In His Image
The Eighth Sunday in Trinity
In His Image
The playwright Arthur Miller was born in New York City to Polish Jewish parents. He developed a fascination with the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and it began at a young age indeed. Miller reports he was 6 or 7 when he first read Genesis – in the original Hebrew.
Many years later, he wrote a play titled “The Creation of the World and Other Business.” The story turns on the saga of Cain and Abel, and Miller startled himself while writing it. “The play turned out – rather unexpectedly for me –“ he said, “to prove love . . . the driving force in Genesis.”
The fearsome Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible evolved – so to speak – into a God of love. And that’s all the revelation we’ll get from Miller, for the playwright failed to answer an even more fundamental question: Did God create man or did man create God?
Is God the omniscient, omnipotent Author of all that is, or is He a fiction man conjured in an effort to make some sense of the world around him?
In the end, Miller decided, it doesn’t matter. After Cain’s crime, God didn’t destroy him or use a surrogate to do him in. Neither did He turn his back on him and allow him to suffer until a hostile world rubbed him out. Instead, God put His divine seal of protection on him.
“For after all,” Miller wrote, “God so mysteriously extends his hand over Cain’s head against the vengeance of the world – even to this first murderer there is the mercy of creation.” The same loving God who had spared Cain’s parents granted clemency to their son, who committed what might seem to many a far more heinous crime.
From eating an apple to murdering a brother – sin is on the march.
“In his terrible way,” Miller added, “Cain too has served; he has filled out the definition of the real nature of man.”
We find this story in chapter 4 of Genesis. Did we not read just three chapters earlier that God created man in His image? The entire creation story builds up to the making of man late on the sixth day.
Over the span of three chapters the crown prince of God’s creation, the one to whom it was given to rule in justice and peace over all the earth, devolves into a monster capable of murder.
And not any old killing, but fratricide. In a fit of jealousy, Cain slays his brother Abel.
Who is man? Did God not call His creation with all its creatures good and very good? If Cain is good, what might the face of evil look like?
The Bible’s account of creation tells us God created man in His image – both male and female – and not much more. We get a clearer picture of man’s character, both positive and negative, as the Genesis story moves out of the Garden of Eden and into the broader world.
Cain reveals a great deal about the corruption of that nature. But just as it appears man is beyond any hope of redemption, the account of the good son Seth follows in the same chapter, flinging light into that dark space. This is a tough puzzle to piece together.
Just as innumerable, adorable, innocent, red polyesters have died to deck out Oklahoma University football fans, many noble trees have given their lives in the cause of theologians’ efforts to explain the image of God in man.
I won’t take time to catalogue the theories here but to help you stretch your imagination let me point out that some believe Adam and Eve radiated a bright glow before the fall.
It’s not so far-fetched. If man represents God, he represents God’s glory. The Bible often pictures that glory by a divine radiance, as when Yahweh leads His people Israel through the wilderness as a pillar of fire by night.
When God breaks out in the earthly realm, those nearest to Him absorb His glow. When Moses descends from the heights of Mount Sinai after meeting with Yahweh, his face shines so brightly that he is required to veil it to prevent the people’s catching something like radiation poisoning.
In the presence of Peter, James and John, the transfigured Jesus takes on a bright glow of His own as Moses and Elijah join Him on the mountain. Adam and Eve, communing with their Creator on their walks through the garden in the cool of the evening, may indeed have shone like beams from a lighthouse. They may have been clothed in light.
But the playwright gets it right. After the fall, in the space of a single generation, man plummets to the depths of depravity. God demands that we know the effects of sin. It’s a forbidden word in many happy-clappy churches today, but if sin is not real, if sin is not a vile offense against our fellow man, if sin is not a putrid stench in the nostrils of our Maker, we have no need of a Savior.
And we are in desperate need of a Savior.
Cain shows us the real nature of man. If not for God’s gracious provision for redemption, we would be irretrievably lost.
All our righteous deeds, says the prophet Isaiah, “are like filthy rags” (64:6).
In Romans 3, St. Paul echoes the psalmist: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one” (vv. 10-12).
Has the image of God deserted us? It has not. John Calvin wrote that it was “not totally annihilated and destroyed . . . yet it was so corrupted that what remains is frightful deformity.”
It is only because we retain a shred of the image that we can see ourselves for the sinners we are. If not for that image, we would blunder through life as morally ignorant as the beasts of the field, unaware of our craven nature and our need for our Lord’s amazing, saving grace.
In the affluent West, our prosperity allows us a veneer of civilization that covers over the running sore that is the corruption of our sins.
When I was working with an international relief and development agency, I visited places on this planet where pedestrians navigate without a thought around drunks passed out on city sidewalks under a broiling sun, where handicapped children lie in their beds day after day confined by straitjackets, where paraplegic hospital patients languish in their own filth.
And depravity is not so far from us – for one who knows where to look. In a Texas prison, I had had a long talk one day with an inmate named Richard whose words haunt me still.
A man can vanish in prison. Richard saw it happen. Two inmates seized another and flung him into a window during a riot, slammed his head against it as hard as they could. Richard saw the victim’s scalp peel back “like a toupee.”
“It’s all steel and concrete in there,” Richard said. “There’s no telling what you hit. Your seats are steel. Your walls are concrete. The floor’s concrete. And the bunks are steel. You don’t really have to have any shanks in prison. When you get the fights, you get hurt.”
The incision in the man’s scalp ran from temple to temple, deep. Richard saw the scalp flapping, as though he was watching a movie and the scene was playing in slow motion. Then for a moment it was as though the man’s cheek was glued to the window, but next the two attackers pulled him back.
“He went back on his head, you know,” Richard said, “and he just disappeared after that.”
“From sight, from what’s going on.”
Did you see him again?
“No. We were still locked down. We had a riot and the next night the next tank had a riot. It was a domino effect, right?”
Did they take him to the hospital?
An inmate sometimes becomes exasperated trying to explain prison life to an outsider. He has already told you that you’ll never understand it if you haven’t lived it. Some things just are. Some things don’t have explanations. Some things you don’t ever ask.
The man disappeared, see? One moment he was getting his head banged against the window, his scalp flapping, and the next he went back on his head, hitting the concrete floor. Then he was gone. No one in the tank saw him again. The story ends there. Get it?
These are the ravages of sin. Most of us never witness such horrors, or even hear of them. Our wealth – and we are all wealthy by the world’s standard – allows us to pull communities of others like us tightly around ourselves and avoid much of the ugliness that infects God’s good creation.
But our God is merciful; He will not abandon His image-bearers. The Seed of the woman who will triumph over God’s enemy Satan appears in Abel . . . but Abel dies childless at his brother’s hand. What will God do?
“And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, ‘For God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed’” (4:25).
Seth, too, begets a son, named Enosh, and we learn: “Then men began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26). God has re-established the line of the Seed of the woman that will find its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
The redemption of fallen humanity will proceed. The genealogy of chapter 5 lays out the succession, and it does something more.
The language describing Adam’s begetting of Seth evokes that of God’s forming of Adam: “Adam . . . begot a son, in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (5:3). We cannot fail to see the link between God’s fatherhood and that of His image-bearers.
Indeed, long after the fall we find in Genesis 9 God again naming man as His image-bearer.
From Egypt to Mesopotamia, the ancients saw their king as the earthly image of their god. The Egyptian name Tutankhamen means, literally, “the living image of the god Amun.” Kings raised statues of themselves in distant lands they ruled to establish their royal presence in them.
More recently, dictators with names like Lenin and Stalin have done the same. There’s nothing like a 30-foot-high bronze statue to put the fear of Vladimir in you.
Yahweh, God of Israel, democratized this idea, establishing all of His covenant people as His image-bearers.
We tend to see the Great Commission as a New Covenant concept, proclaiming most boldly from those closing lines of St. Matthew’s gospel our Lord’s call to win every people, tribe, tongue and nation to faith in His promise of salvation.
But this was no new thing in the first century. God had called Israel His “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) and tasked them with fanning out across the earth and filling it with songs of His glory. As His image-bearers they were to be His representatives, to be sure, but also His witnesses.
His grand design for claiming great glory from His creation might – to our eyes – have shifted with the coming of God the Son, but the divine purpose had not shifted a scintilla from eternity past. Man’s sin never frustrates God’s plan, and God’s plan was to bless those of all nations with His great gift of salvation and to revel in their praises.
He had instructed each of the patriarchs with the same command He gave Adam – be fruitful and multiply. Noah heard those words, as did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To Israel under Moses He gave the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey to kindle reminiscence of the richness of the Garden of Eden.
David pushed out the limits of the empire and his son Solomon ruled a dominion of peace and prosperity as foreign rulers visited him to seek wisdom from the ruler of the people of the God of Israel.
One by one, they failed as Adam had failed . . . and as God had once left the garden on which the temple was patterned He departed the temple itself because of the apostasy of His people. What had they done?
They had pointed us to the world’s desperate need for a Savior.
That One would be an image-bearer as well, but unlike all who had preceded Him and, for that matter, all who would follow Him, He was the perfect representation of the Father on high. That One, the author of Hebrews tell us, is “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person” (1:3).
He glows with a divine brightness.
I imagine you’re ready by now for the punch line . . . probably past ready. So here it is: Man, who is in the image of God, becomes more like Christ, who is the perfect image of God, and man thus grows more fully into the image of God.
As St. Paul will explain in 1 Corinthians, “. . . as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (15:49). The first Adam was carnal, the second Adam was spiritual.
The first Adam infected the world with death by his sin; the second Adam scrubbed the world clean of death by His sinlessness. In the mystery plays of the Middle Ages the same actor who portrayed Adam often reappeared later as Christ to draw a bright line connecting the two.
Icons of the Eastern church portray Christ in His descent into hell releasing Adam and Eve, and then a multitude who followed them into sin and death, from the dark pit of the underworld. Artists and poets have linked the tree of life to the cross of Christ to mark the continuity between tree and tree, between life and life through death.
In the first Adam, the image of God in man was corrupted; in the second Adam that image was put right. Because of what God has done, man has returned to his primal state of innocence, his role of God’s sub-regent in the creation. Can we ever cease to marvel at the wondrous works of our Lord?
It was Adam who conformed himself to this world when he sought to know this world in a way God had not permitted him.
It was Adam who scoffed at God’s protection from a terrible knowledge he could not control and consumed that knowledge of good and evil.
It was Adam who cast off righteousness and chose sin when he obeyed the ruler of this world.
It was Adam who corrupted the image of God within us.
But now . . . the Second Adam has come.
It was Jesus who offered a life of perfect obedience to God so that He could offer His life as a perfect sacrifice to God.
It was Jesus who reversed the curse of death the first Adam brought upon the world.
It was Jesus who washed the stain from God’s image in man that Adam had polluted.
It was Jesus who made Himself our tree of life.
John Donne wrote:
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the Last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
Amen.Posted on: July 21, 2016Ed Fowler