Jesus - The Icon of God
Fr. Thomas Hopko · May 9, 2009
Fr. Tom explores what the scriptures mean when they say Jesus is the very Image of God.
As we continue our reflections on the names and titles of Jesus, our Lord, in the holy Scripture, and how these images may be used in Liturgy and through Christian doctrinal history, theology, we want to say a few things right now about Jesus as the Icon of God, the Image of God. Here, of course, that word, “icon,” is a familiar one for Orthodox, because we have in our church icons.
The term “icon” simply means “image.” It means an image. Here, it’s important to note also, of course, that that is the very word that is used in Genesis, in the Bible, when it speaks about human beings, male and female, being created “in the image and according to the likeness of God” or “according to the image and likeness of God” or sometimes in old English it says, “after the image and likeness of God.”
This is said several times. For example, you have the two stories of creation in Genesis. You have, for example, in the first chapter (Genesis 1:26); it says,
God said, ‘Let us make man (human, anthropos, human being) in our image after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all of the earth, over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man (anthropos, human) in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female, created he them.
So you have this expression “in the image and according to the likeness” or “after the likeness of God.” And that same expression is used in Genesis 5, in a very interesting way, because in the fifth chapter, it begins like this:
When God created man (anthropos, human), he made him in the likeness of God.
Then it says,
Male and female he created them, and he blessed them, and he named them man (anthropos) when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image (or “according to his image”) and he named him Seth.
So what we see is that the original human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, or “according to the image and likeness of God.” And then, when Adam, again, after he sins according to the story and he finds himself outside paradise, they have a son named Seth, and it says in the Scripture that that son is now in Adam’s image, after his likeness, so that the one who is produced, the one who is procreated, who is born, bears the image of the one who bears that person.
It is certainly a Christian teaching, Orthodox Christian teaching, that all human beings, male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God, or according to the image and likeness of God. And I think that you could even say that in the Scripture, certainly… For example, in the genealogy of St. Luke’s Gospel, it speaks about who is the son of whom, and when it finally gets down to Adam, it says, “who is of God,” and sometimes the text even adds “son of God” or “begotten of God.” And we mentioned when we were talking about Wisdom, sometimes the Bible is not that clear in its verbiage, its use of verbs for “create,” “fashion,” “bear,” “produce,” and so on.
But in any case, it is very, very clear that human beings—every human being, and humanity as a whole—is made to image God, in the image and according to the likeness of God. How that is understood in Christian tradition varies. There are lots of theories about what it might mean, how it has been explained, and according to ancient Christian teachers, certainly some of the Fathers and saints of the Church, I can just tell you now how this is interpreted.
First of all, it is interpreted by saying that, of all the creatures that exist in all of creation, including bodiless powers that we normally call angels, and then animals and plants and birds and fish, only the human is said to be made in the image or according to the image, kat’ eikona, according to the icon and according to the likeness (in Greek that would be homoiōsis) of God. In Latin it’s imago and similitudo. I had written somewhere the Hebrew words; I can’t remember [where]. But there are two of them. You have image and likeness, imago and similitudo, image and similitude. Or in Greek, eikon and homoiōsis.
First of all, there is the question of what that can possibly mean and why are there two words? Well, I think probably, according to just knowing Hebrew literary style, very often in Hebrew the same thing is said twice in the same way, which is not indicating something different. It’s simply affirming the same truth by using a different way. That is normally how that’s interpreted. Certainly that’s the way it was interpreted in early Christian history, let’s say, for example, by St. Athanasius the Great.
He didn’t see any particular difference between image and likeness. He just thought that was the affirmation of the point that was being made and then he tried to explain how he understood what that meant. Later on, and even before him in Irenaeus, and then after Athanasius in, let’s say, Gregory of Nyssa or Maximus the Confessor, those particular interpreters liked to see a distinction between those two words and that each of them is pointing to a different truth, a different reality, which I will explain in a minute.
But what we want to see from the beginning is that you have this affirmation that human beings and only human beings [are in the image and likeness of God], not angels. Angels are not in the image and likeness of God. Angels are like God. Even [in] all the names of angels like Micha-el, Gabri-el, Rapha-el, Salali-el—“el” is in there, that name, “God.” It means “like God”—noble like God, power of God, God heals—so there is a sense in which angels do reflect God’s reality, but here we would want to say that everything does—trees, plants, animals—they’re all reflecting in created form something that is of God.
In fact, I think, theologically, we must admit and confess that absolutely everything in creation is rooted somehow in divinity in a manner that we can’t possibly understand or explain, but there is a groundedness of all of creation in the very uncreatedness of God. You might even dare say that there’s a rabbit, for example; you could say that the rabbit is showing in creaturely form something that exists in God that is obviously not a rabbit. It’s not what one poet called “the eternal rabbithood of God”—well, there isn’t any “rabbithood” of God, but there is something in God that does ground the existence of a rabbit, or a bird or a tree or a snake or anything, because creation is not autonomous. It has its own forms, its own manner that are not uncreated or divine at all, but still they’re rooted in God.
So you can say that there’s the logos with a little /l/, and all the logoi of created things, words, in the one Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity who is actualizing in his Person all the fullness of the divinity of God the Father which he even does when he’s incarnate on earth as a man. So St. Paul will say of Jesus Christ, “in him dwells all the fullness of deity, bodily, the plērōma theotēs sōmatikōs” (Colossians 2:9).
But in any case, let’s get back to image and likeness. We can ask the question: What does that mean; how is that understood? There are several understandings which I will proceed now to tell you. One of them is simply that, of all the creatures, the central one is the human, because the human being, the human person, male and female, have all the elements of created order and reflect in a created way qualities that belong only to God.
So the usual language there is that human beings are a microcosm, mikrokosmos, a little world, because we have in our bodies matter. We have cells. We have growing things like plants. We are animal. We have souls. We’re vivified like animals. We have sensation. We have emotions. We have motion. But what makes us really different from the plants and the animals, particularly the animals, is that we have self-consciousness, that we have freedom, that we can know, that we can do good, that we have the possibility of intelligence, of wisdom, and that we can act.
And then, of course, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says, we can rule; we can govern. We can be prophetic. We can be priestly. We can be royal. We can be pastoral. We can be creative. In other words, we have the qualities of a nous, a mind, a spirit, a pnevma. Our soul, which animals and plants also have, souls, which simply means life, nefesh, psychē... In fact, the Latin word for soul is “anima,” because it’s moving, it’s alive.
But our souls are rational. We are logikos; we are logical. We are pnevmatikos; we are spiritual. Not just psychic, not just emotional, not just physical, not just material. We have all the elements of the cosmos—animal, vegetable, mineral—but we have these other qualities that, according to the saints, make us God-like: freedom, self-consciousness, the ability to know, the ability to speak, the ability to communicate. And, as Gregory of Nyssa says, royal from the beginning, created to govern, to care like God does. That God somehow gives all of the creation to human beings, and that they function like little gods, demigods somehow on earth, sons of God even, caring for the things of God. That’s how it is often understood of what it means to be made in the image and the likeness of God.
Sometimes that’s put this way: that all the qualities that we know about divinity, the so-called divine nature—power, beauty, care, kindness, forgiveness, love, wisdom—these qualities that belong perfectly, paradigmatically, essentially, only to God himself, he shares those very qualities with us, so that you have some Church Fathers who would say, “What does it mean to be human?” and therefore “What does it mean to be made according to the image of God?”
The answer would be: to be by grace and by God’s goodwill, by God’s evdokia, by God’s benevolence, by God’s will, by God’s grace, kata charin, kat’ evdokion, to be everything that God is kat’ ousion, by nature. In other words, a human being is a creature with a commandment to be divine, to have divine qualities, to have the qualities that quintessentially and supra-essentially and supra-substantially belong to God himself and are revealed to us by God when God acts in our world, so that how God is, that’s how we are.
And here we would definitely want to say that according to the Bible and according to Eastern Orthodox doctrine and theology, we do not think of God anthropomorphically. We don’t imagine God in human form, but we imagine humans theomorphically. In other words, human beings are made in the form of God. They’re made God-like. They are made, to use that biblical expression, according to the image and likeness of God.
Human beings have these qualities, and they’re to govern and care for the whole rest of creation, including the angelic realm. “Of no angel it is said that it is made in the image and likeness of God.” God did not give the governance of creation to angels; he gave it to human beings. And here, in Orthodox piety and liturgical tradition, we even say that, following the Bible, those human beings who will reign with Christ in the coming kingdom of God will sit on thrones judging the angels. Jesus said that to his Apostles. And Mary, Jesus’ mother, in our piety, our worship, is said to be “more honorable than cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than seraphim.” In other words, she’s way beyond, incomparably beyond, what angels are. And in the Letter to the Hebrews in the Bible, it says it’s not with angels that God is concerned; it’s with human beings.
So human beings are called even to govern and to rule over the angels, and certainly over the demons, to cast them out, to have power, to not let them touch us. And every human being has to face the demons and defeat them in order to be deified. You’ve got to pass the test of not yielding to evil spirits, but casting them out and having power over them.
In any case, this spiritual quality, self-conscious, intelligent, rational, volitional qualities, are considered in human beings to reflect in created form what exists absolutely, perfectly in God. And that’s why it would be said that we are made in the image and the likeness of God.
Sometimes it’s also said—in more modern times it was said—that humanity mirrors or images or is like divinity, in nature. In other words, human nature reflects divine nature. So what belongs to divine nature, naturally, according to God’s existence, perfectly, supra-perfectly, supra-, beyond non-perfectly, wholly, those very qualities belong to human beings as well. All the attributes of God: God is love, God is good, God is true, God is beautiful, God is kind. Well, that’s how we have to be.
And then it says that our structure is such that we can be. Being made in the image and likeness of God, we have a structure, a way of existing, that allows to actualize being made in the image and likeness of God. The thinking quality, the speaking quality, the governing quality, the willing quality, the acting quality, the creative quality: all these qualities that other beings do not have allow us to act in a divine manner, to act divinely, to act like gods. And in Scripture it says, “To all those to whom the word has come, God has called them gods.” Jesus says that in St. John’s Gospel, quoting the Psalm: “You are gods, all of you. Nevertheless, you will perish like any prince, because you have apostasized.”
But you are made to be gods. In fact, St. Maximus the Confessor, before they cut his tongue off, said, “A human being is a creature with a commandment to be divine, a commandment to be God.” Part of that structure which allows that to happen is that we are persons who share the same nature and that nature has the same energetic qualities, and therefore we can live in communion. Here some people like to think of humanity as imaging divinity as a multitude of hypostases, persons, having the same human nature and the ability to relate to one another through the qualities that make us human. And then they would say just like the Persons of the Holy Trinity. So they would see human beings in the image and likeness of God, as imaging the Trinity, a kind of humanity as imago trinitatis.
What does that mean? That means we see the Godhead as three hypostases, three persons, having one and the same nature, having the same qualities and energies of activity, and forming an absolute perfect communion of one life, one being, one mind, one heart, one action, one will, and then they say that’s what human beings are supposed to be, too.
In God there are only three hypostases. In human beings there are, I don’t know, millions of hypostases, billions maybe; I don’t know how many humans there will be, but each one is a unique person, a unique “I am” who has the same human nature as all the other human beings, and then when humanity is operating properly, when there’s no sin or corruption, then human beings really are of one mind, one heart, one will, one body, and that is what Christians definitely claim about human beings should be who are in Christ.
That’s what we would claim about the Church, and complain that the Church humanly is often not that way. But in the Church we should all be of one mind, one heart, one mouth, one body, one energy, one will, and we even pray that in our Liturgy. We pray, “And grant us, O Lord, that with one mind and one heart, that we might partake of the one bread, the one cup of Christ and form one body, one koinonoia, one communion.”
In fact, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was the first one to use the expression “katholikē Ekklēsia, catholic Church,” and “catholic” in that sense is a qualitative adjective. It means it belongs to that community as a quality. It doesn’t mean quantitative. “Catholic” doesn’t mean in the first instance universal, geographically universal. It means the quality of having perfect unity, perfect communion. So St. Ignatius, he defined the Church as henōsēs agapēs kai pistēs—a union of faith and love, of love and faith.
And later on, St. Gregory the Theologian will say, even about the Holy Trinity, that the Holy Trinity is not hen, arithmatic “one”; it’s henōsēs. It’s a union. It’s a koinonia; it’s a comunion. It’s three Persons sharing the same nature and having the same qualities in absolute, perfect unity. And that’s how human beings are supposed to be. If we wouldn’t sin, that’s how we would be! That’s how we mirror or image divinity: that our structure as humans is made that way.
Therefore, some of the writers would say that even the individual person, not just humanity as a communion of persons, but even the individual person somehow images the Trinity, that, for example, each person is an “I am,” and that’s the name of God: “Egō eimi, I am.” “I am”: every one of us is an “I.” But we are also logikos and we are also pnevmatikos. We also are a logos; we also are a spirit. Or: we have a logos; we have a spirit. Or: we act logically, rationally, and we act spiritually. And so does God.
Now, God’s Logos is so perfect that it is a distinct hypostasis or distinct instance of divinity. God’s Spirit, his breath, his life, is so perfect that it’s a distinct hypostatic instance of divinity. So you have the one God and Father, the Son of God who is the Logos—and also sometimes called the Nous; Jesus is also sometimes called the Nous of God—and then there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. So they would say if the one God is Father, I am: the one true God and Logos and Spirit, so you can say so is a human person: I am a person, I am an “I am,” and I have a logos of my being, and I have a spirit of my being.
Now my logos and my spirit are far from perfect. They are not perfect. As creatures, they cannot be perfect. They cannot be eternal. They cannot be absolutely immediately actualized in a non-temporal, non-spacial way. But in the order of creation, in time and space, I can express myself. I can speak. I can act. In other words, I can be logical, logikos, and I can breathe and I can live and I can be vivified and I can be energetic, being filled with the Spirit. So here you have the human being’s structure.
Here we want to point out that “body” for human beings is never used for this kind of analogical or symbolical thinking. We never would say that a human person images God, the Trinity, by being spirit, soul, and body. No, that would never be used. And God has no, in that sense, except metaphorically, isn’t spiritual in that sense, and certainly is not psychic or have a soul or have a body, although in the Bible, God is spoken of as looking, seeing, touching, having hands.
Irenaeus called the two hands of God his Logos and his Spirit, but I think—this is my own opinion, just a private opinion—that the multiplicity of the divine energies and actions and operations and splendors and glories that according to our theologies exist with God even if there is no world—there is an actualization of divinity and divine forms—well, I think that’s why we have bodies. I think that’s why we are said to be in the image and likeness of God and not the angels, because we can express our holiness, our goodness, our truth, mirroring God, even in a bodily manner, which an angel, by nature, cannot do.
Sometimes I think of the human body as kind of analogous to the divine energies. And we know, by the way, that matter is in fact energetic. There’s not one cell in my body that existed in me seven years ago. My body is actually a cluster of incredibly dynamic movement that I can’t really see unless I’d have special instruments scientifically to do so. But the body is a kind of energetic field and expression of a human person, and there is, of course, the divine energies of God.
In later Byzantine theology sometimes they would make the analogy to the Trinity as nous, logos, and pnevma: mind, word, and spirit. So that God the Father would be somehow analogous to our mind; the Son analogous to our word, our self-consciousness, our speech, our action; and the Holy Spirit to our spiritual reality that we are as spiritual beings. I personally don’t appreciate that very much, because I think the earlier Fathers were more onto it by identifying nous and logos as pretty much the same thing, and seeing the Father not as nous, but seeing the Father as “I am,” because, after all, that’s his name in holy Scripture. But I don’t think that matters too much.
Then, of course, we should remember St. Augustine, who thought being made in the image and likeness of God was kind of expressed in creatures, in human beings, as memory, understanding, and will. There was memoria that was a kind of consciousness of oneself, an ability to retain one’s thoughts; and then there was understanding; and then there was volition, there was will. So you have these ways of dealing with this being made in the image and according to the likeness of God.
As I already mentioned, for some Fathers, particularly the more Semitic- or Egyptian-type Fathers, the non-Hellenistic-type Fathers, I believe that they really thought that image and likeness were simply two ways of saying the same thing. It was just a biblical way of affirmation, which you find very, very often in the Bible, where two things are said. I can’t resist saying that the image that comes to my mind is Zachariah’s prophecy about Palm Sunday, where it says, “You will see your king coming sitting upon the colt; yes, even the foal of an ass.”
And it’s interesting that in Matthew, quoting that prophecy, speaks about the disciples of Jesus getting two animals, a foal and the colt of an ass, and seating Jesus on them, where it’s kind of comical because that’s not what was meant. The Zachariah prophecy was simply saying the same thing, the same reality, twice: “He will come riding on the foal; yes, even the foal of an ass.” It simply meant the same animal. It was two ways of affirming the same thing. So I think that’s what you have in Genesis, too. That would be my own preference.
However, we must say, because it’s the truth and it’s the fact, that some Fathers liked to make a distinction between image and likeness. They would say that image, imago, is what our structure is as human beings, that could never be totally corrupted or destroyed. And on the basis of the image, which was sort of like the essence, then we had the existence, the existential actualization of that image which was called “likeness.”
So they would say the image is given and then on that image we either grow in divine likeness, from one degree of glory to another, becoming more and more like Christ, or we corrupt it and destroy it and then we don’t have growth, we have deaths, kind of negative, where [we] become more and more sinful, more and more corrupted, but that goes on forever and ever and ever because, being made in the image of God, that image is there and will be there forever unto ages of ages and cannot be destroyed. So what can be destroyed is the likeness, but the image can become more and more obscure, can be more and more to become unlike rather than like.
However, when we are functioning properly, according to Irenaeus, according to Gregory of Nyssa, according to Maximus the Confessor, then we are actualizing our image to grow in divine likeness, and that growth in divine likeness is literally unending. We become more and more and more godlike forever and ever and ever, becoming more and more divine, that never reaches an end because God is literally infinite. So that, Gregory, for example, and Maximus, would say that human beings are epistatic. That’s a Greek word which means we’re constantly growing, constantly changing.
And they like to refer to the Apostle Paul who said, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians—I’m reading now from the King James Version: “But we all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.” And so what it says: having been unveiled, our prosopon, our person, the glory of the Lord, beholding the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, then we are being changed—metamorphoumetha tēn aftēn eikona—in the same icon, the same image—apo doxēs eis doxan—from glory to glory—kathaper apo kyriou pnevmatos—as from the Lord who is the spirit.
So you have this idea—and it’s more than an idea; this I would say is a dogma of Eastern Orthodox Christianity—that human beings have the proper structure to become more and more godlike and more and more divine unto ages of ages and never have that complete, because God is infinite and we can grow infinitely in our participation and communion with God.
And the Pseudo-Dionysius’ writing, writing attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, he would say that human beings do three things when they actualize themselves as being made in the image and likeness of God. He says they imitate God, mimēsis. There’s an imitation, a following. Then there’s a resemblance, a homoiosis. And then there is a participation. So it’s imitation, resemblance, and participation or communion with God, becoming more and more godlike. And we can do this because we are made in the image and likeness of God.
However, the bad news is using all those powers and reality, we can apostatize. We can go against God. And we can use that very same equipment, so to speak, that very same structure, to destroy ourselves, to grow more and more ungodlike, unlike God: not more and more alive, but more and more dead; not more and more beautiful, but more and more ugly; not more and more wise, but more and more foolish; not better and better, but worse and worse. That’s a scary thing, but that is the teaching.
What we have to see is that there is this affirmation, that we are made in the image and according to the likeness of God. Now what we want to see, since we are speaking about the names and titles of Jesus, is the very, very clear teaching of the Apostle Paul that the image according to which we are made and the likeness according to which we are made is Christ himself. St. Paul simply calls Jesus Christ the Icon of God.
Sometimes in the English translations it will use the term “image”; sometimes it will use the term “likeness,” even though it says in Greek “eikona” and not “homoiosis.” There are two texts which really have to be mentioned: II Corinthians—I already mentioned the one about how we are being changed from glory to glory as we behold in the mirror the very same image according to which we are made which is Christ. But then in II Corinthians 4, you have this statement of the Apostle Paul. He says—I’m reading the third verse:
If our Gospel is hidden (concealed), it is concealed (or hidden) to those who are lost, in whom the god of this world has blinded their minds, so that they do not believe (so that they cannot believe).
And if you looked at it in Greek, it would say that in these people, ho theos, god of this age, ho theos tou aiōnos, the god of this age, tou aiōnos toutou, this age has blinded the thoughts, the thinking, the mind of these unbelieving people into ignorance so that the light of the Gospel of Christ cannot shine in them; they cannot see it. And then it says: the light, enlightenment, of the Gospel of Christ, ton phōtismon tou evangeliou tēs doxēs tou Christou, the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ—and then it says, and these are the words we want to really look at now—of Christ who is the Icon of God: Christou hos estin eikōn tou Theou.
So Paul says it in so many words, that Christ is the Icon of God. He is the Image of God. Now sometimes in the RSV that is actually translated in English as “likeness,” but in Greek it says “image.” And then it’s very interesting just for our edification now to know that that particular part continues. It says, “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the prosopon (in the person or the face) of Christ”—and then, as it says above—”hos eikōn estin tou theou: who is the icon of God.”
So it’s very clear that in the New Testament, the image and the likeness of God according to which we are created is Jesus Christ himself. And that would be the biblical teaching. You could reflect, meditate, theologize what that image and likeness meant in Genesis, how it was, but if you read the Bible as a whole, then I think you really would have to say just a very simple thing: when Genesis says that humanity, male and female, is made in the image and likeness of God, it means it’s created in the image and likeness of God who is Christ.
Sometimes people will say, “Why don’t we just say in the image and likeness of Christ?” And there are some people who say that. They’ll say, “We are not created in the image of God; we are created in the image of the Image of God who is Christ.” But that’s not what the Bible says; that’s not what Scripture says. It does not say we are created in the image of Christ. It says we are created in the image of God who is Christ. In other words, we are created to have the same relationship, the same understanding, the same knowledge, the same communion, the same resemblance, the same imitation of God that Jesus Christ himself has. He has it by nature, as the eternal, divine Son of God who has become man as Mary’s child, and he gives that possibility to us to have it by grace, to have it by faith.
And here, this would also be a classical cliché of patristic doctrine, patristic catechesis. A human being is created to be by grace everything that God is by nature. We already referred to that earlier. So we are not in the image of the Image. Sometimes people like to say that. They think it’s cute. I think Origen may have even said it, and people liked that. But I think that’s inaccurate. We are not made in the image of Christ. We are made in the image of God who is Christ, which is Christ, that Christ is. We are created to be godlike the same way Christ is godlike. Now, of course, you could say, “Well, that means to be Christ-like.” Well, sure it does. But I think that the affirmation that it is God himself that we are imaging, like Christ does, is more powerful, and more accurate, actually, more accurate.
Now [in] the Apostle Paul, or at least in the Pauline corpus of the New Testament, there’s another text which must be mentioned here when we’re thinking about these things, and that is in the Letter to the Colossians, because in the Letter to the Colossians you have this being written. It says (Colossians 1:12):
Giving thanks to the Father who has made us worthy (or counted us worthy) to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, who has delivered us from the power of darkness, has translated us into the kingdom…
And in King James it says “of his dear son”; in RSV it says, “into the kingdom of his beloved son” but here there is a nice point in Greek that should not be missed. It says, “Who has translated us (transferred us) into the kingdom”—and what it says literally is—“of the son of his love: eis tēn vasileian, into the kingdom, tou hiou tēs agapēs aftou.” It’s a beautiful expression, that we are brought into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love, because Christ is the Son of his love. Christ exists because God, who is love, has begotten him before all ages, that God has shared with him his total divinity, identically in a divine manner. That’s amazing.
Then it continues: “...in whom we have redemption, through his blood, even the forgiveness of our sins.” And then it says, “...in whom we have this redemption, and what it says is who is the icon of the invisible God.” It’s absolutely amazing. It simply says Christ is the eikōn tou theou tou aoratou. He is the image of the invisible God. In Slavonic it says, “obraz nevidimogo boga.” So Jesus is the image in human form, the incarnate Christ, who images God from all eternity within the Trinity as the divine Son, now the God-man on earth, is for us the image of the invisible God.
And then it even continues in Colossians:
The first-born of all creation, for by him, through him, in him, for him, were all things created that are in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. [...] All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (all things consist). He’s the head of the body, the head of the Church. He is the beginning (the archē, the principium), the first-born of the dead, that he might [in] all things have preeminence. And it pleased God the Father that in him all fullness should dwell.
And then it will say in Ephesians even “all the fullness of God should dwell.” And so when you see him, you see all the fullness of God in human form, because he is God’s image. So you have in Colossians again simply a point-blank, clear sentence, that Jesus Christ is the image, the eikon, the icon, of the invisible God.
You could ask the question: Does this exist elsewhere in the New Testament? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The term “icon” is not used by St. John in St. John’s writing, but in St. John’s writing there are three things that we really have to mention when we think about Jesus as the one who images, who is the very perfect, exact image of God the Father. In St. John’s writing, it doesn’t say “image, icon,” but in St. John it does say in the prologue that no one has seen God at any time, but the only-begotten Son or the only-begotten God who dwells in the innards, the bosom, the womb of the Father. He has revealed him; he has declared him; he has made him known.
So it uses the word “to see.” No one has seen God, but the Logos incarnate has made him known. And then it also says in the prologue of John, “And we beheld his glory. Glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” So you have again the verb “see”: etheaomai. We have seen his glory, beheld his glory. So you have in the prologue of John the verb “to see.” Not just to hear or to taste or to touch or to feel, but to see. Well, if you’ve got the verb “to see,” then you’ve got to have something to see, and therefore it has to be an image. There has to be something to be seen, and when you see it, you see something.
Here, the Fathers would also use the terms “archetype” and “image,” that God the Father is the archetype and Christ, the second Person of the Trinity incarnate as the God-man Jesus, is the icon. And I mentioned earlier how, in another talk, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae—that great, great Orthodox priest and martyr and confessor, who suffered in the prison camps under [the] Communists and wrote and contemplated all these books and translated things—he said we can call Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Son because God is love, and love must beget; love must procreate. God doesn’t procreate; he begets; he shines forth his Son, divinely without a mother, and then on earth with the Virgin Mary without a human father, because God is his Father.
But then Fr. Dumitru also said that we call the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Logos because God is the truth. The truth has to have its Logos expressioned. And then he said we call Christ “eikon,” icon, image, because God is beauty. The archetype is divine beauty. How beautiful God is, and the beauty of God, the truth of God, the goodness of God, all virtue of God, power of God, presence of God is shown to us in Christ.
St. John’s Gospel testifies to this as well, because in John 12, you have this statement. I’m reading now from the Revised Standard Version. Jesus is preaching there in the twelfth chapter, and he does many signs, yet they don’t believe in him, and Jesus refers to Isaiah where Isaiah prophesies (John 12:38),
“Lord, who has believed our report? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. Then he quotes Isaiah again, saying, “He has blinded their eyes.”
Now, here again you’ve got this image of seeing.
“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart.”
And by the way, the heart was the organ in the Bible by which you also saw. That’s why Jesus in the Sermon on the Mountain says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see [God].” You’ve got to see with your heart. And we have a prayer like that in church, before we read the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy. We say, “Illumine our hearts, O Master, with the light of your divine knowledge. Open our minds to the comprehension of your Gospel. Let us see, hear, know, understand.” But here you have, “He blinded their eyes, hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart and turn [to] me to heal them.” And then Jesus continues:
Isaiah said this because he saw his glory. He beheld the glory of God. And that’s why he says it’s about Jesus. And spoke about him.
...about Jesus, who reveals the glory of God. Then it says,
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees did not confess it, because they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.
Now Jesus says these words:
Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.”
And then he says this:
“And he who sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness, so when the light comes, they are able to see.”
Now here’s the words we want: “He who sees me sees him who sent me.” Now in John 14, you have exactly the same teaching. In the fourteenth chapter, Jesus is speaking openly to his disciples about who he is, how he relates to the Father, how he relates to the Holy Spirit, how he relates to the believers, how he relates to the world, and while he is speaking these things openly, in John 14:8, Philip says to him, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” So Philip says to Jesus, “Show us God. Let us see God.” And then Jesus says answers, and he says to Philip, “Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me, Philip?” And then you’ve got the sentence again:
He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe in me, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
So Jesus actually chides Philip. He kind of gets angry with him a little bit. He gets upset. He says, “Philip, have I been with you so long [and] you still don’t understand this? He who sees me sees the Father.” Therefore he is the image. Therefore he is the icon. When you look at him, you see God. And, of course, the Scripture would also say: When you hear him, you hear God. When you touch him, you touch God. When you eat him, his body and blood, you eat the body and blood of God. Everything divine is in his flesh, somatikos, bodily. “Plērōma theotēs sōmatikōs,” St. Paul said: the fullness of divinity, bodily. But when you’re bodily, then you can be seen. Then you’re visible.
In fact, St. Irenaeus said about Jesus that he is the visible of the invisible. The invisible God becomes visible in him. The untouchable God becomes touchable in him. The God who cannot be contained becomes contained in his flesh, is revealed in him.
You have this teaching also in another New Testamental letter, the Letter to the Hebrews, which may be considered Pauline—it’s the tradition; some people think that it’s not, but in any case—in the very beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews, you have a very important teaching that has to do with Jesus being the image of God. And this is what it says. It says,
In many different ways and in many different portions, manners, kinds of ways, ho theos God has spoken to us and to the fathers in the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us en hiō, in a son whom he also appointed to be the inheritor (the heir) of all things, through whom also he created the ages.
And then you have this third verse (Hebrews 1:3): “Hos ōn apavgasma tēs doxēs kai charaktēr [tēs] hypostaseōs aftou.” It says, “This son,” meaning Jesus Christ, “who is being the radiance of the glory of the Father,” the Father’s glory, God’s glory. He’s the radiance of God’s glory, and we’ll speak about radiance later, when we speak about light and splendor: Jesus as the light of God, the light of the world. And then it says, “not only who is the radiance of the Father’s glory,” but it also says,”kai, also, charaktēr tēs hypostaseōs aftou, who is also… “Charaktēr” means the representation, the exact character, the express image, the exact image, the image like on a seal.
And then it says, “of the Father’s hypostasis.” Now that can be translated various ways. The best way, I think, is: “who is the exact image of the Father’s Person,” because the later Church Fathers will use “hypostasis” as a synonym for “person.” But it could also be simply translated: “the exact image of his (God’s) reality” or “of his substance” or “of his being,” but still, the point here is: it’s the exact image of God, of God’s substance, of God’s reality, and even of God’s person.
And I like “person,” because I think it would be better to say that Jesus is the icon and the exact image of the Person of the Father, so that in the Son you actually see the Father and behold the face of the Father and behold the glory of the Father. Here we would even say that Jesus’ face—his prosopon, his presence, his person—brings to us the Person of the Father. That’s why in some of the symbolical icons of ancient Christianity, when they depict in frescoes the Ancient of Days in Daniel, they make that image when they reproduce in colors what is described in the Bible, they make the face of the Ancient of Days look exactly like the face of Jesus on the icon, because Jesus is the face of God for us.
In fact, there’s a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church named Schönborn who edited the Catholic Catechism, who wrote a dissertation about the seventh council concerning the veneration of icons, and he called his dissertation Jesus Christ, the Face of the Invisible Father, because he is.
So what we realize here is that Jesus really is the Icon of God. That’s a title for him. He’s the Son of God; he’s the Word of God; he’s the Wisdom of God; and he is the Logos of God; and he is the Icon of God. And as we proceed, we will also see that he is the Light of God; he is the Truth of God; he is the very Presence of God in bodily form, revealing to us the Father. So in the human Jesus, the incarnate Logos, he’s also the incarnate Icon. So when you gaze upon Jesus, you can see God.
And it’s this theology, it’s this interpretation of Scripture which grounds the defense of the holy icons in church. That we venerate the icons of Christ and of the saints who are made in the image and likeness of God and who have shown forth that image by faith and grace in Jesus in their human lives. You can have icons. You must have icons, in some sense. You have to venerate them, because Jesus is not only the Word of God, he is the Icon of God. He’s not only the one who speaks the words, he’s the one who embodies in his very being the very image and presence of God himself, so that when you see him, you see God. And that’s where you can see God on earth. That’s the only place you can see God.
But we should say right now that it’s our Church teaching as well, that when you have a saint and a holy person, who becomes Christ-like by the Holy Spirit, even in those people, you can see the face of God. Every holy person is somehow a word of God and a face of God and an icon of God by grace. We’re all supposed to be words and images and icons of God. We’re all supposed to show forth the divine beauty of the beautiful archetype who God himself is.
In our Church services for Holy Week, we praise the beauty of Christ as the divine Bridegroom who brings us to the house of his Father as his very own Son so that when we behold him, we behold the Father himself. The invisible Father is seen through Jesus.
So we could go on and on, contemplating all dimensions of this particular issue, but there’s just one simple thing we want to conclude, strongly, firmly, and unwaveringly, and that is: if we want to see God, we see God in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the icon of God. The light of the glory of God that shone from God on the mountain to Moses in the Old Testament, St. Paul says, now shines upon us: apo tou prosopou tou Kyriou, from the person of the Lord, hos estin hē eikōn tou theou, who is the image, likeness, icon of God himself. And then in Colossians it says it as simply and clearly as could be stated: Jesus Christ who is the Icon of the invisible God.