A Sketch of the Biblical Meaning of Divine Image-Bearing
My developed impression is that most Christians think being made in the image of God, aka Imago Dei, is a broad, flat, and generic affirmation of the universal intrinsic dignity and worth of humans as the special creatures God made us to be. I don’t think that’s the meaning of the Imago Dei in Scripture. I do think that the teaching of universal human dignity and worth is something that can be derived from the doctrine of the Imago Dei, but that’s not the heart of the matter.
Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge and advertise a number of resources on this subject. The primary source for much of this is the book Images of the Spirit (1980) by Meredith Kline. Alastair Roberts does an excellent review of Images of the Spirit as well as two follow-up sessions on being created in the image of the angels and women and the image of God.
Imago Dei and the Divine Council
Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.
Who is the “us” and the “our” in God’s utterance here in the creation account? I am of the opinion it’s the Divine Council that we see pictured in several places in Scripture. It’s God and the gods. The one true and eternal God and his heavenly angelic host. It’s the tribunal that renders judgment and instructs in the discernment of good and evil.
Let them have dominion … Fill the earth and subdue it …
Genesis opens with God who makes the light shine in darkness and has all authority. He speaks, and creation obeys. He establishes lights in the firmament of the heavens to rule over the day and the night and demarcate time. Luminaries are symbols for the angelic host and for the kings of men. This connects the Imago Dei to kingship and judgment.
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.
For the longest time, I read this passage as though the emphasis was on the image of God conveying a certain worth upon mankind and therefore demanding the blood of the one who sheds the blood of man. I don’t dispute the truth of that. It’s there. But now I wonder if the emphasis here is on man as the avenger of the blood-guilt of his fellow man. That a man exercising kingship and judgment must avenge the bloodshed of the innocent. The Imago Dei is being evoked here to explain why man is being made the avenger.
The word of my lord the king will now be comforting; for as the Angel of God, so is my lord the king in discerning good and evil.
The angels of God in the old order were intermediaries and teachers of judicial wisdom. The Angel of Yahweh (who is most likely a theophany and specifically a christophany) in particular is connected with being an agent of judgment. So much so that King David is repeatedly compared to the Angel of Yahweh in his power to execute wise judgment. The king by definition is the man required to discern good and evil, i.e. judicial wisdom.
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
The prophet also has a connection to the Divine Council. The prophet by definition is the man who is brought into the Divine Council and is sent to represent the Divine Council.
Imago Dei and the Glorious Spirit
In various places in Scripture, we see the Spirit as the visible Glory and Presence of God. The Prophet Ezekiel recounts this shrouded Glory in vivid detail as wheels and cherubs, beastly faces and multitudinous eyes, an altar and a throne, and a man of fire and metal beneath a rainbow. It’s blanketed in clouds and thunders as it moves here and there.
This is the same Glory shrouded in darkness, full of fire, and resounding in thunder that descended upon Mount Sinai. This is the Presence that was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that would go before the Israelites. It brooded over Israel like an eagle over her chicks and bore them on its wings, just as it brooded over the waters in the creation.
The words used to describe the way the ominous cloud moved and sounded upon Mount Sinai are the same words that describe Yahweh moving and speaking in the Garden to the man and his wife. In fact, Yahweh comes in the “Spirit of the Day” in the Garden.
By threading all of this biblical information together about the Spirit as the Glory and the Presence of God, there are a few things to draw from it about the image of God.
Firstly, the Spirit as the Glory and the Presence is the pattern on the mountain that Moses saw and used to build the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is made in the image of the Spirit. Likewise the Aaronic high priest is an inside-out version of the Tabernacle. He belongs to the Tabernacle and is a part of the furnishings and a member of the court. He is made in the image of the Tabernacle and is thus made in the image of the Spirit who is the Glory and Presence of God. The Spirit is the pattern for the image.
Secondly, the phrase “Spirit of the Day” connects the Spirit with the Day of visitation and judgment. And rendering judgment has already been shown to be a defining aspect of the Imago Dei. The Spirit as the Glory and the Presence is the pattern for the Day of the Lord.
Imago Dei and the Threefold Office
It’s been shown that the Imago Dei is tied to aspects of functioning as king (through the exercise of judicial wisdom), as prophet (through the invitation into the Divine Council and the dispatching from the Divine Council), and as priest (through mediation of the Glory and the Presence). So, the Imago Dei is filled with connotations of functioning as prophet, priest, and king. All three of which are anointed offices, and together are the threefold office of Christ the Anointed One. The First Adam is called the image of God. And unsurprisingly, the Last Adam is wrapped up in being the Image of God.
Imago Dei and Sonship
And Adam … begot a son in his own likeness, after his image …
God makes Man in his own image and likeness. And Man begets a son in his own image and likeness. The function of imaging is caught up in the idea of sonship. The title Son of God is routinely synonymous with being the Davidic King.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
So here we have Christ named according to two references to a Son: image and firstborn. This is Christ as the Last Adam, the New Man, the New Creation.
For whom God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that Jesus might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Being the Image of God is tied up in being the Son of God. And those who are in Christ are the sons of God who are being made into the image of the Son of God. We are made sons in the Son. We are made images of the Image.
And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
All those who are in Adam bear the image of Adam who was in the image of God. But he transgressed and marred the image with sin, the image which all those in Adam likewise bear. But all those who are in Christ bear the image of Christ who is the image of God. He has succeeded as fully faithfully functioning as the image of God. And all those who are in him are being conformed by God to that image of the Son.
Imago Dei, the Man, and the Woman
So God created Man [Adam] in his own image;
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
In the day that God created Man [Adam],
he made him in the likeness of God.
He created them male and female,
and blessed them and called them Man [Adam]
in the day they were created.
Along with the flat claim of universal human worth and dignity, I also commonly hear the claim that the Imago Dei is a broad, flat, generic claim of the equality of men and women. I also don’t believe that to be the heart of the idea, though equality of worthy and dignity can also be derived from that.
Upon close inspection, it’s clear that the man is in the image of God and can stand for the whole of mankind as a male and female population in a way that the woman cannot. The man is the image of God in a more direct fashion than the woman, but the woman is also involved in being the image of God.
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. … For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. … Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
The Apostle Paul makes this asymmetry and directionality of representation explicit. The man is the image and the glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. The man is not made for the woman, but the woman is made for the man.
And the purpose of this asymmetry and directionality of representation finds its ultimate fulfillment in the Whole Christ that is Head and Body, Husband and Bride. We can look to the Book of the Revelation to see this motion pictorially.
In the opening chapter, we learn that this vision happens in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. This sets the context as one of God’s visitation and judgment, which is in the image of the Spirit. Christ is present as the Son of Man, a new Adam and priestly figure moving in the midst of the seven lamp stands that are the seven churches. He is arrayed as a priest and is a man of fire and light and metal in the same manner as the likeness of a man in the heart of the Glory Spirit that Ezekiel saw. This evokes the symbology of the high priest as being a walking inverted tabernacle in the image of the Spirit. So at the opening, Christ is the man in the image of the Spirit.
In the closing chapters, we hear of the Lamb’s Bride who is prepared for him. The City of God comes down to earth. The Bride is from the Lamb and for the Lamb (the Husband). He has given his Spirit to the Church. The Church as his Bride in him has the Spirit. The Spirit and the Bride together say, “Come!” The Bride has become conformed to the image of her Husband and is his glory. She too is depicted in images of precious refined metal, a rainbow of gemstones, and light. She is full of the life and light of God and the Lamb.
Imago Dei and Corporate Worship
In the Reformed and other traditions, the first two of the Ten Commandments are:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image …
By distinguishing the first two commandments in this manner, the Reformed tradition is making a distinction that some have called covenantal apostasy vs liturgical apostasy. In the First Commandment, the service and prostration to all false gods is forbidden. To do so is to break covenant with the one true God by covenanting with another false god. But in the Second Commandment, any representation of the one true God using false images is forbidden. To do so is to profane the worship of the true God and to mislead the people in their understanding of God.
There are several reasons to not make images of God for use in worship. But one reason is that there is no need. There is a lawful image of God already present in worship: Man. If man is present in the worship of God, then God’s appointed Imago Dei is present. And this is true at several levels.
Firstly, all worship in the New Covenant happens in heaven. On earth, it need only be in Spirit and truth and doesn’t depend on geography. By faith through the Spirit, we ascend into the Presence on the true Mount Zion and in the true Jerusalem where we find Jesus the High Priest—Mediator, Minister, Intercessor. He who is the ultimate Image of God is already front and center in our worship by faith.
Secondly, when we gather for earthly worship which is patterned after heavenly worship, there’s a Man, a liturgist or minister, who functions as the local representation of Christ at the head of local worship. In his ordained office, the minister on earth visibly images the one who is the visible Image of God ministering in heaven.
Thirdly, the Holy Congregation (all those who are in Christ) are being transformed from glory to glory and are being conformed to the image of the Son who is the Image of God. The Totus Christus (the Whole Christ) is the Head and the Body and is the Great Mystery of the Ages. All those in Christ are being transformed and conformed to the image of the one who is the Image of God. Christ is the Head and Husband of the Church who is the Body and Bride. He is the Image and the Glory of God, and she is the image and the glory of the Man.
The false images of our own devising in worship (or elsewhere) are a distraction from the ministry at work in all the functioning and faithful true images of God who are present in worship and life.