Have you ever read Genesis 1:26 and wondered what in the world God was talking about when he decided to make man in God’s image? The passage reads, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Many people have speculated about the image of God, thinking that it refers to man’s intellectual capacity, or his ability to make moral judgments. Many have wondered if angels are made in God’s image since they would seem to be above us in the current created order (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7). Angels seem to be able to have intellectual capacity and make more judgments. So how can man, being lower than the angels be created in God’s image and the angels being higher than man not be in God’s image? These are interesting speculations. However, the scripture does not seem to refer to such characteristics as being the reason why man is categorized as being in God’s image.
I believe that the answer to the issue of what it means to be in God’s image is easily found in the scripture. I believe the answer is found right in the text of Genesis 1 for all to see. In fact, from what we know about the angels I think that in Genesis 1 we have the answer as to why man is in God’s image and the angels are not.
This can be a complex issue and I don’t want to treat it in a cavalier manner. Yet space is limited so I encourage you to study and think on this issue after you read what I have to say.
The answer to our inquiry about God’s image is found by combining what we know about the Adamic covenant with God’s creative acts. Let’s first outline the command that God gives concerning Adam. God says in Genesis 1:26 that man is to rule over the earth. He repeats this idea in verses 27 and 28 when he said to Adam, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
These are very important commands, and they form the first part of the covenant God made with Adam. That covenant is still in place today for you and I. It is God’s covenant with man—regardless of whether man is a believer or not. What did God command man to do?
- Be Fruitful
- Fill the earth
Have you ever wondered why God issued these five commands to man? He did so because in the preceding verse (26) he declared man to be made in his image. These two ideas are inseparably linked.
What is an image? An image is a representation of something else. It bears the characteristics of, or performs a function, which is similar to the original thing it represents. Since the Bible is an ancient book written to an Ancient Near East (ANE) culture, we should look to the popular images of that day to help us interpret what an image’s purpose was during that time. Probably the best example is that popular god images of the ANE we’re used to establish and extend the rule of the supposed god the image represented. In fact, even in the New Testament era with the empire of Rome, images of the ruling Caesar were spread throughout the kingdom as a sign that Roman authority extended to other lands, signified by the presence of these false images.
This is what the concept of an image represents in Genesis. By making man in God’s image, God’s intent is to demonstrate his rule and authority over his territory. Man is, essentially, his regent. But there is much more to the concept of man as God’s image than simple rulership.
When God declares that we are in his likeness he is essentially saying that we are to be like him. But how are we supposed to be like him? Look at the list:
- Be Fruitful
- Fill the earth
If we are to be like him, and if these things are the visible sign that we are like God then we must ask the question, when did God do these things? The answer is found in God’s creative acts.
When was God fruitful? When he created all things, particularly, man.
When did God multiply? He did not multiply himself rather he multiplied by creating man who was designed to be like God.
When did God fill the earth? When he created all life in the seas and on the earth.
When did he subdue? When he brought the undefined mass of the earth under his control to form the earth’s habitation.
When did he rule? When he issued his first command to man to do these very same things that God himself did.
But what about the angels? If the angels are higher than man aren’t they also in God’s image?
If we define God’s image according to what we’ve discovered in scripture then it would seem that angels, though powerful and intelligent, are not made in God’s image. Why?
Are angels fruitful and multiply? We have no record in the scripture that angels function in this way. Angels, it would seem, don’t have children or create disciples. But man is specifically equipped and commanded to do these things as also God did.
Do angels fill the earth in the sense of spreading themselves over the earth to extend their rule? No. Earth is the realm that God has given in trust to man. Angels serve man’s needs on earth according to God’s instructions, but they do not extend a rule they have been given as man has been given.
Do angels subdue, that is, create things and bring things under their control? We might note that angels are spiritual warriors to fight against the demonic to bring things under God’s influence. But we have no record that angels do this in a creative fashion as man does.
What about rule? Do angels rule? Certainly there are angels that have authority. But do they rule in the same way that man is commanded to rule in Genesis? We have no indication that this is so.
In one sense we are making an argument regarding angels from what the Bible does not say. That can be a bit tricky. Yet what the Bible does reveal about angels would seem to support these conclusions.
So, what is God’s image? Let’s put it this way: God was essentially telling Adam, “Adam, do what I do.” It’s just that simple. Man is made to experience life in a similar, though limited way, as God does. Man is to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue and rule because that is what God did when he created all things. By doing these things God was acting out of his character and he has enabled us to do the same thing. We are his image therefore, we must do what God does.
This realization of the high station that God has given us should encourage us. The worth you and I have before God is higher than any other created thing. We are designed to think what he thinks, feel what he feels, and do what he does. What higher place for a person can there be but that? You and I have inestimable value before God because we were created to be like him. It’s that simple.
In the Mosaic Law God commanded that Israel was not to make any images of God or false gods. Why? Because the image of God had already been established in man. And it was established a second time in Christ, whose function as God’s image, unlike Adam, was never corrupted. We are therefore unique in all of creation.