The following is an excerpt from a book written by two noted Evangelical scholars that address the misapplication of Revelation 3:14 by arian cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses to prove that Jesus is the first creature that God brought into being.
“The Beginning of God’s Creation”: The First Being God Created?
The third and last major proof-text commonly used to support the doctrine that God created Christ is Jesus’ self-description in the book of Revelation as “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14 NASB). The issue here is the meaning of the Greek word arche, which the NASB and other versions (e.g., NKJV, ESV) translate “Beginning.” Other translations render the word as “origin” (NRSV) or “source” (NAB), or as “ruler” (NIV).
It is fair to say that any of these translations is possible; the question is, Which is most likely to be correct? In the Arian controversy of the fourth century, Revelation 3:14 apparently was not one of the Arian proof-texts for their belief that Christ was a created being.13 The church fathers from as early as the second-century apologist Justin Martyr generally understood the verse to mean that Christ was the “origin” of creation, meaning not that Christ himself had an origin (which would make him a creature) but that creation originated in and through him. Until recently, this view seems to have been held by the majority of those who have written commentaries on the book of Revelation. Modern commentaries advocating this interpretation include (to name just a few) George Ladd, Leon Morris, and Robert Mounce.14 The meaning “origin” or “source” fits the use of arche for God in Revelation, “the beginning and the end” (21:6; 22:13), making this interpretation quite possible.
An alternative interpretation with much to commend it is that arche in Revelation 3:14 means “ruler.” In most, if not all, other New Testament texts referring to persons, Arche is used to mean ruler in both the singular (1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21; Col. 2:10; and possibly Col. 1:18) and plural (Luke 12:11; Rom. 8:38; Eph. 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:15; Titus 3:1). Moreover, the context offers some support for the meaning to be “ruler.” Jesus’ statement in Revelation 3:14 comes at the beginning of his message to the Laodicean church (3:14–22). At the end of that message, Jesus promises a place on his throne to those who conquer (3:21). Two of the three descriptions of Jesus in Revelation 3:14 also strongly echo two of the descriptions of Jesus in Revelation 1:5. This suggests that arche in Revelation 3:14 may have a meaning similar to archon in Revelation 1:5 (“the ruler of the kings of the earth”).15
Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that both of these explanations are wrong and that the text must mean that Christ is the “beginning,” that is, the chronologically first member of God’s creation. Greg Stafford defends this claim, arguing that arche followed by a genitive expression (such as “of God’s creation,”
tes ktiseos tou theou) normally means “beginning” and the genitive is normally partitive.16 We encountered a similar argument before in Colossians 1:15 with regard to “firstborn” (prototokos) followed by a genitive expression. Here as well, the generalization does not hold up. There are texts that fit the generalization—although their relevance to Revelation 3:14 is tenuous at best17—and other texts that do not.18 At most, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of Revelation 3:14 is possible, but it is not the most likely.
On close examination, then, these three proof-texts for the belief that Christ is a created being (Col. 1:15; Prov. 8:22; Rev. 3:14) do not teach that doctrine. They cannot overturn the clear, explicit teaching of the New Testament that the whole of creation, and indeed every created thing, owes its existence to Jesus Christ (John 1:3, 10; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2, 10–12). That fact sets him apart from all creation and demonstrates that he is uncreated. (Robert M. Bowman Jr. & J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ [Kregel Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI 2007], Part 2: Like Father, Like Son: Jesus Shares the Attributes of God, 9. Jesus: The Right Stuff, pp. 107-108)
- Michael J. Svigel, “Christ as Archein Revelation 3:14,” BSac (2004): 215–31.
- See the discussions of Revelation 3:14 in George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); Leon Morris, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987); and Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, NICNT, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
- G. K. Beale has observed that the Septuagint used both arche(about 75 times) and archon(about 90 times) to translate the Hebrew word rôsh (“ruler”). See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 298. Beale proposes a variation on the “ruler” interpretation, according to which Revelation 3:14 means that Christ is the beginning/ruler, or head, of the new creation (297–301). Beale’s view allows the genitive “of God’s creation” to be partitive, and for arche to be translated “beginning,” since Christ is the first member of the new creation as well as its ruling head.
- Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu Books, 2000), 237–39.
- None of Stafford’s nine examples in the New Testament uses archein reference to a person (Matt. 24:8; Mark 13:19; John 2:11; Phil. 4:15; Heb. 3:14; 5:12; 6:1; 7:3; 2 Peter 3:4). At most, four of his examples from the Greek Old Testament refer to a person. Of these, two translate the Hebrew idiom “the beginning of [one’s] strength” as a description of one’s firstborn offspring (arche teknon, Gen. 49:3; Deut. 21:17; compare the similar expressions in Pss. 78:51; 105:36; possibly also Jer. 49:35). Numbers 24:20, which Stafford also cites, refers to Amalek as the archeof the nations, but since Amalek was not the first nation chronologically, the meaning must be something like the chief or greatest of the nations (see also Amos 6:1). In Greek, Proverbs 8:22, which we have already discussed, says that God created wisdom archon hodon autou, “the beginning of his ways.” This is Stafford’s only useful example, but it supports his conclusion only if he can show that Revelation 3:14 is alluding to Proverbs 8:22. Beale has shown, however, that Revelation 3:14 alludes to Isaiah 65:15–17 (Beale, Book of Revelation, 297–301).
- See, e.g., “rulersof the day . . . rulers of the night” (Gen. 1:16); “the headof the chief cupbearer . . . the head of the chief baker” (Gen. 40:20); “the chiefs of the fathers of the Levites” (Exod. 6:25); “the head of all the assembly” (Num. 1:2; 26:2); “head of the nations” (Num. 24:20); “the head of the people” (1 Kings 21:9, 12); “in every dominion of my kingdom” (Dan. 6:26; cf. 7:12); “the chief of the sons of Ammon” (Dan. 11:41); “the heads of the nations” (Amos 6:1); “the heads of the house of Jacob” (Mic. 3:1). (All translations are the authors’ and are based on the Greek OT.) Note that these examples are consistent with Beale’s interpretation of arche in Revelation 3:14. (Ibid., pp. 317-318)