It’s because firstborn is a confusing word, especially applied to Jesus. Paul tells us that Christ is “the firstborn over all creation.” (Colossians 1:15) That word has been misinterpreted throughout the ages by some – particularly the Arians in the fourth century – to mean that Jesus was the first to be created. Even doing a quick search on the web reveals those who continue the false interpretation today.
But how can the One through whom all things were created be part of the created world?
Firstborn should be read differently. It is meant to “denote one who is chief or is highly distinguished and pre-eminent.” (Barnes) We should understand it as the position of the oldest son, or heir. “Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house.” (Heb. 3:6) And in that role, he is highly exalted by the Father.
So, I have tuned my mind’s eye towards visuals where something is exalted in the landscape. This perched bird works, though it hardly denotes strength and honor.
Then I find the tree above, crowning a grassy hill. It stands apart from the others. A bit higher. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but from my vantage point below it, I like its exalted status.
A little farther on, I wander into a grove of birches, planted in rows. It immediately reminds me of another of Paul’s uses of the word: “that (Jesus) might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” (Romans 8:29, NIV)
Jesus is the eldest son, but not an only child. He leads an ever-expanding group of siblings. I am one of them, I pray you are, too. I like how the background trees in this photo lean as if to peer over each other to see what the foreground birch is doing. The disciples must have looked like this at times.
Growing up, I snapped up any scrap of attention my older brother (six years my senior) would give me. I play guitar today because of hearing him strumming late at night back then. To be invited to hang out in his room at the top of the house was a rare and exhilarating treat.
How much more eager I should be to spend time with my divine older brother.
As I walk, I look up. The sky above is remarkable, almost breathtaking. Here is my image of exaltation! Parallel lines of clouds build up from the distant horizon like planks in a walkway, leading heavenward. Towering above them is a veritable explosion of light and cloud – dramatic, beautiful, and a bit other-worldly.
Alike to the other clouds, and yet very different.
That is the balance I must bring to this concept of firstborn. Jesus is truly our brother, who knows what it is like to be human, who sympathizes with our weaknesses. (Heb. 4:15)
Yet he is the exalted One. Highly distinguished. Preeminent. Glorious beyond our imagination. Begotten, not created.
A divine eldest brother worthy of worship
Jesus, we rejoice that you watch over and lead the family of God. You are the exalted firstborn over all creation. And yet you invite us to spend time with you. Remind us of both today.
Reader: I did my best visualizing this idea of an exalted “firstborn.” What have you seen that pictures it?