December 2014 / January 2015 - Vol. 77

Growing in Christian Character Series

Whose Likeness are We?

Being Formed in the Character of Jesus Christ
By Don Schwager

Scripture tells us that God created human beings “in his own image and after his own likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27).  

Sometimes we hear people say, “he is just like his father,” or “she acts like her mother.” In the ancient world the understanding and use of the words for “image” and “likeness” went even further than our modern understanding. The ancient Greek word for “image” is icon (eikón).25  Our modern notion of “image” usually involves an outline or symbolic representation, such as a picture, illustration, or sculpture. The Greek term “icon” included this, but went further: in Greek an image shared in the nature of the thing that it was an image of. Ancient rulers often erected statues of themselves in the cities of their kingdom, thus signifying the presence of their rule throughout the realm. Another very common usage of icon in Greek was the portrait. A true portrait was regarded as an authentic or exact representation of the person being portrayed. Royal coins issued by rulers very often portrayed their own image or likeness stamped on the coins. Legal documents, such as contracts, would often involve some kind of “icon” or descriptive image so you could recognize who the contracting parties were. 

When God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, God gave a description of what his character is like: 

The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’ (Exodus 34:6-7).
A key characteristic of God is his love and faithfulness. These motivate and orient everything he does. His judgments are tempered by love and faithfulness, and his mercies are never exhausted. The prophets declare that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:122-23). 

God’s love is connected with his holiness. His love both purifies his people of their sinful ways and draws them into his infinite holiness. When God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the Ten Commandments which embody God’s way of love and righteousness. That is why God commanded his people to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 11:44; 20:26) – he wanted a people who would be like him in goodness. God gave the commandments to his people to orient them back to the original purpose for which God created the human race – to be in his image and likeness.

In the image of God 
When God the Father sent his Son into the world, he gave us a redeemer who would offer up his life as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world. Jesus reversed the curse of Adam’s disobedience through his willing obedience to his Father. Jesus both revealed the nature of his Father in the way he lived and laid down his life for us, and he gave himself as a perfect example for how we should live as men and women who belong to God. Jesus unites in himself both the fullness of God’s divinity and our humanity. That is why the Apostle Paul states that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is the new Adam who restores a fallen race and makes us a new creation – a people reborn in God’s holiness and character. Jesus is much more than a reflection of God. He is an exact portrait of what God is like. He shares in God’s very nature and reflects God’s character perfectly. Jesus transforms us through the gift and working of the Holy Spirit so that we can share in his glory and be conformed to his image. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews states that Jesus reveals God’s glory and character in his own person. 

He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power (Hebrews 1:3). 
The Greek New Testament word for stamp (charaktér), which is used in this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, is literally the same word we use in English for character.26 This Greek word was used to describe both the stamped impression left on a coin or document and the instrument used to make the impression. The impression on the coin or document has the exact form of the image engraved on the seal. Jesus used the example of a Roman coin to drive this point home when the scribes and Pharisees tried to trick him with a legal question regarding the payment of taxes. Jesus said: 
‘Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Luke 20:24-25). 
When the author of the Letter to the Hebrews states that Jesus “bears the very stamp of his [God’s] nature” (Hebrews 1:3), he is telling us that Jesus is the very image of God – he bears the exact form and character of God. When you look at the impression made by a seal, you see exactly what the seal is like. When we look at Jesus we see exactly what God is like.

Since the Lord Jesus has redeemed us and adopted us as children of God, then we also ought to bear the “stamp” of God. It should be clear by how we behave, speak, and think, that we've been formed, not simply by our earthly parents and teachers, but by our Father in heaven. 

Godly character is more than simply a quality or attribute – such as being thoughtful, considerate, and respectful. Godly character goes much deeper than that. To take on godly character is to take on the image of God, so that we can be a people who think, speak, and treat others as he would. Scripture tells us that sin and rebellion marred the image and likeness of God within us. That is why God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to redeem a fallen human race and to restore it to the fullness of his image and likeness. Jesus not only died on the cross to forgive our sins. He died to raise us to new life – abundant life in him. His death and resurrection brought about a new creation. That is why the Apostle Paul states that whoever is baptized into Christ receives a “new nature after the image of his creator” (Colossians 3:10). We are called to put off the old nature corrupted by sin and to “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

Father-son image 
When Jesus' authority was being challenged by the Jewish leaders, he defended himself on the basis of his identification with his heavenly Father:

‘I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.’

They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, 'If you were Abraham's children, you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did. You do what your father did.' They said to him, ‘We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.’

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God’ (John 8:37-47).

This passage is a study in sonship. There are two possible understandings of the meaning of “son” here.  First, a son (or daughter) is one who is physically descended from his father. Second, a son or daughter, is one who has the character of his father.

Jesus here speaks of the second meaning. The one who is your father is the one you are trying to imitate. The proof is in the actions which reveal one's character: here is your father whose “imprint” or “stamp” you bear.  Everyone has a father in the second sense. Everyone is made in the image of someone not himself or herself, and ultimately the only two from whom the images come are God, the father of truth (John 17:17; Psalm 119:160) and goodness (Matthew 7:11), and Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44). Each person’s identity is a derived identity. It can't be formed by the individual on his or her own.

Manufactured identity 
Our age is particularly complicated regarding image and identity because we are prey to a variety of media influences that insist that our personal worth depends on physical appearance, youthfulness, money, gadgets, and an ability to impress people. 

Many people build their sense of self around their possessions. They value themselves according to what they wear, eat, where they travel, and what gadgets they use for recreation. People also mold themselves around positive and negative achievements.  “I am a self-made person,” “I am a doctor,” I'm a liberal,” “I’m a dropout.” Others find their identity in what they feel themselves to be. The media today often portrays people as “heroic” simply because they have abandoned traditional values and morals for a post-modern way of life that has no social and moral restraints, no commitments nor obligations, no responsibilities for or personal involvement in the wider society. Many media characters are portrayed as heroic and courageous, but their chief characteristics show them to be rebellious, anti-social, self-centered, vengeful, and grossly immoral. They often achieve fame and success by exploiting others. They are often valued in terms of incidentals, such as wealth, fame, success, beauty and physical strength. People who have the courage to not conform to these worldly standards are often judged unworthy, boring, and a hindrance to the promotion of an amoral and selfist life-style. 

There is a massive identity war going on. Dick Keyes, in his book Beyond Identity: Finding Your Self in the Image and Character of God, describes the modem crisis in heroism:

To make matters worse, heroism has become separated from moral values; often morals and models work against each other in the same person and in the same society. The heroes and heroines of music, film, literature are only rarely heroic for their moral qualities. Rather they are heroic for their rebellion against the values of society, for their freedom from restraint and limitation. The worst in them is often pictured as being desirable. This is a drastic change from the mainstream of Western cultural history. How rare are writers like C.S. Lewis whose genius as a writer of fiction lay in his ability to make moral goodness attractive and heroic. 

The other side to the separation of heroism from morality is illustrated by a story about two women talking over their back fence. One asked the other, ‘What do you think of Mrs. So-and-so?’ After a long pause the second woman responded cautiously, ‘I think she's a good person.’ With a look of satisfaction the first woman replied, ‘That's what I thought you would say. I don't like her either.’ Moral goodness today is often portrayed as something unheroic – unattractive, deadly dull, excruciating.27 

Many people suffer today and cause suffering to others because they are highly insecure and overly self-assertive, or excessively timid – and they do so because they have been stripped of important “identity-forming” pillars, such as a strong relationship with God, and with people of moral integrity who possess strong moral character. 

The true value of an individual doesn't come from their innate goodness, innocence, creativity, stature, claim to greatness, contribution to society, or to the size of their bank account. The Scriptures tell us that each person has intrinsic value because they are created in the image and likeness of their creator who is God (Genesis 1:26-27). As men and women reflect God's character they realize their own true character and identity. Many men and women attempt to manufacture their own identity apart from God. They cannot succeed because the true identity of every human being is derived from their Creator.

Full identification with Christ 
Many Christians profess faith in Jesus Christ but remain under the influence of anti-Christian images and models. Let’s not be fooled into this trap. Full conversion entails a full identification with the Lord Jesus. The question set before us is: “Whose children shall we be?” In taking on the character of Christ we need to actively resist taking the character, the stamp, of those who are Christ's enemies.

We each have our own images and models of who we would like to be. Our models exert tremendous control over our lives, often more than our morals. We must examine who our models are and ask: Do they conform to the image of Christ? Paul prays for the Christians that they may receive knowledge and all discernment so they can “approve what is excellent” (Philippians 1:9-10). We are tempted to let Hollywood and the sports and entertainment industry or Wall Street and the business world provide our models. But God redeems us and calls us to be conformed to the true image, the model of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28-29).

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Our identity needs to be founded on Jesus Christ and on the godly character which Christ himself exemplifies – not on the mishmash of attributes and qualities that comes from a world hostile to Christ or ignorant of him – models that appeal to our “flesh,” what is earthly in us. 

Place of natural gifts and abilities   
Sometimes we draw our identity and worth from our natural gifts and abilities, such as our talents and acquired skills – the virtuoso pianist, the great writer, the effective decision maker. What is the place of natural gifts and abilities? They are important and even crucial to many jobs and leadership positions. They are given by God for that purpose, but they are tools. 

Many pursue the development of their skills and abilities, but leave character behind. Yet character is more attainable and more emphasized by God. For many servants of God, character more than gifting or talent has been the secret to their success in service. An exemplary character frees our gifts and abilities to be used well. Poor character stifles our gifting and talents or causes them to be used wrongly or erratically. It is character that determines what effect the gifts or abilities will have, whether for good or for ill. 

Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), a prominent German Catholic philosopher and theologian, courageously opposed Hitler and the Nazi ideology. He was sentenced to death in absentia by the Nazis after he fled to continue his writing. In his treatise on Fundamental Moral Attributes, he wrote:

Goodness, purity, truthfulness, humility of man rank higher than genius, brilliancy, exuberant vitality, than the beauty of nature or of art, than the stability and power of a state. What is realized and what shines forth in an act of real forgiveness, in a noble and generous renunciation; in a burning and selfless love, is more significant and more noble, more important and more eternal than all cultural values. Positive moral values are the focus of the world, negative moral values, the greatest evil, worse than suffering, sickness, death, or the disintegration of a flourishing culture. This fact was recognized by the great minds, such as Socrates, or Plato, who continually repeated that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. This pre-eminence of the moral sphere is, above all, a basic proposition of the Christian ethos.28
Character is the more fundamental, and the more important quality for every individual to possess.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). 
Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1).
As Christians we are called by Christ to set good example for others to imitate. And good example requires good character. People learn by imitation as much as by teaching, and maybe even more. Christians must incarnate the teaching and character of Jesus Christ in their personal lives. Paul the Apostle used himself as an example because he had so clearly identified his life and teaching with that of Christ. Since he strove to imitate Christ, he urged his followers to imitate him as well.
Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us (Philippians3:17).

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:9).

I urge you, then, be imitators of me (1 Corinthians 4:16). 

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you (1 Corinthians 11:2).

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim of life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me (2 Timothy 3:10-11).

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you (2 Thessalonians 3:7).

Gifts without character 
Bad example and lack of good character can produce bad character in others, a loss of respect for those who relate to us, a great likelihood that we will fall into sin and discredit the gospel, and an inability to discern in others the same lack of character. Here are some examples from the Scriptures of gift without character.29 

Lucifer, before his fall, ranked highest among the angelic host. Known as Satan since his rebellion, he is the greatest leader today on the face of the earth save Christ alone, being able to get the majority of mankind to follow him. But he lacks God's character: most evident is his pride and his unwillingness to serve. Whatever his qualities of intelligence and leadership, his lack of godly character and his spiritual blindness resulted in the misuse of his gifts which are now employed for evil rather than good. This contrasts with Michael the archangel, who remains loyal to his King and who uses his strength and intelligence to effect good.

Scriptures depicts King Solomon as the wisest man who ever lived. He was fabulously wealthy, possessing a kingdom at peace, and he was well established on his throne. Yet, over time, his wisdom became corrupted through vice. He lacked self-control and was obsessed with women – he had over 700 wives and 300 concubines. And most of these women were foreign idol worshippers who turned his heart away from God. We read in 1 Kings 11 that he even built a place of worship for other gods. The Book of Sirach tells us what resulted from this excessive folly:

How wise you became in your youth! You overflowed like a river with understanding. Your soul covered the earth, and you filled it with parables and riddles. Your name reached to far-off islands, and you were loved for your peace... You gathered gold like tin and amassed silver like lead. But you laid your loins beside women, and through your body you were brought into subjection. You put a stain upon your honor, and defiled your posterity, so that you brought wrath upon your children... so that the sovereignty was divided and a disobedient kingdom arose out of Ephraim (Deutero-canonical Book of Sirach 47:14-21).
The result was civil war, the dividing of Israel, and attacks by hostile nations which the Lord had raised up as punishment. What an unworthy end for such a supremely gifted man!

Godly character triumphing 
Here are some examples from the Scripture of godly character triumphing.

Abraham was old when called by God. He was a sojourner and his wife was barren. He was told by God that he was to be the father of many nations. On what basis? On competence and gift? No, but because of faith and obedience. Faithfulness, not gift, gave Abraham success, and allowed the promise of blessing to be fulfilled.

In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations... He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God (Romans 4:18-20).

Thus Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith (Galatians 3:6-9).

The prophet Jeremiah was called at a young age. His ministry was based upon obedience and faithfulness. His gift of prophecy was “released” by his submission to God. His lack of strength and lack of ability to speak were compensated for by the Lord himself.
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.’ But the LORD said to me. ‘Do not say, 1 am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you shall speak’ (Jeremiah 1:5-7).

And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land (Jeremiah 1:18).

Jesus, the supreme example 
Although supremely, even perfectly capable in everything, the keystone of Jesus' ministry was faithfulness to God, a character quality.
And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:3-4).
Every follower of Jesus Christ is called to imitate him – in faithfulness, love, and obedience to the will of God, in courage, and in every other virtue that enables us to conform our lives more fully to Christ. We can conform our lives to Jesus Christ because the Lord has put his own Spirit within us. The Holy Spirit purifies us and strengthens us in faith, hope, and love so that we can persevere in following and serving the Lord Jesus Christ to the end of our lives.

  1. A helpful word study on "icon" or "image" used in the Scriptures can be found in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II, pages 381-397, edited by Gerhard Kittel. Kittel's Theological Dictionary, which comprises 10 volumes, is a valuable biblical word study resource. This dictionary examines key Greek words used in the Septuagint (Hebrew Bible written in Greek) and the Greek New Testament. A history of each word is surveyed beginning with its Hebrew roots and usage in the Septuagint. Its usage is then described in secular Greek. Then its use is surveyed through the New Testament, grouped according to Pauline use, Johanine use, use in the Gospels, etc. In the process the reader can see the scope of meanings of a given word, and how those meanings developed, revealing the rich "flavors" attached to many Greek words.
  2. ibid. Kittel's Theological Dictionary, Volume IX, pages 418-423
  3. Beyond Identity: Finding Your Self in the Image and Character of God, by Dick Keyes (Servant Publications, 1984, Ann Arbor, Michigan), pgs. 20-21.
  4. Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Fundamental Moral Attitudes, 1950 Longmans. View online text.
  5. I am indebted to Fr. Michael Keating for his course on The Character of a Christian Leader given in 1987 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

> See related articles on Christian character in the Living Bulwark archives.
[Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website.]
training in Excellence book

Training in Excellence: 
How godly character forms young people 
and strengthens Christian communities

by Don Schwager
published by Kairos Publications 
paperback, 131 pages
Also available from Tabor House

The book is intended as a study aid for those who have a direct role in helping to form Christian character, especially in young people. It is directed to youth workers, pastoral leaders, teachers, and parents. It aims to help people better understand what the Scriptures say about Christian character and the virtues and helping the young to apply them.

(c) copyright 2014  The Sword of the Spirit
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