26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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.”
When I was in high school, my mom took a group of Latin students on a tour of some cities in Italy. It was an amazing trip. My favorite part, hands down, was getting to see Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. What an amazing piece of work! Michaelangelo sculpted it from 1501 to 1504. It stands seventeen feet high and, truly, must be seen to be believed.
You approach the statue by walking down a long corridor at the end of which is a dome under which the statue stands. It amazed me when I saw it. It amazes me still. However, when I first saw it, what I was first struck by was not the statue itself but the other Michelangelo pieces lining the corridor on either side as you approach it. On either side of the corridor are large pieces of marble out of which partially revealed figures appear to be straining to break free. Here you see a leg, there an arm, there a torso and head.
They are still contained in the marble, but are partially freed from it. Michelangelo was the liberator, as he saw it, of the figures who were already within the marble but who needed to be freed by a master sculptor. He saw his job as removing the bonds of the marble around the figures so that they could exist unhindered.
Some see these as unfinished works of art. Others suggest that Michelangelo knew exactly what he was doing in leaving them unfinished, that he was making a statement about the bondage of man and man’s struggle to be free, to exist. Regardless, there can be no doubt that the contrast between Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” and Michelangelo’s David makes an amazing impact on the viewer. At least it did on this viewer.
I think often of the haunting Prisoners in that hallway. They strain against the marble that contains them to your left and your right as you walk down the corridor. All the while, there stands the finished work, David, at the end. It is almost as if the Prisoners are saying, “We could be more. We might even be like David. He too was once imprisoned in marble. But we are still bound here, unfinished and unformed, slaves to the elements that entrap us.”
When thinking about the image of God, I thought about those statues and I thought about David. There is a theological point in this. We are like Michelangelo’s Prisoners: we exist, we have potential, we have dignity, we have worth. In part, that dignity and worth can still be seen. We bear the image of a Master Sculptor. We can see what we should be. But we are bound by sin, but the elements of the world that enslave and entrap us. We strain to be free. And there is Jesus, the free man, the true man, man unbound by the Fall…a man, but also God. We see Him in His perfection. We bear the image of the Father who sent Him. Yet we struggle here. We bear the image, but it is oftentimes concealed by the elements to which we are enslaved. We are the prisoners…but Christ came to make us free!
Let us tonight consider what it means to bear the image of God and how Christ comes to set us free.
I. Man Bears the Image of God (v.26a,27)
We begin with the basic biblical assertion that we do, in fact, bear the image of God. We find it in Genesis 1.
26a Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
What can this mean? Let us first offer two things that it does not mean.
The “image of God” does not refer to physical likeness. In John 4:24, Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” God is non-corporeal. He does not have flesh. He has been revealed as “Father” in scripture. We should defend the masculine pronoun. However, He is not a physical man. He is God! Furthermore, let us note that both men and women were created in the image of God. Thus, if “image” is taken to mean “physical likeness,” then we have some very big problems indeed!
Furthermore, the “image of God” does not refer to our bearing the image of God in the exact way that Jesus bore the image of God, thereby making us equal with Jesus. There is a sense in which Christ is called “the image of God” in a way that we are not. We find this in 2 Corinthians 4:4.
4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Christ is the image of God in terms of equality with God. The usage of the term in that context is quite distinct from how it is used of us. We bear qualities that reflect God’s glory and creative power, but we ever remain the creature and God the Creator. The Son bears the image of God in perfect unity and equality. He is God.
What the image of God does refer to are those qualities stamped on humanity that reflect the glory of God and that are not and cannot be shared by animal life. We see the image of God in humanity’s capacity for intelligence, abstract thought, communication, creative ability, selfless love, imagination, and wisdom. Man is not divine, and it is wrong to suggest that he is, but he does indeed bear the mark of his divine Creator.
The fundamental implication of the image of God is that this image grants dignity, value, and worth to man. It is important to remember that all human beings, all men and women, bear this image. That image has been covered and clouded by the Fall, but it is still there and the evidence of it can still be seen. In Genesis 9, the Lord said this in His covenant with Noah:
6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
The significance of that verse rests in the fact that it is said (a) of all human beings and (b) of fallen human beings. There are no worthless human beings. Man has dignity. The image of God rests on all of humanity. That image is not a saving image. Fallen man bearing the marred image needs redemption. But it means that even fallen, unredeemed man bears evidence that he was created by a mighty God.
Thus, all life is sacred. All life has value. Our value is not dependent upon our productivity or our social status. Our value does not rest in what we own. Our value is not a matter of race or nationality or gender. Our value rests in this simple fact: that man is unique and bears the image of God Himself.
There is a scene in William Faulkner’s novel, The Hamlet, in which some men sitting on a front porch observe a severely mentally disabled man shuffling down the street, dragging a wooden block in the dust behind him. As they watch him pass, one of the men, Ratliff, comments on the disabled man with thinly disguised contempt and has a telling and tragic conversation with his friend, Bookwright.
Ratliff watched the creature as it went on – the thick thighs about to burst from the overalls, the mowing head turned backward over its shoulder, watching the dragging block.
“And yet they tell us we was all made in His image,” Ratliff said.
“From some of the things I see here and there, maybe he was,” Bookwright said.
“I don’t know as I would believe that, even if I knowed it was true,” Ratliff said.
Yes it is true: all mankind bears the image of God. All mankind. No man or woman has more value in the eyes of God than any other man or woman. We are tempted to forget this fact when we demonize others or try to reduce their worth or see only their flaws and sins. Joseph Ratzinger put it like this.
Indeed, it is hardly the case that we always and immediately see in the other the “noble form,” the image of God that is inscribed in him. What first meets the eye is only the image of Adam, the image of man, who, though not totally corrupt, is nonetheless fallen. We see the crust of dust and filth that has overlaid the image. Thus, we all stand in need of the true sculptor who removes what distorts the image; we are in need of forgiveness, which is the heart of all true reform.
We scoff at Michelangelo’s Prisoners because they do not yet look like David. We scoff at the problems of others, dehumanizing them in the process, denying the image of God within them. This is a great act of evil. This is a great sin. Everybody has value. Everybody has worth. Instead, we should see everybody as valuable and should pray that all people put themselves back in the hands of the Sculptor who can bring us back into being the masterpiece we were intended to be.
II. That Image Distinguishes Man from Animal Life (v.26,28)
Another clear implication of the image of God is that it distinguishes man from animal life. This is clear in our text’s teaching that man has dominion over animal life.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”…28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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.”
Man’s dominion over animal life is not a boundless license allowing man to do whatever he wants. For example, hunting animals for food would seem appropriate. Senselessly butchering animals just to watch them die, however, is a sign of the Fall in the heart of man. Man has dominion, but man still answers to God.
The value of human life over animal life needs to be stressed in our post-Darwinian culture. In our culture, we are consistently taught that we are simply animals. We are taught that we might be a higher form of animal life, to be sure, but we remain animals nonetheless. This notion has the twin results of devaluing man and overvaluing animals. Animals have been almost humanized in our culture and humans have been animalized. We see this in a thousand different ways in popular culture and in the higher arts as well.
The attempt to reduce man to an animal stands in direct conflict with a truly biblical anthropology. The Bible teaches that man is unique and valuable. He must not be reduced to an animal. Furthermore, he must not be reduced to anything less than man who bears the image of Almighty God. Throughout human history there have been numerous attempts to reduce the dignity of man.
Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr., the Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, and my theology professor in seminary, wrote this in his Systematic Theology:
Once human beings are seen as being “in the image of God and after his likeness,” human beings find that the various reductionist views of human life are less convincing or less satisfying. These include (1) Marxism’s view of man as an economic animal with class struggle, not God or man, as the basis for ethics; (2) Freud’s view of humans as primarily and essentially the product of sexual drives and as dominated by aberrant sexual activity; (3) totalitarianism’s view of human beings as the political tools of the omnicompetent civil state; (4) racism’s view that racial/ethnic differences and conflicts are a very important aspect of human life and that superior and inferior races are to be differentiated; (5) naturalism’s view that a human being is “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms”; and (6) postmodernism’s denial of any absolute truth and of linguistic coherence.
That is helpful. It reminds us of the ways in which society has tried to strip man of the image of God. But man is not an animal, nor does he occupy any of these lesser stations. He is a human being, and his value rests in the fact that God Himself has created him in His image.
III. That Image Means that We Only Have True Integrity When We Live in Union With the God Whose Image We Bear
There is a final implication to the image of God. If God has made us, and if we bear His image, then that means we will never know true integrity and true inner peace unless and until we live in harmony with our God. The hope of the gospel is that, through the salvation and life Christ gives us, the image of God can be restored as the Holy Spirit strips away those things that obscure it and tempt us to deny it. In Romans 8, Paul put it like this.
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Believers in Christ have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” He is making us into the image of Christ. We are becoming more like Jesus, who Colossians 1:15 describes as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” What this means is that the image of God is restored in us as we walk with Jesus. Paul described that process wonderfully in 2 Corinthians 3:
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
I love that: “we…are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The image of God is being daily restored in us. We are becoming, in Christ, what we are intended to be.
Thomas Merton passed on the following story in his collection of sayings and stories from the desert fathers:
An elder was asked by a certain soldier if God would forgive a sinner. And he said to him: Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away? The soldier replied and said: No. I will mend it and put it back on. The elder said to him: If you take care of your cloak, will God not be merciful to His own image?
Yes, God will indeed be merciful to His image. Men and women bear that image. He has given Christ so that His image-bearers can be saved, can be forgiven, can be born again to life anew and eternal. The image has been distorted, but it has not been obliterated. In Christ, it is restored and renewed. In Christ we are able to come to the One whose image we bear as blood-bought sons and daughters.
 William Faulkner, The Hamlet. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990).
 Benedict XVI, Called to Communion (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1991), p.148.
 James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology. Vol.1 (North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal Press, 2011), p.466-467.
 Thomas Merton, The Way of the Desert (New York, NY: New Directions), p.76.