Greek scholar W. E. Vine points to Deut. 21:16, 17 as evidence for a "pre-eminent" interpretation for "first-born." The Septuagint reads:
(15) "And if a man have two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and both the loved [wife] and the hated [wife] should have born him children, and the son of the hated should be first-born [prototokos]; (16) then it shall be that whensoever he shall divide by inheritance his goods to his sons, he shall not be able to give the right of the firstborn to the son of the loved one, having overlooked the son of the hated, which is the firstborn [prototokos]. (17) But he shall acknowledge the firstborn [prototokos] of the hated one [wife] to give to him double of all things which shall be found by him, because he is the first [arkhe: beginning] of his children, and to him belongs the birthright." - The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, Zondervan Publishing House, 1970.
It is obvious that prototokos here means only "one born first." The birthright itself must not be confused with the one it is usually given to: the firstborn (prototokos)! And to "interpret" verse 17 as "he shall acknowledge the `pre-eminent one' OVER the hated [wife]" is clearly ludicrous!
Another example from the OT sometimes used by trinitarians can be found at Job 18:13 -
A few trinitarians attempt to interpret this as an example of "firstborn" meaning "pre-eminent" or "foremost." But there is no honest reason to insist that "the firstborn of death" at Job 18:13 must mean something like "the principal disease" (JB footnote). In the first place, to be parallel with the trinitarian-concocted understanding of Col. 1:15 it would have to be interpreted as "the pre-eminent one over death" - which it clearly does not and can not! In the second place, a careful study will reveal that this scripture is literally calling the disease which ravages the wicked man "the firstborn son of death": the first child (or creation) produced by the "god of death."
The NIV Study Bible (1985 ed.) tells us in the footnote for Job 18:13: "death's firstborn. See 5:7." And the footnote for Job 5:7 says:
"sparks. Lit[erally] `sons of Resheph.' In Canaanite mythology, Resheph was a god of plague and destruction [death]. `(Sons of) Resheph' is used as a poetic image in the OT for fire (SS 8:6), bolts of lightning (Ps 78:48) and pestilence (Dt 32:24; Hab 3:5)."
Obviously the NIVSB has referred "death's firstborn" at Job 18:13 to "Sons of Resheph [Death]" to show that the poetic image used in the OT has more than one son attributed to Resheph. Apparently the firstborn of those sons (the first "son" Resheph created) was pestilence. And it is this pestilence (the 'first born of Death') that "eats away parts of his skin ... [and] devours his limbs" at Job 18:13. (This is why the New English Bible renders Job 18:13 as "Death's eldest child.")
"[even] the firstborn of death shall devour his strength; ....
"it signifies not what presides over death, but what death first produces, which are corruption and rottenness, dust and worms; these are the firstborn of death, or the firstfruits and effects of it, and which devour and destroy not the skin only, but the whole body and all its members" - The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible.
The first of the two NT examples sometimes used by trinitarians is Ro. 8:29 -
"Those Christians whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn [prototokos] AMONG many brethren." - RSV.
I have found no Bible (trinitarian or otherwise) which renders this scripture with a meaning of "pre-eminent one over many brothers" in spite of the interpretation a few trinitarian "scholars" attempt to give it. Since the word "among" (en in the NT Greek), not "over," is used here, it cannot honestly be rendered as these trinitarians would like. In fact these trinitarian Bibles translate it as "eldest [prototokos] among many brethren" - NEB, REB, CBW, JB, NJB, AT, and Weymouth. This clearly shows the intended meaning of prototokos as first in time not "pre-eminence" (as a careful study of the context also confirms).
As for the other NT "example," Col. 1:18, "proving" the possibility of a "pre-eminent" interpretation for prototokos, all we have to do is examine Col. 1:15-18 carefully.
"firstborn. Christ was the first to rise from the dead with a resurrection body. .... Others who were raised from the dead ... were raised only to die again." - The NIV Study Bible footnote for Col. 1:18.)
It is also very plain that Paul frequently speaks of certain Christians being resurrected as spirit persons in heaven and that Jesus was the firstborn of these dead, i.e. the first of many persons who are to be resurrected to eternal life in heaven.
1 Cor. 15:20 - "Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits [`the first of millions' - LB; `the very first to rise' - Phillips] of those who have fallen asleep." - RSV and many others.
1 Cor. 15:49 - "Just as we [faithful Christians who have the hope of being resurrected to heaven] have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]."
The Apostle John also writes of this truth and also uses the term "first-born" to describe it: "and Jesus Christ ... the firstborn [prototokos] of the dead" - Rev. 1:5, RSV. Or "first to be raised from death" - GNB; also see LB, Beck, and Beck (NT)). Even the extremely trinitarian The Amplified Bible explains "firstborn of the dead" at Rev. 1:5 as, "that is, first to be brought back to life."
Rev. 2:8 makes a similar statement, but could be phrased as the "only-begotten" from the dead (in the sense that Jesus is the only one to be raised to heavenly life by God Himself. All others are to be raised through Jesus). "The first and the last" simply means the only one in some sense. Adam, for example, was the 'first and the last' in the sense that he was the only one to be created directly from the elements of the earth.
This "firstborn" and "only-begotten" concept for the second creation (resurrection to eternal life) also explains why Jesus can be called the firstborn and the "only-begotten" in another sense: The first of God's creation ("Firstborn") and the only one ('only-begotten') created directly by God Himself.
These examples in Revelation are therefore clearly a repetition of this same well-established truth that Paul is restating at Col. 1:18.
We cannot seriously believe that Paul is telling us at Col. 1:18 that Jesus is the "pre-eminent one" over the dead. Especially since the actual wording by Paul is "the beginning [arkhe], firstborn [prototokos] OUT OF [ek] the dead." - see any interlinear New Testament (or as also confirmed by John "The firstborn OF the dead." - Rev. 1:5). There can be no honest doubt that Col. 1:18 does not mean "pre-eminent one OVER the dead"! It clearly means "the first one resurrected to eternal life in the `new creation'."
Now notice how the first use of prototokos (in Col. 1:15 - "the first-born of all creation") is used as a complement for the second use of prototokos (in Col. 1:18 - "the first-born from the dead").
That is, being "firstborn of all creation" is equated with and added to being "firstborn from the dead" (or first of the final creation - the ones who will receive eternal life). When these two "firstborns" (the first and the last) are added together the sum is one who is "first [proteuo] in everything" - Col. 1:18, JB, NWT, Living Bible (also known as The Book and The Word), and the New Testament in the Language of Today (Beck).
(Also notice how the ancient Aramaic text renders Col. 1:18 - "he is the beginning, the firstfruits of the resurrection from the dead, that in all things he might be first." - Lamsa. Compare 1 Cor. 15:20 - "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep [in death]." - NASB.) In both cases -'firstborn' and 'firstfruits' - we understand the meaning as the first one produced.)
To insist on a literal "born" (rather than the figurative first "created") in Col. 1:15-18 would mean that we must also understand him as literal vegetation ("fruit") at 1 Cor. 15:20 instead of the figurative 'first one produced or created from the dead'!
So when the distinction of being the very first person to be resurrected to eternal life in the "last creation" is added to the distinction of being the very first of God's original creation, we truly have a person who was the very "first in everything." (Proteuo is often translated "pre-eminent" for this verse. It literally means, however, either `to be first' or 'hold the first place' - Thayer. It derives from protos which means first in time, place, or rank - Thayer.)
"Jesus was the first-born (prototokos) of his mother (Mt. 1:25; Lk. 2:7) .... Jesus is also the first-born of his heavenly Father. He is the first-born of all creation...(Col. 1:15-17). Similarly, he is the first-born in the new creation by being raised first from the dead" - New Bible Dictionary, (2nd ed.), 1982, p. 378, Tyndale House Publ.
This respected trinitarian publication clearly admits, then, that "firstborn" is used in the same way ("very first in time") for each of these scriptural uses of prototokos for Jesus: Jesus was the very first child Mary brought into existence (Matthew 1:25); Jesus was the very first person brought into existence in the new creation (Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 15:20; Rev. 1:5); and Jesus was the very first thing brought into existence in God's first creation!!
Furthermore, these two "first-borns" of Col. 1:15 and Col. 1:18 must closely parallel each other in meaning to make the comparison (or "addition") sensible and complete! They are of like kind (firstborn in time, not "pre-eminence") so they can be added together and summed up: "So that he should be first in everything." - Col. 1:18. It would be inappropriate to have the first use of prototokos (Col. 1:15) mean "pre-eminent" for the first creation and the second use of prototokos (Col. 1:18) mean (as it so obviously does) "first in time" for the "last creation."
So Paul is probably making a play on words with the two definitions of proteuo when he sums up by saying Jesus is "first [proteuo] in everything." He must intend the meaning of `first in time' to agree with the rest of his metaphor.
There is no proper reason to change the intended meaning of prototokos at Col. 1:15 so that it differs from every other Bible use of the word. The only reason that some trinitarians attempt to interpret it as "pre-eminent one" is that they don't like what it actually, literally says!
Finally, notice that even if Col. 1:15 could be properly translated as "the pre-eminent one of all creation," it could only mean one thing: that he is the highest one of all created things (that is, he IS ONE OF THOSE CREATED THINGS)!
It cannot mean that he is the highest individual over all created things. This is an impossible interpretation for two reasons:
(1) The word "pre-eminent" actually rules out the possibility of a double interpretation. For example: "The leader OF the wolves" is capable of a double interpretation: (A) "The Leader" could be one of the wolves himself. And (B), although unlikely, it is possible that the leader of the wolves is not one of the wolves himself. It is possible that he is a dog, coyote, or even a man. However, the phrase "smartest (or `smartest one') OF the wolves" does not allow for such an ambiguity, and it is, therefore, certain that this "smartest one" IS one of those wolves.
"Pre-eminent" (or "pre-eminent one"), like "smartest" (or "smartest one"), also does not allow for that ambiguity. The "pre-eminent one OF creation" has to be a part of that creation himself!
(2) As we have already seen, the Bible clearly and repeatedly states that Jehovah (the Father alone) is pre-eminent over all creation. Therefore Jesus cannot be the pre-eminent one over all creation but is the first creation of God!
We have also seen that in the Bible the term "firstborn of ..." never means "pre-eminent one over ..."! "Firstborn of Abraham" for example never means the "pre-eminent one over Abraham." Even if we could properly allow "pre-eminent" as a meaning for prototokos, it would mean no more than "pre-eminent one of Abraham's creation (or procreation)"! Whenever anyone calls Jesus the firstborn son of God, it plainly means the first of the "children" God has produced. (Obviously it does not mean "the pre-eminent one over God.") Therefore, when Jesus is called the firstborn of creation, it clearly means that he is the first of that creation that God has produced.
And, again, even if "firstborn" could mean "pre-eminent one," Col. 1:15 would still be saying that Jesus is the "pre-eminent one" of creation. In other words, he is part of that creation, albeit the first and highest part!
We should also consider that those whom God calls son are those whom he has created: Luke 3:38; Rev. 21:7; Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6; Ps. 89:6 [f.n. in RSV and compare LB]; Gal. 3:26. Jesus' very title, the Son of God, indicates that he was created. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia tells us that angels are called `sons of God' in the Scriptures. Then it states:
"the creation of angels is referred to in Ps 148 2, 5 (cf Col 1 16). They were present [in the beginning] at the creation of the world ... (Job 38 7)." - pp. 132, 133, Vol. 1, Eerdmans, 1984 printing.
Therefore, when Col. 1:15 says Jesus is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (RSV), we know Paul is speaking of someone who is the very first creation made by God (and was created "in his image" long before man was also created "in his image")! - Cf. Gen. 1:26, 27. - See the IMAGE study paper.
There are only two valid, scriptural understandings for "firstborn of ...." If it is used with a single individual (e.g., `firstborn of Moses'), then it means the firstborn has been produced (or created) by that individual. If it is used with a group of individuals (e.g., `firstborn of the herd' - Deut. 12:6; 15:19; `firstborn of our sons' - Neh 10:36), then it always means one who was produced as a part of that group!
That's why, for example, "the firstborn" at 2 Chron. 21:3 may be understood only as either "the firstborn of Jehoshaphat" or "the firstborn of all Jehoshaphat's children." In the first case the firstborn is the first production (or creation) by Jehoshaphat. In the second case the firstborn is the first to be created of all Jehoshaphat's CHILDREN. But in either case it is speaking of the first one created!
Clearly, then, if Jesus is called the firstborn of God, he is being identified as the one first produced by God. And when he is called the firstborn of creation (a group of individuals), he is being identified as one who was produced or created as a part of that group. In other words: Out of all things created by God, Jesus was the very first.
I do know, however, that protoktistos was never used by any inspired NT scripture writer. It should certainly be no surprise, therefore, to learn that it isn't used at Col. 1:15, 18 !