I am becoming convinced that in order to fully understand the work that God accomplishes through Jesus the Messiah on behalf of all humanity we must reflect on God’s original plans for humanity. At minimum, salvation is God’s actions to restore humanity to His original designs for women and men.
This essay will reflect principally on Genesis 1:26-31:
NIV Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
This text is profound and continues to spark conversations about the essence and purpose of humanity. This passage clearly affirms that every single human being has been created in the image of God (Latin: imago dei). This fact alone raises the implications of any study of this text. Yet, most attempts at penetrating the account of the creation of humanity make the mistake of trying to explain ontologically the meaning of the image of God – in other words, most try to explain the essence of humanity. This text however is more interested in the function and purpose of humanity. Below I will explore briefly two movements in this text and end with some theological reflection in light of the coming of Jesus Christ.
1) Humanity as the Pinnacle of God’s Creative Activity
Creation reaches its zenith in God’s crafting of humanity – women and men in His image. There are a number of clues to this reality. First, more verses are devoted to the making of people than to any other part of Creation. Second, “let us” language suggest the care and deliberation of God in the forging of humanity in God’s image. Much ink has been spilled over the precise meaning of the plural. The most plausible explanation is that “let us” is either a plural of majesty (God is so awesome that He speaks as a “We”) or it is God addressing the heavenly court. Regardless, this language clearly raises the importance of this section. Third, God appoints humanity to serve as God's regents and ambassadors. No other creature or created thing exercises authority over humanity. Instead, humanity is to reign over creation as God’s stewards or regents. Last, in 1:31 God offers a final evaluation of his creative activity. He previously reckoned Days 1 to 5 to be “good.” Now with the creation of humanity, God elevates his self-evaluation to “very good.”
All of these data suggest that the creation of humanity is the climactic event of God’s creative activity. All that remains for God to do at the conclusion of Day Six is rest (2:1-3).
2) Humanity as the Visible Representatives of the Creator God
A missiological focus is implicit in humanity’s creation in the image of God.
In the Old Testament, the word tselem is translated as image. It tends to refer to that which is visible. In other words, imago dei points to humanity as representatives of God in Creation. Throughout the Scriptures, creating visible representations of God is prohibited. It is striking to recognize that in Genesis 1 God created people to serve as a visible image of the divine. We are God’s representative agents. We may read this as a missiological mandate: God created people to be reflections of the Creator God. Humanity stands before the remainder of Creation as a witness to the God who has fashioned the heavens and the earth. Thus, from the beginning of Creation, we see that humans were born for a purpose. This purpose was to represent the character of God before the rest of Creation.
As a result of being forged in the image of God, humans fulfill a key role for God. Humanity was created to rule over creation. In our day, this has ironically been twisted into a warrant for abusing the earth and devaluing our fellow creatures. Genesis does indeed grant a high place to humanity, but this has to be understood in light of a representational authority. Humanity does rule for its own sake or prerogatives. Humanity exercises dominion over creation on behalf of God. The actions of people are to mirror those of God. Humanity’s mission is to reflect God’s character and prerogatives in its exercise of authority. We don’t act for ourselves, but for God and for others. This is the only sort of dominion that Genesis envisions. In its wider context, Genesis 2:15 confirms this reality, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (italics added). We may even call this dominion through servanthood.
The Apostle Paul will make a similar connection between creation and mission in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. In the same context in which Paul describes those in Christ as part of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), he uses the language of diplomacy in stating that as part of the new creation, “so we are God’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20).
There are two elements implicit in this missiological function: holiness and community. In Genesis 1, it assumed that humanity will achieve its mission of representing God through two key means. Humanity represents God to the World by reflecting God’s character. This is the essence of holiness. Related to this is the reality that God did not create a solitary human creature, but differentiated humanity into its two sexes – male and female. Humanity thus was created to live in genuine community with one another.
We may summarize humanity’s role as God’s visible representatives to Creation with three phrases/themes:
Global/Local Mission – humanity serves as the mediator/ambassador between God and Creation
People in Community – humanity lives in authentic and intimate community as part of its reflection of God’s character in fulfillment of God’s mission
Spiritually Transformed (Holiness/Character) – humanity embodies and reflects God’s character
I call these three themes the GPS for the Bible.
It is worth stating that every single person who has ever lived was created for this purpose. There are thus no worthless people. Everyone has amazing potential. The problem is that humanity corporately and individually has turned away from God and sought to find its own way.
3) Jesus as the Fullest Reflection of Our True Humanity
Jesus came to deliver humanity from sin, injustice, brokenness, and shame. From Genesis 3 onwards, Creation is ruptured by the persistence and pervasiveness of human sinfulness. Jesus came to live the truly human life. He perfectly enacted and fulfilled the mission of God. Jesus, the Word, took on our flesh and made known to humanity the truth and reality of God:
NIV John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made it possible for humanity to live out God’s original purposes. By reconciling us to God and filling us with the Holy Spirit, Jesus has awakened humanity to God’s creational purposes and unleashed his people to live the life that God created them to live. We may say that Jesus came to make it possible for us to be fully human again.
God created humanity to serve in a profound role. Humanity is the jewel of God’s creation. God has created each person to serve in God’s mission. As such, humanity lives to connect the reality of God to Creation by reflecting God’s character corporately in community and individually as persons created in God’s image.
We must not read these functions as rigid categories or attempt to straight jacket every human being into some clone or ideal. If God is endlessly creative, why should we attempt to “standardize” humanity? Are not we in the Church often guilty of producing “followers of Jesus” who are too often closer to being protégés or a Mini-Me than true reflections of Jesus? If God created every human being with a distinct set of fingerprints, why would we ever want to limit the creativity and skill set of followers of Jesus? It is time for the Church to call people to discover their true humanity in Jesus Christ. It is time for us to Awaken humanity.
For a more in depth discussion, see my book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World .
© 2016 Brian D. Russell