Tselem

by Aaron

You know how the kids these days say TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)? This one is SL;KR (super long; keep reading) as I want to address recent events in our nation and give us some biblical context for our own personal call to image Jesus. 

The Bible was not written in a vacuum. What I mean is that while the content of the Bible is timeless and God-breathed, it is informed by the time and place in which it was written. When Genesis, the very first book of the Old Testament, was penned, Israel was surrounded by other cultures. While each culture had its own religion and gods, they all had a hierarchal way of looking at life. At the top were the gods, followed by the king, the official court (including the priests), various tradesmen/academics, and then the peasants and slaves at the very bottom.

Because the king was the one closest to the gods, he was seen as divine or semi-divine. The king alone was understood to be made “in the image” of the god who created the king. This was/is a dividing line between the king and the rest of the human race--peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the gods (they were actually believed to have been created by inferior gods). The king was the mediator through whom the blessings of the gods flowed to everybody else. This was simply the way the world worked…and then God challenged this very structure when He spoke in Genesis of how creation actually happened. 

Genesis starts with God creating and ordering the world. At the pinnacle of His creation He makes humankind, and this is what it says in Gen 1:26-27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…."So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." The word man would encompass all humankind. The word for image, as most scholars believe, is a word borrowed from these other cultures: Tselem

When every other culture used the word Tselem, it only referred to the king, the one and only person made in the image of the gods who created him. In Genesis, when God speaks, He is deliberately shown to be a King reigning by royal decree (i.e.,  “let there be light” and there was light), and Genesis has an entirely subversive (yet true) creation account. In Genesis, God is sovereign and generous to His creation. When it comes to human beings, He makes ALL people in His image, not just the king. In the image (Tselem) of God, God created all human beings.

This statement in Genesis should be the single most world-changing statement about human dignity, worth, and equality ever recorded. We should live and bet all of our lives, all of society, whether somebody thinks of themselves as a believer or not, on the truth that Genesis just spoke. Imagine what it would do to the hearts of peasants and slaves to be told that they too were created in the tselem, in the image, of the one great God.

Male and female.
Slaves and peasants.
All races.
Made in God's very image. 

This is why the Scriptures are so important for Christians to know and live out. In the wake of this pandemic, with all of us feeling on edge, acts of violence have again been perpetrated against those deemed “less than.” I struggle, as a middle-class, white, California male, to find any words that could help the situation our country finds itself in (again). A friend of mine reminded me today, though, that I don’t have to say anything, and when I do, I can speak for Element as a body of believers. God has allowed me to be a shepherd, under His leadership, of a body of people. As that Shepherd I will speak and remind us of the Gospel—the unchanging truths that are just as relevant to our confused world as when they were originally written. 

We are all made in the image of God. The word Tselem is also a word that is sometimes translated as images or idols. In every ancient religion, they would have images of their gods carved into stone, clay, bronze, and gold. The God of the Bible clearly says that His people were never to make images of Him because humankind was to be His image bearers. Whenever we see any person on this planet being abused, torn down, or humiliated, it should make us sick because the image of God is being desecrated. Think of how we feel when we see someone vandalize or loot a building during a riot, do we feel an infinitely deeper anguish when the image of God in others is destroyed before our very eyes?

I was listening to a couple people talk about what happened to George Floyd last weekend, and one of them said, “What makes it even more sad is that he was a Christian.” Why should George Floyd believing in Jesus make it more tragic? Is it because we start to think he deserved it less because he had qualities that we would define as redeeming? Until we realize it is tragic simply because an image bearer of God was treated this way, apart from color, lifestyle, or beliefs, these types of things will continue to happen because of color, lifestyle, or beliefs.

Most people who are racists don’t think they are racists. Most people who are intolerant of others don’t realize they are intolerant. I know people who think they are the epitome of peace and love and want our president to die (horribly). I know people who think they are levelheaded, compassionate, and able to fairly look at any issue, and yet they find those who disagree with them as shallow, shortsighted, and stupid. We all do it; we must be willing to see our own biases, and we also must be willing to stand up for the image of God in others or we are not acting as image bearers of God.

May we begin to live as a community of people who understand that our hope of salvation is not based upon how good, smart, or put together we are. Our only hope is in Jesus’ death to remove our sin-soaked, callous hearts and His resurrection that restores us to life. A people saved by His grace, not our own. A community that treats everyone else as image bearers of God. Nobody on top, nobody on the bottom. Where the richest person treats the poorest person with honor and respect simply because we see one another as God sees us. As Billy Graham said, “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.” 

May we be a community where the powerful see those with no power and treat them like a child of a King. Where young and old, black and white, male and female, and everything in between come together in love. It must be more than Facebook posts, or Instagram memes, or blog posts on websites (like this one). We must be a people who truly understand who other people are because of creation. Frederick Buechner is now 93 and has loved Jesus most of his life. He writes many things that stick with me throughout the years that speak of compassion and understanding. He says, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Too often we can look at the news as a spectacle but don’t allow it to touch us…and it must touch us if we are to understand the image of God in others.

We must at least try to understand why there is so much fear and anger that have lodged side-by-side in a community who feels they have not been given a voice. Buechner writes, “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.” When Jesus speaks of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, He intended for us to identify with and to understand the racially outcast (it was how Israel viewed the Samaritans). Luke 10:36-37 Jesus asked “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

I really don’t know what it looks like for all of you, but Element must be a place where we honor the image of God in others, show mercy, identify with the outcast and marginalized, and stand for righteousness in the face of injustice. Again, Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” May our gladness be found in the Gospel and may that gladness feed the world’s hunger to comprehend that we are made by God, for His glory, and ultimately, we belong to Him. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. May we glorify God by processing these events deeply and seeking what He longs to teach us in moments like these. Let those moments then lead us to action on behalf of all image bearers.