What is your image? How do you project yourself on Facebook? How do you want to be seen? The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1.15). What kind of image can be made of invisibility? Is Paul just trying to grab readers’ attention by using paradox? (Here’s a puzzle to get your mind working.) And what about making an image of God, anyway? Weren’t the Hebrews forbidden from making images of God?
As it turns out, the Colossians reference is not the first time in the Bible a human was identified as being in God’s image. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1.27 The wording is slightly different: “the image” vs. “in his image” and there is, no doubt, reason for the difference. Still the similarity bears looking into.
What did it mean for Adam and Eve to be created in God’s image? The classical response has been a description human abilities. This is a worthwhile approach, simply because we become so accustomed to our abilities we forget their scope. We are amazing creatures, but this does not mean we should be applauding ourselves—we are wonderfully made.
We have eyes. We are able to assess and interact with our environment. We see colors, which is a kind of extravagance. Not seeing colors would have nearly no impact on our functionality. Seeing means so much to us that when we say, “I see,” it usually means, “I understand.”
We have noses. We breath through our noses. This is a good indicator that we are alive. (Mustn’t forget the importance of being alive.) We smell through our noses. There are practical benefits that come from smelling but, for the most part, the ability to smell is also an extravagance. We smell wonderful foods and lovely perfumes. We smell the burning of a wood fire.
We have mouths. Our mouths are used for eating (another indication that we are living creatures). We taste. Like smelling, there are practical reasons for tasting but, for the most part, tasting is an extravagant source of pleasure. By means of our mouths we talk. This is probably the most obvious difference between humans and animals…not that we have language but that our language is astronomically more complex. Through our mouths and throats we sing. Again, we are not the only creature that sing but, unlike the handful of songs other singing creatures possess, human songs are seemingly limitless. This ability also seems to be an extravagance.
We have hands. We can accomplish work with them. That work can require brute strength, or it can be very fine. We touch with our hands. We communicate many types of affection through touch. Not only by our hands. Our entire bodies have the sense of touch. There are many practical reasons for this sense of touch but, again, in touch there is extravagant pleasure.
We have arms. Perhaps our arms are merely extensions of our hands. If so, they greatly increase the range of hand accomplishment.
We have legs and feet. We are designed for mobility.
We are sexual beings, capable of re-creating our own kind. (Again, sexual activity in humans is accompanied by extravagant pleasure.)
It is obvious that humans were designed specifically to experience wide-ranging and frequent pleasure. We may be curmudgeons, but God certainly isn’t.
We are symmetrical. One benefit of this is that we have a built-in back-up plan. If we lose one arm we still have another. If we lose one eye we can still see. From the other side of it, we are far better at most tasks because we have two arms or two hands or two eyes or two feet. Also, perhaps symmetry reminds us that there is value in balance, whether considered physically or metaphorically.
We sleep. Why do we sleep? Wouldn’t we be better designed if we didn’t sleep? We know God rested. Perhaps sleep is to remind us we are like him. From a different perspective, perhaps it is to remind us of our frailty and that we are in perpetual need of restoration. Perhaps it is to remind us of our need for help and protection. Who will watch over us when we sleep? Perhaps it is to remind us of our need of provision. How will we sleep if our minds are filled with anxiety about living? Perhaps sleep is about mystery. Where do I go when I sleep? Perhaps it is supposed to suggest to us that there is a spirit world.
We are beings with memory. We are able to combine our memories, through our complex language, with the memories of others. This combination generates an astonishing capacity for learning. Learning is added to learning, resulting in increased human capacities.
We are creative beings. This means we have the ability to take knowledge and combine it with other elements in creation to bring about new ideas and new creations. Written language is both an example of this and a means of enhancing this process.
We are beings with emotions. I suppose all creatures exhibit some emotions—fear, mostly, or anger at those who would threaten their young. But human emotions are more ranging, expressed through smiles and through tears, through dry mouths, nervous sweating, shaking legs. Human emotions can be brought on through beautiful sounds or scary sounds, or beautiful scenery, or familiar smells, through personal memories, through speeches that resonate, through ideas that seem important.
We are beings with a sense of “ought”. There is something in humans that knows about right and wrong. There may be much disagreement about how to define these things but every person is a lawmaker. We all define how life should be lived. We are happy with others when they conform to our ideals, and we our unhappy with others when they transgress. The fact that we are all lawgivers belies the notion of a materialistic universe in which humans accidentally, unconsciously self-constructed. The evolutionists will argue that regulation is a self-preservation instinct. The counter-argument asks why have humans come up with so many violent, conflicting viewpoints about it. The difficult task, from an evolutionary standpoint, is to explain why humans have not become extinct because of it.
We can be self-sacrificial. We may be predominantly selfish, but we also have the capacity to be generous. Sometimes our generosity is really only investment, but we can also give freely without any concern or expectation of reward. We all see this as something wonderful, but there is no materialist explanation for why it is wonderful.
Little doubt, there are other attributes that belong on this list. When we put all these attributes and capacities together, we begin to get a sense of what it can mean for a visible being to be an image of an invisible Creator. Human capacities are expressions and hints of the mind of the Creator, and as the word, “image” implies, they suggest some things about him as well. It’s tempting, of course, and cynics cannot resist this temptation, to suggest that it is god who was created in the image of man. That is, god is something man made up. This criticism applies well enough to the greco-roman pantheon, but the attribute of invisibility is an immediate counter-point.
There is another train of thought on the matter of being created in God’s image. This perspective sees the phrase “image of God” as a kind of assignment.
In the ancient world there were rulers who held power over great expanses inhabited by multiple ethnic groups. Such a ruler would appoint ambassadors to represent him in the various regions. Ambassadors would be given a statuette or “image” of the ruler, which they would carry with them when they stood before the people of their respective regions. The ruler would often pick unimpressive-looking representatives. They might be short or deformed or might even have a speech impediment. All the more to make the point that it was the image to which the people should show their obeisance. To disrespect the image bearer was to defy the ruler represented by the image. Occasionally image bearers were not afforded proper deference. Such failures were typically met with brutal reprisal, as examples for others who would dare disrespect the ruler’s image bearers.
The book of Genesis is attributed to the prophet Moses. Raised in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, there is little doubt he would have had this picture in mind when he selected wording for describing God’s relationship with Adam and Eve. As image bearers, it would have been Adam and Eve’s responsibility to represent God. Since Adam and Eve are the parents of all humans, by extension, the assignment to live and serve as image bearers of God falls on all humans.
If all people are assigned to be image-bearers of God, this says something about how all humans are expected to treat one another. All people are entitled to the treatment of an image bearer of the King of Kings. It doesn’t matter the sex or race or intelligence or age or health or strength or beauty…the person standing before you is one God sent to represent himself.
It also doesn’t matter whether the person represents the King well. None of us represents him perfectly. Some do not even acknowledge the King. Some scoff at him. Nevertheless, all people were created for the purpose of being God’s image bearers. This, in and of itself, demands a kind of reverence. When we encounter a stranger on the street, or when we encounter someone we’ve seen every day for 50 years, there should be a subtext to our encounter: “God, your image-bearer stands before me!”
This is different from apathy. This is different from taking for granted. This is different from disdain. This is different from exploitation. This is different from hatred. This is different from racism. This is different from inflicting terror. This is different from murder.
Abuse directed at others is a double offense. To despise someone else is to fail to acknowledge that God has created him or her to bear His image. The act of despising is also a failure to properly represent God, i.e., it is a failure to bear His image.
Let’s consider Adam and Eve for a moment. They failed in their assignment to represent God. Their failure, while appearing to be a small thing—they only ate a little fruit, after all—had tragic results for all humanity. The proof that their disobedience was not at small thing is quickly demonstrated by their sons. Cain murdered Abel. This is the danger when humans stop trusting God and substitute their own ideas about what is good and bad. We can turn to any news feed on any given day and see plenty of additional examples of the same.
Now let’s return to our original verse fragment in which Paul refers to Jesus as the image of the invisible God. Paul is making a number of points here but the first one is that, unlike Adam and Eve, who failed to image the invisible God, Jesus succeeded. “He is the image of the invisible God.” This is why several passages in the New Testament talk of Jesus as the second, or the last Adam:
So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” – 1 Corinthians 15.45-49
Adam was the first of an entire race of people. The significance of Jesus being called the second Adam is that he, too, became the first of an entire race of people. The difference is that the second race of people is filled with the Spirit of Christ, which is to say, they, too, are truly in the image of God.
Those of you who know Christians may be saying, “Big deal,” right now because you know the flaws of those Christians. But it’s important to understand that this imaging is first done by fiat. God assigns holiness to his people in a similar way to his assignment of being image bearers. Christians on earth are going through a process of sanctification, as well. This means they should be studying God’s ways and practicing God’s ways in a continuously more mature way. This process is not always obvious and failures can be both frustrating and damaging. Nonetheless, however bumpy and meandering the road may be, it is regularly being redirected by God to its proper destination. There is also the promise of glorification that Christians look forward to. There is hope and expectation that after death comes a resurrection which, among other things, includes a permanently purified spirit. The Christian longs for the time when he or she is clear about good and bad and, more importantly, is no longer tempted by any sort of sin.
So if Jesus truly was (is) the perfect image-bearer of God, what does that mean? First of all, it means he was truly a man, truly human. Paul goes on in the next few verses to make it clear that Jesus was also truly God: “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. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” – Colossians 1.16-19.
Some people find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that a being could be both God and man. It’s difficult to imagine, granted. But it’s no more difficult to imagine than an all-powerful God who has always existed. And it’s no more difficult to imagine than the existence of humans coming about because God apparently thought that making us was a valuable enterprise (or more accurately, act of love). It’s certainly less difficult than to believe than humans are the product of materials that assembled themselves. This is the human conundrum. We have no choice but to believe one explanation or another about how we got here. All options present belief challenges; all of them are, in some ways, inconvenient for us. Or we can choose not to choose. But that means that we bet our lives that our choice doesn’t matter. And that’s an odd choice, indeed, for a generation that cannot seem to stop howling about it’s right to choose.
Back to our story. The fact that Jesus was a man is certainly significant. Is it important that he was male? In some ways the answer seems to be yes. God created male and female in his image, so that suggests that God is revealed in some ways more in males and in some ways more in females. On the other hand, Adam was created first. There is significance to be seen in the idea of the first person of each type, i.e., the earthly Adam vs. the Spirit-filled Adam. Perhaps it’s significant that God, as the man Jesus, demonstrated his love through self-sacrifice rather than through militant conquest. In this way he fundamentally redefined male strength. And then there is the New Testament metaphor in which Jesus is seen as the groom, while the Church universal is seen as the bride. Also, on the practical side, there is no way Jesus could have done ministry in first century Palestine as a female. There may well be other reasons why Jesus came to earth as a male but none come to mind.
More to the focus of this essay is to consider the question of how did Jesus otherwise image God? The most fruitful way to look at this is to consider what Jesus did.
Jesus studied and learned. “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Luke 2.52. He taught wisdom. Sometimes he commented on Old Testament passages. Other times he gave messages to address situations at hand, often in the form of parables. His Sermon on the Mount was a kind of commentary on Old Testament Law.
He addressed the needs of others. This took on many forms, from providing wine at a wedding to calming a storm, to healing the sick, casting out demons, to feeding large crowds of people who were listening to him in remote locations.
He confronted the wicked establishment, focusing primarily on those who were “shepherds of Israel”, giving relatively little attention to the politically oppressive Romans.
He lived in perfect obedience to the Father. (It seems to me that this was his #1 priority and the plumb line by which he measured all his actions.)
He labored to establish a new Israel (the Church) by focusing particular attention on a group of disciples, who were to carry on his work after his departure.
He sacrificed his life for the sake of his followers and, again, because this was what he was directed to do by his Father. He clearly did not want to subject himself to the scorn, torture, and agonizing, shame-laden death, but he submitted to all this peacefully.
He rose from the dead, conquering death for himself but also for his new humanity, thus redefining the whole nature of human existence. Thus his victory over his enemies was no temporary thing but one with eternal consequences for humanity, as well as all creation.
He also conquered satan and defeated the powers of sin, effectively making for himself a holy nation of people.
So, now we have this example of what it means to live as the perfect image of the invisible God. This review reminds us about how truly wonderful Jesus was (is). But we should not fail to notice that it also reveals much to us about the Invisible God.
It tells us that God is both terrifyingly good and astonishingly powerful. He seems to be able to do anything but, in spite of his power, his attitude towards us is compassion. (It is not true that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This one example of it proves the opposite.)
This is the core of the Gospel…the Good News…that God is good. This could not be said for the gods of the ancient middle east, such as Moloch and Baal, or the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods. These gods had super-powers but they were capricious, that is, their characters were like humans, at best. The gods had to be placated and flattered in hopes that they would behave pleasantly towards humans. In general the gods were apathetic.
If Jesus is, indeed, the image of the unseen God, well, hey, we need to have a party!
Since the perfect image-bearer is the first of a new humanity, our lives should be patterned after his life. Clearly we cannot be perfect but we are to strive to be perfect. Clearly our deaths cannot provide salvation. Nonetheless, we are called to spend our lives, to use them up in Kingdom service. We can even expect that our service will bear fruit in both measurable and unknown ways in the lives of others. God continues to work through us.
So in a general way we all know our calling; we know the framework our lives should take on. Let’s think through this for a minute. What does it mean when we recognize that we are created in the image of God.
First and foremost, it tells us that we were created by God. We are not accidental by-products of a materialistic universe. We are not, therefore, purposeless. Our lives are not meaningless. There truly is a moral structure to which we can subscribe. Our lives can be lived with integrity because we can understand that all that we do is important when eyes are upon us, and they are of equal importance, bound to the same principles even when we think no one can see us.
God created us to be like him. This does not mean we will ever be omniscient or omnipotent or omnipresent. Humans cannot be these things. But it does mean we can have his Holy Spirit, be filled with love, and live service-oriented, creative, interesting lives forever.
He created us individually and is delighted with each one of us. We are precious to him collectively and individually. The pressure is off. There is no competition. Competition can be a fun thing in that it can motivate improvement. But, fundamentally, God tells us that we are wonderfully made and that there is no point in comparing ourselves to others. We are to consider how he has made us and, within the context of his teachings about love and faithfulness, we are to seek to be the individuals he made us to be.
When we meditate on the concept of being made in the image of God, we can bask in the wonder of his love, and we can rest in the knowledge that this brilliant, good God made us. His intentions for us are all good. In this we can understand who we are and we can understand, at least in general ways, our place in all of creation. In this knowledge we can live confidently, knowing that the chaos and instability of our present world is only a passing, however important, phase. He will see us through. Like the Israelites in the desert, he will go with us night and day, and then bring us into the land of promise. The wandering in the desert was a kind of prophecy; ours is the reality.