I'm a firstborn child, in actuality and in a smattering of the stereotypes tied to firstborns. We may veer toward the controlling, the anxious, at times. Some of us can't help but, well, lead. We've been doing it our whole lives, whether we wanted to or not.
I fell in love with another firstborn, and somehow we make it all work! It helps when some more easy-going personality traits are in the mix there as well, as is true for both of us!
Anyway, the idea of being firstborn is an important one in scripture, and we see it again in Colossians 1, which I'm still focused on because it is amazing!!
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy (verses 15-18, NIV).
"Firstborn" appears twice in this amazing passage passage on the supremacy of Christ.
Sadly, some serious misinterpretations have crept in for some regarding "firstborn" and, sandwiched in between these two terms, "head."
The first misinterpretation isn't one that I've personally had to untangle in my own mind. My brother just led an outstanding Bible study teaching us about how to talk about Christ with Jehovah's Witnesses. The New World translation that they use adds a word that is not in the original Septuagint Greek: "other." So, in this translation, the second half of verse 15 reads, "because by means of him all other things were created in the heavens and on the earth." So, they say that God created Jesus, and then Jesus helped God to create all other things.
At a first glance you can see how this passage might be construed to say this (especially if you helpfully add an extra word...). However, this is why study and the "phoning a friend" approach (even if that friend is a deceased theologian!) is so key, to really grapple with challenging passages and not assume you're interpreting them correctly.
"Firstborn" in Greek is prototokos as in "first, foremost, in place order or time; rank dignity" (https://www.preceptaustin.org/colossians_114-16#first). N.T. Wright, in his commentary on Colossians says, "It therefore conveys the idea of priority in both time and rank." As if, a firstborn was actually the favorite and most important in actuality rather than in our fallen minds! We see this with King David, who God calls his firstborn son...only David was actually the youngest son of his human father:
He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth (Psalm 89:27).
I missed this when recently reading Jeremiah 31:9, but my brother showed me that Joseph's son Ephraim is called the firstborn ("for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn") despite Manasseh actually being so, because God is making a point here about His people Israel and their status in His eyes. Clearly this has to do with importance rather than actual birth order. N.T. Wright, uniting both the time and position meanings of "firstborn," says, "It is in virtue of [Christ's] eternal pre-existence that the Son of God holds supreme rank." So, the temporal or time part about Jesus being firstbon is true in one sense--He predates literally everything because He created it! So, Jesus is not a lesser being. The Jehovah's Witness interpretation of Colossians 1 is not correct.
The second firstborn reference is one that I've had to grapple with somewhat. It piggy-backs on the phrase in front of it. In fact, it explains it further.
Jesus is the head. Of the church. Not in an ecclesiastical sense, like a cosmic pope. But, as Spurgeon said,
Christ is joined by an indissoluble union to his people, and is the head of their glory, their wisdom, and their strength. O beloved! as the sun is to be seen mirrored, not only in the face of the great deep, but in every little drop of dew that hangs upon each blade of grass, so is the glory of Christ to be seen, not only in his universal Church, but in every separate individual in whom his Spirit has wrought holiness.
This passage is speaking of Christ as head of the church, as Paul does elsewhere. I have to admit, when I see "head" in Scripture, I sometimes have a visceral reaction because I've heard some--not in my family or church family--give pretty gross distortions of headship. So, I've been refreshingly surprised when I read these passages in context myself, such as when I spent a couple of months on I Corinthians this year. That book is what caused me to really dive into my theological commentaries, because so much has been distorted by others in mainstream Christianity.
For example, I've heard I Corinthians 1:11 quoted like this: " But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man..."
But, this is not the full verse! It finishes with this phrase: "and the head of Christ is God."
Now, unless we are anti-Trinitarian heretics, headship here cannot possibly mean what the extreme Christian Right, Bill Gothard-style crew interprets it as meaning (by the way, catch Shiny Happy People on Amazon Prime if you get a chance. It will open your eyes and break your heart). For example, that all men have authority over all women (oh wait--it's not just Gothard who said this, but Wayne Grudem and John Piper in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood...and you can follow the trail of shattered faith and sexual predation in the wake of these teachings...).
If the head of women is man in the same way that the head of Christ is God, then, to quote Inigo in The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means"!
Here's I Corinthians 11:3 again, as it actually reads:
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
But, it is very clear that in this particular passage at least, Paul is using a river metaphor here; "head" as in source (like a river source). As Paul expands his point here, he argues from Creation. The Quiverfull, Gothard folks say that this means he's drawing upon some mandate here, appealing to the creation order, and then they extrapolate their own version of what this means in terms of authority. However, what Paul actually says regarding creation is, "Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man...For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God." The argument is focused on who comes from whom. Who is the original source or head, and who isn't? It's not "head" as in authoritarian ruler, but in the original source. He's literally talking about Eve being made from the rib of Adam.
And this makes sense regarding the relationship between God the Father and the Son. It's not an exact metaphor--nothing is when discussing the Trinity. But God the Father is not eternally begotten; the Son is. This is the point Paul is making: the Son is eternally begotten from the Father and woman is created from the side of man, since in the Genesis narrative, Adam is created first.
N.T. Wright, at a symposium (https://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/womens-service-in-the-church-the-biblical-basis/) many years ago, put it this way:
But what does Paul mean by ‘head’? He uses it here sometimes in a metaphorical sense, as in verse 3, and sometimes literally, as when he’s talking about what to do with actual human heads...But the word he uses can mean various different things; and a good case can be made out for saying that in verse 3 he is referring not to ‘headship’ in the sense of sovereignty, but to ‘headship’ in the sense of ‘source’, like the ‘source’ or ‘head’ of a river. In fact, in some of the key passages where he explains what he’s saying (verses 8, 9 and 12a) he is referring explicitly to the creation story in Genesis 2, where woman was made from the side of man.
N.T. Wright also adds that Paul may mean different things regarding headship in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5, and that these are tricky things (in terms of the disputed authorship of these passages, the cultural contexts, and the ease of interpretation). And yet, these tricky passages that give brilliant scholars pause, to the point that they humbly admit to not having all the answers, seem to offer no check on the strident and overly-confident conclusions that many in the Christian Right endorse.
The same Greek word for "head" is used in Colossians I and I Corinthians 11: kephale. Ditto for Ephesians 5.
Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Some have pointed out that the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon, one of the most exhaustive lexicons of Ancient Greek, does not define "head" in terms of authority at all but rather physical heads, heads of rivers, noble heads, etc. Here's the whole section in the lexicon: https://perseids-project.github.io/lsj-js/kephale. Theological writer and speaker Joe Misek has a wonderful exhaustive summary of all the metaphorical uses of "head" in the New Testament (I had just finished looking each one up myself before seeing this! I'll share his; he puts it so clearly.): https://www.walkingwithalimp.net/2019/07/19/the-meaning-of-head-in-the-new-testament-and-implications-for-debates-over-gender/ . At the very least, we should consider the ways in which this word is used in the New Testament in order to understand its meaning.
What does headship look like between God the Father and Christ, if the Bible tells us that God the Father is the head (kephale) of Christ? Even if the term did mean "authority over" in some of the passages, we see a model in the Godhead that looks very different from how these groups (as well as fundamentalists from other religions) describe male-female power dynamics.
Take the frequent times Jesus says that He can do nothing apart from the Father. We may see this as weakness, as subordination.
This is because we have an incorrect lens. Where we see weakness, Jesus shows loving communication. Where we see subordination, Jesus is displaying humility. He humbled Himself, giving up some of His glory when he became man (the disciples get a sneak peak at a fraction of his glory, at the Transfiguration and are completely bowled over to the point incoherence.).
As I've been writing about, the Trinity is a "We." Asserting one's view independent of others and over and above others in an overly confident way is not masculine (or, is Jesus not masculine??), is not Biblical, and does not follow the model that Jesus Himself shows.
When He says, "I can do nothing" (like in John 5:19: "Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does."), it doesn't mean that he is physically or spiritually incapable of doing anything. Rather, He is stating matter-of-factly that He actually does nothing apart from the Father. This is simply true. As Dallas Willard taught us, Jesus' statements are refreshingly clear (for example, the Sermon on the Mount as a matter-of-fact teaching on what the Kingdom of Heaven actually looks like, should we choose to give it a try and opt in). Jesus does absolutely nothing in isolation except for that one horrible moment on the cross. And that separation was unimaginable torture for Him.
This is our model of headship. Whatever headship means, Paul is grounding it in the model of God the Father and the Son. So many on the Christian right see subordination between God the Father and Jesus and therefore men and women, and this is truly heretical. I saw the anti-Nicene (i.e. Nicene creed) features plain as day in Wayne Grudem's eternal subordination of the Son nonsense even before I started studying the Trinity extensively. Thank you, thank you, Reformed Christian educators who got the truth "in there" in my heart---may you also have your eyes opened to where your theology has shifted along with the culture. Not the "Left" this time, but the unchurched Right--changing your theology with some subtle and not-so-subtle over-emphases to match a cultural and political agenda.
Anyway, back to Colossians!
N.T. Wright, in his Colossians commentary says,
Paul has been exploring the different meanings of the Hebrew reshith ('firstborn, 'sum-total,' 'head') and he now reaches the final stage: he is the beginning and...the firstborn from among the dead...This part of the poem refers particularly to Christ's rule over the final great enemies of mankind, sin and death. With Jesus' resurrection, the new age has dawned...For Paul, as throughout the Bible, sin and death were inextricably linked, so that Christ's victory over the latter signaled his defeat of the former.
Amen and amen!
How sad that we can miss this great point and get bogged down into gender and hierarchy in the oh-so-very human way that we do, when the entire point of this passage is Christ's supremacy and ultimate victory over all!
Wright's commentary helpfully concludes this section with some take-away applications, including:
A further application concerns the church's task in the world. There is no sphere of existence over which Jesus is not sovereign, in virtue of his role both in creation (1:16-17) and in reconciliation (1:18-20). There can be no dualistic division between some areas which he rules and others which he does not. 'There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan [quoting C.S. Lewis here]. The task of evangelism is therefore best understood as the proclamation that Jesus is already Lord, that in him God's new creation has broken into history, and that all people are therefore summoned to submit to him in love, worship and obedience. The logic of this message requires that those who announce it should be seeking to bring Christ's Lordship to bear on every area of human and worldly existence. Christians must work to help create conditions in which human beings, and the whole create world, can live as God always intended...respect for persons and property, maintenance of family life and of the ecological order of creation, justice between individuals and groups. Christians must be at the forefront of those working to promote such causes.