What is Mankind? – The Image of God

by Richard Pratt

Edited transcript from a lecture given at 194 Chemistry, University of California, Davis sponsored by Grace Valley Christian Center Friday evening, April 28, 2000


Dr. Richard Pratt holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Roanoke College. He studied at Westminster Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity Degree. He acquired his Doctorate in Theology from Harvard University. He has written a number of books, developed a video educational curriculum, and has published numerous articles. He is Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the president of Third Millennium Ministries, a web-based outreach for educating both national and international students.

What Is a Human Being?

I am going to discuss what I consider to be one of the most important questions that anybody can ask: “What is a human being?” I am going to try to present, both to those who are followers of Jesus and those that aren’t, that the Christian view of what human beings are is rather spectacular. Now, this may sound a little bit strange coming from a professor of theology, but from my point of view Christians often talk way too much about God. We talk too much about God and too little about ourselves. The reality is that many times Christians believe that what they have to do is to get their ideas about God straight, and then everything else will work out. But it’s just not quite that way.

When you look at the Bible, at the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments, they talk about mankind. They talk about God too, there’s no doubt about that, but they talk a lot about us. But many times we either ignore what the Bible says about us, or we so narrow down the scope of what it says that we end up with just a bare, paper-thin idea of what it means to be a human being.

I’m convinced that in the world today one of the biggest problems we have is not really so much what we think about God-that’s bad enough, don’t misunderstand me-but one of the biggest problems we have is what we think about us. I’m not just referring to what people out there in the world think about us, or people of other religions and other faiths, but even to what followers of Jesus often think about us.

The Irony of Being Human

I became interested in this about ten years ago. I was in Chicago, and I saw a newspaper article that caught my eye. It was one of those cold, wintry days in January, and I was in the hotel with nothing to do. I saw a newspaper, and the headline read: “The Irony of Being Human.” I wasn’t really interested in that, but I didn’t have anything else to do, so I picked it up. You see, I was just like everybody else-not very interested in what it meant to be a human. But I picked it up. I found the article really interesting, because it told two different stories.

The first story was about a young woman in her late twenties. She had, just the day before, left her husband and left her children to run away with a lover, and they had gone to this hotel. But that very day her lover had decided he was going back to his family, and he left her there in the hotel. There she was-a nothing. She lost her family, her husband, her reputation; she lost it all. So she reached into her purse, pulled out a 45-caliber pistol and took her life. The police told the reporter that there was a note on the nightstand that said, “Don’t cry for me; I’m not even human anymore.”

That’s the way a lot of people think of themselves in this world. Suicide rates are very high, but it’s not just suicides that let us know what people think about themselves: “Don’t cry about me; I’m not worth any tears; I’m not even human anymore.” It’s even out there with people that don’t commit quick suicide. It’s out there with people who are committing suicide slowly day after day after day, convinced that they really are basically worthless scum.

Now, that’s not the irony of being human. That’s bad enough, that human beings in this world today can actually think of themselves as basically nothing. That’s bad enough. But that’s not the irony that this article was about. The irony comes in the second story. In the same hotel where this young woman took her life, strangely enough, at the very same hour she took her life, there was a meeting downstairs in the convention center.

Back in those days these kinds of people used to be called “New Agers.” I don’t think we use that term much anymore, but we did about ten years ago. They had a celebrity who had come to lead the whole group in a big meeting. At the end of her talk she had everybody stand up and lift their hands in the air together and start shouting in unison, “I am God. I am God. I am God,” at the very same time when this woman was taking her life upstairs. The writer of the article concluded that’s the irony of being human today, that people in the same place, at the very same time, can think such opposite things of themselves-on the one hand: I am nothing; on the other hand: I’m a god.

Are We Gods, or Lucky Mud?

Now, there probably aren’t a lot of people that walk around saying, “I’m a god; how about you?” They don’t use those words. But we all know people that act like they think they’re gods. Some of them are your professors or bosses; some of them are your peers; some of them are your parents; some of them are your children. You know how it goes-they think way too much about themselves than they really ought to.

It’s actually not very surprising that people in our world feel this way about themselves, going too far in one direction or the other. Just think about what our public mentality is in this country. Think about what we teach children from the crib about who they are. Think about it for just a minute, and it makes perfectly good sense that we’d end up with this kind of irony. On the one hand, we teach our children, from grade one all the way up, that they are basically little more than ooze oozing out of ooze and then back into ooze again, that they’re just dirt, that they are really no different from the dirt that’s outside on the street. The only difference between that dirt in the gutter and themselves is that, well, their molecules just happened to come together and form a human being, so really they’re a little more than “lucky mud.” They’re mud, but they’re just lucky mud.

That’s the way that our world tells us we should look at ourselves. You’re really nothing more than just the result of some random process that happened in this universe; the dice were rolled and you just happened to come out you. But really you’re not anything special. You’re really not anything more valuable than the dirt blowing down the street. That’s one thing our culture teaches us.

But on the other hand our culture also teaches us: “Be the captain of your own fate. Make your own choices. Free yourself from tradition and from authority, especially religious tradition, then you will be everything you can possibly be.” And that, in effect, tells us we are gods. So, on the one hand we’re told we are nothing but ooze oozing out of ooze, and on the other hand we’re told we are gods. It’s no wonder that something like that would happen in a hotel on the very same day at the very same hour.

Are We Sinners or Saints?

When I first read that article, I had a typical Christian reaction: “Boy am I glad I don’t have that problem. Boy am I glad that Christians don’t have that problem. You know, the world out there, people that don’t follow Jesus, they’re really messed up. They don’t know who they are. They’re either dirt or they’re gods. But we Christians, we’ve got it together.”

That was my first reaction. But then when I read the article a little more carefully and thought about it for just a minute, I thought to myself, “You know, that’s really not true.” Even Christians go to those extremes, only we “baptize” them. We make them Christian-sounding, but we still go to those extremes. We don’t say, “I’m just lucky mud; I’m nothing, I’m nothing,” but I’ll tell you what we do say. We say, “I am a sinner, so I’m worthless scum.” I can’t tell you how many Christians I know that just beat themselves to death and consider themselves absolutely just as valueless as paper blowing down the street because they know they are sinners who violated God’s law. They think that therefore they are scum.

On the other hand, there are some Christians, if you give them a few gifts, give them a few abilities, give them some authority in the church, give them some kind of respectability, then pretty soon they think they’re indispensable. Pretty soon they feel like everybody ought to be treating them like they’re little gods running around. We call it “leadership,” but nevertheless, that’s what it is.

We all have this problem of struggling with the question: “What does it mean to be a human being?” Many of us think if we let that question go by and just think about God, and get God and Jesus and things like that straight in our heads, then maybe all this human being stuff will just sort of fall into place. But the reality is, it doesn’t fall into place. When a Christian is asked the question: “What is a human being-divine or devilish?” we have to be able to answer that question from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, not just by some default opinion because we’ve ignored what the Bible says.

You see, when you ignore it and you just go to the default drive, then your natural tendency is going to be either to say, “I’m nothing but scum, slime, yuck. I hate me. God hates me. Everybody hates me,” or to say, “Ain’t I special! Ain’t I all that!” That’s just a tendency that even followers of Jesus will have, unless we go back and ask a very basic question: “What does our faith tell us we are?”

For me, that was a hard question to answer, because even though I had studied the Scriptures a long, long time, and even though I had been a minister for fifteen years, and even though I had taught in a seminary for a number of years, the reality was I had never asked myself that question on any deep level. What I had done was I had gone to the default, which was what my world had taught me, not what my Jesus had taught me, because I hadn’t even listened to what he had to say about that subject.

We Are Images of God!

What does the Bible say about who we are? One of the best places to look is the place in the Scriptures where God first talked about us, the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:26 is the first time, as far as we know, God said anything about you and me. This is what God said, speaking to the Heavenly Council: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” Anybody who has had any contact at all with the Christian or Jewish faiths knows that that’s the kind of thing the Scriptures say about what human beings are: “A human being is the image of God.”

Well, that sounds great. We can say, “Image of God, that’s what we are.” And we know that that’s what the Bible says. We know that that’s what we teach children in Sunday School. We know that that’s what we say to each other. If we were pressed hard and asked, “What is a person? What is a human being?” eventually most Christians would get around to the idea: “Well, people are images of God.” And that sounds really nice. But do you know what would happen if we asked: “What does it mean to be the image of God?” We’d get a thousand different answers. The reason for that is because we don’t look carefully at this.

This is one of those religious phrases, one of those things we kind of throw around. We’ve got a set of these kinds of words; for example, holy and glory. What in the world does that mean? These are religious phrases that we throw at each other to make each other think that we are spiritual people who know the Bible. But we don’t have a clue what they mean, or we certainly don’t have a consensus among ourselves as to what they mean. “Image of God” is like that. We’ve been robbed of what that phrase means, and as a result we’ve been robbed of what we are.

In the history of the church there have been all kinds of ways in which people have talked about what it means to be the image of God. Let me remind you of some of the things they’ve said. I’m sure you’ve heard these things before. The first is that being the image of God means we’re rational, that we can think deep thoughts. In some respects that’s true. But it’s a little troubling when we find out that other creatures in this world also seem to be thinking pretty heavy thoughts, and that these days the research indicates that maybe human beings aren’t entirely distinct in their rational capacity. So maybe it means something else.

Perhaps it’s our linguistic ability, the fact that we can use language? Perhaps that’s what makes us the image of God. Well, in some ways that’s true too. But we encounter problems with the whales and things like that, signaling each other. It’s a little bit bothersome, and it should make us wonder: Is that really what distinguishes us as images of God? I think the most comprehensive definition of “image of God” is: everything you are, minus sin. That would include your rationality, your linguistic abilities, and your moral responsibility; it would include the fact that you are an immortal soul.

I think that for us to get a true handle on what it means to be the image of God, we’ve got to look at the Bible, we’ve got to see what the Scriptures say. Now, if you’re not a follower of Christ, I’m going to ask you to just consider what the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments say it means to be the image of God. Just consider it. See if it doesn’t make some sense to you. See if it doesn’t have the ring of truth to it. Ask yourself if that is a better option than the kinds of things you’ve been buying into.

But for believers I want to say this: I think that if you go back and look a little more carefully at what the Bible itself says “image of God” means, you’ll be surprised what that will do to you, not just in terms of how you think about yourself, but how you think about other people, and even how you think about God.

“Image” Defined:

Now, to understand this “image of God” thing correctly, we’ve got to get into a time machine and go back to the days of ziggurats and pyramids, back to the days of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. This book we just quoted from, Genesis, comes from those days. Genesis was not written yesterday, so it’s not giving us some kind of scientific definition of what a human being is. It’s not giving us some species taxonomy or something like that. It’s giving us a definition of what a human being is within the context of the world of the ancient Middle East, the ancient Near East, back in the days of Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston, Moses and Egypt, pharaohs and emperors, and things like that. To understand the phrase “image of God,” we’ve got to put ourselves back into that time. Let’s first try to figure out what an “image” was back in those days, then we’ll look at the word “God.”

The Hebrew expression for image, tselem, basically meant a three-dimensional statue. It was similar in Akkadian and Egyptian as well. An image was a three-dimensional statue of something or someone. There were all kinds of these things all around in the world. People had them everywhere. If you have ever been to an archaeological dig or if you’ve ever looked in a museum that has relics of an archaeological dig, you know this is true. In the ancient Near East there were all kinds of images of practically every person, every god, every . . . well, you name it, they had it. These three-dimensional statues were everywhere.

In many respects, that’s what the Bible means when it says we are images of God. It tells us that we are representatives, that we are artistic designs, we are something that has been made, a sort of three-dimensional representation of God.

Several decades ago a Rameses exhibit went through this country. I think it was on loan from the British Museum. Rameses was a great pharaoh of Egypt. I saw the exhibit in Memphis, Tennessee, and I remember the way they had it set up. You walked up two flights of stairs and then you turned. When you turned it was very dramatic, because there, standing right before you, was this huge thirty-foot-high statue of Rameses. It was unbelievable, this colossal image of Rameses. Then you walked past it and went on in. Of course you were expecting to see all kinds of other things, and you did, but practically everywhere you turned was another image of Rameses. About every third thing in the exhibit was-guess what-another image of Rameses. “Wow, that’s interesting, another image of Rameses.” “Well, there’s another image of Rameses.” “Well, I wonder who that is. Rameses! Imagine that.” Pretty soon you could take the little earphones off and just say, “Well, there’s another Rameses. There’s another Rameses,” because that’s what they did back then; they had all kinds of images of Rameses.

That’s what kings did, and it’s what all kinds of people and officials did in the ancient world-they had images made of themselves. Some of them were huge, others of them were tiny. Some of them were made of gold and silver and were diamond and ruby studded; others were just tiny little clay images. We have a lot of these big stone and metal images, because they last a long time. We also have a number of these little clay images, but most of them are broken apart, because that’s what would happen to images-they would fall apart if they were made of clay.

Almost everybody would have several images in their homes. Even peasants would have them-little Ken and Barbie doll sized images. They would make them out of sun-baked clay. And of course they would play with it or bow down to it or whatever they would do to it, and of course after a few weeks, like a lot of things nowadays, it would break. What would they do then? Not a problem. They just threw it out the window and made another one. That’s why we have so many of them broken, because they just kept making them and making them and making them.

Fragile Images of Clay

Now that we have this picture of an image as a three dimensional representation, we have understand what the Scriptures of the Old Testament say about what kind of image a human being is. Is it this gigantic, colossal, diamond-studded, gold and silver image? Is that what it is? Well, you know how the Bible story goes. In the second chapter of Genesis, God makes Adam. And what does he make Adam out of? Dust of the earth is what the Old King James says, which basically means a handful of dirt or clay. What that lets us know about people is something very important. In the days of Yul Brynner, people understood this. If you were an image made out of clay, that meant something. It meant that you were very fragile. In some respects that’s what Genesis says about human beings; it says we are clay images. In the ancient world, that meant something very clear to people; it meant people are breakable. Now, keep in mind this is even before what the Bible calls “sin,” even before death and the horrible things that we know about ourselves.

Think about yourself. Some of you are still at the age where you think you are immortal. It’s an amazing thing. If I were to ask young men who are under thirteen years old, “Would you like to ride on the hood of my car?” they’d go, “Yeah, man! Let’s do it! Yeah, man, that’d be great!” In fact, they’d be jumping on the hood, saying, “Come on, let’s just go. Let’s do it!” If I were to ask twenty-year-olds, it might take a beer or two, but they’d get on there too. They’d go, “Yeah, let’s do it! Ride on the hood? Sure, it’ll be fun!” But if I were to ask people who are thirty and above, “You want to ride on the hood?” they’d go, “Uh … I don’t think so.” There would be no way you’d get them on the hood, and the reason is because the older you get, the more breakable you feel, and the more you know how breakable people are.

That’s true physically, and it’s also true psychologically and spiritually. Anybody who really thinks they are invincible needs to have a little reality check. If you are not a believer in Jesus, don’t think you’re invincible. You’re quite breakable. Your life is going to be over, and your career is going to be over, and all the things that you think are going to make you invincible are not.

So in some respects, this first word, “image,” really is a word indicating the humility of what it means to be a human being. When you are flying in an airplane, the mountains always look so tiny, even if you are flying over the Swiss Alps. Then you realize, when you get on the ground, how huge they are, and how teeny tiny and minuscule you are. But that’s usually not the way we think of ourselves, is it?

Let me ask you a question: Was today a good day, or was today a bad day? How did you decide whether it was a good day or a bad day? It was basically based upon whether this was a good day or a bad day for you, personally. I mean, we may know physically, in terms of the solar system and the galaxies, that we’re not the center of the universe, but we sure do forget it when we start asking questions like, “Was it a good day today?” We think of ourselves as far greater than we are. We think of ourselves as being much more unbreakable than we are. The Bible’s view of human beings, the Christian view of human beings, is that we are quite humble, quite fragile. Once death entered the world, it was “here today, gone tomorrow.”

Do you know your great-great grandmother’s maiden name? Do you know your great grandmother’s first name? It has only been two generations, yet perhaps you don’t know your great grandmother’s name. In another two generations, they’re not going to know your name either. And you think the universe rotates around you! They are not even going to know your name.

Made in God’s Likeness

OK, enough of that. That’s just one side of the definition that the Bible has for “image”: representative, three-dimensional representation, clay, breakable, fragile, here today, gone tomorrow. That’s not the only thing it says, though. Notice what it says. It says that human beings are images of God. That is just absolutely phenomenal.

Now I want you to hear what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say you’re the likeness of a chimpanzee. It doesn’t say you’re the likeness of Mother Earth. It doesn’t even say you’re the likeness of the universe. Do you know why? It’s because those things are too small, too insignificant, to describe who you are.

Some people might stand before the ocean, or before some huge mountain or beautiful valley, and say, “You know, if only I could be like that. If only I could be like a mountain. Then I’d really be something special.” Or they might think, “Suppose I had all the glory and wonder of the universe, all jammed into me in some way. That would be unbelievable. What a creature I’d be if that were true.”

But do you know the reality? The reality is that you are not those things because those things are trivial compared to what you are. Trivial! Because what the Hebrew scriptures say is: You are the likeness of the Creator of the universe. The Creator of the universe. You! Yes, you, whom you see every morning in the mirror. You are the image of the One who made everything. That’s just phenomenal when you begin to think about it that way, when you begin to realize the value, importance, worth and splendor that means that human beings have. It’s absolutely phenomenal.

Even if we are a follower of Christ, and even if we don’t believe in evolution and things like that, we still have this kind of secret default drive when it comes to thinking about what we are, and our culture has given it to us. Basically, we believe we are fundamentally animals. I mean, you don’t call it a “rat race” for nothing. You don’t say it’s a “dog eat dog” world for no good reason. Basically, we think of human beings as “special animals” at best.

That is so contrary to what the Scriptures say, and what a Christian view of human beings is, that I can hardly tell you how misguided that is. Our default for what it means to be a human being should not be that we’re special animals. Our default for what it means to be a human being should be that we are like God!

Dignity and Humility

Now go back to the days of Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston again. In the ancient Near East society there was one-sometimes several, but primarily one-person who had the title, “Image of God.” Can you imagine who that might have been? It was the pharaoh, the emperor. They did it both in Assyria and in Egypt; they would call royalty “the Likeness of the Gods.” In fact, in many cultures they believed that when a pharaohs died they actually became divine, that they entered into the realm of the divine.

Now listen to this. This is Moses, writing the book of Genesis, writing it to former slaves in Egypt who had been told that the pharaoh is the image of God, and on the basis of that, that they should serve him, and they should die for him in his slave pits. Moses writes that Pharaoh is not the only image of God, but everyone is the image of God. It was absolutely unbelievable. Everyone is the image of God? Not just the kings? Not just a few noblemen? Me? I’m the likeness of God? Moses was saying to them that every single human being had the value and the worth and deserved the honor of a king, a queen, or an emperor.

Imagine greeting a person by looking them right in the eye and saying to them, “Hello, your majesty.” Now, I don’t know about you, but if I did that to somebody I’d feel really bizarre. The reason I’d feel bizarre about that is because that’s just not the way I normally think about people. Americans sometimes have trouble figuring that kind of thing out, because we’re so independent-no royalty, no king or that sort of thing. But I think we can have a picture here of what it is that the Bible expects us to do toward human beings.

Now, it’s one thing to say you should call people “your majesty” and to honor them and to understand that they are royal, that they deserve the dignity of royalty and the treatment of royalty. But you know what it’s really like. I mean, what do you really do? When somebody runs one of these four way stop signs in front of you, when they go right across in front of you, what do you say? “Well my, there goes the glorious image of God right there. I’m so happy to see them I don’t know what to do.” Is that what you do? Or when some baby is screaming behind you in the airplane, do you think, “Well there’s a wonderful little image of God back there. Hello, your majesty.” No, that’s not our tendency.

Now let me tell you something the New Testament says in the book of James. It says, “Out of the same mouth comes praise for God and curses for the image of God.” And then he says, “Brothers, this cannot be.” That’s why the apostle John in the New Testament says, “Don’t even talk to me about loving God if you don’t love your neighbor.” You see, the way you treat an image of the king is the way you’re treating the king. The way you treat the image of God is the way you’re treating God.

I suspect most of you might think to yourselves, “Hey, you know, I probably ought to treat my wife better tonight,” or, “I probably ought to treat my husband a little bit better, or my roommate a little bit better, or my boyfriend or my girlfriend a little bit better, or my parents a little bit better, or my children a little bit better.” But I want you to take it a step further than that. I want you to start treating yourself better. I want you to start treating yourself like what you are-the royal image of God.

You see, the world will tell us to go to these extremes of either “you’re nothing” or “you’re God.” But what the Christian faith says is that we are neither nothing nor gods; what we are are breakable images of God. That’s a lesson in humility, but it’s also an affirmation that you are not a piece of trash blowing down the street. You are the likeness of your Maker, and for that reason you are valuable. You are valuable enough even for something like this: Jesus dying for you, Jesus offering salvation to you. That’s how valuable you are. And that’s a remarkable thing.

What Difference Does It Make?

What difference does it make that you’re the image of God? I can’t think of anything more foundational to living than to figure out from that title, “Image of God,” what kind of job or role I have in the universe.

I want to tell you what happened to me when I was seventeen, getting ready to go to college. I used to teach guitar in a music studio all through high school to make money. The summer before I left for college I needed to get a full time job, so I asked the manager of the music store if I could have a job, and he said, “Sure.” So I said, “Well, what will I do?” He sat back in his chair and said, “Well, why don’t we just call you ‘assistant to the owner.'” I thought, “Cool! Here I am, seventeen, and what this means is that whenever the owner leaves I get to sit down and put my feet up on his desk and boss everybody around.” That’s what I thought!

It was a great title, “assistant to the owner.” I mean, what more could you want at seventeen? But I found out what it really meant was that I had to do everything nobody else wanted to do, like cleaning the toilets and delivering grand pianos up three flights of stairs. So the job title was great, but the job was crummy. It was really crummy.

Until we take another look at our role, you might have the impression that this is just the same sort of nonsense. “OK Richard, that’s a great fantasy, to say that we’re the likeness of the creator of the universe. ‘Your majesty’ was fun for a second or two, and I might have even felt a little bit different about myself for a nanosecond. But now tomorrow morning I’m going to get up and I’m going to do the same old thing I’ve always done. What difference does it make that I’m ‘the image of God’?”

Multiplication and Dominion

According to the biblical, Christian ideal, being “the image of God” is not just a great title-it’s a great role to have in the world, too. Genesis 1:26-27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And now verse 28. Here’s the job description: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'”

When God first talked about us and he called us image of God, he said, “I’ve got a job, a role in the world, in mind for this thing I’m calling ‘my image’,” and he said it was to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, to subdue it, and to have dominion over it. Five things, basically, but to save time, let’s group them into two. Our role in the world is to multiply more images of God, and to have dominion over the earth.

Multiplication and dominion. That is bizarre. That is so foreign to what we think of ourselves as being, I can hardly imagine anything seeming stranger to people today. And I’m not just talking about people that don’t follow Christ; I mean even Christian people.

Imagine this: you go to a party. What do you do when you go to a party? You meet new people. So you walk up, shake hands, and say, “Hi. My name’s Rich Pratt.” And then the person says, “Hi. I’m John Smith.” What’s the very next question you ask? “What do you do, John?” Can you imagine if somebody walked up to you at a party and asked, “What do you do?” and you shook their hand and said, “Well, I multiply and have dominion; how about you?” I mean, can you imagine what they would do? “Oh, OK. It was nice to meet you . . .”

The reason that people would react that way is because that is the most foreign idea of what a person is as we can possibly imagine. It just doesn’t even come on the screen. What is a human being? “Well, I think a human being is somebody who multiplies and has dominion. How about you? What do you think?” They’d go, “You are nuts; that’s what I think.” It just shows us how far we’ve gotten from what it means to be human, and therefore why we don’t do such a good job at being human.

Do you realize that when God blessed us and gave us this role of being multipliers and having dominion over the earth, that was his answer to our question, “Why do I live? Why am I here?” Don’t you ever wonder that? Melville put it something like this: “There are those queer times and occasions when a man takes this whole vast universe as one practical joke, the width thereof he but dimly discerns but more than suspects that the joke is at no one’s expense but his own.” That’s the way I feel sometimes, and I’m a follower of Jesus.

And I don’t know, but I suspect that if you’re not a follower of Jesus that kind of outlook on who you are comes up a lot. One of the reasons that you feel like this whole thing just must be somebody’s practical joke and you’re the one who’s paying for it is because we don’t have a clue what it means to live in this world as human beings. The reason your heart keeps beating, the reason your lungs keep expanding and contracting, the reason your neurosynapses continue to fire, the reason for all of this, is so that you might multiply and have dominion over the earth, plain and simple.

It just astounds me that even people who love the Bible don’t know that. They might say, “Well, the reason I live is to make money,” or, “The reason I live is to have a good career.” Here’s the Christianese version: “The reason I live is to glorify God.” Sure, that’s the right answer, but what in the world does that mean? I’ll tell you what it means. It means to multiply and have dominion as a servant of God, and by that means you glorify him and, as the catechism says, you enjoy him forever.

The problem lies in the way we often think about life. Nothing holds it together. Nothing ties it all together. There is no meta-narrative that makes sense out of what I do. You just think, “All right, I know that I’m supposed to be good at school, so I’m working hard, gonna make that A. And I know I’m supposed to go to church, so I’m going to go to church. It’s nine o’clock Sunday morning; I gotta go. And I’m going home for Thanksgiving so I can be a good child.” So on and on it goes. “I’m just going to keep doing things like that all my life until I grow old and I die. And I guess I’ll call that living.”

Why would you want that? Especially when you have something that’s been endorsed by someone as great as Jesus, called the Bible, that ties these things together in a package called “be my image by multiplying and having dominion over the earth”? Now, to fully appreciate this, we’re going to have to open up what these two words mean- multiplication and dominion. One of the things I want to tell you is that these two things are connected: image of God and multiplication and dominion. They are connected.

The Image of the King

Let’s go back to the days of the ziggurats and pyramids, back to Yul Brynner again. Remember how I told you that when you walk up the stairs the Rameses exhibit you see one image, then you turn the corner and you see another, and then you see another, and you see another? Well, if you’ve ever been to Egypt or any place like that, you know that’s the way it was in the ancient world. Kings had images made of themselves, but not just one, not just two, not just three. They had their artisans make image after image after image. And you know what they did with those images? They spread them out through their kingdoms, throughout the whole of their kingdoms. They put them at the mouths and heads of the rivers. They put them along their borders and in every town square. Practically every square inch was within view of some image of the great king. Now the king may have lived way back who knows what little town-Thebes, or wherever it may have been. But nevertheless, for the king to have presence, he chose to have his image multiplied and for his image to fill up the kingdom.

This was especially important at tax time, because if someone lived off in some distant village, when the tax collector came around and said, “OK, pay up,” they’d say, “Pay who?” He would say, “The king,” and they’d say, “What king? I’ve never seen the king. He’s never around here.” So the way they solved that was by having images of the king placed in all those cities. So any time the IRS agent came, if the people said, “Who’s this king?” the tax collector could say, “He’s right there.” Then they’d say, “OK, I think I better pay.”

That’s the analogy, the metaphor that the Scripture uses for God and his image. In the Bible there are lots of images used to describe God, but the main metaphor that’s used, in both Old and New Testaments, is that God is an emperor, a king. And God’s kingdom is the earth. And God has a program for multiplying his images and having them spread out all over the earth, representing him, just like ancient Near Eastern kings did. Now, God could have done it another way if he’d wanted to, but he chose this way, largely so we could understand it, so we could figure out what we’re doing.

Painful Multiplication

Why do people have children? Do we just do it out of instinct? Do we have babies for the same reason that the bees and the birds do? I don’t think so. So why do we have children? One of the answers is because the Bible says human beings were designed to fill the world up with human beings, because human beings are the representatives of God, and God has this kingdom, and he doesn’t just want one or two or three of them to kind of huddle together in one little spot; he wants his image spread out throughout the whole world so that his kingdom can be established all over this planet. That is what the image of God is doing multiplying.

That’s what God meant when he said even to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” He meant, “I want you to have babies.” And you know, it would have been unbelievable, the kind of things that could have been done by human beings had we not turned against the creator. But according to the biblical story of the human race, we turned against him. We became terribly corrupted. So a curse was put on the woman, in Genesis chapter 3. Do you remember what God said to the woman? He said, “I will greatly increase your pain in childbearing; with pain ye shall bring forth children.” He’s talking about what role? What job? Multiplication. But now he’s saying it’s going to be with great pain.

And I have to tell you something-that word “pain” in the Hebrew does not just mean physical pain. It also means psychological grief. And every mother will tell you this-I am not a mother, but I can guarantee this-they’ll tell you that the pain doesn’t stop when they come out of the delivery room. That’s just the beginning of the pain, suffering and agony. Even if you have wonderful children, you still have the pain of wondering what’s going to happen to them in this horrible world we live in.

Spiritual Multiplication

The Bible teaches that multiplication doesn’t just simply involve biological reproduction; it also involves spiritual reproduction. That is, parents are required to teach their children and to bring them into salvation, into redemption, into the ways of life for them to be redeemed images of God. One of the biggest roles you have as Christian parents is doing all you can to make sure your children are in the Savior. Because that’s your multiplying theme. That’s what you are. That’s why you breathe. That’s why those neurons are still working up there-so you can make more redeemed images of God.

There are other ways to multiply images of God. The Bible talks about multiplying fruit. A lot of that has to do with evangelism and reaching out to friends and neighbors in the name of Christ. When we bring people into the faith we’re actually multiplying redeemed images of God. We’re not just doing it biologically. We’re not just doing it by teaching and raising our children, but we’re doing it when we are nice to somebody in Jesus’ name, or when we bring somebody to church or say, “Have you ever considered the claims of Jesus on your life?” We were designed to multiply images of God, to spread the kingdom of God. We do it biologically, we do it by training our children, and we do it by reaching out to people.

You want to know why you live? This is why you live-to multiply more images of God so that this world can be filled up with human beings who live for him and demonstrate that he is the King of the universe and there is no other. Right now when you look around at people and see what they’re doing you have to sort of wonder who’s really the king. This world is a messed up place. But God’s plan is that we fill the world up with his redeemed images to display that he is King.

Representative Dominion

So multiplication has to do with the images of the great king, just like we said earlier. But multiplication isn’t all of it. There’s a second thing that we do, called dominion. Dominion. It’s really sad, but sometimes this idea has been twisted and perverted. Sometimes Christians have taken the statement “fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over it” to mean we can do with this world whatever we good and well want to do. We can exploit its natural resources and we can pollute it. We don’t need to worry about it.

That’s not what the Bible means when it talks about having dominion. “Have dominion over it” means being responsible managers of the world-not that you just use this world for your own pleasures without any regard for its well-being. The Scriptures are very clear that that’s the case. Let me tell you something else that phrase doesn’t mean, but has been twisted and perverted to mean. Sometimes people think it means we should have dominion over other people. It was on the basis of that kind of bad theology that some pretty horrendous things things like the African slave trade, colonialism and the Crusades were justified by Christians.

What I’m talking about is something much more significant than that. Go back to Yul Brynner. Yul Brynner had his images out there. He had lots of them out there. He wanted them out there, because they showed who was the king. These images had representative dominion over the districts that they were given. Put a statue over in this city, and that statue had representative dominion on the behalf of the king. It sort of stood there and ruled over that area, representing the authority of the great emperor.

Images don’t mean that much to modern Americans, but in the former Soviet Union images were very important. Practically everywhere you would go in the former Soviet Union there were these huge statues of Stalin or Lenin. Everywhere. I remember asking a friend of mine one time in Poland, “Why are all these statues of Lenin and Stalin all over the place?” He said, sort of sarcastically, “They remind us of who’s in charge.” That was back before solidarity and that sort of thing. They remind us of who’s in charge. And I’ll tell you this-if a policeman saw you throwing an egg at a statue of Stalin or Lenin, you were in deep water, because those statues had representative authority. They ruled over that area.

Didn’t it shock you, when the Soviet Union fell apart, when you saw those pictures of people tearing down those statues? For weeks they were chopping these things down, sawing them up, dancing on them, having parties on them. You were looking at the TV and thinking, “Hey, why don’t you guys get a job or something over there?” Well, the reason we felt that way was because we have no sense of what an image is.

Now, if images can have that kind of authority, power and significance when they’re just made of stone or metal, how much more significance do you have as the living, breathing, image of God? Phenomenal! You were given this world to rule over it.

Enjoying Dominion

I’m afraid that many times even Christian people don’t get the picture of why they live. Why do you get up on Monday morning when that clock goes off at 5:30? Why do you go to work? Why are you going to mow the grass again? Why will you wash those dishes that you just washed yesterday one more time? It’s because you are having dominion over the earth. You thought it was just to pay the mortgage, didn’t you? You thought it was just because you had to, or you wouldn’t be able to eat if you didn’t. No. No. No. It’s so that you can have royal dominion over the earth!

If you say, “Well it doesn’t feel very royal,” maybe that’s because you don’t realize how wonderful it is to be able to get up on Monday morning. If you’ve forgotten that, you need to talk to somebody who can’t get out of the bed on Monday morning anymore. If you think, “What? I’ve got to change diapers on the same baby again? I’ve got to wash dishes from the same family again?” maybe you need to talk to somebody that doesn’t have a family to wash dishes for. Or if you moan, “I gotta mow the grass again? I just did it yesterday,” maybe you need to realize that some people would die to have grass to mow. You should rejoice to say, “I’ve got to do another homework lesson tonight before I go to bed.” You see, you’re having dominion over the earth.

Right now a lot of you are having dominion over cows, because you’re wearing leather shoes. We’re having dominion over electrons whenever the lights are working or the computer is working. And we’re having dominion over all kinds of chemicals with our air conditioning, the floors beneath our feet, the fibers of our clothes. We’ve even mastered plastics. And we’re exploring the nano-world now.

Why do these things? It’s because this is why God made you-so that you could have his representative authority over this world. It’s not a curse to go to work-it’s a gift! It’s not a curse to go to class-it’s one of the greatest blessings you could possibly have. It’s what makes you different from the animals. They pull carts because somebody snaps the whip; you pull a cart because you’re having dominion over the earth. It’s magnificent. But only so when you learn this next step.

Heaven is a Bus Stop

What in the world are we doing multiplying and having dominion on earth when in the end we’re all going die? Why do this when the most we can hope for is that, if we trust Jesus, we’ll have sparkling souls that sort of float off into heaven and play harps forever? Of course, I think playing harps in heaven is better than going to hell. Let me just say that, OK? But why would you ever want to multiply and have dominion when what you’re going to do in the end is just be “up there” strumming a harp? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Remember the old Warren Beatty movie, Heaven Can Wait ? Well, if that’s what it’s like, I think it can wait too! That’s kind of the way I feel about it. But the reality is that the Scriptures speak about multiplication and having dominion over the earth not only because that’s where we began, but because that’s where those who trust Christ are going. The Christian conception of heaven is very different from the Buddhist idea of Nirvana. Unfortunately, Christians sometimes think it is very much like the Buddhist idea of Nirvana. It’s not.

Heaven is a bus stop. Now, remember, some bus stops are nice. This is a covered one; it’s a nice place to be. But it’s a bus stop. And the people who are followers of Christ who are there in heaven with him right now are up there waiting for something to happen. They are waiting for the bus to come. They are waiting for Jesus to come back to this earth. And when he does, they’re going to jump on the bus and come with him.

The ultimate dream, the ultimate vision, the ultimate destiny of human beings is not that we are in heaven playing harps in some spiritual existence. The ultimate dream of the Christian faith is that we who are in Jesus, images of God who have been redeemed by him, will one day rule over the earth. The Bible calls it “a new heavens and a new earth.” It’s the world made new. Remember how it was for Adam and Eve in the Bible? The garden was a wonderful place for them to live, with sparkling rivers, great emeralds and minerals everywhere-just a wonderful paradise. That’s the picture of the new world.

It’s not a new world where you jump from one cloud to another and just kind of do whatever you do when you jump from one cloud to another. It’s not golden escalators where you walk in and say, “Well, I sort of recognize you, but you don’t have a body so I guess I don’t recognize you after all.” No. Christians have always believed that Jesus was resurrected not just in his Spirit, but in his body as well. His physical body was resurrected.

Why is that so important for Christians? Because we know that since Jesus’ body was resurrected, our bodies will also be resurrected one day. And these bodies that are going to be resurrected one day are not going to jump from cloud to cloud. They’re going to be here, on earth. We will have filled the world up from end to end with redeemed images of God who honor God and enjoy God, and we will reign with Jesus over the new world. I told you it meant you were a king. I told you it meant you are a queen. That’s exactly what it means. You will rule over the earth with Jesus.

Reigning Over the Earth

That picture of Christianity is so different than what most people have. In the Jodie Foster version of The King and I there’s a scene where two young lovers are about to be executed. It’s a very dramatic scene. These two young lovers have been caught, and she’s a concubine of the king. The executioner has this gigantic sword,which he’s wielding in front of them, doing this ritual dance before he chops off their heads. But these two are not terrified at all. They’re having an almost out-of-body experience as they’re sitting there. When the executioner’s sword chops off the head of the young man, the camera focuses in on the young woman. The blood splatters her face, and she doesn’t even blink. She doesn’t even blink. I mean, she’s just . . . zoned. Then they chop her head off.

I had a friend call me up after seeing the movie, and he said to me, “Just look at the peace they had as they faced the executioner. You know, that’s a picture of Christian salvation, right there.” But let me tell you the reality of what Christian faith says salvation is. Salvation is not that you sit there daydreaming, zoned, as somebody chops your head off unjustly. The Christian view of ultimate salvation is this: one day there will not be kings in this world who will do such things. One day justice will come to the earth. One day righteousness will fill the earth. One day all people will live for God perfectly, right out of their hearts, and all will be at peace. That is the Christian ideal of what salvation is-a physical world with resurrected bodies and people living forever and reigning over the world with Jesus. That’s why you multiply now; that’s why you have dominion now. What you’re doing is walking toward that goal. I can die for that!

You see, I don’t know that I could die for harps. I just have to tell you that. I don’t know that I could give up a lucrative career for a set of harps (and I have given it up, trust me). I don’t know that I could really spend my life devoted to raising my children for Jesus, like I have, for a set of harps. I don’t know that I can stay married to one woman all my life for a set of harps. I don’t know that I can resist sin for a set of harps. But I do know this-give me the world, and I’ll resist. Give me the world, and I’ll devote myself. Give me the world, and I will follow him to death. And so he says to us, “I give you all things. The meek shall inherit the earth.”

I can live for that kind of Christianity, to glorify God and enjoy him forever in the new heavens and the new earth. But this comes only to people who are followers of Jesus. You know why? Because he was the first one. He was the first one to step out of this world of sin and death and into the next world of life everlasting. When you love him and put your faith in him, you’re attached to him like that. He’s in you and you are in him, and where he goes, you go. If you’re not in him, you get left behind in the world of sin and in the world of death.

That’s what the Christian message is. It’s all wrapped up in what it means to be a human being. To be a human being means to be the image of God. It’s a great title, but the job is just as good-to multiply and to have dominion now and in the world to come.


All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The "NIV" and "New International Version" are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

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