In attempting to establish a biblical basis for human identity, we begin, appropriately, at the beginning:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind as our image, as our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind as his own image,
as the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
The text above contains a slight variation on these well-known verses. We are accustomed to seeing references to our creation “in” rather than “as” God’s image. I offer this alternative for two reasons. First, the preposition allows for either translation. A significant example of this translation occurs in Exodus 6:3, in which God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, . . .”
The second reason for choosing this alternative has to do with the distracting path upon which the translation “in” often takes us. We speculate as to which human traits reflect God’s image: our physical appearance, our larger brains, our power of communication, our opposable thumbs, etc. The creation account has greater interest, however, in our function rather than our attributes. Any or all of the qualities above may contribute to our ability to fulfill our role as God’s image, but the bigger issue involves the nature of this calling.
Before considering what it means to be God’s image, we should note the remarkable nature of such an identity, especially against the backdrop of Israel’s world. While some interpreters have focused on the similarities between the biblical creation account and its contemporary alternatives, the true significance appears in its differences. Not only do we find the distinctive notion of a single sovereign deity who exists independently from the creation, but we also find a radically different view of humanity.
The other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts portray human beings as lowly creatures designed to serve the needs of the gods and to handle menial tasks the gods don’t want to take care of for themselves. In the Bible, however, God possesses no needs, meaning that humans cannot manipulate God in any way (another significant contrast). At the same time, the Bible elevates all humanity to the exalted place of sharing in the exercise of God’s governance of all creation.
This high purpose helps us understand at least part of the serious danger the Bible attaches to human attempts to portray God by making images of him. In doing so we inevitably lower God and increase the temptation to think that we can control or manipulate him, while at the same time forfeiting our role to be the image of God.
Think of the irony of the relationship between those two dangers. In an attempt to shrink God down to a manageable size so that we can control and manipulate him, we give up our high calling to share in his rule by living out the likeness of God that he has embedded within us.
We should mention another distinctive feature of the biblical creation account: woman’s essential role in imaging God. This fact challenges the frequently abusive and dismissive treatment of women throughout human history.
The mistreatment of women represents only one example of human failure to exercise God’s rule as his image within the creation. The central biblical descriptions of human identity share two vital traits when lived out properly. First, they reflect our role as mediators: we stand between God and his purpose within the creation. As such we must identify with God or we will abuse our exalted role for self-serving ends. At the same time, we must sympathetically identify with the creation of which we are a part and in which we serve. The second common trait of our biblical identity involves its universal scope, requiring us to rise above individual or tribal interests.
As our mediating role calls us to identify with the needs present within God’s creation, we must take care not to orient ourselves more to the creation than the Creator. Failure to exercise this caution causes us to become enslaved in toilsome labor because we attempt to find meaning in what God made or what we make rather than the One who made all. We become servants of the creation rather than God’s image reigning over it.
We will consider the nature of sin/failure in more detail later, as well as God’s work to redeem our failure. In closing this section, however, consider the following New Testament passages that connect Christ and his followers back to the creation calling to image God:
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
2 Corinthians 3:18
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.
In addition, the New Testament presents followers of Jesus as the inauguration of God’s new/renewed creation even now:
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
God has been at work since the corruption of his original creation to restore what was lost. In his promised future we will return to full participation in God’s reign, but even now we are called to bear witness to God’s reign in our individual lives and in community.
2 Timothy 2:12a
If we endure,
we will also reign with him.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.
And they will reign for ever and ever.