What does it mean that we are created in God's image?
The word tselem, derived from the words “to carve” or “to cut,” is translated as “image” in Gen. 1:27. It is coupled with the word demuth (translated as “likeness). In the Hebrew there is no conjunction between the two words; they have no separate meaning but are used together to describe the same capacity. Both refer to a pattern or form; it is not the actual thing but bears a resemblance. Tselem is used of sculptures of mice tumors as described by Samuel (1 Sam 6) and false gods (Lev 26:1).It is the word used to describe the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up in the plain of Dura with orders that all were to bow down to it (Dan 3). (It reflected idolatry and is suggested by some to have been a statue made to look like the king himself, accounting for his insanity in chapter 4.)
Likewise, demuth, from the root meaning “to be like” is used to describe forbidden images of anything in heaven or on earth (Exo 20:4; Deut 4:16), but the imagery involves less of a concrete nature. There is more of a sense of the object being invested with an essence, carrying with it abstract attributes of the real, including self-consciousness, mercy, power, authority, or any of the communicable attributes of God’s nature. In ancient times it was thought that the gods, or rather their essence, inhabited the images that were carved as idols. In a sense, the one who owned the image exercised some authority over the god; he could fashion him out of wood or rock, move him about, or even diminish his authority by having many gods at the same time. God’s command against making such objects sets at odds the idea that He can be manipulated by His creation, yet there of something of God that resides in every man.
So in Genesis 1, the idea is clearly that man somehow represents something of or about God, including His presence in the world and His authority. Since we know from other passages that it is not that God has arms, hands, or other bodily parts, the resemblance must be less concrete and more “essential.” None of the other creations of God (whether animal or angel) are in God’s image. We resemble His attributes as much as the material can emulate the perfect Immaterial.
There is a good deal of debate as to exactly what constitutes “image of God” in man, and rather than list all the suggestions and their various references in Scripture, I would point you to a book by Anthony Hoekema titled Created in God’s Image. There you will discover the complexity of image as involving male and female; rule and dominion; dependency upon God and interdependent with others (see chapter 3). This book represents one of many that deal with the topic.
Probably the greatest difference in man from all other creation is his ability to exercise moral choice. Since God is all-knowing He can envision all the possible choices. Since He is all-wise, He can discern exactly which choices are perfect and which are not worth choosing. Since He is all-powerful, He can choose that perfectly wise choice that is His will and exclude all others for eternity. Man is similarly allowed to think of a variety of choices, choose an action, and can consider the wisdom of his choice. Animals only react to environment. Angels exercised choice only once and are eternally sealed into that choice; good angels cannot choose not to worship and obey; evil angels cannot be saved and cannot choose to worship and obey. Choice is an important ability in line with Image.
We read in Colossians 1:15 where Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word here is “icon” which is the same word used in the Septuagint for Genesis 1:27. (The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.) Since the image of God in man is so debated and at times can seem so philosophically obscure, if we want to understand what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, we must ultimately look to Jesus who is “the radiance of God’s glory” as well as the “exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3).
Jesus not only represented God, He is God (John 10:30). So what was it that Jesus has given us in order that we may understand image? I would suggest that image means that we are intimately connected with the Father (John 3:16; 1 John 2:15); truly equipped to have faith (Rom 1:19) just as Jesus had faith in His Father (John 5:30-32); we are able to act as Jesus acted: submitting (Luke 2:51; Isa 53:7 cf. Luke 22:42), choosing to serve rather than demanding to be served (John 13:16; Matt 14). We can choose to experience and express mercy and compassion (Matt 14:14; Mar 1:40-42; Luke 23:34). We can choose to persevere in our faith despite circumstances that set us apart from the world (John 15:18-19; Jam 1:12). We can exercise “true religion” as doers of God’s word rather than merely observers, extending His love to others, particularly the downtrodden and lonely (Jam 1:22-27).
In this way we fulfill the two great commands, “And He said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-39). And “By this all men will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Though the word “image” is not used, these last two passages seem to indicate an important aspect of image. Our ability to image God is not to be so self-conscious that we become focused on our own appearance or nature to the exclusion of neglecting the obligation to worship and love God, and to serve others in such a way that He is evident to them through our lives.