I recently posted a review of a book that I couldn’t recommend, and have found the responses to that review on social media and in private correspondence very interesting.
A trusted friend, with vastly more wisdom and learning than I, encouraged me with their email, and introduced me to an American idiom that I hadn’t heard before: ‘burying the lede’
According to google, this is what that means: “To begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts”
In that review, I alluded to problematic teaching around our identity as human beings, the person of Jesus, and what is meant by ‘dominion’. Teaching and wording is one thing, but it is important that seemingly abstract ideas are connected to the practice of ministry.
What it means to be human is a key part of the gospel. To put it in terms of identity, God created humankind in his image and likeness, giving us a value and a role that transcends selfish individuality, and ultimately points towards God’s kingdom and glory. The fall changed this – the image was marred, damaged, broken – but the fall did not destroy the Image of God in any human, and the Image of God in us was not replaced by a sin image, for example. Before we get to some of the practical implications of this, I just want to note a few things about the Genesis narrative.
Genesis 1:26-28 gives us the glorious truth that every human being is made in the Image of God, a beautiful statement of value:
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in 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 in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This is before the fall. The story of the fall is unpacked in Genesis 3. The Image of God, both the ‘being’ and ‘doing’ of what it is to be human, is not removed – though work is harder, childbirth becomes painful, and sin enters the world. Everything is affected, but not everything is destroyed.
The Image of God is still fundamental to what it means to be human.
Genesis 5:1-3 emphasises this:
“This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”
Historical questions aside, the point is this – being made in the Image of God is still important, and still fundamental to what it means to be human. It is passed on. Of course, sin is now present in the world, but as if God knew that his people might misunderstand this, Genesis 9:6-7 offers us a reminder of what the Image of God means:
““Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind. As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”
Murder is bad because God says it is, and a key part of the reason for this that the the Image of God remains in every human. As if to emphasise this, God repeats to Noah the commission and promise of blessing we saw in Genesis 1.
How we understand what it means to be human is vitally important. Without getting it right we fall into the contemporary trap of devaluing human beings. If we think people carry a sin image rather than retaining the Image of God, we will devalue, shame, and denigrate them.
There is ongoing theological conversation about what exactly it is that ‘is’ the Image of God in humanity, but the important point is that it is still there. And this is why Christians should be the first to speak up against injustice, however uncomfortable it might be for us, because every person is made in the Image of God. It affects how we pray for healing and the coming of the Kingdom of God – however uncomfortable that might be for us to hear.
Let me sum up.
If we believe that every human being is made in the Image of God, then it affects the way we interact with people, pray, speak, serve and love.
If we believe that the Image of God is lost (it isn’t) or replaced with a ‘sin image’ (it isn’t) then we have no foundational theological grounds to care about anyone except ourselves.
Our identity is worth talking about. And it is worth talking about because the Bible gives us a clear steer, culminating in Paul’s beautiful words in Colossians 1:15:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”
The image of God. The firstborn. God himself identified with us, and identifies with us, in tying the ultimate means of salvation and revelation, Jesus Christ, with the language and basic human experiences essential to our human existence. Jesus was born. Grew up. Was educated. Tempted. Made sad. Made hungry. Mocked. Beaten. Whipped. Bled. Cried. Died.
This Image of God, this Jesus, in dying for the world, for every Image-bearer who would recognise him, started as a baby born to a virgin, mocked even then.
For some more reading on what it means to be human, here are a few things:
- John Behr’s Becoming Human is a beautiful, theological little book full of meditation and profound challenge.
- Mark Meynell’s What makes us human? is a great little introduction to this topic.
- Richard Lints’ Identity and Idolatry is a good theological introduction to this topic.
In terms of some practical outworking of understanding our identity in Christ, the following may be of interest:
- I would also recommend Beynon’s Mirror, Mirror as a brilliant book on identity, and Paul Mallard’s Invest your disappointments
- Reflecting on issues of Mental health, such as with Rachel Newham in Learning to Breathe, or Mark Meynell’s superb When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend.
- Considering how it echoes in our discipleship, like with Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples, or in our culture and churches, or even relationships with pastors, as explored in Pastors are People Too.