The Great Exchange

What was God to do with humanity, lost in this darkness and futility? God reached out. Christ came to remake us after his image.

This is where our mission began. For this renewal of human beings is not only the birth of Christians but the birth of missionaries, as we who once were darkness become “light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). We who once walked in all kinds of sin and worldliness, deserving the wrath of God, now find thankful hearts overflowing with the word of Christ and songs of praise (Col. 3:5–17). 

When the psalmist applauds the glory of Zion in Psalm 87, he includes a surprising list of inhabitants: Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush (v. 4). These are not Israelite cities and peoples: far from it, they are synonyms for the enemies of God, sinners, and strangers. Yet, the psalmist says of each, “This one was born there” in Zion (v. 4). The Lord himself registers the peoples and records the same verdict (v. 6). These Gentile outsiders are being counted as residents of Zion, included with Israel, fully belonging as though they were born in the city of God. By his grace, out of Rahab and Babylon, from darkness and nothingness, new life is found and a new identity is established. Those who once were far off, without hope and without God in the world, have been brought near and share in the calling of God’s people to proclaim his gospel in the world with the apostles and prophets who have gone before (Eph. 2:11–13). 

When the Most High establishes a new life in Christ, he transplants them from the old life of sin and emptiness to bear a brand-new identity in the image of God. He has always been on mission, as he eternally speaks his Word in the Spirit, but now we—freshly enlightened and enlivened—join with him in his gracious design to bless the world with his life. 

The Image Restored 

In Adam, humanity had slipped far from its noble purpose in creation, leaking life, falling short of God’s glory, and turning in on itself in idolatry and selfishness. But Jesus Christ came into the world to turn us around. On the night the Savior was born, our dark world was flooded with light. The glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds as the angel announced his arrival, then “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” joyfully declaring, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:8–14). The brightness signaled that here was the Son, the radiance of the Father’s glory, stepping into the spiritual darkness of the world. 

Athanasius wrote that in the face of the evil dehumanizing of humanity, “the Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image.” This was the only way humanity could be saved: the true image taking our flesh to himself in order to renovate, remake, and restore it. This was to be a re-creation according to the original. 

This re-creation did not mean humanity going on the scrap heap and God starting again from scratch. Athanasius compared humanity to a beautiful portrait that had been stained and ruined. The artist, caring for his work, does not throw away the canvas and begin again with a new one, but lovingly restores his masterpiece. This was the work God had prized from the beginning: he would not willingly destroy it. Vitally, for this restoration to be done, the original subject must come and sit again to reestablish the likeness. So Christ “came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep” for, as Jesus himself said, he came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The tattered old canvas was about to be transformed. 

Every moment of Jesus’s life on earth was a display of humanity as it was always supposed to be. For the first time, a human being lived in the fullness of God’s intentions for us. He perfectly loved, trusted, and obeyed his Father (John 14:31), and poured out his heart to him in prayer (Luke 6:12), even though he faced all the same temptation, weakness, and suffering we do (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). He was morally faultless himself but never lacked compassion for even the most notorious sinners (Mark 2:15–17). He exercised rule over the creation, stilling wind and waves (Matt. 8:27) and driving out the corruption of demons and diseases (Matt. 12:22–24). He amazed his disciples with words of truth that could only be God’s own self-expression (Mark 10:24). He went silently to his death, giving himself in love for those who hated him (Mark 15:5). Full of life, gloriously good, and overflowing with kindness, Jesus was everything a human being is meant to be—the definitive likeness of God, revealed in the original image himself. Here, at last, was a real man. 

The Great Exchange 

Our knee-jerk reaction to a portrait like that may be to pump ourselves up. Surely, here is the paragon of true human life to be emulated by the rest of us. It’s true that the New Testament speaks of Christ setting us an example (Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Pet. 2:21) and of the Christian life as imitating him (1 Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1–2; 1 John 2:6), but it would be a mistake to think that the foundation of the renewed humanity is simply attempting to copy Jesus. That would very quickly turn us back in on ourselves in a kind of religious self-reliance, which would smell far more of Adam than of Christ. No, Jesus’s renewal of humanity was not to be a matter of setting a better example than Adam did. Jesus did not come to give us the prototype of “your best life” to be replicated in ten easy steps. He came to redeem us. 

Christ came to take hold of humanity, binding himself to us and us to himself. He came to take the old humanity to the cross with him and put it to death, raising us with him in his resurrection. “Father,” he prayed shortly before his crucifixion, “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am” (John 17:24). He became one of us so that we would become what he is, or as Irenaeus wrote, “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ . . . did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” In other words, salvation is an exchange. Christ came into the wreckage of humanity, taking all our sin and death to himself on the cross, and he raised us to the fellowship with the Father that he himself eternally had. This is not to say that we lose our humanity or metamorphize into deities, but that we receive a new kind of humanity—one defined no longer by Adam and his fall but by Christ, the image and Glory of God. 

What Adam did to himself, he also did to all who were born from him, and so it is with Jesus and all who have life in him. While Adam sinned in Eden, selfishly taking what he wanted, Jesus sweated blood in Gethsemane as he prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). While Adam bequeathed to us his condemnation, in Christ we inherit righteousness before God and an “abundance of grace” (Rom. 5:17). While Adam plunged humanity into sin, multiplying death from his body, Christ burst through death as the firstfruits and the head of a new humanity, full of life (1 Cor. 15:22; Col. 1:18). Now, his perfect life and righteousness are credited to us (2 Cor. 5:21), his resurrection is the guarantee of our own to come (Rom. 6:5), and we receive a whole catalog of spiritual blessings in and through him (Eph. 1:3–14). Christians really have Jesus for their own; they really have his Father as their Father, his Spirit as their Comforter. For this reason, Jesus can say in John 17:23 that the Father loves believers even as he loves his Son. Indeed, Jesus’s prayer is “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). 

You Have Been Filled in Him.

On the other side of the cross, this new human life, the restored artwork, is the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). It would be very easy to nod at this idea of renewal, thinking that our gratitude for Jesus’s sacrifice and grace motivates us somehow to be better people. Yet the reality is something far deeper: in Jesus, we ourselves are actually changed. 

We are reborn by the Holy Spirit and the word of God (John 3:6; 1 Pet. 1:23), nothing less than “a new creation” in him, with our old, sinful life behind us (2 Cor. 5:17). The same Spirit who filled, led, and empowered Jesus (Matt. 12:28; Luke 4:1) now dwells in us (Eph. 2:22). He is the “Spirit of Christ,” who marks us out as belonging to Jesus and fills us with his life (Rom. 8:9–11). With our lives defined and shaped by Jesus Christ—knowing, enjoying, and worshiping him—we become like him by the Spirit’s power. This life is ours immediately at conversion, when the old self dies with him (Rom. 6:5), but it also begins to suffuse and saturate our personalities, behaviors, and desires: the inward spiritual change begins to work its way out into our desires, thinking, speech, and relationships. We begin to take on the image of the one to whom we belong.

Excerpted from God Shines Forth by Daniel Hames and Michael Reeves, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.