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I would like to better understand the meaning of firstborn in Col 1:15 by surveying how the only word (to my knowledge) scripturally translated as firstborn in Greek, prototokos, is applied in nonmessianic contexts to establish Biblical consistency in interpretation of the word prototokos in messianic verses like Col 1:15.
Is there ever a time where 1st in chronology is absolutely excluded from the meaning of firstborn outside of messianic passages?
Is there one single example outside of a messianic context where the term firstborn (prototokos in Greek) is applied in scripture to anyone or anything that is not somehow chronologically the firstborn/produced of a contextually relevant category?

Note: Answering this question with messianic passages is essentially question-begging. I would consider passages like Ps 89:27 messianic in nature and open to a variety of literal and non-literal interpretations of the term firstborn.

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    It does have to do with chronology if the meaning of the word firstborn will be expounded and not equivocated. Very good question. Oct 8 at 23:55
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    This is not a good fit for this heremeneutical website. Which text are you asking about ? Which Greek word is under consideration ? There are several Greek words that carry similar or comparative meanings. Which one are you asking about ?
    – Nigel J
    Oct 9 at 7:41
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    Isaac is called monogenes and he was not Abraham's 'firstborn'. Ishmael was. But that is noted in a number of questions on this site. It indicates the concept of relationship (rather than mere chronology) to the term monogenes.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 9 at 7:43
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    Being chronologically the first, being part of a contextually relevant category, and the relationship between Colossians 1:15 and chronology, are three distinct topics; it seems like you are asking three separate questions in single post.
    – Lucian
    Oct 9 at 14:29
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    @NigelJ, I'm not requesting a word study on monogenes which, to my knowledge and as challenging it is to interpret, is never translated as firstborn.
    – Austin
    Oct 9 at 18:25
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Can "firstborn" really have nothing to do with chronology?

Answer: It depends. First, we must understand that, outside of Christ, we are all spiritually dead.

This is a very interesting question because, as noted by other contributors (quite extensively), the term "firstborn" represents many, varied aspects in the Old Testament.

However, I would suggest that virtually all references to "firstborn" look forward to Christ. He is the One real "firstborn" of all Creation in the sense that, upon His death, burial, and resurrection, all the world past, present, and future could be saved. Christ retroactively fulfilled ALL that had come before and all that would follow through obedience to God.

Since that time, it has been the same for all who wish to become the saints of God. Suppose we hear Paul's specific pronouncement in this matter:

Romans 6:3-4: "[Do] you not know that all of us who have been baptized [water immersed] into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death... so we too might walk in newness of life."

Contrary to claims that these passages are purely metaphorical, they represent a very literal description of our own death, burial, and resurrection: it is God who performs the cleansing in pure water. If He did not, the rite would be meaningless.

We too must, therefore, be spiritually reborn since we are dead to sin — DEAD to God prior to that time. Outside of Christ, we truly are "the walking dead." We MUST, therefore, be cleansed of all our past sins through this very same procedure: water immersion.

We then arise from the water in "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4) — that is, we are REBORN from spiritual death. This is our first resurrection (Rev. 20:6), a spiritual resurrection. (The second resurrection occurs when we enter the Presence of God (1 Cor. 15:50ff.)).

Jesus was "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29). Prior to Christ's atonement for humanity, no one could ever be saved. It is only through the death of the Lamb (of God) that anyone has any chance at all for eternal life, including all the O/T faithful.

It is in this sense that the Lamb of God, Jesus, was the "firstborn". Many other references to "firstborn" are symbolically looking to Christ.

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The concept of ‘firstborn’ is a crucial one. And an understanding of this concept is important. You are asking about a natural aspect of ‘firstborn’, but what’s needed is the conceptual understanding.

Biblically, the firstborn is not so much a chronological term - although it does include this, rather it is a spiritual feature. Namely, that whatever is first, as in firstborn, belongs to your God/god - whoever that may be.

Once ‘out’ of Egypt, once they were His - any firstborn were to be set aside for him.

EXODUS 13:2 Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine.”

And any already born ‘firstborns’ were to be redeemed, that is, the firstborn were redeemed back to God.

EXODUS 13:13 [snip] And all the firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem

Why is this background important? Because we need to ‘tie’ our understanding of ‘firstborn’ to ‘seed’. Once the firstborn was redeemed, or is Gods, then the ‘seed’ of that firstborn is Gods. Anything that the firstborn “produces’ is then Gods.

The firstborn is the one who is ‘the seed’ - and it is this that’s crucial, not so much the chronological aspect. So … this verse in Colossians …

COL 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation

Needs to be taken together with the following verse … in particular…

COL 1:16 [snip] …. All things were created through Him and for Him

Because, all was created starting with Gods ‘seed’. In the beginning God said. That is, He spoke. That is, whatever God ‘speaks’, is his word. And here is the ‘key’ …. The ‘word’ is ‘seed’. There are parables that (try) to explain this! Mark 4, Matthew 13.

So relate ‘seed’ to, or rather with firstborn. So here we are not looking at the aspect of ‘firstborn’ in a physical chronological aspect - but rather as the origin.

This concept of ‘firstborn’, and then ‘seed’ may have trouble being ‘naturally understood’, but in fact grasping it will unlock a greater understanding of particularly the Old Testament, example, why that 10th plague in Egypt was the factor in the Egyptian ‘gods’ [Pharaoh] finally releasing Gods ‘firstborn’ (Israel) - but that’s another question.

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First-born – πρωτότοκον – implies that others are to follow. The significance of “firstborn” has its roots in the Old Testament. Being the firstborn son carried prestige, honor, privilege, blessing, authority, preeminence, and double portion inheritance. Being the firstborn was also a matter of consecration to God, Exodus 13:3,11-16.

“First-born” defines the first of anything that is born of the flock, the heard, or of men. Jesus became the first, the προς τον τυπον – the one for the pattern. He is the prototype of a new society of those who by faith, become sons of God, Romans 8:29. These sons of God are those of whom John says in John 1:12-13, “are born not of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of the will of God.” Jesus became the forerunner, the older brother, the firstborn among the sons of God through his resurrection, “You are my Son; Today I have begotten you.”

In the New Testament, Jesus is called “firstborn” eight times. As first-born:

a. He was appointed him “heir of all things.” Hebrews 1:6

b. He was the first-born of Mary, Luke 2:7, Matthew 1:25. We know Mary had other children whose names are recorded in Matthew 13:55-56, but Jesus was her firstborn. He was the first in the order of others who followed.

c. He is called the firstborn among many brethren, Romans 8:29. He is the prototype – the first, into whose image all Christians are to conform.

d. He is called the firstborn in Hebrews 12:23 to whom the church belongs.

e. He is called the firstborn of every creature, Colossians 1:15-17. He is not firstborn because he was created first. He is first-born because:

 All things were created by him. He is the active cause of all things that exist and the one to whom all things belong.

 He is before all things – this confirms divine preeminence.

 He holds all things together. This illustrates divine power.

d. He is called firstborn from among the dead, Colossians 1:18.

This does not mean that he was the first one ever resurrected from the dead. It does not even mean that he is the first one resurrected from the dead never to die again. What it means is that he holds preeminent status because:

 He is the head of the body.

 He is the arxa – the beginning, as in the active cause, the one through whose power all things had their beginning.

 AND, because He is the first one of a new society of people who are called sons of God.

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Jeremiah 31:9 They shall come with weeping, And with supplications I will lead them. I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters, In a straight way in which they shall not stumble; For I am a Father to Israel, And Ephraim is My firstborn

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  • Isn't this context just saying that Ephraim will be united with Israel as God's firstborn? Israel has already been declared God's firstborn son in Exodus 4:22. Ephraim is not here declared firstborn above the other tribes. Ephraim is firstborn only because they are a part of the other tribes.
    – Austin
    Oct 8 at 17:11
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    Thank you for the question. I'm not entirely sure of your direction here. I thought you were asking for an example of "firstborn" used "that is not somehow chronologically the first born/produced of a contextually relevant category"? Is that not exactly what is seen here, a usage of firstborn neither chronologically or contextually the first born? Sorry I am not understanding
    – Brainardo
    Oct 8 at 17:30
  • @Brainardo: The OP, most likely, has something like this in mind.
    – Lucian
    Oct 8 at 17:59
  • Well if the term firstborn relates to the nation of Israel who is the first holy nation brought into existence by God, then Ephraim, as one of the 12 tribes of Isreal, would have been apart of the nation that was chronologically first at the beginning and so Ephraim is still chronologically first. Furthermore Israel and Judah and Ephraim and Judah are used interchangeably. Ephraim is another name for non-Judean Israelites. Which again just affirms that Ephraim was God's firstborn from the beginning and still considered God's firstborn. A corporate identification indicating corporate chronology
    – Austin
    Oct 8 at 18:00
  • A relevant text which needs to be compared with who the literal first-born of Israel was - Reuben, not Ephraim. Yet the younger brother Judah is given priority, preeminence over all the other sons of Israel, by their father. See Gen. 49:1-12. So although 'firstborn' nearly always refers to the first born child (hence is chronological) the Bible shows that God is not bound by human primogeniture.
    – Anne
    Oct 9 at 16:11
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I assume the OP is referring to the Greek word πρωτότοκος (prototokos) which, according to BDAG has the following meanings:

  1. literally, pertaining to birth order, firstborn
  • Gen 4:4 (LXX) - while Abel brought the best portions of the firstborn of his flock. And the LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
  • Gen 25:25 (LXX) - And the firstborn came out red, hairy all over like a skin; and she called his name Esau.
  • Gen 48:18 (LXX) - “Not so, my father!” Joseph said. “This one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
  • Ex 11:5 (LXX) - and every firstborn son in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the servant girl behind the hand mill, as well as the firstborn of all the cattle.
  • Num 18:15 (LXX) - The firstborn of every womb, whether man or beast, that is offered to the LORD belongs to you. But you must surely redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals.
  • Luke 2:7 - And she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
  • Heb 11:28 - By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch Israel’s own firstborn.
  1. Pertaining to having special status associated with a firstborn, firstborn - a figurative extension of meaning #1 above, (a) of Christ
  • Rom 8:29 - For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He [Christ] would be the firstborn among many brothers.
  • Col 1:15 - The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
  • Col 1:18 - And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things He may have preeminence.
  • Heb 1:6 - And again, when God brings His firstborn into the world, He says: “Let all God’s angels worship Him.”
  • Rev 1:5 - and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and has released us from our sins by His blood,

(b) of humans, God's people,

  • Heb 12:23 - in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven. You have come to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect
  • Ps 89:27 (LXX) - I will indeed appoint him [David, V20] as My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
  • Jer 31:9 (39:9 in LXX) - They went forth with weeping, and I will bring them back with consolation, causing them to lodge by the channels of waters in a straight way, and they shall not err in it: for I am become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born.

Thus, by sheer frequency, of the occurrences of πρωτότοκος (prototokos) listed above, five refer to Christ as Messiah, the rest refer to humans and animals.

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    Thanks, Dottard. It would seem like special pleading if the only time firstborn does not refer to the first chronologically produced of a category is when we want to consider the word as it applies to Jesus.
    – Austin
    Oct 9 at 0:23
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    @Austin - this is not quite correct. In quoting BDAG I omitted lots of extra-Biblical material such as a reference quoting a criminal as the "firstborn" of Satan. There are many more that show that "firstborn" means most important rather than chronological priority. Further, Jesus was not the literal firstborn of the dead (Col 1:18) but the most important as others were resurrected before Him.
    – Dottard
    Oct 9 at 1:12
  • @Austin - I have added further references to show the second meaning better.
    – Dottard
    Oct 9 at 6:13
  • Thanks, Dottard. My understanding of reference to God's people as firstborn is messianic since the messiah is identified as God's firstborn. And God's people are identified with the Messiah. The identity of God's people with the Messiah is established in Daniel 7 where in verse 13-14 the son of man is given a kingdom, it is actually the people of the Most High who are given a kingdom in verse 27.
    – Austin
    Oct 9 at 18:45
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    in response to your comment I'm only interested in Biblical examples. Regarding Col 1:18, 1 Cor 15:20-23 explains that Christ was raised first and then those to be raised after him. It also explains in verse 37 that the body that dies is not the same as the body that is raised and in verse 42 the body that is perishable becomes imperishable. Being born from the dead is different from simpy being brought back to life from the dead. It's not merely a restoration. It's a complete remodel. You are recreated and thus reborn. Of this process Christ was definitely first.
    – Austin
    Oct 9 at 19:00
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The Greek word protokos (Strong's 4416) conveys the meaning of first-begotten (from the root Strong's 4413) foremost in time or place, before, beginning. So in Col. 1:15, The Word (Jesus) is being identified as the first, the initial creation of God. The beginning of his creative acts. This is clear by the words, firstborn of every creature KJ, creation AS. At Col 1:15, Creature/creation is ktisis (Strong's 2937) and means original formation, creation, or that which is created. Being the beginning or first of all creatures is a very simple concept to understand unless one has an agenda to dispute the nature of a created being.

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  • The word has no beginning, Jesus has according to the gospels and it was ~2000 hrs ago.
    – steveowen
    Oct 9 at 23:03
  • @ACME. Very good answer. Thank you for the simple and concise definition (not fabricated). With the phrase "The Word (Jesus) is being identified as the first, the initial creation of God" do you have Revelation 3:14 in mind too? Oct 9 at 23:10

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