Man was created to bear the likeness of his maker: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). The two phrases (“in Our image” and “according to Our likeness”) are parallel expressions. The second merely repeats the first in different but synonymous terms.
Don’t imagine that there is a vital distinction between the “image” of God and His “likeness”—as if one expression spoke of spiritual similarities between God and men and the other designated a physical likeness. Some commentators have mistakenly assumed that the coupled expressions have that sort of dual significance, but there is no distinction in the Hebrew language. These are parallel terms. In fact, the repetition is for emphasis. This sort of parallelism is a very common and typical construction in Hebrew. It is used for emphasis, not to make a contrast. And in this case, the parallelism is used to underscore the great importance of this truth: Man was created in the likeness of God.
What does that mean? Before we explore that question, consider the fact that whatever it means, it is something ineffably high and lofty. It is not a state into which lower creatures can evolve. This is not something that can be gained by a random mutation in the genetic code. It is not something that was brought about by a deviation in some higher primate’s DNA. It is, after all, the very thing that makes humanity different from every other created animal. It is what defines the human being’s unique identity. It is the whole reason God took such a personal interest in the creation of this particular species. It explains why the Bible places so much stress on the fact of God’s hands–on creation of Adam. He fashioned this creature in a special way—to bear the stamp of His own likeness. Man was made in the image of God. That sets him apart from every other creature in the physical universe.
What is the image of God? The Hebrew word for “image,” tselem, comes from a root that speaks of carving. It is the same word used to speak of graven images (Exodus 20:4). It almost seems to convey the idea that man was carved into the shape of God. It suggests that God was, in essence, the pattern for the personhood of man. That is not true of anything else in the space–time universe.
Clearly, because the image of God is unique to humanity, it must describe some aspect of human nature that is not shared by animals. Therefore this cannot speak primarily of man’s appearance or biological makeup. We do, in fact, have many biological features that are common to other animal creatures. Naturally, because we share the same environment, it is reasonable to expect that we would have many biological and physiological characteristics in common with animals. And we do. Our internal organs work in similar ways, in many cases our skeletal structure has strong similarities, and even the way we look on the outside bears a clear similarity to some of the primates. If “the image of God” were a reference to the way we are constructed corporeally—if this meant to suggest that we bear a physical resemblance to the maker—then it would probably also be accurate to suggest that even chimpanzees have some likeness to God.
But this quite clearly is not a reference to the material part of man. It isn’t talking about biology or physiology. It certainly isn’t a reference to the way we look as creatures made of flesh and bone. After all, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). And “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).
Clearly this deals primarily with man’s spiritual attributes—our self-consciousness, our moral consciousness, and our consciousness of others—especially our consciousness of God Himself. (Animals are conscious, but they are not self–conscious, morally aware, or able to have a truly personal relationship.)
Before the image of God in man was marred by sin, Adam shared in a pure and undefiled way all the communicable attributes of God (those qualities of the divine nature that are capable of being reflected in creatures). These include holiness, wisdom, goodness, truth, love, grace, mercy, longsuffering, and righteousness. The image of God in man still includes certain characteristics that mirror some of the virtues of God reflected in creation—such as an appreciation for beauty, creative abilities, and a love of diversity. Of course, it must therefore include our rational faculties as well. For example, the divine image surely encompasses our ability to understand abstract principles—especially moral concepts like justice, righteousness, holiness, truth, and goodness. And the divine likeness in man therefore seems to include the higher aspects of our intellect and ability to reason and solve problems, and emotions such as sorrow, zeal, anger, delight, and joy (all of which can be observed in their perfection in various dispositions Scripture says belong to God).
But above all, the image of God can be summed up by the word personhood. We are persons. Our lives involve relationships. We are capable of fellowship. We are able to love other persons in a godlike sense: We understand communion. We have an amazing capacity for language. We have conversations. We know what it is to share thoughts, convey and discern attitudes, give and take friendship, perceive a sense of brotherhood, communicate ideas, and participate in experiences with others. Animals cannot do those things in the same sense that people can.
That is why when God created man, He immediately said that it was not good for man to be alone. The image of God is personhood, and personhood can function only in the context of relationships. Man’s capacity for intimate personal relationships needs fulfillment. And God graciously designed us to find ultimate fulfillment in Himself.
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