The word eikon, “image,” is one where the Greek and English concepts are unusually parallel. Historically, it referred to “a likeness, picture, or statue; one’s reflection in a mirror; a personal description; a representation or imaginary form; a pattern, archetype, similitude or comparison.”
The whole idea of “the image of God”, of course, derives from the Genesis account of the creation. Interestingly, this event is never mentioned in the context of “image” in the New Testament, where Jesus is the only person to whom the term “image of God” is applied (II Cor.4:4 and Col.1:15), and his people are being re-created in his image (Rom.8:29, I Cor.15:49, II Cor.3:18, Col.3:10). Nevertheless, the creation account includes significant elements that deserve our attention.
When Scripture speaks of the creation of “Man”, the word used is anthropos, a generic term which refers to the species, not to gender. The term includes both aner (man) and gune (woman). It might better be translated “people” except that it occurs also in the singular. Sometimes “person” works, but not always. On Creation Morning, when the Creator spoke everything into existence, he is quoted (in the Septuagint – “LXX” — the third century BC translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek) in Gen.1:26, “Let us make man according to our image…”. “Man” uses the singular form of anthropos, therefore referring to the species (the next phrases refer to “them”). The plurals “us” and “our” with which God refers to himself have often been considered the earliest hint of the concept of the Trinity, although some have treated it as the “royal ‘we’” referring to the English custom – which is unlikely. That practice arose many centuries later.
It is not my intention here to get into a technical discussion of the Trinity. That is a game for folks who need complicated theories to enhance their egos! I simply call your attention to the fact that the initial intent was for Man (the species) to function with the unity and mutuality seen in interaction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: varied in function and activity, but perfectly one in purpose and devotion. This idea is developed in greater detail in Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 2. Sadly, the species — anthropos — chose not to cooperate.
The point of what God has been trying to do throughout all the ages since Creation, is to reveal himself – to, in, and through his people. The same theme appears in Jesus’ final recorded prayer for his disciples, in John 17: “that they may be one … so that the world may know …”
Please note that none of this is directed to or about individuals. No one person, however faithful, is capable of reflecting fully the image of the Triune God! We are not big enough, wise enough, nor yet sufficiently “conformed to his image.” Only by functioning as one, as our Sovereign prayed, can we begin to become what he intends, and “bear his image.”
Outside of Genesis, virtually all of the rest of the Old Testament occurrences of eikon, as well as those in Revelation, refer to idols and idolatry. Having totally missed – or rejected – the calling to reflect the image of their Creator, people created “images” of their own design, incorporating characteristics (power, ferocity, fecundity, etc.) which they hoped thereby to acquire. In Romans 1, Paul describes the tragic downward spiral that resulted. Jesus, too, described efforts to turn people back to their created purpose, having sent a long stream of messengers and prophets (see Mt.23:34 and parallels), until finally he came in person, to walk among men and create a demonstration project of his intentions.
The encounter between Jesus and his challengers (the only Synoptic use of eikon–Mt.22:20, Mk.12:16, Lk.20:24) over the payment of the Roman taxes (actually, tribute-money – the fee imposed by a conqueror upon vassal states, symbolic of their submission) is instructive. It combines several concepts of “image.” In ancient empires, as in modern times, coinage was designed bearing the “image” of a ruler – who (more overtly in those days) frequently insisted upon being worshipped as a divinity. It is partly for this reason that “money-changers” were required in the temple courts: money bearing an idolatrous image could not be used in a “holy” place. The religious potentates who accosted Jesus on that occasion should not have had such a thing as a Roman coin in their possession! It was “unclean”! Note that Jesus did not have one. This is further, seldom-noticed evidence of his opponents’ duplicity.
The Lord’s question is probing and perceptive: “Whose image is this?” The ensuing conversation reveals the cultural convention that the “image” is also a sign of ownership. It belongs to Caesar, and to his system. Let him have it. But don’t stop there! Let God also be given what belongs to him – what bears his image – ourselves, and our very life. Is it too much of a stretch, then, to suggest that his people, the bearers of his image, are in fact the “coinage” of the Kingdom, intended to be used for the King’s purposes?
“The image of God” refers not only to our provenance and ownership, but also to our destiny! Please notice: all of these assurances and admonitions are addressed in the plural. We will “arrive” together, or not at all.
Romans 8:29: Those whom the Lord has called, are intended (or, if you prefer, “destined”) to become “conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus – who is himself (II Cor.4:4) “the image of God.” Paul repeats this designation in the letter to Colossae (1:15) “he (Jesus) is the image of the unseen God!”
Earlier, he had explained to the folks at Corinth (I Cor.15:47-49), “The first person was from the dust of the earth; the second person was from heaven. “Dust people” are like the dust-person; and heavenly people are like the one from heaven. Just as we bore the image of the “man of dust”, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”
This is the transformation that begins when people enlist in the Kingdom, and continues until its consummation. “The one who initiated a good work among you all, will keep working on it until it’s complete at the Day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil.1:6).
It requires our cooperation – Paul frequently speaks of “putting off” the old ways and “putting on” the new, as one changes one’s clothing. Typical of the shifting responsibility is the passage in Col.3:10: “Put on the new person,” he directs – an aorist (single, snapshot action) middle (verb voice in which the subject both acts and is affected by the action) form — “which is continually being renewed” — a present (continuous) passive (the subject is acted upon by an external force or person) participle — “in understanding, after the image of the one who created it.” The choice of direction is ours; the heavy lifting is in the capable hands of our Lord and King.
“And we all, with faces that have been uncovered, reflecting the Lord’s radiance, are being transformed (another present passive) into his image.”
Amen, Lord! Let it be so!