“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Those immortal words uttered by the blanket-bearing, soft-spoken Linus nearly bring me to tears each year. A Charlie Brown Christmas is full of much that Christmas isn’t all about—the distractions and commercialization and busyness that we 21st-century Americans know so well. It finally leads Charlie Brown to cry out in despair, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” In response to his agonized cry, Charlie’s friend Linus recites Luke’s angelic announcement to the shepherds of the coming of the Christ. In doing so, Linus opens the door to the manifold glories of the true meaning of Christmas.
Christmas is all about the coming of Christ. But His advent is not just one present wrapped under the tree. As Paul writes in Romans 8:32, if God the Father gave us His only Son, won’t He also give us, with Him, all things? Indeed, He will. The gift of Christ’s coming is the gift that leads to all gifts.
the image of God
One of these blessed gifts is the restoration of our humanity. At the first Christmas, the One who is the eternal image of God became a human, so that the image of God could be restored to all humans. In other words, the Son of God became fully human, so we could become fully human again.
The most fundamental and foundational truth the Bible teaches about humans is that we are made in the image of God. This is the first thing God’s Word affirms about us:
“So God created man in his own image;
he created him in the image of God;
he created them male and female.”
– Genesis 1:27
This truth is reaffirmed throughout Scripture. It is reaffirmed after the fall and after the flood, as God established a new covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:6). It is celebrated and wondered at by David, who marveled that, in all of God’s majestic creation, it is humans alone whom He has made “little less than God,” and crowned with “glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). James relied on this truth as an impetus for Christian ethics—we can’t praise God and curse people with the same mouth, he says, for people bear God’s image (James 3:9).
But what exactly does this doctrine entail? What does it mean that we are made in God’s image?
Theologians have generally placed the image of God into one or more of three categories: (1) The image is something essential and structural in our very being. It is who we are just by virtue of being human. (2) The image of God is something relational. It is our capacity for meaningful relationship with God, one another, and the world. (3) The image of God is something functional. It’s not just something we are, it’s something we do—namely, reflect God.
I think it is best to take a holistic view of the image of God. It includes all three of these categories. We could say that the image of God is the essential and unique quality of human beings, whereby we reflect and represent God in the context of meaningful relationship with Him, one another, and the rest of creation.
While the image of God is never lost in human beings, it was unfortunately obscured after the fall. Since our relationship with God, one another, and the world is broken by sin, and since we don’t function as we were created to function, we end up casting a reflection of God in the world that is distorted. We are like carnival mirrors, reflecting back to God, to one another, and to the world a picture of God that doesn’t look quite like it’s supposed to. The essence of the image of God still lies in every person, but it is clouded by our misrepresentation of Him.
And this is precisely what Jesus came to fix. This, we could say, is what Christmas is all about.
Reflecting God Rightly
The Bible doesn’t only use “image of God” language about human beings. Interestingly, it uses that same language about the Son of God. Hebrews 1:3 tells us, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature” (emphasis mine). Colossians 1:15 tells us Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (emphasis mine). And Jesus told His disciples, “the one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Jesus Christ is the perfect image of His Father. His reflection of the Father cannot be distorted, because He has never sinned and never will sin. When we see Jesus Christ, we see God. And when the Son of God came to earth that first Christmas, adding a human nature to Himself, He became truly, fully human. He is the truest human who has ever lived.
But we must take this one step further. As I said above, the One who is the eternal image of God became a human, so that the image of God could be restored to all humans. The Son of God became fully human, so we could become fully human again.
How do I know this? The Bible tells me so: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28-29, emphasis mine). Those who have faith in Jesus Christ, who love God, who have been called by God, were predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, who is the image of the Father. Salvation is about the image of God being restored in human beings. About making us reflect God rightly. This is what Christ came to accomplish.
And couldn’t we use this truth in 2020?
In this year of all years, we have dehumanized others, and we have given ourselves over to subhuman impulses.
The truth of the incarnation, of the Son of God adding a human nature to Himself and thereby multiplying the value of every image bearer, tells us something about the way we ought to treat our neighbors. It tells us something about the way we ought to treat our enemies.
James, as mentioned above, wrote in the third chapter of his epistle: “With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water” (James 3:9-12).
Of course, James isn’t just talking about swearing. He’s talking about using the same mouths that were made to build up to tear town. He’s talking about dealing death with a mouth that was made to speak life. He’s talking about slander, gossip, anger, lying, exaggerating, misrepresenting, and the like. And who among us would not be found guilty this year? Through a bitter election, in divided reactions to COVID-19 restrictions, amid social upheaval, who hasn’t slandered or misrepresented his enemies? Who hasn’t given vent to anger or dishonesty? Yet, brothers and sisters, it should not be so. May the incarnation, and the truth about the image of God in all our neighbors, lead us to repentance this Christmas, and in the year to come.
And we have not only denied the image of God in our neighbors, but we have given into subhuman behaviors ourselves. Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the true Human. We are to imitate Him and be conformed to His image. But who among us can say our words, thoughts, and actions in 2020 have looked like those of Jesus? Who can say, “I’m all the way there; I have no more need of being conformed to Christ’s image”? Who can say she doesn’t still have a lifetime to go? And who can say he hasn’t, at times, lost sight of the One to whose image he is being conformed, the One he’s called to imitate?
In this season, our eyes can be distracted by so many things—by Santa, by gifts, by decorations, by food. None of these things is necessarily bad in itself, but each of them can distract us from the true meaning of Christmas. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? Yes, Charlie Brown. Christmas is all about Christ. This year, may we fix our eyes upon Him. And as we behold His glory, the glory of the true image of God, may we be reminded that the very same image lies in each and every one of our neighbors, and that it is to that very image we are being conformed.