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The Image of God

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

As I do my usual daily readings of Old Testament, New Testament, and Wisdom literature, I often have to slow down the New Testament reading because one would just fly through it given that it's shorter and--one thinks--easier to read. But it must not be that easy--if it was, then I and others would actually be fully implementing what it says! So, slowing it down works perfectly!

This week, my New Testament reading reached Colossians 1, and this incredible passage that sets the record straight about Jesus:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 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 and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV).

I've actually been circling back and forth to these verses for the better part of a year now. I forget precisely why. It may have been because two years ago I set myself to reading and studying more on the Holy Spirit, and that brought me to studying the Trinity overall, which brought me to the conclusion that modern Christianity is teetering on some pretty classic anti-Trinitarian heresies--which I think are at the root, when you think about it, of some, well, off-ness among many Christians today.

Hence the importance of these verses.

Prior to last year, I admittedly didn't really care for this verse. It confused me because it seemed to place Christ in a subordinate position to the Father. What does it mean that he's the image of God, anyway, when the main way I've heard imago dei spoken of is in reference to humanity being made in the image of God (as I'm writing this, I'm reminded that my daughter is in Rome, seeing the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's famous Creation of Adam section of the ceiling).

But, through a mix of prayer and study (and lots of "phoning a friend," through books and commentaries!), I saw what these verses were actually saying--that if we all took it to heart, so much nonsense and misinformation swirling around today would be set to rest.

And then, do you ever notice that once you become aware of something, you see it everywhere? I can't cite all the influences on my thinking here, because once I started searching out truth about the Trinity, I just started stumbling on it when reading Tim Keller, Richard Rohr, A.W. Tozer, Augustine, Basil the Great, N.T. Wright, Calvin, Spurgeon, and of course Athanasius (modern translations of On the Incarnation are very readable!).

Spurgeon helped me to see that the places in the Old Testament that I assumed to be God the Father manifesting on earth were actually most likely the Son. I needed to read the Bible through different eyes and not assume that every time I see the word, "God," in Scripture that it refers to God the Father.

The PreceptAustin site quotes Rob Morgan on this, who wrote,

Colossians 1:15 says that he—Jesus Christ—is the image of the invisible God. For 2000 years, church theologians have understood that when God appeared in human form in the Old Testament, it was a manifestation of God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. Dr. Raymond Scott in his book on this subject, wrote: "It is a well-known fact that the Old Testament predicts the coming of the Messiah. But what is not common knowledge among Christians is that Jesus Christ actually appeared on this earth on numerous occasions prior to his incarnation." So I would like to suggest that when God appears as "the Angel of the LORD" in the burning bush was no one less than God the Son Himself.

Again, in modern Christianity, we often lapse into a rather anti-Trinitarian stance; specifically, modalism--a heresy that views each person of the Godhead as a different mode of God rather than Persons sharing one divine Essence. That is, we see God the Father in the Old Testament, Jesus in the New, and the Holy Spirit vaguely as a force to be summoned (or not) at will. I literally had someone tell me once that they liked the God of the New Testament a whole lot better than the God of the old. As Christians, worshipping Yahweh means that, even if we don't fully understand it, we worship God in three Persons---distinct Persons sharing the same divine essence. When we forget this, we are not worshipping God as He is. And, we're technically not...well, Christian.

This is not Scriptural and it is a tragedy that the first four centuries of Christianity (and reformers like Calvin) spent so much time and effort teaching us how to better understand God as described in Scripture, but we just sort of...forgot. And maybe concluded that it's not worth our time to ponder these things and meditate on Who God is.

As much as I like to figure things out (and, I really, really do), I'm pretty comfortable with not knowing everything. This is useful when studying and thinking about the incomprehensible (from a human standpoint).

I just want to stop a moment and share a great Psychology Today article on why it's psychologically healthy to not try to have all the answers! The article talks about how we actually worship information these days. I'd add that our faith in the 20th century has arguably been shaped more by enlightenment ideals and a half-baked attempt to be scientific about our theology (as a behavioral scientist, I do say this from a bit of a judgy stance about the quality of these efforts). We have lost contemplation, which is a really problem when we're presumably wanting to encounter God.

This article reads so true to me that our hyper-focus on information is really a psychological attempt to control---we're uncomfortable with that which is outside our control. So, therefore, we are uncomfortable with God, if we would admit it to ourselves. At least, we are uncomfortable with a God who breaks through the bounds of our pat stories and parts of the Bible we like and our concepts of a predictable and safe Deity.

As C.S. Lewis famously writes about Aslan (the Jesus figure) in The Chronicles of Narnia, "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."

Anyway, when God appeared in physical form in the Old Testament, this is likely the Son--although, nothing any member of the Godhead does is entirely separate from the other Persons (except for that one time on the cross...), despite us projecting our heavily individualistic viewpoints onto everything we see, including God. Jesus is not a rugged, lone cowboy, despite our Western lenses!

Rather, the Son is the Image of the invisible God.

God is Spirit, as we are taught. But we forget this. We picture him as an old white man on a throne. He is not that. God is Spirit.

Richard Rohr says,

"Sadly, the doctrine of the Trinity hasn’t exercised much influence in the Christian understanding of God. If most Christians—Catholic or Protestant—are questioned about their real image of God, it’s generally an old man sitting on a throne. He’s upset half the time and it’s our job to make this god happy. This, of course, has almost nothing to do with our actual doctrine on the nature of God... "

Our actual doctrine should recognize that Jesus, prior to being made incarnate as a baby, was pre-existent as the Son. We are taught this in multiple places in Scripture, including here. He created everything, including heavenly things, and He holds everything together, both physical and spiritual realities. Thus, He exists prior to all existence. The Son is not a son the way that humans become sons. Begetting does not mean begetting as in a human, sexual way. Prior to one atom being created, the Son Was.

As Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I AM." (John 8:48).

He and the Father are one and share the same divine essence, the only difference being that the Father is distinct from the Son and the Son is distinct from the Father. As Athanasius said,

For neither is the Father the Son, nor the Son the Father. For the Father is Father of the Son, and the Son, Son of the Father. For like as the well is not a river, nor the river a well, but both are one and the same water which is conveyed in a channel from the well to the river, so the Father's deity passes into the Son without flow and without division.

These terms, Father and Son, have to do with their relationship to one another. Truly a mystery, but definitely a relational one showing, evidencing, imaging to us what it looks like for Love

Rohr adds,

"What our tradition believes is that God is a fountain fullness of love, a water wheel flowing constantly in one direction: Father to Son, Son to Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit to Father—always outflowing, always outpoured, always giving, never taking, but only receiving what the other gives. It would take the rest of your life to try to comprehend what that means! "

The Son shows us what God is like. William Barclay said, "To see what God is like, we must look at Jesus." Tim Keller used to say this...constantly! I'm so, so thankful for his teachings.

I think of this when I watch The Chosen, and I appreciate actor Jonathan Roumie, who portrays Jesus, being so mindful and intentional about the responsibility of this casting. I'm so thankful of a depiction of a Jesus who smiles, who laughs, who loves, who cries, who cares. For, Jesus is the Image of the invisible God. And when He became incarnate, this became a literal truth. To see Jesus is to see God. As I've quoted in this blog before, when Thomas asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replied,

Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?

God in the burning bush claimed to be I AM. Jesus, incarnate, claimed to be I AM This is the same God: Father, Spirit, Son. It took the Church four centuries to cram it into our very human heads what this means. How tragic for us to lose these truths today.

The Son is the Image of the Invisible God. He is in the Father and the Father is in Him.

Astoundingly, after Jesus resurrected, He made it possible for the Son and the Spirit to indwell within us. In fact, if you are a Christian, this is not optional. It is so.

The Son being the Image of God doesn't mean that He's a copy of the Father, like God the Father is somehow more important, more powerful, more central.

The "image" term here is eikon in the Greek. As in, a mirror-like representation of God the Father and the Eternal Son, who is the embodiment and living manifestation of God: first as a theophany (i. e. visible manifestation of God) and then incarnate as Jesus. PreceptAustin says (,

In Greek thought an image shares in reality what it represents. Christ is the perfect likeness of God.

Contrary to what my previous self thought this verse might be saying, image does not mean lesser. But, the Image does bring our understanding of God closer to home. It is for our benefit that the Son revealed Himself in the Old Testament. It is for our eternal salvation that He became incarnate. And it is for our ultimate sanctification and glorification that He now resides inside us.

It's understandable to be confused about these things. Early Christians were, too. Which is why they had to have councils and write creeds because the words in Scripture were being so easily misinterpreted. This eikon word was a problem, because it was used so much to refer to coins (i.e. images on coins). The connotation for some was that the Image was lesser. As many are arguing today, we have to be careful of the influences on our interpretations--there's a lot out there now in some supposedly reputable Christian circles that are clearly teaching that Jesus is lesser. I'm talking alt-right agenda, not alt-left. But, as Wordsworth wrote, "The world is too much with us." I'd add--whether that "world" is coming in from the left or the right! Today, we let our politics be the lens through which we read Scripture. Back then, it was Greek thought; specifically, Plato. Plato could be helpful at times, but he's ultimately pagan, and not fully depicting reality as it actually is-- especially the reality about what God is like.

I can't fully describe how powerful this passage, and this verse in particular (1:15) is to me right now. I just repeat to to myself on occasion. I have so much that needs corrected in my own mind about God as Trinity and I'm just beginning to unpack what it means to understand the Son as the Image of the invisible God.

It certainly means something for my prayer life. Jesus isn't the "approachable" member of the Godhead, the "nice" one! When I come to Him with my problems--like my daughter's scans tomorrow to see how her cancer treatment is going--I know that He is all-loving and all-powerful. The same Jesus who loves her is the same Jesus in whom "all things old together." We wouldn't currently even have bodies to heal if He didn't hold it all together in the first place. It's a mind-blowing thought.

In Jesus, we see love and creation power coexisting. Therefore, I know that this is true of God, the Trinity whom we worship. Because the Son is the Image of the invisible God.

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