Fortunately, the scriptures don’t leave us to speculate on what it would look like to be in God’s image —
(Col 1:15 ESV) 15 [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
(2Co 4:4 ESV) 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
(1Co 15:49 ESV) 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
We are restored to the image of God by attaining to the image of Jesus. That is, God reveals his true nature — the nature we are to attain to — most perfectly in Jesus. Therefore, theosis — indeed our lives as Christians — should be all about becoming like Jesus.
Now, this is concrete enough to teach and practice. But we have to get deeper yet. After all, just what is it about Jesus we are to emulate?
Are we to be itinerant, sandal-wearing preachers? Are we to be masters of the pithy comeback retort, responding to hard questions with just the right question in reply? Are we to be expert spinners of parables?
Are we to spend hours and even days in prayer and fasting? Are we to be experts in the Law of Moses? Should we be able to debate the scribes and teachers of the law?
Should we be single and celibate? Own only the clothes on our backs? Train 12 men, one one of whom betrays us?
In fact, very serious Christians have argued for all of these positions at one time or another (except maybe for having a Judas among those we train).
While the Gospels certainly tell us how Jesus lived, we can’t approach them without being sensitive to the many passages that tell us what it is about Jesus’ life we are to emulate. Let’s look at the passages that are explicit on that point.
(Luk 9:21-24 ESV) 21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Jesus describes his crucifixion and then tells his disciples that to follow him they must take up their own cross daily and lose their lives.
We cheapen this lesson by referring to things we must suffer as our cross. I have arthritis and it causes me suffering. But it’s not “my cross to bear” because I have no choice. I don’t daily choose to suffer from arthritis.
What Jesus was referring to is a daily choice to suffer for his sake — as he chose daily to suffer for ours. After all, he could’ve stayed in heaven and surely could have returned any time he wished. But he chose to stay, to submit, to serve, to sacrifice himself, and to suffer for us.
(Eph 5:1-2 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Paul is just as explicit. To imitate God is to love as Jesus loved, which is to sacrifice ourselves for others.
How do I attain to theosis? How do I become like God? Well, I sacrifice myself for others, just as Jesus did.
(Luk 6:35-36 ESV) 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Jesus points out that God does good to the undeserving, even the ungrateful, with no expectation of any reward at all. God is “kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” This is no easy standard, but Jesus calls us to live this way — which is how he lived.
In the wake of the April 27, 2011 tornado that ripped a one-mile gash through the heart of Tuscaloosa, we worked with another church in helping dozens of families be re-established in new homes, providing them with kitchenware, linens, and even furniture.
The other church drew a neighborhood containing the poorest of the poor, and their leader told his volunteers to expect nothing in return for their generosity — not even a “thank you.” He warned them to expect a sense of entitlement — but urged them to give generously anyway.
It’s hard to do this, but Jesus did.
(Luk 17:11-19 ESV) 11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.
15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus surely knew that nine of the lepers would be ungrateful. He healed them anyway. He surely could have restored their leprosy — even making it worse than before the healing. He didn’t. He healed out of compassion and with no expectation of anything in return.
We see the same lesson in Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet —
(John 13:3-4 ESV) 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.
Jesus was motivated to wash their feet — the task of a slave — because he was king of the universe. Not despite his kingship but because of it. Here we learn what it means to be kings who rule over God’s creation!
(John 13:5-9 ESV) 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Why would Peter have had no share with Jesus without the washing? Well, in Peter’s mind, Jesus was too good to wash his feet. Had that perception remained, Peter might one day have concluded that he was too good to serve others. We have to accept the service of our betters to learn to serve those who might consider us better.
(John 13:10-11 ESV) 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
In fact, in an unspeakable act of humility, Jesus washed the feet of Judas!
(John 13:12-17 ESV) 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Jesus’ example — that we are to follow — is an example of giving an undeserved service, of helping those who do not merit what they receive, and of taking on tasks that would seem beneath you in the world’s view.
If a messenger is less than the one who sends him and a servant is less than his master, and if Jesus — as ruler of the universe — can find the time to wash the feet of Judas, we can surely do the same.
You see, as we wash the feet of those who don’t deserve it and don’t appreciate it, of both the just and unjust, the ungrateful and the evil, we become like God. We are remade in the image of Christ. We are restored to what we were always meant to be. Indeed, we bring heaven and earth a little closer to each other and bring the Kingdom nearer to its fullness.