What does it mean to be in God’s image? And what does it mean to be created in God’s likeness? Are these two things the same, or are they different?
Let me share two perspectives on what it means to be in God’s image.
1.) We share God’s communicable attributes.
2.) His image is to imitate his works in Genesis 1.
The first place in scripture we are told about the image of God is in Genesis 1:26-27.
“God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
First, God’s image refers to God’s communicable attributes that he freely shares with man. These include things like intelligence, emotion, will, morality, and awareness of the spiritual. There are other communicable attributes of God that he shares with us, but these are basic. These allow us to do what God does in that we can communicate with one another, with God, and think and feel as he does.
Second, God’s image refers back to Genesis 1 when God says he would create man in his image, male and female he created them, in the image of God. So, what is an image? An image is a representation of something else. We represent God. How do we do that? Look at this from Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
If this is what God commands man to do, then God must have also done it. When was God fruitful? When he created all life on the earth. When did God multiply? When he created creatures that would reason, think, and feel like he does. When did he fill the earth? When he filled it with fish, birds, animals, people, etc. When did he subdue? When he brought the unformed mass of the earth under his control to prepare it for habitation. When did he have dominion (rule)? When he issued commands to man.
Essentially, to be in God’s image means to do the things that he does, but in a creaturely way. All these things God did, and he expects us to do them as well. Interestingly, it is never said that the angels are in God’s image. Only man.
Many people, upon reading Genesis 1:26 take the words image and likeness to be referring to the same thing. However, as I will show, these two separate words (in Hebrew) were used for a reason and do not refer to the same thing.
Throughout the Bible there are several Hebrew and Greek words that we translate into the words image and likeness. However, for our purposes we are focussing only on the two Hebrew words (בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ, bəṣalmênū) and (כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ, kiḏmūṯênū) for image and likeness. These are the words used in Genesis 1 and we’re only concerned, in this treatment, with how the words were used by Moses when writing this account. Moses, being the first writer of scripture, was not influenced by later writers in how they used these words, thus, it’s best to examine Moses’ use of them as he is the first to apply them in scripture.
Image (בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ, bəṣalmênū), is only used positively in Genesis in referring to God and Adam. But all of the other 12 uses of this word in scripture refer to idols.
Let’s look at the definitions for these words and how they are used by Moses.
Image (בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ, bəṣalmênū)
This word is used six times in Genesis (1:26, 1:27, 5:3, 9:6)) to denote the quality of something. Literally, it means idol, statue, inscribed column, figure, or replica. In the Genesis passages, it’s probably best to say that this refers to a figure or replica as God was making an image of himself when he created man. God was not making another god, he was making human beings that were replicas of himself in a creaturely way. As an example, God created in Genesis 1 in two ways. First, he created out of nothing (Genesis 1:1, ex nihilo) then he formed the world and life out of what he previously created out of nothing. We also create in the second way, by taking things and fashioning them into other things (a tree becomes a chair, etc). We use materials available to us to create out of something else. Thus, in this sense, we are replicas of God’s creative actions, but in a creaturely way. We can say that this word implies what the created person will be like as opposed to what he would look like.
Likeness (כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ, kiḏmūṯênū)
Used three times in Genesis (1:26, 5:1, 5:3) to denote something that looks like something else in appearance—a shape or a model. This word was used by Moses to describe Seth being in Adam’s likeness; I.E., he resembled Adam in form (image was also used in the same passage). We can say that this word implies what the created person will look like as opposed to what he would be like.
Does this give us any insight into what God may look like? At this point in biblical history, we say that God is spirit, he has no physicality. However, Jesus did take on physical form in Genesis 3:8. Might he have also taken physical form prior to this, during the creation of man and thereby making man in his physical likeness? However, this is speculation. We have nothing concrete to affirm this.
Images represent the authority of a god or a ruler. This may be one reason why God was so angered over Israel’s repeated fall to idol worship in its history. Setting up idols was a way of saying God was not their god, but that he was also not their ruler. Note that when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal he said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21). Upon seeing the fire fall, they screamed, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!” (I Kings 18:39).
Images were also used by Roman emperors who established their reign over Israel. The presence of the image denoted the rulership of the person who was depicted, over the land. Thus, if we are God’s image then our presence here denotes God’s rulership over the earth.
Looking quickly at the New Testament likeness and image sometimes seem interchangeable. But this is not the case. Likeness often refers to Jesus becoming like us. Philippians 2:7 says that Jesus “Emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” It is never said that Jesus was made in our image, rather, he was made in our likeness. Jesus came in the likeness (homoióma, homoioo), of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), but he was not the image of sinful flesh. Image refers to the nature of something (Jesus was not a sinner by nature), not the appearance of something. Likeness, in this context, refers to appearance.
The words in scripture were purposely used to shape the narrative so that you and I would have a clear picture of what God is like, and how we has designed us to reflect his goodness. We are created in his image and his likeness. We have been given a great privilege not given to other creatures and beings that he has created.