Figuring out the “Firstborn” in Colossians 1:18

Author Andrew B. Perrin In Col 1:18 Paul describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead.” How can this be when Lazarus was resurrected before Jesus (John 11:44)? To understand what Paul meant here, we must investigate the meaning of the Greek word behind the English word “firstborn.”

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Preliminary Definition

FiguringOutFirstborn

The easiest way to pinpoint the Greek word translated as “firstborn” is to use The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. This resource aligns the English translation with the corresponding Greek text. When we look directly below the English word “firstborn” in this resource we find the word prōtotokos.

From here we can use a Greek lexicon to formulate a working definition. If using print resources, take note of the number 4416 in the reverse interlinear, and look this number up in the Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. In Logos Bible Software, I simply double-click on prōtotokos in the reverse-interlinear and am directed to the appropriate entry in my preferred Greek lexicon, which is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testamentand Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). Both resources tell us that prōtotokos refers to birth order—in the first century, this signifies rank, or status.

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through Greek Literature

Since the New Testament was written in a Greek culture, investigating how words were used in other Greek writings is an integral component of our study. Through concise survey articles, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNTA) plugs us into this Greek context.

Looking up “firstborn” in the Table of English words in TDNTA directs us to the article on page 965. In Logos Bible Software, this resource is a double-click away. TDNTA states that prōtotokos is rare in Greek literature; in its place authors often used the synonym prōtogonos meaning “first in rank.”

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, prōtotokos was applied to humans (Gen 38:6) and animals (Gen 4:4), both of whom God uniquely claimed as His own (Exod 13:2). The term also functioned as a national designation for Israel as the object of God’s special favor (Exod 4:22). Closer in time to the New Testament, Philo, a Greek Jewish Philosopher (20 BC–50 AD), described Cain as a prōtotokos since he was very literally the first human physically born (Gen 4:1)—who had a special rank as Adam’s heir. In all of these usages, the term denotes the special rank of the “firstborn” in relation to others.

Step 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the New Testament

We can narrow the scope of our study by focusing on the New Testament uses of prōtotokos. This can quickly be done using Logos Bible Software’s speed search, or manually by looking up the word “firstborn” in Strong’s and counting all of the occurrences listed with the number 4416. Both methods reveal that prōtotokos occurs eight times in the New Testament.

Six of these occurrences refer directly to Jesus. At the most basic level, Jesus is described as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Luke 2:7). Just as Philo referred to the physical birth and rank of Cain, Luke refers to Jesus as the first child of Mary.

In Col 1:15 Paul states that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation.” Paul may be referring to Jesus being the “first” eternal, divine being made flesh and born into the created order. Paul may also be referring to Jesus’ rank as head of creation. Jesus is the preeminent one who entered into the created world (Heb 1:6). The phrase “firstborn of the dead” occurs twice (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), alluding to the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, not the timing of the resurrection. Because of this event, Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29).

Step 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context

Assuming that theology is conveyed at the level of single words is a danger associated with word studies. However, the true indicator of the author’s intended meaning is how the word fits within the immediate context; for us this is Col 1:15–20.

Paul’s use of prōtotokos twice in this short section suggests that the “firstborn” is an important concept for the passage as a whole. The wider context of other New Testament writers, like John, who affirm Jesus’ pre-existence and eternality, also helps us understand what Paul is saying and not saying by this term.

Although Paul’s first usage of prōtotokos evokes the idea of rank and chronology, the second occurrence of “firstborn of the dead” refers to the idea of rank and not chronology. We know this precisely because Lazarus was raised from the dead—making Col 1:18 about the “special status” of Jesus. Col 1:18 extends this priority from creation to re-creation in light of resurrection. As “the firstborn of the dead” Jesus is the resurrected one that guarantees new life for those who follow Him. This understanding is the basis for Paul’s message of reconciliation that is fully dependent on Jesus’ preeminence as prōtotokos (Col 1:17, 20).

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Discovering the Power of Luke’s Gospel

Author Andrew B. Perrin

Whether you have spent countless sleepless nights pouring over Greek flash cards or can barely manage to order a gyro, you can reach beyond your English Bible to the original Greek in four easy steps.

In Luke 8:46, a desperately ill woman touches Jesus in order to be healed. Jesus then says, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me” (Luke 8:46 ESV). What does the word “power” mean in the passage? What precisely went out from Jesus? To find out, we need to investigate the Greek word behind the English word “power”.

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Working Definition

For those who don’t read Greek, the most effective way to make the English to Greek transition is to use a tool like the ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. Simply find the English word “power” in the reverse interlinear and look at the Greek word placed below it—δύναμις (dunamis).

Now that we know that the Greek word for “power,” dunamis (δύναμις), is the subject of our investigation, we need to formulate a working definition.

If you are using print books, you can use Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible for this step. The key to efficiently using this resource is to take note of the Strong’s Number allocated to the word dunamis (δύναμις) in the interlinear Bible—1411. We can use this reference number to look up the word numerically in the Greek to English Dictionary-Index to the New Testament appended to Strong’s. Here we see that dunamis (δύναμις) can refer to a literal or figurative force, specifically the ability to work miracles, or even to a miracle itself.

We can skip this step entirely in Logos Bible Software by just double-clicking a word in a reverse interlinear. When we do this, our preferred lexicon* automatically opens to dunamis (δύναμις). For me, this lexicon is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testamentand Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). BDAG tells me that dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke 8:46 falls under the definition of “potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability.” BDAG also includes a sub-definition, which reads: “specifically the power that works wonders.”

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through the Greek World

With one of these working definitions in mind, the next step is to investigate how this definition functions in literary contexts and biblical passages.

The key to an efficient study of a Greek word is not to reinvent the wheel by personally searching through literature of various time-periods. Rather, streamline the process by consulting a resource such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in One Volume) (TDNT). The TDNT provides concise articles that explain how and where a word occurs in various passages and contexts.

This resource accommodates to English readers by providing a table of English keywords. When we look up the word “power” we are directed to the entry discussing dunamis (δύναμις) on page 186. This entry discusses the word in Greek literature (such as Homer’s Iliad) and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint).

While dunamis (δύναμις) in Greek literature often had to do with various forces (powers) moving and governing the universe, the Greek translators of the Old Testament viewed “power” as something God himself possessed and exerted. This shift in meaning further develops in the New Testament.

 Step 3: Explore the Usage of the Word in the New Testament

When looking up a particular word in the New Testament, there are two things that should be considered: frequency (how many times a word appears) and distribution (where the word appears).

We can use an interactive chart in Logos’ Exegetical Guide to determine the frequency of a word in the New Testament. Our word, dunamis (δύναμις), occurs 119 times. Although this is interesting, this statistic only provides us with a panoramic landscape. We must supplement it with details of the terrain—the context (or specific distribution) of each occurrence. We can use Logos’ concordance function or Strong’s to ascertain the predominant meanings attached to this word by the New Testament authors.

Discovering the Power of Lukes Gospel

Whenever we study a word, we should focus on how it is being used in the passage we are investigating. The fact that Luke uses the word dunamis (δύναμις) fifteen times throughout his account—a frequency equaled only by Paul in 1 Corinthians—establishes that “power” is a central theme and emphasis of his Gospel.

Now that we know that “power” is a central theme in Luke’s Gospel, we need to determine how the word is used throughout the book. Each occurrence of the word can be categorized by what it describes. When we categorize the different occurrences of dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke’s Gospel, we find that it describes four things.

In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel dunamis (δύναμις) comes from the “Most High” (Luke 1:35). However, once Jesus endures a period of testing in the wilderness there is a shift. Jesus becomes “filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). From this point onwards, Jesus independently uses and distributes divine power, like God the Father (Luke 9:1; 10:19). Luke uses “power” to establish Jesus’ divine identity. Jesus’ “power” causes onlookers to scratch their heads and ponder the identity and message of Jesus (Luke 4:36).

Now that we have determined how Luke uses the term in general, we can return to Luke 8:46 to reassess the meaning of dunamis (δύναμις) in light of our entire investigation.

The use of “dunamis” in Luke:

-God (1:35; 4:14)

-Jesus’ heavenly authority (21:27; 22:69)

-Jesus’ miracles (10:13; 19:37)

-Jesus’ healing ministry (5:17; 6:19; 8:46)

Step 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context

Judging from the usage of the term in various contexts (and specifically in Luke’s Gospel), it seems fair to conclude that this occurrence of dunamis (δύναμις) refers to the divine power contained and originated in the person of Jesus.

The purpose of Luke 8:46 is to highlight the connection between Jesus’ divinity and the actions performed in his healing ministry. Numerous times throughout Jesus’ healing ministry, divine “power” finds its source in him (Luke 5:17; 6:19; 8:46). Dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke 8:46 subtly expresses that the presence and effect of “power” in Jesus’ earthly ministry indicates his divine identity.

To Review:

The Greek writers used dunamis (δύναμις) to describe spiritual and universal “powers”. The translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) used the word to describe something that originated from, and was distributed by, God. Among other usages, Luke primarily used “power” to describe something God the Father and Jesus possessed.

Notes:

*A lexicon is an in-depth dictionary about a specific corpus of writings. Because of this, lexicons can contain more lengthy and detailed entries than dictionaries.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 1.