Victory on Earth Day – part 4

The effect of the cross on “Who am I?” 

I don’t suppose too many people ask outright, “Who am I?” but what Jesus won for us on the cross makes it a question worth asking, because he died to restore us to who we are.

The Bible very quickly describes who we are, or who we were meant to be, in Genesis 1:26, when God said, “let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” meaning that God made humans the primary means of revealing himself. We humans, not elephants or snow leopards, are his image-bearers. We exist to show what God is like. And this was his purpose in first of all creating a fully functioning physical world, and then making humans capable of running it.

So in asking the question, “Who am I?” God answers that question for us very personally in verse 27: “I created you in my own image.” Or “I created you to reveal me.” In who I am, therefore, I reveal who he is.

The obvious question then has to be: “But how does who I am reveal God?” Well, in God making us physical, for a start, it reveals how much he loves how he made us and what he made us of. The human eye is just one fascinating example. I quote:

“When a photon of light strikes the retina, the light-sensitive membrane of the eye, it is actually hitting a part of the brain that contains over 126 million photoreceptor cells, at which point 15 chemical reactions occur, each one of which has to work for us to be able to have sight. There are also three tiny eye movements called tremors, drifts, and jerks, made by six tiny muscles outside each eyeball to reset the original signal down the optic nerve; otherwise a fixed image would fade from our sight. Tremors reset the image about 50 times a second by rotating the eye by just one thousandth of a millimetre. Drift moves the eye slowly off target, then jerk takes it back several times a second to the original target. The brain has to compute and control all this in nanoseconds. And we’ve yet to talk about the eye’s windshield washers and wipers, auto focus and auto aperture, emergency shutter mechanism, binocular distance measurement facility, tracking, and, of course, colour.”

And in another quote I read: “In an experiment, when people put on glasses that made the world seem upside down, their brains quickly reinterpreted the information they were being given to perceive the world as ‘right-side-up’. When others were blindfolded for long periods of time, the vision centre of the brain soon began to be used for other functions.”

It’s almost scary how much attention to detail God placed in the human body. It certainly hit David that way when he wrote about himself as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). So, we’ve already learnt something about God by us simply being physical. He loves the physical.

For some people that alone must be an eye-opener, because the prevailing belief in large sections of Christianity, and in other religions too, is that God, or the gods, don’t like the physical at all. There are many people, therefore, who think the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is: “I am an immortal soul locked in a horrible body that one day I will escape from and no longer be bothered by.” But if what they believe is true, why would God do that to us? Why would he put us in physical bodies that are nothing but a nuisance to us? And what kind of picture is God giving us of himself by deliberately making us out of stuff he doesn’t like, the result of which would be his Son having to die, as well?

According to God, however, he says he was rather impressed with his handiwork, because he looked out on his physical creation, including humans, and in his own words he said “it was very good,” Genesis 1:31. So in asking myself, “Who am I?” I’m off to a flying start, because everything about me as a human started off as “very good.” It reveals a God who loves what we’re made of, and clearly he took great pleasure in designing every tiny, exquisite detail.

God then revealed more about himself by what he made us for. And that too becomes clear in Genesis, that he equipped us perfectly in our physical bodies to take care of the rest of what he’d put on the Earth. So God must have loved this planet too, to come up with a creature with all the right stuff to make it flourish, so that in the hands of humans the Earth would become wonderfully productive and very beautiful. “Who am I?” therefore, would include seeing ourselves as the best thing that ever happened to this planet, because we’re the only creatures who can make this Earth do what God designed it to do. Gorillas can’t do that, nor can dolphins or flamingos, but here we are with brains and bodies perfectly designed to make the most of what this Earth has got. God, therefore, clearly loves our physical planet as well.

Well, this too must be an eye-opener to those who believe God doesn’t think much of the Earth either, like those who quote 2 Peter 3:10 to prove that God’s getting rid of this planet forever. That verse does say, though, that on “the day of the Lord the heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare,” and in verse 12 that “the heavens will be destroyed by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” It sounds like God hates this planet and can’t wait for the chance to get rid of it.

That isn’t the context of those verses, however. The context is “the destruction of ungodly men,” verse 7, not the destruction of the planet, as Peter himself explains in verse 6, when God destroyed the world by the Flood. The purpose of the Flood wasn’t to wipe out the world; it was to wipe out the people wrecking the world. And by the same token, verse 7, “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for ‘the day of judgment’ and destruction of ungodly men.” There’s a time coming when fire, like the Flood, will put an end to the ungodly influences wrecking our world too.

So rather than these verses proving that God will be glad one day to close the book on Planet Earth, they actually mean quite the opposite, that God is cleansing our planet for its next chapter. Fire sounds drastic, true, but fire used in cauterizing is very effective in sealing a wound from infection. And Peter hints at that same cauterizing use of fire in 1 Peter 1:7, when he talks of our faith being “refined by fire.” Peter sees fire in its positive sense; it gets rid of impurities and seals out infection. So God isn’t destroying our physical world because he hates it, he’s doing his very best to save it, by doing whatever it takes, 2 Peter 3:9, to bring “everyone to repentance.”

So again, God reveals himself as loving who we are, and loving this planet. Is there anything else, then, that God reveals about himself in Genesis? Yes – he loves gardens, because he planted an actual garden himself in Genesis 2:8. If the fabulous palace and temple gardens at the time Genesis was written are anything to go by, then “garden” must have meant something exquisitely beautiful and functional, which it was, verse 9. And if anyone knew how to plant a garden to rival anything we humans come up with, it was certain that God knew, because he designed and created every plant, tree and animal that filled it. Imagine what a botanical and zoological garden of God’s design must have looked like.

But what exactly was this garden for? In some way or other it revealed something about God, but what?

We find out in Genesis 2:15, because the first thing God does after creating this beautiful garden was “take the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

It was an incredibly privileged position for any human to be appointed to, because this was GOD’S garden for a start, the place he’d created for himself, just like kings – at the time Genesis was written – created gardens full of exotic plants, trees and animals for themselves. This is what kings looked out on from their palace windows. This is where kings lived and ruled from. It was their home as well as their centre of operations, the engine-room from which the king’s will and purpose would be communicated and spread to his kingdom, much like the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22.

But the first thing GOD does in this marvelous home of his is take a man of his own choosing by the arm, invites him into this oasis and control centre on Earth, and tells the man it’s all his to take care of.

Adam, therefore, was the first human ever to be God’s executive personal assistant, a member of the royal household, with free access to the palace and the king’s ear. This wasn’t trundling around on a tractor with a large cloth cap planting crops for general consumption, or lazily plucking off juicy fruits while stroking a lion’s mane and dipping a toe in a tinkling stream. This was a personal calling by God himself to Adam to be his right hand man in running his temple palace precinct, much like Joseph in Egypt was entrusted by the Pharaoh to run the affairs of state, with full access to Pharaoh, and full authority to exercise the Pharaoh’s will, supervise his great building projects, and communicate to others exactly what was on Pharaoh’s mind.

And Adam would be so close to God that HE would know GOD’S mind too. But that’s what being made in God’s image meant, that a man is capable of being God’s representative, a perfect reflection of God’s mind, heart and even thought, much like Jesus would be later on when HE, as a human being, was “the image of God” too (2 Corinthians 4:4).

This man whom God had chosen, then, could have held many, if not all, of the positions that Jesus presently holds, like being seated at the right hand of God, being the communicator of God’s will, and overseeing God’s projects to completion, etc. This is what God created Adam for, which we see in Jesus – who is also called Adam – being given those positions later.

All this reveals that God loved giving Adam a highly privileged position, and loved trusting him with it too, just like Pharaoh trusted Joseph. There was a risk involved, but God took care of that too, by warning Adam right away not to get any ideas above his station. God did it by planting two trees “in the middle of the garden,” Genesis 2:9. God loved trees, and in particular fruit bearing trees, so these two trees must have been stunning in their beauty and extremely “pleasing to the eye” (9).

The two trees carried a clear message for Adam, though, that Adam wasn’t God. He was about as close to being a god as a human could be, because here he was at God’s right hand in God’s earthly palace, in much the same position as Joseph being Pharaoh’s right hand man ruling over all Egypt. Joseph had the authority to stamp a decree with the royal seal, or sign a document in the Pharaoh’s name. How easy it would be for Adam in such a position too, then, to think he was God, or that he was just as capable as God at doing his job.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a constant reminder to Adam, therefore, that if he ever got to thinking he could do God’s job, pictured by eating the fruit off that Tree, he would lose everything, including his life. It would be Adam’s one big mistake, then, to think that he was God. Only God was God, and that position was God’s alone, just like Joseph could never be the Pharaoh, as Joseph found out later when Pharaoh took away every privilege from him too.

The Tree of Life, meanwhile, contained the same reminder, that Adam wasn’t God, because for Adam to live forever into the future he would need to eat the fruit off the Tree of Life. He wasn’t immortal, therefore, like God was immortal. God had never needed a Tree of Life, because he’d always lived without it, but Adam had been made from the dust of the ground, meaning he was physical and mortal and he could die. If he ate off the Tree of Life, however, he would never have to die. It gave Adam what he dearly wanted, the chance to live as long as he wished, but it would also remind him that he wasn’t immortal like God was immortal.

What an eye-opener that must be for those who believe in the immortality of the soul, to find out that such a belief is actually an impertinence and living above one’s pay grade. But surely it’s a huge relief to know we’re not immortal, because what happens to BAD immortal souls? They can’t die. So what happens to them? The prevailing belief in Christianity is that they go to a living hell forever. But is that the picture God wanted to give of himself in Genesis?

No, it isn’t, as we see in God’s intentions in those two trees, that they acted as protection for Adam, to remind him of his place and his limitations, because what Adam needed more than anything else to keep on living in his incredibly privileged position as God’s right hand man, and not get big ideas about himself that would blow him out of the water, was humility.

There is no humility in the idea that we humans have an immortal soul, because God made it clear in Genesis there is nothing immortal whatsoever in a human being. We aren’t God; we’re physical. God made us in his image, yes, but he doesn’t reveal who he is by making us into who he is – he reveals himself in us as we are, which is amazing, because we’re physical, mortal, and highly limited compared to God. But that’s the way God designed things to work, and Adam would have succeeded wonderfully if he’d humbly accepted what God had made him as, and he hadn’t wanted more.

We see that demonstrated in the life of Jesus, as Paul points out in Philippians 2:5, when he says our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” And here’s where we see the one vital difference between Jesus and Adam. Jesus was “in very nature God,” meaning he too was God’s image-bearer, in that he too reflected and revealed God perfectly, just as Adam could have done.

But – and here’s the difference – verses 6-7, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being in human likeness.” Jesus was willing to start at the bottom. He wasn’t after being fast-tracked into management right away. He was quite willing to be nothing higher than a servant.

And isn’t that where God started the first Adam as well? God didn’t give Adam every privilege right off the bat. Instead, he started Adam off as the gardener. It was still an incredibly privileged position, being God’s own personal gardener in his royal Temple precinct, but to begin with it really only involved watering the plants and feeding the animals. The first golden keys God gave to Adam, therefore, were the keys to the garden shed.

But being a servant at that level was all Adam needed to do to maintain his privileged position, because in so doing it would reveal in time what God really had in mind for him. At this point in his life, then, it was vital that Adam do what he was told. Stay on the first rung of the ladder as instructed, and as Adam proved himself to be trustworthy God could lift him to the next rung.

This was exactly the route that Jesus willingly took too. God started him off at the very bottom, but unlike Adam, Jesus accepted it, or as Paul phrases it in Philippians 2:8, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross.” But this is where a human made in God’s image begins, at the bottom, proving himself faithful to God’s instructions, no matter how humbling or even how fatal they may be – as they were in Jesus’ case, and in the lives of so many Christians today too, who are killed for nothing more than calling themselves ‘Christian’. But if that’s all God has given them to do, they accept it.

In Jesus accepting what God had given him to do, though, look at God’s reaction in verse 9. Now we begin to see what God had in mind for Adam: “Therefore God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name above every name.” And if Adam had done what God instructed, God would have done the same for him. He would have made Adam ‘King of the World’ too, not only because that’s what he’d designed Adam for in the first place, but because it would put Adam in a position of enormous influence in revealing God to the rest of the world. That’s what kings were for in the Ancient World of Genesis: They were perfect reflections of the gods to make the gods visible to others.

A revelation of God emerges, then, when putting the two Adams together, of a God who mightily honours those who tune into his purpose for them, who stick faithfully to his instructions, and put aside all personal preferences and ambitions. Perhaps at this point, then, it begins to dawn on us just how personal it is between God and his image-bearers. It sounds like it’s a whole lot more than just a job he’s called us to do.

And we get an intriguing indication of that in Luke 3:38 where Adam is called a “son of God.” When God made Adam in his image, then, he included making Adam his son. Like any proud Father, I imagine God looking at Adam and saying with deep affection, “This is my son,” and if Adam had then stuck to what God had planned for him we could add the words, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased,” which God would later say of Jesus.

It’s as sons as well, then, that we are launched into this world as God’s image-bearers. And that we see in Jesus as well, in Hebrews 1:3, which states: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is called a “Son” as well, and it too is attached directly to him being God’s image-bearer. So, yes, we reflect God and radiate his glory, but we’re more than just reflectors. We’re much more personal to God than that: We are his sons.

To recap at this point, then, we’re asking the question, “Who am I?” and the answer that echoes back to us from Genesis is that God created us to be his image-bearers to reveal himself in us. And what he’s revealed in us humans is that he loves us being physical, he loves this physical planet he’s given us stewardship over, he loves working with us, he loves entrusting us with immense privileges, he loves making sure we know what to do to be successful, and he loves giving us simple tasks to begin with that lead us further and further into what he really has in mind for us, so that one day we can have huge influence on other people in revealing God to them. And last, but not least, God loves being able to say of us, “This is my son.”

And we know all this not only from the hints given in Genesis, but from the real live example of Jesus Christ, who became the image-bearer that Adam never was. Adam was given the opportunity to do what Jesus did, but he blew it, which set the entire creation back. The whole thing stopped. God’s Garden was out of bounds to humans, the Tree of Life was cordoned off, the world outside Eden would never be developed as God intended through Adam and his descendants, and everything that humans came up with from then on would be an exercise in futility (as Paul calls it in Romans 8:20), because nothing could recapture all that Adam lost when he blew his job as God’s son and image-bearer.

But the second Adam comes along and changes that. He came for the same reason as the first Adam, though, to be God’s image-bearer, or as Paul phrases it in 2 Corinthians 4:6, we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Christ came as the perfect revelation of the glory of God, which he could because he too was “the image of God,” verse 4.

Everything about Jesus revealed God. So when Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 16:15, “Who am I?’ – the same question we’re asking about ourselves – and Peter answered in verse 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus was delighted that Peter understood that he, Jesus, was the “Son” and perfect image-bearer of God.

What Peter didn’t understand yet, however, was that Jesus had come to die to lift the curse that had held creation back since the first Adam. Peter understood it later, though, in Acts 3:18-19, when he announced that Christ had suffered “so that your sins may be wiped out, and the times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Christ’s death, in other words, gave us humans the chance to recover what Adam lost, so we could start again and be who God always meant us to be.

And what an eye opener that must be for people who believe God would never want us to go back to being like Adam, because in their minds Adam brought out all that’s wrong and ugly in us humans, proving the need for us to get rid of our physical bodies and get us off this sorry planet.

But that’s an insult to God, because God didn’t make Adam evil and ugly, he made Adam into something “very good” – SO good, in fact, that it’s not surprising Adam got big ideas about himself. If you were Adam and God told you that he’d made you “in very nature” like himself, what would you think? And if you overheard God saying that you – and he said your name too – were the perfect person for fulfilling his great plan on Earth, and he loved you to pieces from the top of your head to your toenails, what ideas would that give you about yourself?

Well, hopefully it would be BIG ideas about yourself, because those would be God’s thoughts too. That’s what he wanted Adam to think about himself as well, so it was seared into Adam’s head what God had made him to be. In Adam the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” could just as easily have been seen in his face as it was in Christ’s face. Adam was as much a beloved son and perfectly equipped image-bearer of God as Christ was. He could have ruled the world as God’s right hand man, and been given ever greater glory and influence that would have drawn people to God, so that the entire creation would have flourished like God’s beautiful Temple precinct in the Garden of Eden.

That was Adam’s potential, designed into him by God himself, and it’s the same potential he’s built into you and me. It’s who we are. It’s not surprising, then, that God would like to put us through a little test first, just like he did Adam, to see if we’re willing to start off at the bottom as well. That’s all God needs to know. Can we be faithful in little? Can we accept being humble, obedient servants in rather lowly duties for now? Can we happily stand on the first rung of the ladder with just the keys to the garden shed? Can we, in other words, be like Christ, who humbled himself in obedience to death on a cross?

But that’s exactly what Christ died for, so that he could live his humility in us, because humility was the one thing he knew we’d have most trouble with. He knows that if we can just hold off for now having big ideas about ruling the world, and we accept our lot in life without wishing for more, that God will exalt us, or as Colossians 3:4 says, “When Christ, who is your life, appears, THEN you will also appear with him in glory.” It’s then that the world will know who we are. And it’s then that we can be all that God made us to be, that is and always has been, so very, very good.

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