A Perfect Reflection

What does Paul mean when he calls Jesus “the image of God”?

This is not necessarily a difficult question, but a certain aspect of it is often not emphasized. Although there may be a connection with Genesis 1:27, where we are told that Adam and Eve were created in/as the image of God, there is hardly any question that Jesus is the image of God in a much grander and unique way. Christ is called the image of God in only two passages (2 Cor. 4:4 and Col. 1:15). We will also look at passages in which Christians are called the image of God/Christ.

1. Christ: Image of God: In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul discusses why some people reject his gospel. In answering, he contrasts the work of the god of this age and the work of the true God. On one hand, people reject the gospel because the god of this age has blinded them “so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays [i.e., that is] the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (verse 4, NIV). The passage suggests that Christ, being the image of God, has His own glory, and that it is revealed in the gospel.

On the other hand, God is the God who created light out of darkness. This light ends human blindness, causing light to shine “in our hearts.” This light illumines our whole being and enables us to see “the light of [that consists in] the knowledge of the glory of God in the face [or person] of Jesus Christ” (verse 6).

“The face of Christ” is another way of referring to Him as the image of God. In this case Christ as the image of God reveals the glory of God, i.e., God’s character. In these verses the designation of Christ as the image of God points to both His nature—He is divine—and His function: He reveals the glory of God in a world of sin and in conflict with the god of this age.

2. Christ: Image of God: Colossians 1:15 belongs to what is considered to be two parts of a Christian hymn (Col. 1:15-20). The first is about the cosmic significance redemption (verses 18-20). It is a narrative that depicts cosmic harmony, then moves almost unperceptively to rebellion and its  resolution. It is about the cosmic conflict. Often overlooked is the reference to Christ as the image of God placed in the cosmic section of the hymn. In the context of the creation of the cosmos Christ is introduced as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (verse 15). The title “firstborn” indicates His preeminence over creation. The title “image of God” clearly points to His cosmic role as mediator or revealer of the “invisible God” to all creation. In other words, when everything was created, the Son was instituted as the only means of revealing God’s character to the cosmos. Here, the term image does not mean “resemblance” but designates Christ’s nature as the exact manifestation of the invisible God. In Him dwells “all the fullness of the Deity” (Col. 2:9, NIV), and He was in His “very nature God” (Phil. 2:6, NIV). Only God can reveal God. It was as such that “in him all things [the cosmos] hold together” (Col 1:17, NIV). He was the cosmic image of God before sin, and He came to this world of sin as the image of God in human form.

3. Believers Reflect the Image of God: Humans by nature bear the image of Adam (1 Cor. 15:49). By contemplating the glory of Christ they “are being transformed into his image” (2 Cor. 3:18, NIV). Our new self is “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10, NIV), meaning that the image of God that we almost lost is being restored to us through Christ. This is a present experience, but it is also a future expectation (1 Cor. 15:49). By reflecting the image of Christ now, we become His brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:29), part of the family of God.