In the Image of God
January 22, 2023 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Topic: Sanctity of Human Life Passage: Genesis 1:26–28
Today, we study what the Bible teaches about the image of God. It is Sanctity of Life Sunday, a time we set aside to remember the dignity of every person. Last June, we rejoiced in the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. Pray it lasts. Yet this does not mean the work of the church is finished when it comes to the sanctity of life.
Abortion is but one symptom of a greater problem. Owen Strachan published a book called Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. To introduce the book, he borrows the idea of enchantment. Enchantment, not in the sense of placing you under a spell, but in the sense of dazzling you with true beauty. Enchantment, he thinks, captures what occurs when we grasp the Bible’s view of humanity: “God, the beautiful one, made the human race as his capstone work, his corporeal masterpiece.”
But when it comes to our skeptical, secularist era, we’ve been told “that we people are the chance result of impersonal chaos working its dark magic on the universe; we have no divine origin, there is no design or [goal]…to our bodies and identities, and…there is no God. The outcome of such thinking? Humanity is disenchanted”[i]—not filled with wonder. That’s the greater problem. When society views itself apart from their divine origin, when society rejects the Creator’s design, when society ignores the goal of their existence, it spirals downward into an ugly, pointless chaos.
That chaos includes ripping children apart in the womb and doctors mutilating bodies outside the womb. It includes leaders unwilling to answer, “What is a woman?” and parents who tell their children to make themselves into whatever they want. It includes women exchanging natural relations for those that are contrary to nature, and men committing shameless acts with other men. It includes power-hungry leaders starting a war. It includes exploiting others for personal gain, showing partiality based on sex, status, or skin color. It includes replacing humans with robots in relationships and the approval of, no kidding, mobile euthanasia units. The list goes on.
Our culture is in a crisis over what humanity is. The Bible is not surprised. Murder, exploitation, man-stealing, prejudice, bestiality, child-sacrifice, men pretending to be women—the Bible recognizes the chaos in our culture. It names the chaos and tells us where it came from—man rejecting the Creator and his design. But the Bible also dazzles us with something far more beautiful. To grasp the Bible’s vision of humanity and what God does in Christ to renew humanity, is to become filled with wonder. So, let’s see what Scripture says about humanity: our nature, our function, and our need.
Our Nature as the Image of God
First, let’s see what the Bible says about our nature as the image of God. Genesis 1 is our starting place. It opens with God creating the heavens and the earth. He creates light on day one. The sky and waters on day two. The dry land and plants on day three. Then on days four, five, and six, God fills these domains with various lights, birds and fish, animals; and then God creates man.
Verse 26 says, “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.”
From the outset, we learn that humans are not a cosmic coincidence. We are fashioned by a careful Creator. God made us in his image. Now, some relate the image to man’s ability to reason. Others relate it to man’s capacity as a moral creature. Others say it has more to do with our spiritual makeup and ability to relate to God. These attempts touch on aspects that may distinguish humans from other creatures. But none really capture what the first readers heard in the word “image.”
In the ancient world, kings were seen to represent the presence of a god on earth. A king would conquer lands; and as he did, he’d leave behind an image that stood for the god’s presence. The image was a visual representation of the god ruling through the king. It comes as no surprise, then, that when God has Moses write the creation account, he does so with imagery familiar to the readers of that day.[ii] “Image” stood for visual representation. But here’s where the creation account is far better.
God isn’t like a local deity. No, he rules everything—he made it all. Then God creates humans in his image. Only these image bearers aren’t like those of the ancient Near East that cannot see, hear, speak, or act. No, according to 2:7, God breathes life into his image bearers. Also, the image doesn’t belong to just one, the king, but to all. All humans are visual representatives, not to receive worship but to reflect to each other the one God worthy of worship. Your life is like a mirror that sits at an angle. You are to reflect what God is like to others, so that they see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven, to use language from Matthew 5:16.
This reality sets you apart. God created many things for his glory. The sun and stars, clouds and birds, elephants and chinchillas, whales and turtles, trees and mountains, fiery angels, mighty seraphs. But none of these things bear the image of God. Only one creation was made in his image—you. God’s image sets you apart.
Even the way God wrote Genesis 1 makes this clear. Notice the verbs: “Let there be light…Let there be an expanse…Let the earth sprout…Let there be lights…Let the waters swarm…Let the earth bring forth.” But O what an interesting switch in verse 26, “Let us make.” It’s meant to grab you—something unique is happening.
You will also notice how verse 27 is indented, much like you’d find in Psalms. Here, prose breaks into poetry with the creation of man; and I wonder if such a moment inspired great writers like Lewis and Tolkien when the creation of their narrative worlds is set to music. Aslan sings Narnia into existence, for example.[iii] When God puts his image into man, there is music in the story. There is no music in evolution. But when male and female bear God’s likeness, God’s song of creation reaches a crescendo.
In the broader sweep of Scripture’s story, this makes perfect sense. Because the image of God in man also anticipates the incarnation of God’s Son. Consider it with me for a moment. John 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through him.” Colossians 1:16 adds that “all things were created through [the Son] and for [the Son].”
But consider one more piece: the Son of God eventually takes to himself a human nature (John 1:14); and when he does, Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” You following me? When God creates man in his image, he creates that image through the Son, and for the Son, and with the goal that all creation would reflect the Son who would bear that image himself as a man. We’ll return to that later. For now, just keep in mind that whatever you say about God’s image in man, it must account for how God reveals that image most fully and most clearly in Jesus.
Two more observations about our nature as image bearers. The image of God belongs to all people. It’s not limited to the healthy. It’s not limited to the strong—“the survival of the fittest.” It’s not limited to the old or the young, to those outside the womb versus inside the womb. It’s not limited to the rich over the poor. One ethnic group doesn’t possess more of the image than others. Men don’t have more of the image than women, or vice versa. The image of God belongs to all people.
Even after the fall of man into sin, the image abides in all people. It’s true that sin greatly marred the image of God. But that doesn’t mean the image is lost. Consider Genesis 5:3. After the fall of man into sin, we find the image of God passing to Adam’s children. Then in Genesis 9:6, after the flood, we find the dignity of man reasserted in God’s covenant with Noah. God puts severe consequences in place for those who take human life: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” That’s a universal covenant applied to all. But it assumes that all people maintain a special dignity endowed by our Creator.
Also, James 3:9 says, “…with [our tongue] we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” So even after sin enters the world, God’s image in mankind persists. Image-bearers shouldn’t be treated lightly. We shouldn’t even degrade them with words.
Our Function as the Image of God
That’s a few observations on our nature as God’s image bearers. But what about functioning as God’s image bearers? If God made us visual representatives, how does this play out? I’d like to answer that by looking again at Genesis 1 alongside Genesis 2 and a few other passages. What stands out to me are three specific ways we image God: ruling, serving, and speaking like God.
Let’s look first at ruling like God. Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…” A better translation reveals a purpose statement in verse 26: “Let us make man in our image…so that they may rule.” We see it again in verses 27-28: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…’” Notice, “be fruitful and multiply” connects with “male and female he created them;” “have dominion” connects with “in the image of God he created them.”
Ruling creation rightly is one way we image God. People get glimpses of God’s glory when we rule in ways that reflect his righteousness, his love, how he orders creation, how he provides for his people, how he leads and protects. We might say this: God is the true King; but he created us to reflect his rule as lesser kings.
Serving is another way we image God. Genesis 2:15, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Maybe your translation has “to cultivate and maintain it.” That’s fine. But there’s more implied than just gardening. When these words appear together elsewhere, they’re usually translated “to serve and to keep.” Usually, it has to do with Israelites serving God, keeping his word. We also find them referring to the priests serving in the tabernacle.[iv]
The point is this: later revelation helps clarify the type of role Adam had in the Garden. Not only was he to rule as a king; he was to serve in God’s presence, much like a priest, a worshiper. This is why the tabernacle and temple would later have beautiful colors and blossoms and trees and cherubs and precious stones—to capture something of God’s original dwelling with man in Eden. Adam was to enjoy serving in God’s presence and keeping his word unhindered by sin. All of life was Coram Deo: before God’s face.
One further way we image God is by speaking. God speaks throughout Genesis 1. He speaks creation into existence.[v] He orders creation by his word. As God’s image bearer, Adam speaks too. His words don’t create, but they do provide order. He orders the animals by naming them (Gen 2:19). He’s the first to receive God’s word, and he’s the first to speak God’s word to the woman (Gen 2:16). God writes poetry in Genesis 1 about the man (Gen 1:27). Adam speaks poetry over his wife in Genesis 2:23. The way you use words tells a story about your God. This will become even clearer when we get to some New Testament passages in a moment.
For now, let’s summarize. God made you in his image, and that image has everything to do with being a visual representation of God. People see this especially when we rule as kings under God’s authority, when we serve like priests in God’s presence, and when we speak as one filled with God’s words, a prophet perhaps.
That sounds beautiful. What a vision for humanity! It’s enough to leave David awestruck in Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him. Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the work of your hands…” It’s an amazing story—this image of God in man!
Our Need for the Image Renewed in Christ
But with the writer of Hebrews—who reflects on Psalm 8—our experience tells us something is wrong. People abuse their authority. Families are full of strife. Parents neglect their children or rule them with an iron fist. James 3 says people can’t even rule their tongues. If anybody can rule his tongue, he is what? A perfect man, a perfect image-bearer. But we lie, complain, whine, tear down, corrupt with our words.
Instead of ruling creation, creation rules people as they turn created things into idols. People even destroy the earth itself instead of caring for it. In Adam, we also lack the ability to serve before God. Sin bends us in on ourselves. The goal of life becomes self-defined and, not surprisingly, self-centered. This is how the story goes for all people born in Adam. The image of God has been marred by sin. Our ruling, serving, and speaking often lie to other people about God. Hence all the chaos I mentioned earlier…
What do you mean, Psalm 8, that God put everything in subjection to man? Don’t you see this crisis? The writer of Hebrews feels the tension. Hebrews 2:8—at present we don’t yet see everything in subjection to mankind. Why? Because in Adam we see man functioning as he was cursed, not as he was created. And this highlights our need for the image renewed by the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 2:8 says, “We do not yet see everything in subjection to mankind. But we see him who for a little while was made lower that the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone…” (Heb 2:9); and he did this in order to bring many sons to glory (Heb 2:10). God sent his Son into the world as the new Adam to redeem and renew the image of God in his people.
When we see Jesus, we see the perfect image bearer—Colossians 1:15. Indeed, we see God himself—and not simply because Jesus has a divine nature, but because Jesus truly images God in all he does as a man. To look at Jesus ruling, serving, and speaking is to see God revealed, God visually represented to perfection (John 14:9).
He speaks God’s words: “[I] speak just as the Father taught me,” he says in John 8:28. He rules over disease and death—we’ve been seeing that in Matthew’s Gospel. He rules with perfect justice and compassion for sinners. He rules with humility and generosity. Jesus also serves God faithfully. It’s his food to do the will of the Father (John 4). He’s a better priest than all before him (Heb 9-10). He offers his own body in sacrifice to God to forgive us for all the ways we’ve distorted God’s image.
But more than that, God raised Jesus from the dead to renew God’s image in us. That’s why Romans 8:29 says that we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Or how about 2 Corinthians 3:18? “…by beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Or Colossians 3:10, “you have put on the new self, [Christian], which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
And what have we been learning from Revelation? By the blood of the Lamb, God makes us a kingdom of priests to God, and we shall reign on the earth. He also makes us into a prophetic people who speak the words of God and the testimony of Jesus. That’s where Jesus takes us. Jesus liberates us from sin to fulfill our function as God’s image bearers in ruling, serving, and speaking like God. And you know what? When it’s all said and done, we will be just like Jesus, because we shall see him as he is.
How does this affect us now?
That’s a glimpse into what the Bible teaches about the image of God in man—original to creation, marred by sin, renewed in Christ. Now, what does all this mean for the present chaos I mentioned earlier? How will you act on this truth about humanity?
First, seek renewal in Jesus Christ alone. There’s no other perfect man who can transform you. Ephesians 4:17 says, “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds…They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Remember the chaos, the crisis? How do you change all that? Who rescues humanity from the chaos?
Ephesians 4:20, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 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.” You don’t need to turn over a new leaf. You need a new self, and Jesus gives you that. Jesus alone brings the renewal. So, repent from everything that mars God’s image and seek renewal in Christ.
Second, since you are made in God’s image, give yourself to God. I love the account in Mark 12, when the religious leaders try to trap Jesus in his words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus, knowing their hypocrisy, says, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it…Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They say, “Caesar’s.” Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The coin has Caesar’s image—so give it to him. You have God’s image—so give yourself to God.
People are confused about their worth, their identity, their purpose because they haven’t given themselves to God. Instead, they’re told in ads, “Be Fit. Be Well. Be you.” Or this one: “Life isn’t about finding your limits. It’s about realizing you have none”—Nike. Or how about this advice—“be true to yourself,” “follow your heart,” “you do you.”[vi] Our culture is preoccupied with giving yourself to yourself.
Jesus says to give yourself to God. Why? Because God made you to image him. Your purpose is to rule under him, serve with him, and speak like him. Give yourself to God in your thought-life, so that you think God’s thoughts after him. Give yourself to God in your passions, so that you love what he loves and hate what he hates. Give yourself to God in your bodies—your physical health, your eating habits, your sleep patterns, the way you take care of your body—is all part of bearing God’s image well. As Paul says elsewhere, “Glorify God in your bodies.” Give yourself to God at work and reflect his joyful and generous dominion. Give yourself to God in creativity—art, building, design, colors, music, poetry. You image God when you create beautiful things to enjoy and bless others. Give yourself to God in every way.
Three, honor the image of God in everyone. Nobody is a throwaway. From conception to natural death, every life has dignity and value. That means Christians should lead the way in working to abolish abortion. We should work to pass laws that protect the unborn image bearer. We honor God’s image when we support the Pregnancy Help Center of Fort Worth. Some of you serve there—leading, cleaning, making blankets, donating clothes. All this honors God’s image in the smallest persons.
Christians should also be the first to offer their homes to children in need of adoption; and if you’re not in a place where you can offer your home, support those who can. Christians should be the first to help the poor, to visit the orphan and the widow. Why? James 1 links such care to what God the Father is like, and how his implanted word makes us like him. Churches should be first in line to help mothers in distress, to stand against human trafficking, to care for the elderly and disabled.
There should also be a deep sense of grief when our culture pursues things contrary to God’s image—like homosexuality and transgenderism. There should be a deep sorrow over ideologies that lie to our children about their identity and lead them down awful paths. Also, in the church, we should pave the way for unity. Our community does not revolve around sex, status, or skin color. God’s word teaches that we’re all cut from the same cloth as God’s image bearers; and in Christ, God is making a new humanity. We pursue unity around Jesus and what Jesus is like.
Honoring God’s image also means you watch what you say about other image bearers. James 3:9, “With [the tongue] 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.” Why pursue all these things? Because God made man in his image, and every life matters.
Finally, help others see the importance of God’s image in man. In her book Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcy observes,
Human life and sexuality have become the watershed moral issues of our age. Every day, the twenty-four-hour news cycle chronicles the advance of a secular moral revolution in areas such as sexuality, abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, and transgenderism. The new secular orthodoxy is being imposed through virtually all the major social institutions: academia, media, public schools, Hollywood, private corporations, and the law.[vii]
Everyone is talking about this stuff; and these are perfect opportunities to show how their questions intersect with God’s story about God’s image in man. In parenting, for example, it’s not uncommon for older children to feel like they must prove that they’re valuable, that they’re worth something. Sometimes they even start seeking their worth in the approval of others and what others think about their body, their looks, their intellect, their athleticism, their popularity. But how liberating to share with them that their worth is found not in what they do but in who God made them to be. They have value simply because God made them a special way—in his image.
Or take a friend or family member struggling with depression. Thoughts can sometimes spiral into “I’m worthless. I’m nothing. I have no purpose.” Perhaps some are having suicidal thoughts. Satan relishes the opportunity to rid the world of God’s image bearers. This is a perfect opportunity to sit with them, to care for them, and to remind them about how God sung his image into them. As God’s image, they have worth and value and dignity. They have a purpose, and they have hope through Christ.
Or take politics as another example. History has shown that once society abandons God’s image in man, “human rights are up for grabs.” To quote Nancy Pearcy again,
The history of chattel slavery in America and the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century give stark evidence of the morally horrific consequences of treating humans as mere things. The slaveholders argued that Africans were less than fully human…Nazi propaganda dehumanized Jews, calling them ‘rats’…In the Red Terror, Lenin called whole categories of people ‘parasites’…In the 1994 Rwandan massacre, the Hutus were incited to violence by government radio addresses calling the Tutsis ‘cockroaches’ that must be ‘exterminated.’[viii]
Some people want us to separate Christianity from politics. But the Bible’s truth about God’s image in man serves the good of society. The church has a role to play in shaping the conscience of others in politics. Work toward laws that give equal and just treatment to all humans, because all bear God’s image.
The implications of God’s image in man are vast. I’ve only scratched the surface. But I hope the things we have discussed give you a starting place. I hope the Bible’s story has reenchanted you with the beauty of God’s image in man.
[i] Owen Strachan, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Humanity (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2019).
[ii] Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion, NSBT 36 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 69-71.
[iii] I recall hearing a lecture on the image of God by Malcolm Yarnell in which he mentioned Lewis, Tolkien, and one other poet(?) linking creation to music.
[iv] E.g., Num 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chron 23:32; Isa 56:6; Ezek 44:14. For further discussion, see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 66-70, but not without also considering the careful critiques in Daniel I. Block, “Eden: A Temple? A Reassessment of the Biblical Evidence,” in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis: Essays in Honor of G. K. Beale, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013), 3-30.
[v] Gen 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20.
[vi] Brian Rosner, How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 23.
[vii] Nancy R. Pearcy, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 9.
[viii] Pearcy, Love Thy Body, 102.