“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 claim 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? In the ancient world (specifically the Ancient Near East), 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.”
A False Image
In the Ancient Near East, an idol served a few purposes. Idols were placed within a temple, the place where the gods and humans were connected. The idol then functioned as a reflection and embodiment of the god. It was not thought of as the actual deity. Rather, the idol was 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 were considered 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 just idols or specific kings, are made in the image of God? Think about Genesis 1. Maybe you’ve heard someone speak about why and how humans were made in the image of God. There are a few obvious implications. Humans have souls, minds, emotions, and creative capacity that are unique to the rest of creation. And while these are truly unique characteristics of humans, it does not explain why Genesis claims that we are all made in God’s image. But when we look at the text, it tells us a different reason, a different story.
Our True Purpose
Genesis tells us that humans were created with a purpose, not just to be autonomously unique, but vocationally set apart. When God says he will make humans in his image, he has a purpose in mind that he makes clear. They are going to “rule and reign” and to be “fruitful.” This ruling, reigning, and fruitfulness reflects 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 in the garden in order to care for it.
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.” 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–something that humanity fails at rather quickly in Genesis 3. Our ruling and reigning is a call to advance the creation. God created this amazing space, and he decided 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 2 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
Meant to Rule?
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 Ancient Near Eastern world, and hopefully it shocks you too!
Along with our reigning responsibilities, we were meant to be priests. Not robe-wearing, pious priests, but caretakers of a sacred space. In the Old Testament, priests were assigned to take intentional care of sacred spaces within the temple and tabernacle. Just like them, Adam and Eve were placed within 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 them 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. The idols that we give power to, whether physical or not, 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?
The Truest Human... Jesus
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 focused 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 very differently from other kings. In his establishment of the Kingdom, Jesus invites humans into a new way--actually, the original way--of being human. When we follow the ways of Jesus’ Kingdom, we follow the path to true humanity.
When Jesus entered the grave and defeated death three days later, he exited the tomb with a path to restoration. Through his resurrection, Jesus 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 became 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, so that his followers can 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!). They are there “serving” and “reigning forever,” just like Adam and Eve were to serve, 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, 22:5
The opening chapter of the Bible invites us to reimagine human life. Amidst our flaws and sinful actions, there is an invitation from 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 you 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 that you are serving and letting rule over you?
Do the things God has designed you to do in the world he’s created. 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.