Have you ever thought about what makes us human? What, if anything, makes you and me unique? It’s an increasingly important question, because many today deny that humans are particularly special at all.
Many secular scientists see humanity as simply the chance product of a mindless cosmos. We are merely the most successful organism on planet earth. For example, atheist Stephen Jay Gould has described humankind as “a cosmic accident”, the unintentional result of “thousands of improbable events”. Compared to the cosmos as a whole, they say we are without significance.
Others see some value in human beings, but deny that we are more important than any other animal. For example, we share over 90% of our DNA with monkeys, apes and other primates, and some of us share rather too many of their character traits – especially at the dinner table! So should we simply see mankind as just a ‘naked ape’, with no greater status or significance than the animals we see in the zoo?
Thankfully not, because our Old Testament reading today gives us great dignity. Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we are more than simply a concoction of chemicals, more than merely animals, and certainly far more than chance products of the cosmos. God’s Word in Genesis tells us that human beings were the climax of God’s creative activity. Astonishingly, it suggests we are of greater significance than the stars in the sky. Verse 27 of today’s passage tells us why: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them”.
In the remainder of our time this morning, I want to explain what it means for us to be in the image of God, and why it matters. And I want to point us to the one person who bore the image of God most clearly.
The image of God… What is it?
In our media age we see images everywhere. Images on TV, on billboards, on websites, and in magazines. Images of celebrities, company logos, consumer products, you name it. But what exactly is the image of God? What was God thinking when he made humanity in his image? What did God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have in mind when they said to themselves: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”?
To be in God’s image means that in some sense we have all been made to reflect God. In some way, we humans have been created to represent God in the cosmos.
I don’t think it means we’ve been made to look like God physically. After all the Bible tells us elsewhere that God is invisible. God is spirit, not flesh. The image of God must mean something different to simply looking like him in appearance.
And so people have speculated and studied the Bible for centuries to try to discover what it is about us that makes us in God’s image. In what way do we reflect and represent him?
• Some say we are like God because we are personal beings. Like God, we can think, speak, talk, form relationships and create purposes.
• Others suggest that our intelligence and rationality makes us in the image of God.
• For some scholars, the fact that we have free will and a sense of right and wrong makes us similar to God. God gave us the capacity to choose, and we generally know the difference between good and evil – even if we don’t always do what is right.
• And finally, other experts argue that our spirituality makes us resemble God. No chimpanzee or cow has ever prayed, no eagle or ostrich has a sense of the transcendent. But wherever humans have lived, there has been religion of one kind or another. Humanity seems to have a God-given awareness that there is more to life than meets the eye. We alone have the potential to enjoy a relationship with our Creator.
I’m sure there is some truth in each of those theories. It is true that, like God, we humans are personal, rational, moral and spiritual beings. But in Genesis chapter 1, our passage today, the image of God is specifically linked to our ability to rule. We are in the image of God, because we are God’s designated rulers of the world – just as he is the ultimate ruler of the universe.
Listen again to verse 26: “God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ And in verse 28, God says to us: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”.
Genesis is saying that humans are in the image of God because we have been given a right and responsibility to rule over the earth. We have a delegated authority over the world God has made.
When she was younger, my daughter Alice used to dress up as a Disney princess. She liked to pretend that she was royalty and runs around our house with a plastic crown on her head. Astonishingly, Genesis tells us that she, and all of us, really are royalty! As humans made in the image of God – he is the king and we are his princes and princesses on earth.
At the time Genesis was written (about 3,000 years ago) kings used to set up statues of themselves in the territory they ruled. They set up images of themselves to show that they had authority over their land. God has done just the same thing. By making human beings, God has made a living, breathing image of himself and placed us on the world that he has made.
Genesis says our role on earth is to responsibly rule over it. We are to be responsible stewards and careful managers of the world. As God’s image bearers, human beings have been given all sorts of powers over the natural world. We exercise our powers in farming, manufacturing, technological innovation, construction, cultivation and conservation. As Alasdair Paine writes in his excellent book on Genesis, we humans are unique in having the ability to “build cities, irrigate land, mine metals, put people into space and even alter the earth’s entire ecosystem”.
We are here as humans to represent God in the world he has made. We are here to help his world flourish, and give glory to its maker. We are God’s image-bearers on earth.
The image of God… Why it matters!
But so what? Why is it so important to believe that humans are made in the image of God, rather than a chance chemical concoction or just a well-evolved ape? Here are four quick reasons why it really matters to be made in the image of God:
• Firstly, it matters for our self-worth. If you ever lack of sense of self-esteem, or self-confidence, remember that you have been made in the image of God! What an amazing privilege. What an awesome role we have been given – to reflect and represent God in his world. You and your life have value in God’s eyes. You are loved by him.
• Secondly, if we are in the image of God, then everyone matters. Genesis says that every human is made in the image of God, male and female, black and white, young and old, healthy or sick. Every single person alive today has a God-given dignity and value that should be respected.
So Genesis 1 rules out any kind of racism, sexism, snobbery or xenophobia. Genesis shows that human life is indeed sacred, and so rules out things like murder, euthanasia or abortion on demand. It’s no surprise that Christians have always been at forefront of opposition to such things. From the womb to the geriatric ward, we are all made in the image of God.
• Thirdly, if we are in the image of God, our work matters. Any work we do in this world, whether paid or voluntary, whether in an office or at home, is worthwhile. Whenever we use our human abilities to construct, conserve or care for things, we are fulfilling our God-given role as his image-bearers on earth. Work is one of the things we were made for, not just a necessary evil to pay the mortgage.
• Fourthly, and finally, if we are made in the image of God we should care for the environment. Genesis sets out our God-given role to conserve and care for creation. Our dominion over the earth is not an excuse to damage or destroy it. Whenever we conserve, recycle or reuse the earth’s resources, we are being faithful and responsible stewards of the earth God has given us. We humans are accountable to God for our care of his creation.
The image of God… in Christ!
I hope I’ve begun to persuade you how important it is that we are in the image of God. It matters for our view of ourselves and other people. And it should shape our attitude to our work and to our environment.
The problem, of course, is that none of us perfectly reflects the image of God. We are like a damaged mirror or a dirty picture. The image of God in us is marred. We don’t always value other people rightly, and we too often neglect our work and our planet. Wars, conflict and climate change are symptoms of this problem on a global scale. We all need God’s forgiveness for failing him, and we all need a perfect image bearer to imitate. We all need help to be the people God intends us to be. And that’s where Jesus Christ comes in:
• As the eternal Son of God, he perfectly bears the image of his Father – so we should look to him to clearly see what God is like.
• As the only sinless man who has ever lived, we should also to look to Jesus for the model of a perfect human life.
• As the Saviour who died and rose again, we must to look to Christ for forgiveness and a restored relationship with God.
• And as the one who sends the Holy Spirit on his people, Christ can help us live as God’s ambassadors on earth today.
The image of God may be marred in us, but Jesus Christ carries the unblemished image of God. His Character displays the qualities of God. His Cross can make us right with God. And His Spirit can enable us to live for the glory of God.
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