Lesson 1 - Image of God
Our world is badly out of joint, fractured by sin and sorrow. Although we glimpse flashes of beauty and purpose, the brokenness of our neighborhoods, our communities, and our world can seem irreversible. This sense of futility often impacts our work, especially when it’s hard to see what difference any of it makes.
We see this futility impacting our labor in Scripture too. After sin enters the world in Genesis 3, work is no longer good. It turns to toil.
17 And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
It’s a grim picture—all human work is plagued by a haunting sense of futility and hopelessness. And it’s no secret that many people feel deeply dissatisfied in their work. To make matters worse, over the course of our lifetimes, we spend more time working than we do just about anything else, with the result that our identity is often so bound up in our occupation that the two are indistinguishable.
If we’re all destined to return to dust anyway, why work?
Describe a time when you’ve experienced a profound sense of discouragement in your work.
Think about the community where you live. Where do you see brokenness and ugliness? What problems in your community seem irredeemable?
A Way Forward
Is there a way out of this? Can our jobs or our communities be redeemed? The biblical writers certainly think so, although the way forward will require us to rediscover our true identities as creatures who bear the image of God.
Curiously, the Bible never explains precisely what the “image of God” is. The concept has its roots in Genesis 1:26–27, where God created humankind “after his likeness” and “in his own image,” but the text doesn’t say exactly what that means.
So, what are we to make of this? At the very least, it indicates that we are to serve as living eikons. “Eikon,” pronounced “icon” in English, is the Greek word the New Testament uses to describe a representative “copy” of something—a sculpture, painting, or coin—that somehow has a share in the reality it represents. For example, it was not uncommon for the kings of the ancient world to erect eikons of themselves in their domains as a way of representing their rule and presence. When someone looked at the image, they were reminded of who was in charge (although no one would confuse the image with the real thing).
God creates humanity in reference to (according to) the likeness-image of God. That concept involves humanity’s special connection with God, which makes it possible for humanity to become a meaningful reflection of God.
In other words, says Kilner, the image of God denotes the special relationship human beings share with God and their vocation to represent God’s character and presence to the rest of creation, much like a statue of a ruler would symbolize his presence throughout his territories.
When you hear the phrase “image of God,” what comes to mind? How would you define it? How have you heard it defined?
Beauty from Blight
As Riet Schumack watched her once thriving city gradually give way to dereliction and vacancy, she responded by making something out of the land—“sculpting with nature,” as she puts it. By building a community garden, she found a way to slowly reverse the blight in her community, which she saw as a profound symptom of human brokenness:
When we are able to live with ugliness and blight, and it doesn’t bother us, I think we are very, very broken—very, very far from what God intended us to be.
Gardening, after all, is the very first human vocation; God placed Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And not only that, from cover to cover the Bible uses gardens as a symbol of God’s presence and blessing—from Genesis to the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel right through to the very end of the story in Revelation.
So then, we are called to be “living eikons” of the wise and generous Creator. But how do we do this? Theologians have wrangled with this question for centuries, but we may draw out at least two implications for thinking about how we engage a broken and disjointed world: (1) to be an image bearer is to form and shape cultures and communities through wisdom, and (2) to create and build things that reclaim the beauty of the world from decay. If we can grasp this truth, it has the potential to radically transform our understanding of work. It can give us purpose in the midst of futility and toil. It can give us an identity rooted in God.
In the next two lessons, we’ll encounter faithful Christians who are bearing witness to God’s redeeming presence in the places where God has put them. As you explore these snapshots of “living eikons” impacting their communities, consider how God might be calling you to represent his presence where you are.
The imago Dei is not simply a gift; it is also the task implicit in the gift.
Even after the fall, the Bible explicitly reminds us that human beings still bear the divine image (Genesis 5:1, 9:6). How would it change your understanding of your daily work to think of yourself as a “living eikon,” an image who represents the presence of God to the people around you in every sphere of life even in this broken world?
Theologian Helmut Thielicke has written that bearing the image of God is both an immense gift and a serious responsibility. In other words, we’re supposed to do something with the image of God with which we’ve been gifted. How has God uniquely gifted you to reflect his character in your world? Where do you have a responsibility to bear witness to God’s presence?
Riet serves as a “living eikon” by literally getting her hands dirty in her neighborhood, but gardening is not the only way to love our communities.
What are some ways that you can invest yourself in the physical place where you live to reflect God’s character and presence?