The older I get the more people say I look like my father. They’re right — my magnificent balding round head, large nose and squat neck! But people, who knew him well and know me, make a more interesting observation: “You remind me of your father.” They’re not talking about our noses. Instead they’re noticing things like our delight with words, our optimism about life, and our playful spirits.
Those are two very different things: to “look like my father” and to “be like my father.” In the story of creation, the Creator said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us” (Genesis 1:26 NLT). Humans were to be like God in some noteworthy way! And, as humans are created, the story tells us, “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 NLT).
The fact that both males and females are in the image of the Creator confirms one thing it doesn’t mean to be “in His image.” It’s not physical! If men and women, who are uniquely different from each other, are both in God’s image, then we conclude that we’re not in his physical “likeness.” Rather, whatever makes the non-physical-Creator the Creator is what we resemble about Him. We don’t look like Him, but we are like Him; just as I’m most like my father not in my shiny head, but in the way my eyes sparkle at the mention of an adventure.
Smarter people than I have debated for millennia what this “image of God” entails. Is it our eternal soul, our relational nature, our function as rulers over creation, our free will, our rational nature, all of the above or something more?
“Something more” might be the best answer, because we don’t really understand the image of God until we see Him, hear Him, and get to know His character in the stories of the New Testament. Yes, that’s right. Jesus is the one who fills in the blanks of what the “imago dei” is because He is the perfect and full presentation of God in a human. The Apostle Paul sings, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. … For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:15 and 19 NLT).
This elevates us! It’s hard to feel insignificant when we realize that we are in the image of the Creator. Humans are at the pinnacle of creation, everything else was created by God, but nothing else was created like God. The next time you’re tempted to wonder about your value, take a look at your spiritual reflection. Can you see who you look like? The next time you’re depressed because of your situation, remember you’re not a random molecular accident but purposefully designed with a God-heart beating deep within your chest.
This elevates others! The image of God in every human? The implications are staggering:
• Missions (sending our sons and daughters around the world for Jesus) only makes sense if those people over there also bear the image of the one God and Father of us all.
• Racism is impossible if we believe that every person shares the same essential DNA of the image of God. It’s impossible to simultaneously believe they are in God’s image and yet somehow of less value.
• Nationalism becomes irrationalism, because the financial conquest of other nations is abhorrent to those who can’t distinguish between created children who all look alike! When a Mexican looks like a Thai, who looks like an Egyptian, who looks like a Swede, then trying to economically subjugate them or beat them in international trade is bizarre. We find ourselves rooting for everyone to be great!
Be alert that the implications of the image of God residing only in humans is an affront to most of our neighbors. Because they have drunk deeply at the well of secular evolution, where humans are more highly evolved but not fundamentally different from animals, our neighbors think they see the image of God in everything from a puppy to a maple tree. But we argue back, “The hand of God, yes; His image, no.” Incidentally, this is why humanists tirelessly try to find evidence that humans are not exceptional, whether by finding life on other planets, or equating humans and animals. But humans are beautifully exceptional, beautifully like the Creator in unique ways.
But here’s the critical link to make: To the degree that you and I “look like Jesus,” we are progressively becoming more in the image of God. It’s possible to have more than the bare-bones image of God. We can become more and more like Him! Again, it is the Apostle Paul who captures this truth: “And the Lord —who is the Spirit — makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18b NLT). The more we resemble Jesus, the sharper that image grows. You’re not done looking like God!
If we want to understand what the image of God is, we look to Jesus as the clearest visible representation of a human who fully bore that image. Yet our neighbor, even the vilest neighbor, even the most abhorrent despot across the sea, also carries in his or her being this image of the Creator God, blurry though it may be. When my neighbors see me in action, there should be a whisper in their heads that reminds them of their own higher nature. Something about us should remind them of Jesus.
Dad’s gone now. It’s been four years. I miss things like his delight at a sizzling steak, the regularity of his morning devotional time, and his commitment to the local church. I miss him. But in moments of reflection, I note that I too love a thick steak, that I haven’t missed my morning devotional time for 107 days, and that I serve local churches. Do I remind you of anyone?
Jesus has been gone now a couple of thousand years. I miss His tender hand extended to the children, His gentleness toward a broken woman, and His stiff rejection of pretentious religious people. I miss Him. But from time to time, from moment to moment, I think I see Him. His image. More and more, you remind me of someone.
Bishop David Roller served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.1