What is the Image of God?

Creation’s origin cannot be appropriately understood apart from its eschatological aim. Creation was “very good” but in a real sense unfinished; it had before it the promise of a consummation in everlasting Sabbath blessedness. Humans were created in covenant relationship with God and one another for the purpose of securing this blessedness. Every nonbiblical anthropology begins with an assumption of the autonomous individual—intrinsically independent from God and creation and standing in sovereign judgment over God and creation.

I take the “days” of creation as analogical (though not mythological). They are God’s accommodation to his ordained pattern and commandment of six days of labor and one of rest. Eschatology is the principal motive: we were created and called to imitate God’s pattern of work (Adam’s trial of obedience) and rest (the Sabbath enjoyment held out to him). This original, creational covenant relationship is intrinsic to the meaning of being created in God’s image. All people retain some sense of God as their Lawgiver and Judge and of their obligation to love him and one another. This status as a commissioned servant of God, created in his image, renders every person both dignified and accountable. The fall did not obliterate humanity’s covenant relationship with God but divided humanity between the rebellious children of Cain and those of Seth, who called on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4).

To be created in God’s image is to be called persons in communion. Human existence and identity is not lodged in self-consciousness or in the ability to reason or to will; it is the result of being spoken by God and spoken to by God. And though all are determined as persons by the mere fact of our creation and calling in God’s image, our realization of the purpose of our personhood depends on whether we correspond to God’s intentions. Throughout Scripture, the faithful servant of God is the one who responds to the Great King’s commission, “Here I am.” Such an answer opens us up to the call of our neighbors as well as to God. The image’s relational character is undermined if it is identified with any faculty or capacity within the individual. The image is chiefly the law of love for God and neighbor written on the conscience.

Humans certainly differ from other creatures in their natural capacities for rational reflection, language, and deliberative action. By themselves, however, these distinguish us merely as more complex forms of biological life in certain respects. It is God’s command and promise and the role we have been given in his unfolding drama that marks our uniqueness. In short, the significance of the image of God is our moral likeness to our Creator and our covenantal commission in Adam to usher all creation into God’s everlasting Sabbath. The image is constituted by the following four characteristics.

  • Sonship/royal dominion—As children and servant-kings of God, we are meant to exercise righteous, respectful, responsible dominion over the rest of creation.
  • Representation—Like priests, we are meant to be analogues of God, official embassies of his character, will, and actions; this places the image in the realm of judicial commission (ethical relationship) rather than being a mirror of the divine essence (ontology).
  • Glory—We were created as temples indwelled by the Holy Spirit, filled with the Father’s glory in his Son.
  • Prophetic witness—We were created to hear God’s Word and then respond faithfully, to him in praise and to others in witness to God’s character and works.

The commission of imaging God, which Adam and his children have twisted and spurned, is truly fulfilled in all its kingly, priestly, and prophetic aspects in the eternal Son who became man, Jesus Christ, the very Image of his Father.

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