What does it mean to be made ‘in the image of God’?

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
~ Genesis 1:26-28

What is the ‘image of God’?

Humans are described in Genesis 1 as created in the image of God, and it distinguishes them from the rest of the creatures in creation. They are different. Given that we find this here, at the start of the Christian Bible, and in the context of God’s creative purposes for the world, understanding what is meant will help us comprehend what it means to be truly human.

An image is a representation of some reality – it illustrates and serves as a reminder of something. If I have an image of my family, I have a representation of them. It reminds me of them. It can be shown to others to familiarise them with how my family looks. And in the ancient near east, an ‘image’ was some object, or monument, that monarchs used to represent their rule. For instance, when a king conquered a city they could erect a statue that served as a reminder of their royal position over them when he wasn’t present. Additionally, kings were seen as living images of gods. So the king himself was a representative of the divine power of a god.

In Genesis 1:26-28, God blesses humanity and sets them over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and over every living creature that moves on the ground. Male and female are created as image-bearers of God. What this means is that humans are created to be God’s representative rulers over creation. This task is unique among all the creatures that God made. We see this echoed in Psalm 8, where David writes that despite the wonder of the heavens, and the glory of God’s creation, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” And then David goes on to sing of how humans are made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour, and are made rulers over the works of God.

To be made in the image of God is to be God’s representative rulers. It is what we were made to do, and who we were made to be. We are cosmic signposts that display what God is like, and when we look at each other we are meant to be an illustration of the kind of king that God is. Regardless of how old or young we are, and without any condition on our own physical or mental abilities, all humans are given the divine purpose in life to embrace this identity and calling. We are to rule and care for the world in which we live, preserving it, as faithful stewards of what God has given us.

And yet, we don’t do this, do we? We don’t rule as we should. We don’t represent God as we should. When we rebel against God and follow after idols, we aren’t just breaking commands – we are misrepresenting God. We are abandoning what it means to be human. That is why we cannot say that ‘it is only natural to sin’. Sin is antithetical to what it means to be human. To sin is to be thoroughly sub-human.

Praise God that He doesn’t leave us there. Jesus Christ, the perfect man, is the complete picture of what it means to be human. He is called the image of God (Colossians 1:15), and the one whose image we will bear if we are followers of Him (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:49). God came in the flesh, as one of us, to embody what it truly means to be an image-bearer. He is the perfect representative of what God is like, in His identity and how He lived, and He is the perfect ruler who reigns over creation.

To be saved in Christ is to become a follower of true humanity, and to embark on a transformation as we become conformed to His likeness. As Colossians 3:1-14 shows us, those who are raised with Christ are being renewed in knowledge in the image of God. So what does this all mean? Here are three concluding thoughts:

  1. Since all humans are image-bearers of God, dignity and respect are owed to all people. Divisions cannot be cast on the basis of worth, or worthiness to receive respect, and all humans must be given care even if they are blatantly misrepresenting God. That is to say, sin tarnishes the image but it doesn’t completely destroy it, and we can’t hate and reject people whom we deem as unworthy (perhaps, because of a crime they have committed). All humans should be treated with dignity.
  2. Humanity’s purpose is bound up with God. We were made for Him. Severing that connection can leave us aimless, purposeless, and hopeless. Working in God’s world is what we are called to do – paid or unpaid – as rulers who can reflect the righteousness of our creator. Fulfillment and meaning in life will never be truly found unless we remember our purpose for existing and embrace it with the grace of God.
  3. Followers of Jesus are to put off what is sub-human and live more like the perfect human. Clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, love, and forgiveness are displays to the cosmos of who God is. What an exciting adventure! As we go through life, with whatever it may bring, we know that every moment is an opportunity to be human. Though we will not do this perfectly, we know that because of our Saviour we do not need to feel broken, battered, and useless. In Him, we are forgiven, redeemed, and set free to witness to the God-man who rescued us from abandoning our purpose.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.