What’s in an Image?

Genesis 1:26-27
It’s all about image. That is the first thing they will tell you in any political campaign. That is what advertising companies are all about. Even in the Christian world, for a minister to be successful, he has to have the proper image: you know, he has to hover about two inches off the ground, because he is holier than the rest of mankind. He has to wear the right clothes, say the right things, have the right kind of wife. But in all this fascination about image, rarely does one hear about the image of God. Well, you can’t see God, if he even exists, so it is useless to talk about seeing His image, right? Wrong. The Bible tells us much about the image of God.

There are several key elements that distinguish the creation of man from all other creatures. Now, in ancient times, if a king could not be in all parts of his realm at once, he would put images of himself everywhere, just in case anyone was thinking of trying any funny business. The image would remind the people in that part of the realm that the king was serious about crushing any and all rebellion. Moses knows of this tradition. That is why he describes humans as the image of God. God rules over the whole world. Therefore, to have His dominion plain to all of creation, He has formed His image, a living, breathing creature who can think for himself, to rule over this creation. Now, the parallel is somewhat faulty, since God is everywhere in His creation, whereas the human ruler of a kingdom is not. But the idea is still the same.

Secondly, Notice that God speaks to Himself as the triune God. “Let us make man in our image.” Now, scholars have understood this reference to “us” in several ways. Some think that it means that God is addressing the heavenly hosts, such as the angels. The problem with this interpretation is that in no way could the angels be said to create mankind. Nor could we say that mankind is made in the image of the angels. So that interpretation is out. Another interpretation says that God is merely deliberating with Himself as we might if we say, “Let’s see, now.” “Let’s see” is short for “let us see,” when what we really mean to say is that I am thinking about something. The problem with this is the statement, “in our image.” That is not a deliberation, but a description of the end of the process, whereas deliberation always occurs at the beginning of the process. This interpretation also has great difficult with 3:22, “The man has now become like one of us,” as it says in the NIV. Rather, we should understand Moses to be giving us a glimpse of what later biblical writers will describe as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. At the very least, the “us” would include the Holy Spirit that was hovering over the deep in verse 2. And from John 1:1, we learn that the Son was present there in the beginning as well. So, mankind was fashioned in the image of the triune God. The entire Trinity is what mankind was created to be an image of. We will say a little more about this aspect of the image of God when we come to the description of man and woman.

The third distinctive element in the creation of mankind is the word “create.” it is used at the beginning to describe creation out of nothing. Then it is used when God creates animals that have the breath of life. Therefore, Moses uses this word when God is creating something new. In verse 27, Moses uses this word no fewer than three times. Remember, the Hebrew language uses repetition when it wants to emphasize something. So, when Moses repeats the word “create” here, he is emphasizing the novelty of this creature that God is making.

The fourth thing that is distinctive about the creation of man is the fact that Moses mentions male and female. Notice that the fact of male and female is added immediately after the description of the image. The fact that God creation mankind to be male and female is part of the image of God. In other words, God did not create mankind to be alone. People are social beings. They need fellowship. It is not true what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre about people, “Hell is other people.” That is not what the Bible says. To illustrate, the story is told of a boy in France who was abandoned by his parents at a very young age. The boy was forced to fend for himself in a forest. He lived, surprisingly enough. However, when he was found years later by some woodmen, he was a complete savage, unable to communicate in anything but grunts. They took him to the nearest village to be taken into society again. But he never learned language skills well. People need other people in order to be the image of God. The best example is Adam himself. When he was alone, God said, “Not good.” About everything else, He had said, “Very good.” But about a man being alone, God said, “Not good.” So God made Eve. Some of you might remember what it was like being single. I sure remember, though I try very hard to forget. The single life is the pits, in my opinion. But this fellowship between man and woman that God created is also part of the image of God, because God has fellowship with the other members of the Trinity. Marriage is a mirror, in which we see the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course, that mirror can be somewhat cloudy at times. Sometimes you can’t see anything in the mirror at all. Nevertheless, the mirror of marriage reflects the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The fifth and last distinctive aspect of the creation of man is the idea of dominion. (Vs 26) We will examine this more closely next time, when we look at God’s blessing on mankind. Right now, we need only see that man’s dominion over creation is part of the image of God.

That leads us to the question, “What is the image of God?” In what does that image of God consist? Many answers have been given to this question over the centuries. The answer is straight-forward in one way. The most fundamental idea of the image of God is that of likeness. Mankind is like God. Again, to use a metaphor we just used of marriage, mankind is a mirror of God. If you look at mankind, you are supposed to be able to see God reflected there in mankind. That is the simple part. We are supposed to be like God.

The hard part comes when we ask two questions, “In what ways are we like God,” and “what effect did the Fall have on man being in the image of God?” These two questions are related. Some historical observations are in order here. The Roman Catholic position is that mankind is two parts, flesh and spirit. The flesh of mankind is prone to sin (even at the very beginning). In order for the flesh to stay in line, God gave a supernatural gift to mankind, which restrained the flesh, preventing the flesh from sinning. This gift was a spiritual gift. When Adam fell, he lost this supernatural gift, so that, after the Fall, the flesh had no restraint left upon it. But the supernatural gift of restraint was not part of the image of God. So the image of God is left completely intact after the Fall. The only thing that was lost was this supernatural gift. That is the Roman Catholic view.

Martin Luther reacted very strongly against the Roman Catholic view. Luther defined the image of God as righteousness, right behavior before God. So, obviously, when Adam fell into sin, he completely lost the image of God. It was nowhere left to be found. Well, as is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. In order to make sense of what the Bible says, it is necessary to say, and this is the Reformed view, that there are two aspects to the image of God. Firstly, Man is a moral being. That is, he has the capacity to make moral choices. When Adam was created, he had the ability to either obey God, or disobey God. Under this first aspect of the image, we must include the mind, the soul, the emotions, memory, anything that distinguishes mankind from the animals, that is part of this moral agency, as we might call it. The second aspect of the image of God is righteousness, or moral excellence. When Adam was first created, he only obeyed God. He did not disobey. So we can see that moral agency and moral excellence are the two aspects of the image of God. Now, the Bible says that we are still made in the image of God, even after the Fall. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” This verse would make no sense if mankind were no longer made in the image of God. Of course, murder only happens after the Fall. So this verse talks about a post-Fall time period. The reason for capital punishment after the Fall is that mankind is still made in the image of God. Man did not become a beast after the Fall. You can still tell the difference between man and animal. However, that image is seriously distorted and twisted because of the Fall. Because man lost moral excellence, there is no way for him to please God. He can still make moral choices, but all those choices will be bad.

So what is the solution? Colossians 1:15 says this, “He (referring to Jesus Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” This is quite a remarkable statement. We might think from Genesis that Adam was the first image of God in existence. That is not true: Christ was there, and He is the perfect image of God. Hebrews says it this way, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of Hs being.” The words “exact representation” translates a word used for stamping coins. The press stamps on the metal the very same image that is on the press. Hebrews says that though earthly coin stamps may be somewhat imperfect, Jesus Christ is a perfect representation of the image of God. To carry the metaphor a bit further, if you keep on stamping a coin to get the image clearer, you wind up with what is called a proof coin. The image is much clearer than ordinary coins. So what Hebrews is telling us is that Christ is the proof coin of God, who is the stamp. One important qualification must be added: Christ is not a created being.

When Christ came to earth, He came to re-establish the image of God. He came to melt down all this bad coinage, smelt it in the furnace, and re-stamp that metal so that it would look like Jesus, the perfect proof coin of God. So, the good news is that, even though we lost all moral excellence by the Fall, in part losing the image of God, it is restored in Jesus Christ. You need to believe in Him. You need to believe that Christ was truly morally excellent. In fact, He was flawless. And instead of coming before God with our own debased coinage, we need to have Jesus Christ stamped on our very being. When we believe in Jesus Christ, God looks at us as He looks at Christ. That image has been forged anew to look like His Son.

Now, the story does not end there. For we too will eventually need to be proof coins. Only proof coins are allowed into heaven. So what God does in the meantime is continue to stamp the image of Christ on our souls so that each time that stamp comes down, we look more like Jesus. But something marvelous is true about this process. We are part of it. We are told to put on Christ, even as we have already put on Christ. There is a sense in which we have Christ, and there is a sense in which we must continue to put on Christ. Do you strive for perfection? We say, “no-one is perfect.” But do we not sometimes allow that statement to be an excuse to stop trying? Jesus said, “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We should strive for perfection, even while we know we can never get there. That is the hard part. To know that God tells us to strive for an unreachable goal is very hard. However, we must remember two things. Firstly, even while strive for perfection, it is God who works in us both to will and to do. That is the reason for working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Secondly, we will arrive to perfection at death. Death frees us from all impurity, if we are in Christ. Death therefore, is not something to fear, if we are in Christ. It is a door through which we come to see our God.
Do you view life as having sanctity? You may think you do because you do not believe that abortion should be legal. But what about children? Do you think of them as burdens? If you do, then you are not holding life as sacred.

I will mention one further application, and that by way of how we treat our fellow image bearers. C.S. Lewis says this in his book, Weight of Glory, “It is a serious thing…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics, etc.” If someone comes to your home, do you watch TV and ignore this person-whom-you-might-be-tempted-to-worship? How might you treat that person if you thought of them as an ambassador from the King of Heaven? How will you treat your fellow image bearer? Will you try to help that person to heaven or to hell?

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1 Comment

  1. Kelly said,

    February 24, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    This post is an interesting discussion of an alternative system of implementing the death penalty. It doesn’t discuss methods (lethal injection, etc.) but it does discuss why and when it should be used.

    The first words of the post are also a link to a discussion about the morals of the death penalty that, judging from your post, you will find interesting (it includes some Biblical support).


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