i%na ge/nhtai e)n pa=sin au)to\$ prwteu/wn
“(so) that he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (thing)s”
Before proceeding with the final portion of verse 18, it is necessary to pick up the discussion from the previous note, on the use of the adjective prwoto/toko$. I outlined four key avenues of study in this regard:
- The fundamental meaning of the adjective
- The immediate context of the expression “first-born out of the dead”
- The parallel usage in the first stanza (v. 15)
- The related use of the verbal adjective prwteu/wn (“being first”) in v. 18c
The first two areas (#1 and 2) were discussed in the previous note. Now let us consider the parallel use of the adjective in verse 15 (on this, cf. also the earlier note). The sequence of the stanzas would naturally lead one to conclude that the meaning of prwto/toko$ in v. 18 should be determined based on its use in the first stanza (cf. Barth/Blanke, p. 207). However, in my view, this approach would be incorrect, since it ignores the fact that the use of the adjective in v. 18 represents the older, established context for applying to the adjective to the person of Jesus.
This context, as discussed in the previous note (on #2 above), is the resurrection of Jesus, which provides the basis for the further application in terms of his pre-existence. Here, the Christ-hymn in Colossians displays the same developmental tendency as the Philippians hymn (2:6-11, discussed in earlier notes). In each hymn, the imagery and language of the older exaltation Christology is adapted and applied to a developing pre-existence Christology—since, by extension, Jesus (the Son) was understood to have held a similar exalted position alongside God the Father, even prior to his life on earth. For this reason, we must maintain that the context of the resurrection informs the use of the adjective prwto/toko$ throughout, in both stanzas.
What does this mean for our interpretation of the hymn? The parallelism of thought and thematic structure between the stanzas allows us to conclude that the basic connotation and usage of prwoto/toko$ is consistent. The established Christological tradition (#2) allows us to work backward:
- Verse 18: In accordance with early tradition, the term prwto/toko$ refers to Jesus as the first person to be raised from the dead (in the sense of the final/eschatological resurrection) and given new (eternal) life. In Jewish and early Christian tradition, the resurrection was the primary event marking the beginning of the New Age, which could be understood as a “new creation”; often this entails the idea of genuine re-creation of the universe (‘heaven and earth’, cf. Isa 65:17; 66:22; Rev 21:1; 2 Pet 3:13). As the first resurrected being, Jesus can be considered the “first”, the beginning, of the new creation (Paul expresses this line of thought clearly enough in Rom 8:11ff, 18-25ff).
- Verse 15: Just as Jesus in his resurrection represents the beginning of the new creation, so also did he, in his pre-existence, represent the beginning of the first creation. In saying that he was the “(one) first brought forth” (prwto/toko$), the implication is that he was the first being (person) to be given life and existence.
It is at just this point that the hymn is in tension with orthodox Christology, at least in its developed, post-Nicene form. And, indeed, the use of prwto/toko$ in v. 15 can easily be read in an Arian sense. We may summarize the Arian view simply as follows: the Son was a divine/heavenly being, existing prior to the creation of the universe, but was himself a being created by God. Nicene orthodoxy was shaped as a direct response to this Christology, and was enshrined in the Creed by the phrase gennhqe/nta ou) poihqe/nta (“having come to be [born], not having been made“). In order to preserve a proper sense of the adjective prwto/toko$ in Col 1:15, it was necessary for post-Nicene Christology to adopt (and affirm) the concept of ‘eternal generation’ —i.e., that Jesus was “brought forth” (born) eternally by God the Father. In this regard, the Arian view was condemned in no uncertain terms by the Nicene anathemas: “those who say ‘there was a time when he was not’… they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”.
Such Christological disputes, while important in their own right, are far removed from our hymn here in Colossians. Indeed, the established orthodox Christology notwithstanding, the original sense of verse 15 would seem to be rather closer to the Arian view than the Nicene, especially if, as seems likely, the hymn was influenced by Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom-tradition and Logos-theology (discussed in the prior notes). Keep in mind that in the seminal passage of Prov 8:22ff Wisdom, while pre-existent (and divine), is still created by God (vb hn`q*); in the LXX, the verb kti/zw is used, the same verb used in vv. 15-16 of the hymn (incl. the derived noun kti/si$), and is also referred to as the a)rxh/ (“beginning”) of God’s creation (cf. verse 18 here).
However, we need not conclude from this that the Arian view is per se correct, nor claim it as the proper interpretation of Col 1:15-16. For the moment, it is sufficient to accept the principle that, as of c. 60 A.D., the early Christology had not yet developed to the point it had by 300-320 A.D., when the Arian controversy took root. In the intervening years, early Christians were forced to grapple intensely with the implications—logical and doctrinal—of Jesus’ pre-existence and exalted/divine position as the Son of God. When the Colossians Christ-hymn was composed, such theological questions were only just beginning to be addressed. The use of prwto/toko$ in the hymn reflects first century, not fourth century, Christology.
Let us now return to verse 18, and consider the adjective prwto/toko$ in light of the verbal adjective prwteu/wn in 18c. The line represents a i%na-clause, which gives the reason, or purpose, why Jesus was made the prwto/toko$ out of the dead (i.e., was the first one raised from the dead) by God. It was so that (i%na)—
“he should come to be [ge/nhtai] (the one) being first [prwteu/wn] in all (thing)s”
The verb gi/nomai, the common Greek verb of becoming, often connotes the idea of birth—i.e., coming to be born, though the related verb genna/w expresses this more precisely (cf. above on the phrase from the Creed). The subjunctive form reinforces the idea that this is something God wishes to be, that it expresses His will and purpose. The emphatic pronoun au)to/$ (“he”, cf. verse 17) makes clear that this applies to Jesus.
It is the verbal adjective (participle) prwteu/wn (“being [the] first”) that is most relevant to the idea of Jesus as prwto/toko$; the terms are clearly used in a parallel sense, both as substantive adjectives describing who Jesus (the Son) is. Interestingly, the verb prwteu/w (“be first”) occurs only here in the New Testament, and thus certainly cannot be considered a distinctive Pauline term; it is also rare in the LXX, occurring just three times (Esth 5:11; 2 Macc 6:18; 13:15). However, the idea of Jesus being first is present and expressed several different ways in the New Testament. Perhaps the most notable instance is the famous statement, drawing upon early Gospel (Baptist) tradition, in the Johannine Prologue (1:15, also v. 30):
“the (one) coming behind me has come to be in front of me, (in) that he was (the) first of [i.e. for, before] me”
The thought and theology of this statement, phrased fully in Johannine theological terms, is difficult and complex; I have discussed it in some detail in earlier notes and articles. What is most important to note is how each descriptive term, indicating relative position— “behind” (o)pi/sw), “in front” (e&mprosqen), “first” (prw=to$)—is tied to a key verbal form:
- e)rxo/meno$, present (participle) of e&rxomai (come)
- ge/gonen, perfect of the verb of becoming (gi/nomai)
- h@n, aorist of the verb of being (ei)mi)
Each of these has special theological significance in the Gospel of John, especially in the context of the Prologue. The verb e&rxomai refers to the human life and ministry of Jesus, and is thus in the present tense. The verb gi/nomai is specifically used for things in creation coming-to-be, and especially of a human being born (i.e. the birth of Jesus as a human being, the incarnation). Finally, the verb of being (ei)mi) is exclusively used of God (Deity) in the Prologue, especially the aorist indicative (h@n, “was”) in vv. 1-2.
Thus, in John 1:15, Jesus’ position as “first” (prw=to$) relates specifically to his exalted (pre-existent) place alongside God the Father. As the pre-existent Logos, who plays a central role in the creation of the universe (v. 3), Jesus (the Son) functions as the divine Wisdom of Prov 8:22ff. As previously noted, the Colossians hymn almost certainly draws upon this same line of Wisdom/Logos tradition, having a number of points in common with the Christology of the Johannine Prologue. The main difference is that, in the hymn, the idea of Jesus as the “first” is filtered through the traditional emphasis on the resurrection. Jesus comes to be first, and is the first-born of the new creation, through the resurrection. Being raised by the Father, Jesus is exalted to a position similar to that which he (the Son) held in the beginning, prior to the original creation of the universe. Much the same conceptual framework occurs in the Philippians hymn as well (cf. the earlier notes on Phil 2:6-11).
The expression e)n pa=sin (“in all [thing]s”) emphasizes again the relationship of the exalted Jesus to all things in creation, repeating the use of the adjective pa=$ from vv. 15-17. Only here, the focus is on the new creation. This new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus, to be followed by the resurrection of believers at the end of the current Age. Eventually all of creation (“all things”) will be transformed, according to the pattern of the “first-born”, the “first-fruits” —that is, the resurrection of Christ and those who are united with him (believers). Paul may well have in mind here his eschatological discussion in Romans 8. The preposition e)n (“in”) sometimes denotes “among”, and the expression e)n pa=sin can mean “among all (thing)s” or “among all (person)s”, prompting one to think of Paul’s words in Rom 8:29: “unto [i.e. for the purpose of] his [i.e. Jesus’] (com)ing to be (the) first (one) brought forth [prwto/toko$] among [e)n] many brothers”.