The story of mankind starts with a serpent attacking the image bearers of God. “Did God really say?” “Can you really trust what he says?” “Don’t you want to be like God, right now?” Fundamentally, the Fall was an underhanded and cowardly attack on God through the image he bestowed on earth.
The story of mankind starts with an attack and is a cycle of attacks on the image of God. Think of the history of our habitation of this world as a macrocosm of the book of Judges. That book is a cycle of sin, judgement, repentance, and deliverance. Over and over and over again ad nauseam. Attacks on God’s image bearers follow its own cycle.
By the end of Genesis and the start of Exodus, the Egyptians are enslaving Israel. They are challenging that these Hebrews (derogatory equivalent of outsider as Joshua Torrey points out here and here) should be treated as human. God answers emphatically “Yes! They are mine” as he delivers them out of Egypt, walks them through the waters and deserts, and plants them in the Promised Land. This event is foundational for understanding the gospel and also for Israel’s ethics. That fact was lost on them as racial and religious pride grew during its history and blossomed during the life of Jesus.
Next, Israel enters the land, God commands them to kill the people of Canaan—because those peoples’ sins had reached their fullness. You have a chiastic structure to the Exodus deliverance and the entrance into the Promised Land and judgement of the wicked nations. Egypt attacks the image of God in Israel and is punished. Israel is delivered. Israel enters the promise land where the Canaanites attack the image of God by sacrificing their children to Molech. The land is delivered partially. Israel judges the peoples by command of God.
Attacks in the New Testament and the Impact of the Gospel
By the time Jesus enters the picture, racial and religious pride is full blown. In many instances, Jesus speaks against these prides. He undercuts the racial and religious expectations of his day. Think of the Samaritan women at the well (Jn. 4), the women from Tyre and Sidon whose daughter was sick (Mk. 7:24-30), the Capernaum centurion with the sick servant (Mt. 8:5-13), and Jesus’ telling the parable of The Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). These prides are an attack on image bearers of God and Jesus will have none of it.
Also, in the growth of the New Testament church, the question of race and religion are at the forefront. The Jews are amazed that the Gentiles received the sign of the Holy Spirit. Peter has a God-given dream about nobody being unclean and an angel leads him to Cornelius’ house (Acts 8). Paul takes the gospel to the surrounding Gentile nations and the Spirit multiplies disciples in these Gentile image bearers. This is the background for one of the hottest attacks on God’s image bearers and Paul’s fierce defense of the gospel in Galatians. As Joshua Torrey draws out in the aforementioned article,
The whole second chapter of Galatians ca[me] screaming into my mind. There it was the Jews who refused to sit down with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14). My how the tables have turned. From their humble beginnings as people excluded from the tables of Egypt[,] the Jews had turned into the pompous exclusive table. The irony almost made me stop my car as it struck me.
The word "[H]ebrew" was the rejected. The outcasts. The gospel of Luke seems to pick up this theme throughout its particular focus on Christ's ministry. So how had the Jews gotten things backward? They had somehow become the Egyptians thinking so lowly of the Gentiles. Perhaps this better explains Paul's analogy of the bondwoman (Egypt/the law abiding Israel) to the freewoman (Israel/the baptized body).
The irony of this Scripture was obviously lost on the Jews of Paul's day. They had lost the central gospel of their origin.
If you miss the social implication of the first Exodus as seen in the giving of the law and its importance on how to treat people as image bearers, then you will easily miss the much deeper, wider implications of the Second Exodus (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
The Cycle Continues Through Out World History
As we move out of the Scripture narrative and proceed briefly through world history, we could multiply story after story of attacks made against different segments of God’s image bearers. It seems for much of the last thousand years Africans had been the subject of this attack. Some westerns have been suspicious, hateful, and have tried to dehumanize people with darker skin. Also, women have been the subjects of attack and are vulnerable to being devalued as people—see the growing sex trade and the explosive market for commodified sexuality of women. Children regularly are devalued—whether it’s America’s murderous abortion laws, China’s child limit and gendercide, or Canaan’s sacrificing them to Molech. Old people also have been devalued in certain cultures and the arguments for assisted suicide are becoming louder in our time. Millions of Africans were killed by other Africans in the last 300 years. Millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. In the last 100 years, Russia has killed millions of people that it felt was disposable. Some American settlers killed and dehumanized Native Americans.
It seems right as we correct one perversion of God as the Maker of all people as his image bearers. Another perversion of this truth pops up. Another sophisticated argument for why a certain segment of people may not be quite human pops up. So what should Christians do? I want to offer two suggestions.
First, we must regularly, without flinching, at all times preach, teach, and live as though all people are made in the image of God. We must stand firm on this point. We must not only learn about this truth in our catechisms, statements of faith, and Sunday schools, but we must live as though this truth matters (Js. 1:19-27). Think back to the Exodus. The law is given as the gospel is acted out by God delivering Israel out of Egypt. He then says, “Remember how I delivered you out of Egypt when you were slaves? When you were being attacked as my image bearers? Because of that gospel deliverance, now act and live this way in relation to other image bearers—Israelites and outsiders.”
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). If we love that verse, we must shine that love onto the entire world. We must be relentless in our pursuit of this. A first principle in this regard is found in James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Js. 1:27). We must serve, seek out, and love the least among us—those who are most vulnerable to abuse. And now to the second point.
Second, we must use our privilege as a bulwark of love. Question: How can those who enjoy privileges in certain social contexts love their neighbor by using their privilege as a weapon against the attacks against the image of God? Many people get nervous when talk starts of privilege. But our world is fallen and that includes our society, governments, and cultural systems, privilege in some sense is inevitable in a fallen world. But we can repent and attack systemic injustices and sin. In his letters, Paul talks about the privileges the Jews enjoyed as heirs of the promises, and he deteremined to use his own privilege as a Jew and a Roman citizen to take the gospel to the end of the world. He used his privilege to command the Judaizers to treat the Christian Gentiles as equal people in Christ (Gal. 5). He used his privilege to protect women (Eph 5, 1 Tim. 5). He used his position to protect a runaway slave (Philemon).
The story of humanity is a story of a constant attack of the image of God. Christians must be a constant bulwark against these attacks.
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and writes for CBMW Manual, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and offers freelance editing and book formatting services. He blogs at Grace for Sinners and Marginalia: On the Margins of the Writing Life. His family is covenanted at Downtown Presbyterian Church.