Executive Director, API Education Foundation, Azusa Pacific University in South Africa.
Paper presented at Theology of Disability workshop, Pietermaritzburg, August 2010.
Thank you for the opportunity to share with you this morning, from the Scriptures on the subject in the image of God.
I don't think it's telling you anything to say that we go right back in the book of Genesis when we want to talk about this particular subject, on being in the image of God. And we need to get right back to the creation account. Now I am not here to debate the creation matter. Just let me say that I believe that God created the whole world and everything in it and the universe and that is my starting point. Therefore when we read in Scripture about God making man in His own image, which we find in Genesis 1:26 "let us make man in our image", I take that as quite literal; I take it as God in discussion with Himself. Very interesting that in the opening verse in the Bible, the word "God" there in original Hebrew is in the plural. So this is already telling us that He was a plural God and yet one; the whole concept of tri-unity or trinity; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit working together and saying to Himself/themselves; (something difficult to grasp, but the Bible teaches us quite clearly), let us make man in our image.
In the few minutes I've got together with you this morning, I just want to try and unpack that a little bit for us. What does that mean? If you have been in Christian circles you will know it is used fairly regularly. We just accept it as a fact, but what exactly do we mean by it? What does it mean when in the very next verse, we were told that "God created man in His own image, in the image of God, He created him; male and female, He created them."
Let me just put one thing aside straight away. When it says that God created man, it means "mankind" it does not mean males, so let's not enter into that debate today. It's just talking about "male and female", and God created them in His own image.
Now, what do we mean when we say that? I am sure you all have had the opportunity to look at a new baby and one of the rather "dumb" questions we ask is, "who does he look like?" Well, can I be really cynical, most often new born babies look like Winston Churchill without the cigar. But we mean to say does he look like his mother or father, where did he get his brains from, that's easy, of course he got his brains from his dad, because Mom has still got hers.
A bit later we talk about his intelligence. Who does he take after, and sometimes we say he is a spitting image of his father. But it is a little dangerous when we start using that phraseology, when we come to talk about God, because we are not talking about looking like God. We are not talking about any kind of external features, because we must remind ourselves that God is a Spirit and therefore we don't look like God, but we are nevertheless in the image of God. Let us have a look at a few of the passages that talk to us about this.
The first one we find after the opening passage is Genesis 5. Reading from NIV, which tends to interchange the 2 words namely "likeness" and "image", which is a little bit sorry, because likeness then makes you to think of "look like".
But it is not that, it is something far richer, far deeper than that. Take 1 Corinthians 11:7 for example, a man is not supposed to cover his head because he is the image and glory of God. I deliberately stop in the middle of that sentence because it says, the woman is the glory of man, and that is another by-path that I don't want to go today. (Laughing). But there is something in all mankind that is stamped with an image from God.
We find it again in Ephesians 4:24 ... "and to put on the new self, created to be like God, in true righteousness and holiness". Here Paul is saying to be like God is nothing about what God looks like, but it is to reflect true righteousness and holiness. Righteousness = right living as God defines it; holiness = being set apart for God. That's what it means to be like God.
Colossians 3:10: " ...since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." I'll come back to that in a moment.
Then finally in James 3:9 "... men who have been made in God's likeness." Okay, with that as a background, let us ask the question "What is the image of God?", how do we define it, what does it actually look like? We can not look like the spirit, which is what we were told in Philippians when Jesus came to down earth. He was made in the form of man, He took on the form of man, it was not the form that He had; it was something that He specifically took on for the period of time He was down here.
So therefore when we talk about God seeing, God hearing and God smelling, it is what the theologians call, anthropomorphism, that means we place on God in our talking, things that are actually ours as anthropoids; we are the people, we are two legged creatures that live down here, and anthropology is the study of us. So when we want to talk about God we tend to use our language to describe Him.
If you take any kid and ask them what does God look like and if you force them to give a definition they will kind of talk about Him as a man, sitting down somewhere, He is very old, because He's been there for a long time, He probably has a beard, because they have heard that somewhere; that all the guys in the Bible had beards. And that will be their concept about God and sadly I am afraid that sometimes, even when we become adults, we still carry that little bit with us. So when I am talking to God, I am assuming that He is using His two ears to listen to me.
So we've got this kind of feeling that He must be an exalted man, which of course is to miss the point completely, but it is probably something that we are kind of forced to do. Because, how do you think of God? How do you think of a Spirit? We can't, it is out of our frame of reference; so probably it is not completely out of question for us to just have a feature of God sitting out there in our mind even though we know that is not absolutely accurate.
We must therefore see the image of God in terms of attributes, rather than in what He looks like. We are told that God has moral attributes which He has designed us to reflect, these are the things like righteousness, holiness, the kind of perfection with which man was originally created, where God declared the creation very good.
He gave to that first couple in the garden the ability to choose between that which was good and bad and that which was right and wrong. And so He designed us to understand ethics. I heard a lovely definition of ethics, on a DVD, a theologian from the USA was defining the difference between ethics and morals, which I found very helpful. Ethics is what we ought to do and morals is what the society actually does do; and our problem is, what we end up doing is, we say, "Well this what the society is doing therefore we take our framework from that", instead of saying, "This is what society ought to be doing" and take our framework from that and tell them this is what our morals should be like. But more and more as we look at our society today we see a complete shift away from ethics, there's no framework anymore, there's nothing absolute anymore, you just believe in what you've got and you make the framework out of that; which is leading us down a very slippery slope into making a framework of sin rather than a framework of God's design, the image of God.
Man is not a neutral being. God designed us to know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. We've known that from the beginning, the moral attributes of the image of God. When you punish your cat or your dog for something they shouldn't do, they stop doing it because they get punished for doing it, not because they say, aha that's bad, I'm really a bad dog. They understand that you are cross with them. But we are human beings, because we have an understanding of what is good and bad, right and wrong.
Secondly there are intellectual attributes. God has given to us some of the attributes which He has in terms of the mind, reasoning, thinking, the ability to consider options and arguments, we are rational beings.
I find it fascinating, doing a bit of a study over the last few weeks, as to why you have in Psalm 82, that is what Jesus repeats when He talks to the Pharisees, about us being gods; it's terribly complicated and I'm still wrestling with it, but interesting that the word that is used there is sometimes translated "God" and sometimes translated "judges". It is the same Hebrew word that is used back in the book of Judges for those people who rescued the people out of all that nonsense and judged them righteously.
It is very interesting that part of God's attribute is even tied up in the name; that we are able to judge wisely, we are able to make rational decisions; we are able to weigh up options for one reason only, because God has placed his image upon us. It is not something we find in any other species on the planet or anywhere else, but right here there's nothing like it. The more we come to find out about the animal world and are fascinated by it we realise how very clever dolphins are, how amazing elephants are. We never found them having a court of law where somebody is standing before another one and weighing up the options.
That's not how they work, they can't. We are the ones that have been given that attribute which is part of the image of God. And then of course, we are far more than just a body. There is a good debate whether animals have more than a body. I married a woman who believes that all cats are going to Heaven, just because she loves cats, but she never proved it to be theologically correct. But we have a spiritual dimension.
There's again a big debate about whether we are a dichotomy or a trichotomy, are we just body and soul or are we body, soul and spirit, and you complicated the matter with some passages of scripture which refer to body, soul, mind and spirit, I give up .... I'm a very simple sort of guy, I just believe in a dichotomy, it's much simpler, we have a physical side and spiritual side. We are most definitely imbued with a spiritual dimension, we are far more than just the total of all the stuff that makes up our body, there is another dimension, call it the soul, spirit, call it whatever you like, but we know that God breathed into that things that he made in the garden of Eden and it became the living soul.
It was imbued with something additional which is a reflection of God who is a Spirit; and exactly all the applications of that we only scratch the surface of in this life. Maybe we will understand it a little more in the next, but it is definitely there.
So that is what we find in human beings, we have moral, intellectual and spiritual attributes, we have a whole lot of other things, but at least those things are very definitely a reflection of who God is, He has actually made us to reflect Himself in that way.
The second question we want to ask then is, "Have we lost that image?" We know that things went rather seriously wrong, whether it happened at the beginning when Eve laid the table for Adam, and he was so stupid, he didn't even ask a question, he just ate it and we ended up being in trouble. We know since then that man has fallen, man is in sin and in our natural state there is no doubt about it that the image of God has been seriously dented. You think you have moral attributes, you only have to look at Romans 1 and 2. These are kind of scary passages of how there has been a spiral of sin that has taken us further and further down into the quagmire of sin.
The moral attributes have been affected; intellectual attributes have been affected in that we know to always weigh up things with proper justice. If you study the Old Testament and the minor prophets, and the things they were screaming about all the time, there was no proper justice. And we and all the nations in the world, understand how the legal system can go dreadfully wrong when people don't allow justice. And of course the spiritual attributes also get badly dented because people are no longer interested in being in touch with the truly living God and may add another kind of spiritual life to it; and add false religions, false cults, to it.
But it is interesting that it doesn't seem to disappear, even though we are fallen. Even though you don't have to teach a child to do wrong, you don't teach them to steal, to lie, to be disobedient, they seem to do that automatically. It is very interesting that in the Scriptures, when they speak about those who are not believers, those who are not the children of God in the conventional sense of the word as the Bible teaches it, they (non-believers) still have the image!
Genesis 9:6, when God allowed them to eat meat, is talking about death, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man". Well I said we will touch on all sorts of thorny things today, but that is another by-path I will avoid, but what I am saying here is that God very clearly states here that man in the image of God, not redeemed man, not Christian mankind, but all mankind, if you take the life of somebody, you put your hand on somebody who is made in the image of God.
That takes us right back to the beginning in Genesis chapter 9. It is setting the scene for something that we are going to find through the whole of Scripture. So when the fall came, it did not take away the image of God from us, it dented it because of sin, but it did not remove the image of God in us. Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 11, says man is the image and glory of God, not only Christian man, or saved man. It would appear that image of God still remains even in those who are not the children of God.
Now that makes it all dreadfully sad, that we are living in a world where there are countless, billions of people who are made in the image of God, and they don't recognize it, who are doing nothing to act in the way of their 'parent'. You know what we say when we find a child who has really gone off the rails badly. We are so sad for the parents, we say "he's just not like his parents, they are such nice people, what could have caused him to go wrong like that?".
I just wonder about our Heavenly Father sitting there looking down at His earth with great sadness. Here are these 6-7 billion people, so many countless millions, even billions of them, have that image in scarred form, over sixteen thousand people groups still on our planet, if my figures are correct and up to date, who still have not heard that there is One could place that image on them.
Well, what does it look like today, if it is true that we were made in the image of God, if it is true that the image of God remains in us? For us, I will trust, those of us who are Christians, those of us who come into faith in Jesus Christ, we are told in Colossians 3:8 that we are being renewed in the image of God, in the knowledge of our Creator. In other words, what happens when we come to faith in Jesus Christ is that the image which was scared and dented, is now given back its original status. God enables us through the in dwelling Holy Spirit and the change He makes in our heart, to actually take us back to what we were.
He restores us or He wants us to be restored to what we were. But what does that look like? A little kid came home from Sunday school one day, smiling all over his face, but vanished into his bedroom. He had been there quite a while and his mom went through to the bedroom, and found him standing in front of a mirror, with a very puzzled expression on his face. He turned to his mum and said, "How tall do you think Jesus is?"
You know the kind of question we handle from our children, so the mother said, "We really don't know, but He was an adult, so I don't know maybe He was 1.8m tall. But, what is the problem?" But his look of puzzlement became even bigger. He said, "Mum, at Sunday school today I gave my life to Jesus; they said Jesus came to live in my heart. Now I am 1.2m tall, but if Jesus is 1.8m tall, He must be sticking out all over". (laughing). I don't need to apply that, because if we have been taken over by Jesus, He should be sticking out all over. It should be very easy for people to see that something has changed.
According to Paul writing in Romans 12, we are no longer conformed to this world but we are transformed. And that word "transformed" of course is the same word that is used of Jesus on the mount of transfiguration; it comes from the Greek, meaning metamorphosis, which means to be changed from the inside. If we are being transformed, changed from inside, that can only be because God by His Spirit is renewing his image, and making Him "stick out all over".
I was driving up our freeway from here to Durban, I was coming up there a few months ago. There on the side of the road, was one of those huge transporters carrying motor vehicles. Only it was no longer carrying them, it had tipped the whole lot on the side of the road, 6-8 brand new Mercedes Benz motor cars. I have a feeling that that driver was not too popular with his boss.
But as I saw all those beautiful cars smashed on the side of the road, it made me think, they were not made for this, not to be smashed and bashed, they were made to be things of beauty, to be enjoyed, to have a real function and a purpose. If we are not allowing Jesus to stick out all over, we are not fulfilling our purpose.
Now, this of course must bring me to the question we need to ask in the line of this particular conference, on people with disabilities. From a theological perspective, is it any different to speak then about the image of God, when we are talking about people with disabilities? Because sadly, as Barbara has already told us, there are many people who believe that.
There are many people who believe that there are a whole lot of things that people with disabilities should be kept away from. They are discriminated against. And some of the stories you are going to hear in the next two days, I've heard some of them, are going to horrify you. Talking about people within the church, not even talking about people outside of the church, the way they are dealing with people with disabilities.
It is very, very sad indeed. So what we need to say at the outset of this conference, is the image of God in man and woman, has nothing, nothing to do with any aspect of physical being, nothing at all. So therefore if we have people with disabilities of any kind, ranging from very severe to minor, there is no way that we as a Christians church can ever use that as an excuse to marginalize such people, to discriminate against such people, to deny them places in ministry, because that is just to ignore the absolutely clear teaching of Scripture.
We are all made in the image of God, every single one of us, there is no brackets anywhere, that says except for "these ones", and of course, if it is sin which has dented that image, that's also right across the board. It is not just people with disabilities who represent the greatest sinners, far from it. We are all sinners, so we are told, some of us are saved by grace, praise the Lord for that. But it is sin that is the issue, not any kind of disability, not physical, not even mental disability. None of that enters into the whole discussion of what it means to be in the image of God.
As I thought about these things, I wondered, how exactly will we be able to define that anyway (if some people with disabilities are not in the image of God), because in some people with a disability it is very obvious, but in other people with disability, it is not so obvious and then there are people like me, who will never be qualified as a person with disability, I don't think, on paper, but I happened to have a spine that has a disability. I have six vertebrae instead of five! Does that make me disabled?, it would not have be a definition with people with disability.
But what I'm trying to illustrate is, there are quite a lot of things which we can't even see. So who on earth is going to say, you fall into this category, and you don't? The Scriptures make no distinction what so ever, therefore we are all in the image of God. There are only two categories, those in the image of God who have been restored, and those in the image of God who have not yet been restored.
By the grace of God we should be working very hard on those who have not yet been restored, so that we may reach out to them and show them what they should be in Christ.
We should be picking up those battered Mercedes-Benzes on the side of the road and putting them in a panel beating shop and making them beautiful again for God. I hope what will come up in the conference will be an understanding of how beautiful God's people are, that people with disabilities, (although they form a category of their own and an unreached people of their own, and a massive opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ), are not in a different category of human beings.
And that is what we need to somehow get across to our churches. Because even those who appear to be sympathetic, (if I may put it in that kind of condescending term), still often have a mindset which is just below the level of conscious, is putting these (disabled) people in a different category.
That lady sitting over there (Barbara Watt) is the lady who changed me, years ago when I was her principal at Rosebank Bible College, when I hadn't a clue what to do with a person in a wheelchair, I was a lot younger, so was she, and the first few weeks I was treating her like she was going to break. I didn't even shake her hand. But by the time she left, we were having races down the corridor, with her in her wheelchair, having a wonderful time together. She taught me how normal the person with disability is and I shall for ever be grateful to her for changing my mind.
It was not that I was opposed to her, it was pure ignorance. And I am hoping that maybe that's one of the things for your discussions, to help people like I was, like I no longer am by the grace of God. But people who like I was who are not particular opposed to people with disability. But just slightly below the level of the conscious, thinking "Well, really there is something spectacular wrong with them, we can't use them, let's get on with the able-bodied people." It never comes out as bluntly as I'm saying it here, but that's what some people end up looking like, even though they are not thinking it at a conscious level.
We have so many wonderful opportunities in our days. First of all to reach out to those with disabilities who need Christ, and secondly to take those with disabilities who form such a wonderful pool of gifts and abilities for the church and to offer them places where they can actually thrive and contribute in building a church of Jesus Christ.
It is a wonderful opportunity. I am so excited this conference is even happening that we have begun to make a start through disAbility Connexion and the Leprosy Mission to addressing an issue, which could release into our churches, such huge wealth of people, willing to work, willing to participate, able and willing and longing, to use the image which God has placed in them, to grow the Kingdom of God.
I cannot be with you for the whole of the conference, but I want to assure you of my prayers as you work through this over these two days, that an understanding of God's image, the unchanged perfect image which God has placed in every person and that can be renewed back to its perfection through the Grace of God. May it be understood and may it be brought to the forefront of your thinking as your wrestle with how this theology of disability can impact the church in the 21st century. May God bless you.
Dr Reg Codrington is the Executive Director, API Education Foundation, Azusa Pacific University in South Africa. He is based at African Enterprise, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.