- Tomorrow will be a day of discovery.
- We will discover what we are really made for.
- Our future work and identity as priests and kings will clarify our present experiences.
An ancient Philosopher wrote that “God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives.”1 He paints the universe as a gigantic puzzle which fits together perfectly, but there are so many pieces that no one but God can see the big picture. As a result, we all go through our lives not understanding our potential, because we cannot see enough of what is. When our Lord returns, that will change. It will be the universe’s ah-ha moment. The redeemed will finally understand what we are made for.
the image of God
We do get glimpses of our purpose and destiny in God’s revealed word: the Bible. One of those glimpses can be found by examining humanity’s distinctive creation.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness,
so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle,
and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”
God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.2
A great many theologians have unpacked that phrase “image of God” to explain what it means. But often their explanations go far afield of the meaning given to the phrase in the actual verse where it is first found. I have underlined the words “so they may rule” because that is the first description in the Bible for the reason that God chose to create human beings in his image. Our creation in his image had to do with his ultimate purpose for us.
Another clue to the meaning of image (Hebrew: tselem) in this context is how the word was used in Moses’ time and culture. The word image “has a particularly important background in Ancient Near Eastern politics. It is in that context that we learn of ‘powerful kings in the ancient world’ who ‘placed their tselem (statues of themselves) to represent their sovereignty in territories where they were not present.’”3 In a sense, then, the images of the rulers ruled in their place as their representatives while they were away. When the rulers had sons, those sons were also in their image and likeness and would stand in for the father, commanding as his representatives, and taking tribute and taxes for their father’s kingdom. This way, a man could extend his rule beyond the territory that he might reasonably be expected to control by himself.
It is not too difficult to see how the cults of idol worship and the phenomena of polytheism might have evolved from this practice. It is also interesting to compare this Old Testament text with other sacred texts that came from polytheistic cultures. For example, the Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation epic (tablet 6) contains this statement about humanity’s creation:
“When Marduk hears the words of the gods,
His heart prompts (him) to fashion artful works.
Opening his mouth, he addresses Ea
To impart the plan he had conceived in his heart:
‘Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name.
Verily savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they might be at ease!’”4
The similarities between this text and Genesis 1:26-27 are striking. In both sacred texts there is a discussion among the deities, although that is not as accurate description of the Hebrew text as it is for the Babylonian one. In both texts, human beings were created for a purpose. These similarities lead anthropologists to surmise that both of these texts stem from an even more ancient tradition. That is partially true. Moses did not invent the story of creation, and neither did these ancient Babylonians. It is our faith in the God of the Bible that leads us to assume that Moses’ description of creation is more accurate and faithful to what really happened. We believe that the Bible is accurate by virtue of our relationship with Christ.
But even if we were to simply compare the two creation accounts at this point, amazing differences emerge.
- First, compare the descriptions of the nature of these human beings created. In the Hebrew text, these beings are made in God’s image. There is a definite reference to their dignity as creatures, in comparison to all other creatures. The Babylonian text refers to them as savages.
- Secondly, the Hebrew text extends this dignity to both genders, making a point that both of the sexes possess his image, and both are to be involved in accomplishing his divine purpose. The Babylonian text merely refers to one being, a man.
- Thirdly, the purpose for human creation is drastically different in the two texts. In the Hebrew text, human beings were created to join God in ruling over the rest of creation. In the Babylonian text, they were created to serve the gods, so that the gods can “be at ease.”
A survey of the remaining texts in the OT where tselem is found is enlightening as well.
- After the death of Abel and the banishment of Cain, Moses gives the genealogy of Adam through Seth, who is said to be after Adam’s image.5 This suggests that Seth’s will be the line through whom God’s promised deliverer will come, who will restore humanity to God’s intended dignity, and realign humanity with his intended dignity.
- God’s covenant with Noah condemned murder because it was destroying a creature who possessed God’s image.6 Killing people is an insult to God and thwarts his purpose for us.
- But God’s people were commanded to destroy all the idols, which were images, and demolish all the sacred places they were displayed.7 Idolatry is condemned because it is a demonic mockery of God’s purposes. God wanted human beings to be his image, not bow down to artificial images made by them.
- The Philistines, after capturing the ark of the covenant, were so plagued with mice and body tumors that their diviners told them to fashion five golden tumors and five golden mice to accompany the ark as they returned it.8 These golden objects contained the images of and represented the curse they understood was upon them.
- The Psalmists speak of the futility of life by describing people as chasing shadows,9 and God as overcoming Israel’s enemies like waking up from dreams.10 The image as a lesser representation of the true reality is seen in these uses of tselem.
- Ezekiel condemned the idolatry Israel was immersed in by describing their images as the jewellery of a prostitute.11
- Amos warned that on the day of the LORD Israel would not be vindicated, but would fall back to the images of the foreign gods they had secretly worshipped.12
The New Testament Greek word corresponding to tselem in Hebrew is eikōn, the word from which we get our modern-day term, icon. Notice how the term is used by the New Testament authors:
- Jesus used it to refer to Caesar’s portrait on a roman coin.13
- Paul used it to refer to idols made to resemble and represent humans and animals.14
- Paul also used it to refer to human destiny. The redeemed are predestined to conform to the image of Christ.15
- Paul also instructed the men of Corinth not to cover their heads in worship, since they represent the glory of God, and are his image.16
- Paul taught that presently Christ is the holder of the unmarred image of God.17
- The author of Hebrews taught that the law was an image because it represented the good things to come, but was not the reality that the gospel is.18
- The Revelation predicted that the great demonic beast would be represented by an image which would be worshipped and would rule over men.19
Given this data, which consists of every use of the term tselem in the OT and eikōn in the NT, what are we to conclude that the basic, primary meaning of the words are? We can immediately conclude that in absolutely none of these references is there an implication that the image necessitates immortality. In fact, three terms encompass the meaning of these words in all these various contexts: dignity, representation and rule.
Those three concepts come together so well in the back of the book, where the redeemed are promised an eternity of priesthood and kingship. John says “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.”20 Later the promise is repeated, and it is made clear that the redeemed will actually share that status not just for a 1000 year millennium, but for eternity.21 But consider the significance of what is promised when our Lord returns. He promises us a priesthood. Priests are representatives of God before man, and vice versa. They intercede before God on behalf of the community, and they represent God in his holiness before the community. Here is a combination of the two ideas of dignity and representation. The kingship combines all three tselem ideas, because a king has the highest status among the people, he represents them before God, and he rules them.
why no prophets?
No doubt many readers by now are seeing a correlation between these descriptions of human destiny and the threefold messianic expectations. The Messiah was expected to be both prophet, priest and king. Eusebius was the first to delineate this theological classification. He said “And we have been told also that certain of the prophets themselves became, by the act of anointing, Christs in type, so that all these have reference to the true Christ, the divinely inspired and heavenly Word, who is the only high priest of all, and the only King of every creature, and the Father’s only supreme prophet of prophets.”22 Theologians since his time have also pointed out this significant three-fold office that Christ holds.
But why are there to be no prophets among humanity in all eternity? The simplest answer is that when our Lord returns he will completely and utterly fulfil the function of a prophet by conveying all we will ever need to know about God to his own that he has redeemed. As the apostle Paul puts it, “Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”23
But since that is so, isn’t it also true that the roles of priesthood and kingship will also be superfluous throughout eternity? There will be no sins to sacrifice for, and no rebellion to quell. So, why does the Bible describe our eternal fate using these terms?
There is more to the priesthood that just interceding for the sinful. The priests in the Old Testament were there to represent the holiness of the God who chose to tabernacle among them. When serving in the tabernacle (and, later, the temple), the priests wore special garments that set them apart from the rest of the community. When they walked among their people, they were to maintain strict standards of separation and had to avoid all kinds of common things that would defile them, making them unfit for service.
The picture of an eternal priesthood tells believers today that their destiny is to represent God in his holiness forever. This goes way beyond the purposes of the Aaronic priesthood, but that priesthood and temple served as a “sketch and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.”24 God will be manifesting his holiness throughout eternity, and redeemed humanity will be there as part of that manifestation.
The dominion God wanted for mankind on planet earth will be accomplished throughout the universe by an eternal kingship. But – once again, we might ask – why kings when there is no rebellion to quell? Well, there was no rebellion in the original creation either. But God still gave a great commission to humanity to have dominion over his creation. The king of Kings wishes to share his authority and glory with those whom he has rescued from death. Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than that. He does not want us to be saved so that we sit on a shelf as his eternal trophies. He redeemed us so that we can accomplish his original purpose, albeit on a much grander scale.
what we are made for
Perhaps knowing what we are ultimately made for will encourage us in these dark days of our pre-existence. We are not yet what we are supposed to be, so if we do not feel as holy as a priest, or as powerful as a king, at least we can trust in his promises for our future destiny. But we can also take these future realities as symbols of his present will for us. God takes no eternal pleasure in our sinfulness and sickness and failure to represent his glory. He wants more for us. He made us for more. When we encounter obstacles to that perfect will, we can pray in confidence, knowing that he does not want us blind and crippled and broken. He has a destiny for us that is more than that.
the here and now
Our present experiences are always going to be much less that that ideal. We are going to fail, and we are going to experience times of slavery and shame. But perhaps just knowing about that glorious destiny that awaits us when our Saviour breaks through the clouds will help us endure and eventually overcome those times of failure with a faith that can look beyond them. Our faith is not in us, and our present abilities or capabilities. Our faith is in our coming King who now serves as our great High Priest.
- Ecclesiastes 3:11.
- Genesis 1:26-27 NET (emphasis mine).
- James M. Childs, Greed: Economics and Ethics in Conflict (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 25.
- James Bennett Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. (Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ, 2011), 33.
- Genesis 5:3
- Genesis 9:6
- Numbers 33:52; 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17.
- 1 Samuel 6:5, 11.
- Psalm 39:7.
- Psalm 73:20.
- Ezekiel 7:20; 16:17; 23:14.
- Amos 5:26
- Matthew 22:20; Mark 12:16; Luke 20:24.
- Romans 1:23.
- Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10.
- 1 Corinthians 11:7.
- 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15.
- Hebrews 10:1.
- Revelation 13:14,15; 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.
- Revelation 20:6 NLT.
- Revelation 22:5.
- Hist. eccl. 1.3.8, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (New York, 1890), 1:86.
- 1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT
- Hebrews 8:5 NET.