Thursday, October 8, 2009

Image of God

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities---all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:15-18)

Jesus is the image of God, writes Paul. What can that mean for us? We have no photographs of Jesus, no portraits were drawn or painted while He lived on earth. Why could Paul have not simply said that Jesus “is the invisible God?” Is an image something less than the real? Is Jesus something less than God? Let's begin our study by looking at the original Greek word that Paul used.

“Image” is translated from the Greek word, eikon, meaning a likeness, a statue, or a profile. It could mean a representation or resemblance of any sort. Eikon was derived from a word meaning to resemble, related to a word meaning to be weak or to yield, as in the faintness of a copy.

From the Greek word, eikon, we get the English word, “icon”, meaning an image or representation, especially in a religious sense, or used in computer programs referring to a small image that represents a menu option or website.

Notice that there are two words that contributed to the development of the Greek word that is translated as image. These two root words are identical in spelling and pronunciation, but they have different meanings. One means to resemble; the other word means to be weak or yielding.

Looking only at the definitions, we could get the idea that Jesus is a postage stamp-sized picture of God...a small, faint graphic representation of the true God. Yet the picture painted by Paul in his letter to the Colossians reveals a magnificent view of Jesus as God Himself:

A magnificent view of Jesus:

  • He created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...
  • All things were created through and for him...He is before all things, and in him all things hold together...
  • He is the head, the beginning, the firstborn...
  • In everything he is preeminent! (Colossians 1:15-18)

How can we reconcile the meaning of image as being a copy, something less than the original, yet Jesus is in everything preeminent, the Creator and Head of all things?

Jesus used this same word to refer to the image stamped on a coin.

"Show me the coin for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:19-21)

The image on the coin represented the person who owned or controlled the economy based upon that coin. In that image Jesus saw an entire social and economic network, with Caesar at the center.

A similar argument can be developed around Jesus as the image of God. All of God's economy, God's design and plan for the ages could be represented or summed up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

A small image can represent an entire insignificant carpenter-turned-preacher can become the first-born of all creation.

The account of Caesar's image on a coin is important: it is included in the writings of Matthew, Luke, and Mark. Jesus was using the word “image” as part of his rebuttal to an attempt by Jewish leaders to discredit him as Christ. Paul later describes Jesus as the “image of the invisible God”. In this sense, “image” does not mean that Jesus is a small, faint copy of God. “Image” means that all of God's power and purpose is centered in one Person: Jesus Christ.

“Image” means a picture or model that clearly represents a person or idea. It is a “resemblance that represents” an essential quality.

Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi a description of the humility of Christ, a message that suggests Jesus was something less than God, but at the same time completely equal with God.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)

Paul describes the condition of Jesus on earth as being something less than his divine condition as Son of God. It was becoming “nothing”, submitting in humility, sacrificing his life, to take the form of a human. But at the same time He remained the divine, sovereign, holy image of God.

We find the word “image” used in Paul's description of foolish humans who worship false gods.

And exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:23)

Paul combines two words to describe manmade idols. “Images” is the Greek word on which we're focusing, meaning a likeness or representation. “Resembling” is the word that means an abstract resemblance.

Using these two words, Paul is conveying the message that idols may look like an earthly human or animal, but they represent powerful, divine abilities of creation and control. Egyptians worshiped the image of a crocodile, not because their god was a crocodile, but because their god had divine, crocodile-like powers of unlimited strength, speed, and ferocity.

Jesus the carpenter is described as being the image of the immortal God, not because our God is a Jewish carpenter, but partly because our God has divine, carpenter-like powers of unlimited creativity, strength, and wisdom. God's invisible attributes can be seen as we look at the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus as the image of God also refers to knowledge of God.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

“Face” in the Greek means the front of a person. Literally it means “gazing towards with wide-open eyes”, as at something remarkable. This is further evidence that “image of God” does not refer to the physical appearance of Jesus, but rather to the remarkable, awe-filled glory of God that the life of Jesus demonstrates.

A good way to understand the meaning of a word is to contrast it with a word that means the opposite. Paul does this for us by immediately using the word “invisible”. God is invisible, but Jesus is the opposite of invisible...Jesus is the image of God.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)

Invisible in the Greek developed from two words meaning “not” and “gazed at”, implying not capable of being seen. Its root is the same as the Greek word for face: to stare at or to discern clearly.

God is invisible, but not because He wears a “cloak of invisibility”, or that He can operate in “stealth mode”. We often think of invisibility as a power, either an ability to completely blend into the background, or a power to render the vision of others ineffective. This is not the invisibility of God. God is invisible because we cannot discern Him...we cannot understand Him, we cannot comprehend Him, we cannot mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually sense His presence unless He reveals Himself on our level, on our “wavelength”.

A radio receiver can be turned on, volume raised, working perfectly, yet never receive any signals unless it has the ability to tune into a specific wavelength, or signal pattern. You may have a radio receiver in your home. You can receive signals that produce music or news or discussion. Yet unknown by you, and undetected by your radio, are many other signals passing through your home: fire, police, and business, even top-secret governmental transmissions. Unless your radio has the ability to tune into a specific signal, at the higher frequencies, you will never hear them.

God, in a sense, is on a wavelength frequency so much higher above our senses that we would never realize His presence, or His words, unless the Word of God, Jesus enters us, awakens our spirit, and speaks to our mind and soul in a way that we can understand. Jesus transmits God's love, grace, power, and holiness.

Jesus is the image of God.