I’ve just got back from a missions conference at which the idea that believers in general and “missionaries” in particular are being—or should be—transformed into the “image of Christ” got a lot of airtime.
I can see what people are getting at. The assumption is that Jesus represents either an ideal way of being human or an ideal way of doing ministry. He’s Jesus, after all! Therefore, to grow towards spiritual maturity is to be conformed to his image.
It’s a central plank of evangelical piety. Tim Challies quotes Jerry Bridges: “Christlikeness is God’s goal for all who trust in Christ, and that should be our goal also.”
It is used with reference to character: Jesus sets the standard for holiness, love, justice, faithfulness, etc. But it was also suggested at the conference that Jesus perfectly embodies the APEST functions of Ephesians 4:11 in himself, therefore he constitutes the standard for the ministries of the church.
I think that the argument is misleading, however, as a matter of New Testament interpretation. In the New Testament, I suggest, being conformed to the image of Christ has a quite narrow and particular meaning—and a meaning that arguably excludes Christians today.
The problem with the traditional understanding is not that “Christlikeness” can’t be made to serve the purposes of practical or ethical formation. We can empty the terminology of its original meaning and fill it with whatever we like—and much of the time we get away with it.
The problem is that, like so many modern theological constructs, it bends the framing narrative badly out of shape. In the end, far from being conformed to the image of Christ, we instead conform Christ to our image. We tell the story in a way that makes him look like your average modern Christian, only better.
A limited role-model
Jesus was a single, first-century Jewish man. As the pattern for redeemed humanity, therefore, he has some immediate and obvious limitations.
Of course, we can highlight numerous aspects of his behaviour for emulation, but the writers of the Gospels do not go out of their way to present him in such terms. He is the Lord to be obeyed, not the ideal Jew to whom his follows must be conformed or assimilated. The same would appear to be true for Acts.
We know almost nothing about Jesus’ life outside the short period between his baptism by John and his death, and what we do know is bound up with a very specific, historically determined (“in the fulness of time”), prophetic-messianic ministry to Israel under Roman occupation. He operated within the frame of a mission that was inseparable from the story of Israel. Even such a well-known piece of teaching as the Beatitudes was historically circumscribed.
He did not found, build, or pastor a church in the sense that we understand the process today. He did not lead worship or run a children’s programme. He showed very little interest in people who were not Jews. He showed very little interest in what would happen historically after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
He simply did not set a good example for Christian life and ministry today.
He trained a small group of disciples to continue the task of proclaiming the coming kingdom of God to Israel and to do it in much the same way that he had done it. But there was no general programme of “saved” Jews being conformed to his image.
After the resurrection he sent the disciples into the whole oikoumenē—to the nations of the empire—to teach people to “observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20). There is no indication that this would entail generally being conformed to the image of Christ.
There was, however, the expectation that the apostles—those sent—would be opposed and would suffer as Jesus himself was opposed and suffered. He told James and John, for example: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…” (Mk. 10:39).
If anything, they were discouraged from becoming Christlike.
The disciples would be resisted by the rulers of Israel, they would be hated for the sake of Jesus’ name, they would be persecuted throughout Israel, and in this specific regard they would be like their master:
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matt. 10:24–25)
This gives us, in fact, the basic form of the imitation of Christ in the New Testament. The apostles were sent out in accordance with the will of their master. They would get the same abuse, and in that respect they would become Christ-like. If they faithfully endured though these trials, they would be seated by God alongside Christ to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30).
This is exactly what we find in the stand-out passages in Paul if we resist the pressure to make them fit the paradigm of a generic modern evangelical spirituality.
Conformed to the image of his Son
Paul says that some have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).
He does not mean that some people have been elected for salvation while others haven’t. Nor does he mean that all believers will be conformed to the image of God’s Son.
He means that some believers have been predestined to suffer as Christ suffered in order to be glorified as he was glorified. We normally call them martyrs—or at least, victims of persecution.
All believers are heirs of God. They have received the Spirit of God. But only those who suffer with Christ (“provided we suffer with him”) will be heirs of Christ and will share in his resurrection glory (Rom. 8:16-17).
In this way, Jesus will not be the only “son”. He will be firstborn from the dead, but he will subsequently have many brothers, also born from the dead.
Transformed into the image of the Lord
Paul tells the church in Corinth that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). He is not talking about the Corinthians or believers in general. He is describing the experience of the Jewish apostles.
This whole section is Paul’s defence of the manner of the apostles’ ministry: they suffer, they are weak, but Christ is glorified. The old Mosaic covenant is fading; a new covenant between God and his people is being established through the suffering and vindication of Jesus and through the suffering and eventual vindication of his apostles (2 Cor. 3:4-18).
To be transformed into the image of Christ is to be led as a humiliated people in his triumphal procession; they are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”; they carry in the body the dying of Jesus; death is at work in them; they commend themselves by their Christ-like sufferings, “in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Cor. 2:14; 4:8–9, 10, 11; 6:4-5).
This is the long, painful process that will conclude with them sharing in the glory of the resurrected Christ.
Becoming like him in his death
When Paul says that he has rejected his standing as a righteous Jew, has made himself a pariah, in order to know Jesus Christ his Lord and be found in him, he means it in this same narrow sense: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11).
Christlikeness is manifested in suffering, death and resurrection.
Paul puts himself and the apostles forward as examples to follow, but this is at core an example of patient suffering. Some “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ”, but the apostles set an example of suffering with Christ in the hope that their afflicted bodies would be transformed “to be like his glorious body” at the parousia (Phil. 3:17-21).
See—it belongs to apocalyptic expectation. The apostles are living out in their own lives a narrative of Christlike suffering and vindication that will culminate in glory on the day when Jesus is revealed to the nations, the every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the credit of the God of Israel.
We shall bear the image of the man from heaven
The argument about Christ as the “last Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49 is a continuation of this theme. Jesus was a descendant of the first Adam while alive on earth, but he is no longer to be regarded “according to the flesh” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16). He has become the “last Adam” by his resurrection from the dead. So those who die “in Christ” will “also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).
In this argument conformity to the image of Christ must wait until resurrection, and I would argue that from the perspective of the New Testament this had reference specifically to what John will classify as a “first” resurrection of the martyr church in conjunction with the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world (Rev. 20:4-6).
The Adam-christology looks forward to a new creation. We might try to draw some practical conclusions from this aspect of the “image of the man of heaven”, but Paul doesn’t. It’s the dying with Christ that preoccupies him.
Be careful what you wish for…
In the New Testament, to be transformed into or conformed to the image of Jesus is, first, to follow the same path of suffering and death and, secondly, to share in the glory of his resurrected life, to judge and rule with him throughout the coming ages. It’s not the language of metamorphosis or of personal transformation. The point is simply that their experience was like Christ’s experience, their journey like his.
But it’s not my experience, it’s not my journey. I can’t pretend to be a suffering apostle. I missed out on the first resurrection of the dead and will have to wait for the next one.
The conformed-to-the-image-of-Christ idea does not define or describe a general pattern or method of Christian formation. It belongs to the “apocalyptic” (for want of a better word) narrative and should be put back in it.
The New Testament has other ways of speaking about the formation of the people of God. It has to do fundamentally, I think, with obedience. For the Jews this had meant obedience to the Law and the prophets. For those who believed that God had raised his Son from the dead and made him Lord it meant a life of obedient righteousness through the power and instruction of the indwelling Spirit—the ways of God written on the hearts of God’s covenant people.
This is, frankly, a much broader notion than conformity to the image of Christ. It has the full scope of the Law and is, in principle, no less social, political and ecological in its application. It determines the corporate life of the people of God in the world, answerable to its risen Lord and—in the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament—to those who, a long time ago, were conformed to his image.