In the beginning God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness … so God created man in His own image…” (Genesis 1:26, 27). The notion of being made in God’s image is one that most Christians have conceptualized, in some way or another, but have we paused to truly contemplate what this means? The Early Church (pre 325 AD) did not regard this scripture as simply as most Christians do today. Rather, they sought to understand the depths of what it really entails to be made in God’s image and likeness, through seeking the deeper revelation in the Word of God. They understood the profound distinction between God’s image, and His likeness; and knew that it is only through understanding and walking in His ways, that God’s image and likeness can be restored back to man.
What it means to be made in God’s image:
An image is a representation or similitude of any person or thing (1), and we can see clear examples of images in our everyday life. For example, an artist who paints a portrait of someone: the image produced is the representation of the individual’s distinct features, and a talented artist can produce the exact copy (in image form) of their model. Or a child, who has similar features and characteristics to their parent/s, often being told “you look just like your father” or, “you sound just like your mother”. Even in nature we see this same pattern, i.e., a species of animal having the same representation in likeness, based on their DNA. All these are examples for us to understand a much deeper concept, God’s intention for us to be made in His image and likeness. In Genesis we read God says “‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth’; and it was so.” (Genesis 1:11). An apple seed does not produce an orange tree, rather an apple tree; just as a sunflower seed would produce sunflowers, not daisies. Further on in Scripture Jesus explains the symbolic meaning hidden in the Parable of the Sower. He states, “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.” (Luke 8:11). Thus meaning, God’s Word, being planted into us (the earth, Genesis 2:7), should be producing His character in us, thus, we are made in His image and likeness.
The Early Church thoughtfully examined the Scriptures, and through the Holy Spirit, our teacher and counsellor, (John 14:26) they understood the depth of God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:10). Second-third century Church Father, Origen, taught the following, concerning what exactly about man is made in God’s image.
I see, however, something indeed even more distinguished in the condition of man, which I do not find said elsewhere: “And God made man, according to the image of God he made him.” We find this attributed neither to heaven nor earth nor the sun or moon. We do not understand, however, this man indeed whom Scripture says was made “according to the image of God” to be corporeal [having a body]. For the form of the body does not contain the image of God, nor is the corporeal man said to be “made,” but “formed,” as is written in the words which follow. For the text says: “And God formed man,” that is fashioned, “from the slime of the earth.” But it is our inner man, invisible, incorporeal, incorruptible, and immortal which is made “according to the image of God.” For it is in such qualities as these that the image of God is more correctly understood. But if anyone suppose that this man who is made “according to the image and likeness of God” is made of flesh, he will appear to represent God himself as made of flesh and in human form. It is most clearly impious to think this about God. In brief, those carnal men who have no understanding of the meaning of divinity suppose, if they read anywhere in the Scriptures of God that “heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool,” that God has so large a body that they think he sits in heaven and stretches out his feet to the earth. But they think this because they do not have those ears which can worthily hear the words of God about God which are related by the Scripture. (2)
Origen highlights that God created man distinguished from anything else He made. This creation, that is according to the image of God, is not referring to this physical body we live in, rather it is the inner man- which the Early Church taught is the Soul. Origen explains that our soul is what is unseen and immortal- having no end. To think it is our corporeal existence that is made in the image of God, was foolish and impious (disrespectful towards God) according to the Early Church; as God is not made of flesh (a corporeal substance) but is divine- being all spirit and eternal.
In another place, Origen explains “the deposit” God gives us, is His image and likeness that is to be formed in our soul.
And so, let us now see what is “the deposit” that each one of the faithful receives. For my part I think that we receive our soul itself and the body as a deposit from God. And do you want to see another greater “deposit” that you received from God? God entrusted “his own image and likeness” to your own soul. That deposit, therefore, must be restored by you just as intact as it was received by you. For if you are merciful, “as your Father in heaven is merciful” the image of God is in you and you preserve the “deposit” intact. If you are perfect, “as your Father in heaven is perfect,” the deposit of God’s image remains in you. In like manner, in all other things, if you are pious, if you are just, if you are holy, if you are “pure in heart,” and if all things which are present in God through nature remain in you by imitation, “the deposit” of the divine image is safe within you. But if you do the opposite, and instead of mercy you manifest cruelty; instead of piety, impiety; instead of beneficence, violence; instead of quiet, turbulence; instead of liberality, greed; then since you have cast off the image of God, you have received the image of the devil in you and have refused the good “deposit” commended to you by the Divinity. Or was it not this that under the guise of a mystery the Apostle was commanding Timothy, the chosen disciple, when he said, “Oh, Timothy, protect the good deposit“? (3)
Notice Origen highlights that it is to “the faithful” that this “deposit” is given. The deposit we receive, through our devotion to God, is His image and likeness (His character) in our soul. Origen articulates that God’s nature is not simply given to us, rather we must earn it. It is through our striving to be merciful as He is, holy as He is, pure in heart as the Lord is, and so on, that His character is formed in us. If, instead of imitating God’s nature, we give in to our carnal nature (that of the beast, Ecclesiastes 3:18), we “cast off the image of God” and thus are formed in the image of the devil. This is a sobering revelation, that without striving to become like God, we are inherently becoming the opposite. Hence, the Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to watch over his soul, in saying, “O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” (1 Timothy 6:20); and in another place, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” (2 Timothy 1:13-14).
The considerable difference between image and likeness:
Delving deeper into this topic, we explore what the Early Church taught concerning the difference between the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of God. Origen, in his written works concerning the principles of Christianity, wrote:
The highest good, they [the philosophers] say, is to become as like to God as possible. But this definition I regard not so much as a discovery of theirs, as a view derived from holy Scripture. For this is pointed out by Moses, before all other philosophers, when he describes the first creation of man in these words: “And God said, Let Us make man in Our own image, and after Our likeness;” (Gen_1:26) and then he adds the words: “So God created man in His own image: in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them, and He blessed them.” (Gen_1:27, Gen_1:28) Now the expression, “In the image of God created He him,” without any mention of the word “likeness,” conveys no other meaning than this, that man received the dignity of God’s image at his first creation; but that the perfection of his likeness has been reserved for the consummation, – namely, that he might acquire it for himself by the exercise of his own diligence in the imitation of God, the possibility of attaining to perfection being granted him at the beginning through the dignity of the divine image, and the perfect realization of the divine likeness being reached in the end by the fulfilment of the (necessary) works. Now, that such is the case, the Apostle John points out more clearly and unmistakeably, when he makes this declaration: “Little children, we do not yet know what we shall be; but if a revelation be made to us from the Saviour, ye will say, without any doubt, we shall be like Him.” (Cf. 1Jo_3:2. (4)
Origen articulates that the greatest of all good, is to become like God as much as possible. He goes on to point out that although the scripture says, “Let Us make man in Our own image, and after Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26), scripture then goes on to say that God created man in His ‘image’, without mentioning His ‘likeness’. Origen explains that to be made in God’s likeness is reserved for the consummation of all things, that is to come at the end of the age. The apostle Paul explains it this way, “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth- in Him.” (Ephesians 1:10). This is all things coming to perfection, including man, through imitating God, and striving for His character to be formed in us. Notice Origen explains this as ‘works’, which unlike many denominations of Christianity today, the Early Church believed (in alignment with Scripture) were necessary for salvation.
In another place, Origen explains that Jesus, being the Son of God, was made in His likeness.
Therefore, “God made man, according to the image of God he made him.” We must see what that image of God is and inquire diligently in the likeness of what image man is made. For the text did not say that “God made man according to the image or likeness,” but “according to the image of God he made him.” Therefore, what other image of God is there according to the likeness of whose image man is made, except our Savior who is “the firstborn of every creature,” about whom it is written that he is “the brightness of the eternal light and the express figure of God’s substance,” who also says about himself: “I am in the Father, and the Father in me,” and “He who has seen me has also seen the Father”? For just as one who sees an image of someone sees him whose image it is, so also one sees God through the Word of God which is the image of God. And thus what he said will be true: “He who has seen me has also seen the Father.” (2)
Origen explains that Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, was made in the likeness of God. When Jesus walked this earth, He manifested the character of God, which is why He stated, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19). Jesus is the expressed image of our invisible God (Hebrews 1:3), and through the testimony of His walk, we are shown how to become like God. The apostle Paul understood this, hence he declared “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Origen is highlighting the revelation that John had, in saying that the Word of God, His image, is Jesus. John stated, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1), and later, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).
This leads us to our next point…
How are we restored back into the image and likeness of God?
Since the fall of Adam, sin entered this world, and therefore man has progressively moved further away from God, because what can light have in common with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14). But this was no surprise to our omniscient, omnipotent God, hence, He always had planned for the restoration of our soul. So, what brings about the restoration of God’s image and likeness in our soul? Origen writes:
All therefore, who come to him and desire to become participants in the spiritual image by their progress “are renewed daily in the inner man” according to the image of him who made them, so that they can be made “similar to the body of his glory,” but each one in proportion to his own powers. The apostles transformed themselves to his likeness to such an extent that he could say of them, “I go to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (2)
The Early Church understood that the renewing process was a daily, progressive journey. Origen highlights that our soul is restored, through participation in God’s Spirit, which is His Word (2 Corinthians 3:6, 17). Paul exhorted the Church of Ephesus, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:26-27). We see here that the washing, or the renewing, is done by God’s Word. In another place, Paul writes,
“If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:21-24).
Paul explains that when we put off the old man, our carnal and fleshly nature (that is opposed to God), our minds are being renewed. This directly aligns with what Origen articulated above, that the “deposit” of God’s image and likeness, is formed in us when we are striving to walk in His ways, producing the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23, Ephesians 5:9, Hebrews 13:15).
Let us always, therefore, contemplate that image of God that we can be transformed to his likeness. For if man, made according to the image of God, contrary to nature by beholding the image of the devil has been made like him by sin, much more by beholding the image of God, according to whose likeness he has been made by God, he will receive that form, which was given to him by nature, through the Word and his power. (2)
How does one contemplate the image of God? Do we simply try to think of what God looks like in a physical form? Clearly not, for it is impious to think God has a physical form, as we have previously read (2). The Early Church understood that to contemplate meant to meditate, study, commune and pray (5). Contemplating the image of God, is to have a relationship with Him, and to be striving to become more like Him, walking in His ways (Psalm 119:3). David, a King after God’s heart, declared “I will meditate on your precepts, and contemplate your ways.” (Psalm 119:15), and “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10). The Early Church taught that the heart is our soul, thus David longed to have God’s image and likeness, restored to his soul.
Let us continue to strive to not simply be hearers of His word, but doers (James 1:22), “so that what we had lost in Adam (namely, to be in the image and likeness of God), we might recover in Christ Jesus.” (6).
To God be the glory.
- Miriam Webster’s dictionary: ‘Image’
- Origen, Genesis Homily 1 [emphasis added]
- Origen, Leviticus Homily 4 [emphasis added]
- Origen, De Principiis, Bk. III, Ch. VI [emphasis added]
- Strong’s Hebrew and Greek definitions: ‘Meditate’ (7878)
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. III, Chap. XVIII.
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.