Sometimes a counterfeit helps us understand the purpose of the genuine object. People produce counterfeit money, for example, not to hoard but to exchange for things of value. And that should remind us money is not to be treasured for its own sake but used. Those coins and pieces of paper have no value in and of themselves. They are merely conveniences that allow us to exchange our labor and expertise for milk, eggs, gasoline, books, and other necessities and pleasures. The same principle holds true for copycats of the imago Dei—a Latin phrase which means “image of God.” To shed light on the original, let me tell you about the knock-offs, the cheap imitations.
In the ancient world, people built temples to their gods. (This still happens in many places outside the modern West today.) In Egypt and Mesopotamia, those temples were meant to be small-scale versions of the cosmos, symbolic depictions of the entire world. In addition to constructing temples, they would create a representation of the deity from chiseled rock, molten metal, or decorated wood. To symbolize the dominion of their god over the world, they would place the likeness within their sacred space. The idea wasn’t that the image was the god but that the image represented the god.
Why do all this? The image of the god was there as the physical representation of the deity. In other words, the image made the god’s claim to dominion visible, symbolically speaking.
Thus far, we’ve been looking at the counterfeit. What does this tell us about the original?
There are a number of indications that Israel’s tabernacle and, later, her temple were intended to symbolize the cosmos. Psalms 78:69, for one, seems to say as much: “He built His sanctuary like the heights, like the earth which He has founded forever.” Then in Isaiah 66:1, the Lord declares that the earth is His footstool. What’s more, the Holy of Holies was square, and the book of Revelation also depicts the new Jerusalem as such (Revelation 21:16), apparently because in the consummation of all things, the earth will have become what God intended it to be: an extensive temple.
God built a temple, the cosmos. And in it, He placed His own image and likeness—living, working human beings who worship Him.
All this implies that false religions with their shrines and idols are nothing more than satanic imitations of what God has done. God built a temple, the cosmos. And in it, He placed His own image and likeness—living, working human beings who worship Him.
The Creator’s intention was for man to exercise God’s own dominion over the world (Genesis 1:28). The male and female (Genesis 1:27) were to work together, to be fruitful and multiply so that the earth might be filled with God’s image bearers, who would administer His presence by subduing the earth and exercising dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). By doing so, man would participate in making it the place where God was present. The cosmos was designed to be where the Lord would be served and worshipped, His goodness experienced. Obedience to God’s instructions would result in knowledge of divine glory covering the dry lands, much like the waters covering the ocean floor.
If humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, and if the tabernacle and temple are symbols of the cosmic temple God made when He created the world, how should we think about who we are and why we are here?
The answer is simple. People were designed to be representations of God. Our Creator made us in His own image and likeness, intending that we would administer His authority in the world He made. If we study the requirements about holiness and cleansing in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we find that the goodness and purity of the God whom we were made to represent is beyond our ability to imagine. God made us to exercise His dominion over the world. And it is in this that we find our purpose and significance.
The many things humans have achieved—smart phones, space voyages, indoor plumbing, modern medicine—show that God has endowed His image and likeness with stunning capacities. But we are not holy. Because Adam sinned, and because we desire sin and choose it for ourselves, the dominion we exercise does not reflect God’s character.
How has God dealt with our failure? He judged man and the world, subjecting humanity to death and the world to futility (Romans 5:12; Romans 8:20). But we are not without hope, because He also sent His true image and likeness. Paul asserts that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and Jesus Himself said, “He who sees me Me sees the One who sent Me” (John 12:45 ; see also John 14:9). To look at Jesus is to behold the image and likeness of God the Father.
For God to transform us into that image (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18) is for Him to engage in a project akin to restoring a work of art that has been defaced. By asserting that God will indeed glorify those whom He called and justified (Romans 8:30), Paul is declaring that these restoration projects of the grand Artist will become master works.
We are told God’s image and likeness will exercise God’s authority over God’s place in God’s way. That is the destiny of those who make their way toward the city that has foundations—the place where we will reign with Him in the new heaven and earth (Revelation 2:26-27).
Photo Illustration by Paula Daniëlse