810-664-8565 office@fpclapeer.org
November 11, 2018

Images of God

Passage: Genesis 1:26-28
Service Type:

Usually my sermons zero in on just one scripture: it keeps me honest and puts the focus directly on the Bible passage at hand. Today’s sermon is a tad broader, however, because I want to introduce you to a vital concept in Christianity. It’s never fully explained in any one place but crops up again and again across the Bible: humanity is created in the image of God. You are made in God’s image. Our scripture for today is the origin of the idea, but it goes beyond Genesis. On the upper half of the screen you’ll see a collection of verses all touching on this idea that humanity was created in the image and likeness of its Creator, like Genesis 1 says.[1] On the bottom half of the screen, you’ll find some related—but distinctly different—verses on how Jesus Christ is the image of God or how the saved are slowly conformed to the image of Jesus.[2] More on those verses later. We won’t read aloud all these passages, as there’s too many to do well, but I want to show you what we’re working with Biblically.

So… we’re told we limited mortals are created in the image of an infinite, spiritual God. So what does it mean for us humans to be God’s image as Genesis 1 says? And before you respond, know that your answer to this question—what does it mean for us to be made in God’s image—your answer… is your definition of what it means to be human. You don’t want to leave anyone out, else you’re branding others as sub-human, so it needs to be a broad understanding. Yet you don’t want to say that mosquitos are in God’s image, so it needs to be distinctly Godly. This is a question of what it means to be human. Were we in a classroom rather than a sanctuary, you and I would discuss and debate each possible answer. But instead, on screen you’ll see a small list of answers Jewish and Christian thinkers have theorized over thousands of years.[3] Some answers say it’s in our essence: our free will, moral duty, spiritual nature, or human intellect are what separate us from animals. Others are functional: God gives us dominion over the earth as stewards, so stewardship must be what it means to be human. Yet others might define the image of God socially: our capacity for loving, self-giving relationships is what the Lord means when saying we are made in his image. I tell you all these rival answers because the topic is still debated. Scripture never directly says—“This is what it means to be made in God’s image”—but rather declares that we are and leaves it to us to figure out why that is. As for my own answer… we’ll get there eventually too. But again, this is a question of what it means to be a human being.

But there is a problem. The Bible says we were created in the image of God… but two chapters after today’s creation scripture, we know what happens. Temptation, sin, death, and exile from God’s presence and that Garden of Eden harmony. Humanity is a masterpiece made in God’s image… but someone drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. That goodness, that God-image-ness, is still inside each and every human who has ever lived, be it ever so shrouded in pain or wickedness or shame. Yet even the noblest of us, the ones through whom the image of God seems to shine out like a sun… even their goodness is flecked with shadows and sin. One of my favorite descriptions of humanity’s predicament comes from NBC’s The Good Place, when an arch-devil explains why demons love frozen yogurt: “There’s something so human about frozen yogurt. You take something beautiful, like ice cream… and you ruin it a little, just so you can have more.” We humans were made to be like ice cream: beautiful, joy-giving, and good. But while traces of sweet goodness still linger in every human heart… we all nonetheless find ourselves… frozen yogurt. There’s something there… but not quite as good as the original. This is how Christianity understands humanity: beautifully and wonderfully made… but ruined just a little, like fro-yo. Like a bad cover song. Like a dented Mercedes. Good… slightly askew.

I love that this blemished-image-of-God understanding of humanity within Christianity. This concept was one of the things that truly intellectually persuaded me to believe during my youthful questioning. Seeing people as Christianity presents us… helps me make sense of the world around me. Whenever a serial killer is arrested, nine times out of ten his neighbors all talk about how nice and polite he was. Most Nazis SS officers during World War II were not lunatics. According to Holocaust escapee, political theorist, and Nazi war crimes trial documentarian Hannah Arendt, the average supporter of Hitler’s Third Reich was an ordinary human being who held doors open for neighbors, loved their spouse and kids, and was fairly ‘normal’… save for the fact they backed a fascist regime that perpetrated one of the greatest crimes in human history. This isn’t to say that Nazis are good: they’re evil and should be fought. Rather, it is to say that they are people, that though we pretend to ourselves it could never happen here or with us, terrible evil is possible in any society, by any people. Seemingly ordinary human beings are capable of immense harm, and insanity isn’t a viable explanation for most evils that we perpetrate. Yet the reverse is also true: the worst among us are still capable kindness, still are not wholly given over to shadow, still have a humanity in them that merits humane treatment and rights even if their goodness only dimly shines through. This is a wisdom scripture gives us: all humans are created in the image of God—so don’t be surprised at their goodness—but that image of God has been tainted in every human soul—so don’t be surprised at their badness.

This understanding of humanity—always a little bit good, always a little bit bad—is the basis for the Judeo-Christian tradition’s support for universal human rights… and for the need for equal laws to protect those rights for all. For crime and evil violate the image of God in other human beings… while at the same time, the image of God in criminals and offenders… demands we nonetheless honor the fact that the Lord created that person in God’s own image. It is why we as Christians must reject politics that demonize the foreigner, the strange, the outcast. Recognizing another’s evil and taking steps to avoid it is one thing… but denying the image of God in others, denying their humanity and inherent God-given value… that is sin. But it goes beyond morality, law, and ethics. God is infinitely wise and all-knowing. Every human—as tarnished images of God—is a little bit smart… and a little bit stupid. Don’t be surprised when others know more than you, and don’t be arrogant when you know more than others. Be prepared to laugh at your own foolishness in the face of others: your wisdom comes from God… but its hands have been tied by the Fall of Man. Limited, fallible knowledge is part of this fallen world. This applies to physical activities and beauty as well. Music, sports, acting, painting: they bring immense joy. But there is never a perfect recording, no such thing as the perfect throw, never a painting that exactly reflects its human creator’s intent. This understanding of humanity paints this side of eternity as a bittersweet thing. Like leaving a lover. Like frozen yogurt.

And therein lies the problem. We are bruised and broken masterpieces made in the image of our Creator. But while we can further bruise the artwork, we lack the tools to make it whole again. And so here we come back to that second batch of image-of-God scriptures. The New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews declares in chapter 1, verses 2-3: “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, [Jesus], whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. [Jesus] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When Jesus had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” The letter to the Hebrews explains that Jesus is many things: God incarnate, a perfect high priest, a perfect sacrifice, our Savior. But those first verses highlight this rarely-mentioned fact: Jesus is the perfect human. We were created in the image of God… but that image had paint splashed on it. But Jesus shows us what it means to be truly human by showing us what it means to be the image of God. The Nicene Creed that we said together earlier even declares about Jesus, our God incarnate: “he became truly human.” Moreover, Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s glory—something neither you nor I nor anyone else can claim—and so in Jesus not only do we find what it means for us to be human… but also what it means for God to be God. Not only are we given an example of what true humanity-as-image-of-God looks like through Jesus… the work of Christ as Savior promises a restoration of what was lost, a clean-up job of the ages that polishes away eons of rust. For while you and I were created in God’s image, Jesus himself is God, the reflection of God’s glory that we mortals might see and believe, the exact imprint of God’s own being. You and I are modeled after God. Jesus Christ is the genuine article, God among us in a way we can know and believe in, who as a fellow human shows us how we were meant to be humans but as God reveals the saving glory of the Lord.

So what does it mean for us to be made in God’s own image? My own two cents is that we were created for deep and lasting love, love for God and for each other. Devils have wills of their own and can debate ethics fiercer than any philosopher. Not everyone fulfills God’s calling to properly steward over creation. But every human can love. And when someone is incapable of loving… we well and truly do call such people monstrous. And 1 John 4:20 reads, “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Similarly, James condemns the verbal abuse of others: “With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God… My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so!” When Christ walked this Earth, it was not his rationality or his will or his power that he came to earth to show—though he revealed all those things and more—but rather his love, a love that chose him to die that humanity might be saved. We are created in the image of God—I personally believe—because we have the capacity, duty, and gift of loving God and other people. To be made in God’s image is to be made to love. To be truly human is to be truly loving. We blemish that truth, ruin what we were created to be, yet still every human has some love in them, even if only the lowly, animalistic love of self alone.

So when you are down on yourself, thinking you’re no good… when you hate others, whether political opponents, folks who are different, people we burn against with righteous anger… when we throw up at hands at other people… know that even the worst of us still is marked by the handprint of our Creator, still bear some portion of God’s image, be it ever so obscured with soot and sin. And when we puff ourselves up with pride, when we presume to be perfect or wise… remember that while we were created in God’s own image… our present status is as bruised and broken masterpieces, clay pots waiting to be reassembled. We long for the day when the Savior comes again—the one who was fully God and fully human, who showed us what it means to be human once more, whose work restores a lost humanity to us all—we wait for Christ’s return, when at last what was tarred and hidden in our humanity will at last be restored and renewed, shining with the brightness of God’s image that the Lord intended in our creation.

So grasp that Biblical vision of humanity… hold onto that vision of Christ as the pioneer and example of true humanity… and wait with eager patience for the coming of Christ our God and king in power, when at last a battered and wounded humanity will be healed forever, the work of God’s hands at last restored, the image of God already in each of us shines out fully in pure light for all to see, evermore. May we have the love and faith to be found ready on that day. Amen.

[1] Genesis 5:1-3, Genesis 9:6, Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:7, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:22-24, Colossians 3:9-10, James 3:7-10

[2] John 1:14-18, Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:49, 2 Corinthians 4:4-7, Colossians 1:15-19, Hebrews 1:1-4

[3] Some Answers Include: free will or freedom to choose; reason or intellect; moral or ethical responsibility; a spiritual nature; dominion or stewardship over creation; or the capacity for loving relationships. Normally I recommend The Bible Project as a study help, but in this case, their video on the image of God only explores the functional viewpoint of image-of-God-as-dominion and doesn’t even acknowledge the other options. They have a four-part podcast series on the topic that might explore the alternative ways of understanding the image of God, but I haven’t listened to it and so can’t comment on it. If you want to research this topic further on your own, typically theologians refer to this concept by its Latin name—imago Dei—and I recommend that concept be the term you look up in order to keep your searching narrow and focused on Christian theology.


News & Events

News about our upcoming events


Connect With Us

Follow us for info and updates