“The divine Son is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Man was created in a way that reflects the imaging relation among the persons of the Trinity. The redemption of man from the fall and sin includes re-creation (2 Cor. 5:17), his being “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” in the image of Christ (Eph. 4:24).” (“History of Salvation in the Old Testament: Preparing the Way for Christ“ in ESV Study Bible’s, p. 2635).
In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth, and on the earth he placed a man and a woman to reflect his glory and rule his creation (Gen 1:26-28). Genesis 1:26-27 recounts the words of the triune God, “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
In his Theological Anthropology, Marc Cortez supplies a helpful survey of the ways Christians have understood the Imago Dei. He summarizes the positions and asserts that some have argued that there is something material in man that makes him unique (i.e., his reason, mental capacity, etc.); others have suggested a functional view, that man made in God’s image is intended to rule over creation. This has strong exegetical support in Genesis 1:26-31 and Psalm 8. Still others make a case for a relational aspect of God’s image. Just as God exists as the three-in-one God, so mankind is male and female, and when man and woman unite in marriage, the two become one. The relationship is complementary, and in the mysterious union and diversity between the sexes is there a material glimpse of the one God who exists in three persons.
The Imago Dei
The first readers of Genesis 1 (the Jews under Moses’ leadership) may not have perceived all of these features in the statement “man made in God’s image.” However, they would have understood the term, Imago Dei, to carry significant theological meaning—more than just a quaint turn of phrase about mankind’s early relationship with God.
It is evident from other ancient Near Eastern religions that the term “image of God” was loaded with meaning. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was a semi-divine incarnation of the deity. In Mesopotamia, the image of God was the divine representative on earth. Schooled in Egypt, Moses would have had firsthand knowledge of this terminology. Therefore, by applying the term to all humanity, he dignifies (not deifies) humanity and explains to the sons and daughters of Abraham, what their relationship with God is like.
Polemically, Moses explains that all humans are created with a covenant relationship with God, not just the deified king. Created by God, each image-bearer reflects his maker, even as they are distinct from their maker. Humans derive value and significance from their relationship with God.
Indeed, as Moses will go on to say, man is made from the dust. In this humbling reality, there is nothing intrinsically valuable in our material being. The value of humanity comes from its relationship to God and God’s sovereign choice to endow mankind with life (2:8), vocation (2:15), and the promise of eternal relationship with God (2:16-17).
Back to the question of meaning: I follow Cortez’s argument that the image of God is some combination of priestly representation and royal relationship. When God created the world, he did so for his glory. All things exist to express his glory, and as David muses in Psalm 8, the pinnacle of glory is not the stars above but the children below. God has created mankind to spread his glory over the entirety of the earth. Later, when the Bible speaks redemptively of God’s glory covering the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14; cf. Num 14:21), the Scriptures anticipate the restoration of creation—a universe filled with image-bearers who are no longer marred by sin but recreated in Christ.
God’s purpose for humanity is to reflect his glory in their priestly vocation of cultivating and keeping the garden-temple (Gen 2:15), and enjoying the royal privileges of being sons and daughters of the King. God’s command to rule over creation is not a harsh and oppressive command to subjugate creation or one another. It is a beautiful invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. Therefore, from the very beginning of the Bible, we see God’s intention is to create a kingdom of priests who will beautify the world he has made.
In the beginning, God made only two—Adam and Eve. They were given the pleasurable task of populating planet earth with offspring who, like them, would bear the image of God and would assist in cultivating and keeping the garden—or as G. K. Beale has argued expanding the garden to fill the earth. Therefore, the notion of being made in God’s image contains royal and priestly themes. The language of Genesis 1-2 affirms this, as well.
The True Image
Genesis 1:26-28 also anticipates the arrival of a greater man. Without getting into the specifics of God’s relationship to sin and the Fall, it is clear from the New Testament, that God’s intention in creation is Christ-centered, even cross-centered (1 Pet 1:20). As God’s drama of redemption unfolds, this is articulated in a variety of ways (cf. Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3). Yet, it is perceptible in Genesis 1:26 too.
In Genesis 1:26, Moses distinguishes Adam, as made in God’s image, from the image of God itself. It is a subtle point, but one that is exegetically sustainable. Adam is not the image of God; he is made to reflect the image of God. While no theological explanation is available at this point in Genesis, the space between Adam and God’s image is left open so that something or someone can fill that void later in redemptive history. Obviously, the void is filled by none other than Jesus Christ himself.
While not eternally incarnate—as supposed by Karl Barth—the Son is properly the Image of God. Therefore, while Adam was created first in time, Christ as the image of God preceded him. Or to say it differently, Adam was created in the image of the Second Adam. Creation is eschatological.
When God made man in his Image, he did so for the purpose of uniting all things in Christ. Christ as the creator is also the purpose of creation. And since Christ would come in the form of a man, man was made in such a way as to be the perfect ‘receptacle’ of the Son of God. This sounds so crude, but in order to prepare the way for the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures, it is essential to see that when God made man in his image, he did so for the purpose of Christ’s incarnation and the salvation of fallen humanity.
There is much to wonder about in this articulation, but in order to keep Christ at the center of all things—something that Scriptures warrants as a fundamental presupposition when reading both testaments—he must be the reason for creation, even as he is the instrumental creator of all things. This was Paul’s take in Colossians 1:15-16 and should be ours.
Summarily, the creation of mankind in God’s image accomplished three things. First, it set the stage for history. The world is for human’s made for God, by God, and in God’s image. Even with the fall, humanity retains its dignified position as image-bearers. Therefore, every human being is valued because of their relationship to God. This leads to the next point.
Second, the Imago Dei has ethical ramifications. Abortion and euthanasia are wrong because they disregard our dignified status as image-bearers. Likewise, capital punishment is right, because it values the life of humanity and strikes down all those who take upon themselves to murder the image of God. Much more could be said here.
Third, the image of God has theological implications. It defines who we are as human beings (thus it is the lodestar of all theological anthropology) and it informs who Christ is (the firstborn among many brothers). Even more, restoration (and better: the resurrection) of the image of God is the chief function of Christ’s work in his life, death, and resurrection. Ephesians 4:24 says that those who are new creatures in Christ after being renewed after the likeness of his image, while Romans 8:28-30, 33 tells us that God has predestined his elect to be conformed into the image of his Son.
Everyone us is an image-bearer. By God’s design, we were created to reflect the glory of the One we worshiped. With the Fall, that gift of reflection has been hijacked by Satan and the sin that reigns in our heart. As Psalm 115 indicates, we will become like what we worship. For those redeemed by the blood of Christ, they are being conformed into the image of Christ—by one degree of glory at a time (2 Cor 3:18). Yet, those who continues to worship the idols of their own making will miss the purpose for which they were created. Only those who rest in the glorious grace of God will find the satisfaction of knowing what they were meant to be.
You were made to be image-bearers of the triune God, and until you find life in Christ, you will lack the fullness for which you were created. Look to the Image of God, that he might make you a new creation in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss