Have you ever read Lambert, the Sheepish Lion? It’s a children’s tale of identity, and growing up. The baby-delivering stork is dropping off a delivery of lambs to their new sheep mothers, and through a fateful mishap, a baby lion cub gets delivered to a sheep. The sheep mother raises him as one of the flock, but he never fits in. It’s not until he realizes that he is a lion that he comes out of the awkward stage and is able to bravely protect his flock from a hungry wolf.
Genesis 1:26-27 basically tells us that we’re like Lambert, the sheepish lion. On our own we don’t know what our identity is, or what we really are. So God tells us: we are, at a foundational level, made in the image of God. Like the lion, being made in God’s image is on the level of functional ontology.
We are (ontology) made in the image of God — that is, the very core of being is rooted in it (which is why throughout the ages many theologians have said that the imago Dei is rationality itself) — but it is also functional, that is, the imago Dei affects what we actively do. Lambert could never not be a lion; it is what he was at the ontological sense. Yet by his lion-like behavior he became more substantially a lion, and worked out what it means to be a lion.
Genesis 1:26-29 gives us some fundamental meaning behind the imago Dei, and it is echoed again in Genesis 9:6, after the flood. Here are 7 implications of what it means to be made in the image of God, starting to work out of Genesis 1:28-29 and ending with some biblical and logical inferences.
1. Bring Order to Chaos
I’m starting a bit out of order, but this is how the logic of the whole creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 presents itself to me in this passage. In Genesis 1:28 God commands us to subdue the earth. The image that is unfolded in this narrative is of a wild, chaotic sea which God reaches into by his Spirit, and brings order out of. God is a God who brings order out of chaos, righteousness out of sin, everything out of nothing.
In Genesis 1:27 he states that we are made in his image, and then explains some of the implications of that: we are to continue God’s work by bringing order out of the chaos of this world. We are to tame the wild, and participate in the work of God. God is telling us that he wants us to do what he would do if he were us. (WWGDIHWU makes a poor bracelet, unfortunately.)
2. Civilize the World
“Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth. . .” (Ge 1:27a). Part and parcel with bringing order to chaos is bringing societal order to relational chaos. Keller reminds us in Every Good Endeavor that the implication of this is that we are to civilize as we go. Look at the narrative of redemption history throughout Scripture. God’s people started out as disorganized nomads. Through God’s instruction they grew into a civilization, first small and meek; then great and formidable. Then, through the grace of Jesus Christ and the eucatastrophe of the cross, we find ourselves in the inaugurated Kingdom of God, the ultimate and eternal civilization. God graciously invites us into his civilizing work, as we participate with him in building the Kingdom of God, and being the Kingdom of God.
A sub-implication is this: whatever your vocation is, it matters. If you are a marketing girl, sales guy, plumber, accountant, or parking attendant — you are participating in civil nurturing and flourishing, and doing the work of the Lord. This gives our mundane work real meaning. This makes it eternal work.
3. Recognize Your Place
“have dominion . . .” (Ge 1:28). We are vice-regents, or little-k kings over creation. God made it that way. He made us a little below the angels, and a lot above everything else. The earth and all of creation is ours to enjoy (more on that in a moment), to cultivate (ordering, civilizing), and to rule over.
Let’s be clear: this does not give us permission to ride rough-shod all over the good things the Lord has blessed us with. This isn’t license for unleashing unmitigated destruction on our planet for the sake of greed. What this does is raise the bar of expectation. This is a rebuke: “rule over the world like God himself would rule over the world.” It is for us, yes…but not ultimately.
My favorite illustration of this is from the Lord of the Rings. For many long ages, the line of kings has been gone from Gondor. In place of the king, a steward rules the land. The steward’s job is to have full authority, but for the sake of another. Denethor’s downfall is he wanted ultimate authority, not sub-authority. Denethor wanted the rule and reign of Gondor for himself, and ended up going made with the lust for authority. Gondor is the king’s land, but is being managed and ruled on his behalf by the stewards.
This creation was created by, through, and for Jesus. It’s not for us, ultimately. We’re just stewards for awhile, until the return of the King.
4. Enjoy God’s Creation
“And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Ge 1:29). Think about that for a minute: God could have made us in such a way that we eat tree bark and dirt. But he gave us a world teeming with varieties of fruits and vegetables to delight our senses and nourish us.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is discussing with his interlocutors the perfect society. He fist posits a simple, meager existence, with only the bare essentials. Simple food, simple labor, simple life. One of his verbal sparring partners cries out, “But what about relish?!” Food, without condiments and delicacies? What’s even the point?!
When God created all things, he sat back and admired his work; he enjoyed it deeply. We are invited, even commanded, to do God’s work in the same way. Sit back, look around, and enjoy the bounty! God could have created us to live in the sort of dry, minimalist existence that Socrates suggests, but instead he gave us relish.
5. Know Whom You Reflect
Now we move to more biblical and logical inferences, the first of which is this: if we are a mirror, meant to image God, then we must know that which we are to reflect. Imagine a mirror in a room with no light. Without sight and light of the thing being reflected, what use is it? Though the mirror has the capacity to reflect, without light we are darkened and useless.
This is a plea for theologically-driven, doctrinally-sensitive Christians. Theology matters; we must know whom we are reflecting.
6. Have a Passion for Glorious Restoration
Keller makes a great observation in his sermon on the sixth commandment: he says that we all bear the image of God, and are imbued with inherent dignity and value. But he likened our post-Fall condition to the ruins of an ancient castle in Europe. Though it is crumbling and in disrepair, we all can clearly see a sense of nobility in it. We look at it and think, “Wow, wouldn’t this be stunning if it were restored!”
We ought to look at our neighbors and see the same potential for glorious restoration. We should still see the shadow of the image of God, as though dimly reflected in a beautiful aged and cracked mirror. It should drive us to compassion, and build in us a passion for restoration, for the sake of reflecting keenly the glory of God himself.
7. Grounds for Hope
Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is the image of God; Romans 8:29 says that we are “predestined to be conformed” to the image of Jesus. So what do we learn from that? Three things:
First, the indicative. This is something God did, something he predestined. It’s a statement of fact: we are predestined to be conformed. Period, that’s just the way it is!
Second: the imperative. In light of the context of Romans, and the broader context of Genesis 1 which we discussed above, we know that being made in the image of God is functional, or imperatival. It brings with it commands–things we ought to do, in order to work out the image of God in us.
Third: the promise. Our future is incredibly bright. If the image of God in man was distorted and warped at the Fall (Genesis 3), then at the return of our King it will be gloriously renewed! If we’re the mirror and God is the person reflected, here’s what’s going to happen when Christ returns: the image in the mirror will take on a life of its own, step out of the glass, and be with Jesus forever. Perfectly and completely you, and yet perfectly imaging Jesus Christ. John says “when we see him, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).
This is firm and definite grounds for hope. We, all of us, bear the image of God. We, Christians, were predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, who is the perfect image of God; and one day, we shall step out of our broken mirrors and be like Jesus forever.