October 3 2012

Made in the Image of God – Part 1

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Shakespeare wrote the great line, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” But what is our true self? Who are we? What does it mean to be human?

Well, the Bible’s answer to that question is “you are made in the image of God”. The key distinction between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom (and the plant kingdom for that matter) is that, unlike everything else God created human beings in his image. This defining truth of our identity is found right at the beginning of the Bible in the very first chapter. God has made the entire universe and has filled its emptiness with stars and planets and on earth he fills it will plants and animals, and then on the 6th day of the Creation week, the story goes like this…

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:26-31)

Now, if we left it there at “you are made in God’s image”, it could leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it might not point you in the direction God wants you to go with this sense of identity. The idea the we are made in the image of God has been used for good and evil, for oppression and for humanitarianism, for encouraging humility and for fostering arrogance. So we should look at what God says throughout Scripture about the implications of us being made in his image. What does it say about us, about God and about how we should relate to other people?

Well, there is actually heaps you could say on this topic, but for the sake of time and simplicity, I will explore 6 points over two blogs. This blog (part 1) will cover three things that it DOESN’T mean to be made in God’s image, and then part 2 will cover three things I think it DOES mean.

You may think I shouldn’t start negatively, but I think it is just as important to understand what a biblical concept doesn’t mean as it is to understand what it does. If we are to allow this amazing idea to shape our view of every human on the planet, then we must avoid the temptation to define it however we choose. I’d even say, to have a false idea of what it means to be made in God’s image is probably more dangerous than to not believe it at all. So that’s where we’ll begin…

WHAT IT DOESN’T MEAN

1. Being made in God’s image doesn’t mean you look like God and it doesn’t mean God looks like you.

I thought this one was obvious, but a friend pointed out to me that he knew of many people (most of them from Texas he informs me) that believe this exact thing, and it is true that Mormons teach that “[God] the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine & Covenants: Section 130:22). This is not the Bible’s teaching at all.

The picture on the right is from an atheist website that is trying to mock Christianity for exactly this reason. But the picture has got one thing right – God is invisible. This is clearly taught in Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17 & Hebrews 11:27. The Bible also says this another way, by describing God as “Spirit”. This is most clearly taught by Jesus in John 4:24 and Jesus defines what it means to be a spirit as “not having flesh and bones” in Luke 24:39. Isaiah 31:3 makes the same point as well.

Basically the idea is that God is not restricted to a finite physical form. This allows God to be omnipresent and able to manifest his presence in any place he chooses in any way he chooses (burning bush, pillar of fire, Angel of the Lord, presence in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, etc.). God is often described with use of human-like actions like in Luke 1:51, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” but this is clearly metaphorical or analogous, like in Psalm 91:4 that says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Now we don’t think God looks like a chicken because of descriptive language like this.

So, if God is an invisible, eternal Spirit, with no fleshly physical body, then being made in his image can not mean that we physically look like God and it definitely doesn’t mean that God looks like us. This is wonderful news because it means that no one human looks more like God than another. In Mormonism, because they believe God looks like a man with a physical male body, then women can never really be “made in God’s image”, or at least men are a closer image to God than women. This is not true in Judeo-Christianity. The Bible’s message is ALL people, no matter what you look like, no matter whether you are old or young, fat or skinny, male or female, able-bodied or severely disabled – you are made in God’s image.

2. Being made in God’s image does not mean you are equal to God.

The fact that we are made in the image of God should not give us a sense of superiority or arrogance over the rest of creation. It does not mean we are demi-gods or divine beings that deserve glory and honour and the submission of all animals and plants. In fact, it should inspire in us exactly the opposite feeling. Think about it. What’s the point of an “image”? The image of the Queen on an Australian coin, or the photographic image of your grandma in that photo frame on your wall. Or even the image of yourself in the mirror. The purpose of an “image” is to point to something other than itself. As John Piper says in his sermon entitled ‘Why Did God Create the World?’:

“The point of an image is to image. Images are erected to display the original. Point to the original. Glorify the original. God made humans in his image so that the world would be filled with reflectors of God. Images of God. Six billion statues of God. So that nobody would miss the point of creation. Nobody (unless they were stone blind) could miss the point of humanity, namely… God. Knowing, loving, showing God.”

Being made in the image of God does not make you a God. It does not make you equal to God. It should never inspire arrogance or a sense of privilege or superiority. It should never justify selfishness or self-glorification. It should never be used, as it sadly has been, as an excuse to kill animals however we want, destroy the environment however we want and use the world’s resources however we want. By it’s very definition, to be made in GOD’s image actually tells us that life is not about us. It’s about God. It puts us under God and shows that we are made for God’s glory, not for our own.

In fact, the very first people who were created in the image of God, Adam and Eve, got it wrong in exactly this way. The temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, was the temptation to disregard God’s authority over them and claim independence from God to choose right and wrong for themselves. This is what the “Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil” was all about. As the serpent falsely promises them in Genesis 3:5, “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The great temptation in the Garden of Eden wasn’t to just do something naughty, it was to become like God. They were not satisfied in being made in God’s image, they wanted to be the original. They wanted to be God.

This is the great heart of all sin and the great problem with all humanity. It is especially tragic when the very concept of being made “in God’s image” is so grossly misused to perpetuate the arrogant idea that we are equal to God – when in fact, it means exactly the opposite.

3. Being made in God’s image does not mean you are a child of God.

Now this point might be the hardest one to accept. I’m sure you can see how the first two false ideas of being made “in God’s image” might be used to oppress or harm, but what could be wrong with saying that everyone is a child of God? Doesn’t that also express the unity of all mankind and the intimate relationship we all have with our Creator? Well that sounds all nice, but the issue is that it’s simply not what the Bible teaches. The Bible does teach that every person, no matter what gender, age, race or religion is created in the image of God, and this is a wonderful, awe-inspiring thing (as I will explain in part 2 of this blog series), but the Bible does not teach that every one is a child of God.

The song, “God Help the Outcasts” that the character Esmerelda sings in the Disney cartoon, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” includes the final line, “I thought we all were the children of God”. Well, a lot of people think this. The idea that everyone is one of God’s children has just become part of our modern quasi-spiritual vocabulary and is seen as pretty much the same thing as the idea that everyone is made in God’s image, but the two are very distinct concepts and it is actually vitally important to see the difference.

As mentioned in the previous point, sin is a problem in our lives. Although God is our Creator, we want to be more than simply his image – we want to be God, choosing our own good and bad and wearing the crown in our life rather than letting God rule as he deserves to. This rejection of God, whether it be conscious or not, creates a fracture between us and God. We go from being friends to strangers – or even enemies. This is symbolised in the Adam & Eve story by them having to leave the Garden of Eden. No longer could they commune with God. God became distant and humanity experienced the great consequences of this distance – confusion of identity, inability to conquer sin, fractured human relationships, a fallen creation and in the end, physical death.

This is the world we still live in today. Most people believe that some sort of God exists (that may be due to our being “images of God”), but everyone feels distant from God and endures the pain and confusion of this fallen world. It may even lead people to think that God doesn’t even exist! But the reality is that we are outside of God’s family. We are lost and need to be found. We need to be adopted.

It may sound offensive to suggest that you are not naturally one of God’s “children”, but hopefully it rings true to your experience. If you feel distant from God or maybe you don’t even know if he exists, then don’t try to comfort yourself by warm and fuzzy bumper stickers trying to convince you that you are God’s child and God is your Heavenly Father. Maybe he’s not! Calling God your “Father in Heaven” (as the Lord’s Prayer instructs us to) is a privilege only for those who have been adopted into God’s family. Read the following passages to see where I get this idea from Scripture:

“He [Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent,nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:10-13)

“Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.'” (Luke 20:34-36)

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death…You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ… because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption as sons.And by him we cry, “Abba,Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:1-2, 9, 14-17)

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2)

To be a “child of God” reflect a unique relationship with God. A child of God is an adopted part of God’s family and as these passages show, this is what Jesus came to do. Jesus’ death on the cross has paid the penalty for the sin that kept us estranged from God. Jesus has made it possible for that relationship to be restored. Through trusting and believing in him, we can find forgiveness and reconciliation with God, making it possible for the Father/child relationship to begin.

It may at first offend you to think that although all people are made in God’s image, only followers of Jesus can be called “children of God”, but this offer of welcome and reconciliation is open to all. No matter how bad you think you are and no matter how distant you feel from God, the offer of adoption is open to you.

The reason it is vitally important that we distinguish between the concepts “made in God’s image” and “one of God’s children”, is because if you are taught that you are in God’s family and God is your Heavenly Father, simply on the basis that you were born, you will never see your need to be born again. Eventually you will become disillusioned with the whole concept of God, as on one hand you are told you are as close to God as a child is to their father, and yet your reality is that you feel very distant.

My hope in clarifying this difference is to point you to the great hope that thanks to Jesus, becoming a “child of God” is possible for you. You do not need to be distant from God. You can know his presence, his forgiveness and his Fatherly love, both now in this life and beyond death.

So there we go. That’s a few things that it DOESN’T mean to be made in God’s image.

It doesn’t mean that we look like God, are equal to God, or that we’re his children. It doesn’t mean that God has a body, is equal to us, or that he’s naturally our Heavenly Father.

So, now that we’ve gotten some of the false ideas out of the way, what exactly does it mean?

Well, if this blog has left you feeling like whatever it means, it can’t be all that good, then stick around. Part 2 will be coming in a week or so.

And in part 2 I will explain what it does mean to be made in God’s image and what a wonderful, life-changing concept it is! Getting your head around it and embracing it will completely shape your sense of the identity, purpose and dignity of the entire human race.

So stay tuned!

If you have any comments, please leve them below,
or if you’d like to ask me anything directly, feel free to email me at
simon@thebackyardbard.com

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October 5 2011

1 John Chapter 5 – Tricky passage explanation

This is a resource I wrote up for my Bible Study. We have been studying 1 John for the last few weeks and on the summary week (tonight) I took on the task of getting my head around some of the tricky verses that come up in chapter 5. If you don’t know the first letter of John, I highly recommend you read it and the following blog entry might not make much sense until you do.

For the sake of reference, here is 1 John chapter 5:

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

 

There are lots of tricky concepts in chapter 5 of 1 John (and indeed throughout the whole letter) but from this last chapter I want to offer some explanation for two of the most trickiest. 

  1. The testimony of the water, the blood & the Spirit. (5:6-12)
  2. The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

 

 The testimony of the water, the blood and the Spirit. (5:6-12)

 This passage gets us asking a few questions:

  • What is the “water” and the “blood”?
  • Why is it important that Jesus didn’t just come by water?
  • How do the water the blood and the Spirit testify about Jesus?
  • Why is it important that there are three that testify?

 The first and most important thing to say about this passage is that although all this talk about water and blood is interesting, it isn’t actually the point of the passage. It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the passage that is the most confusing (and therefore the most interesting), but the most important thing is to see where John is going in all this. This will not only help us avoid getting distracted by peripheral issues, but it will also give us the context to help us understand why he is using such odd language.

 John states his main point in verse 13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Whatever his argument is, the purpose of it is to help Christians have confidence in the truth of the fact that they have eternal life. In John 20:31, he writes that his purpose for writing the gospel record is so that people can HAVE life. In this letter, his audience is those who have now responded to the gospel and his purpose is that those that have life can KNOW that they have it. The next verse (v14) goes on to talk about the confidence we should have in prayer as a result of this “knowledge”, and the final verses of the letter (v18-20) are all about what we “know”. It even concludes with the purpose of Jesus coming is so that we may know him who is true (which is possibly why there is a final warning against idols – or “false” gods).

So the point of all these tricky verses is to give us confidence in the truth of who Jesus is and the truth of the life that he gives. Okay. So how does he get to that point?

Well, he sets up a picture of the Testimony of God (v9-10). The false teachers that John is refuting were teaching the idea that Jesus did not come in the flesh (see 1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 1:7). They believed that the flesh and everything physical was evil and so the Son of God could never have taken on a human body. They taught that Jesus only appeared to have a human body, but was really just a spirit. John believes this is completely anti-Christian (that’s why it’s the teaching of the antichrist) and throughout the letter uses lots of different arguments to show that it is false. 

In chapter 5 he sets up a picture of a courtroom, where the Testimony of God is given about the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that life is found in the Son (v9-12). It’s not just John’s opinion, it’s God’s opinion and so we can have full confidence in it. In fact, John says in v10, if you don’t believe this testimony then you’re not calling John a liar, you’re calling God a liar.

So in this imaginary courtroom, John describes three witnesses who stand up and testify about this Testimony of God. The three are: the water, the blood and the Spirit.

Now, there are lots of theories about what the water and the blood mean. Some say it’s referring to the water and blood that spilled from Jesus side at the crucifixion (John 19:24), others say the water is his baptism and the blood is his death, still others try to argue that the water is the sacrament of baptism and the blood is the sacrament of communion (a big stretch if you ask me!).

For me, the best explanation is none of these. I think the best fit is the concept that the water is referring to Jesus’ physical birth and the blood is referring to his physical death.

Water is a common image used of birth and creation (think of the waters that the Spirit hovered over in Genesis 1:2) and in John’s gospel (3:5-6), John uses the concept of being “born of water” as a way of describing being physically born, or “born of the flesh”. In this passage, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has to experience two births in order to see thekingdomofGod. He has to have a physical birth (born of water) and he has to have a spiritual birth (born of the Spirit).

I think this is what John is meaning when he uses the same language in 1 John 5:6. Here he says that Jesus “came by water”, meaning Jesus had a physical birth. This is exactly the concept that the false teachers were denying, and John pushes the point by talking about “blood” – another fleshy concept that the false teachers would have hated. This is probably referring to Jesus’ physical death, a death that was proven when the blood flowed from his side. Blood is used throughout the New Testament as a reference to Jesus’ death (including in 1 John 1:7), and so we can safely say this is what John is meaning here.

It makes sense too. He is arguing that the Testimony of God is that Jesus came in the flesh and two of the witnesses are the physical birth of Jesus (the water) and the physical death of Jesus (the blood). But it’s not just historical events the witness to Jesus, but God himself proclaims this testimony about Jesus through his Spirit. This is why John says in 1 John 5:6-7 that the Spirit testifies along with the water and the blood. This could be referring to Jesus’ baptism (John 1:32-34) or more likely where Jesus says that he will send the Spirit of truth who will testify about him (John 15:26-27). Either way, John’s courtroom scene is completed with three witnesses – the water, the blood and the Spirit, and these three are in agreement (1 John 5:7).

But why is it important that there are three witnesses? Well for that we need to understand one of the most important Old Testament laws in regard to courtroom justice. In Deuteronomy 19:15 the law states that a truth was not able to be established if there is only one witness. There had to be two or three.

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

This law is re-enforced by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 when he teaches about how we should respond when a brother sins against us, and Paul uses this principle when talking about proving his ministry (2 Corinthians 13:1-3) and also when bringing a charge against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19).

The idea is that although one witness may be telling the truth, it can only be validated or established as true and reliable when “two or three” witness to it. This is possibly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)

In relation to John’s argument, it means that in the imaginary courtroom scene that he is describing “there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Do you see what he’s arguing? It’s John’s way of saying that the testimony that Jesus is the Son of God is reliable and is an established truth that we can have full confidence in.

And this in the end is his goal remember? He writes all of it, painting this elaborate courtroom scene, so that we can have confidence that God’s testimony about Jesus is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

Like the “water and the blood”, there are a few suggestions as to what John is talking about when he talks of the sin that leads to death. Some say it’s the unforgiveable sin of “blasphemy against the Spirit” Jesus talks about in Matthew 12:31-32 (a tricky passage in itself) or the sin of “lying to the Holy Spirit” that instantly kills Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or even the sin of taking communion without acknowledging Jesus which seems to have been judged by God with sickness and death in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30.

These are all big stretches to squeeze into the context of 1 John and so the best and simplest way of understanding what John is talking about is to look at the letter itself.

Just before talking about the “sin that leads to death” John writes in v12, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This is the two distinct groups that he keeps going on about throughout the whole letter. There are two camps. In one camp is the Christ who gives life, and in the other camp there is the antichrist who gives death.

So what is the “sin that leads to death”? It is the sin that leads you away from Christ.

More specifically, it’s the sin that John keeps going on about – The sin of denying that the Son of God came in the flesh. This is the sin that leads people away from the truth of the gospel and so leads them to death.

Before talking about this sin, he encourages us to pray for a fellow believer who has sinned (v16). This fellow believer (or “brother”) believes the Testimony about God, has come to Jesus and has been given eternal life. This is a believer that John describes as being “born of God” (v18) and therefore will not continue sinning. John says that God will keep him safe and the evil one cannot harm him and earlier in the letter, John says that if a believer does sin then Jesus speaks on our defence and he atones for all of our sin by his death (1 John 2:1-2).

This is why, when we see a believer committing a sin, we are right to pray and ask God to give them life. God has promised to forgive them and give them life because all of their sin, past, present and future, has been dealt with by Jesus.

Then John makes a distinction. He refers to this sin that leads to death – this sin of rejecting Jesus consistently and deliberately – and he clarifies that he is not saying we should pray for that sin. Notice, he doesn’t exactly tell us we must not pray for that sin, but rather he clarifies, saying that the sins he is instructing us to pray for are specifically the sins of a believer. These are the sins we can have confidence God will forgive, and again remember, this is what this section of the letter is about – confidence in God.

That’s what John is referring to in the previous verses:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)

John is saying, when we ask God to forgive the sins of a believer and give them life rather than death, we can have confidence that he will give us what we ask. This is true, not because we are special, but because we are asking “according to his will” (v14). It is God’s will that he gives life to those that believe in Jesus. It is God’s will that anyone born of God will not continue to sin.

This is the sin that we should pray to God about. There is lots of sin that leads to death around us. Everywhere we look we see people rejecting Jesus, and John is saying we can’t have confidence that God will give life to every sinner. Maybe we should pray that God forgives. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should pray that people repent and that God has mercy. This passage actually doesn’t answer that issue. The point of John’s concluding words in 1 John is to encourage us to pray for Christians having full confidence that God will give them life.

The most important thing is to test our hearts and see which camp we are actually in. Are we committing the sin that leads to death by rejecting Jesus, the Son of God who came in the flesh? Or are we in danger of following false teachers who preach a false gospel about a false God?

We need to always be diligent to keep ourselves from these paths that lead away from eternal life and lead straight to eternal death. This is probably why John finishes this letter in with such an encouragement and a warning:

 “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21)

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