Note: This is the first entry in a new series of synopsis and notes from our Sunday School classes.
For the next few weeks, we’re going to be dealing with a question that our culture is deeply interested in and deeply confused about. It’s a question we bump into in the news, in school, in politics, in the media, at work, and really there are very few parts of our lives that aren’t touched by this question. We have armies of people working on the answer to this question and its implications: scientists, psychologists, sociologists, historians, even artists. And they’re all dying to know the answer to this question: what are we, and who am I? What are we as the human race, and who am I as an individual part of it? And how we answer that question has profound implications for how we order our world and how we live together.
Some of us are naturally more interested in this subject than others. I’m one of those people who often comes back to this question to get my bearings as I look at what I’m called to do and where I allocate my time and energy. But some of you are probably more like Jenny, who spends a lot more time actually doing what she wants than thinking about why. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom there, too. But that doesn’t mean the question is irrelevant for her; in fact, it shows just how powerful it is because once she answered it, that answer became embedded in her life.
And the reason this question is so powerful is because of a simple principle we all understand: what you are determines what you can and can’t do. And even more than that, what you are shows you what you should do.
We all understand this principle because it’s part of our everyday lives. We’re surrounded by man-made things that serve different purposes. The bench I’m sitting on as I write this was made to be sat on; as a bench it has this for its purpose. Now, it can be used for other purposes because it has attributes in common with other things, but its primary purpose is for sitting. It’s designed to be stable, not too high, not too low, and sturdy. It’s aesthetically designed to match the table and chairs. So knowing it’s a bench tells us what it can and can’t do. But not all benches are good benches. Some benches fulfill their purpose better than others. Knowing what it is and what it is supposed to do, we can judge for ourselves whether or not it effectively does that.
People are no different. Knowing what we are—whatever that is—shows us what we can and can’t do, and it gives us insight into what we should do.
What is Mankind?
In this day and age, we hear lots of different accounts of who we are. Some of them fit pretty well together, others are radically different. What are some of the things people say that we are?
- Blank Slate
- Caged soul
- A god
You can see immediately that these aren’t neutral descriptions, each one is loaded with implications for our purpose and value. If I’m a biochemical machine, doing only what I’m programmed to do, then how can I be responsible for my actions? If I’m an animal why shouldn’t I give into my instincts and appetites? If I’m a parasite on our planet, why should I make more parasite babies? You get the picture.
Confusion in Ancient Israel
We aren’t the only ones who have struggled with this. The Israelites were also surrounded by competing claims of what it means to be human. In the ancient Near East, all religions were based around the care and feeding of the gods. We have accounts that describe the gods groaning from their work and agreeing to make mankind to do the work for them. Men on this picture are no more than slaves or oxen. They exist to work hard to keep the place running to appease the gods.
And this makes a bit of sense. After all, work is hard! They would spend the vast majority of their lives working just to survive, so it makes sense that this would be the reason for their existence. And shifting the labor to others is what we do with animals and what drives so many of our innovations in technology and industry.
But God didn’t leave them in their confusion. He inspired the account of Genesis 1, which begins with the correct origin story, with what we really are and what we’re here to do.
(Note: for the first 25 verses, there’s nothing about us. It’s about God. Creation was happening and it was good…without us. Just a thought to keep us humble.)
Who Do YOU Say That I Am?
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:26-28 NAU)
A few quick side-notes about the text:
- Genesis doesn’t say anything about the Trinity, but we know from later revelation that God is Trinity, so we know at the very least the persons of the Godhead are talking with each other when God says “us” and “our.”
- “Image” and “likeness” are probably the same thing. The text isn’t clear. The words just aren’t different enough to draw out major distinctions.
So there you have it: God says we are not animals, robots, parasites, blank slates, or gods. He says we are image-bearers. We are creatures made in the image of God. This is equally true for men and women.
The Bible doesn’t spell out exactly what that means, but it’s safe to say that this Image is found in a number of things that we possess uniquely among creation. We are rational, moral, creative, emotional, communicative, authoritative, and more. You can’t help whether or not you “image” God—but you can do your best to let that image shine and draw it out in others.
For most Christians, this isn’t news. We’ve all heard that we’re made in the image of God, even if we sometimes disagree about what that means. But even if we know the truth, there are times in our lives where the lie sounds appealing. There are times in our weeks when we’re tempted to see ourselves or others as less than (or more than!) human. And with all their conflicting accounts, the world encourages this!
This week, stop and think: 1) when are you most likely to buy the lie that we’re not made in the image of God? When are you most likely to act like something else or treat others like they’re something else? And 2) who in your life most needs to know this truth? Who do you know that’s really bought into one of these other mentalities? Because these lies have consequences, and even if they don’t feel the strain now, someday they will. They will either question whether that explanation fits with their experience, or they’ll question whether the life they are living is really worth it.
One aspect of the Gospel is that Jesus is the perfect image of God, He is more like God than even Adam was because even though He was fully human like Adam, He was fully God as well. So part of His ministry to us was to model the purpose for which we were made, to show us how to live. We look forward in hope to a time when the dead will be raised to life and we will be given bodies free from sin so that we too may live the way we were meant to, bearing the pure image of God as Jesus did and does.
Bonus: Church History
The doctrine of the Image of God was first fleshed out by Irenaeus of Lyons. Tertullian later expanded on the doctrine with his treatment of Original Sin. Their formulations were given a radical reworking by Origen, who allegorized the creation account and harmonized it with Greco-Roman philosophy. Human nature more generally didn’t become a big interest until the 4th and 5th centuries with the debates between Pelagius and Augustine.