What is the “Imago Dei?”

*Posted by Andrew Hebert. Originally posted at lookslikereign.com.

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:26-28 (ESV)

The question of the Imago Dei has puzzled theologians and laymen for centuries. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Answers to this question have included things like reason, relationality, the ability to walk upright, etc. I want to suggest that we look at the concept of the Imago Dei through a kingdom lens, a temple lens, and a textual/literary lens. Here are a few ways to think about it:

Think about the Imago Dei in the context of a kingdom

In the ancient world, kings would mark the boundaries of their kingdom by putting images or statues of themselves at their territorial borders. Images of a king marked out the extent of the reign of a king. When God makes humans His image-bearers and commands them to fill the earth, He is sending them out to be markers of His reign to the four corners of the earth. Being an image-bearer of God means that you demonstrate to creation that God is king over all the earth.

Think about the Imago Dei in the context of a temple

When temples were built in the ancient world, they were built with specificity. They were meticulously constructed with care, creativity, and beauty. The last item to go into a newly-built temple was an idol or image of the god for whom the temple was built. It is interesting that God creates earth with meticulous care and specificity, not in a manner unlike that of a temple. Furthermore, earth is seen not only as a place for humans to dwell, but a place for Gods presence to be manifest. The earth was created to be a type of temple in which Gods presence would be felt on earth and mankinds praise would be reflected back to Him. If you fast-forward to the picture of New Creation in Revelation 21-22, it is explicitly stated that the new earth is Gods temple. If we are to picture the creation scene as a kind of temple-building act, than it only makes sense that Gods last creative act is to place mankind in the center of this temple as His image-bearer. Gods dwelling place has at its center an image of Himself through the people He has created, so that we reflect His image to creation and reflect creations praise back to Him.

Think about the Imago Dei in its own literary/textual context

Though theologians have flexed their mental muscles in creatively describing the Imago Dei, perhaps they could have saved some time by looking at the context of Genesis 1 itself. Right after declaring that He was going to make mankind in His image, God states that man will have dominion over the earth. It seems as if the functional aspect of being image-bearers is that we are to reign over creation as vice-regents, of sorts, under the headship of the God the King.

This all fits very nicely with the call of Israel to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and later for the church to fulfill its calling as a royal (kingly) priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). If we are to be priests and kings, than bearing the image of God means simply that as kings, we mark out His reign by ruling over creation and as priests, we image Him forth (represent Him) to creation and reflect creations praise back to Him.

Here are some further insights from one of my favorite scholars, the former Bishop of Durham and current professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Dr. N.T. Wright:

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