All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Jn. 1:3)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col. 1:15 NASB)
The answer to the question posed in the title of this teaching is “yes” – Jesus is eternal and He is the firstborn of all creation. While there isn’t a contradiction that exists between both of those suppositions, there can appear to be one if the use of the word firstborn in Colossians 1:15 is misunderstood.
So as to lay some brief groundwork from John’s Gospel, particularly the verse above and what surrounds it, let’s consider some important theology communicated in the opening three verses of John’s book. Before coming to verse three John had already established that the Word, i.e. the eternally preexisting second Person of the Trinity, was with God, and is God (Jn. 1:1). When the beginning happened, He was there (vs.2). In fact, to quote verse three, “all things were made through Him” (vs.3a emphasis added), and lest we miss the comprehensive meaning of “all” the idea is negatively stated in the second half of the verse – “and without Him nothing was made that was made” (vs.3b emphasis added). There we see an implicit witness to the eternal existence of the second person of Trinity – if all things were made through Him, and nothing was made without Him, it speaks to the fact that He is the uncreated Creator.
That brings us to the supposed contradiction of Colossians 1:15. The argument would be something like this – ‘if Jesus is the firstborn of all creation that means, like anything that is born, there must have been a time when He was not.’ Now, if the Bible only used the term “firstborn” in that manner, i.e. the ‘first generated in order of time,’ the objection would carry more weight; but it’s not. The Bible often uses the term “firstborn” to connote preeminence. For example, God said of David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, “I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27 NASB). Likewise, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah saying, “For I am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn” (Jer. 31:9). Manasseh was actually born before Ephraim but Ephraim was graciously and sovereignly granted a greater place of preeminence. And that connotation is not impressed upon Colossians 1:15 from the outside; rather, one only needs to read on to see it found in the immediate context of the passage. By the time Paul gets to the end of verse 18 he writes, “…that in all things He [Christ] may have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18b). But let’s see how the text already negates the possibility of reading Colossians 1:15 any other way by the time you get to verse 18.
First, as is commonly noted, the Greek term for “firstborn” is protokos, which (a) doesn’t mean “first created,” and (b), as we have already noted, has an Old Testament precedent to see it as a term used to connote preeminence without any reference to physical generation. Continuing on, upon reading the following verse one can quickly see that Paul was not using the term “firstborn” in a way to negate John 1:3 and the doctrine of Christ’s eternal pre-existence:
For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. (Col. 1:16)
It was through Jesus that all things were created – it’s hard to imagine one verse stressing that point more. The phrase “all things” is used twice and the breath of that creation covers everything, things in heaven and on the earth, and even things visible and invisible. And then, right after that, Paul wrote, “And He is before all things” (vs.17a) and “in Him all things consist” (vs.17b). And so as to see where Paul was going with this, he wrote in verse 18: “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (vs.18 emphasis added). The point is preeminence. Jesus’ preeminence as the firstborn of all creation is seen in the fact that He created all things (vs.16a), was the One for whom all things were created (vs.16b), was before all things (vs.17a), is the means through which all things consist (vs.17b), is the head of the body, the church (vs.18a), and the firstborn from the dead (vs.18b).
All that to say – the term “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 is not used to designate or communicate Jesus’ generation; it is used to speak of His, you guessed it, place of preeminence. So then, as a result, this verse, as well as its surrounding context, agree perfectly with the truth of John 1:3 and the its immediate context. Jesus is eternal and He is the firstborn of, and over, all creation.