I once asked a group of Christians, “What are human beings?” Without hesitation, one man shouted, “Worthless sinners!” The entire group nodded in agreement.

I responded, “Of course, with the exception of Jesus, everyone is a sinner apart from God’s grace. Still, we have to ask ourselves, are people worthless to God? Should we feel that way about people?”

Often our first reaction is to disdain people because they are sinners. Yet, as far as we know, God’s first words about people were not, “Let us make man who will become a worthless sinner.” Rather, He said, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26).

Most of us have heard this biblical theme before, but we seldom recognize how central it is in the Bible. From cover to cover, the Scriptures tell us about God, but they also tell us about the image of God. The Old Testament concentrates on God’s image in ancient Israel. The New Testament sums up the goal of the Christian life by calling us to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:24). The Apostle Paul even extolled Christ by calling him the “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). This theme is so pervasive in Scripture that it should be central in every Christian’s life.

What Is the Image of God?

So, what does the Bible mean when it calls people the image of God? Down through the millennia, Christian theologians have answered this question primarily by noting how human beings are different from other earthly creatures. They have stressed the fact that we are rational and moral creatures who have immortal souls. These observations are true as far as they go, but they do not reflect the emphasis of Scripture.

To grasp what the Bible emphasizes about the image of God, we must go back to the time when Moses wrote about the creation of humanity. Archeological discoveries indicate that in Moses’ day, many nations spoke of people as the “image,” “likeness,” and “son” of their gods. Yet, they reserved these titles almost exclusively for royal figures—pharaohs, emperors, and kings. It isn’t difficult to understand why. The nations surrounding Israel believed that the gods ordained kings to represent them on earth. Kings were to learn the will of their gods in heaven and to use their earthly political power to carry out the will of their gods. To be the living image of a god in these nations was to be the highly exalted, earthly representative of that god.

As Moses prepared the Israelites for life in the promised land, he opposed the false, demonic religious teachings of imperial Egypt by teaching Israel the truth about the image of God. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The honor of being God’s image was not reserved for a few royal figures. God ordained that every human being, male and female, was to represent Him on earth. God granted every person the privilege and responsibility of learning His will and carrying it out on the earth.

No wonder that Jesus said all the Law and Prophets hang on the commands to love God and our neighbor—God and His image (Matt. 22:37–40). The Scriptures repeatedly teach that mistreating human beings is entirely incompatible with honoring God. God told Noah not to tolerate murder “for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). James stressed how absurd it was for the same people to “bless our Lord and Father, and . . . curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

Imperial Egypt had taught the Israelites a lie that every generation is prone to embrace, including our own. The lives of some people are valuable: political leaders, the rich, the highly educated, the healthy, the youthful, those who can earn our respect. Others simply don’t matter as much: the poor, the ordinary, the uneducated, the sick, the aged, unborn children who cannot earn anything. We easily treat them as worthless.

Moses taught the Israelites something radical in their day. They were as valuable as the most powerful king in the world. Moses teaches us the same radical lesson today. Every human life is valuable because every human being is the royal image of God.

What Is the Mission of God’s Image?

Why did the biblical authors focus so much on God’s image? Simply put, God ordained a critical role for human beings in His plan for creation. This mission appears for the first time in Moses’ record of God’s words to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). Most Christians have heard these words before, but we often treat them as irrelevant for our lives. Think about it this way. When was the last time someone asked you, “What do you do?” and you replied: “I’m fruitful and multiply. I fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion”?

Every human life is valuable because every human being is the royal image of God.

The Scriptures, however, make it clear that the mission God gave to Adam and Eve is vital to God’s plan for all of history. Adam and Eve lived in the sacred garden of Eden where God’s visible glory appeared in the beginning (Gen. 3:8), much as He appeared later in Moses’ tabernacle and in Solomon’s temple. These displays of God’s presence were wondrous, but they hardly compared with what God had planned for the culmination of history. In the end, the entire world will become God’s holy kingdom where His will is done perfectly on earth as it is in heaven. Once His kingdom comes in its fullness, God will fill the entire creation with the blinding radiance of His glory to His endless praise. This is why the psalmist looked to the future and exclaimed, “May the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (Ps. 72:19). As Paul summed up the goal of history: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

Of course, the sovereign Creator could have made the earth ready to be filled with His glory instantaneously, but in His inscrutable wisdom, God determined to reach this end through the service of His image. In the garden of Eden, He called for humanity to fill the earth with images of God and to subdue the entire earth according to His will. Sin caused this path to be frustrating and painful, but God promised that in the end His image would overcome (Gen. 3:14–19). Israel failed God time and again, but He promised that one day Abraham’s descendants would be innumerable (Gen. 15:5–6) and that they would eventually inherit the entire earth (Gen. 12:2–3; Rom. 4:13). Jesus’ followers also fail, but He confirmed that “the meek . . . shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). As the elders before the throne of God sang, “They shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10).

God’s image has failed to carry out its mission so many times that you might think that God would decide to fulfill His plan without us. But He did not. Rather, God the Father sent His eternal Son to become a human being and to complete our mission as one of us. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:21). Jesus died to atone for the sins of all who believe in Him, and He was resurrected to accomplish what we have failed to do. When He returns, Jesus will fill the earth with innumerable redeemed images of God. He and they will have dominion over the world made new. At that time, God’s glory will fill creation. John described the light of the new creation this way: “The glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:23–24).

Jesus fulfills the mission of the image of God on our behalf, but He has not rendered our service inconsequential. Jesus declared to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). At that same moment, however, Jesus also called His disciples to join with Him in fulfilling the mission of humanity: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Jesus even empowered His followers for this purpose, saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

When we look closely at the Scriptures, we can see that God does not consider human beings worthless. We are sinners, but also His image with a magnificent mission. For this reason, we are to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). We show kindness to those in need. We protect those whom others harm. We love our enemies and encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ. We pray for the lost to bring as many as we can to Christ. We teach the world how to follow His commands. We are to value human life in these and many other ways in anticipation of the day when Christ will bring multitudes of God’s image into the world made new, the day when the glory of God will fill the new creation to His endless praise.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 26, 2021.

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