Made in the image of God

I need half a dozen volunteers, old to young. I’m not going to ask you to do anything more than stand in line and tell me a skill you have or one thing you like doing. I will not embarrass you.

The Bible says that 

God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.’

   Which one of these is in the image of God?

   Isn’t one more in the image of God than another?

   Aren’t males more important than females?

   What special thing can you do, or tell me something you like doing.

  Does that help? Would you say one of these is more in the image of God than another now?

  Which one should be in charge over the others?

When we talk about being made in the image of God, it is not as simple as it sounds – and why should it be? We cannot put God in a box and limit God to the extent of our human imagination. God is the creator of the world, the universe and everything. Yet startlingly the author of Genesis tells us that human creatures are made in the image of God. There are consequences of believing that everyone bears God’s image.

  • Each person is valuable to God and accepted by God.
  • Each person has the potential to allow that image to flourish within them or be stifled.
  • If we all bear the image of God, there is an equality before God we need to recognise and accept.
  • If we are equal before God, there are no grounds for discriminating against people because of who they are or where they come from.

It is clear from the pages of the Bible, from history and from our lived experience that these consequences are not accepted in the world around us and have never been universally accepted. A political philosopher from the 18th Century said, ‘Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.’ I assume that he used the word ‘man’ in a generic way. We would have to agree that is evident across the world where people are subject to oppressive governments, are oppressed because of caste or discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or because they are female. Quite probably those least treated as though they are made in the image of God are ethnic minority women. This at the moment is symbolised by the protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.

So what does it mean for each of us to be made in the image of God?  I’m just going to offer a few thoughts – they are not the definitive answer.

Images are powerful things. Think of the first message in the series when we reflected on the image of Jesus and the need for people from different parts of the world to image him as looking like them, just as we in the west have imaged Jesus as looking like us. Kings and despots made sure, and make sure, their image was and is visible in all parts of their domains to remind them who is control. Is this how the image of God works? Well in a sense yes, but not in the negative way that humankind has used it. At the last church school I worked in, the parish priest insisted that every classroom had a crucifix. Theological considerations aside, one of the teachers from a Catholic background used that as a means of control: ‘Jesus is watching everything you do.’ Is this what God was doing in making us in his image? Is this what God was doing when he sent Jesus into the world?

Being made in the image of God attests to the fact that

  • This world is the creation of God and humankind at their best demonstrate the image of God through their lives.
  • The image bearers are given freedom in the world. Freedom to enjoy the good creation of God; freedom to exercise the creativity of God; freedom to choose to follow God’s paths – not coerced.
  • The image bearers are given authority – the authority to exercise the love and benevolence of God to one another. Where there is authority over others, to use that for their good and well being. In the Old Testament the king was to be the shepherd of the people, leading them into green pastures and finding them water and enabling them to flourish. We know that too often this is not what they did; it is not what those in authority have done throughout history. Sadly the shepherds of the church have not always done this either as they have justified the subjugation and oppression of people considered less important or less human, less than the image of God.
  • The image of God is represented in Jesus most clearly, sent because humankind has distorted God’s image on the earth.  Jesus took on the metaphor of being the Good Shepherd. To whom  did Jesus declare he had come to preach the good news? 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

 As Paul says in Colossians, ‘Jesus is the image of the invisible God’, and we need to look at him because humankind has distorted the image of God invested in us. Jesus came for each one of those people who were standing here earlier no matter how different they are. He came for each person here, no matter our status in the world’s eyes. And we all come equally before Jesus, accepted, loved and forgiven.

In the second part of this message, I am going to profile someone made in the image of God whom we meet in a short account in Acts,  but a significant person. 

Acts 8:26-38 Made in the image of God Pt 2

Let’s profile the Ethiopian we meet in this story..

  • His identity is clear – he comes from Ethiopia. 
  • Geographically this is different from modern Ethiopia in that it encompassed Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. This is the area known as Cush in the Old Testament 
  • The people living in this region were considered to be living at the ends of the earth. With Phillip explaining the gospel to this court official and then him becoming a Christian, the gospel was being taken to the ends of the earth as far as NT people were concerned.
  • This official was black. He couldn’t be otherwise considering the area he had come from.
  • He was important. This person held authority in the kingdom under the authority of Queen Candace. It seems he was the equivalent of the  Chancellor of the Exchequer – the second lord of the treasury.
  • He is at least a God-fearer, because he has come to the temple to worship. Even if he was a Jew his worship at the temple would have been limited, because he is described as a eunuch. Being a eunuch could mean he was a trusted royal official, but it usually means a man who has been emasculated. As such, Jew or not, he could not have entered fully into temple worship: Deuteronomy 23:1 ‘No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.’ 

Isaiah 56: 4-5 counter balances that:

  To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

  who choose what pleases me

  and hold fast to my covenant—

  to them I will give within my temple and its walls

  a memorial and a name

  better than sons and daughters;

  I will give them an everlasting name

 that will endure forever.

  • He travels in style. As a high court official he gets official transport which would have included a driver, and he probably had some underlings along with him.
  • He was a man of means because he had a copy of the scroll of Isaiah – a very expensive and treasured item.
  • Not only is he nummerate and in charge of the treasury, he is also literate and able to read Hebrew or possibly Aramaic. 
  • This is an intelligent person who is in a position of authority and influence.

Quite a profile. Here is someone made in the image of God who is certainly different from us and reflects the diversity and the creativity of God as he draws people into the Kingdom. Notice however, that in spite of his status and authority, he asks an ordinary person into his chariot to explain who Isaiah is talking about. Once he hears and understands, he takes the first opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to believing and following Jesus as he sees a river beside the road. He casts aside his position and dignity. He is so convinced of the person of Jesus being the one that Isaiah was writing about that he stops his chariot and is baptised. He does this in front of his driver and the others who would have been with him. We don’t get the response of the other people present, but you can imagine the conversation when he got back and it would have certainly reached the ears of the queen, if he didn’t tell her himself. Like Simon of Cyrene who was forced to help Jesus carry his cross, we hear no more about this court official. Tradition says that he was the first Christian missionary to Ethiopia and since he responded to the message of the gospel without trying to hide it or putting it off, there is no reason to think he wasn’t just as open about his commitment to Jesus when reached home. Certainly by the 4th Century Ethiopia was a Christian kingdom and was the first Christian kingdom of the world.

What’s the point? Here is a prominent Christian figure from history, from a different culture and not one who would usually fit the missionary profile. The Holy Spirit worked in his life, he responded. It seems reasonable to assume that the fact there are Christians in Ethiopia today had something to do with this person who was converted as he read the prophet Isaiah. Inevitably as he returned and began to live as a Christian, he had to work out what that meant. Think about it: he only had the OT scriptures, there is no record of other disciples going to Ethiopia to help him. Quite possibly, like the first Christians, his form of worship was not very different from the worship of Jews in the synagogue. Quite probably he continued worshipping at the synagogue, but in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. 

Made in the image of God. This man came from a different country to the first Christians; he served in a royal household as a high official and it would be a fair assumption that it was not a Jewish household. He has been emasculated. He is black.

Was this person made in the image of God? Of course he was and we can learn from the fact that he was so ready to hear and respond to the Holy Spirit. We can learn from his willingness to cast aside the trappings of the world to commit his life to Jesus. We can learn to respect  Christians from other cultures and value the insight they bring to scripture and to following Jesus.