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What Does it Mean to be Created in God’s Image?

Luca Rossetti da Orta, The Holy Trinity', fresco, 1738-9, St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea, Turin

by Glenn Stanton

There are four key words in God’s First Definitive Statement about man: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

The first two are related: “us” and “our,” words of a plurality of Persons. The Trinity. The second two are related to each other, as well as the first two: “image” and “likeness.” What we are in creation.

The English word “image” here comes from the Hebrew word tselem, which should put into our mind’s eye the thought of a chiseled, crafted statue that is formed with the purpose of giving the viewer an idea of something larger and greater. Look at Michelangelo’s “David.” That is not the actual David of scripture. We know that. But it is a grand image that the artist has created which points us unmistakably to David, showing us what he was like. It points the viewer toward another, greater thing.

The eminent scholar Leon Kass explains the essence of “likeness” and “image” in his book on Genesis, written from the perspective of an observant Jew:

Any image insofar as it is an image, has a most peculiar manner of being: it both is and is not what it resembles. The image of my granddaughter that smiles at me out of the picture frame on my desk is my granddaughter—not yours. But it is not really she – just a mere image.

And the image itself has real meaning, a special value, doesn’t it?

Consider what Professor Kass’ response would be if you took the picture of his granddaughter and tore it to bits on a whim. Anyone would take such an action as very hurtful and insulting. Now, suppose that Kass had, for some curious reason, a picture of his car tire on his desk and you took this and tore it to shreds. He wouldn’t be angry with you per se. He would just think you were nuts. And you might think the same of him for having such a picture prominently displayed on his desk. But it’s an image of something that doesn’t really matter that much. The picture of his granddaughter is very different. Two pictures, the same action, very different responses.

Images matter because they convey meaning and value about the things they represent. This is certainly true about what this divine-image-bearing “man” will be and why God is deeply offended at his destruction.

The English word “likeness” is similar but different from “image,” as it comes from the Hebrew word demuth, which refers to something that literally resembles another. Think of a small-scale replica or model of a city or an amusement park. You can immediately see what it is supposed to be. And it is fascinating to look at, for it gives us detailed information and makes us curious to see its full-sized counterpart. That is why people like to build models and others like to look at them. A model is not the thing, but it resembles and thus tells us about the thing.

That is the primary purpose that each human first serves in the world, living as a miraculous and mysterious picture of God Himself in creation. That is true of you and everyone you ever come in contact with. And that is why the image itself should be cared for and protected, because it represents the greatest thing in all reality: The Divine Trinity. That’s pretty special.

Learn more about God’s irreplaceable design in The Family Project® – a 12-session DVD curriculum that explores why God’s plan for families matters today. Take your small group on a life-changing journey to strengthen and encourage families! Get The Family Project® curriculum today.

Glenn Stanton is the director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family, and the co-author/co-creator of The Family Project, as well as the co-author (w/Leon Wirth) of The Family Project book.

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