Genesis 1:26-2:3 Can you really believe what the Bible says about... humanity?

Sun, 20/01/2013 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Many people today feel a little lost.

We’re often not sure who we are, or why we’re here. What does it mean to be human? Why are we on planet earth?

Perhaps we’re just animals. Perhaps we have no purpose beyond seeking to pass our gene pool on to the next generation. Perhaps we’re just cavemen who have become a little more mature and sophisticated, but at the end of the day we’re just out to satisfy our animal instincts. If that’s the case, maybe life is about the survival of the fittest. We’re in competition with other human beings for the same resources, the same food, the same jobs, the same housing ladder, so we push and shove and tread on each other’s toes.

If that was all there was to life, it would be pretty ugly, wouldn’t it?

The planet seems to be falling apart. Overheating, running out of food, running out of natural resources. And we seem to be the problem. So perhaps actually this planet would be better off without us. Perhaps we’re just a bad influence.

Today’s title is: Can you really believe what the Bible says about humanity? The Bible has a much more positive take on what it means to be human. We have the most enormous privilege imaginable. And Genesis 1 sets it out for us.

I want to draw out 4 things about what it means to be human.

Made in God’s image

First, to be human is to be made in God’s image. Made in God’s image.

We are the very pinnacle of God’s creation. God has made sky, sea, land, sun, moon, plants, birds, fish, animals – all by saying the words “let there be”. Human beings are different. In verse 26, instead of “let there be”, we get “let us make”. This is a project God takes a personal interest in.

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. We’re made in the image of God, and after the likeness of God. No other part of God’s creation is described in this way. We are utterly unique. Like God, resembling God, representing God, in a way that nothing else does.

No wonder the climax we get in verse 31. At each stage of the creation up to this point, as God has surveyed his handiwork, he saw that it was good. But after creating humanity, God surveyed everything he had made, and behold it was very good. Not just good this time. Very good.

We’re made in God’s image.

Which means we’re not just further up the scale than other things God has made. We’re in a different class. It’s not about quantity but quality. You could argue that we are more intelligent than other creatures. But that’s just saying we have more intelligence, further along the scale. That may be true, but what Genesis is saying is that we are in a different class. A quality that nothing else has.

Which of your possessions do most value. If you had to leave your house in a fire, what would you take with you? If you were on-board HMS Titanic, and there was space in the lifeboat for only one other item what would it be? I hope most of us would take our family before any of our possessions. We wouldn’t do that because our family are marginally more precious to us than other things we own, or even because they are a lot more precious. We’d do it because they’re in a different class. They’re not possessions at all. They’re family.

This week we’ve had the inquest into the fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell. The most heart-breaking stories to come out were from people who had lost members of their family, and in some cases their whole family. We have possessions. And then we have family.

God made trees, birds, fish and animals. But then he made people. We’re in a different class. We’re in God’s image. We’re like him in a way that nothing else is.

You might wonder what that means? What does it mean to be in God’s image, made after his likeness. People have suggested a number of things. Some have said we look like God, but that’s not right because God doesn’t look like anything. Others have suggested it’s about being rational or having a capacity for relationship. There may be something in that.

I said I wanted to draw out four details of what it means to be human, and the other three are actually intertwined with being in God’s image, so instead of guessing what God’s image means let’s let Genesis add the details for us.

Made male and female

The second thing, then, that this passage tells us about being human is that we are made male and female. Made male and female.

Verse 27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Now, obviously, this is not something that sets us apart from the other animals. Most other animals and many plants occur as male and female. Our author would have known this. Lions, for example, are very obviously male and female.

But even though this isn’t unique to us, it does appear to the author to be significant for us in a way that it wasn’t for the rest of the animal kingdom. He only mentions it in connection with humanity, and it is placed in parallel with the statement that we are made in the image of God. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

So every human being is made in the image of God. But every human being comes as one of two kinds. We’re either men in the image of God, or we are women in the image of God. We’re one or the other.

Now, it’s true that there are certain personality traits that we might associate with being male or female. For example, we could say that being aggressive is a male characteristic; being caring, we could say, is a female characteristic. But no sooner have I said that, than at least half of you are thinking that it’s a massive over-generalisation. And you’d be right. Being aggressive, being caring, are not black and white, on and off, characteristics. They’re properties that we all have to a greater, or a lesser, extent. Some men are very gentle and caring. Some women can be quite aggressive.

Why do I mention personality traits? Because sometimes you hear it said that a particular man is “a bit feminine”, or something like that. But what we mean when we say that is that the person in question has more of the characteristics that we might associate as being feminine qualities.

But that’s all we mean. If you look at this man’s DNA, he’s male through and through. Genetically speaking, you are one or the other. Every human being is born either male, or female. It’s part of what it means to be human.

And it’s part of what it means to be in the image of God. We humans are either male or female, but we are all in God’s image. We share that dignity, that privilege equally, even though we aren’t all the same as each other.

Just as God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit are not the same as each other. And yet they all share equally in the dignity, the glory, the wonder of being the one true God.

To be human is to be made male and female.

Made to rule

Third, to be human is to be made to rule. Made to rule.

Glance up at the fish and the birds in verse 22. Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.

Now play spot the difference with verse 28: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – so far so good, but look how it goes on – fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. We are to subdue the earth we fill, and we are to have dominion over all the other life God has made.

You get the same thing in verse 26: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

We’ve given dominion. We’re put in charge. Yet again, you see, we’re like God.

The ancients thought that kings were images of the gods, because the gods ruled the earth, but so did kings, so they must exercise the rule of the gods on their behalf. What Genesis 1 is saying is that we are all kings. We are put on this earth to exercise God’s rule on his behalf. We are his image, his representatives, on the earth.

God made the world, and it was good. Good, but not yet mature. The world was not filled with life, and the world’s creatures were not yet subdued. That was to be our job.

Just outside Nairobi, there is an orphanage that seeks to care for baby elephants and rhinos that have been orphaned in the wild. It’s a long way to go, I grant, but do visit if you get the chance. Quite aside from the fact these baby animals are very cute, and quite domesticated, they also do a very valuable job. The aim is to rehabilitate the animals to the wild, and they have a very good success rate at it.

But some people think they shouldn’t operate. That you shouldn’t interfere with nature. That baby animals get orphaned, and the balance of the African ecosystem will be upset if we fiddle. The people who run the orphanage would reply that it is human poachers who upset the balance in the first place, so what they are trying to do is restore that balance. I think I’d agree.

But behind the critique is a view that nature should look after itself. That it’s not our job to interfere. That’s not what Genesis 1 says. Our God-given task is to take care of the world, which is why we tame pets, farm livestock, and mange wildlife. It’s sadly true that this has been abused. Poachers, over-exploitation, poor animal welfare – all occur far too often.

But the fact some people abuse our responsibility is not a reason to abandon it altogether. If anything, it’s all the more reason to seek to do it well. Dominion is not the same thing as domination; and God has given us the task to exercise dominion over his creation.

To be human is to be made to rule.

Made to rest

There’s a fourth characteristic here of being human. To be human is to be made to rest. Made to rest.

Chapter 2 begins with the declaration that God had finished making and filling the heavens and the earth. The account has him do this in 6 days, and so he rested on the seventh.

But then the narrator steps back from telling the story, and tells us that this explains a feature of our day-to-day life. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

The seventh day of each week is a special day for us. It’s blessed. It’s made holy – it’s set apart so that God’s people can gather and worship him and recommit ourselves to him. Why? Because God finished his work, and entered his rest, and so he wants us to rest as well.

We work for all kinds of reasons. We work to earn a living, to have food to put on the table. We work because God left us the world to look after, and that means hard work. Genesis 2 doesn’t go into detail, but working is not the end of this story. The end of the story is God resting, and he’s built rest into how we’re made too. We work, but we don’t live to work. That’s not why we exist. Our work is not our God. God wants us to join him in rest, in enjoying his goodness.

One of the heroes of the history of the Christian church was Augustine, who held the amusingly named post of Bishop of Hippo. Hippo was a town in North Africa, in what is now Algeria. One of his most famous works is a book called his Confessions, and the opening paragraph contains these famous words: You made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. You made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

God made us to know him, not just to work. To be human, is to be made to rest.

Rest in Christ

So there is God’s plan for the human race. That is what he made us for. Made in his image. Made male and female. Made to rule. Made to rest. Or, if it helps you remember it: Made to resemble God. Made to relate to one another, male and female. Made to rule. Made to rest.

That’s who we are. And it’s quite a privilege.

The trouble is that we often don’t see things working out this way. The image is marred. The relationships go sour. The ruling is abused. And the rest seems elusive.

This is why God sent Jesus. We often say that Jesus came to die and rise again so that we can be forgiven for our failures, and that’s true. But there’s something else going on here. Jesus was born a man. He rose from the dead as a man. The Jehovah’s Witnesses will tell you he only rose as a spirit, but the New Testament is totally clear that he rose as a man. He’s in heaven now, where he lives forever – but he lives forever as a man. There’s a man in heaven.

Jesus came to be what we were always made to be.

Colossians 1 says that he is the image of the invisible God. The image of God is not tainted at all in him.

He came to relate, and Ephesians 5 and other passages portray Jesus as the bridegroom, with his church, his people as his bride.

And his plan is to rule this world in partnership with his bride the church. Jesus and his church are very different, you couldn’t interchange them, but together we will rule this world.

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. And so we long for the day when Jesus returns, and all who have died come back to life, and we can share the rest that God has been enjoying ever since the creation of the world.

Jesus came to live out what we were always meant to be as true human beings. Jesus in God’s image. Jesus, united with his church, is the true male and female. Jesus made to rule. Jesus humanity at rest, seated beside his Father.

And if we will trust him, if we will be one of his people, then we become part of the new humanity that God has made in Jesus. Which means that, in Jesus, we come to remade, fully human once again, to live out what we were made for.


So what does it mean to be truly human?

What the Bible tells us is far better than the pessimistic dystopia that we are a scar on the face of the planet, one of earth’s biggest problems. What the Bible tells us is far better than the selfish survival of the fittest.

To be truly human is to be made in God’s image, male and female, to subdue and rule this world on God’s behalf, and to share in the rest that God himself enjoys.

It remains God’s plan that the human race should fulfil this wonderful design. Jesus is truly human. And he invites us all to know him by faith, and so to become part of the new humanity that is everything God intended us to be.

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