Imago Dei

The gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Easter for this year is filled with so much. It contains homily material for a month of Sundays. Among it all is this simple verse: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 21:21)  At a simple level it is the Johannine post-Resurrection commissioning, but it is the how that points to more: “As the Father sent me…” It wasn’t the simple commissioning in Matthew:

Go, therefore,* and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.* And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”(Matthew 24:19-20)

There are directions on where to go and what to do when you get there, but nothing on how to go. Perhaps Luke’s instructions focus more on the how: Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic(Luke 9:3), but that does not seem the same type of “how.” To understand what Jesus is saying in the Johannine commissioning, we need to go back to the beginning.

And now you have an option: (a) keep reading for a bit of a deep dive into Scripture or (b) jump to the end for a great video on the “Image of God” from the folks at The Bible Project. Either choice is rewarding!

Jesus was not born into a time of theological vacuum.  Jewish theology was robust and with a history of succeeding and competing rabbinic schools.  The followers of Jesus and the people of his time were Jews who were raised and lived this theology.  It provided the framework for their daily lives and shaped their expectations about the Messiah who was to come. Among the gospels, John’s is the writings whose work expresses the fulfillment of those expectations and provides the theology for those that would follow Jesus.  The basis of the theology is evident from the opening:

John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God…” 

The Greek word used for ‘Word’ is logos. Many commentaries on this topic discuss this passage in terms of  logos, Greek for reason and speech.  When this is viewed from a Greek philosophical point of view, it is explained that Jesus was by reason the very idea of God and by speech, the very expression of God.  If this gospel is attributed to John the Apostle, the approach suffers from the fact John was a Jewish fisherman whose family had connections to the high priestly families of Jerusalem.  He is more likely to have used his Jewish background as a basis for the gospel opening. 

This basic Jewish theology was important because it is by understanding the background that the fullest sense of the meaning of Jesus can be obtained.  The introduction to John’s gospel, when viewed from the existing Jewish theology, provides continuity from the Old Covenant to the New.  It shows that the Messiah existed from before creation and sets the basis for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy through Jesus, and the forming of a new creation.

A great deal of our understanding of the Jewish theological interpretation of the Old Testament comes from original writings of the Hebrew scholars.  The Old Testament was originally recorded in Hebrew and then translated (with interpretative embellishment) in Aramaic – known as the Targumin.  For example:

  • Isaiah 52:13 (Hebrew) “See, my servant shall prosper..”
  • Isaiah 52:13 (Targumin) “See, my servant the Messiah shall prosper..”

It seems a lot of OT citations in John are taken, not from the Hebrew or Septuagint (Greek language) Scriptures, but from the Targumins.  From study of the Targumins we can begin to understand the full nature of Jesus.

In Jewish understanding, the memra – Aramaic for the Word (dabar in Hebrew) – had several characteristics.  It means more than “spoken word”; it also means “thing”, “affair”, “event”, and “action”.  Because it covers both word and deed, in Hebrew thought, dabar had a certain dynamic energy and power of its own.  When connected to Yahweh it took on the divine.  Its energy and power were from God.  The Targuminic reflections on memra (Targum Onkelos) offers some insight into the meaning of the Word in Jewish theological thinking:

  • The memra was highly personified (e.g., Isaiah 9:8, 45:23, 55:10; Psalm 147:15)
  • When the word of God came to a particular prophet (Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1) it challenged the prophet to accept the word; when he accepted it it impelled him to go forth and give it to others and it became the word that judged men.
  • The memra was a means of making a covenant (e.g., Genesis 15:1; Exodus 34:10). 
  • The word was is described in the OT as a light for men (Ps 154:105, 103)
  • The memra was life-giving (e.g., Dt 32:46-47)
  • For the Psalmist the memra has the power to heal people (e.g., Ps 107:20)
  • Salvation was by means of the memra (e.g., Wis 16:26)
  • The revelation of God to his people came through the memra as His agent (e.g., Genesis 15:1; Ezekiel 1:3)
  • The memra was an agent of creation (e.g., Psalm 33:6; Is 55:10-11; Ws 9:1).  In Is 40:11 God says, “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.  Rather it shall accomplish what I want and prosper in the things for which I sent it.”
  • The memra was bearer of the judgment of God (Wis 18:15; Hab 3:5)
  • The memra was the agent of the theophony, or visible manifestations of God’s presence (Gen 3:2).   John uses this thought (Jn 1:14) in the use of the term “dwelling”, which loses something in the translation.  The Greek  literally reads “pitched his tent/tabernacle”, describing the place of God’s presence among His chosen people.  The Greek word for dwelling uses the same/near equivalent consonance sounds as the Aramaic work, Shekinah, meaning theophany

From the opening Prologue of John’s gospel we see the portrait of Jesus as the fulfillment of all of these Targuminic themes.  And so we understand the manner in which Jesus came “on mission” to humanity: Jesus is personified (vv. 1-2), the agent of God and creation (v.3), the life-giver (v.4), the source of life and knowledge (vv.4-5), the maker of covenants (v.12), the means of salvation (v.16), the same as God and different (God and human natures), and the visible presence of God on earth. John 1:14 says: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

As the Father sent me…” There is a lot embedded in these five simple words. Perhaps too much for us to absorb all at once – although we can start with being the visible presence of God on earth – the imago Dei.

What does that mean, image of God? After reading all the above, your deserve a reward! So take a moment to watch The Bible Project’s video on Image of God.

As always, I encourage you to support the not-for-profit work of The Bible Project.


1 thought on “Imago Dei

  1. Father George, thank you for this. I enjoyed reading the whole blog entry. “Being the visible presence of God on earth. . .” May God see his servants and find them pleasing to his eye. We all try in our own way to do that I believe. Here’s to a beautiful Thursday in the neighborhood, enlightened by the Word! Amen!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.