What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 3

| By Pete Enns

 One of the portraits the New Testament paints of Jesus is that of ultimate image-bearer of God. Jesus fully reflects God’s image; he is the true representative of God in his creation. No one embodies more fully this truly human quality.

We can begin where we left off last week, with Psalm 8. This psalm praises God for how he has exalted humanity: man is a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and everything has been placed under his feet. Humankind, in other words, is one step below God, given authority to rule creation. Psalm 8 is fully consistent with Genesis 1:26-27 where “image of God” is described as ruling over all of creation.

In Hebrews 2:5-9 (see side-bar), the anonymous author cites Psalm 8 for a reason that might not be obvious at first glance: Jesus ranks higher than angels, a topic he began in 1:5. (In fact, all of Hebrews is one long “Jesus is better than…” argument, e.g. Moses, the high priest, and the tabernacle).

Psalm 8 supports his argument. Creation was not subject to angels, but humankind. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “everything” is put under human royal authority—everything is subject to him (v. 8). But the author of Hebrews laments, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him” (v. 8). The “him” refers to humanity. What we do see, however, is Jesus who is now crowned with glory and honor because of his death (v. 9).

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little[a] lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet." In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
-Hebrews 2:5-9

Jesus, who is like his brothers and sisters in every way (2:17, see side-bar ), is the “ultimate human” because everything really is under his authority. The lofty status of humanity as God’s royal image-bearers, however true, is not fully realized in humanity as a whole. It is fully realized in Jesus as, paradoxically, the crucified and resurrected Son of God.

Jesus is the true image-bearer. You might say that Jesus is the only truly and fully human figure who has ever lived. By looking at the crucified and risen Son, we see what “human” really means, not the corrupted dysfunctional version that stares back us from the mirror, or that we see in others.

Colossians 1:15-20 (see side-bar) makes the same point in a different way. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (v. 15): he rules creation because all things were created by him. It is understandable to read this passage and think it is only focusing on Jesus’ divinity, but that would be missing half the point. As the resurrected son, Jesus is “head of the body, the church, the beginning and firstborn from among the dead” (v. 18). By his resurrection, Jesus is the first to embody fully the image-bearing role conferred on all humanity in Genesis.

Jesus does this not for himself, but for those who would come after, the people of God. Jesus is not simply “over all creation.” He is “firstborn over all creation” (v. 15). Christians, in other words, go along for the ride. As firstborn over creation he sees to it that those born after would achieve that same status. Simply put, in his resurrection, Jesus “completes” Genesis 1:26-27, for him and for us.

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
-Hebrews 2:17

This theme is already announced at the beginning of Hebrews, 1:1-4. In the past, God had spoken through prophets, but now he is speaking through the Son he himself has appointed. The echo of Psalm 2, where Israel’s king is God’s appointed Son, is confirmed in v. 5 where the author cites Psalm 2:7. As Son, Jesus is the newly appointed Davidic king, the representative ruler. But this Son takes it up a notch: he is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is God’s representative ruler like no other.

The image of God in Genesis is not about “what makes us human,” such as one’s soul. It is about the lofty role God has given humankind to be his representative rulers. That is what image means: nothing more—but nothing less.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
-Colossians 1:15-20

Understood this way, we can and should speak of the image of God as marred, incomplete, subject to sin in all of us. The true image of God is only realized in the crucified and risen Son of God. And this gives us a much fuller understanding of the incarnation. The incarnate Son of God is fully God and fully human.

Jesus is the full image-bearer of God. He is the most human of any human who has ever lived. By faith, we too participate in restored humanity. Next week we will look at what that means for us today.


About the Author

Pete Enns

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.