Sun, Sep 17, 2017
Created in God's Image
by Lee Tankersley
3 of 12 in a series on Humanity, Sin, and the Person of Christ.
Series: Man, Sin, and Person of Christ (Systematic Theology 2)

September 17, 2017

Systematic Theology 2
(3 of 12 in a series on Humanity, Sin, and the Person of Christ)

According to Genesis 1-2, that which makes man distinct from the rest of creation is the fact that we are created in God’s image. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read, “Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Thus, humans alone are God’s image-bearers in the world. This is indeed our utterly unique identification. But what does it mean that we are created in God’s image?

What is the image of God?

This question is not as easily answered because it seems that the author doesn’t give us an explanation. That is, he doesn’t stop and say, “Now, in saying, ‘the image of God,’ I mean . . .” And this reality actually, I think, gives us insight into what it means. But I’ll get to that in a second. First, I want to say that I think any approach to explaining the “image of God” as some kind of quality that a person can lose is dangerous thinking. What I mean is if we say what makes man in the image of God is his ability to reason or communicate, for example, then what do when someone develops Alzheimer’s and loses the ability to reason or communicate? What about a child born with a disease or handicap that makes reasoning impossible or limited? Is that child less than a person created in God’s image or not as much in God’s image as another? Again, you can see where such thinking could lead. Perhaps someone doesn’t deserve to be treated with dignity, or his or her life protected and honored because one lacks one of these elements deemed essential for understanding what it means to be in the image of God. So, I don’t think we go that route.

But, I think one of the bigger clues we have to understanding what it means that man is created in the image of God is that the author doesn’t explain what it means. After all, when do you not explain something to your reader? Isn’t when everyone already knows what you’re talking about? So, for example, I might say to us, “Just because you walked an aisle, doesn’t mean you truly know the Lord,” and you all would probably nod in agreement and know exactly what I’m talking about. But if I said that to even my oldest son, Michael, you know what he would say? He would say, “What do you mean by ‘walked the aisle’?” I would need to explain it to him. It’s the same thing we would feel if someone talked about “hitting the sawdust trail.” I can’t say that without explaining it. But during the first couple of decades of the 20th century, most believers would know what I’m referring if I said that. You see, when they set up tents for tent revivals, they would often sprinkle sawdust on the floor. This would have the effect of making it a bit quieter when people walked, and it would keep the dust from stirring up when people made their way across the floor of the tent. So, when evangelists (especially Billy Sunday) would call people to place their faith in Christ, he wouldn’t simply call upon them to repent and believe. He would call upon them to come up in front of everyone, specifically walking over that trail of sawdust. Consequently, his version of “repent and believe in the gospel” was “hit the sawdust trail.”

Therefore, since the author just says that man was made in the image of God and does not take the time to explain it (though it is quite important), the most likely assumption we can make is that those who would have first read this would have understood exactly what he was talking about. That is, the idea that someone or something was in the image of something (perhaps even a god) was a common idea. And sure enough, when you look at writings in the ancient Near East, you find that this is exactly right.

In the ancient Near East, there were two ways this idea of the image of a God was referenced, which both were really the same. One of them was seen as the king of a land would oftentimes have a statue of a god erected in a temple. We’ve probably seen this at least in pictures where there’s a temple that supposedly belongs to some god, and in the middle of the temple is a huge statue, representing that god. Well, in the ancient Near East, that statue would have been said to have been erected in the image of the god. That is, to resemble, reflect, and represent the god. Seeing that god’s image in the temple would send the message to all onlookers that this area was ruled over by the god whose image they would see.

Similarly, the king himself was seen as a living image of a god. If you ask how the god exercises his or her rule over the territory, the answer would be that it is through the king. Because of this, some kings in the ancient Near East were called sons of god. That is, there was a relationship between the king and the god. The king was called the god’s “son” because he was in the likeness of his god, reflected the god’s behavior, and represented the god’s rule. Therefore (using Egypt as an example), the king of Egypt was the son of the god of Egypt and was the living image of the god of Egypt. And, as the god’s son, he was to bear the god’s image as he resembled, reflected, and represented the god in his rule over the land of Egypt.

As a good summary, Peter Gentry writes,

In the ancient Near East, since the king is the living statue of the god, he represents the god on earth. He makes the power of the god a present reality.
To sum up, the term “image of god” in the culture and language of the ancient Near East in the fifteenth century B.C. would have communicated two main ideas: (1) rulership and (2) sonship. The king is the image of god because he has a relationship to the deity as the son of god and a relationship to the world as ruler for the god.

Gentry then concludes, “We ought to assume that the meaning in the Bible is identical or at least similar, unless the biblical text clearly distinguishes its meaning from the surrounding culture.” And I think he is right, especially since the author gives no explanation of what he means by “image of god.”

However, we should ask, “Even though the text explicitly says that mankind was created in God’s image, is there any suggestion that man is seen (in similar terms to our ancient Near East findings) as a ‘son’ of God?” And the answer is, yes.

In Genesis 5:1-3, we read, “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”

Obviously Seth is seen in relation to Adam in similar terms as Adam was seen in relation to God. As Adam as created in God’s image and likeness, so Seth is created in Adam’s image and likeness. But the text specifically notes that Seth was Adam’s son. So, are we supposed to think of Adam as God’s son? I think we are – for two reasons: (1) this fits our ancient Near East findings where the king was perceived to be the “the image of god because he was the son of god” and (2) in Luke 3:38, after Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back Enos, he continues, “the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

Therefore, mankind was created in God’s image as God’s sons. And this means that one is the image of God simply if he is a human. We can’t reduce the image to some quality, like the ability to reason. Rather, we should simply say that if one is a human being then he or she is God’s image-bearer.

In the beginning, this was a glorious picture. Created in God’s image as God’s sons, mankind reigned over the earth. We were like kings on the earth, ruling over it, and perfectly representing our God over his good world. In fact, in Psalm 8 (which seems to be a commentary on Genesis 1:26-28), David marvels at how man has been endowed with glory. David begins by wondering what is man that God is mindful of him in the midst of a creation seemingly much more glorious—amidst the heavens above in which God had “set [his] glory” (Ps 8:1). Surprisingly, however, he answers, “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Ps 8:5-6). Thus, instead of viewing man as inferior to the creation in which God had set his glory, the psalmist sees man as a king over the earth, “crowned” with glory – a glory that was manifested through man’s perfect rule over the earth.

Therefore, we can say that mankind was created in God’s image, as God’s sons, and endowed with the very glory of God. Moreover, as man reigned in this state of glory, the earth itself prospered. It bore fruit, vegetation, and the like, and there was not a thorn or thistle in sight. It was paradise in the garden. But the Lord didn’t envision this paradise to merely be confined to Adam and Eve in the garden. They were to expand God’s glory, as God’s image-bearers and sons, and fill the whole earth with the glory of God. This is why the Lord commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28).

Image-Bearing and the Fall

We all know that mankind’s paradise was soon lost, however. When Adam sinned in the garden, it was tragic. No longer was he a perfect reflection of God as God’s son. The crowning of God’s glory was soon replaced by sweat on his brow and the recognition that he needed covering with some other kind of clothing. Even the land itself over which mankind was to rule was cursed. And death reigned over the earth. This is the great tragedy of sin and death entering the world, known to us as the Fall.

Yet, because mankind remained, well, mankind (i.e. humans) after the Fall, we should recognize that every person in the world still bears God’s image. This is confirmed even after the flood as we read in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” And since this statement is made on the heels of telling Noah and his family that the animals were given to them for food, this seems to be a punctuating way of affirming that humans are still different from every other creature. We may kill and eat animals, but we cannot murder one made in God’s image.

The Fall does mean, however, that we no longer perfectly reflect, resemble, and represent our God over the earth. Wayne Grudem summarizes this point well, writing,

Since man has sinned, he is certainly not as fully like God as he was before. His moral purity has been lost and his sinful character certainly does not reflect God’s holiness. His intellect is corrupted by falsehood and misunderstanding; his speech no longer continually glorifies God; his relationships are often governed by selfishness rather than love, and so forth. Though man is still in the image of God, in every aspect of life some parts of that image have been distorted or lost. . . . After the fall, then, we are still in God’s image – we are still like God and we still represent God – but the image of God in us is distorted; we are less fully like God than we were before the entrance of sin.

Paradise Regained?

Is there, then, any hope of returning to our state of perfectly bearing God’s image, as God’s son, endowed with glory, and reigning over a world of paradise? Yes, there is. Some time after the Fall, the Lord called a nation to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of Egypt, and he called them his “son” (Exod 4:22). He brought them into a land that sounded like Eden, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deut 27:3) that lay subdued before them (Joshua 18:1). He told them to reflect and resemble him, being holy as he is holy (Lev 19:2). It seemed this might be paradise regained.

However, Israel, like Adam before, rebelled against God, failed to represent him, were driven from their land, and their land was devastated. Yet even then, God had made a promise. He would raise up another individual from Israel, specifically from David’s line, who would be a son to him (2 Sam 7:14). This son would reign over the whole earth (Ps 2:7-8). And God also promises that he will make the land from which his people have been driven like Eden again (Ezek 36:35), but Jerusalem will expand, filling the whole world with fruit (Is 27:6). This sounds like the promise of a return to the paradise we see in Genesis 1-2.

But how does this come about? Well, when God the Son takes on flesh to become the God-man, the Bible makes clear that he is the image of God. In Colossians 1:15, we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Again, in Hebrews 1:3, we find it said of Jesus, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his divine power.” Moreover, he is declared to be God’s promised son in his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4) and given authority to reign over the whole world (Matt 28:18).

So, how does Jesus, then affect us? How does he enable us to return to that place of paradise? First, concerning our image, as we place our faith in Christ, we begin a process whereby we are conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God (Rom 8:29). Also, by being united with him through faith, what is true of him is true of us as well. Being united with the son, we are sons of God (Gal 4:4-7). And, as our faith is in him, we are being transformed into the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). Does this mean that Jesus came not only to be the promised son but to bring others back to that place of glory as well? Indeed it does. In Hebrews 2:5-10, the author considers that we do not now see the world in perfect subjection to man in his glorious state at the beginning, but it is coming about through Jesus.

The author of Hebrews writes, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.’ Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:5-10).

And one day, when Jesus Christ returns, believers will be raised from the dead, given glorified bodies, conformed perfectly to the image of Christ, and dwell in glory in a world that has been redeemed from the curse of the fall. Thus, Paul writes in Romans 8:18-30, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Amen. May this day come quickly.