Have you ever discovered something that seemed really exciting only to realize after a moment that you had no idea what it was or what it meant or what to do with it? There was a video on America’s Funniest Home Videos a few years ago of a kid opening up a present on Christmas morning. As he tore open the package he started screaming, “I love it! This is just what I’ve always wanted! I’m so excited to have this!” Then there was this awkward pause after which he looked at his parents and said, “What is it?” In the same vein, when I was a freshman in college the first flash drives were just starting to come out. I was too busy with my classes to care about the latest technology, however, so I didn’t know anything about them. Also, I was rocking my high-tech zip drive (which the oldest and youngest in the room haven’t heard of), so I didn’t care about the latest data storage hardware. Anyway, for Christmas that year my best friend got me a 32MB flash drive. I opened the box, saw this little high-tech looking grey thing, got pretty excited, and then realized that I didn’t have any earthly idea what it was. And to add insult to injury, my dad who had only recently started using a computer at his office had to explain it to me. (I will say, though, that he started texting months before I even cared about it and has a phone that will run circles around mine so he’s not only caught up but has even surpassed me with his tech savvy.) Like the poor kid who made his family a lot of money on America’s Funniest Home Videos, I had discovered something that seemed like it should b really exciting, but I didn’t know what it was.
With this in mind, last week after spending most of our time talking about ancient cultures, I revealed what I said was the exciting truth that you were created in the image of God. We know this from Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.” I said then that this was a groundbreaking truth when it was first revealed. But, then like now, it’s not immediately obvious what that even means. Because of this confusion, this morning I want to focus on the natural follow-up question to last week’s message: what does it mean that we were created in the image of God? Well, it should perhaps go without saying, although I won’t let it, that this is a complex question. Theologians have written volumes and volumes of material on this so we are probably not going to answer all of your questions today. The approach I want to take this morning, then, is to spend a few minutes talking about what being created in God’s image doesn’t mean in hopes of clearing up any misconceptions you might have. After this I’ll try and make a bit more clear what it does mean.
Now, because a lot of you have been raised in church where such language is the norm, you may or may not be aware that there are some folks out there who hear Christians talking about people being made in the image of God and haven’t a clue what we mean. For folks who have no cultural background in the church, this idea is often maligned as ridiculous. After all, what kind of fool is arrogant enough to try and claim that he looks like God? I mean, I know I’m easy on the eyes—if you’re into tall, pale, and dorky—but to say I physically look like God? What an insult to Him. Nobody’s going to buy something like that. You can perhaps imagine, then, what folks who have no background in the church at all but who have dabbled in various pagan traditions which do assign physical bodies to some of the gods and goddesses (which is a growing category of people in our culture) might think when they hear us say we are created in the image of God. They could be forgiven for starting to think that our religion isn’t so different from theirs. After all, those Christians have that Jesus guy whom they say is a god and was also a real person so maybe they were created in his image. You might laugh at this, but put yourself into some different shoes and you’ll quickly see that the insider lingo we all understand could be drastically misunderstood by those who aren’t part of the movement…just as it is sometimes misunderstood by those who are. After all, early believers were regularly accused of being atheistic orgiastic cannibals because of their determination to worship just one God at their “love feasts” where they ate the flesh of some guy named Christ. Having some clarity on this, then, isn’t a bad idea.
I hope you can agree with me that this is false interpretation of our intent. Our claim that we are created in the image of God does not mean we look like Him physically. After all, God doesn’t have body for us to resemble. So how should we understand the idea? Well, it might be helpful to know how the original audience of Genesis understood the concept of the image of God. For them, capturing someone’s physical likeness was not the first thought that came to mind. Instead, people then tended to think about images more abstractly. An image represented some quality or value in the person being imagined. From this idea, we can reject the physical image interpretation entirely in favor of a more abstract quality approach. Yet even here we can quickly rule out some possibilities of meaning. Throughout the Bible we encounter God doing some pretty amazing things and being described in some awfully awe-inspiring terms. We have talked before about God’s “omnis”—the set of characteristics that make God, God. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present, all-good, and all-wise. God is eternal. While He has taken on a degree of temporality in order to meaningfully interact with us, God exists apart from time. God is infinite. He has neither a beginning nor an end. In case you haven’t had your regular reality check lately: we aren’t any of those things. Not even a little. Thus, being created in the image of God can’t mean we share in all of the abstract qualities that make Him God, namely His divine characteristics. It must mean that we share in some other set of traits.
Let’s take just a minute and talk about what some of these other traits are. We’ll have to look at a few different places in the Bible to find them. Let’s start with the passage we have been working with now for a couple of weeks. In Genesis 1, we find God doing a variety of things that are kind of like things we can do. We find God speaking, acting, making, working in an organized fashion, surveying things and assessing their quality, and imaginatively creating. We are capable of doing all of those things. Those acts on God’s part while divine in their scope were not necessarily divine in their nature. In other words, while you and I aren’t likely to design any planets in the near future, we are still capable of making new things. We haven’t spoken anything into existence out of nothingness, but we can communicate our desires and intentions and our words can call forth life when used properly. Moving forward a bit, when God finished creating He rested. We too were created with a need for rest at regular intervals. Jumping ahead a couple of chapters, we find God expressing disappointment when His creation didn’t turn out like He wanted it to. Have you ever been there? Maybe you built something and it broke. Maybe you started a project and it lost steam and failed. Maybe your kids or your spouse acted in such a way that your expectations for them weren’t met. Whatever it was, you’ve experienced disappointment. This trait is expressed even more directly on God’s part in the story of the Flood where the text tells us that He was sorry He created in the first place. Jumping forward several hundred years of Biblical history to the prophets and we find God on numerous occasions expressing how heartbroken He was that Israel abandoned Him. Anyone in here ever experience a broken heart?
God’s creator functions, disappointment, and heartbreak, however, are far from the only traits of His we share. In the book of Exodus, we learn even more about God, much of it positive. Of particular note is the story when God moons Moses. Okay so the text says that God shows him His back, not His backside, but the point is when He does this He announces something about His character to Moses. Exodus 34:6-7 reads: “The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” So what do we learn about God here? He is merciful—have you ever showed anyone mercy? He’s gracious—have you ever been gracious to another person by doing something for them that they probably didn’t deserve? He’s slow to anger—ever exercised a bit of patience? He is loving and faithful—Cliff and Louis Clay just celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary last weekend and Louise still looks at him with a sparkle in her eyes. I would say they have experienced at least a bit of love and faithfulness in their marriage. Have you ever forgiven anyone? God is also described as just here—He doesn’t let the guilty off scot-free. Do you to want to see the guilty punished in a manner appropriate to their offense? These are all traits that people share with God. Do you want to know a secret? In this world, we humans are alone in sharing these traits. No other species does. What, then, should we call these and other traits that we seem to uniquely share with God? Well, because we are people, they are often called God’s “personal” characteristics. Sometimes they are called His communicable characteristics along the same linguistic lines as a communicable disease except this is a good disease.
With all of this in place, we are now in a position to be able to make some initial conclusions as to what it means to be created in the image of God. It means that we share in God’s communicable, or personal, characteristics. In this sense, our creation in God’s image means that we share in God’s personhood. God is the ultimate, or perfect, person. It’s no accident that we find so many of the traits we would count as making us good people reflected in God. They are His traits. We share in them. They don’t come from us. Perhaps an illustration will help make how this works clearer. How many of you have a dog who has been a part of the family for a long time? I’m not talking about a hunting dog who sits outside all day and night. I’m talking about a dog who practically eats at the table with you and even prays before her meals like Hershey, the Cobb’s lab. How many of you would argue to the mat that your dog is more like a person than a dog? (I’m not including cats in this because cats don’t care about your personhood as long as you feed them and change their litter box regularly.) Well, scientifically speaking, there is no evidence to support the idea that animals bear the weight of personhood. Animals are all instinct, and while some possess higher intelligence than others and can be trained to do incredible things, even recognizing words and patterns and numbers, they are not people. Yet this doesn’t explain why animals who have been around people for so long seem to show some of the rudimentary traits of personhood. I’ve heard many stories about a family dog being very protective of children in the family or coming to gently nuzzle a member of the family who’s really sad. The reason for this is that your humanity, your personhood is being reflected in them. It has rubbed off to some degree such that they have picked up some of your emotions and relational interactions. Out in the wild that doesn’t happen. Wild animals are called wild animals for a reason. When you feel like an animal is acting like a person, the reason is that your personhood has rubbed off on it. By the way, the opposite is true as well. When an animal that has been around people a lot is particularly vicious, the reason is that it is reflecting the character of the people who have kept it.
Now make the illustrative jump with me allowing that the illustration isn’t totally perfect. The reason you and I are able to form relationships, feel joy and sorrow, create things, communicate, have a desire for justice and mercy, love the people around us is because we are reflecting the personhood of God. Out in the wild, apart from God, people don’t act very much like Him. On the other hand, the more we spend time in God’s presence, the more we come to reflect His personhood. This is why deeply committed Christians give off that vibe while those who aren’t don’t. Oh there are certainly some exceptions and some people who have figured out that behaving in a way that happens to be generally Christ-like plays out well for them in the end, but if you were to survey and assess the majority of the people living apart from God on a one-on-one basis, you would find that they are generally not a nice bunch. But, and here’s the important thing, the reason even those folks who are operating apart from God are able to behave as well as they generally seem to is because of their creation in the image of God. In the same basic sense as an animal has an instinct to behave a certain way, the instinct of people is characterized by the personhood of God residing within them through His image. This is the image of God. He shares a part of His personhood with you. God’s personhood is a powerful thing. It’s powerful enough that when reflected well it can actually rub off on any living creature in our vicinity. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t often reflected very well. Paul describes our ability to see and experience God right now as looking in a dim mirror. In our current state we reflect God’s image like a dusty mirror reflects the sunlight. In part, but not in whole. Spending time with God sees some of the dust brushed aside and the more time we spend the more light we’ll reflect. But imperfect or otherwise we reflect the light because that’s what we were created to do. Being created in the image of God makes you a person like Him.
All of that tells us what the image of God is, but it doesn’t yet tell us how it works. Being created in the image of God makes us people, just like Him, but how does this image thing work? Is it something that everyone possesses regardless of who they are? Do some have it more strongly than others? Are there certain things we have to do in order to activate it? Well, there have historically been three major approaches folks have taken in attempting to puzzle this out. The first group of folks argues that the image of God is something is activated relationally. God’s image is able to show forth in us to the degree we are in a meaningful relationship with Him. Apart from a relationship, we are still of value, but we are not bearers of God’s image. His image in this sense is totally tied up with being in a relationship with Him. While there is some merit to this line of thought given that humans are alone in this world in their ability to form relationships at all, let alone a relationship with God, this idea doesn’t account for the universality of the image. We may have been created for a relationship with our heavenly Father, but this doesn’t mean we lose part of our original design if we don’t have one. The image may not ever reach its potential glory without a growing, active relationship with God, but this doesn’t mean it is absent. A second group of folks connect the image of God to what we do. They argue that since the clearest Scriptural evidence of God creating us in His image sits in a context of God calling us to have dominion over the earth as His stewards (which Paul would later make clearer), our image bearing is closely related to our having dominion over the earth. Nevertheless, this connection is too tenuous for the staking of doctrine. The command for the people made in God’s image to rule over the earth is given after their creation. Also, to argue that the image of God in us is connected to what we do is problematic for a couple of other reasons. First, it points in the same direction as the various pagan creation stories we talked about last week, namely that our value is connected to what we do. Second, it contains the assumption that if we somehow stopped exercising dominion over the earth or did it in a way that didn’t meet with God’s standards, we would cease to exist in His image which is kind of a scary thought.
There is a third option that I think is best. We are bearers of the image of God because that’s how He made us. It’s part of the substance that makes us human. The image of God is not something we have or something we become or something we do. It is something we are. Furthermore, the image of God is not something that people possess in varying amounts. The image is not a simple characteristic that some people have more of than others like speed or agility or intelligence or height or anything else like that. It’s not something you earn either. You simply have it. And you will always have it. It’s marred by sin, but it’s still there. It’s present regardless of the extent of your sins as well. There is nothing you or anyone else has or could do that will remove the image of God from you.
Now, as good as all of this sounds, the truth is that it hasn’t really been all that popular of an idea in the scope of world history. There have been some worldviews in the last 100 years or so which have sought to define personhood on the basis of a certain set of characteristics—most notably the early 20th century socialists, progressives, and their ideological kin. This allowed them to treat human individuals who did not meet these criteria as expendable objects. The groups of people most afflicted by these worldviews were the very young, the very old, and anybody else not white and male. These and other similar worldviews have been uniformly wrong. Every human conceived in this world has been a person because all humans are people. Neither age nor gender nor physical circumstances nor psychological fitness nor mental acuity have any bearing on whether or not someone bears the image of God and is thus a person. Look around you: each of the individuals sitting to your left and right, in front of you and behind you, are people. They are all human people. There is no member of the human species that has ever not been a person. Being created in the image of God makes you a person like Him.
What we need, then, is not something to draw the image of God out of us more or make it more a part of who we are. What we need, is someone who can show us what it looks like when we reflect the image as we were designed to do. Fortunately, we have this in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ultimate example of what someone who is perfectly human looks like. If we want to get a better sense of how to love the people around us or handle interpersonal issues or live in such a way that honors God more consistently, we need only look to His example. By the way, the implication there is that when we strive to reflect an image other than Christ, we are striving to be something less than fully human. Keep that in mind as you engage with the images you encounter on a daily basis and make the decision as to whether they are putting forth a picture of full humanity worth emulating or something less than that worth rejecting. Never settle for less than you are. Never settle for less than personhood. Because being created in the image of God makes you a person like Him.
Have you ever discovered something really exciting only to later discover that your initial excitement didn’t even begin to plumb the depths of the potential joy waiting to still be discovered? This is like that. Last week we learned simply the fact that you were created in the image of God. This morning I have tried to make clearer what that means and how it works. In the next couple of weeks we are going to talk about what some of the implications of our creation in God’s image are. This morning was a bit more about theology than application. The next couple of weeks will be all application. I hope you’ll be here as we finish this journey together.