This is the second in a three-week Advent series.
In six places in the New Testament, five of them in the (probable) writings of Paul, the image of God is reinterpreted in light of Jesus Christ. The imago dei becomes the imago Christi. This Pauline theme is sometimes called “image Christology.” It takes us closer to our exploration of the claim that Christ came into the world to make us truly human.
One place to begin is in 1 Corinthians 15. In verses 42-49, Paul moves toward the conclusion of his argument that not only is the resurrection of Jesus Christ central to all Christian thought, but also the Christian hope of eternal life must be a hope for bodily resurrection rather than disembodied immortality. He acknowledges that what is “sown” in our deaths (a physical body) is different from what is “raised” (a spiritual body)
Nonetheless, this is a bodily resurrection. To help his readers understand the difference, Paul contrasts the first man, Adam, who was a “living being,” with the “last Adam,” Christ, who was a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). This first man was a “man of dust,” the second man is the “man of heaven.” Those human beings who are not in Christ are still “of the dust” (v. 48) and will return to the dust like the first man, whereas those who are associated with Christ, the man of heaven, are “of heaven” and will share in his bodily resurrection. The argument climaxes: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will (variant: let us) also bear the image of the man of heaven” (v. 49).
This difficult argument seems to work like this: Genesis 1 says human beings were made in the image of God. We were creatures (created ones) yet made to be like the God who created us. But under temptation Adam tragically and disobediently grasped for the god-like status that already was his as God’s gift, and so humanity fell, with a great and terrible crash. Ever since the fall, human beings have become estranged from what God made us to be, and from the God who made us.
Our interest here is how Paul seems to be reworking the theme in an important way. Ever since Adam sinned, whatever else one may say about the image of God in humanity, human beings have existed in the image of Adam, the first man. One aspect of our fallen reality is that we return to the dust from which we were made. Made for eternal fellowship with God, made to live forever like God and with God, we instead die and return to dust.
But God sent Jesus Christ into the world. He was truly human. But he was also the “man from heaven.” Those who belong to Christ now receive the benefit of the imago Christi. One aspect of that image is his spiritual body — meaning spiritual-bodily resurrection.
If the majority reading of 1 Corinthians 15:49 is accepted, the text stands in the indicative: “we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” If the variant reading is accepted, the meaning shifts to the imperative: “let us bear the image of the man of heaven.” The former seems more appropriate to the context of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians. The latter is certainly plausible, and especially appealing in a moral sense. Those who belong to Christ should bear the imago Christi in their pattern of living. As we are transformed, we (are to) become more and more like Jesus Christ, the “man of heaven,” and less and less like Adam, the “man of dust” (1 Corinthians 15:48).
“Jesus Christ repairs and restores the image of God in fallen humanity. Human beings can at last be what we were made to be because Jesus has made it possible.”
But what is the content of this imago Christi? The author of Colossians, possibly Paul, states straightforwardly that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Paul goes on to list aspects of Christ’s nature and work including his role in sustaining creation, his leadership of the church, his reconciling death on the Cross, and his resurrection from the dead (vv. 16-20).
If Jesus is now the eikon tou theou, what has happened to the Genesis declaration that human beings were made in that image of God? Perhaps this: If considered sequentially in salvation history, Jesus Christ repairs and restores the image of God in fallen humanity. Human beings can at last be what we were made to be because Jesus has made it possible.
Jesus assumed the image of humanity, indeed, the humblest form of humanity (Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:1-11). While doing so he perfectly embodied the image of God in humanity and restored humanity to its divinely intended nature. And Jesus has gathered to himself and in himself a community that shares in the capacity to do the same through his Spirit’s power at work in them.
If viewed in terms of the mystery of the preexistent Christ, the Son of God always was “the image of the invisible God.” He always has defined what it means both to be God and to be human. When human beings were made in the image of God, it always was the image of Christ in which and for which we were made. He always has defined what humanity is to be. But only in “the last days” has he walked the earth and dwelt among us, publicly displaying in his life, death and resurrection what it means to be truly human.
Christians are those who gaze “with unveiled faces” at Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). When we look directly at the divine through the face of Jesus we do not perish, unlike in the days of Moses. Our gaze at Jesus Christ transforms rather than destroys us. We “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another,” and the image we see of ourselves “as though reflected in a mirror” is the image of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The more we look at him, the more like him we become, the more the form of our life takes the form of his life. The “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4) changes us. We become who we were meant to be as we are “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29), who is the firstborn of “a large family” filled with people who share the image of the One who is the image of God.
This is how God is reconstructing the world — by gathering a family of people who conform to the image of Christ who is the image of God.
The author of Hebrews continues the Pauline theme in saying that Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is the image of God. Human beings were made in the image of God. Jesus incarnates that image. In so doing he has demonstrated the possibilities available to every human as God intended — we were made to reflect God’s glory and bear God’s imprint.
“This is how God is reconstructing the world — by gathering a family of people who conform to the image of Christ who is the image of God.”
Since sin entered the world, we have borne its shattering consequences. But in Christ, the image of God has been restored, and now human beings are invited into their own personal instantiation of Christ’s image. In the church, at least a part of the human race is even now being restored to its original moral grandeur.
And so here is the human condition, in summary: made for moral grandeur in creation; fallen away from moral grandeur in sin; restored to moral grandeur in Jesus Christ. The apostolic indicative voice proclaims that this restoration has occurred. The apostolic imperative calls for followers of Christ to cooperate with a Christ-shaped transformative process, always remembering that the agent of this transformation is Christ who seeks to take shape in us.
Here is where Christian ethics begins. But it is always a response to what God has done in Christ, never just a result of our own moral efforts.
Christ came to make us truly human, repairing the image of God in us, exemplifying the purpose for which human beings were made, and inviting us to accept the Spirit’s power for transformation of our broken selves toward the moral grandeur for which we were made. Merry Christmas, indeed.
My next post will zero in on the social ethical implications of this theological account.
This article originally appeared on Baptist News Global.