The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently put it like this in a Tweet:- ‘Each of us is made in the image of God. That’s why we have the chance to encounter Christ in every person we meet – especially those on the margins.’
It’s an attractive thought, and one that seems to be becoming increasingly popular. But it involves some rather loose thinking, because we can agree wholeheartedly with the premise (‘each of us is made in the image of God’), while observing that the conclusion simply does not follow (‘that’s why we have the chance to encounter Christ in every person we meet’).
To agree wholeheartedly with the statement ‘each of us is made in the image of God’ leads to the conclusion that God loves each of us. It follows, too, that we should love all with the same godlike love.
As Ian Paul remarks, ‘the image of God is not the presence of God; loving our neighbour is about emulating the indifferent graciousness of God, not finding his presence in the other.’ As Paul suggests, this latter idea seems to depend on a popular (mis)reading of Matthew 25:40 – “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me.” But, as my Bible Study Notes on that passage explain, these words almost certainly refer to Christ’s disciples, who, like their Master, would know pain, hunger, homelessness, rejection and imprisonment.
Ian Paul goes on to that the idea of ‘Christ being present in each one of us’, attractive as it is, needs to be evaluated in the light what Scripture teaches about the temple as God’s dwelling place.
The creation narrative in Genesis 1 can be understood as depicting the world as God’s temple, with humankind as God’s viceroys and image-bearers in that temple. But human rebellion leads to them being driven out of the presence of God. In calling Abraham and his offspring on the path to redemption, there is a recognition that certain places will be associated with the holy presence of God. These holy places both serve as meeting points between God and his people, and also point up the separation between a holy God and sinful people. In the New Testament, the incarnated presence of God displaces the former understanding of God’s presence. The followers of Jesus become ‘the body of Christ’, they are ‘in Christ’, they are built into a new templing presence of God in the world, 1 Peter 2:5. And their final destiny is to be with God in a temple that is filled both with his presence and with theirs (Revelation 21-22).
Of course, there is no place where God is not present (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; Acts 17:24-28; Col 1:15-20). But this general truth must not be allowed to collapse into the particular truth concerning the people of God and the presence of God.
Ian Paul concludes:-