In Genesis 1 we are told that God made man in his image, both male and female. Just as Genesis sets paradigms for God’s actions, so it establishes themes as the foundation for our understanding of the scripture, themes which find ultimate fulfilment in the kingdom of God as seen in Revelation 21-22. It is important to understand Genesis 1-2 as these chapters relate to the gospel message today. What does it mean that God made mankind, male and female, in his image? We can answer this question by the context within which the statement is made. In Genesis 1, God is seen as the royal majesty who forms creation by his word, each part for its purpose. This majesty is clearly depicted by the poetic structure of Genesis 1, as well as by his sovereign acts. This royal majesty is the image of God we see in the Genesis 1 text. Then, he makes mankind in his image. The next statement shows the meaning of this: he gives mankind dominion over his creation. This means that mankind is to enter into God’s rule over his earth, managing creation’s resources and creatures.
It is this image, or this joint rulership with God, which is seen in Hebrew scripture as the meaning of the term “sons of God”. God’s sons (a non-gender specific term) indicates those who exercise joint rule with him over his creation on earth. They are God’s sons because they join him in his rule in the world. They are God’s sons because they exhibit royal rule as God does. God, in creation, bestows this dignity upon all mankind.
Comment on the image of God in man has often been along the lines of the attributes or characteristics of God, like our moral, rational, artistic or self-conscious qualities. Recently, comment has noted the purpose of fellowship. A triune God has been assumed in the Genesis 1 text, and, it was said, God made man to enjoy this extended fellowship. The Genesis context however speaks of the image of God in man in a functional sense. It is man’s function to rule over the creation. This is the meaning. That is, the concept of the image of God is tied directly to the gospel message fulfilled in Christ. In the Hebrew intention, image of God means man, as a community, in fellowship with God and with each other, reflects God’s nature, as seen in the cross, into his creation, creating and ruling over new earth. This is the meaning of “image of God” in all texts throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Thus in ancient times, stone images of rulers were set up throughout their empire. Wherever these images were, this is where the king or emperor ruled. “Image” denotes rulership over land. In the same way, Christ rules over the nations through his image and likeness within his people/temple. A different type of kingdom, but it is the kingdom that exercises true rulership on earth, God’s way.
When we read other ancient creation narratives, we see the difference between those narratives and Genesis. At the time Genesis was compiled, civilization mirrored the concepts that came out of Sumerian culture before and after the Flood. In the creation narratives of Sumer, it was claimed that the gods established the rule of one king over the common people. This king was the image of god and everyone else was subject to his unequal rule. The gods also were said to have provided humanity with culture, agriculture and fertility, in return for humanity’s ritual service and gifts. The gods thus provided images of themselves to subject the people. In this, the image of God in mankind had been usurped both by the kings and by the idols and gods they worshipped. This left humanity with violent and self-enriching rulers, evident throughout the history of Genesis.
We see that pagan creation stories corrupted creational truth to suit the leaders. The creation narrative of Genesis is subversive to human empire and oppression over any group of people. Genesis subverts kingly and priestly rule of the masses. (By the way, these two – the kingly and priestly oppressive rulers – are also the two beasts of Revelation, then Rome and Jerusalem respectively.) Instead, Genesis bestows the gifts of creation freely on all humankind: no distinction between gender and people, whether kingly, priestly or common. All mankind, as noted in Gen 1:27, 5:1 and 9:6, are made in God’s image. There is no place for a hierarchical subjection of classes, gender or race. Furthermore, God bestows the gifts of creation, food and fertility upon his creatures without any demand for gifts or ritual service in return. Man is simply to enjoy them, by giving thanks in loving his neighbour. And finally, Genesis provides no image of God for man to serve, because man himself and herself is the image of God in his creation.
The Genesis text paves the way for the priesthood of all believers, not to be lived out in individualism, but in community; not being subjected to some ruler, but subjecting ourselves to one another in love. The subversion scripture points to isn’t one of violence, nor is it political or revolutionary, but it is of faith, an opposite life style of service from God’s people, “overcoming evil with good.”
Getting back to the concept of imago Dei (the image of God), we see that man lost this image in his fall near the beginning of Genesis. Instead of reflecting God’s character, he reflected the image of his idols. The idols, in turn, reflected the desires of man’s self-will. This was a demonic incursion into God’s creation that started in Genesis 3 and continued throughout the development of human cultures. Man reached out for self-designed freedom and became a slave, mimicking the greed, pride, prejudice and violence of those around him. God’s sons – mankind created to rule – used their God-given opportunities to destroy others and their environment. The “sons of God” in Genesis 6 had become the image of other false gods.
The gospel plan of God is about restoring this sonship to its proper place, where, once again, humanity becomes God’s partner in building creation and loving community upon earth. This is the final vision we see in Revelation 21-22.
First, as part of this plan, Israel was brought forth out of the gentile world. Jacob’s name was changed to Isra-el, meaning ‘power with God’, son of God. This points to Christ, who became Israel through the seed of David, in order to fulfil Israel’s calling. The nation of Israel was a “royal priesthood”; royalty denoting sonship with God. They were called the sons of God, when God divided up their land, according to the number of each of the twelve tribes. (Deut 32:8)
God’s new corruption-subverting culture began here. Israel was to love their neighbour and help their enemy, release slaves, obliterate corruption and care for the foreigner. They were not to have a standing army or a king, but if they did have a king, in rejection of God and rejection of his new community life, that king wasn’t to enrich himself. Israel was not to make images of God, but they themselves were the priests, reflecting God’s image into the world. The outcome was to be a completely different cultural imprint in the nations: love of God, rather than serving him for favours; love for neighbour, rather than for self.
Another mention of the Son of God in scripture is in the book of Daniel. Here, taken from among men, the Son of Man is exalted to heaven to rule over the nations of the earth. He is chosen from among men, the only begotten (the only one born among men) who is from heaven. “The first man was of the earth, the second man was YHWH from heaven.” (1 Cor 15:47, Kurios [Lord] in the Greek Septuagint translates from the Old Testament “YHWH”.) Christ, here, is heaven and earth joined in humanity. Daniel 7 speaks of Christ and his saints ruling with him over the nations. Here is mankind restored to his place of rule. This, then, restores us as “sons of God”, made in the image of God through Christ, restored to our inheritance, to rule over the nations.
When we look at the Hebrew gospel from the Old Testament, it is about the restoration of the sons of God. This was the expectation of the Jews during the period before Christ’s coming. They believed that, when Messiah came, he would restore Israel to their place of sonship in the world, ruling over the nations. But their view of ruling was to dominate the gentiles. This was a distortion of Genesis, because in Genesis God didn’t give man rule over other men or women. Men and women, in Genesis, are given rule over all other aspects of creation under heaven, but not over each other. But Israel, especially the Pharisees, supposed that their rule was over the adulterer and other sinners through the Torah. They didn’t understand that their rule was to be expressed through service. They mistakenly took “dominion” the wrong way. Christ shows through the cross the way in which we are to rule.
The Sermon on the Mount was the big shock for the Jews of that generation, regarding how the rule of God in earth is achieved. Instead of binding the Roman occupiers, in the Sermon on the Mount Christ said we overcome them by going the second mile, and by rejoicing in persecution. It’s entirely the opposite action from what we expect when we think of ruling. Jesus said we rule in his kingdom by being servant of the least.
The concept of “inheritance” in the gospel refers to our rulership in this world, as it was given to man in Genesis. Psalm 2 is about this inheritance given to Christ, to reign over the utmost parts of the earth. This Psalm depicts this rule in the cultural way of David’s time: Christ will break the nations like a clay jar. He will rule them with a rod of iron. This language shows the comprehensive nature of Christ’s victory; his kingdom renews all things and triumphs over evil in all nations. This poetic language (seen throughout the Old Testament) is fulfilled by the coming of Christ. Instead of crushing others, King Jesus is crushed by his enemies. Instead of destroying his enemies he reconciles them into his kingdom. This was Israel’s biggest shock when Messiah came. It’s the world’s biggest shock also; that God would behave in a self-humiliating manner, totally opposite to our depraved cultures. This behaviour is the nature of God’s rule; the image of God seen in Christ.
Psalm 8 also speaks of Adam’s rule over the earth, restored to humanity in Christ. Christ is seen as coming for this purpose. God has crowned him with glory and honour and made him to rule over the works of his hands, over the world. This encapsulates the notion of sonship in the scriptures. This sonship isn’t speaking of Christ’s eternal sonship, though he is God come in the flesh. It isn’t saying Christ is a second God. It isn’t saying Christ was born from God in heaven before creation, as a child is born from a father and mother. It is saying that Christ is heir of the world. He is God come in the flesh to pick up Adam’s mandate and fulfil it. A son of God is one who rules the world.
God came in the flesh, as man, to fulfil man’s call to dominion, so that he could share it once again with redeemed humanity. Notice that, in the above Psalm, glory is linked with being crowned to rule. When Paul said in Romans that all men have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, he was speaking of his sonship in ruling over creation. (Rom 3:23) This sonship is what Christ has restored.
We can see the book of Romans in this light. Here, Paul speaks of man’s fall in relation to creation. Instead of reflecting God’s image in the world, and instead of ruling over creation, man now worships images of creation, like birds and beasts. (Rom 1:23) Today, this idolatry can be expressed in terms of covetousness. Man worships the material objects that he desires, and he strives for a power over others that doesn’t originate from God’s image. This is a great fall: from being over, to being subject to and under. Man’s desire for things supplants his mandate of caring love towards his neighbour. It defiles our communities and fills the world with war, self-centredness, mass poverty and illnesses. Paul summarises the plight of mankind thus: “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. This relates back to Psalm 8: in turning to self, man becomes unfit to rule on earth in the image of God. Creation is turned over to bondage.
Paul continues by showing God’s plan of redemption. In this plan, man is not justified with God in order that he might live individualistic lives, but to be grafted into community with one another, to receive each other and to eat at one table, despite our different background, races, genders and social status; to consider each other in love. This is how the new life of grace is expressed, how we are to “reign in life through Jesus the Messiah.” (Rom 5:17) It is mimicking a new culture and new image as seen in Christ, who put the other person ahead of himself by taking up his cross.
Paul drafts his gospel in Romans according to his Jewish view of the faith. He depicts the new Israel – the sons of God – in Exodus themes. The new people of God pass through the waters of baptism, coming through the Red Sea into new life in Romans 6. In Romans 7 Israel comes to Mount Sinai, but find they can’t keep the law, because they are part of the fallen world God has called them to heal.
As we call out to God, we find it is by his Spirit, through the redemption of Christ, that we are able to walk in our inheritance as sons of God and enter the Promised Land (Romans 8). And what is this land or inheritance? It is the manifestation of the sons of God, the community that heals one another in the love for God that is shed abroad in our hearts, bringing the creation itself into newness and fullness. (Deut 30:6, Rom 5:5, Rom 8:21) Creation is set free from its bondage to corruption. Sonship is restored; the creation which the sons rule over is thus healed as a consequence. Thus, Abraham’s promised inheritance of the whole world is achieved (Rom 4:13).
Traditionally, we have seen the book of Romans as God’s plan to justify us, to restore us to his favour. We say that we have broken the commandments, so God is forgiving us in Christ through faith. And that, we say, is the gospel. However, that isn’t the whole gospel Paul is sharing. Its only part of it. We have lost God’s image to rule over his creation. Paul is speaking about this, and how God rectifies this in Christ. The gospel is Jesus’ lordship over his creation, through which we are joint heirs and restored to sonship with God.
The book of Romans is actually about God’s plan to restore man to dominion for the healing of his nations and of creation. It is through God’s people that Christ is subjecting all his enemies under him and taking his rule over the nations. This dominion is, first of all, within us. It isn’t a worldly dominion over others. Christ’s kingdom is worked out through his people by way of the cross working in our lives. This is what the Sermon on the Mount is about. His kingdom doesn’t work out on the earth by force. It is expressed through dominion in our character, over the things that rule us, things like fear and self. It is release from this bondage to ourselves, released to reflect God’s glory and image, instead of our own, into the nations. This image of God is the cross. It shows a God who humbled himself to serve. This is the image we reflect. Dominion is service.
By now we can see two things about the Genesis narrative. First, it shows us what it means to be made in the image of God. It means rulership over the world. Second, we can see what the nature of this image, or rulership, is. We can see what God means by man having dominion. Because Christ is the express image of God, we see how God expresses his rule through what Christ did. It is through Christ-like love that community is built; community which heals others, societies and nations. This is God’s redemption plan for his creation. Dominion isn’t expressed through an enforcement of the will of God upon society or upon other people. It isn’t expressed through cultural or nationalist conflicts, whatever the justification. It isn’t expressed through our prosecution of sinners. It is expressed through the taking up of our cross in order to serve others. It is expressed through care for the nations.
In this section we see what the Hebrew gospel is. It isn’t God’s plan to take individuals to heaven. It is God’s plan to heal the earth, to join heaven’s rule with this world through God’s sons, to form us into community that reflects his image to the world. This community is the church, God’s new image bearers.
We can also see what the term “sons of God” means. The sons of God are the ones through whom God acts in his benevolent healing and just/merciful rule in the nations. The result? Revelations 21- 22. The term “sons of God” in scripture represents those who are given heirship over God’s creation. This is what the term meant in Hebrew text, beginning from Genesis 1. They rule with God as his vice-regents in this world. In Daniel 7 this is centred in the ministry of Jesus, who is exalted to rule over the nations. His saints rule with him. The purpose of redemption is to restore us as a body and community, to sonship over the world. It is a world-focused gospel. This “rule” is the image of God. Thus, those who exercise such rule, his way, are his sons.
The nature of this rule was exhibited by Christ on the cross. (Phil 2:5-11) Worldly rule reflects the image of the self-god. Worldly dominion functions like the Pharisees, accusing and destroying. God’s rule functions through peacemaking and self-giving. He reconciles his enemies rather than destroys them. (Matt 20:25-28) The only destruction God is involved in is when he hands people over to their own self-destruction. This is often depicted in scripture in apocalyptic language, but it always means the people bring destruction upon themselves because they refuse to repent.
God made man – male and female – in his image. ‘Image’ means to be the missional representation of God in the world. The Hebrew for image is “selem”, also used for an idol or statue representing a god or ruler in the land. In Genesis, God made the world by royal decrees and set man over the creation. Adam and Eve were to mediate divine blessings to the world. Israel were the same in their calling to be a royal priesthood, God’s representatives and agents in the world, sharing in God’s administration of creation’s resources and creatures. Christ is the full image of God and also the temple through which God’s blessings come to his creation, through Christ’s body. This again shows the purpose of our calling: not to go to heaven, but to mediate the union of heaven and earth. This is the Hebrew gospel.