From the Image of God to the Likeness of God: from the Old Self to the New Self

In Genesis 1:27, we learn that God created human beings in His image:

God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urged them (and us),

to put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Ephesians 4:24

Thousands of years have passed between those two statements. God has been working out His purposes in the heavens and the earth from before the beginning. Creating man in His image and establishing man in His likeness has been central to that purpose.

Reading the words of Paul in Ephesians, which clearly echo the description of God’s creation of human beings, got me thinking about the difference between the image of God that was built into human beings from the start and the “new self” that Paul urges us to put on that is created in the likeness of God.

What is the image of God in which we were created?

What is the likeness of God that we must put on? (A new self created in righteousness and holiness)

Why must we put on a new self created in the “likeness of God” when human beings have already been created in the “image of God”? What is the difference between the two?

I try not to lean on the assumptions that come first to mind when approaching Scripture. I often go back and work through a text looking for things I haven’t seen before. As I write this, I don’t know exactly what I will find. I was intrigued by the echoes of Genesis in Paul’s words to the Ephesians and prompted to dig into them freshly.

English words don’t always capture the nuances of meaning in the original language so going back to the Hebrew and Greek often shines new light on verses and passages that might have lost some luster in the translation.

The Hebrew word translated “image” is צֶלֶם, tselem. It means, literally, “an image”, and is translated variously: “form (1), image (5), images (6), likenesses (3), phantom (1)”. It is translated “according to Our image” in Gen. 1:26 and “in His own image” in Gen. 1:17. (NASB)

The word is used for idols (Numbers 33:51; 1 Samuel 6:5; Amos 5:26; and Ezekiel 16:17), suggesting that idols are mere images with no substance. The word is used in Psalm 73:20 to mean wicked men who do not acknowledge or fear God: they are “phantoms” (tselem) – mere images.

Daniel called the figure that visited Nebuchadnezzar in his dream “a great image” that was “mighty and of exceeding brightness” and “frightening” in its appearance. (Dan. 2:31) The image Nebuchadnezzar saw wasn’t real. It was a dream, but it had real substance and conveyed meaning that Daniel interpreted for the king.

From all of these uses of the word, tselem, we see that they refer to something that may or may not be real, something that may or may not have substance. An image is something that is suggestive of something, and that image may have substance, or it may be empty, like a phantom.

In the statement that men are created according to or in the image of God, the substance is God, Himself. The image, however, may lack the substance. The image could even be a mere phantom of that substance.

To me, this suggests that human beings are created with potentiality. Elsewhere, it is written that we are created from the dust. (Gen. 2:7) We are created from, out of, dust, but we have the potentiality suggested by being created in the image of God. A potentiality, however, is not a reality. Something else had to happen for that potentiality to be realized.

This is significant also, because we read that after Adam and Eve made the one choice they were forbidden to make in opposition to God’s instruction, God said to them:

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19)

Human beings were from dust and are doomed to return to dust, containing in them, still, only the potentiality. They do not have the substance within themselves. In fact, they more or less forfeited that substance in making the choice that was forbidden.

God being the Alpha and Omega, knowing the beginning from the end, knew the choice human beings would make. He gave them that choice. What would be the choice if it was not exercised?

That choice which we call the “fall” set the stage for another choice. Another single choice above all other choices that God also anticipated.

When the time was right, God became man. He came to His own. Though His own people didn’t receive Him, He was obedient to the plan He created from before the foundation of the earth. He gave Himself up for us, making the way for fulfillment of the potentiality that he created in the first Adam.

Paul speaks of “the first Adam” and the “second Adam” (Adam meaning “man”, human being). (1 Cor. 15:45) The second Adam is Jesus, of whom the writer of Hebrews said:

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint [representation (NIV)] of his nature….” (Heb. 1:3)

The Greek word translated “imprint” or “exact representation” is χαρακτήρ, ῆρος, ὁ, charaktér. It means, literally, “a tool for engraving”. The word also came to mean “a die” (“mold”). Finally it stood for a stamp or impress used on a coin or seal. Used figuratively, it means an exact impression (likeness) which also reflects inner character.

Jesus isn’t just an image; he is the exact impression, imprint or likeness of God – outside and inside (in substance and reality).

In the passage in 1st Corinthians where Paul compares the first man (Adam) to the second man (Jesus), he describes them as a perishable seed compared to an imperishable seed. A natural, earthly man (Adam) compared to a spiritual, heavenly man (Jesus).

The first prototypical man (Adam) was made of perishable seed, but the second prototypical man (Jesus) was made of imperishable seed.

We are of the seed of Adam (from dust to dust), but we have within us the potentiality of the substance of the image of God. In Christ, is the seed (the exact imprint) of God that has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

When Paul tells to put on the “new self” in Ephesians, he is echoing his exhortation to the Romans to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ”. (Rom. 13:14) He is also continuing the thread of thought he started in Ephesians, when he said,

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus….”

Ephesians 2:10

This new self is “created in Christ”, and Paul tells us to put it on.

The Greek word translated, “like” God or “in the likeness” of God, in Ephesians 4:24 is κατά, kata. It literally means “down, against, according to”. Kata is a preposition, governing two grammatical cases. It’s literal meaning (“down from”) conveys the idea of something deriving “from a higher to a lower plane, with special reference to the terminus end-point”. Thus, it means more completely to “bring down exactly complete”. (See Biblehub)

A more literal translation from the Greek would be as follows:

And to put on the new self created to be like God (created down from God with which it is joined)

This “new self” Paul urges us to put on is created to be like God. Its source is God from which it is brought down to human beings to which it is joined.

This is the completion – the fulfillment – of that potentiality with which human beings were created in the beginning.

In more complete context, Paul says:

“[P]ut off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and … put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Ephesians 4:22-24 (NIV)

Paul’s language is couched in volitional language: “put off” and “put on”.

This is the choice we now have before us: having inherited the choice the first prototypical humans (Adam and Eve) made in opposition to God that locked them into mere phantom likeness to God, we now have a choice we can make to put on a new self offered to us by the second prototypical human (Jesus) that can be completed in us down from God in true (substantive) likeness (“in true righteousness and holiness”).

2 thoughts on “From the Image of God to the Likeness of God: from the Old Self to the New Self

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