Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What does it mean when it says we are created in the image of God?

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Genesis 1:27

The image of God in man? Not likely when we look at the degradation and filth of history. And yet, there is something within man that continuously seems to tell us that we are doing something wrong. Even then we cannot seem to get it right. For instance, education, my field, was in a state of reform for my entire career, and never have the reformers seemed to get it right. There is always more to aim for, and our consciences tell us that. Generations of Americans have grown up with “reformed” education, and it has seemingly always fallen short of our lofty goals.

We famously endorsed a sixties president’s war on poverty, and fifty years later we still have the poor. We thought that electing a black president would finally end racial discrimination, only to find that the racial barriers have seemed to sharpen. Everything we do to make it better seems so often to only make it worse—and the worse does upset us. We can see that wrongs are not made right and it bothers our consciences a great deal. We may come at solutions from entirely different perspectives, but when the day is done we see the same problems that we started with stretching out over the endless horizon.

Perhaps our consciences are part of what is the image of God. We still have a voice inside us that tells us what right and wrong are. And, if I am any judge of mankind, this phenomenon seems to be universal—that is, it seems to be inside everyone. No matter that some seem to try to squash their conscience all their lives—it is there to begin with, and the failure of man to hone it properly is not a sign that it was not there. The very fact that we seem to notice so particularly those whose conscience is damaged seems to be a further proof of what is meant to be inside us. We do indeed take note of those who seem to be missing their conscience, realizing that something is radically wrong with such a person, though we may have trouble expressing exactly what it is.

It is of course the conscience that is the entryway to belief. God convicts us, the scripture says, and the result is that we believe. I would think that thus the conscience is certainly a part of what God made in us as a picture of himself and in his image, however indistinct that image may be. It is altogether fitting that He would use the conscience as the very vehicle to bring us to himself, correcting all shortcomings of that conscience by the work of his Spirit. He uses that which he created in us to help us find both him and ourselves once more. The idea of looking in the mirror, and seeing something different, something altogether new, but still recognizing ourselves, as the way he intended us to be, is very much the process of being born-again, and it is impossible for that to happen unless it happens in the conscience.

There is another way that I think we are created in the image of God. Dorothy Sayers long ago, in her book,The Mind of the Maker, points out the creative work of the author, or of the playwright, as being an emulation of what God does when he creates. As a would-be writer, I can attest to the feeling of being a creator, and I have wondered if I was not “imitating” the Creator in my actions. In starting my reading of Sayers’ work, I thought that she was neglecting all the other creative acts of men that might be thought of as imitations of the Creator, but she did not. There is a sense in which common man in his daily work tasks manages to “stamp” his acts with his own creativity.

I remember when I was about 16 and working in my uncle’s orchard, my dad stopped by. I was irrigating, or flooding the orchard with water, and having done it since I was 12, I felt very confident about doing my job. I knew the farm well, and understood the bumps and the hills I had to go around. But my dad taught me a whole new level to using my shovel that day. He taught me about natural contouring, and dipping my knee under the shovel, and just doing a whole lot better job of irrigating. Before the end of the day I was tired, but I had moved about three times the earth that I usually did using that simple shovel. I came to understand shoveling in a whole new light. Some forty odd years later I still remember Dad teaching me something simple, and yet it was obvious that he had put much of his creative energy into learning and doing. I suspect that story is all too common as we get shoulder to shoulder with men who are highly accomplished at tasks that we ourselves have never taken the time to fully understand.

I am reminded of the quote attributed to George Washington Carver who when asked how he found so many uses (over 200) for the peanut replied that he had prayed for God to help him understand the peanut. It is remarkable how much we can show the image of God in the simplest tasks, and especially when we give them over to Him.

I was going to include the naming of things and animals as part of God’s creation, but I find upon reading Genesis through again that I cannot properly do that, at least from Genesis. God created everything, and then created man. Scripture says that God brought each of the animals before man, and let him name them. In Genesis we find no evidence of God naming things, and thus it might be concluded that this is something God created man for. Except for Psalm 147, which makes it clear that God has taken the time to name every star. Perhaps naming things is part of the image of God. I do know that men seem to take great satisfaction in naming things, and even my three-year-old grandson delighted in bestowing the name “Lemon” upon our new yellow cat.

And further, God will one day give to each of us a white stone, with our special name on it to signify how specially our God knows and loves us. His very creative person—his love for each of us—his understanding that each of us is different, and thus his love for each of us is different—all of these things show us a God who delights in the special naming of things. Perhaps it is not so odd after all, that we might think we resemble God in the power of naming.

I sometimes (often even) want to denigrate myself before God, devaluing myself, and I think part of that may come from my desire to be humble. But it is not true humility, for I am reminded that God has indeed placed a valuation upon man that is higher than any could be. For he has paid for our sins, coming in human form to do what we absolutely could not do, justifying us, dying in our place, and receiving the due penalty for our sins. What price could he have paid that would be higher than the sacrifice of himself?

The doctrine of depravity I sometimes think is overused in this respect. Paul teaches us that we were undeserving of any redemption; instead redemption was offered freely from God, and that while we were yet sinners. Thus we are totally depraved, yet that should be balanced with the understanding that God valued us enough to love us. I am not speaking of what we deserve here, for the Bible is plain, we deserved judgment and death. Rather, what I am trying to do is understand the motive of God in continuing to love us. We are made in his image and he must have found us lovable in spite of our terrible marring with sin. I am not saying that we deserved his love—rather we got his love, and in the mysteries of God, he still saw something in us which he so highly valued and freely chose to love.

Lewis says it this way, “Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?”1 When I think of heaven and being with Christ, my whole body aches with the desire that it should be so, and all the more as I age. In my many idle speculations of heaven, time and again I come to my senses and say, “No, it is not like that after all.” One of the many idle speculations that I have come to realize is not true is found in my thinking of the large place that heaven is going to be. It is going to include all sorts of people who I might be surprised at seeing, and with the multitudes and all, I speculated wrongly that I would be small and not much noticed. But that is not the way of it at all. God will know me—he will have a special name for me, preciously denoting all that I am before him, and he will so love me specially. There is an error made in my reasoning that shows how little I understand what being infinite is all about—he will be able to do this with everyone in heaven, at the same time showing delight in man individually and corporately. I will not be lost in the masses—rather I will be cherished as a special son—no matter that God is able to do that with all. I have a lot to look forward to. So do we all.

1. Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Problem of Pain (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 154). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

How many miracles are in John?

A little background might prove to be best in this instance. First, John himself does not limit the number of miracles, except perhaps in his narrative. He himself reminds us that “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). And then John says it again in his closing words of John to remind us of the greatness of our Savior, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” (John 21:25). So John is not just limiting himself to the miracles that he chooses to narrate; rather he reminds us that what the Savior did could not be written about completely because that would make a book simply too large to be read.

I should also remind the reader that John stands alone; it is not a synoptic gospel. I have read where scholars feel that Matthew built his book in part on the gospel of Mark, and Luke, coming later, brings to the forefront his skill set as a “scientist” of his day, being very careful to research and detail a good account of the life and death and resurrection of our Lord. Even though the gospels each have a theme in presenting Christ, each of the synoptic gospels is remarkably similar. John stands alone, and actually presents Christ doing just a few miracles—each which is woven into the tapestry of John to make the presentation of the Savior stronger.

Perhaps it should be no surprise to those who are familiar with all the sevens presented in Revelation, but surprise or not, there are exactly seven miracles which Jesus performs prior to resurrection. Of each of these seven miracles included by John, much is validated by John concerning Jesus. Consider the first miracle: the turning of water into wine (2:3-10). First, look at the mother of Jesus, who is honored by God in starting the first of these miracles. She comes to her son telling them that they have no wine. Jesus replies that he time is not yet come, and then Mary is given the privilege of starting that time, saying to the servants, “whatever he tells you to do, do it.” And thus the ministry of the very Son of God is started.

What can we learn from John in this first great miracle? First, that Mary, who has lived with a poor reputation all of her life concerning her “illegitimate” birth (See John 8 for how the Jews still were mocking his birth). All of that shame that she has endured is now freed in her being the one who commences the ministry of the Son of man. But perhaps more importantly, John chose this miracle because it shows that Jesus has power even the things found in creation itself. He was able, today we know, to molecularly restructure water into wine, and that instantly. Is John showing us that Jesus is master over matter by this miracle?
The second miracle is not recounted until the fourth chapter when a desperate nobleman finds Jesus and attempts to bring him to his sick son (4:46-54). Instead of going with him to see the sick son, Jesus merely says to the nobleman to go his way, for his son lives. What is John trying to show through this great miracle which, if you will, is done by remote control? Could it be that John is showing us that the Master of matter is also omniscient and omnipotent. God is both all-powerful and all-knowing, traits which we separate in our discussion about God, but which are likely not divisible—that is, one goes with the other. I do not see how God could be all-knowing without also being all-powerful. Here, I think, John is showing us that Jesus, the Master over nature, is also that One with unlimited power.

The third miracle likewise seems to me to build on the first two. It is the healing of the impotent man (5:2-9). The man was at the pool of Bethesda, totally isolated by his illness. He did not even have a friend to stand by his side to put him into the pool, and his immobility kept him by the side of the pool whenever the angel stirred the waters, causing him to see others healed, but never himself. Is John demonstrating the love of God for the weak and powerless here? If so, notice the theme is building. In the first miracle, we have Jesus demonstrating power over matter itself, and in the second miracle we have Jesus demonstrating the “all-ness” of the very nature of God. But now, is John not showing an incredible dichotomy? That the God of the universe in all his vast power should be concerned about the weakest of society beggars my imagination. In fact, the most humbling part of my coming to Christ over forty years ago was that fact made so plain to me—there was not only a God in control of everything, something my naturalism kept me from seeing, but also there was a God who knew me and loved me. In this miracle I see Christ defining himself as the Lover of mankind, the one willing to see the weakest and to extend his power and love to even them.

The next miracle (6:5-14) is the feeding of the five thousand. God took five loaves of bread and two fish, multiplying them to feed over five thousand people. Why does John relate this miracle? I believe that John is now presenting the Christ of Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd, John later tells us, know his sheep, and they know his voice. In this miracle, is Jesus being presented as the Good Shepherd, the one who always cares for his flock?

The next miracle is Jesus (and in other gospels, we are told Peter also, but not in John) walking on water. Sending his disciples on ahead in a boat, he has no boat, and does not let that slow him down, but begins walking across the sea to the disciples. This miracle has always been a great one for me, if only because I think about walking on water. Supposing for a moment that I could find the buoyancy, which is its own miracle, but then I am walking, perhaps for miles on the surface of water, Water has no traction, and thus would be impossible to propel oneself by stepping. So there has to be a second miracle present giving him traction in a tractionless environment. What did John mean to share with us by recounting this miracle? I think that John meant to show Jesus as the master of creation here. Regular properties of matter, water, did not apply to Jesus, who sovereignly chose to override them at this point.

The next miracle is the healing of the blind man (9:1-7), and I think this miracle is recounted by John with one aim in mind. John wishes us to know that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders fought his healing on Sabbaths, and they consistently believed that healing, being work, was a violation of the Sabbath. We find from the testimony of the other gospels that this was a continual source of friction between the Jewish leaders and Jesus. What is John trying to teach us? That one greater than the Sabbath, one greater than the Law itself was here. Only if that were true could we rest assured that Jesus did not break the Law, for he was the Law-giver. From him we got the Law, and from him we should seek the meaning of the law—an idea the “experts” in the Law could not get past. It was a stumbling block to them.

The seventh miracle, in some ways, is the greatest of all (excepting the resurrection, of course), and it is the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, dead four days, lying in the tomb and decomposing, still responds to the voice of our Lord when he tells him to come forth. Although Jesus raised several from the dead, it is Lazarus who gets the most drama. Deliberately slowing his way, he arrives four days later than receiving the message, and tells the disciples plainly that Lazarus is already dead. Standing in front of the open tomb, in the presence of many witnesses (some who bore him ill-will), he calls Lazarus to him. What does John wish us to see by this miracle? I think John is trying to tell us that Jesus is the Lord even over death. Paul teaches us in Romans that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God, nothing—not even death itself.

You may have a proper objection in noting that I was the one who interpreted the reasons for these miracles, and in that objection you would be absolutely right. I have used my mind to try to see what John was trying to tell us, and in that I may have strayed from his message, but probably not by much. It may occur to you to further object that maybe John had nothing special in giving us these seven miracles, that is, that John was not using these seven miracles in any special way to teach us. But if that is your objection, you would find yourself arguing with scripture, for John himself tells us “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (20:31). He tells us plainly that these miracles are given so that we might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the very Son of God. I think John chose each of these miracles to plainly display the fact that God came down to us that we might be saved by believing.

Miracle List of John
1. Water into wine (2:3-10)
2. Healing of nobleman’s son (4:46-54)
3. Healing of the impotent man (5:2-9)
4. Feeding of the 5,000 (6:5-14)
5. Walking on water (6:19-21)
6. Giving sight to the blind man (9:1-7)
7. Raising of Lazarus (11:1-44)

Lesson from the miracle
1. Jesus is master over created things
2. Jesus is all powerful and all knowing
3. Jesus cares about men, even the weakest
4. Jesus is our Good Shepherd
5. Jesus is master over all creation
6. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, even the Law
7. Jesus is the light, the life of men.