November 21, 2023

Imago Dei

Barry Cooper
Imago Dei

The fact that we are “made in God’s image” sets us apart from every other creature on earth (Gen. 1:27). Today, Barry Cooper reminds us of the extraordinary privilege we have of being made in the image of the triune God.


I never got to play Hamlet when I was an actor, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

It’s true. For all the evident dysfunction of the human race, there is still something extraordinary about it. Something divine, you might say.

Genesis chapter 1 verse 27, the crescendo of the creation narrative, explains why:

...God created man in his own image
in the image of God he created him...

Nothing else in all creation is made in the image of the triune God: only men and women. And to speak as Scripture speaks, you and I don’t bear the image of God. We don’t have the image of God.

We are the image of God.

This subject is what theologians call, in Latin, the Imago Dei, the “image of God”.

What does it mean to say that we are the image of God?

It’s been the subject of seemingly endless exploration and elaboration. But at the very least, the fact that we are “made in God’s image” sets us apart from every other creature.

Read Genesis 1, and you’ll get used to hearing that God created various things “according to their kinds”: plants, trees, sea creatures, birds, livestock and so on. “According to their kinds” points toward the fact that for all the diversity of these things, there are recogniseable groupings or families, almost as if a certain template or mold has been used. There are many different kinds of birds, but they’re all recognisably “from the bird family”, if I can put it that way.

That phrase, “according to their kind” repeats ten times in that first chapter of the Bible, so that when the rhythm is suddenly broken, as it is when God creates man, it really makes you sit up and take note. Because man is not made “according to his kind”, or anything else’s kind. When God made man, we might say, He broke the mold. Whatever similarities there may be to certain other animals, man doesn’t belong to their family at all. In fact, he is given authority over them. Why? Because man is made in God’s image.

This is picked up in passages like Luke chapter 3, where the first man, Adam, is described as “the son of God”. Or Acts 17, which says that you and I are God’s “offspring”. Or James chapter 3, which tells us that you and I were made “in the likeness of God.”

Because of the imago dei, we’re to follow in the family business. We can’t create something out of nothing as He did, of course. But we are to look after, maintain, cultivate God’s creation. We have received a royal calling, in fact: to be God’s representatives, God’s agents in the world. Listen to Psalm 8 in the light of that truth. The following lines are supremely true for Jesus, but it’s worth remembering that they’re also true for all those made in God’s image:

what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet...

So it’s an extraordinary privilege to be God’s image. But it’s also extremely humbling, because we are God’s image. We are an image of him; a shadow of Him; a reflection, not the substance itself. More dependent on him than a newborn is on her mother. More dependent even than your shadow is upon you.

So when human beings choose to ignore God’s royal call to live as his unique representatives in the world, it is as absurd as one’s own shadow deciding it has had enough of following us, and then attempting to strike out on its own. Good luck with that, we might say.

And yet, since the Fall, that has been the default desire of every human heart. The image of God in us has been marred, distorted and minimized as we’ve denied our royal calling, and tried to strike out on our own.

Though we were created as God's children, because of the Fall, we no longer enjoy that privilege. That is one of the reasons Christ came: to restore the image of God in us. His life shows what it looks like to perfectly “image” God. He is “the Son of God” par excellence. And to the extent that we trust and obey Him, the image of God will gradually be restored in us.

Well, what are the practical implications of the imago dei? There are many, but let me focus on one which feels particularly relevant.

If you look at someone and quietly think to yourself, there goes another random collection of genetic mutations which emerged accidentally out of nothing; if you look at someone and see, in other words, an over-developed puddle of milk - well then it will affect how you relate to them. We don’t treat puddles of milk with dignity or respect. We don’t value them. We’re more likely to see them as an inconvenience to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

But what if, the next time you interact with someone, you remember that this is someone who is the very image of God.

They may be very unlike me. They may do or say things that distort or break the image of God in themselves. But given that they are an image of God, an imago dei, a royal representative, I must think of them, and treat them, with royal dignity and respect.