Image is Everything: Highly Valued, Deeply Fallen, Greatly Loved
May 5, 2002
Upon reading these verses, the thought comes to mind that we’re not in Eden anymore. Whatever else you can say about the first chapter of the Bible, the world of the 21st century is far removed from the world of Genesis 1. Things have changed. These days we wake up every morning to find out where the latest killings took place. There is so much violence, so much bloodshed, and so much hatred in our world. In the Middle East the struggle continues with no end in sight. In America children are abused, sometimes under the cloak of organized religion. Every time we go to the airport, we’re reminded that we live in dangerous times. And now we have to think twice before we go to the mailbox. That’s a new fear we weren’t worried about last week.
British essayist G. K. Chesterton once remarked, “Whatever else is true of man, it is certainly true that man is not what he was meant to be.” Man is not what he was meant to be because he was meant to be something better than he is. God never intended the world to be in such a mess. And as a matter of record, at the end of Creation Week, the world was in such fine shape that God called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). It was ideal and complete in every respect. Nothing was out of order, nothing was out of place, and sin was nowhere to be found.
How sin entered the world is a story for a later sermon. We’ll cover it in some detail when we come to Genesis 3. For the moment, let’s focus on “the way things were meant to be” from Genesis 1:26-28.
I. The Divine Plan
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’” (Genesis 1:26).
As we come to this verse, immediately we notice a difference in the wording. In all the previous moments of creation in Genesis 1, the Bible simply tells us, “And God said,” and it was done. But this time the text reads, “Let us make man.” The words are reflective and purposeful, as if God, having created everything else, stops for a moment to consider the huge implications of creating man and woman. Because he is God, he knows the end of the story. He sees the rebellion in Eden long before it takes place. He knows the trail of tears that will wind across the centuries as the sin of the first couple spreads inexorably to the whole human race. Like a runaway virus, sin will infect everything and everyone. The end result must be the offering of God’s own Son on a rough Roman cross. But God, knowing all that would transpire, seeing both the glory that Adam and Eve would share and the pain both they and their descendants would know, creates them anyway. It is an awesome moment in the history of the universe.
Who is the “us” in “Let us make man?” Some say the “us” is God and the angels, but how could Adam and Eve be made in the image of both God and the angels? Others suggest this is the “us” of majesty, as when a king or a ruler or some other Very Important Person will use the plural to refer to himself, i.e. “We’ll visit you soon” really means “I’ll visit you soon.” No doubt that is part of the answer here. But Christians have generally seen in this verse the first foregleams of the New Testament doctrine of the Trinity. The “us” refers to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a perfect balance in this verse. It is God who says, “Let us.” One God and only one, who communes within himself—the Father to the Son, the Son to the Spirit, the Spirit to the Father—and in perfect divine agreement, Adam and Eve are created.
Cats and Dogs and Rabbits and Goldfish
The crucial point comes with the words “image” and “likeness.” The Hebrew words are synonyms that tell us that man is created to be like God on earth. One of those Hebrew words was sometimes used for a statue. Just as a statue is the “image” of what it portrays, even so we are the “image” of God on earth. But what does that mean in practical terms? First, it means that we are forever separated from the animals. If you have a dog, no doubt you love your dog. If you have cat, you probably love your cat. You may have hamsters or rabbits or even a snake or a lizard or a frog or some goldfish. Your pets are not made in the image of God. You are, they aren’t. There is a great gulf fixed between Adam and Eve and all other creatures. That gulf is labeled “the image of God.”
Second, it is the image of God that enables us to know God personally. There is in each one of us the ability to know God and the “God-shaped vacuum” that makes us want to know him. Again, your dog doesn’t pray and your cat doesn’t seek the Lord. They can’t. A dog is a dog and a cat is a cat, and they can never know God personally in the way we can know God. The same is true for horses and hippos and bobcats and earthworms. Only humans have self-consciousness and God-consciousness. Only we can make conscious moral choices to do good or to do evil. And only we can know the God who made us.
No Little People
Third, it is the image of God that imparts true significance to every individual wholly apart from our circumstances. That’s not how the world judges significance. The world looks at who you are, what family you come from, how much money you have, your health, your good looks (or lack thereof), your connections, and above all else, your ability to contribute to the bottom line. If you can’t make a difference, you aren’t worth much to the company and out the door you go. But Christians look at people differently. We know that each person has worth and value because he or she is made in the very image of God. As C. S. Lewis notes, you’ve never met a “mere mortal” and you never will. In God’s eyes there are no “little people.” Everyone matters to him because his image is in each person—small or great, rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate, healthy or sick, strong or weak, and his thoughtful care extends from the moment of conception when the unborn child is just a microscopic bundle of cells all the way to the moment of physical death.
Think of it! In the womb the pre-born baby is made in God’s image. And the aged adult languishing in a nursing home, old and infirm and in desperate physical condition, is also made in God’s image. How important it is for us to keep this truth in mind, especially in a day when the unborn are routinely killed and the elderly are regarded as a burden and a nuisance and a drain on our resources. We abort the one and “mercy-kill” the other, and then we wonder why modern society has grown so callous.
My Mother’s Value
A few days ago my older brother Andy called to say that our mother is not doing well. She is 81 years old, living in a special home in Alabama, and has some sort of disease similar to Alzheimer’s. Over the past few years the disease has taken its toll little by little. She rarely stands up anymore, doesn’t talk on the phone, and has almost no short-term memory. Her little world has shrunk to include her bed, the bathroom, the table where she eats, and the TV room where she spends her afternoons. Andy said she is diminishing mentally and physically. She is in a wonderful place where she is loved and cared for, but there is no way to reverse her condition. As I ponder the matter, it occurs to me that someone might say, “Why don’t you just go ahead and kill her? She’s not contributing anything to society. She doesn’t even know her oldest grandson is graduating from college this week. She can barely do anything on her own. She’s a drain on your resources. Wouldn’t it be kinder to end her life?” The answer from my heart goes this way. “I could not do that even if I wanted to. She is my mother and will always be my mother. We (my brothers and I) owe it to her to take care of her until the day the Lord sees fit to call her home. And we owe it to our father who died 28 years ago to make sure that Mom is taken care of as long as she lives. She has value and dignity just the way she is right now. She may not know my boys by name but I know she loves them anyway. She doesn’t have to be productive or write letters or make phone calls or even stand up to have value and worth and dignity. A long time ago God made her in his image and that makes her valuable no matter how old or infirm she may be. She doesn’t have to do or say anything to prove her value. The God of this universe establishes her value forever. And if the roles were reversed, I know with certainty my mother would take care of me. I can do no less for her.
Fourth, understanding this truth about the image of God gives enormous clarity as we consider the great moral issues of our day. In Genesis 9:6-7 God declares that murderers should be put to death because they murdered someone made in God’s image. James 3:9 warns us against cursing men “made in God’s likeness.” When we curse and show disrespect for others, we are really showing disrespect for the God who made them. If it is true that we are all made in God’s image, how then can anyone dare to enter the womb and kill an unborn child? Abortion is wrong because it is an attack on God the Creator. Just because the unborn baby is small and unable to defend itself doesn’t make it morally right. The child in the womb is made in God’s image. Leave it alone! Don’t harm it! Every unborn child deserves respect and protection.
It is the image of God that forms the basis for civil rights. How can anyone persecute or enslave or mistreat another person simply because of a difference in skin color or language or culture? Do you not know that the person you mistreat is also made in God’s image? This truth is also the foundation for human rights in general. It is the foundation for human freedom and for democracy. And it is the answer to those who wish to create human embryos only to destroy them in search of stem cells. That little clump of cells, that seems so foreign to us, is a human life. What it is, we once were. What we are, it will become, if we respect it enough to leave it alone. The image of God is present from the very beginning. Thus we learn the value of human life from conception to the point of natural death. And we learn the value of human life despite physical limitations, or disabilities, or crippling diseases, or mental handicaps. People have value wholly apart from their outward circumstances. All are made in God’s image.
That is why the Declaration of Independence contains these ringing words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Self-evident truths are those that are so obvious that they need no explaining, they are as plain as the nose on your face or the sun in the sky. Unalienable rights are rights that cannot be taken away because they belong to us by virtue of our participation in the human race. And where do these rights come from? From Congress or the Supreme Court? The latest Gallup Poll? No! They come from the Creator of the universe. And that is precisely the truth revealed in Genesis 1.
Crumpled But Not Destroyed
We know that sin has marred the image of God in all of us. After the fall in Eden, things have never been the same. Sin has marred the image of God in us but it has not destroyed it. Imagine a clean piece of paper with these words in huge letters: MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE. That paper represents Adam in the Garden as he comes from the hand of God. He is created with no sin, with the image of God intact and complete. Now take that piece of paper and crumple it up into a tight ball. Make a few rips in it. It would probably help to rub some dirt on it too. Now look at that crumpled, ripped, dirty ball of paper. That’s Adam after the fall. Sin has terribly marred the beauty of God’s image in him. The beauty is largely obscured by the destructive power of sin. And that’s not just Adam; that’s you and me and every person in the world. We aren’t born with a clean sheet. We’re born crumpled and then we just make things worse by our own foolish choices. Sometimes the image of God seems to almost disappear in us. But it’s never really gone. And at exactly this point we see the power of Jesus Christ. If any one is in Christ, he is a new creature, II Corinthians 5:17 tells us. Imagine taking that crumpled, dirty, ripped piece of paper and unfolding it a little bit at a time, smoothing out the edges, cleaning off the dirt, repairing the rips one by one. That’s the whole process of conversion and Christian growth. In this lifetime we’ll never have the perfectly clean sheet of paper that Adam had. At best our paper will still be somewhat crumpled, still a bit torn, and bearing smudges here and there. In heaven the image of God will be finally and completely restored. But even now there is substantial change and improvement as day by day we are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit (see II Corinthians 3:18). And that’s why the best advertisement for Jesus is someone whose life has truly been changed. It says to those whose lives are crumpled and marred and badly damaged by sin, “You don’t have to stay that way. Jesus can repair you from the inside out.”
And that leads me to one final implication of this truth. If all people are made in the image of God, then anyone can be saved anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. There is no sinner who cannot be saved. And there is no person who is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Recently our congregation raised over $40,000 to supply 160,000 copies of the book An Anchor for the Soul to prisoners across America. Think about who will read those books: murderers, rapists, child molesters, thieves, burglars, criminals of every sort and of the worst sort. Some people who will read the book have broken all of the Ten Commandments. Why give away the book if such people can’t be saved? But even the worst sinners can be saved because each one is made in the image of God. Sin can mar God’s image but it cannot destroy it.
A Lesson From A Coin
One day some Pharisees came to Jesus, intending to trap him with a trick question. They wanted to know if the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22). The Jews hated the Romans and hated paying the tax, which they were required to pay with Roman money. Jesus answered their question with a question—”Whose image is on the coin you use to pay the taxes?” That was an easy question: Caesar’s image was stamped on every coin because the money belonged to Caesar. That led to a simple conclusion: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (v. 21). The money is his so if he wants some of it in taxes, don’t fight it. Give it to him. We quote that verse each year at Income Tax time to remind ourselves to pay what we owe the government. And the same principle holds true today. Whose image is on the penny? Abraham Lincoln’s. Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel; George Washington is on the dime. And he’s also on the dollar bill. Those images remind us that the government issues the money and it doesn’t belong to us personally. So go ahead and give the government the money you legitimately owe. That’s a sound biblical principle.
But we rarely talk about the last part of the verse: “And to God what is God’s.” In context the reference is to the “image” of Caesar on the Roman coins. Where do we find God’s image? Just look in the mirror! You were made in God’s image, which means that you owe a debt to the Lord. Since God made every part of you, you owe him everything. Not just a tax that amounts to a percentage, but the whole of life is his. Jesus is really saying, “Don’t sweat your taxes. Pay it and forget it. Make sure you give God what you owe him, which is everything.”
Your private parts.
Your deepest desires.
All of it belongs to him. That’s the ultimate implication of being made in God’s image.
II. The Divine Pattern
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Three times this verse uses the word “created,” thus emphasizing the unique thing he was doing in creating man as male and female. Here we find the basic pattern of life established. Humanity is forever divided into two groups—male and female. This is what marriage is meant to be—one man with one woman for life. The details will be fleshed out later; the basic principle appears in this verse.
This also teaches us that human sexuality is a gift from God. Some people have taught that sexual desire is part of the judgment of God after the fall, but that clearly is not true. Many people believe that the whole subject of sex is somehow dirty and shameful to discuss. And far too many Christians share that attitude. And many would prefer that the church never tackle this issue. But God thought of sex long before Hugh Hefner did. God is the one who in the beginning created mankind as male and female. What it means to be man, what it means to be woman—emotionally, intellectually, physically—that difference comes from God himself. Men and women are different because God made them different. Over 2,000 years of church history, some leaders got way off base on this. They taught that the body was essentially sinful and that marriage was at best a necessary evil. Many people concluded that the sexual relationship between a man and a woman was something to be endured, not something to be enjoyed. Husbands and wives who feel that way will never enjoy their marriage the way that God intended. They will remain fearful and inhibited when God meant for them to enjoy making love with each other. Let us be crystal clear on this fundamental point. Sex was God’s idea in the beginning. He thought of it first. He made us different so that our very differences would attract us to each other.
Verse 27 presents us with man as male and female, both bearing the image of God. There is equality here and also a crucial difference. Boys are not girls and girls are not boys. To fully enter into this truth requires that we raise masculine men and feminine women. This touches how we act and dress and how we should properly relate to each other. And it also teaches us that we deeply need each other.
This truth helps us resolve many moral issues. The “one man/one woman” truth rules out fornication, adultery, polygamy and homosexuality. In God’s plan, marriage consists of one man with one woman, not two men or two women together.
Does this verse mean that only in marriage is the image of God fully seen? If so, where does that leave single people? The answer is that each one of us is entire and complete and truly made in God’s image. You aren’t one-half of God’s image if you are single. However, it is true that certain aspects of God’s character are best seen in the marriage relationship. That’s why Paul compared the husband and wife to Christ and the church in Ephesians 5. How do you illustrate the Trinity—One God in three Persons? How about marriage where two people become “one flesh?” A good Christian marriage is a “window in time” through which others catch a glimpse of eternity.
III. The Divine Purpose
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28).
Now we come to the divine purpose God intended for Adam and Eve. He begins by blessing them. It’s as if God said, “Have a great life! Enjoy yourselves. Have a ball down there. I’ve given you everything you need. Enjoy it, don’t mess it up!”
Then he said, “Be fruitful.” Have some babies. Raise some children. Play with your grandchildren. Start a family. Establish a clan. Found a tribe. Children are the normal fruit of marriage. While God has the sovereign power to give or to withhold children, his general will is that married couples bear children. Marriage and children go together. Sometimes even in the church we look upon children as a burden, not a blessing. Certainly it costs a lot to raise kids nowadays. A recent study says that it costs $160,140 for a middle-class couple to raise children from birth to 18. If you think about it, that’s a lot of money that you could spend somewhere else. But $160,140 isn’t so bad if you break it down. It translates into $8,896.66 a year, $741.38 a month, or $171.09 a week. That’s a mere $24.37 a day or just over a dollar an hour. You can afford that. We can all afford that.
Then God told Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” That means they were appointed as Senior Vice-Presidents over Planet Earth to do as they pleased in the world God made. They were to be King and Queen of Creation. And what a world God made for them. He filled it to overflowing with animals and birds and fish and plants and trees and rivers and streams and oceans and mountains and meadows. He crammed it full of colors and textures and shapes and aromas and tastes, and then he said to Adam and Eve, “It’s all yours. Take care of it. Rule over it. Study it. Learn from it. Develop it. Have a ball. Enjoy yourself. Go exploring. Take a cruise. Go rock-climbing. Go skiing in the Alps. Crack open a coconut. Plant a garden, grow some vegetables, play with the lions, go swimming with the otters, sing with the whippoorwill. This brand-new place called the earth, it’s paradise. It’s brand-new. And I made it just for you. Do whatever your want wherever you want whenever you want. Every part of it is for you.” It was paradise. The only rule God gave was, “Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” As we shall see, they couldn’t even follow that one simple rule. And that explains why we aren’t living in paradise today.
Verse 28 is called the “cultural mandate.” To subdue the earth means to study it, develop it, and to bring it under control. This is the basis for agriculture, industry, commerce, enterprise, exploration, art, music, drama, literature, education, research, technology, progress, and new inventions. The tragedy is that believers have largely abandoned these fields and left them to unbelievers who are not qualified to lead them from God’s point of view.
A Little Lower Than the Angels
One final word and we are done. The King James Version of verse 28 contains the phrase “be fruitful and multiply.” I have always liked it that way because it reminds me that I must be about the business of multiplication for the Lord. Life is not a dress rehearsal. We are only here once, so briefly, and then we pass into eternity. While you are here, multiply! Find out what matters and then go and do it. Don’t waste your years on small things. So much of life is just irrelevant details. You’ve got 60 or 70 years to invest. Make sure you invest it well because you won’t get a second chance.
Psalm 8 contains these lovely, lofty words: “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor” (vs. 4-5 NKJV). “A little lower than the angels.” That’s who we are. Or as Chesterton would put it, that’s who we were meant to be. “Crowned with glory and honor.” This is Adam and Eve in the beginning. This is life as God intended it for all of us. But what a mess we have made of all this. How far we have fallen from our high destiny. We all need to be completed by Christ. We need to be restored by Christ. Do we not all feel this way? Do we not all sense that we could and should be much better than we are right now?
Last night at the annual May Madness (an outdoor festival in Oak Park), I spoke with a friend who told me the story of his conversion. After years of going his own way and messing up his life in many ways, the death of a good friend seemed to finally wake him up. At the funeral, he stood and committed his life unreservedly to the Lord. “I stopped fighting God,” he said. “He’s got long arms.” Then he smiled. That is the glory of the gospel of Christ. He takes men and women deeply fallen in sin and radically reshapes them. The work of restoring the shattered image of God within us is a miracle that continues until the day we finally get to heaven. We are not yet what we will be nor what we want to be, but by God’s grace we are not what we used to be. Amen.