The Image of God – The Image of Humanity

Our Best Photograph of God

The Gospel of John, at the very start of its message about Jesus, reminds us that “no one had ever seen God at any time. But Jesus who came from the very heart of the father has revealed Him to us.”

It has been a major conviction of Christian theology that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen what God is essentially.  Every previous photograph we had of God was partial, fragmentary and inadequate. No graven images of any kind could have done justice to the reality that is God. Every image would have been a distortion, and so they were forbidden. But the church has declared without hesitancy that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15) and that he is the reflection of God’s glory and the precise imprint of God’s very being. (Hebrews 1:3)  Jesus is the only “graven image” that God would allow to represent Himself.

It is for this reason that the clearest minds of the Great Church have insisted that Jesus is not like God, but that God is like Jesus. They have asked us not to try to create a picture of God, and then see how close Jesus approximates that picture, but reverse that process instead. Look at Jesus as portrayed in the four Gospels and then cry with joyous amazement, God us just like that!  (Just for the record, this is why both Judaism and Islam hold that the Christian view of Jesus is blasphemous.)

But to see Jesus as the image of God is only half of the reality about Jesus. If he is the best photograph we will ever get of God, he is also the best photograph of what it means to be fully human.

Our Best Photograph of humanity

Until we met Jesus, we had never seen a “normal” human being. After humanity fell into sin, we have all been distorted versions of humanity. We have all been stapled, spindled, and mutilated. We know that our sinfulness, our weakness, and our mortality are not part of our essential nature, but they have become the earmarks of all human existence. We are sadly aware that “there hath passed away a glory from the earth.” (Wordsworth)

In response to this dissonance, it has been customary to cast our eyes back to Adam and Eve, to imagine pictures of an original perfection, and long for a return to Eden. But it is of interest to note that the scriptures are significantly silent about humanity prior to the fall. In a matter of a few verses, we move from the description of our being created to our being corrupted. We might want to imagine years, decades or even centuries between being made in the image of God and our moral failure, but the Biblical text is very uninterested in such meanderings of the mind. The remainder of the Old Testament will not find itself looking back to this past event, but instead will spend its best energies looking forward to a promised future.

When we get to the New Testament there is also little preoccupation with Adam and Eve, except as images of our falleness. The first couple are the photographs of our failure, not our future. They are not the templates for a restored humanity. God had a better dream in mind.

In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son who would call himself, the Son of Man. Centuries later, at the Council of Chalcedon, the church in unity would define as well as they could, the nature of this Son of God who was the Son of Man. “Perfect in deity, perfect in humanity, truly God and truly man… of the same essence as the Father, as pertains to his deity, and of the same essence as us, as pertains to His humanity, like us in every respect, except for sin.” (my translation)


So what are the implications of all this for our lives? We have been very glad to have Jesus to be our Saviour, but we have been reluctant to have him be the model for our lives. We are more than glad to worship him as the Son of God, but have been hesitant to imitate him as the Son of Man. We take great comfort that God is just like Jesus, but we need to take great chagrin from the sad reality that we are not enough like him. It is because of this disparity between Jesus and ourselves that causes Paul to write: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient….” (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV)  I think the advice is divine!

Think it Through

To explore the idea that Jesus is the model of a normative humanity, you may want to read and reflect upon these passages:

  • Colossians 1:15-20 – Jesus is the image of God.
  • Ephesians 1:3-5 & 4:22-24 – We are to be re-created according to the likeness of God.
  • Romans 8:29 – God has planned for us to be conformed to the image of His Son.
  • I Corinthians 15:49 – Just as we have borne the image of fallen humanity, we are to bear the image of the Man from heaven.
  • II Corinthians 3:18 – We are being changed into his likeness.
  • Colossians 3:10 – We have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in the image of its creator.

Take Action

Young people in recent years have been wearing bracelets, necklaces, or pins containing the initials WWJD – “What would Jesus do.” Some think such an approach to Christian ethics is a bit too simplistic. Maybe so. But why not try the experiment? As you go through the day, interrupt your thoughts with the question, WWJD in this circumstance? Be careful, it might make you just a little bit radical!

Small Group Leader

Young people are asking for mentors and looking for models. “I want to be like Mike” still sounds out in some circles. In the Christian church we often finds mentors for our spiritual life in a more mature contemporary, or in a “saint” from church history. Why do we search for mentors? Is it a good thing? Is Jesus the only safe one? If you were to say as St. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (I Cor.4:15-17), what behaviour would you have in mind?

Published in Light and Life,  July-August, 2003.

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