Identity, Part Two – Man as Covenantal Image Bearer

Last time, we began to answer the question that you and I confront at some point in life: “What is my identity?” (Or, more commonly, “Who am I?”) We started by taking a long look around and placing ourselves in the context of the creation surrounding us. Everything you and I see says to us, deep down inside, There is a God who made everything, including me. This sense is so strong, honestly, that we have to work hard to deny and to suppress it.

God made you. And if you're going to figure out who you are, you've got to start with what your Creator says about you. It simply makes sense to ask the Maker to tell you about what He's made.

We saw that the creation tells us plenty of things about God: His orderliness, wisdom, power and goodness, to name a few. But we also admitted that creation only reveals so much about God. If you and I are going to know Him in a meaningful way, we've got to meet Him where He meets us: in His written word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

So what does the Bible say about you and your identity?

You're special!

No, we mean it! In a nutshell, the Scriptures describe what should be obvious: you and I, as human beings, are different from the rest of creation. We occupy an elevated status within this realm. (This doesn't give us the right to abuse God's creation, of course, but that's another matter for another day). 

After He had created everything else, Genesis 1:26-27 says God created man (and from man, woman, as we read in Genesis 2) in His image. It's as if everything that preceded the creation of Adam merely set the stage for the grand moment of man's entrance. Not that the stars and trees and cattle don't matter, but interestingly, the Scripture only refers to mankind as being “in God's image.” And only after He had created man did God pronounce His creation “very” good. Before that time, God just said the creation was “good.”

But what does it mean to be “in God's image?”

It means, in part, that you and I reflect our Creator in a unique way that the rest of the universe does not. Specifically, the Scriptures teach that bearing God's image includes the knowledge, righteousness and holiness that He originally gave our father Adam – before Adam rebelled against God. 

In his letter to the Christians at Colosse (3:10), the Apostle Paul writes that believers in Jesus are being “renewed in knowledge.” You were created to know about God, and to know Him personally. God has given you a consciousness that no other creature shares. And His will for you and me is for us to explore and to learn about His world and, through this knowledge, about Him. He also has written the knowledge of Himself and of His law on your heart, so that in the core of your being, you know right from wrong, and you know there is a Maker.

Paul also writes to the Ephesians (4:24) that bearing God's image and likeness means that in the beginning Adam possessed righteousness and holiness. He had a knowledge of what God required of him – and he actually was in right and proper standing with God. He was a “lawful man” before God. He also possessed holiness: he had no sin, so He could live in the presence of God and not experience God's punishment for sin. 

Knowledge, righteousness and holiness are characteristics of God Himself – and He imparted them to His created image-bearer, Adam. Animals didn't have these characteristics; only man did.

God also is the King of His creation (see Psalm 47:2, for example), and as His representatives on earth, you and I have dominion over what He made (Genesis 1:28). We're called to explore and to use the creation in a way that honors Him and that reflects His goodness, wisdom and truth. We're to be kind to animals, for instance. But in the end of the day, you and I are “over” the animals, and they serve us as we serve our wise, gracious and holy God.

All of this means that you have inherent dignity and worth simply because God made you in His image. You don't need another person to tell you you're important, or to validate your existence.

Experiences, accomplishments, romantic relationships and possessions don't give you worth. Trying to refashion yourself into someone else won't work either. 

Your role as God's image-bearer is the reason that you are precious and deserving of respect.

It's all about relationships

As a television commercial used to say, “But that's not all!”

After creating man and woman, Genesis 2 relates that God entered into a covenantal relationship with Adam (and Adam represented all of us humans in this covenantal relationship; ser Romans 5:12-21). Now, “covenant” isn't a word used often these days, so it's important that we stop and define the term – especially because covenants lie at the heart of how God relates to us humans.

In the Scriptures, a covenant is a solemn arrangement between two parties – with God usually being one of the parties. One scholar defines “covenant” as a “bond, in blood, sovereignly administered.” That's a jam-packed way of saying that a biblical covenant is a serious relationship, initiated by God, between Himself and another party; it features stipulations for both parties; and it has life-or-death consequences for keeping or violating those stipulations. 

You and I are familiar with covenants today, even if we don't use the word much. Consider, for example, a contract with an employer: you promise to fulfill your work responsibilities as outlined in the contract and to abide by company policies; your employer promises to pay you an agreed-upon salary (and benefits). You sign the contract with ink on paper, and suddenly you're relationship has been formalized. 

Another example of a covenant that folks enter into today is marriage, with two parties formally pledging themselves to certain obligations in the solemn context of a relationship. It's a serious arrangement!

Back to God and Adam. Read Genesis 2:15-17, you'll note that God purposefully took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to “dress it and to keep it.” Later, the same language is used for the priests' work in the tabernacle, which suggests that the work God gave Adam to do in the garden wasn't just to prune over here and to water over there; it was physical and spiritual work to be done in God's presence to God's glory. 

God gave Adam something to do in Eden. He also gave Adam a commandment not to do something. God invited Adam to eat freely from every tree in the garden except one: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why that tree? Well, we'll look at it in greater detail next time. But the word “knowledge” is really the operative word. God wanted Adam to learn about good and evil and all things from Him – not from anyone or anything else. And it was a test to see if Adam would submit to God, or if he would take God's role to himself.

If Adam would've obeyed God, it's implied that Adam – and you and me and all of his descendants – would've lived in a state of confirmed goodness and spiritual happiness. But in verse 17, God warns that if and when Adam disobeyed God, he would “surely die,” or “die the death.” He would die spiritually before God, and this inward spiritual death later would be pictured in his literal, physical death.

The actual word “covenant” doesn't appear in Genesis 2 (although it is used in Hosea 6:7 to describe Adam's sin in Eden), but all of the elements of a biblical covenant are present. 

You're in a serious relationship

So what? Here's what: when God first created Adam, the father of all of us human beings, He didn't just leave Adam be. He chose to enter into a serious relationship with Adam. He blessed Adam with everything he needed in the garden of paradise. He entrusted Adam with a solemn responsibility: to serve Him in His creation, and to obey every word He spoke. And He issued a promise: if Adam broke this covenant, he – and all of us, his children – would die completely before God.

What happens when you decide you don't feel like coming to work anymore? (Tuesdays can be pretty drab, after all). Most likely, your employer – no matter how laid-back! – eventually will penalize you. You'll probably be fired if you persist in breaking your contract.

If we humans take covenants so seriously, don't you think God takes them perfectly seriously?

Adam broke the covenant God made with him. And when Adam broke that covenant, his actions impacted you and me, living thousands of years later. 

Next time, we'll take a look at how Adam's failure affects you and your identity. But for now, ponder this truth: God put you here as His special image-bearer, and when you fail to represent Him on earth as He has commanded, there are serious consequences – because God is a serious God. 

If you're going to discover your identity, you've got to see how seriously God treats you: as one who bears His image and likeness, and as a child of rebellious Adam.

Questions or comments?