[Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from What is a Healthy Church? (Crossway, 2007).]
In fashion, movies, and marketing, image is everything. Did you know that image is everything in the Bible, too?
I want to look briefly at six moments in the storyline of the Bible that will help us to see that we want churches that increasingly reflect God's character as it's been revealed in his Word. The Bible does tell a story, you know. Our goal here is to see if we can discern what God wants for the church in this storyline.
Image Is Everything
In Genesis, God created the plants and the animals "each according to its kind" (ESV). About humankind, Scripture reads, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness" (1:26). Man is not patterned after every other man. He is patterned after God. He uniquely mirrors, or resembles, God.
Given that we've been uniquely created in the image of God, humans must uniquely image God and God's glory before the rest of creation. Like a son who acts like his father and follows in his father's professional footsteps (Gen. 5:1ff; Luke 3:38), man is designed to represent God's character and rule over creation (Gen. 1:26).
But man decided not to represent God's rule. He revolted against God and went to work representing his own rule. God therefore gave man what he asked for and banished him from his presence.
Did humans preserve the image of God in the fall? Yes, Genesis reaffirms the fact that man is still made in God's "image" (5:1; 9:6). But both image and imaging are now distorted. The mirror is bent, you might say, and so a false image is portrayed, like a grotesque carnival mirror.
God, in his mercy, had a plan to both save and use a group of people for accomplishing his original purposes for creation—the display of his glory. He called them a "holy nation" and a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:5-7), meaning they had been specially set apart to mediate, or image, God's character and glory to the nations by obeying the law he gave them (as Adam was supposed to do). Show the world what I'm like, God was saying to Israel. "Be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44).
He even called this nation his "son," since sons were expected to follow in their father's footsteps (Ex. 4:22-23). And he promised to dwell together with this son in the land he was giving them, a platform on which the nation could display God's glory (1 Kings 8:41-43).
Yet God also warned this son that if he failed to be obedient, he would cast him out of the land. To make a long story short, the son didn't obey, and God cast him out of his presence and the land.
One of the main lessons of ancient Israel is that fallen human beings, left to themselves, cannot image God.
So God sent his one and only divine Son to be "born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:7 ESV). This beloved Son, with whom the Father was well pleased, submitted himself fully to the rule, or kingdom, of God. He did what Adam did not do—resist Satan's temptation: "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God," he told the tempter when fasting in the wilderness (Matt. 4:4).
And he did what Israel did not do. He lived entirely according to the Father's will and law (John 8:28; see also 6:38).
This Son who perfectly imaged his Father could say to the disciple Philip, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).
Like Father, like Son.
Looking back, the writers of the New Testament epistles would refer to him as the "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15) and "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Heb. 1:3). As the last Adam and the new Israel, Jesus Christ redeemed the image of God in man.
Yet not only did Christ image God's glorious holiness through obedience to the law; he displayed God's glorious mercy and love by dying on the cross for sinners, paying the penalty of guilt they deserved (John 17:1-3).
We who were dead in our sins were made alive when we were baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. So Paul declares, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal. 3:26-27). And "Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father'" (Gal. 4:6-7).
What are these many sons of God to do? We are to display the character and likeness and image and glory of the Son and the Father in heaven!
Jesus tells us to be "peacemakers," since the Father has made peace between himself and us through the sacrifice of his Son (Matt. 5:9).
Jesus tells us to "love [our] enemies," since our Father in heaven loved us, who were once his enemies (Matt. 5:45; Rom. 5:8).
Jesus tells us to "love one another," since he gave his own life to love us and since it would show the world what he is like (John 13:34-35).
Jesus prayed that we would "be one," even as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-23).
Jesus tells us to "be perfect," as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
Jesus tells us to be "fishers of men" and disciple makers in all the nations (Matt. 4:19; 28:19). He sends us just as the Father has sent him (John 20:21).
Like Father, like Son, and like sons.
Cleansed of their sin by the work of Christ, and granted new-creation, born-again hearts by the work of the Spirit, his people have begun to recover the perfect image of God. Christ is our firstfirsts (1 Cor. 15:23). He removed the veil and opened a way for the church to behold the Father's image once more (2 Cor. 3:14, 16). We behold his image by faith now, and "are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18 ESV).
Do you want to see God's purpose for the church summed up in just two verses? Paul declares, "[God's] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:10-11).
How does the church display the manifold wisdom of God? Only an all-wise God could devise a way to reconcile his love and his justice while saving a sinful people who are estranged from him and from one another. And only an all-wise God could devise a way to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh that love and praise him. May the cosmic powers in all the universe look on and marvel.
We will image him most perfectly when we see him perfectly in glory: "But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2 ESV). Holy like him. Loving like him. United like him.
Did you follow the story? Here's the recap. God created the world and humankind to display the glory of who he is. Adam and Eve, who were supposed to image God's character, didn't. Neither did the people of Israel. So God sent his Son to image his holy and loving character and to remove the wrath of God against the sins of the world. In Christ, God came to display God. And in Christ, God came to save.
Now the church, which has been granted the life of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, is called to display the character and glory of God to all the universe, testifying in word and action to his great wisdom and work of salvation.
Friend, what are you looking for in a church? Good music? A happening atmosphere? A traditional order of service? How about:
a group of pardoned rebels…
whom God wants to use to display his glory…
before all the heavenly host...
because they tell the truth about him…
and look increasingly just like him—holy, loving, united.
©Crossway Books 2007. Used with permission.
Mark Dever serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. A Duke graduate, Dr. Dever holds a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Th.M. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from Cambridge University. He is the president of 9Marks Ministries and has taught at a number of seminaries. Dr. Dever has also authored several books and articles. He and his wife Connie live and minister on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Originally posted on Christianity.com February 16, 2009