The Image of God and the Incarnation
Why Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s image in human flesh
By Mike Augsburger
Imagine you are separated from a loved one by an ocean. It’s time for the holidays, and they have no plans to come home. On Christmas Day, you schedule a FaceTime conversation, keeping in mind the time difference. Your heart fills with joy as your loved one’s image pops onto the screen. After talking for 45 minutes, you bid a tearful goodbye and talk about the time you’ll get to see each other face to face.
During that call, if I were somehow able to magically give you the ability to be with your loved one in person instead of on FaceTime, would you take it? Or would you say, “Nah, that’s OK. I prefer FaceTime!” I think you know the answer. FaceTime is a blessing we didn’t have 50 years ago, but it isn’t the same thing as seeing someone face to face.
FaceTime is a representation of a person. You can hear them, but it’s not actually their voice. You can see the person, but it’s just pixels representing them. You can’t smell or touch them. What you see on the screen looks like the person, and you could even say it’s the person’s “image,” but it’s not the same thing as the physical presence of the person.
When it comes to the image of God, this illustration is helpful, but not perfect. Genesis 1:26-27 declares that humans are made in God’s image. That doesn’t mean if you could see God you would see a human behind the curtain. What does it mean, and why does the Bible say that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15)? Here are three truths that help us navigate this discussion.
1. God’s physical essence is indescribable.
Even though we are made in God’s image, and Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the Bible clearly states that no one has seen God at any time (John 1:18). 1 John 1:5 says that the very essence of God is light, and in him is no darkness. 1 Timothy 6:16 adds to our understanding of this by saying that God lives in unapproachable light. Somehow, light is part of who God is, and he is glorious, blinding, and cannot be seen by human eyes.
The other aspect of God’s indescribable physical presence is his existence as a Trinity. The Bible speaks clearly about the deity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet, at the same time declares that there is only one God. No matter how that’s illustrated, it still remains a mystery, and I’m not sure if our finite minds will ever be able to grasp it.
2. God has always used human characteristics to represent himself.
Since we are created in God’s image, God uses human characteristics to represent himself to us. He interacts with the universe with sight, sound, and touch. He feels emotions. He thinks and reasons. He interacts relationally with the Godhead and his creation. God has always possessed these qualities, and when he created mankind, he gave us those same characteristics. So in this sense, we are shaped in God’s image.
The Bible takes that a step further and talks about God in human terms. We read that God sees and hears. We read about God’s hand guiding us. We also read that God reasons through things and comes to conclusions. Animals share some of these attributes, but not in the same way that humans do. Whereas animals have some characteristics of God’s image, humans are created in God’s actual image.
Additionally, when God appears to humans, he appears in human form. This does not contradict that no one has seen God at any time. We’ll talk more about that later. In Genesis 3:8 God comes to confront Adam and Eve about their sin. They hear him walking in the garden and hide themselves from him. This shows us that Adam and Eve were accustomed to interacting with God in physical form. Yet, the Bible still declares that “No one has seen God at any time.”
3. The incarnation is the pinnacle of God’s image in humans.
The ultimate manifestation of the image of God in man was the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Colossians 1:15 says, “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
The Lord Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of God’s image in human flesh. Jesus is truly God and truly man, eternally and holistically fused together in a human being. Here is a good way to articulate this truth: Jesus was not the physical representation of what God looks like. Instead, Jesus is the physical representation of God. As such, he bears the essence of God. Jesus is the ultimate expression because God is actually dwelling in human flesh. This sets him apart from the rest of God’s image-bearers.
Therefore, when God appeared in human flesh, it was a pre-appearance of the incarnate Christ. The God Adam and Eve talked with was the pre-incarnate Jesus. The fourth man in the fiery furnace was the pre-incarnate Jesus. However, I think the most helpful example is God’s interaction with Moses.
Exodus 33:11 says, “The Lord would speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend….” I believe Moses was speaking to the pre-incarnate Jesus. However, later in verse 18 Moses asks, “Please let me see your glory.” Even though Moses is talking face to face with God, he recognizes that he’s not getting the whole picture.
God answers Moses in verse 20 and says, “You cannot see my face, for humans cannot see me and live.” He then goes on to pass by and allows Moses to see just the tail end of his surpassing glory.
Humans uniquely represent God’s image here on earth. Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of that representation. When he became a baby 2,000 years ago, God was forever united with human flesh. Because of that, he is worthy to take the scroll and rule this planet as a human who is also God. This time of year, we celebrate the first Advent of Jesus and simultaneously look forward to when the God-man will return and take his throne in Jerusalem over all creation!