Being the Image of God
We live our day-to-day lives and sometimes we become distracted—distracted from our family, from spending time with God, and from realizing and cherishing what the important things are. It has just become too easy in this day and age to get caught up with things like Facebook, cell phones, video games, overly-demanding jobs, politics, and the list could go on and on. What will it take for us to realize and give the appropriate amount of weight to what we were placed here to do?
I almost died recently.
I was diagnosed with Type 1 insulin dependent diabetes when I was 21 years old. I went into the doctor’s office with blurry vision and thinking I had an overactive bladder, and with the prick of my finger, my life was changed. Thirty minutes later, the office nurse was instructing me how to give myself my first shot in my stomach—something I would become familiar with for the rest of my life.
Fast forward ten years. Here I am, a 30 year old man with a beautiful wife, a toddler that is literally a gift from God, a home owner, IT contractor for the county government, as well as heavily involved in leadership for a growing fellowship of zealous believers in Yeshua. I carry on multiple conversations on Facebook messenger for both work and play daily, managing several online relationships with friends across the country. As an IT contractor, I claim work as it comes in, but must compete for it with a pool of other contractors. As a shepherd, there are many things that draw my attention in the fellowship. Whether it be an individual facing life-threatening health issues in the hospital, or an offense between congregation members that has festered, all these things tend to keep me busy.
This all changed one Tuesday morning when my alarm went off at 6:30am to go to the gym. I got out of bed, walked into the kitchen and proceeded to feed the dog. Except this morning something was off—I was confused. I had a hard time thinking straight and could not figure out exactly what I was doing in the kitchen. I retreated back into the bedroom where my wife was awakened by my clumsy entrance. She realized quickly something was very wrong when I could not respond to her. I heard her speak to me, and I phrased a response in my head, but when it began to come out of my mouth it came out as either gibberish or nothing at all.
Looking at my wife, I was having trouble remembering her name. The woman I married and adopted a beautiful son with, I could not remember her name. I had trouble remembering my son’s name as well. My wife quickly forced me into the car to go to the ER. A Head CT, Chest X ray, and lots of blood work were taken in an attempt to diagnose whatever was happening to me.
In those moments, staring at the ceiling of the ER, those Facebook conversations were no longer so important. The few bills I was stressing about a few days before no longer mattered. My IT work was no longer something I was stressing about. “I did not get to say goodbye to my son.” That is what was on my mind. “This is it. It seems like I am having a stroke and I am about to die. God, did I really do everything I was supposed to? Did I accomplish the goals of being Your image-bearer”?
It would take several hours for the doctors to figure out what happened. During the night before, my blood sugar had dropped well below normal standards for several hours straight. Some of you may know that glucose (sugar) is required for your body and your brain to function. When hypoglycemia occurs, neurotransmitters in your brain stop being produced and your brain essentially begins to starve to death. It was confirmed that this is what happened. Even though my wife acted quickly in getting my sugar levels back to normal after seeing I was disoriented and confused, it still took the better part of two days for my brain to come back fully. If she had not been there, I could have very well experienced permanent brain damage or likely death.
This entire scenario caused me not only to re-evaluate my treatment and commit to life-style changes for better health but it also caused me to reconsider my life and what I am putting my energy into. Or rather, what I am not putting my energy into. Is work really more important than time with my wife and son? When a congregation member needs someone to talk to, shouldn’t I make that a top priority? When God has employed you with a job, should you really treat it like it is part-time?
These are the questions I find myself pondering now. Are you doing the job God has employed you to do? Many of us go through life not fully understanding the scope of God’s vocation for us. The vocation that Paul speaks about is clearly stated in his second letter to Corinth chapter 5:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
Did you know that you are a minister in God’s kingdom? You are. You are a minister of reconciliation, and the job that was assigned to you the moment you became a member of God’s kingdom was to proclaim the glory of God’s love to the world—not counting their sins against them, but creating a way back, a way to be reconciled.
Verse 20 states clearly what our job title is: “Christ’s ambassadors.” We know that Christ is the English word that comes from the Greek Christos, in turn representing the Hebrew word Moshiach meaning “anointed” or “the anointed one.” This is what the English word “Messiah” means: the anointed one. The one question I feel we sometimes fail to consider in all of this is, “the anointed what?” Many biblical scholars assert the obvious, that the anointed one represents the true anointed King who sits at the right hand of God—God’s son as it were (Psalm 2:7). Some scholars in their interpretation of the Greek New Testament have actually chosen to translate the English rendering of Yeshua’s name and title, “Jesus Christ,” as simply, “King Jesus.” (from Professor Nicolas Thomas Wright, The King Jesus Gospel)
In other words, you, as someone who has chosen to follow Yeshua, have been enlisted to be a royal ambassador of The King. You should realize that this is not a metaphor, but a reality of your job and calling. But what does an ambassador look like? An ambassador or emissary reflects the commands, character, attitude, and will of the king. The greatest example of this is found in the beginning of the Bible in the Book of Genesis.
Being the Image of God
In the beginning, God created mankind. Many of us may be familiar with this story from Sunday school lessons or being taught by our parents when we were children. The story of creation builds a narrative that described God’s will in creation to reflect His glory. God forms man out of the dirt, breathes His life-giving spirit into him and separates woman as the God-given helpmate that man needs. The question we tend to ignore in this story is this: Why did God create mankind?
We find our answer in Genesis 1:26-27:
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. (Genesis 1:26-27)
God’s purpose in creating mankind was to create images of Himself. What does it mean to be God’s “image?” This seems like a daunting thing to define among believing scholars and pastors. Some would assert it is purely a spiritual likeness, since Yeshua Himself said God was a spirit in John 4:24. Perhaps this spiritual likeness parallels God’s love, kindness, and mercy in that it should be indwelled in each human being of His creation.
Some argue that perhaps God literally looks like us and our physical image was a mirror of His reflection into creation. Of course, in light of John 4:24, we should be able to dismiss this idea relatively easily.
What then does this verse mean? Well, if we dare ask this question, then we need be prepared for the brutal honesty of what the Hebrew language offers. The word commonly translated as “image” in Genesis 1:26, 27 is the Hebrew word tselim which comes from the root slm, meaning, “to carve” or “to sculpt.” When God spoke to Moses and told him to destroy all of the “molten images” in the land of Canaan upon their entrance, this word was also tselim (Numbers 33:52). Immediately after King Josiah’s enthronement, the people went into the temples of Baal and destroyed the tselim, breaking them into pieces. (2 Kings 11:18).
As we see, tselim does mean image, but in the most brutal of definitions—an idol or vessel which facilitates the worship of a deity. As we discuss in our Being the Image of God teaching, every ancient religion in the Near East had temples dedicated to pagan deities in which they worshipped. Some of these temples had a very similar layout to Israel’s temple as well as several other things in common with it. Many temples had sacred courts, a restricted inner great room, and a smaller reserved room in which the image or statue of the pagan deity would “rest” or sit.
Israel was truly a peculiar people in the ancient world and so was their temple in regard to one central thing—an image. Yes, the temple of God had an outer court, a Holy Place, and even a highly restricted sacred room known as the Holiest of Holies. Inside of it was the Ark of the Covenant, also referred to as The Mercy Seat, which represented the very throne of God. On this throne did not sit a fancy crafted image of wood overlaid with silver and gold like the pagan temples (Jeremiah 10:3-5, Habakkuk 2:18-19), but an invisible Spirit that manifested Itself in glory and through living images.
When God made mankind, His will was that they would be filled with His spirit and walk with the God-given authority to rule over the world through the influence of that Spirit (Genesis 1:26). Our major failure was handing that authority over to that dark entity which presented itself in the garden known as the Serpent or the Adversary. If you remember the story, the serpent beguiled Eve by saying:
For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God… (Genesis 3:5)
Notice the deceptive words the serpent used against Eve: “You will be like God” [if you eat of the tree]. Eve had forgotten her vocation as an image bearer. She had forgotten the authority that she was already given to rule. She had forgotten that as His image, she was already like God! In this moment, Eve forfeited her God-given power over the serpent and handed it over, becoming its servant. Adam was not any better, concurring with his wife through his actions of disobedience. This is what happens when we forget what we were called to do in this world. We were called to carry God’s image forward with authority. Our mandate was to take care of this world and tend to it, not forfeit our God given metier to become slaves to the world.
How did this happen?
We can understand now why God seemed so passionate about commandments concerning creation of images of heavenly things such as those found in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8:
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
While the pagan world was off chiseling away at wood and stone, forming objects to reflect the attributes and the very presence of false gods, Israel is told that their God already created His image—them. Again, their purpose was to have authority over the earth, authority over the animals, and to govern the earth as God’s images while representing God’s spirit within us. This is specified in Genesis 1:28:
Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” (Genesis 1:28)
What happened in the garden was not simply an act of disobedience involving a piece of fruit. What happened in the garden was a revolt against God’s defined model of good and evil. Adam and Eve were indeed “like God” in that they were His image which contained His spirit as well as his mandate to govern the earth. Adam and Eve took the fruit because the serpent was presenting something more than what they had; the opportunity to redefine good and evil to their understanding and not God’s.
The fullness of the repercussions caused by the decision to disobey God’s decree and to pursue what was good to the flesh (Genesis 3:6) would quickly become apparent in the coming generations. In just a few generations, mankind multiplied across the earth and reflected not the kingdom of good and blessing God created them to reflect, but their own definition of good and blessing which was contrary to God’s kingdom. We get a glimpse into the full scope of what mankind’s failure looks like in Genesis 6:5:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)
Now, mankind has produced many great and good things. However, this pursuit of righteousness is often mingled with recklessness, wickedness, and foolishness produced as a result of our pursuit away from the Garden of Eden where the presence of God met with us, instructed us, empowered us.
How will God restore His images, or His ministers to establish His kingdom throughout the world? He made a covenant with a man named Abraham in which he promised a great inheritance of descendants that would fulfill this task sometime in the future and become a blessing to the entire world. His descendants would be the sons of Jacob; Israel.
The Journey Back
Abraham’s lineage began to grow and multiply until they became enslaved in Egypt. They were placed under harsh bondage by the Pharaoh at that time and even forced to watch their new-born male progeny tossed into the Nile River (Exodus 1:22). They cried out and God heard the cries of His people to rescue them (Exodus 3:9). He sent His prophet named Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt and into the land He had promised Abraham. Many of us may be familiar with the theophany where God made Himself known through the plagues as well as the pillar that protected the Israelites against the Egyptian armies at the Red Sea. God fulfills His promise and redeems Israel from Egypt, leading them to a great mountain in the wilderness known as Mount Sinai. Here Israel received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), laws about social justice, laws about honoring God’s Sabbaths, and how they are to build a Tabernacle so that He may dwell among the people He has charged to be “a Royal Priesthood” (Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9).
Israel ventures toward the Promised Land, but not without their downfalls. Israel seems to stumble in their willingness to be obedient as God’s priesthood to the world. Time after time in the wilderness, Israel complains, rebels, disobeys, and shows ingratitude toward God for all He has given to them. Despite all of the very specific commandments that God gives in His Torah, Israel just cannot seem to process it all in order to implement it. After forty years of wandering, they finally reach the border of the Promised Land and Moses gives a final speech to them.
Throughout Moses’ speech recorded in Deuteronomy 29-30, we see Moses frequently asserting what the problem with Israel is—their heart. If Israel changes their heart then they will change their ability to pursue their vocation as God’s missionary priesthood who are truly conformed to His image. The prophets repeatedly confirm this being the problem with mankind. Ezekiel’s prayer in Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26, speaks about a time when God will remove the heart of stone of Israel and give them a beating heart of flesh that is conformed to do God’s will. Jeremiah speaks of one of the most compelling prophecies where Israel will have such a newly conditioned heart that keeping God’s Torah and fulfilling their mandate will be the foundation of every beat in their chest instead of the Torah being something that is external to their being (Jeremiah 31:33).
Showing Mankind How to be God’s Image
When it comes to the anticipated Messiah that the first century Judeans were expecting, a servant was not one of the roles that was preached. The Judeans surrounding the time of Yeshua expected a king who would revitalize Israel, fully redeeming them from exile and bringing such a brutal military force that not even the Romans could stand in his path. They were seeking a prophet that would wield the power of God, overthrowing the nations that held them captive. This release from captivity would be a type of greater Passover and even greater Exodus with God’s power inflicting judgment in an even greater reckoning than the ten plagues that were sent upon Egypt. What they got was a Man riding on a donkey preaching that He was here to fulfill that role.
Paul refers to Yeshua explicitly as the prime example of what the image of God looks like, emphasizing His status even prior to His incarnation.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)
In Jewish wisdom literature, written just prior to the time of Yeshua, God’s wisdom is personified as a “mirror of God’s goodness” and an “image of His goodness” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:26). One cannot help but see Paul using this concept to emphasize not only who, but what Yeshua was as He walked the earth of God’s creation. He was the true image of all of God’s goodness and carried with Him the ultimate authority over creation (Matthew 28:18).
For too long, mankind had walked contrary to God’s commandments and even those who thought they had kept the commandments were still defining good and evil according to their own will and not God’s. Even the supposed righteous of Jerusalem were condemned by Yeshua for having double standards contrary to God’s word and even worse, actually being participants of lawlessness (Matthew 23:28). When we think of Yeshua coming, we typically think of His death, burial, and resurrection. These are, of course, the climactic pillars of what the gospel is about. One thing we sometimes tend to neglect is what Yeshua actually taught.
Yeshua came to forgive, redeem, and reconcile mankind (see Mark 2:10, Romans 3:24, Colossian 1:20). He also came to live as an example to follow in order to engage a world that is still attempting to make God an image of themselves instead of becoming an image of God. Yeshua brought an example and a teaching so radical that many of the “righteous” rejected it. In the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, we see the writer recalling a disagreement between the disciples concerning who will have the greatest status in the Kingdom of God. Yeshua then explains one of the most stunning teachings that went against everything the world had taught and promoted; being number one by being last.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Yeshua came teaching something that had been forgotten since the beginning. He came teaching what it looks like to be an Image of God. Even more compelling is how He did it—by example. The pagans and gentiles rule through violence and arrogance, lording over their subjects through barbaric means. Yeshua taught that in order to exercise authority over creation, that in order to be “number one” in God’s kingdom, that in order to truly follow Him, you must be a servant and utilize love as your weapon.
Of course, we all claim we can love. The love that Yeshua spoke of was no ordinary love defined by worldly definitions. This love can be described as nothing less than unconquerable. Yeshua taught that you are not only to love your neighbor, but you must love your enemies as well (Matthew 5:44). Lift those up in prayer who seek to hurt you and your family. Yeshua taught to petition God to bless them that they might see the power of God’s love.
Yeshua went on to show the ultimate example of God’s unconquerable love. That is the example He gave on the cross. One cannot help but to experience a slight chill followed by goose bumps when reading Luke’s account of the Passion. Yeshua is staked to a wooden object, hanging and in agony. Stripped naked, whipped, mocked and all He is focused on is screaming out one phrase with one of His last breaths. He could have screamed curses at the ignorant crowd spitting on Him. He could have called lightning down, or better yet cried for the ground to open and swallow up those inflicting what Josephus called “the most cruel and terrifying penalty” that the Roman Empire had to offer. Instead, Yeshua states these words as an example for His followers:
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
Yeshua’s mission was to reconcile you back to God in order to make you into a new creation, just as 1 Corinthians 5:17 states. A new creation formed with a new mind, a new purpose, and a new heart being focused on the will of God. Not a heart of stone, as past generations, but a heart of beating flesh conformed to the image of God (Romans 8:29), a reflection of God’s Kingdom through the example of Yeshua. These were the descendants prophesied to Abraham—the ones who, through faith in Yeshua, entered into a relationship with God and boldly took on the mission to bless the world through the example of the Messiah. (Galatians 3:29 affirms that all who come into the faith of Yeshua are counted as Abraham’s seed.) It is time to step into the vocation you were born-again to walk in.
Will you wait until you are staring at a hospital ceiling, scared, depending on nurses and doctors to keep you alive to remember what God called you to be in His Kingdom? Or will you step out into the world that is in need of God’s love through your example, fulfilling the mandate given in the beginning? I once heard a Christian scholar state “We were never meant to leave earth and go to heaven, but be Christ’s ambassadors in bringing heaven to earth just as the Lord’s Prayer states” (Professor Nicolas Thomas Wright, my own re-emphasis). As God’s images, revitalized in our mission through Yeshua, we have a job to do. It was the job Adam failed to do, and we have an opportunity to pick up what he dropped and continue on. Our job is to take care of the earth and all creation in it, engaging a lost world with God’s love and showing forth the ultimate power of God that resides in us. We do this by serving as emissaries of Yeshua to bring glory and praise to God. This is what being an image-bearer is.
Matthew Vander Els
Pastor Matthew Vander Els is Founder of Founded In Truth Ministries and leads FIT fellowship in Fort Mill, SC. Matthew’s passion is the person of Yeshua and the power of the gospel, His crucifixion, and how the resurrection changed the world forever. Matthew also loves exploring the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and the archeology and anthropology of Near Eastern kingdoms as they relate to the Bible.