What does it mean to be human? A quick Google search will tell you that a human is “someone who is defined as a human being, a person distinguished from an animal or alien”. We often think of ourselves with this definition. I am not an animal, I have opposable thumbs, I have emotions and a will, therefore I am a human. However, God’s Word gives a greater definition of humanness. In order to understand what it means to be human, we need to look at the biblical concept of the image of God.
From the very first pages of the Bible, we see God creating everything. With the “breath of his mouth” (Ps 33:6), God made the light, water, earth, and dry land, plants and vegetation for food, stars, moons, and millions of galaxies, sea creatures and sky-flyers, and beasts that lived on the lands and ate the vegetation. And then we come to Genesis 1:26 and read the account of God making Man using dust from the ground and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2:7). Here, God does something remarkable and foreign to all other aspects of creation. He gives humanity a role: to rule over the beasts of the field including the sea creatures and sky-flyers. Scripture also specifically tells us that God made us “in His image” and “after His likeness” (Gen 1:26).
Made in the Image of God
To some, being made in God’s image merely means that we are “economically” ranked higher than animals and that we can experience and possesses things that animals cannot, i.e. morality, reason, language, relationships governed by love and commitment, the ability to create and appreciate art, etc. But being made in the image of God carries with it greater weight than being more significant that the beasts of the field.
To be made in the image of God means that we were created to reflect his image, showing God’s character and likeness to others and in the world we live. We are created to be God’s representatives, to rule over all the earth (Gen 1:26). Psalm 8:4-8 describes it poetically: “Who is man that you are mindful of him..yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings…you have given him dominion over the works of your hands”. However, Wenham reminds us that, ruling “implies a lordship without exploitation. Man, as God’s representative, must rule his subjects, as God does, for their own good. While legitimizing human use of the world’s resources, God gives no licence for our abuse of his creation” (New Bible Commentary).
Adam and Eve were to rule in the Garden of Eden, having dominion over the creatures God created and showing forth the character of God and splendor of their creator. The origin story of humans concludes with a beautiful line, one that baffles us as our world is so far from the paradise and lack of evil found in Eden, “They were naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). This line in scripture serves as a launching point for what happens next, like watching the opening scene of a movie and realizing that everything is “too perfect” and something bad is about to happen. Enter Genesis 3, and a crafty, hissing beast.
Slithering in the Garden and Becoming Subhuman
Those who have been in the church for any length of time are familiar with this story. Adam and Eve are deceived by a snake, who convinces them, that in order to be the true rulers over creation, they must decide from themselves right and wrong and in so doing, will be like God, “having their eyes open”(Gen 3:5). The sad irony of this story is that humans were already created to be like God. What more could be gained from listening and obeying this slithering beast? Humans, instead of having dominion over the beasts as God commanded, are ruled by a beast. They eat from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and are cursed by God and must leave the paradise of Eden. From their rebellion against God, sin and death enter the world and spread to all of their future generations (Romans 5:12).
By sinning, Adam fails to be truly human as God created him to be. He fails to rule over creation and he fails to reflect the character and nature of God. Humans ability to rightly be image bearers and representatives for God on earth from this moment on will be damaged and though their image-bearing responsibility was never revoked, their functional ability to reflect God will be flawed and pitiful at best. Humanity, in a sense, becomes subhuman as they cannot rightly fulfill the human mandate, to be God’s image bearers.
God’s Promise of Human Restoration
However, a glimmer of hope shines forth, as God promises to Adam and Eve that one day their offspring will be truly human; he will be a “Son of Man” (Daniel 7) who will not only rule over the beast, but crush the serpent’s head and reverse the curse that Adam has brought upon all humanity (Genesis 3:15). We as the readers of this story become hopeful that somewhere in the coming text of scripture we will read about this snake-crushing human, a true and unwavering image bearer, who can restore what was lost at the fall.
The very next story in the Bible demonstrates the effect that our first parents sin caused on the rest of humanity. Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel, as Abel’s offering to God was accepted, and his offering was rejected. God says to Cain, “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:5-7). As we read this we want to shout to Cain, “Rule over this beastly, evil desire! Rule over sin! Crush the serpent’s head! Don’t be like your father Adam!” But sadly, history’s theme of bloodshed plays out before us. Just as Cain’s parents were deceived by the snake, Cain is also ruled by sin and fails to bear God’s image, fails to be truly human. Cain violently murders his brother and leaves his blood to seep into the soil, all while the ancient serpent slithers on, uncrushed.
The rest of the OT recounts to us the tragic and constant failing of humanity to fulfill their human role of being image bearers of God. Forfeiting their humanness as God defined it, and consistently giving into the crafty speech of the snake. Time and time again we read of those whom God calls to lead His people—Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, David—falling drastically short of being image bearers of their God. Instead, all the Old Testament celebrities are infested with the same evil that Adam and Eve gave into in the Garden. No one conquers the beastly desire of sin. No one crushes the snake’s head. And the curse of Genesis 3 continues to plague all of humanity.
Slithering in the Wilderness and True Humanness
The New Testament introduces a character named Jesus, and this Jesus we read calls himself the “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7), literally a son of a human. Except, this Jesus claims to be the one who has come to defeat sin and death and rule over this beastly sinful nature that we humans cannot escape. If you have read through your Old Testament, your faith in humanity to conquer and rule over sin at this point is pretty weak. Everyone gives into and listens to the voice of the snake. No one is righteous; no, not one (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:10).
The Biblical narrative in the life of Jesus leads us not to a garden paradise, but to a wilderness. Here we learn the identity of the ancient snake of Genesis 3: the devil. Satan begins tempting Jesus with the Kingdom of this world, offering a way to rule without the cross. Satan once again uses the tactic of submission to the beastly desire of sin, in exchange for being ruler of this earthly kingdom.
Yet, instead of the typical rhythm of “doing what is right in one’s own eyes” (Judges 17:6), Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, does not give in to the temptations of the devil. He rules over the slithering, hissing serpent as Adam the first man should have done within the Garden of Eden. The promised seed of the women foretold in Genesis 3:15 has now appeared and has shown to us the readers that He is a true human! As the Son of Man, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), he not only perfectly reflects God to all those he interacts with, but he fulfills the human mandate to rule over the beasts, by not succumbing to the same temptations faced by Adam, Israel, and every human up to this point.
But the story of Jesus Christ does not end here in the wilderness. Jesus continues to rule over the desires of sin each and every day of His life, never performing his own will but what the Father would have him do (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:29, 46). After being delivered up into the hands of the Jewish rulers, according the predestined plan on God (Acts 2:23), he is crucified on a Cross and dies as the sinless, snake-crushing, image bearer. This was the promise fulfilled from Genesis 3. Our snake crushing and true human representative has dealt a lethal blow to the ancient serpent’s head by reversing the curse of sin and death dealt to Adam at his fall. Scripture goes on to make clear that Christ was raised from the dead, as He was not infected with the sin that entangles fallen humanity (Heb 4:15).
The Image of God Restored
Each one of us struggles every day to be image bearers of God. Regeneration begins the process of restoring God’s moral image in our lives, but not till we are fully sanctified and glorified shall we reflect God perfectly in thought and actions. We strive to live according to the Biblical definition of Humanness, yet we constantly fail to rule over the enticing crafty speech of the snake, to lie, steal, cheat, lust, gossip, hate, and commit all sorts of evil against God. We can never, on this side of eternity, truly and perfectly reflect the creator as He created humanity to do. But thanks be to God that He has sent His son to be a true Human, a true and perfect image bearer, and who ruled over the beast and desires of sin, that we might in this life continually by the power of His Spirit put sin to death (Rom 8:12-13). But also at His return fully and finally crush the snake’s head (Rev 20:10), saving us to sin and obey the voice of the beast no more.
Whether we are students attending college, businessmen and women waking up every morning for work, husbands and wives taking on foster kids, or a single Christian faithfully serving at your local church, place your trust in Christ. Believe in Him to be your true image bearer, knowing that his he has won you perfect righteousness and that we can now live out the mandate to be image bearers. We are still flawed and tempted by sin, but now have a new master to obey, our Father and creator who loves us and has forgiven us our sin and is making us into a new creation, perfectly able to live and rule for Christ (Rom 6:18). He is restoring His people to a new and better Eden, full of life, beauty, and free from any death. One where we shall reign with Christ forever (Rev 21).
Michael Tryon serves as a member and pastoral resident at Elmira Christian Center, playing guitar and cello on the worship team and teaching in the kids and adult Sunday classes. He graduated with his Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from Utica college and works for a local home health agency. He enjoys listening to the beauty of orchestral music found in movie and game soundtracks, learning about horticulture, becoming nearly choked up by a good story, lifting weights…just for fun, and has many other obscure and random hobbies and interests.