Common Clichés and Misreadings Once More

“Made in the Image of God”
26 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." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27 ESV)

Oh my goodness, has this concept caused millions of gallons of ink to be spilled. One could go through almost countless interpretations of what “image of God” (imago dei) might connote: we share in God’s morality, consciousness, personhood, in His capacity to have relationship, and on and on the suggestions come.

These all might be true to various degrees. Yet, in context, the answer is utterly simple. To possess the “image of God” means to exercise dominion or rule over the creatures and earth that God has created. The literary context tells us this explicitly.

But historical context helps us too. An image in the ancient world meant an idol of a god. Idols were carvings of various kinds of wood or stone. They were physical representations of the presence of the gods. That is, they were not attempting just to draw a picture of the gods. They were attempting to demonstrate that their god was present and in control.

Mostly, what they represented, was the gods’ authority in that house or region. If someone came into a Canaanite’s house in 2500 BC, they would see a small idol of Ba’al (which means, “Lord”) or Tiamat or Marduk or Ra. It would indicate that the homeowners paid allegiance to that god. The person might rub oil on the idol, give it food, keep it shaded, amongst other things, in an effort to let the gods know that the humans were paying respect to the gods who were in control of the weather, crops, stars, childbirth, and nearly everything else that occurred.

However, the author of Genesis is making a bold, unique claim in the ancient world. The True God doesn’t have wood or stone idols. No. He has flesh and bone idols—humans. And this is the point: when other animals or humans see humans, we are to be reminded of who is in control. Animals become aware that we are the boss; humans become aware that God is our boss.

The image of God has to do with demonstrating who has authority to rule over the Earth. And in this very ancient Hebrew account, it is humans who rule over the earth and animals. And no other ancient creation story suggested such a concept.

“For I Know the Plans I Have for You”                                                         
10 "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer 29:10-14 ESV)

This text is overwhelmingly popular. Yet, like 2 Chron. 7, its historical and literary context is explicit: this text is speaking to an exiled community of Jews in Babylon. Read verses 10 and 14 once more. Now read them again. J

This was a powerful text to an exiled people. It gave them hope in a time when certainly many would have been convinced that all hope had been lost. This promise given by God was that Israel would be restored to their Promised Land. And He did.

But that's not how this text is used today. It's used as a blanket text to mean: "God has an individual plan for your life. And this plan is for your prosperity and future and blessing. God has huge things planned for you!"

Now, how in the world can Christians think that this text can be used this way? Because it polls well. It works. It gets people hyped up. And to some degree, that’s OK. Some people are struggling with depression and hopelessness. Texts like these, if applied to them, encourage.

The problem is, there is no reason whatsoever to make this a blanket statement for all people at all times. How can a Christian cite such a verse—ripped out of context—and interpret it to mean that God's favor and provision are just around the corner, knowing that Jesus guaranteed that we’d have a cross to carry? How would you preach this text to Jesus as He hung on the cross? Read verse 14 again: are we to believe that Jesus's "fortunes" are to be gathered to Him again? Or that ours will be, just because God promised that to an 8th-cent. BC exiled community?

We think that God has "big plans" for every person because of verses like these, and this is patently false. "Big plans" is universally understood as "big according to my human standards." Again, this is patently false. Most Christians who live, and who have ever lived, never get noticed, never get rich, never get famous, never cure disease, never write songs or books, and never do anything that the public would care much about. They are "nameless" heroes of our faith, just acting like Christians everyday wherever they are.  Have we even read Heb 11:35-38?

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated--38 of whom the world was not worthy-- wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (ESV)

"Big plans" according to human standards is straight up evil and sinful. Jesus taught us that humility, servanthood, and standing up for victims is the way of the Kingdom. And that way is not full of prosperity and "big dreams."

We’ve got to get our theology in check. If we can’t interpret an Old Testament text through the lens of the cross of Jesus, then it is NOT a blanket text for us today. Let’s all stop picking random verses in the Old Testament because they make us feel good, and stop telling everyone that this random verse is “clearly” God’s promise to you and me.

Of course God has a purpose for every human. Of course. And that purpose is to be formed into the image of the Son. That purpose is not for blessing and riches and good things to happen. In fact, Jesus guaranteed that we will go through some hell on earth before the world to come. And that’s OK. Jesus overcame the hell we go through. There is a joy, peace, and purpose that only Jesus can provide. And in that case, often through suffering, God has a plan for our “future and hope.”