Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” Gen. 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
What did God intend for us to understand “image” to mean, both here and throughout Scripture?
It is not insignificant that these first three uses of the word “image” in the Bible are followed by a nearly parallel passage in 5:3: Adam “had a son in his own likeness, in his own image.” In other words: like father, like son. They are identical in kind (human) and similar in likeness (sharing similarities in appearance, personality, etc).
In its simplest context, without adding later NT theology, Genesis is telling us that Adam (lit., “of the earth”) is a physical, limited facsimile of God. Human beings are physical and limited in nature, whereas God is unlimited and spirit in nature (Jn. 4:24). Human beings are created, whereas God is uncreated. Man is like God but not God. Adam’s son was born like Adam, but not Adam.
This is precisely what the Hebrew words for “image” (selem) and “likeness” (demuth) indicate. Selem is the word used of carved images, such as statues and idols (1 Sam. 6:5; 2 Ki. 11:18), and demuth indicates an exact model, pattern or representation of something (2 Ki. 16:10). So, like God, we have a spirit, but we are not solely Spirit, as He is. Possessing a spirit enables us to relate to God on a spiritual level (1 Cor. 6:11), but being one with Him does not make us identical to Him.
The New Testament brings a greater depth of revelation: When Jesus took on human nature (Phil.2:7), the Scripture is clear that He was “made” (not created) in human likeness. For example, all marine life was created at once, brought into existence where none had previously existed (Gen. 1:21), but He “made” the atmosphere by separating the watery substance of the primal earth into two bodies (Gen. 1:7).
Likewise, the pre-existing Jesus (Jn. 1:1ff) was “made” in human likeness. He was formed and patterned after Adam, the first perfect “image” of God. “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (1Cor. 15:45). As a human being, Jesus was made in the image of Adam, who was made in the image of God.
As God in human form, Jesus stands apart from the rest of God’s image bearers as the only One who can give life. We can only receive that life and so become children of God (1 John 3:1). But even that high privilege does not make us divine, for we are always heirs—recipients—of the promise that is granted to us by His grace. Jesus alone is the “author and perfector of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We will always be in His debt and subject to Him. Even as we reign with Him in eternity, it will not be on His throne, but at His right and left hand (Mk. 10:40). What an honor to be among those in God’s masterful creation who bear His image! But it is an honor granted, not earned, and therefore one that should keep us in a state of perpetual humility and gratitude.
References: 1. (Vernon O. Elmore. Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'IMAGE OF GOD'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
. 1991.) 2. Henry M. Morris. The Genesis Record, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michgan. Copyright, 1976. 3. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Moody Press, Chicago, Ill. Copyright 1980.