To know what and who God is has been a topic of discussion for centuries. In this essay we will consider the concept of knowing God through the humans he created. We will consider the ways in which humans have been challenged to reflect their creator, the ways in which they have failed, the model that Jesus Christ provides, and the New Testament challenge to Christians to model God in their lives.
Most Judeo- Christian traditions believe that God reveals himself to us in two ways, a general revelation seen to all in the creation around us, and a special revelation which comes through the study of God’s word, the Bible. Through creation we are amazed by expanse of the universe and the minute beauty of a single cell. We are all driven to seek some higher power that put this creation in place. The Bible introduces us to this creator God and shows us how He strives toward a relationship with his creation and particularly the part of creation that bears His image, man.
In his book Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Walter Bruueggemann contends that
“There is one way in which God is imaged in the world and only one: humanness! This is the only creature, the only part of creation, which discloses to us something about the reality of God. This God is not known through any cast or molten image. God is known peculiarly through this creature who exists in the realm of free history, where power is received, decisions are made, and commitments are honoured. God is not imaged in anything fixed but in the freedom of human persons to be faithful and gracious.” (Brueggemann, 1982, p.32.)
Bruueggemann uses the word image(d), a word that we find in the first book of Genesis
“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 air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1;26-27 RSV)
Thus, his premise that we should be able to recognize God in the humans around us is borne out by God’s own words. If man is indeed created in God’s image, we should be able to recognize attributes of the creator in the creation. God sets humans in a place of honour, a place of dominion over the whole of creation. God also blesses the humans he has created and gives them all the things on the earth as theirs to rule and subdue. God leaves humans as his representatives on earth.
The Creator has given this creation to humankind to manage. But our management has as its goal that we show to creation what God is like. Consequently, we do not manage creation for our own purposes, but for the sake of a higher goal, namely, in order that we might serve as a mirror of the divine character. (Grenz, 2000, pg.177)
Man, of course rebels. We see the stories of the fall of Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel by Cain, the flood. Each time, God begins again as humans fail to image him in a way that brings glory to God, and a blessing to the earth.
God finally chooses a people through whom he will bless the entire creation. He makes a covenant with Abraham in which God states
And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
This covenant is later restated to Abraham and then to his grandson Jacob. The people of Israel, are reminded of this covenant often, but seem to fixate on the fact that they are God’s people, and thus superior to those around them, and not on the fact that they are to be a blessing to all the families and nations of the earth. It was through these people, this covenant, that the nations around them should have been able to come to know about God. By seeing how God’s people acted, they should be able to understand how God acts. Modern Jewish writers recognize this function of the image bearer as a mirror of who God is. Sherwin states that “Living in the image and likeness of God means emulating God’s actions, rather than the attributes of God’s unknowable essence”(Sherwin, 2000, pg 2) As God’s covenant people, and as his image bearers, Israel was to show who their God was to the world through their lives and actions
Israel, of course, fails. In fact through their entire history, they never really seem to grasp the fact that they were a people set aside as special image bearers of God. They hang on to the fact that they are God’s chosen people but fail to provide the example to the world around them of who and what their God is. They use their specialness to separate themselves from the world around them rather than being a blessing to it.
God moves again to bring a clear image of Himself to the world through his son, Jesus Christ. John 1:1-5 describes Jesus in this way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
This description with Jesus as the Word lets us know that he and God are one, that looking at Jesus is like looking at God. Brueggemann puts it this way:
In Jesus Christ, we are offered a new discernment of who God is and of who humankind is called to be. The striking feature of Jesus is that he did not look after his own interests but always after the interests of others. That is an echo of God’s act of creation. Creation is God’s decision not to look after himself but to focus his energies and purposes on creation. (Brueggemann, Genesis, p.34.)
During his time on earth, Jesus, the son of God and son of man, showed the world what God is like. He shows compassion for the poor, he heals the sick, he offers forgiveness for sins, and he shows that he has power over life and death and over nature. While he could have used his position and powers to his own advantage, he refused to do that, but rather took on the form of a servant, to the point of washing his disciple’s feet. The writer of Hebrews recognizes Jesus as a picture of God on earth: “He (Jesus Christ) reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus fulfills his task on earth by giving up his life on the cross as atonement for the sins of all who would believe in him. This sacrifice, provided by God for the atonement for sin, is reminiscent of the ritual of sealing the covenant with Abraham by walking through the split animals in which God does everything and Abraham does nothing but observe. Jesus shows us a picture of his father as a God of grace as he sacrifices his life for the sins of mankind.
Those who believe, who through God’s grace and Jesus sacrifice become children and heirs of God are called to take on the role of image bearers for God in the world. The writer to the Colossians states:
“Seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scyth’ian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:9b-14)
In this list of attributes and others throughout the New Testament, we get a picture of who God is, as should be seen in the lives that his children through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself calls his followers to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). The New Testament church has now become the image bearer of God. Through the church the world should be able to recognize the Father and give Him glory.
God created man in his image. No other part of creation has this distinction. As God’s image bearers, the attributes of God should be recognizable through His creation. Biblical history shows that man does not do well at reflecting God’s image, being led in other directions by his own selfish desires. Jesus Christ, God’s own son, comes to bring a new order. He truly reflects the image of God back to the creation. Through his death and resurrection Jesus provides atonement for a sinful world, through God’s grace. Those who believe in him are to be God’s presence, His representatives, His image on earth.