“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Genesis 1:26-27, English Standard Version
There is always a lot of talk and conversation about the image of God. Often, people bring out the Latin if they ever use it to simply say the image of God in Latin, imago dei, or they discuss various ways that they ‘feel’ the image means to them. However, I think it is more helpful to look at this concept biblically and let the text speak to us in regards to what the image of God truly is and why it actually matters (which I will deal with in a moment).
The image of God in Genesis 1:26-27 is significant because as a seeming capstone to the parts of creation and the things that are created to fill those parts in Genesis 1 there is a focus on the creation of humanity as being distinct from creation. Sometimes, people will fall prey to boasting in themselves in an unbiblical manner as if they are justified in doing anything they want because they believe Genesis 1 means they are special. That is not what the text is saying. After creating each piece of creation, God calls it good until he arrives at humanity who are called very good.
This is not the first self-help, motivational message that you might find at your local bookstore that is written specifically to make you feel good about yourself. There is a number of theories and many books that have written on the subject of the image of God, but I believe it is helpful to come to the text plainly in Genesis 1 and to grasp how the New Testament interprets the image of God.
First, the image of God means to be created like God. This means that we are created to be, to live, to serve, to love, to rule in a way that is akin to our Creator. Functionally, we are created to imitate God in creation as his royal stewards or representatives. There is a measure of obedience that is in line with this image bearing on the part of humanity as we learn in Genesis 1, when God speaks there is a response to his voice/Word. There is a pendulum in Genesis 1 of God speaking and then what he says happens. God speaks and obedience follows by the created order seems to be a common theme. However, when we get to humanity we find that the story of creation slows down considerably to focus in on humanity and humanity being created in the image of God very good, among all other living things and sharing in a common Creator but distinct as well. Then, we learn in Genesis 3 that humanity doesn’t respond in obedience to God’s commands which is the proper response of creation to the Creator, but humanity through an attack on God’s Word and character trusts in the word of the serpent and their own independent desire over and against the command of the Creator God. So, we find humanity given the task to rule uniquely as God’s under-rulers and to relate to God in a way no other part of creation could, but we also find that something has gone terribly wrong in humanity in Genesis 3. Humanity created in the image of God is: 1) functionally created to image God to creation as his under-rulers doing God’s will as opposed to their own or someone else’s will, and 2) relationally created to image God by loving, trusting, obeying, and bringing glory to God in such a manner that mirrors the Holy Trinity are tainted.
Sin effected the image of God in humanity, and like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, in creation all things early were playing the song of the Creator, but humanity became like Morgoth who thought it would be better to play his own song distinct from the Creator’s theme and harmony. This song with the once unified harmony ruined the symphony of creation which glorified God and tainted the whole of it.
Now, all people are created in the image of God, though that image is tainted by the Fall, tainted by sin (by nature and by choice). What I have said thus far can be comprehensible, hopefully, but also slightly depressing and seemingly grim and hopeless. However, that’s only part of the beautiful history of God’s redemptive plan for humanity. We learn early in Genesis 3 that there will be one who will crush the head of the serpent and the New Testament understands that serpent as sin and the one crushing the head to be Jesus Christ.
What does Jesus do? Jesus is the perfect image of God who died for our sins, was dead and buried, raised to life for our justification, and ascended into Heaven awaiting the time when he will return to fully renew and restore all of creation to it’s intended purpose, making all things new ushering in the new heavens and the new earth when God will dwell physically with us once more as he did in the Garden.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Colossians 1:15, English Standard Version
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” 2 Corinthians 4:4, English Standard Version
Jesus Christ is the image of God and to speak quite plainly, the incarnation which we celebrate and remember every Christmas (though I am probably one of the few who reads Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’ before Christmas annually) is all about God taking on physical flesh wherein Jesus being fully God and fully man, redeems humanity by being the perfect image of God to the point of death on a cross and even beyond to the renewed life afterward which he experienced first, but those who would believe in him are invited to join in this renewed work and are promised resurrection as well.
In the meantime, Jesus calls all sinners to believe in him, to abandon their own image, and to take on his image by imitating him once more. Humanity imaged God in creation, but disobeyed and strayed from that functionally and relationally they were exiled from the presence of God. In new creation through Jesus, humanity is offered by grace the perfect image of the Son of God and the application of this image by the Holy Spirit through sanctification (being made like Christ) redeems every aspect of the individual person as well as the whole community of believers.
The question, then, is how do we image God as Christians and why is that important?
Jesus tells us how to image God when he summarizes the 10 Commandments by citing the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, but he adds loving your neighbor. In short, Jesus says loving God and loving others is the foundation of the entirety of the Bible. He says the Law and Prophets are based on this truth, but when Jesus said this the Bible consisted of the Law (first 5 books of the Old Testament) and the Prophets (the prophetical books of the Old Testament). In Genesis 9:6, God tells Noah that murder is offensive to God because humanity is made in the image of God. The 10 Commandments, then, are based on the image of God. In Acts 17:29, Luke tells us that humanity wasn’t created by humanity in stone or gold or silver. Humanity is not a statue which is dead. People all over the world today make their own gods, but they do not have any life in them. God alone has made a living image and testimony of himself in every single living human being revealing in a general way a living God.
So, we image God by loving God and loving others and though we cannot do this perfectly, we cling to faith in Jesus Christ because he is the perfect image of God who redeemed us and restores us by his Spirit through faith. This is important because the purpose intended for humanity is restored in rightly imaging our Creator which we do through imaging Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God, holding to faith in him.
Now, in a world with millions of images to worship and millions of things that cloud our daily thoughts and delude us into thinking that we ought to be more like something that is not God, why do we believe that lie? Why do we believe that things like makeup will make us eternally young and give us eternal life? Why do we try to dress ourselves up as someone who is truly important with a great job, great things, great family, and great life as if anything that we are could possibly be the faintest reflection of Jesus Christ who has redeemed us by his work? Why look to celebrities, athletes, and politicians when we know in reality that the life they live however fancy and desirable it might appear to be will really do anything for us and is actually far from perfect? Why do we care so much about the clothes we wear, the way we look, the people we are around, and the things we can acquire in life when none of it will last?
In a world and culture where consumerism is everywhere, it can be easy to forget the simple truth that you were created in the image of God and that the only true image of God is Jesus Christ because all humanity is sinful falling short of the glory of God. Though, we like to brand ourselves with music artists, movies, political views, environmental views, cosmetic things, athletic loyalties, and selfish, independent tendencies, we have already been created in the image of God. Adhering to a false image is idolatry according to God and his Word, and in some ways is like taking a picture of a famous painting by a famous artist, blowing the picture up, burning the original or hiding it, and signing your own name to the picture. We are all guilty of violating copyright laws in God’s eyes.
God knows our hearts and our intentions before we make them known and before the world was even created according to Scripture. God loved us before all things were created. Yet, people go about their lives as if they have created themselves and seek to image themselves, creating their own song like Morgoth in Tolkien’s work, also known as the Evil One (Sauron served Morgoth originally as his general and many are familiar with Sauron because of The Lord of the Rings). Back to Morgoth, the Evil One, guess who that is supposed to represent?
Think about when you have a bad thought about someone or say something hurtful to someone or treat someone poorly, you might think you are simply treating some loser in a way they deserve, but the truth is that that loser is created in the image of God and that we have all become losers because of sin anyway. In the Kingdom of God, it’s not that we are all winners, no, but we are all losers who are unrighteous and deserving of punishment for transgressing God’s Law, but we depend on, trust in, obey, and put our faith in the lone winner who is Jesus Christ who alone is sinless, perfect, righteous according to Scripture. Treating someone poorly and not loving them is offensive to God because God is so holy that even treating his image the wrong way is punishable by death. Now, some might claim that this isn’t just and who is God to do these things? I argue that if you ask that, you operate under a false premise that humanity is actually good and that humanity can operate properly apart from the Creator God. You are really saying that you are deserving and that you can command God to do what you want him to do.
Love God and love others is a slogan that is brandished on many church mission statements and plastered in many church buildings on signs and hinted about in various Christian songs, but through faith in Jesus Christ loving God and others is the restoration of the image of God in humanity. This doesn’t minimize the importance of loving God and others ourselves, but through knowing God in Jesus Christ we are called to imitate him which is loving not only Jesus but our neighbor also. Our purpose as human beings is restored in Jesus Christ, and the purpose of all creation will be fully restored when Jesus returns. In the meantime, we are called to imitate Jesus not simply because it’s a pleasant thing to say and something that may go well in Sunday School class though it does, but it is our purpose as human beings and apart from that purpose we are dead images and can do nothing but taint the beautiful, glorious, awesome, powerful image of Jesus Christ.