Imago Dei: Man as God Created Him to Be (Gen 1:26-31)

Author’s Note: I am preaching through Genesis on Wednesday nights. Here I will present edited notes in blog form. You can access the audio of this sermon here. May God be glorified and His people edified. Comments below if you like.

In our previous three looks at Genesis — here, here, and here — we looked at the who, when, what, how, and why of creation. However, more time needs to be devoted to the thing which, after God created it, He was finished and declared all He had created to be very good. That “thing,” of course, is man. Us. You. Me. So in this study we’ll look closer in Genesis 1 at the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-31.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you;  and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Now we didn’t even read all of what God created on day six. Sometimes we forget He made the animals the same day He made humans. Even so, there is still more space devoted to the creation of man than anything else, and it’s fitting, since man is the pinnacle of God’s creation.

The creation of man is the only thing created preceded by divine deliberation. We scratched the surface of this in the previous study, but in verse 26 we see, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image.” The question asked by Bible readers and scholars for centuries is, “Who is the Us being addressed here?” After all, you’ve got God addressing a plurality here, of which He is one of the plurality. So who is God, Elohim in the Hebrew, talking to? 

One idea is that “Let Us” is a remnant of polytheism, the belief in more than one (even many) gods. The Hebrews, who were monotheistic, believing in one God, would come to be surrounding by other peoples who were polytheistic. And because Israel worshiped YHWH as one God, this idea “Let Us” is some polytheistic reference can be dismissed.

A second idea is “Let Us make” God was addressing His creation, the heavens and the earth. But this idea is refuted within the passage itself. The heavens and earth don’t create or make anything. In verse 27 we see God alone is identified as the Creator of man.

A third idea is that the use of the plural Us and Our is a way of honoring the majesty of God, but the majesty of God really isn’t the point of the passage we’ve read. The creation of man is the point of the passage. So that’s not it.

A fourth thought is that God is deliberating with the hosts of heaven, the angels. Yet, there are a couple of problems with this view. First, there is no mention of angels anywhere else in Genesis 1. But even more so, second, it doesn’t say we were created in the image of angels. It doesn’t even say we were created in the image of God and angels. It says we were created in the image of God, period.

So the fifth view of what it means when God says “Let Us make man in Our image” is the one I believe is correct, the idea I believe makes the most sense in Genesis 1, which I believe is verified by the rest of the Bible. This verse teaches divine plurality, by which I mean what I’ve talked about briefly already in this study, that there is more than one in God. Verses 26-27 are an intra-Trinitarian dialogue, the three Persons of the Trinity talking amongst themselves.

Now to be clear, Genesis 1 doesn’t teach us that there are three Persons in the Godhead. Yet, we do see there are more than one. We first saw this in Genesis 1:1-2, where God creates the heavens and the earth, and then a specific Person, the Spirit of God, is said to be the One who is over the surface of the deep. Here again we see, “Let Us make man in Our image,” we see there is more than one in the One who has created all things. There is unity in the plurality of the God-head.

And again, we can look to passages like John 1:1-3 and Hebrews 1:1-4 and see Jesus was there in the beginning creating as well. He is one of that same Godhead who created the heavens and the earth. He is one of the Us who made man in His own image.

And it is that phrase — the image of Godimago Dei in Latin— that is at the heart of this entire passage. In verse 26 again we see, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” And then you drop down to verse 27 and we see “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” And at the heart of it all, that phrase: the image of God.

But what does that even mean? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Well we can partly see what is meant by image the way we see images in the rest of biblical history that followed. Kings, for example, would set up images, statues of themselves, throughout their kingdoms to more or less mark their territory, to show their sovereign domain. Maybe the worst example of this in the Old Testament is Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3, who set up the golden image and went so far as to command everyone to worship his golden image. Of course, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the three young men better known by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, refused — and they were thrown into the fiery furnace. But I bring that up to point out that Nebuchadnezzar’s image was meant to be representative of himself. When you refused to worship the image it was as if you were refusing to worship him as your king. The image was representative of the one whose image it was.

In a time that has yet to come, described in Revelation 13, Satan will instruct the people of the earth to make an image of the beast, the Antichrist, and the people will be made to worship the image of the beast (i.e., worship the Antichrist), because it will be representative of him.

Those are examples of images in Scripture used in the negative sense; however, it’s far from negative that God created man in His own image. He created man to be His representative on the earth He created. It’s a great, mysterious, wondrous thing that we are created in the image of God, not to be worshiped mind you, but to represent God and ultimately worship Him. So, in some sense, we represent God on earth. 

To be in the image of God, then, means like God, men and women possess the attributes of personality, whereas plants and animals do not. Having personality means we possess knowledge and feelings and a will.

JakeBut what about animals, you might say? My dog certainly seems to have a personality, and a will. I would say he has knowledge but I guess it’s very, very limited, since he can’t seem to understand that you’re not supposed to chase cars. But anyway, the kind of knowledge, personality, and will I’m talking about when I speak of the image of God is not something any animal possesses.

Animals do not create or make as men do. They react to certain problems or stimuli. They have behavior patterns, in which they are building things like nests or hives or webs or dams. But they do not and cannot have spiritual knowledge. They do not have religious or spiritual feelings. They do not have a will that we would even begin to describe as spiritual. In short, animals do not have personality traits that link them to God. Personality, the way we think of it in terms of being in the image of God, is that which links man to God, but does not link the rest of creation to God. To be created in the image of God, then, is to have personality.

It’s also to have morality, a sense of right and wrong, and within that a sense of both freedom and responsibility. When Adam and Eve were created, as the fourth century theologian Augustine wrote, they are created posse non peccare, which means able not to sin. They were free not to sin. In fact, the only prohibition on their freedom was to acknowledge the authority and sovereignty and goodness of God by obeying His command for them to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Of course, we know how that ended. They were able not to sin, but they chose sin, and in that moment they died spiritually. As a result, all humans born after them would be born dead spiritually, or as Augustine wrote, non posse non peccare, not able not to sin. We are conceived in iniquity as David puts it in Psalm 51, born into sin, as Paul writes. And in Romans 2:15 everyone has the Law written on their hearts, “their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” We all have consciences. That’s the image of God in us. And yet, because we are born sinners, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. By nature, then, we don’t know God. That image — even our consciences — it’s corrupted, distorted.

It’s instructive, then, when we think about salvation, and specifically sanctification, that act of God by which He makes sinners holy, like He is, the Bible says in Colossians 3:10 we are “renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him. Those who are saved are, Romans 8:29, “conformed to the image of His Son.” The ultimate salvation of all who believe will result in the image of God being the renewed in them, the corruption of sin being removed completely and finally, where once again in God’s presence we will be not just posse non peccare — able not to sin, but non posse peccare — not able to sin. We’ll be perfect, with perfect morality, just as Adam and Eve had when they were created in the image of God.

They had personality. They had morality. To be in the image of God also means they had spirituality. And this is kind of piggy-backing onto personality, but God created man for something He did not create the rocks or the fish or the trees or dogs and cats for, and that’s communion with Him. God is spirit, says Jesus in John 4:24, so being the image of God means being spiritual. And since God is eternal, we were created by Him to have communion forever, eternally, with Him. Dogs have bodies, cats have bodies, whales have bodies… but only man possesses a spirit.

This is clear later on in biblical revelation in that God comes and dwells as a man. He identifies with man. He grieves for man. And He intervenes in the history of men.

Furthermore, this special relationship God has with mankind is reflected in the relationship of man with woman. Man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man is what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:7. They are created differently, but Adam identifies with her, he sees himself in her, and he loves her. We’ll see in Genesis 2 he says she’s “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” So it is with God. We are not like Him, but we can see Him in us, because we are spiritual beings, in the image of God.

Finally, being made in the image of God we have been by Him given the capacity to represent Him, and we do that by means of the mandate He gives us in this passage. We are made… to rule over the rest of His creation. Look back at verse 26. “Let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

We saw in verse two that the Spirit of God was over the surface of the deep, over the chaos, over the formless, over the void. In other words, in control of it all, sovereign over it all. Well in the same way, God created man to have a type of sovereignty over everything on the earth. It’s reiterated in verse 28.

God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

First, man is blessed by God. Then, he is given his basic instructions.

Now we’re going to find out in Genesis man has often had a problem obeying the instructions to be be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. At Babel in Genesis 11 man will be more interested in making a name for himself and building a tower to heaven than obeying God’s command to fill the earth, and God will judge them. In Exodus 1, the Pharaoh of Egypt sees the Hebrew children as a threat and so he had the males tossed into the Nile River. And even today, while people are no doubt fruitful, there isn’t as much multiplication going on. Children are seen as a liability today instead of the gift, the reward God says they are in Psalm 127:3. And so millions have been aborted, well over 50 million in the last forty years in our country alone. Who knows in nations like China?

In the perfect, sinless existence God created man in, though, he was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, implying that man would either move beyond the Garden of Eden eventually. He was also to subdue it, and rule over the fish and the birds and every living thing on the earth. Again the word over is used. And the words subdue and rule are military language. Man was to have dominion over the earth from the beginning. Not that there was a conflict between man and the earth in the beginning that would prevent this, since God pronounced everything “good,” but what this is is really a command to study the earth and utilize the knowledge of the earth for human flourishing, and likewise, the flourishing of creation.

Today there are many scientists out there who set man at odds with the health of the earth, and some even go so far as to think the welfare of the earth and the animals is to be a higher priority than the welfare of human beings, but Genesis 1:28 suggests the reverse is true. On earth man is the priority, and ultimately what is best for the flourishing of human life will be what is best for the flourishing of all the creation. Now all of this has been corrupted by sin, to be sure, but the concept still holds true today. Human life comes first, because that is what is best for all life.

In verse 29 God announces He has provided what man will need to not merely survive, but thrive on the earth. To go back to some discussion from last week, God gave every plant yielding seed on the whole earth to man for food. And in verse 30, we see that every green plant for food was given to the animals for food. Going back to the discussion from last week, this reinforces the idea the use of plant life as food was not considered death, and provision was made for all animals so that they would not eat one another. God’s creation was given a fruit and veggie diet, beloved, give as a natural resource provided by the Creator of nature.

Finally, there’s verse 31.

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Several, if not most of the English translations of Genesis 1, when the days of creation are being described, say “the first day,” “the second day,” “the third day,” and so on. The New American Standard is a bit different. In verse five it says, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” In verse eight, “a second day.” In verse thirteen, “a third day,” and so on. Until the sixth day, when it says “the sixth day.” The sixth day.

Why the distinction in Hebrew? Why single out the sixth day with the definite article?

It’s because the work was completed. As far as things made are concerned, creation was done. Only the Sabbath day of rest remained. But here God saw all that He had made, from light to the seas and sky to sun, moon, and stars, to animals for every place, to finally man, made in His image, male and female. Every part of God’s creation was now in perfect harmony with every other part, and now there was man to have dominion over it all as His representative on earth, with whom He would have communion. Only then did God stop and say it was not just good, but very goodexceedingly good.

This stresses the completeness, the finality, of the work, and it’s one of very many reasons why I find attempts to reconcile the Bible with evolution to be very much lacking. God Himself stresses the finality of it all in verse 31. There is no evolving. It is very good, with God over it all and man as the crown jewel of all things God made… the imago Dei… the image of God… man as he was created to be.

When we get to Genesis 3 we’ll see that image of God in man corrupted, and the rest of the Bible will be about that image ultimately being restored… in those whom God will save through His Son Jesus Christ… for His own glory. Until that day comes, what we ought to do is, as far as creation goes, put human life first, because God does, and seek to increase the amount and the quality of the communion we have with God, looking forward to that day when we’ll see His Son face to face.

Father, may our communion with You be ever purer, ever sweeter, and ever more common than it is right now. Grant to us the grace of understanding You as our Creator better, and our role on this earth as Your representatives, exercising dominion, better. Help us to put human life first, including loving one another as we love ourselves, reflecting a foremost love for You. Guide us to treasure that which You have given, knowing that for those in Christ an even better inheritance awaits. May You be glorified Father, along with Your Son Jesus, in whose name we ask these things in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

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