In the Image of God

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:26-27 ESV

Before we begin unpacking the topic of sanctification, let’s start with the beginning – the book of Genesis that is. This very first book in the canon of Scripture opens with the words, “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1 ESV). Then it provides a detailed account of the creation story, when God made the universe and all that is in it, including the first man and woman. 

The reason we are begining at the literal beginning is because creation and sanctification have much in common. One has to do with the setting apart of man as unique and distinct in all of creation. Adam and Eve were the only beings created by God that were made in His image. While the rest of creation was deemed “good” by God, only the man and the woman received His blessing (Genesis 1:28) and were given a divine mandate from God.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28 ESV

And after having created the first two humans, God deemed all that He had made, “very good” (Genesis 1:34 ESV).

The Genesis account is extremely important to understand if we are going to grasp the significance of all that sanctification is intended to mean. For far too many of us, sanctification has become little more than a self-energized duty to “do better” at living the Christian life. We have relegated it to a series of rules to keep or duties to perform in order to stay on good terms with God. And in approaching sanctification from this limited and distorted mindset, we not only turn it into an unnecessary burden to bear, but we miss out on the remarkable nature of what God is intending to do through it.

In the Genesis account, we are given a glimpse into God’s original intentions for mankind. He intended for Adam and Eve to bear His image. The Hebrew word is tselem and it means “likeness” or “representation.” They were not an exact represenation or replica of God, but as the Hebrew word conveys, they were a “shadow” or “phantom” of His divine nature. Like the shadow cast by an object, man was meant to simulate, not duplicate the nature of God. Adam and Eve were not intended to be “little” gods, sharing all the same attributes as their Creator. But as His “shadows” they were to reveal or prove His existence. As a shadow bears the likeness of an individual, but in a distorted manner, so man was meant to bear the image of God, His imago dei. This Latin phrase came to be a popular means of expressing mankind’s responsibility to image or resemble God.

But sadly, the Genesis account also tells us how the first man and woman rejected and permanently damaged their role as God’s image bearers. They sinned against Him, willingly disobeying His command to refrain from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was the one and only tree in the entire garden which God had made off-limits.

“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17 ESV

But they failed to heed God’s warning and they ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree. And the rest, as they say, is history. As a result of their sin, Adam and Eve were cast from the garden and lost their access into God’s presence. Their sin had left them banished from their former position of intimacy with their Maker. The shadow was separated from its source. Banned from the garden, Adam and Eve lost their access into God’s presence and, ever since, men have been attempting to fill the God-sized hole in their very being.

And yet, the Bible goes on to tell us that God sent another image-bearer to earth, a second Adam, whose job it was to restore the broken relationship between Himself and fallen men. The apostle Paul tells us about this very unique individual.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:15-17 ESV

Paul is speaking of Jesus, the Son of God who was sent to seek and to save the lost. He is the image (eikōn) of God and, as such, He is part of the Godhead, and was an actual participant in the creation of the world. He not only created man, He became one. Again, the apostle Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8 ESV).  Jesus, the Son of God, became a man and, unlike the first Adam, Jesus bore the image of God obediently and perfectly, without sin.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. – John 1:18 NLT

Jesus became the model for what it means to bear God’s image. He wasn’t a shadow or phantom of God, but very God Himself. He was God in human flesh. And this perfect blend of humanity and divinity allowed Jesus to image God as no other human being had ever done. He became the perfect imago dei.

Yet, Paul tells us that Satan has blinded the eyes of men, so that they cannot see the image of God found in the life of Jesus.

…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV

But Jesus came into the world not only to reveal God the Father, but to redeem fallen mankind. He entered the world in order to restore sinful men to a right relationship with God and to reestablish the intimate communion with Him that was broken by the fall.

When Philip had asked Jesus to show he and his fellow disciples the Father, Jesus had responded, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9 ESV). Jesus was enough. To see Him was to see God. To hear Him was to hear from God. In fact, when Peter, James, and John had witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, God had spoken to them out of a cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 ESV).

Later on, Jesus told His disciples, “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT). Jesus not only revealed God, He spoke on behalf of God. He offered a message of salvation based on the grace and mercy of God, and His sinless life, modeling the character of God, would be the key.

Which brings us back to the topic of sanctification. Man was made in God’s image, but that image was marred by the fall. The image of God became perverted and twisted. So, God sent His Son to become a man, in order that He might once again image the Father accurately and effectively. And it is Jesus who is to be our model. He is to be the one we emulate and after whom we strive to model our lives. Paul reminds us, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29 ESV). That is God’s will for us. Jesus was sent not only to save us, but to model for us what it means to reflect God’s character. He is the ultimate imago dei.  And sanctification is God’s intended means by which we take on the character of Christ.

It is not about sinful men trying to be more godly. It is not about good men trying to become better. It is about chosen sons and daughters of God allowing themselves to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And in the days ahead, we will be looking more closely at how God intends for that transformation to take place. But suffice it to say, the process of sanctification is, in a sense, the restoration of sinful man to his original pre-fall condition.

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:27 ESV

And Jesus not only shows us that image in living color, He makes it possible for us to become just like Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson


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