“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
These words from Genesis 1:27 are among the first and most important statements in Scripture about the mysterious class of creatures known as human beings. In a world full of countless created wonders, we humans are able to lay claim to the most distinguished and unique title in the whole universe, the title of Image Bearer.
Regardless of one’s ethnicity or culture, regardless of one’s abilities or education, regardless of one’s age or gender, regardless of one’s values or faith, every human being carries God’s image. It is woven into the fabric of our souls. Although a thousand things may differentiate us from one another, we all have this one profound commonality. We are all image Bearers, called to reflect and represent God in the world he has made.
As Christians, we like to divide the world into two categories: us and them. Those in the first group follow Jesus, know truth, and do the right thing. Those in the second group? Well, let’s just say that they’re the bad guys and we can’t expect too much from them.
But the doctrine of the image of God changes the way we view other people and the work they do in this world. It doesn’t minimize the significance that new life in Christ brings. But it does liberate us to acknowledge that even those neighbors who (by our estimation) are far from the kingdom of God can actually be quite proficient at displaying the image of their Creator, even if they do so unknowingly.
In light of this, the attentive observer should be able to discern hints and glimpses of the divine image wherever human beings are present. Sports, business, art, politics, education, agriculture, technology – all of these cultural spheres represent vast opportunities for Image Bearers to reflect their Creator.
A songwriter who captures the depth of human loneliness with her heart-wrenching lyrics? She does so as an Image Bearer. She reflects a relational God who exists in eternal Trinitarian fellowship, who created our universe as the overflow of that love, and who wired us to live in community with others.
A business owner who cultivates a safe and generous work environment in which his employees can thrive? He does so as an Image Bearer. He reflects an industrious God who cares for his creation, finds delight in his work, and empowers others to make full use of the skills he has given them.
A teenaged activist who advocates for national change in the aftermath of a school shooting? She does so as an Image Bearer. She reflects a just God who has no tolerance for evil and in whose kingdom violence and death will one day be no more.
A graduate student who is putting in extra hours in the lab and doing cutting-edge scientific research? He does so as an Image Bearer. He reflects a God whose intricate design of the universe remains largely mysterious to our finite minds, nevertheless cries out to be studied, explored, and understood.
The people above may or may not be Christians. But as Image Bearers, they reflect and represent God, whether they realize it or not. They are agents of his dominion, even if they don’t submit to his lordship.
The image is everywhere.
This universal reality allows us to find common ground with all sorts of people on the basis of our shared humanity, and in so doing it also frees us to learn from them. Even those who remain outside the walls of the church. Image Bearers of every faith (or no faith at all) have much to teach us. And although we should always be discerning, we need not be suspicious. If our eyes are trained to see people as Image Bearers, we might be surprised to discover how much we can learn from them.