…he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col 1:18 ESV)
What does this language of preeminence mean? In somewhat caricatured form, this language, as used in some Christian circles, sounds like the purpose of our faith is to convince ourselves how great Jesus is and hold a big pep rally for him. This usage strikes others, however, as a tremendous divine self-aggrandizement scheme. This obsession with image, reputation, and worship is popularly referred to as “narcissism” (we’ll leave clinical definitions of narcissism aside for the time being). Is Jesus a narcissist? What does it mean for him to have preeminence in all things?
In verse eighteen, there are three terms, all of which can loosely mean either “first in rank” or “first in sequence:”
κεφαλή (kephalē) – Christ is the head of the body, the church – “head” is frequently used as a metaphor for authority, but in Colossians 2:19 (and Ephesians 4:16) the head is described as the source of origin from which the nourishment and the unity of the body flows.
ἀρχή (archē) – this word frequently means either “beginning” or “origin.”
πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) – this word can refer both to birth order (first-born), or the special status of being firstborn, especially with regards to inheritance.
What light can we now shed on the word which is translated as “preeminence” (KJV, ESV), “first place” (NRSV), and “supremacy” (TNIV)? From these representative translations we see that they uniformly and exclusively express the notion of “first in rank.” The word in Greek is πρωτεύω (protevō) which is simply a verb form of the adjective “first” (πρώτος, prōtos). It should not surprise us that this verb can have both nuances of “first in rank” and “first in sequence.” This is the only time the verb appears in the NT, but it does appear three times in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT). One passage in 2 Maccabees seems to be of particular relevance:
“He [Judas Maccabeus] gave his troops the watchword, “God’s victory,” and with a picked force of the bravest young men, he attacked the king’s pavilion at night and killed as many as two thousand men in the camp. He stabbed the leading (πρωτεύοντα, prõtevonta) elephant and its rider.” (2 Mac. 13:15)
The “leading (‘first/preeminent’) elephant” was the elephant designated and trained to lead a procession or charge of other elephants, cavalry, and infantry in battle. Here we see πρωτεύω (protevō) being used evidently with the “first in sequence” nuance for the one who leads the way which others are to follow.
How does this relate to Colossians 1? It seems as though all four words (head, ruler/beginning, firstborn, and ‘one bring first’) have both nuances of “first in rank” and “first in sequence.” It also seems like the “first in sequence” nuance is the primary one with the first three. It stands to reason that such is also the case with “to be first.” What would it then mean for Jesus to be the first? What is he the first of?
We are told that Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead in order that he might be the first in all things.” Jesus “being first in all things” is logically dependent on him being the firstborn from the dead. To be “firstborn from the dead” means that in Jesus’ resurrection, he was the firstborn of a family of many other brothers and sisters who would share his resurrection existence. In Jewish thinking, the resurrection of the dead was linked to the restoration of all things, even the entire cosmos. The Colossians passage says that Jesus would be first “in all things.” In verses 15-17, the phrase “all things” is used five times and in each instance it refers to the entire creation. Thus to say Jesus is “first in all things” is to say that Jesus’ resurrection is the first in sequence of what will happen to “all things,” namely the entire cosmos.
When we look to the Resurrection Lord, our “leader,” we see the destiny and future of the life we share with all of creation. Jesus goes before us and participates in the restored life promised for the age to come and makes it present even now. Just as Jesus broke the bonds of death, as the curse of corruption and decay was eradicated from his body, as he was restored to the pleasure of a life fully-alive, so the entire creation will follow after him. Jesus is the source (κεφαλή, kephalē) from which the new life of the entire creation flows, the beginning (ἀρχή, archē) of the restoration of all things, the firstborn (πρωτότοκος, prōtotokos) of the whole family who share his exalted humanity, and the leader (πρωτεύω, protevō) drawing the entire creation after him into eternal life. As he beckons us to follow him, we know full well where he is leading us. He is inviting the world he created and loves to follow him into a future where all things will be made new; where the will be no more mourning, or sorrow, or crying, or pain—where he will wipe away every tear from our eyes.