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2. Image of God

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What does it mean when Scripture says humans are made in the image of God, and what are the implications of it? Certainly, this is one of the most important aspects of being human, since in all of creation only humans are given that designation. Genesis 1:26-27 says:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.

In considering humanity as the only Divine image bearers in creation, Kent Hughes said this:

Though you could travel a hundred times the speed of light, past countless yellow-orange stars, to the edge of the galaxy and swoop down to the fiery glow located a few hundred light-years below the plane of the Milky Way, though you could slow to examine the host of hot young stars luminous among the gas and dust, though you could observe, close-up, the protostars poised to burst forth from their dusty cocoons, though you could witness a star’s birth, in all your stellar journeys you would never see anything equal to the birth and wonder of a human being. For a tiny baby girl or boy is the apex of God’s creation! But the greatest wonder of all is that the child is created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. The child once was not; now, as a created soul, he or she is eternal. He or she will exist forever. When the stars of the universe fade away, that soul shall still live.1

As mentioned, God’s creation of humans in his image and likeness is very important and significant (Gen 1:26). The word “image” means a “copy,” “figure,” or “shadow” and carries the idea of representation (cf. Ex 20:4).2 In the ancient world, it was common for kings to place statues of themselves in the realms which they ruled.3 Likewise, God, the king of earth, placed representatives of himself on earth. However, these representatives were not statues but living beings, and they were called to rule (Gen 1:26). The word “likeness” can refer to a pattern, shape, or form. It means something that was patterned after something else.4 When created, humans were patterned and shaped after God.

Therefore, again, we must ask, “What does it mean for humans to be made in the image and likeness of God?” There has been much discussion over what single or few characteristics that humans have which reflect God’s image. Certainly, this doesn’t refer to humans being physically made in God’s image, since God is a spirit and doesn’t have a physical form (John 4:24, cf. Lk 24:39). With that said, clearly, there are many ways in which humans reflect God without being identical to God. The fact that the word “likeness” is used of Adam having a son named Seth who was in his “likeness” and “image” supports this. Genesis 5:3 says, “When Adam had lived 130 years he fathered a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and he named him Seth.” No doubt, Seth had many of the same characteristics as his father, Adam, as they had the same DNA, but they were at the same time different. Likewise, humans are like God in many ways but also different in others.

God’s Image Reflected in Humans

What are some of the ways that humanity reflects God’s image?

1. Humans were initially made righteous and moral like God. And though they now have a sin nature because of the fall, they still have a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong, which convicts them when they do wrong and affirms them when they act justly. In fact, Romans 2:14-16 says that God will judge unbelievers who are unaware of God’s written law, by the law on their hearts.

For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

In addition, though having a sin nature which leads to wrong motives and actions, humans still have a tremendous capacity to do good, which reflects the moral and righteous character of God.

2. Humans are also relational even as God is relational. God has always lived in a loving, communal relationship with the other members of the Godhead—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That God created us as relational beings is distinctly seen in that God did not just make one person, he made a man and woman who together would be one flesh (Gen 2:24). Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Therefore, as humans we need relationships. We need family, friends, church, and community. Apart from these, it will lead to isolation and unhealthy emotions. Humans as relational beings reflect our triune God.

3. Humans were made as functional beings, meant to rule the earth, even as God rules the heavens. In fact, in Genesis 1:26, it says, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule…” The text says that humans were made in God’s image “so they may rule.” For this reason, some have said this is the chief aspect of humans being made in God’s image.

4. Humans were made with a spirit just as God is spirit. This immaterial part of humanity’s essential nature allows them to worship, pray, and sing to God and also impact the spiritual realm. We will never see a dog or cat praying for an hour; however, humans do because they have an immaterial nature which is like God’s.

5. Humans are emotional beings even as God is emotional. Scripture says God is a jealous God who will not share his glory with others. Exodus 34:14 says, “For you must not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” He is also a loving God. First John 4:8 says, “God is love.” God is also wrathful and angry against sin and injustice. Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a just judge; he is angry throughout the day.” His Spirit is grieved over sin.” Humans reflect God’s emotional nature, though ours is commonly tainted by sin (cf. Jam 1:20).

6. Humans are intellectual beings even as God is an intellectual. Humans can study and discuss theology, politics, history, and sports. Likewise, God says this to his people in Isaiah 1:18 (ESV), “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord.” God made humans a thinking people, and though it requires faith to follow him, it is not blind faith (Heb 11:6). God gives credible reasons: When Christ came to the earth, he did miracles, fulfilled Bible prophecies, and prophesied various things, including his own death and resurrection, so people would believe in him. God also gave us his written Word with many doctrines in it to study and guide us through life. Humans are intellectuals because God is one.

7. Humans are living beings even as God is living. Unlike the idols of the pagan nations who surrounded Israel, God forbade the creation and development of idols. No doubt, the reason was in part because idols cannot represent him as they are dead. This was the argument that Paul made with the pagans in Athens for why they should not worship God with idols. In Acts 17:28-29, he said,

For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination.

In fact, throughout Scripture, God is often called the “living God” because he is not a dead idol like the gods of the Gentile nations (Matt 16:16, John 6:57). Jeremiah 10:10 says, “The Lord is the only true God. He is the living God and the everlasting King.” Psalm 42:2 says, “I thirst for God, for the living God. I say, ‘When will I be able to go and appear in God’s presence?’”

8. Humans are immortal beings who will live forever, even as God is immortal. Certainly, humans physically die, but their spirits never will. And one day their bodies will be resurrected and united with their spirits to live forever in a place of eternal bliss or eternal judgment. The immortality of humans (and specifically their spirits) is a reflection of them being made in God’s image (1 Tim 6:16). In Romans 1:23, Paul simply called God the “immortal God.”

9. Humans are creative, even as God is creative. God created the heavens and the earth and all within them, including their beauty. Likewise, humans are creatives. They create art, music, dance, theater, and literature, among other things. These all reflect God who is the ultimate Creative.

10. Humans can interact with the physical world through their bodies, which God can likewise do as well. As mentioned, God does not have a physical body, yet the human body allows us to do what God does as well in many ways. Wayne Grudem’s explanation of this is insightful:

For example, our physical bodies give us the ability to see with our eyes. This is a Godlike quality because God himself sees, and sees far more than we will ever see, although he does not do it with physical eyes like we have. Our ears give us the ability to hear, and this is a Godlike ability, even though God does not have physical ears. Our mouths give us the ability to speak, reflecting the fact that God is a God who speaks. Our senses of taste and touch and smell give us the ability to understand and enjoy God’s creation, reflecting the fact that God himself understands and enjoys his creation, though in a far greater sense than we do.5

And certainly, there are many other ways in which humans reflect the image of God. However, it is impossible to know exactly all the ways humans reflect God without fully knowing God.

Humans, Imperfect Image Bearers

It should be made clear that humanity does not perfectly bear the image of God, as they initially did in the garden; however, the image of God still exists in humans, even as we just considered many ways in which humans still bear it. The fact that humans still bore God’s image after the fall is evident from Genesis 9:6, when God said to Noah after the flood, “Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed; for in God’s image God has made humankind.” God implemented capital punishment based on the fact that when a human is murdered, it is an attack on God’s likeness. It’s like trying to kill God by killing his representative. Also, James 3:9 says this in speaking about the duplicity of our tongues, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image.” Again, like the person committing murder, a person who curses another attacks God’s image. Certainly, this should be sobering as we consider how we treat one another.

Jesus, The Perfect Image Bearer

In considering that humans still bear God’s image, though imperfectly, it must be understood that only Christ, the God/man, perfectly bore God’s image. Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence.” Colossians 1:15 says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Jesus demonstrated exactly what man should be as God’s image-bearers. When speaking with his disciple, Philip, in John 14:9, Christ said, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” John MacArthur aptly describes how Christ perfectly demonstrated God’s image. He said,

Jesus fully manifested the divine image in three connections: with God, with people, and with creation. In doing so, Jesus shows humanity how to manifest the image properly. First, Jesus manifested the foundational nature of the triune God by his relationship to the Holy Spirit and by his fellowship with the Father. He loved and perfectly obeyed the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, Jesus loved people. He loved those who hated him. And John 13:1 says of Jesus, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The phrase “to the end” translates the Greek phrase eis telos, meaning “infinitely” or “eternally” (cf. John 17:23). The greatest command for man is to love God and to love people (Matt. 22:36–40). Jesus exhibited perfect love for both. And third, Jesus displayed mastery over creation with his miracles and healings. When he walked on water, multiplied bread and fish, or calmed a storm, Jesus showed absolute control over nature, a dominion that will be fully manifested in his coming millennial kingdom on the earth (Isaiah 11; 35).6

Likewise, God’s image will not be perfectly manifest through humans on this earth until Christ comes again with his resurrected and glorified saints.

Humanity Being Remade into God’s Image

With that said, God’s plan in salvation is to remake believers into the perfect image of God’s Son. Romans 8:29 says, “because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Colossians 3:10 says, “and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created it.” We are renewed in the knowledge of God as we study his Word and begin to think more like him, instead of like the world. Also, 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Through spending intimate time with God (with unveiled faces) through his Word, prayer, worship, service, and godly community, we continually grow from glory to glory—looking more like Christ. And one day when Christ returns, we will become just like Christ and, therefore, like God. First John 3:2-3 says, “… but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Biblical Storyline

In many ways, the biblical storyline can be looked at through the lens of God’s image. MacArthur details this:

Creation: Man, including both male and female, is created in the image of God. Like his Creator, man evidences both unity and diversity in a relationship of love. “Man” comprises both male and female, yet male and female are distinct in gender and have differing roles. At creation man functioned in proper relationships with God, other humans, and creation.

Fall: Man violated the Creator/creature distinction by acting autonomously and rebelling against God. The image of God became marred but not lost. Man’s threefold relationships suffered: (1) in regard to God, man is spiritually dead; (2) in regard to humans, tension plagues men and women, and women must suffer pain in childbirth; (3) in regard to creation, the earth now works against man and frustrates him, and the earth will swallow up man in death.

Incarnation (Jesus Christ): Jesus, the God-man, is the perfect image of God. He manifests the image exactly by perfectly loving God, loving people, and exercising authority over nature. Those who belong to Jesus through saving faith become new creatures, and by their love they display the restored image of God, although imperfectly before the final resurrection. Sanctification is the process by which Christians are being conformed to the image of Christ, who himself is the perfect image of God.

Restoration: When Jesus returns, Christians will be glorified and made like Jesus. They will perfectly exhibit the image of God forever.7

Applications

What are some applications from humans being made in God’s image?

1. Because humans are made in the image of God, we should ponder this often with great thanksgiving as it is mirrored in us and others.

Wayne Grudem said,

It would be good for us to reflect on our likeness to God more often. It will probably amaze us to realize that when the Creator of the universe wanted to create something “in his image,” something more like himself than all the rest of creation, he made us. This realization will give us a profound sense of dignity and significance as we reflect on the excellence of all the rest of God’s creation: the starry universe, the abundant earth, the world of plants and animals, and the angelic kingdoms are remarkable, even magnificent. But we are more like our Creator than any of these things. We are the culmination of God’s infinitely wise and skillful work of creation. Even though sin has greatly marred that likeness, we nonetheless now reflect much of it and shall even more as we grow in likeness to Christ.8

Certainly, we should give God thanks when we see others’ creativity, leadership, administrative skills, attention to detail, athleticism, hard work, discipline, ability to repair or build things, and care for those struggling, among other gifts. All of these reflect our Creator, and we should stand in awe of God and give thanks to him when these characteristics are demonstrated in our lives and others. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, Paul said this specifically about spiritual gifts:

Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.

Certainly, we must give thanks to God for all the different graces that he gives to specific people, and all the while not getting down or prideful for the specific ways he has graced us. All of these manifestations whether through natural or spiritual gifts reflect God and bring honor to him when properly used.

2. Because humans are made in the image of God, we should treat each person with respect and dignity, including the poor, the disabled, and people from different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.

Again, Wayne Grudem’s comments are helpful:

This has profound implications for our conduct toward others. It means that people of every race deserve equal dignity and rights. It means that elderly people, those seriously ill, the mentally retarded, and children yet unborn, deserve full protection and honor as human beings. If we ever deny our unique status in creation as God’s only image-bearers, we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal, and will begin to treat others as such. We will also lose much of our sense of meaning in life.9

3. Because humans are made in the image of God, we should defend those who are mistreated.

Throughout history, Christians have commonly fought for the rights of slaves, the unborn, and women. Believers today should continue this legacy in their service, their voting, and their praying. When we do this, God is honored. James 1:27 says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

4. Because humans are made in the image of God, we should seek to restore that image by growing in Christ ourselves and making disciples of Christ.

As mentioned, believers are progressively being changed into the image of God as they follow Christ, and one day they will be fully like Christ when they receive glorified bodies at his return. Until then, we should not only seek to grow in God’s image and display it but also share the gospel with others and disciple them, so they can become what humans were truly meant to be—those who represent God in character and function on earth. Lord, help us be faithful in this endeavor!

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What does it mean for humans to be made in God’s image? What are the characteristics of this image?
  3. After the fall, do humans still bear God’s image? If so, what are evidences of this?
  4. In what ways are believers being remade into God’s image and how do we participate in this process?
  5. In what ways can the biblical storyline be seen through the lens of the image of God?
  6. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: beginning and blessing (pp. 36–37). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

2 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 410). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

3 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 410). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

4 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 410). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

5 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 448). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

6 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 414–415). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

7 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 415–416). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

8 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 449). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

9 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (pp. 449–450). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Man (Anthropology)

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