15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by [ESV footnote: or by means of] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And 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. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)
Old creation or new creation?
Firstly, what Colossians 1 doesn’t mean: Colossians 1:16 doesn’t mean that Christ is the creator of either creation. The three prepositions used : by means of him (Greek en), through him (Greek dia), and for him (Greek eis), are still showing God as creator, not Jesus, but God creating, by means of, through, and for Jesus.
The main question with “firstborn of all creation” is which creation is meant? The old creation – the sun and moon, earth, animals, Adam – or the new creation – new men and women, born again in Christ, not in Adam; what Paul calls the “new man”? Or does Paul mean both creations, counting both creations as one?
Clearly “firsborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:17) means the new creation only. But “all things .. created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,” would naturally mean both the physical old creation and the invisible things of the new creation. So it seems likely that “firstborn of all creation” includes both creations being made “by means of”, “through” and “for” Jesus.
That then creates a time problem for some readers. A literal reading of Colossians 1:15 is one reason why groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and other churches with ‘Arian’ theology read that Jesus was literally present when God made Adam. Or even that Jesus himself created his own ancestor Adam. A similar reading of Colossians 1:15 is also made by many traditional Trinitarians, although modern Trinitarian writers like Tom Wright (Paul, The Prison Letters 2002 p.152) are better able to separate out Jesus into being the active agent of the new creation on one hand, while also in God’s purpose in the old creation on the other hand.
Perhaps the best aid to understand Colossians here is to go to the almost parallel material in the companion letter, Ephesians:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
This is much simpler. It says that the new man and woman is created in Christ (Greek en again). But it also says that God prepared the new creation beforehand. We know from John and Paul that that was “from the beginning”.So, in conclusion
Colossians 1:15 primarily means firstborn of the new creation; but the implication is that Christ was also in God’s purpose first in the sense of primacy before the old creation. And this makes sense because, remember, Jesus himself, the son of Mary, was physically a part of the old creation as well, which is why he learned, suffered, was tempted and died. Before being raised and glorified by God.
See also an answer on a related verse: John 17:5 “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”