On Becoming “Like Jesus”
Shame is feeling different, being unlike others (as explained in previous post).
But there is good news—God makes us like himself, in his own image, conformed to the image of his son. This erases the shame of difference.
In the Beginning . . .
In the beginning, God made people like himself.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Gen 1:28).
We are like God. We reflect his image. So others are to see God in us. The exact nature of image Dei has been debated, but the basic truth is we are, in some amazing way, “like” God—the Creator, Savior, the embodiment of Glory. For people who always feel different, we must remember that in our core we are “like God.” This common likeness allows for connection and relationship. We belong in the same group as God.
We are like God in that we co-rule over creation and reflect his glory. We are not the same in essence but in purpose and function, so we therefore share a common identity as “rulers of the world.” Humans display the glory of God, just like God himself. We share a mission with God—to make his glory known in the entire world. We “image” God by bearing and displaying his glory in all of creation. The glory of God makes us “like God.” When we reflect God’s glory, we are like God. People are to look at us and see God. We represent God and bear his image.
Humans then turned from this vocation of imaging God’s glory and sought out another glory. (This is called “sin” in the biblical story.) Our ability to image and manifest God’s glory became warped. We were no longer fully “like God.” As we redefined our purpose, we came different than God. We now have a different purpose and different identity. Instead of ruling creation like God, we are ruled by sin.
The sin of the fall is highly ironic in this regard. “When you eat of it the fruit, you will be like God.” Humans were already like God! And eating the fruit was actually how they become unlike God (not in essence, but in function and identity).
Becoming Like Jesus
But God has restored his likeness in humanity through Jesus—the face of God’s glory. Jesus is the image of God, the person with divine power and authority to rule. God is making a new creation and beginning with a New Adam. Jesus is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15), the form of God (Phil 2:6), an exact representation that radiates his glory (Heb 1:3). Jesus truly images God because he radiates divine glory and defeats God’s foes.
So now we can be “like God” by becoming “like Jesus.” Our vocation/identity is to be like Jesus.
The baseline source for our experience of shame is not difference from other people, but difference from Jesus. Jesus becomes our yardstick. He is the standard by which we measure all differences. We are not to be like other people; we are to be like Jesus.
This then affects our social identity in profound ways. Humans always group with similar people. But what makes us like others? What is the unifying characteristic between me and someone else? Is it ethnicity, gender, social class, professional interests? Or, do I observe how someone looks like Jesus because they share a common identity/vocation of reflecting God’s glory? The church is people who look “like us,” not physically or socially, but spiritually. We Christians look alike because we all look like Jesus. We are conformed to his image. We have a family resemblance because Jesus is the source for our entire family; we share Jesus’ resurrection DNA. Our “Jesus-likeness” overrides all socio-cultural similarities (Gal 3:28). We are of the same group as other Christians because we all look like Jesus. This is the beauty and glory of the Church.
In simple terms—as we like Jesus, he likes us, and we become more like him. Our core identity resides in how we reflect God’s image (by ruling over sin, death and Satan) and how we conform to Jesus (by sacrificially loving others).
Dying with Jesus
A key aspect of New Testament salvation is our transformation into Jesus’ glory. We are starting to become like the resurrected, glorified Jesus. Our bodies get conformed to his eschatological glory. This is not some mere beautiful physical appearance, but the spiritual right to gloriously rule over God’s creation (especially the foes of sin and death).
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8:29)
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Phil 3:21)
How do we become “like Jesus”? Paul talks about imitating and conforming to Jesus. In these passages he is referring specifically to Jesus’ life-giving self-sacrifice—the very facet of his life that makes him the face of God’s glory. The cross was the moment when God’s glory was fully revealed. People become like Jesus in death (Phil 3:10). This takes two forms—enduring persecution and self-sacrificial giving.
Likeness Through Endurance
We become like Jesus as we endure persecution for Jesus’ sake (1 Thess 1:6; 1 Thess 2:14; 1 Pet 2:21). Trials and sufferings make us like Jesus. Notice the irony. Persecution is the violent force oppressors use to differentiate, exclude, and disgrace. But this very persecution is the cruciform means of becoming “like Jesus” and united with his family. Social difference (persecution) leads to spiritual likeness (Christ-conformity). Human shame becomes divine glory (cf. Matt 5:3-11). The differences we experience in this world become proof of Christ-likeness.
We look like Jesus and bear God’s glorious image most when we bear a cross. This is a radical subversion of shame. God does not erase difference and disgrace for believers, but makes it the very means of becoming like God as victors over sin and death.
Likeness Through Sacrificial Love
In a similar way, we imitate Christ when we sacrifice personal interests for the edification of the church. Paul’s admonition, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” ( 1 Cor 11:1) refers not to seeking one’s advantage, but it refers to the salvation of others and God’s glory (1 Cor 10:14-33).
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:1)
Paul’s instruction to imitate God is not general, but specifically refers to the cruciform life. We imitate Jesus by taking up our cross and giving ourselves up for others. Here is another irony—we become like Jesus in his resurrection glory only as we voluntarily lower ourselves before others.
Difference creates a sense of shame. Our hearts yearn to be “like” others. So create social groups based on commonality and likeness. Such a group identity functions to mask shame and to bequeath honor (albeit temporarily).
For the sake of his glory, God creates us “like him” and “in his image.” We can now become like Jesus, the very image of God. The cross erases and redefines all social differences, giving us a new likeness, and thus a connection to his united body.