Image of God


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. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 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. (Gen 1:26-28)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Meaning of The Image

The context of our creation as an image of God here is important. We are in the first chapter of the first book in the Bible, so every implied by these three verses about what it means to be created in the image of God has to appear in the prior verses. Knowing who God is has a direct bearing on who we are (Hoekema 1986, 1). So how does the text describe God?

Consider these four attributes:

  1. Verse one tells us that God is a creator who, being eternal, sovereignly stands outside time and space.
  2. Verse two shows us that God can through his spirit enter into his creation.
  3. Having created heaven and earth, verse three describes God speaking to shape the form of creation beginning with light. Note the exact correspondence between what God says (“Let there be light”) and what he does (“and there was light”). God is truthful, authentic.
  4. Verse four tells us that God judged it to be good, and he separated it from darkness—God discriminates good (light) from the not-so-good (darkness).

Clearly, God cares about ethics.

The Ethical Image

God later describes his ethical character in detail to Moses after giving the Ten Commandments a second time, as cited earlier in Exodus 34:6. God’s self-disclosure was important for understanding how to interpret the Ten Commandments, should questions arise, but it also underscores the creation account providing insight into whose image we are created to reflect.

Going back to Genesis 1:26-28, two aspects of God’s image are highlighted in our own creation description. We are created by a sovereign God who creates us to participate in his creation in two specific ways: we are to “have dominion” over the created order and we are to “be fruitful and multiply.” How are we to accomplish these things? Following God’s ethical image, we are to be discerning of the good, merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and truthful.

The Charge and the Test

Although God created animals prior to Adam and Eve and they were also commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22), the animals could not reflect God’s ethical image and God did not give them dominion.

At this point in Genesis, God also intended us also to share in his eternal nature. However, before God conferred immortality on us, he posed an ethical test. Would Adam and Eve reflect God’s ethical nature?

The test came in the form of a command:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, you may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. (Gen 2:16-17)

Satan tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they ate. Because Satan had done this, God cursed him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)

The “he” in this verse is singular and points to a future redeemer (Job 19:25), who Christians identify as Jesus Christ (John 1:1-3). After this point in the narrative, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, where they were subject to the curse of death. We thus see that the original sin of Adam and Eve separated us from the Garden of Eden, eternal life, and fully reflecting the image of God.

Image as Parallel Ministry

Jesus underscores this image theology in several important ways. First, he is revealed as the ethical image of God with God during creation:

He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John. 1:2-5)

Second, Jesus uses image theology in teaching prayer to his disciples: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) Note how earth is patterned after heaven just like we are patterned after God.

Third, just like Jesus asserts God’s sovereignty over heaven and hell in his death on the cross, the disciples are commissioned to assert God’s sovereignty over the earth after the ascension (Matt 28:18). Right before he ascended, Jesus said: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This parallel ministry is also discussed in John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) In other words, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”, is not an incidental footnote in Jesus’ ministry or a latter addition to the text as some allege, it is a direct consequence of the image theology in Genesis 1. Likewise in the Apostle Paul’s writing we see a dichotomy between a putting off of the old self and a putting on of the new self in Christ (Eph 4:22-24), as we are transformed by the image of the living God.


Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Image of God

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

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