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.
The eighth psalm poses a question people have puzzled over for thousands of years: “What is man?” In other words, “What does it mean to be a human being?”
We can hardly overestimate the importance of this question. It is like a peg that bears the load of many other questions, such as: What will satisfy me? What is my destiny? How should I treat other human beings—of the other sex, of other races, of other nations, or other religions?
You would think that, smart as we are, we would have come up with a satisfying answer by now. Far from it. One ancient philosopher who suggested defining man as “a featherless biped” was promptly gifted a chicken plucked of its feathers with a note attached: “Here is your man!” But more recent answers have proven to be equally unsatisfying. Are human beings a passing phase in the directionless saunter of evolution? A complex arrangement of a few elements? A soul trapped in a body? A meaningless syllable to which each individual must supply one’s own definition?
Into a fog of confusion, the Bible shines the light of clarity: a human being is a creature that bears God’s image. “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’” (Genesis 1:26).
Let us be taught by God who we are so that we may understand how we ought to live. In what follows, I hope to:
- Explain what it means that we bear God’s image.
- Show you two things this does for us: it explains us and points us to Christ.
1. What It Means that We Bear God’s Image
Resemblance, Rule, and Relationship
First, let us discover what does it mean that we bear God’s image. To do so, we must know something about Ancient Near East culture, the culture in which Genesis was written. Kings in those days would erect images or idols (tselem) of themselves throughout their domain so that their subjects could gain some impression of what their king looked like. The same word (tselem) is used to describe the way in which God created humans. This means that humans in some way resemble God.
But what is the nature of this resemblance? Throughout the ages, people have proposed many ideas, and a common one is that our resemblance to God lies in our ability to think rationally. It is better, however, to look at the text and note that the resemblance to God works itself out in our relationship to the rest of creation: “And let them have dominion.” Just as God brought the universe into existence as a reflection of his good character, so every feature of our humanness about us (including our maleness or femaleness, bodies, mind, will, and emotions) is to be used to cultivate God’s good creation for his glory. Everything about us bears some resemblance to God—from how we think and feel to how we make decisions that shape God’s creation.
This leads us to the next dimension of what it means to be created in God’s image: we are to rule for God. The text may just as well be translated: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness so that they may have dominion.” We are God’s viceregents, commissioned to take what God has created and bring it to its fullest potential, thus reflecting the good heart of its creator.
A third dimension of being God’s image-bearers supplies the connection between the first two: we are to relate to God. It is true that all other creatures somehow relate to God. After all, God created humans on the same day as other land animals, thus forging a very strong link between us and other animals. God speaks to animals as well, and even compares himself to animals—an eagle, a lion, and a lamb—to help us gain deeper insight into what he is like. But with humans alone God established a relationship in which humans stand responsible to relate willingly to God. Only as we properly relate to God can our resemblance to God result in a proper ruling for God.
One way to think about the meaning of being God’s image-bearers is to recall an incident in the life of Jesus. Hoping to get him in trouble, someone asked him: “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus said, “Yes,” he would upset the Jews who hated to pay taxes to their foreign conquerors. If Jesus said, “No,” then he would get in trouble with the Romans. In reply, Jesus asked someone to hold up a denarius, a Roman coin bearing the image of Caesar Tiberius, the emperor.
“Whose image and superscription is this?” Jesus asked. “Caesar’s,” the people replied. Jesus’ answer is unforgettable: “Then render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God.” We belong to God, and imprinted into the shape of our existence is the seal of his ownership—his own likeness that indicates to us our worth and purpose.
The Contradiction of Sin
As clear as this is in the Bible, another feature of the human condition is equally clear: we have failed to properly relate to God. That is, we have sinned. Does this mean that we no longer bear God’s image? Not at all! Even in our sin, we still bear God’s image. And this is what makes us the bizarre, self-contradictory, paradoxical creatures we are. To be a human infected by sin is to live in contradiction to one’s own humanness. It is not as though God’s “image and superscription” in the human coinage has been rubbed off; rather, it is being spent on the wrong things.
Jesus told a parable that illustrates this self-contradiction: the parable of the prodigal son. One day a young man approaches his father. “Give me my share of the inheritance,” he demands. The inheritance was the money the son would receive after his father passed away. By demanding it when his father was still alive, the son was not merely paying his father a terrible insult. He was telling his father that he was worth more to him dead than alive. The young man takes the wealth and goes far away to spend the money on every pleasure conceivable.
Imagine that this ungrateful young man walks into the red light district of the city and is noticed by two acquaintances of the family. “Isn’t that old Jacob’s son?” the one asks the other. Squinting his eyes to see, the second replies, “It looks like him, but it couldn’t be. Why would he be here, of all places?” The first man is resolute. “It is Jacob’s son!” he insists, “Look at the curve of his forehead, and the shape of his beard. Could anything do more to remind you of old Jacob?” “Yes, but could anything remind you less of Jacob than the establishment that young man is walking into?” retorts the second. “Jacob would never be here, nor would he want his son to visit this place. If this is Jacob’s son, what a living contradiction he is!”
Now imagine this same living contradiction from the perspective of the prodigal son himself. Every time he looks into the mirror, he sees his father’s eyes looking back at him. He can run from home, but he cannot escape who he is. In fact, it is his sonship that makes his distance from home all the miserable! It was when he finally found himself wanting to eat food meant for pigs that he “came to himself” and said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!”
That is what it is like to live as a human being infected by sin: it is to be created for a relationship with one whom we have rejected. We are running from what we are meant to be, but we cannot escape what we are. Apart from these two truths—first, that we bear God’s image; second, that we have fallen into sin—we will never fully grasp the mysteries of the human condition. Here is the passcode that allows us to login to our account, the key that allows us to open our home.
2. What This Teaching Does for Us
It Explains Us
The Bible’s teaching that we were created in God’s image but have fallen into sin provides the only compelling explanation for the human condition. No other theory of human behavior has the boldness or breadth of scope to wrap its arms around both human greatness and wretchedness at the same time.
Few other thinkers have so thoroughly explored this theme as mathematician Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées continually repeats this theme. “Man is so great,” he writes, “that his greatness appears even in the consciousness of his misery. A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is true that it is misery indeed to know one’s self to be miserable; but then it is greatness also. In this way, all man’s miseries go to prove his greatness. They are the miseries of a mighty potentate, of a dethroned monarch.”
Pascal is saying that we don’t need to explore the back alleys of cities or the uncivilized pockets of the jungles to see how wretched humans are. We will discover the depths of human wretchedness on the pinnacles of human achievement. Go to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the Pentagon, the White House, and Wall Street—all places in which human creativity, ingenuity, and power find their highest expressions, and you will discover in these very places that we show an irrepressible tendency to self-destruct. We discover atomic energy and promptly build an atomic bomb. We develop digital photography and promptly make digital pornography. The humanities become de-humanities. In a darkly ironic twist, our technology threatens to end all technology. We have beaten our plowshares into swords.
What can explain these contradictions? Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century believed in human perfectibility, and expected humans to eventually work out all their dissensions as surely and steadily as one might work out a long division problem. They had a lofty view of what it meant to be human. On this point, the Bible doesn’t disagree: in fact, it raises our expectations so much higher. Not only are humans perfectible: they are constituted to enjoy a flourish in a relationship with God and reign as his vice-regents. If the Bible presents a view of human nature that is far higher than the most optimistic thinker imagined, it also presents a view that makes the most pessimistic philosopher look jolly: humans have wrenched themselves away from this high purpose.
But this view of the human condition explains not only culture and society. It explains you as a person. What else could shed light on the mystery of your ambitions and sorrows, your craving for greatness but tendency to sink into wretchedness and misery? What else could explain your striving for self-discipline, but falling into addictive yet self-destructive behavior? You were meant for great things: your heart tells you that truly, but your sense of greatness only serves to intensify your misery. You would be happier if you were star or even a starfish, but as a human you cannot content with this condition.
Personally, when I reflect on this, I feel completely exposed. I feel like someone has laid bare my inmost secrets. I feel a bit like that woman at the well with whom Jesus struck up a conversation. She tried to put on a good front before the Rabbi, but he knew better. He told her that she had five husbands in the past, and that the man she was now living with was not her husband at all. He told her that what she was really “thirsting” for was not physical water, or even a relationship with a man, but spiritual life. When she ran into town, her cry was: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29).
I wonder if this could be true of anyone reading this who hasn’t yet committed their life to Jesus. If you find any part of this diagnosis to be convincing, does it move you any closer to trusting the Great Physician? Suppose you had a mysterious illness and you visited one doctor after another, but none was able to offer a diagnosis that convincingly accounted for all the symptoms. One doctor suggested a diagnosis that explained the headache and rash, but not the stomach pain and hallucinations. Another doctor suggested a diagnosis that explained the sore feet, but not the loss of hair. Finally, you found a doctor whose explanation corresponded to your every one of your symptoms, point for point. Wouldn’t you be inclined to trust him to tell you what the cure should be as well? And does it make any difference to you that you find in the Bible a diagnosis that explains why you are a perplexing mixture of greatness and wretchedness?
And for those of you who do trust Christ, this explanation gives you clarity in the midst of a dangerously confused culture. It is all the rage now to insist that humanness is a fluid concept, and that each person must assert their own meaning of what one’s self is. “Find your truth!” “Express yourself!” are the slogans of our culture. This radical “expressive individualism” touts itself as the pathway to authenticity and liberation. In reality, it binds people to slavish imitation of others. It loads on people a crushing burden they cannot bear. The quest to discover oneself by burrowing within oneself traps the individual in an insane loop. The question, “Who am I?” cannot be answered by looking within ourselves, but only by looking outside ourselves, into the gaze of our Creator who, looking into our eyes, says, “You are mine. You bear my image and resemble me so that you can enjoy a relationship with me and exercise every feature of your humanness to reflect my glory.”
By teaching that our humanness is fixed and not fluid, the Bible offers what the modern radical individualist so desperately wants, but is looking for in all the wrong places. To be a human is to bear God’s image, and in that we find more worth than we could ever confer upon ourselves. But we also find the corrective to racism, sexism, child abuse, and abortion. Every human, black and white, male and female, from the youngest to the oldest, bears God’s image and therefore has intrinsic worth. This is why to stand on the side of the Bible is to stand against abortion, sexism, racism, and—yes—even against discriminating against those who disagree with this view. Knowing this gives us clarity in the midst of confusion, courage in the face of intimidation, and compassion to speak with the truth with love.
We should bear this in mind when interacting with people every day: each human being has far more worth and dignity than we tend to even imagine—certainly more than we give them credit for. This is what C. S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
This was also the logic of James the brother of Jesus, who wrote that with our tongues “we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so!” (James 3:9-10).
My friend, do you doubt the value of your own life? Remember this doctrine: you are God’s image-bearer! Don’t let anyone—not even yourself—say that you are worthless, valueless, meaningless. No matter how far you have strayed, no matter the depths to which you have lowered yourself, you are in God’s sight eternally valuable. Was the prodigal son loved by his father only when he returned home? If you know the story, you will remember that the old father was there waiting for his son, even before he knew he would return.
The morning I preached this sermon, a man told me that after years of wandering away from God, he kept hearing in his head a song he had sung as a little boy in church. For three days the song kept coming into his mind, and he couldn’t shake it. It was this song:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling—
Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching—
Watching for you and for me!
Come home! come home!
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
If Jesus is calling you, my friend, you won’t be able to get him out of your mind. Every time you look in the mirror, you will remember that he is your rightful owner, and that you should give yourself to him.
It Points Us to Christ
I hope I have adequately demonstrated that this doctrine explains the human condition as it is. But we cannot be satisfied with a mere diagnosis. We want the solution, and the solution is Christ.
When the Bible is read as an unfolding story—with characters, plot, and development—we discover that it reaches its climax in the coming of Christ. The theme of God’s image in human beings is part of this story, and it too reaches its climax in Christ. The Old Testament teaches us that humans are created in the image of God, and the New Testament teaches us that Jesus Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
Jesus is called the image of God because he bore God’s image in a way no other human did. He perfectly related to God, calling him “Father,” obeying him and honoring him as such throughout his entire life. He also perfectly resembled God. Throughout his life, he kept telling his followers things like this: “You want to know who God is? Look at me!” Any mere human who said such a thing would be guilty of rank blasphemy. But Jesus did not back down. Near the end of his earthly life his followers finally pleaded with him: “Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us” (John 14:8). Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
But there is a third dimension to image-bearing—the dimension of ruling for God. How did Jesus rule for God? Someone might look at his life and see not royalty but servanthood. He had no golden crown or bejeweled scepter. Quite the opposite: his only crown was a wreath of thorns, his scepter a reed, and his courtiers rude soldiers who knelt before him in mock adoration. In the end, he ascended not a throne a cross of execution and there with hands and feet nailed to wood, he died. Someone might look at this and see defeat, not dominion.
But this was Jesus’ triumph! The triumph of a king is to provide for and protect his people by defeating their enemies—and that is exactly what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross. In this act of victory, he plucked the weapon of death from the hand of the enemy. His death became our life, his defeat our triumph, his wounds our healing, his abandonment our embrace. “He became obedient to the point of death. Therefore,” the apostle Paul explains, “God has given him a name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
This means that Jesus is the solution to the problem of our marred image-bearing. By pledging allegiance to this Champion, we can have his image recreated in our hearts. “If anyone is in Christ”—that is, for anyone who has entrusted their life to Jesus—“he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Jesus can rescue you in a moment and change your destiny completely. And once he has rescued you, he puts you into a process by which you gradually become more and more like him—the true image-bearer. The Apostle Paul explains this as a process by which we, “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Elsewhere, he exhorts his readers to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
It is important to know something about this process, since it defines every moment and dimension of your Christian life. First, it is a gradual process. Spiritual growth mirrors biological growth. We are like newborn babies who need spiritual milk of the Word to grow. We are like young trees, stretching our roots toward a water source to receive life and nourishment. Second, it is often a painful process. When you walk along the beach and a shiny rock catches your eye, you know that its beauty came at the price of a million collisions with other rocks and grains of sand which, blow by blow, smoothed its surface into a thing of beauty. We will suffer, yes, but our suffering is not random or purposeless. It is lovingly directed by God to bring about greater conformity to his Son Jesus Christ. Third, it is a glorious process. This suffering will one day give way to a glory that will completely outweigh the pain. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” Paul writes, “are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Finally, it is a certain process. Let us find comfort in this truth! God will not abandon what he has begun. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).
Glorified? If this final Christlikeness is yet future, why is it spoken of in the past tense? To God’s mind, our conformity to the image of Christ is just as certain as if it has already happened. Every day we can lift our heads from our pillows with the humble confidence that we belong to God and that every moment will be lovingly guided to make us more like Jesus, the true image of God.
May this be the cry of our hearts:
Oh, to be like Thee, blessed Redeemer,
This is my constant longing and prayer;
Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures,
Jesus, Thy perfect likeness to wear.