READ GENESIS 1:26–31; PSALM 8; HEBREWS 2:5–9
We give the creation of man in the image of God separate consideration because of the important role that God assigns to man. He alone is made the image-bearer of God! The last creature made is the first citizen of the kingdom of God on earth!
The plural of majesty?
The name that is used for God throughout Genesis 1 is ‘Elonim. Spelled in this way, it is plural in form (in some contexts the word could even mean “gods”), and this plural form is often described as the “plural of majesty,” a kind of divine, imperial word for God (or Deity). This is probably an adequate explanation in most contexts. But in verse 26 we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image. in our likeness.’” We note the use of the words us and our. It is not enough to say that this is simply because the name of God is plural in form. Is God speaking to Himself or to the heavenly court or council?
Some have argued that God is here addressing the angelic council. From other portions of Scripture we read of such a court. Isaiah 6 tells us of the awesome seraphim, the six-winged creatures around the heavenly throne, creatures that perpetually cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, LORD Almighty! The whole earth is full of His glory!” Ezekiel 1 and other passages in the Old Testament describe the cherubim, composite creatures who both guard the heavenly throne and bear up the heavenly throne. In addition, God’s heavenly court contains thousands of archangels and angels. heavenly creatures that adore Almighty God and readily do His Will. Is God addressing these creatures when He says, “Let us make man in our image”?
Verses 26 and 27 reveal to us that mankind is made in God’s image, not in the image or likeness of any other creature. God’s statement at this point thus takes us beyond the “plural of majesty” understanding to reveal to us a statement within the Godhead. The fuller revelation of all Scripture at this point would be needed to flesh out what this means. Suffice it at this point to say that we have here, already in Genesis 1, a shadow of the Biblical teaching regarding the Trinity. God is one Being, eternally existent as three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is God, but we do not worship three gods. The Belgic Confession, Article 9, says, “From this saying, ‘Let us make man in our image’ it appears that there are more persons than one in the Godhead; and when He says. God created.He signifies the unity. It is true, He does not say how many persons there are, but that which appears to us somewhat obscure in the Old Testament is very plain in the New.” Other portions of Scripture cast their light upon other parts of Scripture, because it is one Word of God. Scripture interprets Scripture.
Image and likeness of God
When we reflect upon the nature of the creatures that God has made up to this point, we can observe that there is increasing sophistication and complexity to what God has made. Of course, any cell or molecule is incredibly intricate and complex, as any scientist will admit. But, notice that on the third day, vegetation of all kinds is created, and these plants and trees will produce food for the beasts, the birds, and man himself (1:29–30), those beings created on days five and six. Yet only man is described as being created in the image of God, after His likeness. Whatever image and likeness may mean, man is in this regard a unique creature.
Older exegesis of this passage attempted (without success) to draw a distinction between image and likeness. But this is not warranted. The Hebrew language uses paralllism with great frequency, and the point is not to draw attention to how the two parts of the parallelism are different. but to say something twice (even three times on some occasions!) that reinforces one thought. To be sure. the one part of the parallelism might enhance or amplify the other parallel statement, but the reader is not to dwell on how much distinction can be made. Image and likeness thus together speak of man as fully representative of God the King, his Maker.
An image is a reflection or copy of the original. When God looked upon the man, He saw His own glory and perfections reflected. In the ancient world of Moses’ day, when a king would conquer a certain land or territory, the conquering king would often have statues of himself set up in the conquered land, to be an abiding statement of who the owner was and who was in charge. For example, in the former Soviet Union, mute evidence of whose philosophy attempted to rule the people’s lives. Thus, in making man in His image, according to His likeness, God is saying, “This world is My world. The universe and all that is in it is My kingdom. Let no one challenge that!” What a high position God created us to have in the beginning! This position of man as image-bearer already anticipates the second of the Ten Commandments, “You shall, not make for yourself any graven image for worship.” Man is already created to be God’s image! We are called to bear God’s image, not make images of Him.
“Made lower than angels”
Psalm 8 is one of the few Psalms in the Bible that has no notes of sadness or lament within it. It begins and ends with a ringing doxology of praise to the LORD on account of His majestic name. The inspired psalmist has picked up the revelation of Genesis 1, focused on certain key elements in it, and set the message to music (N.B. “for the director of music”). The majesty of the heavenly King is seen in that He has made a vast universe. The heavens clearly testify to this truth (d. Psalm 19: 1). Yet in the midst of all this is man (8:4–5), a small. being when compared to the immensity of the heavenly bodies. Remarkably, the smallest members of the human race (“children and infants”) have the capacity to utter praise to God. Even they can silence God’s enemies! See how our Lord Jesus Christ recalled this psalm when He is confronted by His enemies after He healed the blind and the lame in the Temple (Matthew 21:16).
But this psalm also points out that man is made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (the Greek Old Testament translates the Hebrew word here ‘Elohim, as “angels”). God the Creator and man the creature are truly distinct. They are not two separate entities on one grand “chain of Being.” Yet the position given to man is critical. Earlier we mentioned the mighty seraphim and cherubim, the obedient archangels and angels. These constitute the powerful “hosts of heaven.” But underneath them God has created mankind, male and female, and we are also called to serve as the earthly contingent. a regiment of the Lord’s army, that obeys God willingly and readily here. That man is made a “little lower than the angels” is thus not a “put-down,” but it is to know where God has placed us in the ranks that serve Him. “Thy will be done, on earth as willingly as the angels obey in heaven,” we pray.
“Yet crowned with glory and honor”
God made mankind to rule the kingdom. Of course, this cannot be understood in an ultimate or absolute sense. God will always remain the Supreme Monarch over His creation. But something of a hierarchy is established here: man is over the fish, the birds, and every beast of the land. Nothing that was made was excluded from man’s responsibility in terms of man’s calling to govern (Ps. 8:6–8). Creatures are subordinate to mankind, while mankind is subordinate to God Himself. This is God’s glorious gift to us in the beginning: He honors us by making us kings and queens on the earth. What a remarkable calling!
This is tied in with the image of God, it seems to me, and so we return to that topic for the moment. Admittedly, much has been written on what the image of God in man means. Space does not allow us to enter into the intricacies of that immense discussion. Two New Testament passages do, however, throw some light on what is associated with the image of God. In Ephesians 4:24 Paul speaks of the new self, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” God’s grace renews what was lost, sinful and dead. In addressing the Colossians about the new self (Col. 3:10), Paul says that this new self is “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” The reader should also reflect on what is said in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3; Belgic Confession, Article 14; Canons of Dort, III–VI, Article 1; and Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter IV. 2.
Whatever else may be said about the image of God in man, mankind was crowned with true righteousness, that is, a perfect relationship with God, one in full conformity with the will and plan of God. Man, in the beginning, knew what was right, and he could execute what was just. Man was a king.
God also crowned man with holiness. This means that man was separated away from anything that might be sinful (he was made knowing no Sin!), so that he could serve in the very presence of God. Man was a priest, and the entire creation was like a glorious temple (cf. Ps. 29:9; Heb. 2:20). Though God be enthroned in heaven, man stood before Him in creation as the high priest would later stand before the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle and then the Temple.
Finally, God honored man in the beginning with knowledge. Man knew God, and he had the law of God written in his heart (see Rom. 2:14, 15). In the beginning man possessed the insights to fulfill his calling within the creation-kingdom. Man knew how to rule as king, and he knew how to minister before God’s face as a priest. Of course, man’s knowledge of reality and God’s knowledge of reality are not of the same type. God always knows all things in every perfect way, while man is necessarily limited. But in the beginning man was crowned with the divine gift of understanding and wisdom. Man was a prophet.
Thus the original calling of man (king, priest, prophet) anticipates the kind of Savior we would need, the office He would have to fulfill and the tasks He would be required to accomplish in saving lost humanity and redeeming a fallen world.The first man becomes the “blueprint” for the last Man, JesusChrist.
Male and female He created them
Genesis 1 does not go into the particulars of the creation of mankind, the man and the woman. Nor does it elaborate on the relationship between the man and the woman. All this comes in Genesis two, and so we postpone for the moment our discussion of this subject.
Genesis 1:26 and 27, focuses on the relationship of humanity to God. The reader should note the fact that in 1:27 the text gets somewhat lyrical and poetic. The verse has three lines, in which the important operative word create is used in each line. Mankind is composed of mate and female members, and both are created in the image of God. In the beginning male and female enjoyed the dignity of true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge as they lived in the kingdom of God, seeking to fulfill their calling before His face. In the creation of mankind, God has reached the crowning moment of the week.
Benediction as the task begins
On the fifth day the fish and birds had received God’s blessing in order that they might increase and fill the waters and the skies. Now again God pronounces a benediction, so that, what reads like a command, is in fact a blessing that will enable the image~bearing male and female to accomplish the office and calling at hand. Blessing suggests the gift of fertile power that produces fruitfulness and prosperity. None of God’s rich gifts to us will profit us without His blessing (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 50). St. Augustine once prayed, “Give, O Lord, what You ask, and then ask whatever You will.” What God commands us in the mandates of our office, He first supplies to us in His loving favor.
The blessing of God follows in very logical order: fruitfulness leads to the increase in numbers, which in turn leads to filling of the earth, which in turn enables mankind to subdue and rule all things.
Genesis 1:28 is sometimes called the “cultural mandate.” I prefer to call it the “dominion mandate;” because of the call to subdue and rule the whole of the earth. Again, this subject is much discussed, and we will return to it from time to time. But let it be said that mankind is blessed in order that by wise and prudent work and management, he could develop from the resources of this vast creation-kingdom those things that would be beautiful, useful, holy, and wonderful gifts for the Giver; cultural items that could be offered in thanksgiving and gratitude to the God of our creation, the One from whom all blessings flow.
“But we see Jesus”
Read Hebrews 2:5-9 again. The line from Genesis 1, to Psalm 8, and then to Jesus Christ is made clear, and it needs to be made clear because the high position and marvelous calling given to man in the beginning was lost by the rebellion and sin of our first parents. The gospel message receives its shape from the message of Genesis 1. What man was, what man had, and thus all that man lost, is retrieved by another Man, but One who is more than a mere man. Therefore, Genesis 1 is a very real part of the Gospel. The good news of salvation already begins to be sounded in Genesis 1, long before we arrive at the manger in Bethlehem. The only Man truly in charge of the whole world today is Jesus Christ (d. Matt. 28:16–20). In the gospel, we see Him! He is the One who occupies the threefold office of king, priest, and prophet. The image of God is restored in Him who is the perfect Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. You will not understand His Person and His work unless you see how God first crowned us with glory and honor in the beginning.
POINTS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS
1. What can we say from Scripture about when and why the angels were created? See Hebrews 1; II Peter 2:4; Jude 6 (d. Belgic Confession, Article 12).
2. How would you explain the doctrine of the Trinity? What Scriptural support would you point to, if you were asked to defend this Christian belief? (See the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 8–11 [with proof texts].)
3. Is there a danger of reading too much doctrine or too little doctrine into individual passages? What role should Christian creeds and confessions have when we study the Bible? What wisdom (or danger) is there in taking account of what the Christian church has learned and confessed in the last two thousand years?
4. There have been those who say that the so-called “cultural mandate” has allowed the exploitation of natural resources in the world. In other words, Christians have justified the overuse of the earth’s plants, animals, and minerals on the basis of Genesis 1:26–28. Is this true or false? What is the proper attitude, based on Scripture, that we should have toward the resources of God’s kingdom? How does Genesis 1:26–28 answer a Hindu (New Age) worldview? a consumerist mentality? a throwaway society?
5. There are modern philosophies and worldviews around which lower mankind to the level of an animal while animals are elevated to a point of being nearly human (even divine!). What does God’s Word in Genesis 1 say to these perspectives? What happens in a society when the created order is turned on its head so that animals are as important as, maybe more important, than human beings?
6. Cultural activities are inescapable. Some Christians say that the Great Commission has now taken over the Cultural (Dominion) Mandate in importance and priority. Do you agree or disagree? Is Genesis 1:28 in any conflict with Matthew 28:18–20? How can Christians sort all of this out in today’s world?
7. Some people may wonder occasionally, “Where did we come from? Why are we here?” What is the good news answer of Genesis 1? How important is it today to give attention to the Biblical teaching concerning the image of God and our office in God’s creation-kingdom?
Mark D. Vander Hart