The Bible tells us we (humans) are created in God’s image and most of us get the meaning of this wrong. Many people think this refers to our being sentient, knowing right and wrong, creative, etc. These are all good things but they miss the point. When the Bible says we are “Created in God’s Image” it means that we (mankind) are his representatives on earth.
Genesis 1:26-27 give us the first indication of what being image bearers means:
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.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
This passage uses two specific terms–Image and Likeness. The Hebrew word for Image is tselem and it refers to the similarity of an object to that which it represents. In scripture, it is often used to speak of statues, paintings, idols, etc. (Grudem, 442). The Hebrew word for Likeness is demut and it refers to something that is similar, not identical to, that which it represents. The general idea with expressed by demut is a representation of characteristics similar to the original (Grudem 442-443).
Bearing God’s image is a two-fold proposition. It is almost like two sides of the same coin in that the coin is incomplete if both sides are not stamped. Both sides are important and one side is dependent on the other. In our image bearing, we have a functional side (we are God’s representatives) and we have an intrinsic side (we resemble Him in His characteristics)
First, we are to represent God. This positional aspect of being an image bearer is the primary function and intent of “Image Bearing.” In the Ancient Near East, the people would have understood an “Image” to be representative. For example: When the United States toppled Saddam Husein, most of us remember the Iraqi people pulling down the large statue of Saddam. That statue was his image; it showed the people who ruled the land. Many pictures, statues, and other representations of Saddam were in plain view of the Iraqi people. Why? So they wouldn’t forget that Saddam was the ruler of the land.
In the same way, God put images of Himself on planet earth to remind the inhabitants who the ruler of the planet is. God rules earth through His living images–us. We represent Him and His interests. It is as if we are His sub-regents in that we rule the land in His stead by His royal decree.
Second, we are to mirror God. This intrinsic aspect of being an image bearer is the secondary function and meaning of being an “Image Bearer.” Of all the created beings, man is the pinnacle. We are in God’s likeness which is to say we show what He is like. All creatures declare God’s glory in their own way, but man declares God’s glory in a special way. Anthony Hoekema explains:
If you wish to see what I am like, God is saying, look at my most distinguished creature: Man. This means that when man is what he ought to be, others should be able to look at him and see something of God in him: something of God’s love, God’s kindness, and God’s goodness. (Hoekema, 67)
So then, we are to rule creation as God Himself would rule. It is as if we are His ambassadors.
It is no coincidence that our position of having dominion over the entire planet and all its other created inhabitants is announced by God Himself in Genesis 1:28-30 . We rule the planet as God’s representatives (the positional aspect) and that is only by His decree and authority and we are to rule as He Himself, in all His perfections, would rule (the mirror aspect).
Hoekema paints a beautiful picture of what man was supposed to be, before the fall:
As an ambassador is concerned to advance the best interests of his country, so man must seek to advance God’s program for this world. As God’s representatives, we should support and defend what God stands for, and should promote what God promotes. As God’s representatives, we must not do what we like, but what God desires. Through us God works out his purposes on this earth. In us people should be able to encounter God, to hear his word, and to experience his love. Man is God’s representative. (Hoekema, 68 )
And then, the wheels fell off! Man was created to be God’s representative and to show the world what He was like. But, man fell; man sinned and the Image was hopeless marred by sin. But, man is still called an “image bearer.” Since we live in a post-fall world, the Image is reduced to the positional role, not the mirror role.
Genesis 9:5-6 gives a hint of this:
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
God’s statement to Noah is based upon man’s primary image bearing role as God’s representative. If an ambassador representing the king of a foreign nation was to come to America and that ambassador were refused entrance to our country, it would be as if we were refusing the king himself. In the same way, when we sin against our fellow man, we sin against God because that fellow man (fallen and sinful though he may be) still represents God as an image bearer. This is why David, after sinning by committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah, confesses that he (David) has sinned against God alone (Psalm 51). Certainly David sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba, but because Bathsheba and Uriah were image bearers, ultimately, the sin was against God Himself.
Implications and Evidences of the Fall
Instead of being God’s representatives, we now seek to represent ourselves. We have become the pinnacle of our own existence. Now, instead of promoting and supporting what God promotes and supports, mankind how promotes himself–his own thoughts and his own desires. Mankind has forgotten God; man represents himself and himself alone. Man has become mankind’s god.
Dominion Refused. Many people refuse to take dominion for the planet we were given to rule. Radical environmentalists seek to down-play the importance of humans. Humans are viewed as a threat to the planet and its other inhabitants. The thought is that the planet would be much better if man were gone. This is a direct rejection of God’s plan for humanity to rule the planet and it further shows a sinful, fallen, and depraved humanity living in direct contradiction to God and His design.
Dominion Abused. History is full of people who abuse dominion. Tyrants of all shapes and sizes have dotted the historical landscape. Hitler and Stalin are two recent examples of persons abusing God’s plan for ruling the planet. Instead of ruling God’s way, these men killed countless millions in attempts to dominate the planet and advance their own agendas.
Planet in Crisis. The opposite side of the radical environmentalist is the person who abuses the planet. As God’s representatives, we do not own the planet, we are stewards. Earth does not exist to be used and then discarded like an empty soda can. Rather, man is supposed to rule the planet in a responsible way–keeping it clean so that we prove ourselves to be responsible stewards in the using of the planet.
Shattered. Humanity was designed to mirror God’s characteristics. This part of the image is hopelessly shattered. It can be argued that loosing this part of the image (the intrinsic part) necessitated the Law of the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Law was designed to show us our sin–where we fall short of God’s standards and His character (Romans 7:7ff). As a result of the fall we cannot tell what sin is apart from God’s law and if God had not graciously given us the law, we’d have no idea what His character was like and we would have no hope of mirroring His character (imperfect as any attempt would be).
The Hope of us All
Jesus is the only One who rightly represents God. Hebrews 1:1-3a says:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Jesus is the embodiment of all humanity was originally supposed to be, before the Fall. He is the only One who is rightly God’s Image and God’s Likeness because He is unfallen.
All Christians must work to image God properly. Many Christians are indistinguishable from the non-believing people of the world. All Christians we must seek to represent God in the way mankind was intended to represent Him. When other Christians and non-believers look at us, they should see God, not us. It is our job to draw attention to God and His glory, not ourselves.
In our dealings with our fellow Christians and non-believers we must do everything as God would have it done. We must not sin against God by treating our brothers and sisters in Christ poorly and we must not sin by treating non-Christians poorly (both groups are image bearers).
We must demonstrate God’s love, kindness, and goodness to this lost world which is deeply marred in sin. Part of that demonstration is the proclamation of the Gospel–calling sinners to repentance and faith and making disciples.
Ultimately, the best thing we can do to live up to our calling as image bearers is to be Christians to make it the goal of our lives to become more and more Christlike (since He is the exact representation of God). By becoming more Christlike we will fulfill our God-given role as image bearer and we will rightly show all that “The Image” is supposed to be.