Made In The Image Of God
Applying a Theology of Human Identity
The question of our identity is one that runs deep. In the marrow-of-our-bones deep. In the deepest-well-of-the-soul deep. It’s a question that matters to us at a core level.
When considering the various evidence to the very existence of God, I think this inner longing in all people is my favorite, because I can speak from experience! More than just a logical argument, there is a yearning within me to know who I am, which speaks to a Creator in whom I might find that identity. Blaise Pascal talks about this as an “infinite abyss [that] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.” (1)
This inner longing goes beyond a scientific interest to know what we are, and beyond an understanding of our biological makeup. More than just a mass of functional cells, we are individual souls, who want to know our identity. Beyond knowing what we are, we desire to know who we are, and discover to who we belong.
I’m so thankful that God chose to not only reveal Himself to us but also has much to say about who we are. I hope that as we dig in to what Scripture has to say about our identity, three things will happen:
We will be more confident in who we are.
We will be better prepared to love others well.
We will love our Creator more.
We Are Image-Bearers
Let’s start at the very beginning, which Julie Andrews says is “a very good place to start”. The origins of man, and particularly the material creation of the world, are topics we will save for another time. For the moment, let’s look at what God says in reference to our design.
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Genesis 1:26, (ESV).
One quick clarification is necessary for the word “man,” because the English translation is gendered male, and the Hebrew word is not. The word used here is ‘adam (אָדָם), and it refers to a human person, male or female. Perhaps a clearer translation might read, “Let us make [humans] in our image”. I find it interesting that while the writer of Genesis does distinguish between men and women, he first established that both were created in the image of God.
So what does it mean to be “made in God’s image”?
Let’s start with the original reader. The ancient Israelite audience was very familiar with created images, as every culture around them was filled with “images” of their god(s). These cultures would have created visible representations of their deity out of wood, stone, cast metal, etc. These were the idols that caused Israel so many issues over the years. They would have clearly understood what God was saying in Genesis 1:26. It probably knocked them off their feet.
Imagine being a people surrounded by cultures with many idols, which is maybe not so hard to imagine. Then God Himself declares, “I made YOU in my image”. In all of breathtaking creation, God imprints His image on humankind. Let me be clear that I am not saying we are the exact image or a replica of God in some way. (2) Rather, as Genesis 1:26 states, we are made “after the likeness” of God, a representative picture of a God who does not fit inside our imagination or understanding.
We are image-bearers, who are in some incredible way created as living, breathing statements to the nature and likeness of God! In the same way, dead stone idols represent dead silent gods, we reflect the living, breathing Creator who placed His image on us.
The implications of this certainly go beyond a single article or book for that matter, but I’d like to at least touch on a few ways this might change us today.
How does this change how I see myself?
You are wonderfully made.
Psalm 139:14 says “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”, and submitting to a Biblical definition of your identity, means recognizing that you are “wonderfully made”. I say ‘submitting’ because this verse leaves no room for either your own self-doubt over your value, or the questions others may cast on your value. What joyful submission! What a joy to say to self-doubt, “take a hike, I’m wonderfully made!”
When we rightly understand our identity as being a God-given quality, it provides a firm foundation for understanding our value. We are created as image-bearers, and we don’t have to do or accomplish anything to prove our worth. We are rightly called human beings because our value is established by simply being made in the image of God. Just by existing, we reflect the glory of God to all of creation.
Second, in addition to our identity being a God-given quality, it’s also a God-defined quality, and it is wonderful! Each of us is “wonderfully made” in the image of God! Perhaps it is helpful to know that the word translated here as “made” more literally means “set apart”. God set us apart to reflect His glory. No person made in the image of God, is anything less than wonderfully set apart. No other label supersedes this. God defines each one of us as wonderfully made, and all other attempts to identify us must first submit to this God-given, God-defined identity.
How does this change how I love others?
I’m sure you already see how the above statement might impact how we love other image-bearers. However, let’s briefly touch on a few of the ways this might play out.
First, a person’s value is established by who they are and not what they can accomplish. Modern societies are not so different from ancient ones in their belief that a person’s contribution to society determines their worth. I am not opposed to the idea that people should strive to be contributing members of society and work hard. I don’t think the Bible is either. Scripture has plenty to say about working hard (Prov 14:23, Gal 6:4-5, Eph 4:28) and about the heart which we bring to our work (Prov 16:3, 1 Cor 10:31). Here’s what I’m saying: our inherent worth is not tied to that.
I think this changes the way we look at many of the most marginalized in our society. It changes the way we look at the very young and the very old. Their lack of contribution doesn’t make them any less valuable. It changes how we look at the sick and the disabled. Their illness or disability doesn’t diminish their value to God or us.
People are more than human capital, and they are more than expendable resources. Instead, they are infinitely and eternally valuable to the God who made them and should be valuable to us too.
Second, I think there are significant implications for how Christians should deal with issues of race, ethnicity, and gender, but each of those topics deserves more than a paragraph or so that I can afford in this article. I think two places in scripture might direct our thoughts and still allow us to move forward.
In 1 Samuel 16, God tells Samuel to not even pay attention to the physical characteristics of David’s other brothers because “the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, ESV). I don’t think this verse is saying God does not see the outward appearance, but rather that He does not consider it when evaluating a person. We need to recognize that our limited vision, confined to only the outside, has the potential to mislead us. God is wholly concerned with the heart, which He can see, and we cannot (Jer 17:9, Acts 15:8).
Samuel anointed an earthly king, but Revelation gives us a glimpse of what life will be like under the Eternal King in the kingdom of Heaven. It describes “a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). Here we see a physically diverse but united multitude of people gathered together, fulfilling their purpose, worshipping God.
So how does this change how we love others? When we begin to challenge social concepts of value based on only productivity, we begin to elevate the value of the marginalized. When we begin to recognize the limitation of our own eyes, and we become aware of their potential to mislead us. When we ascribe value to every person, it should shake our prejudices to their foundation.
When we develop a desire to see all people in the heavenly multitude one day, we start to see them with the heart of God.
How does this make me worship God?
We could continue talking about this topic until Jesus comes back, but I’d rather finish up this article and send us out to do some image-bearing, and practice loving some people well.
I’d like to close by going back to Psalm 139:4, which shows us the proper response to this identity of being an image-bearer.
David says, “I praise You, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” His response is one of praising God!
There are two things contributing to his praise in this verse.
The first element inspiring his praise is awe-inspiring fear, resulting from the recognition that we have been made to reflect the Almighty God. After Israel witnesses the Red Sea parted by God for them to walk through, they use that same word (fear) to describe how He is “awesome in glorious deeds” (Ex 15:11). The nation of Israel witnessed their people be mightily rescued from Egypt. King David in Psalm 139 recognizes that he was mightily created. In the same way the Israelites witnessed the mighty works of God in their exodus from Egypt, and King David in Psalm 139 witnessed the mighty works of God in creating him! The second element is awe and wonder, which we discussed earlier, but worth bringing up again.
Let’s go back to the creation account just for a moment. God creates the heavens, sun, moon, galaxies full of stars. God creates the oceans full of every type of swimming creature, and the land with soaring mountains and green valleys. In all the splendor of creation, He only places His image on one thing: us.
Psalm 8:3-4 wonders at this very thing saying,
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?”
We are surrounded by people, who more than anything in creation, bear the image of the One we were created to worship! Therefore, our response to people should include worship, not of people, but of a worthy God.
Grace and peace,
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(1) Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, p.75, New York; Penguin Books, 1966
(2) The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer, p.7, New York; Harper Collins, 1961
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