Monday, November 8, 2010

The Image of God

I believe that the foundational Biblical doctrine that needs to be considered when we try to answer the question "who am i?" is that of the image of God. No other doctrine more fully explains our identity and nature as human beings. Specifically with regards to identity, this doctrine is foundational in helping the individual understand their value and place in creation as well as whom we are created to be in relationship to God and to each other.

The logical place to begin in understanding of the image of God is in Genesis chapter one. It is here that the reader is first confronted with the reality that humanity has a unique place in God’s creation. The text sets human life apart from the creation of other aspects of creation. In contrast to the creation of vegetation, birds and animals that were all created according to their kind, the text presents the intentional divine initiative to create humanity in a different way.

The God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(Genesis 1:23-26)

Here the creation of humanity is presented as being a deliberate and personal decision by God. Up until this point each act of creation had been marked by the impersonal statement “let there be” (or its equivalent). But with humanity God speaks in more personal terms and says “Let us make human beings...” The divine decision to create humanity is declared as a personal decision which emphasizes humanity’s special place within creation.

The pattern in which humanity is created is the divine image. This is a unique humanity and  sets humankind apart - no other part of creation is given the distinction of being image-bearers of God. Being made in the image of God is not about physically looking like God nor is it being a duplicate of God. Rather being made in the image of God describes the idea of representation. It refers to the reality that in the whole of our beings that we are somehow like God. Some have suggested that the term refers to human life as a reflection of God’s spiritual nature. Consequently,t “humans have spiritual life, ethical and moral sensitivities, conscience, and the capacity to represent God.” 

God’s unique creation of humanity is further underscored in Genesis 2:7 where the formation of man is described in detail. The description of God forming Adam out of the dust of the earth is the language of a potter creating out of clay. This imagery further depicts the deliberate nature of humanity’s creation and also conveys a sense of artistry and personal touch that is not described with regards to any other aspect of creation in Genesis. In addition, the image-bearer of God is brought to life through the breath of God.  This act is a warm and loving act. It is a life giving intimacy as God gave of himself to bring life to Adam. But this breath is more than the breath that the animals breathe. It is the nature of God himself! One author, Allen P. Ross, points out that this breath is more than the breath of animation but that it also brings spiritual understanding and a functioning conscience.

The image of God is marred on account of sin in Genesis 3; where once communion with God was uninhibited, sin brought alienation and conflict. But the introduction of sin does not eliminate the image of God in humanity. In fact in Genesis 5:1-3, in the genealogy of Adam, the author repeats the fact that Adam was created in God’s likeness by God. The Fall did not destroy the image of God. The image of God continues through the family line so that all is given the breath of God and his image. Later, in his covenant with Noah, God appeals to the divine image as the reason for the strict punishment in the case of murder: “Whoever sheds human blood, by human beings shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6). The narrator is suggesting that being made in the image of God gives human life special dignity and worth. This reality can be further seen in God’s vehement protection of human dignity and worth as God prohibits murder, adultery and other injustices throughout the Law. God does not stand for the defacing of his image by one human being towards another. The New Testament continues in this understanding in James draws on the humanity’s being in the image of God as an ethical basis of controlling ones tongue: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9).

The apostle Paul takes the concept of the divine image and applies to Christ. According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, Jesus is the ultimate image of God. This point of reference allows Paul to include all believers to be considered being in the image of God. Paul points out that believers are being transformed into the image of Christ so that the believers life can reflect Christ’s glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). He encourages his readers to put on “the new self” which is to be created like God (Ephesians 4:24) and to be renewed in the image of the Creator (Colossians 3:9-10). For Paul, the image of God is made perfect in Jesus Christ. Where the divine image has been defaced by sin and is barely a shadow of its former self, Christ restores the image in the believer. The reality is that this image, while it is partially restored in this life through Christ, still only points us forward to a completely renewed image upon Christ’s final return.

The implications of the  image of God on who we are is important. First, in general terms, all people are created in the image of God. This means that every human being has been created with intentionality and care. This gives meaning and significance to the individual. We each matter to God.  Secondly, human beings have been created with purpose. God created us to rule the earth, but to more importantly have fellowship with him. God made us spiritual, relational beings so that we could have intimate communion with him. This is made possible through the work of Jesus Christ who redeems in us the divine image which has been marred by sin. Thirdly, being made in the image of God means that we need to be in community with others.  As the church is the body of Christ here on earth, the perfect expression of God’s divine image is found in relationship with other people who are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ Jesus (i.e. the church).   

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