Then God said, “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.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28
A week from Friday Dr. Rosaria Butterfield will be with us to address the topic of “peace in sexual identity.” I hope you’ll come and bring a friend. But you don’t have to. I asked some of our leaders recently, Why do you think God created Immanuel Church? Their answer was, To give religiously wounded people a place to heal. That’s an important part of why we’re here. So if you’ve come to Immanuel wounded and injured and you don’t yet have the energy to contribute in any way, it’s a privilege to have you among us. Just come and heal. But if you’ve had time to re-oxygenate, then you can serve. Bring a friend to hear Dr. Butterfield. And as you sit here that evening, pray for the person on your right, on your left, in front of you, behind you. You can add power to the entire event by bringing and praying. But you don’t have to.
As we get ready for this major event, let’s think today about personal identity. Identity comes before ethics. Questions of sexual morality lie on the surface of a deeper question: Who am I? How do I even know? Do I define myself to myself? Does my family define me? My culture? How does this very personal part of me actually work? If I don’t choose the deepest parts of me but discover what’s already been given to me by God, then is that something I’m stuck with, or is it something I can rejoice in? And what do I do when the way God defines me feels untrue to my experience? Let’s look at how the gospel addresses personal identity. Then the questions about sexual ethics can make more sense.
But sexuality is not the only way our identity matters. Our self-understanding underlies everything about us. What’s the larger picture that you place yourself inside? Every one of us does that somehow. For example, evolutionism – blind evolution without God’s involvement – defines us down at the level of animals. The only question is, what kind of animal. And if we are shaped by forces beyond our control, then we have no will of our own, and no dignity. We are nature’s mistake, a combination of chemicals with the ironic capacity to dream that we are more. But if we accept evolutionism as the framework for our identity, then we don’t matter, and how we treat one another doesn’t matter. I wonder what you think.
Postmodernism is the opposite. If evolutionism drags us down, postmodernism exalts us high. It says that every one of us is a god. We are whatever identity we choose. So we decide for ourselves what is right. We are sovereign and imperial and autonomous. Nothing limits me. And my own experience and feelings are all the justification I need for whatever I want. That means everything is possible and nothing is prohibited, because nothing is above me, and I answer only to myself. I wonder what you think of that.
The biblical gospel is another way entirely. The gospel doesn’t make us grovel, and it doesn’t make us swagger. The gospel is both humbling and ennobling. I wonder if you can accept it today. I hope so, because true identity is to your soul what physical health is to your body. Much is at stake in what we’re talking about today.
Three points. One, What does it mean that we image God? Two, If we all image God, why are we also such a mess? Three, Can we be restored to the pristine beauty of God’s perfect image? Is there any hope at all?
1. What does it mean that we image God?
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Genesis 1:26
These verses in Genesis 1 form the climax of the biblical account of creation. We were not an afterthought in the way God set everything up. We were not mixed in with lower forms of life. Nor did God dig his own grave by making us. Instead, from the beginning, God made us stand out as royalty, the only royalty in the universe under God. We are not God, but we do image God, and only we human beings image God. Only we were given dominion over the lower creation, to steward it and develop it and benefit from it. Only we were enabled to create culture and together build a glorious world for human flourishing that will bring ever greater honor to our Creator. Our uniquely glorious identity is why, when Moses narrates the creation of mankind, he leaves prose behind and breaks out into poetry. Verse 27 is the first poetry in the Bible, and it celebrates God’s creation of us. Only in the creation of man does God express self-deliberation and direct personal involvement: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man . . . .’” In other parts of the creation account, God said, “Let the earth bring forth . . . .” God created us personally and lovingly, directly by his own hand. But when he created our existence, he didn’t diminish his own. The Bible gives us a high view of ourselves without dishonoring God but the opposite; our dignity brings greater honor to God.
What does it mean, then, that we were created “in the image of God”? This word translated “image” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for a statue. The idea was that a king would set up an image of himself, a statue of himself, in a part of his realm where he seldom visited, to declare his claims and authority. So that is what we are, as God made us in his image. We were built to represent God here in his world. It’s a great privilege and responsibility.
So we might wonder, by the way, if we image God, does God have a body? Are we literal forms and statues of God? Is God male or female, or a mixture of the two? That’s why Moses adds a phrase in verse 26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The word “image” is a concrete word referring to a physical object, like a statue. But the word “likeness” is an abstraction. Moses adds “likeness,” to signal to us that the word “image” is not literal but metaphorical. We do not literally and physically image God. We metaphorically and spiritually image God. It isn’t our bodies that image him; it’s our character and how we think and feel and live that show forth who God is. There is no higher calling than that. It’s also a demanding call. To be like God 24/7 encompasses all that we are. So again, the Bible takes a very uplifting view of human identity, with enough responsibility to humble us deeply.
Not only that, but the image of God applies to all of us equally. Verse 27 says, “In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” There are no sexual distinctions, no class distinctions, no racial or ethnic distinctions in the image of God. All of us are equally created with a glorious identity from God – equally dignified, and equally responsible. That was a countercultural thing for the Bible to say. No one had said that before. For example, in Assyria only the kings were thought to be in the image of God. The Assyrian literature said, “A free man is as the shadow of God, the slave as the shadow of a free man; but the king, he is like unto the very image of God.” So the pre-biblical world saw people as graded on a scale in relation to God, with the social elite as having a super-identity from God. But the Bible democratizes us all, and not by pulling everyone down but by lifting everyone up. We all find our identity in God, and our identity is royal and responsible. We are not God. We are only like God. And not literally and physically, but metaphorically and spiritually, in a way that all of us can share equally together. So we are not identical to God, and yet it is God that we were designed to be like.
For example, God thinks, and he is why we think. God feels emotions, and he is why we do. God cherishes a sense of right and wrong, and he is why we do. God makes decisions and forms plans and works his plan, God is relational, God is creative, God loves, God rules, and he is why all these wonderful things show up in us. Obviously, we’ve fallen far from what God is like. But even now, after the fall of Adam, we are still in the image of God (Genesis 9:6).
Genesis 1:26-28 is our identity, defined by the Bible. Here is who we really are. Here is our address in the universe, where we can feel at home. We don’t see ourselves down in the lower creation. We don’t see ourselves up at God’s level, as his peers. But we find out who we really are by listening to the God who created us and loves us. That is why we can satisfy our deepest intrinsic longings only in God, adjusting to him, tracking with him, pursuing his purposes, spreading the influence of his domain – not by trying to be impressive on our own terms. We are here for a grander reason than self-exaltation. We are here for the King, on his business, with royalty conferred upon us by him and for him.
So, before we get around to sexual morality, our very identity is why all our basic questions are God-questions. We need to relearn how to think in terms of God. Here’s how it can work. I saw a tweet this week that led me to this personal statement. It illustrates how we can connect God with our own daily questions:
Because God is personal, I can know him personally.
Because God is powerful, he can help me with anything.
Because God is present, I am never abandoned.
Because God knows everything, I can go to him with my questions.
Because God is sovereign, I will joyfully submit to his plan.
Because God is holy, I will devote myself to him in purity and service.
Because God is truth, what he says is right and I will listen humbly.
Because God is just, I can count on him to treat me fairly.
Because God is love, he is happily committed to my well-being.
Because God is merciful, he forgives me of my sins for Jesus’ sake, and I will honestly confess my sins to him.
Because God is faithful, he is always keeping his promises to me.
Because God never changes, my future in Christ is forever secure.
I want you to see that trusting God and depending on God and listening to God and obeying God and living for God did not start with the fall of Adam. In the perfect Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve trusted God for everything. Dependence is not a function of evil; humble dependence is simply a function of not being God. We’ve all forsaken God and defined ourselves to ourselves on our own. But it doesn’t work. It’s like trying to get home by the wrong road. That leads us to our second question.
2. If we all image God, why are we also such a mess?
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23
The Bible honors us, but it does not flatter us. The sad truth is, we no longer measure up to the glorious identity God gave us. We rejected him, and we replaced him with idols of our own creation, projections of our own proud self-idealization. But the more we define our own reality, the deeper we fall. We end up falling short not only of God but even of our own idols. The worst parts of me are the things I take the most pride in and am the most defensive about. Where I am the most rigid and touchy and anxious – that’s where I most fall short, but I’m trying to force into reality a self-invented identity that God never gave me. Am I the only one here who does that?
All have sinned [past tense] and fall short [present tense] of God’s glory. Suppose God said to us, “All right, you’ve sinned in the past. But I’ll just forget that. Let’s begin again right now. I’ll judge you only from this moment on” – would that be good news? However Adam sinned so long ago, we today still fail to measure up. But that hurts, because God created us to be able to get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say without embarrassment, “I am like God. I am an image of God’s moral beauty here on the earth. I am going to be a magnificent blessing today.” But look at us. Is anyone here blowing anyone else away with divine glory? Who of us here today can say to God, “Father, look at me”?
Think of the parable of the prodigal son. What was his identity as he stumbled back to his father? He said, “I am no longer worthy” (Luke 15:21). And he wasn’t. But Jesus told us that story, because it is so freeing to stop faking it and admit, “I am no longer worthy.” No more false identities. No more comparing myself with others to my own advantage. No more celebrating what God says is wrong. All that matters now is being forgiven and restored by his grace and learning what he had in mind from the start. Can’t every one of us admit, “I am no longer worthy, as I stand before God”? Is anyone here above that? Bishop Moule put it well: “The harlot, the liar, the murderer, are short of God’s glory; but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you are on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they. So you thankfully give yourself up, side by side with them, if they will but come too, to be carried to the height of acceptance by the gift of God.” And I love this from Martin Luther: “Who then can pride himself over against someone else and claim to be better than he? Especially in view of the fact that he is always capable of doing exactly the same as the other does and, indeed, that he does secretly in his heart before God what the other does openly before men. And so we must never despise anyone who sins but must generously bear with him as a companion in a common misery. We must help one another just as two people caught in the same swamp assist each other. . . . But if we despise the other, we shall both perish in the same swamp.” All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That’s why we’re a mess.
3. Can we be restored to the pristine beauty of God’s perfect image?
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11
Jesus knew who he was. The Father told him at his baptism. But then Jesus was attacked in his very identity. After he fasted for forty days alone in the desert, the devil tempted him: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan may have been casting doubt on Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God – but there’s no way you can be! Your loving Father would never let you go hungry like this. He hates you. He has forsaken you.” Or Satan may have been affirming Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God, and of course you are. So this hardship is beneath you. The Son of God should never have to suffer like this. Use your power, and satisfy your hunger!” Either way, his identity was a deeper issue than his hunger.
And while he was on the cross, his identity was again under attack. They mocked him: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Matthew 27:40). The temptation to doubt his place in the heart of the Father must have been almost overwhelming. Every stab of pain seemed to say that the mockery was right. What then was the point of even trying any longer? He could end the agony. He could get free. He could silence those voices deriding him. He could join with the winners and stop identifying with the losers. But Jesus didn’t do that. He stayed on the cross, because he knew he was the Son of the Father. If he had defined his identity on their cheap terms, he would have denied the glorious identity God had given him. To show himself to be truly the Son of God, to fulfill his destiny, he had to hang on the cross, with no surrender to the lies. Jesus did not sin, he did not fall short of the glory of God, and the Father was well pleased. And down underneath it all, Jesus knew who he was. And he is how the Father can be well pleased with us too.
Some of us feel same-sex attraction. All of us are attracted to many things that God says are wrong. We’re all in this together. And sometimes we give in to our temptations. Jesus didn’t. He stayed true when he was tempted. And he is why we’re here today. We are no longer worthy. But he is worthy. And we take our worth from him. We’re counting on his obedience to reinstate us with God. And we love him for winning the Father’s good pleasure for us. We now receive the approval of the Father with the empty hands of faith. Jesus restores us to God and to our own identity in God. Jesus is our hope for full and glorious restoration in heaven above, when, as the gospel promises, we will be conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29). And right now, Jesus is why we no longer think, “I feel certain longings, therefore that is who I am.” We don’t delve into our feelings for our identity. We look outward to Jesus, and we find in him One who loves us even when our hunger burns for the wrong things. And here in this church, we share a new identity together as God’s beloved children. He has created in our city today a new community of gospel + safety + time, where we can grow and thrive, where we can rethink our lives with nothing to fear, because over everyone who has given up on self-invented identities and is trusting in Jesus, the Father says, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
Will you turn back to Jesus today and receive from him your real identity from God? Cf. Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, 2007), pages 209-222.