It is commonly expressed, especially within church circles, that one person encourages another person that “you are made in the image of God.” But is this true?
What does it mean to be made in the image of God? And what does the Bible have to say about it?
On the sixth day of Creation, God made land animals:
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 over 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 ESV)
The Hebrew word translated “image” is tselem, which literally means a shadow, but is used to indicate an image, likeness, or representation. Just as a shadow casts an image or a representation of something else, so too was mankind made in the image or representation of God.
There are a wide variety of theories as to what it means to have been made in the image of God. The most commonly accepted view is that it pertains to the abstract mental and spiritual qualities of humans which reflects who God is. However, the word elsewhere regularly echoes a physical image (1 Sam. 6:5, 11; 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chr. 23:17; Ezek. 7:20, 16:17, 23:14; Amos 5:26). I find the traditional view suspect and insufficient.
In an article written by Peter Gentry that was later used for the book Kingdom Through Covenant, he wrote:
The traditional view is inadequate because it is not the result of grammatical and historical interpretation of the text. Rather, it is based largely on a kind of reasoning from systematic theology. It does not come to grips with the fact that “image” normally refers to a physical statue and cannot be exegetically validated as the author’s intended meaning or the first audience’s natural understanding of the text in terms of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and linguistic setting.
Yea, so…that. What he meant to say is “that’s not what it means.”
Anyway, what do we actually know for certain?
FACT #1: God created Adam and Eve in his image
We generally think of only Adam being made in the image of God. The Hebrew word adam means humankind, and it is both male and female that comprise the image of God in humanity.
All of the positive qualities that are generally considered masculine are a reflection of who God is. Strength, honor, fortitude, etc., display attributes of God. But attributes of God are not limited to those which are deemed masculine.
All of the positive qualities that are generally considered feminine are also a reflection of who God is. Mercy, compassion, gentleness, etc., display attributes of God.
It takes all of the positive qualities of male + female to display the image of God. That is also part of God’s purpose in marriage: male and female are merged/united/married into one with the intention that together they will showcase who God is and what he is like. Man and woman were joined together, as the pinnacle of God’s creation, and God saw that it was good.
However, that only lasted so long. When Adam and Eve transgressed, they failed as God’s image-bearers on earth. Mankind ever since is born into a marred or tainted image of God.
Sure, we do still possess the mental and spiritual capabilities that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. So the image of God in creation is still represented through humanity as compared to the rest of the created order. After all, that mankind was originally created in the image of God was the impetus for the first regulation for capital punishment (Gen. 9:6).
But because of the transgression, sin entered the world, and death resulted. Mankind’s bearing the image of God was marred.
FACT #2: Adam fathered Seth in his own image
When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. (Genesis 5:3 ESV)
God created Adam (and Eve) in his image; then Adam fathered his progeny in his image. Adam’s image is one of transgression. Adam’s race took upon a nature of sin; Adam’s race would be subject to death.
A key aspect of being made in God’s image is the responsibility to rule over the rest of creation; to have dominion over the fish, the birds, the livestock, and those creepy creeping things that creep on the earth. Mankind’s responsibility to provide rule over creation is reiterated to his posterity in Psalm 8:6-8. Adam was given that responsibility and it was passed down to his human descendants.
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is “likeness.” We’ve referenced image but not likeness. We find demuwth (likeness) along with “image” present in Genesis 1:26 and 5:3. What’s the difference between image and likeness?
I won’t bore you with the details of the research and study regarding the language and culture of the ancient Near East at the time Genesis would have been written, but the summary of such research leads to the following conclusion: “likeness” has to do with similarity, whereas “image” frequently refers to a physical object, often in the Hebrew Scriptures in reference to idols.
Breaking it down even further, “likeness” indicates a special relationship, like that of father and son. A son possesses a likeness to his father. “Image” indicates a special position and status as king. Applying it to Adam, he was made after God’s likeness in that he was like a son to God (see Luke 3:38) as well as having dominion (rulership) of creation as God’s representative by bearing his image. God created Adam to be a Son-King.
However, Adam proved unfaithful. His transgression brought guiltiness to all of creation. The guilt of his transgression passed down to his descendants.
It would be easy to simply state that Adam passed down his tainted image to Seth, that all humanity is born in Adam’s failure as an image-bearer. But that does not explain why it states that Adam made Seth in his own image and it doesn’t state that Adam made Cain in his own image. Cain was Adam’s first son. If it just meant that Adam’s marred image was passed down to his progeny, we would find that in Genesis 4:1; there would have been no reason to wait until Seth (5:3) for that point to be made. There has to be something else going on here.
I don’t have a full explanation for that. But I think it’s tied to the fact that it is from Seth’s lineage that comes the true image of God.
FACT #3: Jesus is the image of God
Whereas, Adam proved himself to be a counterfeit representation for God, Jesus is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4). Jesus is the genuine article; Jesus is God’s true Son-King.
The writer to the Hebrews described Jesus as the “exact representation” of God (Heb. 1:3). Jesus told Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). If we want to see God, we look upon Jesus.
God is invisible. He has no shape, or that would put a limitation on his being. But God’s desire is to provide a visible expression of himself. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.
Speaking of Jesus:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by 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. (Colossians 1:15-16 ESV)
Whereas Adam failed to properly rule God’s creation in his likeness as a son, Jesus will rightly and faithfully rule creation as God’s true Son.
Remember our prior reference to Psalm 8? We read Psalm 8:6-8 looking back at creation and seeing Adam’s posterity as having continued dominion over creation. However, the writer to the Hebrews quoted Psalm 8 and applied it to Jesus (Heb. 2:5-9). Jesus is the true king who has dominion over God’s creation!
Let’s connect the dots from Genesis 1 to Psalm 8 to Hebrews 2. Adam was created in the image of God to have dominion over creation. Jesus is the true image of God who will rightly reign over God’s creation.
I also think that Jesus being the true image of God is the purpose for the commandment to not make a carved image (Ex. 20:4). Ancient civilizations would create objects to serve as a representation, an image, for their gods. If anyone attempted to create an image for the one true God it would be a false representation because it would not be Jesus. Jesus cannot be created by human hands, and Jesus is the true image, representation, of God. Therefore, anything that could be created to represent God would be something other than Jesus, and therefore a false representation.
The Adam-Christ dichotomy (see 1 Cor. 15:45) is the core basic concept of God’s purposes in and with creation. We are all born subject to sin, bearing the image of Adam. Those who are in Christ are reborn to bear a new image, the image of Jesus!
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47-49 ESV)
This brings us to our fourth and final point.
FACT #4: God is restoring humanity to bear the image of God
God is in process of restoring his creation. God’s ongoing work in creation is all about restoration. That involves restoring his image in the pinnacle of his creation: humanity.
God’s ongoing work of restoration has all to do with Jesus. God is restoring all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). He is already in the process of doing that by redeeming humans to bear the image of Christ. Those who love God are being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV)
Adam was made in the image of God. Jesus is the true image of God. All we who are in Christ are being conformed to Jesus’ image.
God is restoring humanity by “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10) and this is all happening in, through, and for Jesus. All of creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).
God is not merely restoring humanity to reset it back to how it was with Adam and Eve prior to sin entering the world. He is doing an even more glorious work! Those who abide in Christ will be brought into glory with Jesus as our forerunner! This far surpasses the original state that Adam & Eve initially lived in.
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 ESV)
All who are in Christ will bear the image of God as sons. This only happens through Jesus, the true son, the true image-bearer. And believers will bear his image!
So, is it true that you and I have been made in the image of God? What is true for certain is that those who are in Christ are being made into his image!