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Submitted by Nigel on
Genesis 1:26-31

In our first sermon on Genesis, we saw that the world in which we live is a deliberate, planned, relaxed act by our triune, sovereign God. In contrast to so many stories regarding how the world came to be, the Bible depicts the real God deliberately setting out to build the world in which we live, not struggling against it or struggling with other ‘gods’, but being perfectly in control and effortlessly bringing into existence all that we see, in perfect accord with His plans. Through it all, he subtly also sets up or hints at patterns that we see develop in the rest of the Scriptures – the God on the throne in Genesis is unchanged in Revelation.

And everything He creates is good. There is a rich range of diversity to what God makes, but this is diversity without perversity. Everything is good, like the God who made is. No sin. No death. All is as it ought to be.

But wait. Something was left out last time!

Where are we in verses 1 through 25? We’re nowhere to be seen. Mankind does not exist yet!

Why did I stop at verse 25? It’s because verses 26 and following deserve special attention. There are things we can see and marvel at in verses 26 and following that we don’t see in the previous verses. They’re worth a sermon on their own.

You see, unlike rest of creation, when God makes mankind, He says “Let us make man in our image”. In doing so, He presents us with a mystery that is well worth thinking about. What does it mean for you and I to bear the image of God? How are we like the rest of creation and how are we different to it? How are we like God and how are we different from Him?

This question is perhaps best answered to begin with by looking at the two key words used here: image – tsalam - and likeness – dimoth.

Both words occur again throughout the Old Testament, in the ballpark of 10-20 times each.

Many of the other instances of the word that is translated ‘image’ here refer to idols, such as in Numbers 33:52, where we read:

“then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places”

These passages don’t help us a lot in figuring out what it means to bear the image of God. As I’m sure you know, idols were thought to in some way provide a link to the god they represented, and to worship the idol was to worship the deity it represented. Clearly we shouldn’t think of ourselves as a means of worshipping God. The best we could perhaps get out of the use of the word is the fact that just as an idol was in some way thought to be an accurate representation of the god it portrayed, so there ought to be some resemblance between you and I and the God who made us. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t think idols help us nail down what that resemblance is or ought to be.

More helpful are two other occurrences of the word translated image, in Genesis 9:6 and Genesis 5:3.

Genesis 9:6 reads:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

If we read nothing else out of Genesis 9:6, we will get point that human life is precious and God doesn’t take murder lightly. We can reasonably expect justice to eventually be done - the shedding of blood for the shedding of blood.

But look some more – the reason we’re given here isn’t the reason most people would give today. God’s word doesn’t say that human beings have inalienable rights to justice or to exact vengeance themselves. Instead, He says justice will be done because God made man in His own image. It is because God values His creation that He guarantees justice. Note that there are no qualifications put on this statement. God doesn’t say it’s okay to take someone’s life if they’re not born yet, or if they’ve lived a long time and actually want to die. He doesn’t say that a rich person or a famous person or a highly educated person or a person from Wandana Heights is special but a poor person or an unknown or a person lacking education or a person from Corio is not to be esteemed.

He also doesn’t say you can claim privilege – or a lack of privilege – as a reason that gets you off the hook. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.

And so we see in the New Testament that God’s promises in Christ are for all people. In Christ, none of the distinctions we make matter. (Romans 10:) There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The only time the two words occur again in the same verse is in Genesis 5:3. There we read:

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.

So then, the relationship between a human father and his son is in some way like the relationship between God and us. Not just a father and son though – verses 1 and 2 of chapter 5 mirror our verses again:

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man (Adam) when they were created.

The mention of male and female again here removes any excuse we might have for being sexist and arguing that a daughter was somehow less the image of her father than a son. Every child is created in the image of their parents.

But what does that mean? Are we talking about the expression on my daughter Irene’s face that brings my mum to mind, or our common love of Turkish Delight and Banana Cake? Should we think of the way my son’s already receding hairline matches Michelle’s dad, or perhaps mannerisms we share, or something else, or maybe a bit of everything?

This is what theologians have debated for centuries!

And that word ‘likeness’ doesn’t help us much either. Its meaning is pretty clear, but it’s too general to help in narrowing down the possibilities for us.

In 2 Kings 16:10, it’s used for a model of an altar in Damascus that King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest. The model, we’re told, was exact in all its details. So the word refers to a similarity between two things, but also includes the fact that there’s normally also some difference – we wouldn’t need to be told “exact in all its details” if that was the normal connotation of the word we’re considering.

In Ezekiel 1, the same word is repeatedly used as the prophet, determined not to disrespect God and struggling to find adequate words, describes to us what he saw, often in terms of ‘likenesses’:

v5: “And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, 6 but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings”

“10 As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle.”

So this word ‘likeness’ tells us that something conforms to a pattern but is not an exact copy – it has differences. In many ways, it’s similar to what we learned from ‘image’. And that’s what we should expect – image and likeness are used as synonymous parallels in our text – they’re 2 different words for the same concept.

Where do we go from here?

There’s one more thing we can consider as we think about what it means to bear the image of God, and that’s the rest of our passage.

Notice firstly that the very structure of Genesis 1:26 and 27 gives us clues.

Verses 26 and 27 refer to God both in the singular (v27) and in the plural (v26), and they both also refer to mankind both in the singular (v26 and 27) and in the plural (v26 & 27).

If we are to understand the plural references to God as an indication of the persons of the trinity, then the passage is saying that our creation as male and female in some way reflects God’s trinitarian nature. Perhaps this should be thought of when we come to chapter 2 and find that no animal is a suitable helper for Adam (v20), and read in verse 24 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The joining together of man and woman to form a new family is supposed to be a permanent joining of people into a relationship in which they play different but complimentary and harmonious roles, reflecting the different but complimentary and harmonious roles and relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is of course true that we no longer live in paradise, and our marriages often don’t last and often don’t reflect the good patterns that Genesis 1 implies. But our failures don’t negate the original design. There is still a way – even a flawed, fallable way – in which even the worst of our marriages reflect God’s designs and can teach us and others about God – and I’m not saying by way of contrast!

Notice also that Genesis 1:26-31 includes what we often call the Creation Mandate. Five verbs are used to describe what we usually think of today as two main tasks. The first set of three – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth were all found in the earlier blessing of God to creatures and are repeated in Genesis 9:1 after the flood. The word translated fruitful shouldn’t be understood as we often use fruitful today – the vast majority of the uses of this word refer to people having children, not to being hard working. The second word is much more general, denoting an increase in all sorts of things and brings us to the third word that describes the outcome of the first two – from this first man and woman, mankind is to grow in number until they fill the whole earth. The word translated ‘fill’ is often used in regard to things with a finite capacity, from water containers to sacks of grain to definite periods of time but it can also be used metaphorically, as in wholehearted devotion to the Lord, God’s provision, Joshua being filled with wisdom and priests being consecrated. Even where the filling is a literal filling, it doesn’t necessarily mean every little bit of the container is filled. Isaiah alone talks about jackals filling houses, people covering the earth with cities and valleys full of chariots, so we don’t need to image that we haven’t fulfilled God’s commandment if we don’t live in a world in which every square meter is covered with people. Instead, we should view this as a command to spread out over the planet (think of the refusal to do so at the time of Babel, later on) and think of this progression as going hand in hand with the next part – we are supposed to subdue the earth and rule over other creatures.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the word translated subdue is used in a variety of ways but the common theme to all of them is one creature dominating another or exercising dominance over something. Sometimes that subjugation is for good, and sometimes it’s not. A glorious example of good subjugation is Micah 7:19, where we’re given the gospel promise:

He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot

– literally, subdue our iniquities!

God’s intention here could only be good. We’re not supposed to be living selfishly and seeking to get as much as we can out of the world, but exercising stewardship – taking care of the planet He has provided and ensuring that it is enjoyed in the present and preserved for future generations, all – above all else – for the glory of our great God and the good of our souls.

This is also reflected in the last aspect – having dominon. What is implied in Genesis is explicitly spelled out in Leviticus 25 – three times in verses 43 to 53 of that chapter, God’s people are called not to rule over each other ruthlessly, and this is perfectly consistent with how we should imagine God’s people being called to rule prior to the fall and with how we should exercise authority today. What God had made was good, and how life should have been lived – and still should be lived today – is good.

In short, in how they conducted themselves as they lived on that brand new earth, Adam and Eve were called to be the image of God. They were supposed to do what God had done and would do if He was standing where they stood, treating one another and the creation they were given to tend with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, all the days of their very, very long lives.

Wouldn’t it have been great to have been part of that? Imagine being alive today in a world that hadn’t fallen, being able to go and pay Adam and Eve a visit and doing all in a Covid free, glorious world in which there is no sin, no death, no mourning!

But that’s not just something to dream about, brothers and sisters. Because of God’s grace and kindness towards us, a day is coming in which all things will be made new! In that day, things will be even better than they were in Genesis 1, because where Adam and Eve had a sinless beginning but could and did fall into sin, we will be made sinless and our new resurrection bodies will be imperishable, undefiled and unfading in glory forever! There will be no more sin, no more mourning. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Everything will be as it ought to have been, and all because of the one sacrifice of Jesus – the second Adam – on the cross.

But this new beginning is not merely future. As we read from Ephesians earlier, we are called today to put off our old selves, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Did you hear that? The likeness of God in this passage means true righteousness and holiness. That brings us to the heart of the matter. To bear the image of God and the likeness of God today can be summed up in one word – Christlikeness. 2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us Christ is the image of God, and this matches perfectly with Jesus saying to his disciples that if they have seen Him, they have seen the Father.

Our calling today, by God’s grace, is to recognise all the implications of Genesis 1:26-31, and not just their original meaning and purpose but their implications for the gospel. What we learn in Genesis teaches us that every single person on this planet needs to hear the gospel. Noone is too bad, too good, to anything. Everyone of us need Christ, and need to hear about His grace and see His grace in how people who call on His name live. In the decisions we make today about how we spend our time, how we spend the money in our bank accounts, how we treat one another and more, we show or we distort the image of God. Yes, it is God who saves sinners. He calls them out of darkness and into His marvellous light. But He also uses means – you and me – in doing that. How faithfully do I – do you – reflect the image and likeness of God?