When I was a kid, neighbors would point at me and tell my dad, “the nut didn’t fall far from the tree.” I had a vague feeling I was being called a nut, but I couldn’t understand why. Later, I learned they were saying that I exhibited the same traits as my father – and the older this acorn gets, I see how true the adage is. Like my dad, I’m tall with thinning hair, love gardening, and go to bed so early that I’m the joke of my night-owl family.
In Genesis 1:27, we read that man and woman were made in God’s image. This was an ancient Hebrew way of saying that the nut didn’t fall far from the tree. We are like God. This doesn’t mean that because we have arms and legs that God has members, too – after all, Jesus said that “God is Spirit” (John 4:24). People have advanced many theories about what it means to be made in God’s image: that we possess an eternal soul, are capable of high-order reasoning and self-consciousness, or that we alone have the ability to relate to God in a meaningful way.
Acting on Behalf of God
I recently learned of another explanation that makes sense in light of the biblical world. In those times, kings would pepper their empires with statues or monuments of themselves. If you came upon such an image, you knew that the king’s rule applied there. Immediately after the Bible declares that humanity is fashioned in God’s image, God tells the man and woman to rule over the earth. There is nothing here about souls, reasoning powers, God-consciousness or any other spiritual trait. In the words of seminary professor J. Richard Middleton, the image of God means that humans have been given the “power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.” We are, quite literally, viceroys of the Almighty.
What does this mean? For one thing, it means we are very important to God. Some people don’t believe this. They either have such low self-esteem that they can’t see their eternal significance, or they believe that we are animalistic products of blind evolution with no divine stamp at all. Yet read these stunning words from the Psalms:
“…what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet…”
This is a breathtaking revelation. We were not created to be spoiled little princes and princesses, but glorious and honorable regents of the Most High, imbued with authority to steward the earth. We are to act on behalf of God.
A Marred Image, Restored
Some of you may remember the 1972 incident in which a man named Laszlo Toth vandalized the Pieta, Michelangelo’s exquisite statue of the Virgin Mary cradling her crucified son. Wielding a hammer and shouting that he was the risen Jesus Christ, Toth dislodged Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose and cheek, and chipped an eyelid before he was subdued by onlookers.
In a similar way, sin has marred the image of God within us. Instead of being His responsible representatives, we have become our own horn-tooters, selfishly protecting our petty kingdoms, fashioning God in our image instead of the other way around.
After the Pieta was damaged, a group called the Friends of Florence financed the restoration of the statue. Ten months later, after the work was completed, onlookers were amazed. The Pieta looked as flawless as it had when Michelangelo unveiled his masterpiece in 1499.
God was not content in leaving His image within us irreparably ruined. He sent us Jesus, who restored the divine image through His life, death and resurrection. Hebrews 2 expands on Psalm 8, repeating the Old Testament refrain that all things are subject to humankind. We know that the full reality of this is not yet realized. All of creation –including people – groans under the burden of sin. But Christ came as the harbinger of a restored cosmos, a new humanity. Jesus is the perfect image-bearer of God — or as the Hebrews writer puts it, “the exact representation of His being” (Heb. 1:3).
Here and Now
In the New Testament, the emphasis shifts from ruling as God’s agents to serving in humility as the ambassadors of Christ. Certainly the Old Testament doctrine of God’s image has not been negated – there are many scriptures pointing to our role of managers of creation, especially in the future age — but the apostolic witness is more concerned about participating in the new humanity now:
“..clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24).
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Eph. 5:1-2)
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 2:5)
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (I Pet 2:21).
The Bible itself undercuts any popular notion that Christianity is all about “pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by.” It is about so closely following Jesus in the present moment as to take part in His life – to take in His life as branches derive nourishment from the vine (John 15:1-8).
I wonder, when angels are in the presence of God, they point to us and say, “the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree”? I wonder if others can see that our fruit clings to its life-giving branches, that the produce of our lives is nurtured by the Spirit of Christ?
As Christians, our task is become more and more like Jesus, so that others may see Him in us. Nothing more – and certainly nothing less.
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