What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 4
We saw last week that Jesus is the complete human, the true image-bearer of God. He is the exact representation of God, the ruler over creation. That “completed humanity” is conferred upon those who believe that Jesus is the Christ. The image is marred in humanity in general; it is restored in the man, Jesus. All those who are “in Christ” (as Paul likes to put it) participate in the restored humanity that began at Jesus’ resurrection. The new humanity is open to all, but the entry way is through the risen Messiah.
So, what does it mean for Christians to be image bearers of God? It means we are called to live daily in such a way that embodies more and more what that image looks like. Jesus is both the cause of our renewed image and the model we follow as we try to live that way.
And this brings us to a paradox that is central to how Christians see themselves as re-created in God’s image. Jesus elevated humanity to its true image-bearing role, but his incarnation was an act of emptying himself of his divine right, as Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7. Jesus humbled himself (v. 8). Incarnation is an act of humiliation.
For Christians, too, participating in the renewed image of God means following Christ in both his exaltation and humiliation. Simply put, we bear the renewed image of God daily as our lives conform to Jesus’.
Paul sums up the matter nicely in Philippians 3:10. Knowing Christ—which is never a simple mental activity but a life path—means experiencing both the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering. This is not an either/or choice but a both/and proposition. Those who are part of this new humanity in Christ bear the marks of Jesus’ exaltation and humiliation every day.
Being part of the renewed image of God means being “conformed to the image” of Jesus (Romans 8:29). We become more and more like him in every way.
Christians are now full representatives of God in his creation, but not in the ancient Near Eastern sense—or even Old Testament sense—of ruler. I am not dismissing that, but “rule” is not the New Testament emphasis. The emphasis has now moved to other things. Christians represent God to all of creation through humility, love, holiness.
One of the many passages that remind us of this is I Peter 2:9-12. Borrowing language from the Exodus, Peter tells his readers that they are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (v. 9). This lofty status does not just make them part of the “God club.” They are God’s people who live such good lives among the inhabitants of the world “that they may see [their] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (v. 12).
You may have heard the expression “Be careful how you act. You may be the only Bible people ever read.” That’s a good point, but the reality is much more severe. We represent to the world what God has done in Christ, so a better phrase might be, “Be careful how you act. You may be the only Jesus people ever see.”
This is beyond what Genesis 1:26-27 was about in its original context. There is nothing there about humility, suffering with Christ, or living godly lives. This is true. But what Jesus does to the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27 is what he does with everything else in the Old Testament: he transforms it and fills it out beyond its limited Old Testament meaning. The shadow gives way to reality.
Still, there is one more dimension of the renewed image of God that looks more like what we see in the Old Testament. It is not a dominant theme, but it is there nonetheless. In 2 Timothy 2:13 we read that enduring present suffering has a not yet realized future dimension: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”
I don’t know what this means, but it seems that the final step of the Christian journey is some type of eschatological ruling authority. This is not explained anywhere—and I am not going to venture a guess as to what this looks like. Suffice it to say that there is “something more” to what Christ in his resurrection has already done in restoring the image of God. The New Testament is more concerned with how God’s people here and now embody Jesus’ life of servant-leadership.
God made humanity in his image. This image has a very focused meaning in the Old Testament—being God’s representative rulers over his creation. That image was marred and eventually restored and transformed in Jesus, the Son of Man, the exact representation of the image of God. Those who are in Christ take part in this new humanity.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.