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”?