(Welcome to the fifth post in the Triune Gospel series! If you haven't read the previous articles, this article may be confusing unless you read the previous articles which establish the line of reasoning and the overall point of view we're working with here.) In this article, we're going to begin to explore the Identity Journey; the road of discovering ourselves in Christ and in that, finding who we are in his eyes. As with each of the 'Journey' posts, we will begin by exploring the biblical trajectory, then look at how then we can live into this identity.
The Biblical Arc
(1) Original Design: Image bearers of God himself
The identity story is all about what it means to be a human being, and that story begins in the first three chapters of the Bible with the creation account. In Genesis 1, God declares an identity over humanity just as he creates them:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Genesis 1:26a
This is the created design for humanity: what the artist Himself declares is our purpose: to be in God's image, after his likeness. These two bear a little more exploration:
The idea of imaging has a significant biblical history. While the first number verses that use this term point to humanities' God-given image (Gen 1:26, 1:27, 9:6), more broadly, this term is often used to refer to essentially a certain type of idol. Consider, for example,
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. Numbers 33:51–52
The biblical idea then probably includes two distinct and important ideas. The first is resemblance: an image is something that triggers a recognition based upon a resemblance. I'm sure most of us would recognize various past world leaders even though we have never seen them, just because we are familiar with their image. (As a U.S. citizen, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln come to mind.) Images have the capacity to create recognition, and humanity was made to do that for God. The image-bearing capacity means that the world and the spiritual realm can look at us and learn to recognize God because of the resemblance our lives have to Him.
The other idea in play is that of an access point. An idol was more than a statue that bore a resemblance to the deity; it was an access point of the deity itself. Worshippers would interact with the deity through the access point of the idol; presenting offerings, prayers, and so on. This kind of activity was understood to be relating to the god connected to the idol. The idol was bound to the deity; not identical, but not entirely separate either. In the same way I would like to suggest that we as humans are meant to be an access point for the world to interact with God. When the world needs to access the resources of God, it is meant to happen through humanities' unique connection to God.
The idea of likeness is related more directly to the concrete idea of shape. The term is often used biblically to refer to the shape of an object:
And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Ezekiel 1:5–6
The term here is pointing to the fact that the shape was similar to the shape of four creatures, or similar to a human shape. I think a valuable illustration of this might be the idea of a glove. A glove is made in the likeness of our hands; it has the same shape. That is valuable because it means that all the fingers have somewhere to go in the glove - a four-fingered glove (not in the likeness of our hand) isn't worth much good!
Similarly I think this term refers to the idea that our shape matches God's shape. The various elements and components of our humanity; our thoughts, emotions, relationships, desires and dreams, resources, and more are all "fingers on the glove" so to speak. They aren't random and accidental; they actually match the same pattern as God himself, because God is meant to fill them up with himself. The means the pattern of our humanity is something profound and sacred; it matches that of God himself.
(2) The Fall: Imaging sin instead...
As the story progresses, we come to the fall and that imaging capability is marred. It is not entirely lost, but it is severely distorted by the fact that sin enters into humanity itself. This is an important point: sin, as it is used in the bible is both relational (something that lives in the relationship between ourselves and God), and also ontological (and alteration of our very humanity). It is this second aspect we see more clearly in the identity story: we don't just do sin, we have become sinners.
For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, Romans 5:19a
The biblical term sinner isn't just a descriptive word like "plumber" (someone who does plumbing), or "writer" (someone who does writing). Sinner doesn't mean "someone who does sinning", sinner is a being word. Rather than pairing it with vocational words, it's probably more helpful to pair it with words like "bird", "dog" and "human". It's refers to a type of being: the type of being that has sin dwelling within them.
The result of this is that moving forward from the garden of Eden, the sin inside of humanity images itself through humanity - a perversion of the imaging capacity that was designed for God! One doesn't have to read very much of the Old Testament (or the newspaper) to see this on full display: sin imaging itself through humanity all across the globe.
(3) Jesus Arrives: The Revelation of God
When Jesus arrives, he is the first human being to come who is not a sinner since Adam and Eve (this is why the virgin birth is of great theological significance). He wasn't born with sin living within him. As a result, he can, and does, claim the imaging capability of humanity as it comes to displaying who God is:
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9
Jesus is the revelation of who God is because he faithfully lives out the imaging capacity that humanity was created to have. This is the reason why we can see him as the "visible image of the invisible God." (Colossians 1:15)
(4) The Atonement: A Righteous New Creation in Christ
Jesus not only lives out the imaging capability of humanity, but he opens the door for us to be restored in our humanity (and hence our imaging) as well. This happens as we are joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection. By faith we are made one with Jesus and we hang with him on the cross; thus crucifying the sinner we were born as:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6–7
Being crucified with him, we are also resurrected with him, and in that born again. We are resurrected with Jesus and as that happens we become a whole new being. This is why we are described as a new creation: we are no longer the being we were, we are now a new one, that matches the being of Christ (as we have been put in him),
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
This new being is described all across the New Testament as righteous: right in being. This is the biblical term that is the ontological antithesis to sinner. Sinner refers to "broken in being", righteousness means "right in being".
Walking the Identity Journey
All of this invites us to living out a new identity today. Rather than seeing ourselves as a sinner, we are invited to see ourselves as righteous, because God has joined us with Jesus by faith. We are now made of the same stuff that he is:
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source (Greek: "all are of one"). That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, Hebrews 2:11
We are invited into a life where we are made of the same stuff as Jesus, and we live united with him. He is in us now, and we are in him as well. Because we have been made righteous and we are now one with him, we now can image him to the world. Our human design has been restored, and we can now live out the rest of our lives living towards our new identity. This happens as the Holy Spirit continues to unpack for us who God has now made us:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 1 Corinthians 2:12
I find this such a fascinating verse: we've been give the Spirit so we might understand the things we've already been given. It takes a lifetime (probably more like an eternity) of being the Holy Spirit's understudy to learn all that God has already given us in Christ. Powerful; profound. This is why Paul places such an emphasis of renewing the mind according to walking with the Spirit: the Spirit is the one who teaches us how and empowers us to live out this new identity.
As this happens in our lives, we begin to experience the strength of being aligned with our righteousness in Christ. There is great power in our being when we live it with integrity and faithfulness. There is a firm foundation inside of us that cannot be disturbed or pushed about by the world; we are firm, steadfast, stable. This gives us a rooting for spiritual authority, which is often correlated with the strength of our internal alignment. In our walk we find ourselves living connected faithful to the right because we can sense the right in the core of our being. To walk unfaithfully to the Lord is to violate ourselves.
Discernment then, becomes something that is not externally oriented (what is the right thing to do?), but internally oriented (does this match the right as I know it to be?). We fall in love with the Scriptures because they are a faithful record of God and his righteousness. Obedience becomes more important to us, and humility and generosity become more and more natural and normal. All of this grows and develops out of a grounding in being that comes as we come into contact with the reality that Jesus really does live in me. When we get to the bottom of ourselves, underneath all the insecurities or fears, God is there.
Like the relationship journey, this is a lifelong adventure. We are always invited into it to another level. Jesus always dwells within us, and he is always working to reveal himself to us and through us. Like thousands of years ago in the garden, we have been made imagers again, and we walk with God, allowing him to image us through our humanity.