And 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
This is the first time in the Bible we come across that mysterious phrase, “image of God”. The passage itself tells us what that means: it means that humans are to have dominion over the earth, over the creatures that inhabit it. An image is a representation or model of something else. Mankind, in exercising divinely-given and divinely-guided authority, represents God, who is the Creator and Ruler of all.
The image is an attribute of all human beings because it is “given” to them as a species, not as individuals. In other words, to be a human is to be an image of God, regardless of one’s mental or physical abilities. This principle, in conjunction with general principles of goodness and love, underpins the Christian doctrine of the sanctity of life. An unwarranted attack (as opposed to justified war) on human life is an attack on the image of God, and by extension God himself. For this reason, conservative Christians uphold the teaching that abortion is not morally permissible.
This idea of dominion speaks to our past in Eden, to our present age in the “valley of tears”, and to our glorious future when the resurrected saints will sit on thrones, ruling under the leadership of King Jesus. We did exercise dominion in the Garden, when Adam and Eve were its gardeners, tending and pruning the plants. We do exercise dominion of a kind now: we have subdued to the earth to make it produce crops and sustainable livestock for our needs. We shall exercise dominion in the future in a kingdom that, as the prophet Daniel puts it, “will have no end”.
The Cross stands at the centre of this story. Jesus, being by nature God, is the Creator and upholder of life. By his grace we draw breath. He is the King of Eternity. But in his humility, he took on our flesh in order to restore us to God’s original plan. More than that, he raises us higher than the position Adam occupied before the Fall. Adam was an earthly ruler, subordinate to God’s council.
[God] has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.
The image of God goes to the core of our identity and our destiny. The story of our fall from that true model and our restoration by Christ and elevation to a seat of son-ship and blessing, lies at the heart of the Good News. We see that theme repeated again and again, perhaps most notably in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
But God has also made us to be individuals. In our assessment of the “degeneration” of Western society and in our analysis of the “East-West Divide”, we tend to make an either/or paradigm: either individualism or community. This is a false dichotomy and places an undue “guilt-trip” on Western Christians.
God has made us as individuals. While it is true that our sin can lead us to be selfish, to be focussed on our individual needs, it is not the case that the concept of “being an individual” is bad. Community presupposes individuals. This is why St. Paul uses the image of the body with different parts in First Corinthians: he wants to simultaneously affirm our individual identities and our corporate identity as an integrated whole, united under the headship of Christ.
So, next time you think about your personal identity, think also about your status as an image of God and as a son or daughter of God. You have a glorious destiny ahead of you – but only by the grace of our wonderful Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory, honour, and power to the ages of ages. Amen.