What Does It Mean To Be Human?

“We are not to look to what men in themselves deserve but to attend to the image of God which exists in all and to which we owe all honor and love.”
– John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”
   So God created human beings in his own image.
   In the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.
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 1:26-28

The opening chapters of Genesis shook the ancient world with a bold claim. All humans are made in the image of God.

That was and still is revolutionary. But what does it mean to be made “in the image of God”? What is Genesis trying to convey? Why is this such a powerful idea?

You see, in the ancient world (specifically the Ancient Near East or ANE) to “be made in the image of a god” was a depiction reserved for only two things; idols and kings. When Genesis uses the phrase “image of God”, it uses the Hebrew word, selem for “image”. You might be surprised to learn this, but selem is often translated as ‘idol’ in our Bibles. “The idols of God”

In the ANE, an idol served a few purposes. Idols were placed within a temple; the place where the gods and humans were connected. The idol functioned as a reflection and embodiment of the god. It was not thought of as the actual deity, but meant to be an image of the divine. The idol stood there as the mediating representation of the god’s power and presence.

The “image of God” was also a title reserved for kings. These special, chosen rulers were representations of the gods; ruling and reigning on their behalf. Kings were often so closely tied to the gods that they were considered divine themselves. This made the king special and separate from his people. You can already start to see how classes and segregation of people would seep into an ideology where only certain people are image-bearers of the divine. 

So, if the kings and idols were the image bearers of the gods, by reflecting their image, and ruling on their behalf, what does it mean when Genesis says ALL humans, not idols or specific kings, are made in the image of God?

Maybe you have read Genesis 1 and reflected on the image of God. Maybe you have heard someone speak about why and how we are the image of God. I might imagine that the responses focus on human uniqueness in having a soul, a mind,  having creative-capacity, emotions, etc. And while these are truly unique characteristics of humans, it does not explain why Genesis thinks we are all the made in God’s image. The text, however, tells us a different reason, a different story. 

Genesis tells us that humans were created with a purpose, not just autonomously unique, but vocationally set-apart.

 When God says He will make humans in His image, the following sentence describes functional purpose for the humans. They are going to “rule and reign” and to be “fruitful”. Somehow, this ruling, reigning, and fruitfulness of the humans is what makes them the image of God!

Later in Genesis 2, humans are placed in a garden with a similar mandate as Genesis 1 but now they are also called to “tend to” the garden.

The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.
Genesis 2:15

Notice the language of purpose here. They were placed here in this garden to (a reason for why) take care of the garden. So what does it mean that image bearers of God are ones who rule, reign, are fruitful, and tend to the created potential (a garden) around them?

It might be helpful to think about a new description for human purpose. We might best describe humans as “Priestly Kings”. And here is why:  

Like kings, all humans were meant to rule and reign on God’s behalf. We were called to submit to God’s vision and definition of good and evil (you’ll notice we fail at that rather quickly in Genesis 3). Our ruling and reigning is a call to advance the creation. God had created this amazing space and decides to share it with humans in a co-partnered project. We were called to work together with God at making this creation as amazing as possible. Look at what the psalmist in Psalm 8 says while reflecting on Genesis 1:

what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
  human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
  and crowned them with glory and honor.
You gave them charge of everything you made,
  putting all things under their authority
the flocks and the herds
  and all the wild animals,
the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,
  and everything that swims the ocean currents.

Psalm 8:4-8

This language of “ruling and reigning”, along with the thoughts of Israel’s neighbors that the king was the image of God, reveals a mind-blowing concept that all humans are kings (and queens!). This would have shocked the ANE world (and hopefully shocks you too!).

Along with our reigning responsibilities we were meant to be priests. Not robe-wearing, pious priests but caretakers of sacred space. In the Old Testament, priests were assigned to take intentional care of sacred spaces within the temple/tabernacle. Just like them, Adam and Eve were placed with a sacred space, in close communion with God. Their purpose was to take care of this garden, multiply, make more gardens and creatively make them better. They were to take what God had given and do something beautiful with it. 

Now maybe this all sounds like a pipe-dream, like the Genesis author is seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. But when you read Genesis 3 and onwards, you see our failure in living out our designed intention. We reject God’s provision of what is good and not good. We hand over our image-bearing nature to other things, other idols, like money, power, sex, success, and other people. Idols, not just the physical ones in temples, but the ones we start to give power to rob us of our nature. So, how can the overtly optimistic view of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 be possible when we all know what horrible things we are capable of?

Well that’s when Jesus steps on the scene.

Jesus walked around speaking and teaching on the Kingdom of God. In fact, this was easily Jesus’ favorite topic. Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, the coming of God’s new rule and reign in this rebellious world. His teaching would focus on what living within this coming rule would look like.

The last would be first. Loving the enemy would be top priority. The unlikely would be blessed. Those who wanted to lead must serve.

In his time on earth, Jesus demonstrated what true ruling and reigning looks like. As the King of kings, Jesus ruled immensely different from other kings. In his establishment of the Kingdom, Jesus invites humans into a new way, the original way, of being human. When we follow the ways of Jesus’ kingdom, we follow the path to true humanity.

When Jesus enters the grave and in three days later defeats death, he exits the tomb with a path to restoration. By resurrecting, Jesus had initiated the curse-reversal of creation. The world that had been damaged by human failure is now being renewed to its original intention (check out Romans 8 for Paul’s reflection on this). In doing so, Jesus becomes the great priest, not just by his perfect sacrifice, but also by his restorative care of what humans were meant to tend to. His victory sets people free from the idols in our lives that we have given our image over to. No longer are we slaves to the things we were originally meant to rule over.

Through him, all of creation is being brought to new because of Jesus so that his followers would be the caretakers and gardeners of the created potential. 

Now when we get to the end of the story, we see a very similar beginning. Through Jesus’ restorative work in the world, his followers are now described as Priestly Kings.

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:10

The broken pieces of the divine-mirrors will be put back together.

Revelation envisions the day that God’s Image Restoration Project is brought to completion.

In the ending scene of the Bible, the human followers of Jesus are back in a garden (but now it’s much bigger!) and they are there “serving” (just like Adam and Eve were to serve the Garden) and “reigning forever” (just like Adam and Eve were to rule and reign over creation).

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him And they will reign for ever and ever.
Revelation 22:1-3, 5

The opening chapter of the Bible invites us to re-imagine the human life. Amidst our flaws and sinful actions, there is an invitation by Jesus to join a new way of living. You were made for a purpose. You were made to reflect someone who is infinite and limitless which means there is plenty of uniqueness and creativity to go around. You were made to take what God has given and do amazing things.

So what have you been given?

What are you called to rule and reign over under God’s provision?

What are you called to tend to and take care of (a job, a child, a spouse, a friend)?

Are there things you have given your image-bearing nature over to? Are there idols who are serving and letting rule over you?

Do the things God has designed you for with the world he has placed around you. Rid your life of the idols that are not made in His image. Tend to the things that have been given to you. For you are made in the image of God.

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