Imago Dei: Witness and Work (Part 5 of 5)

factory work photo

Michael Huerter finishes his series responding to The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology, edited by Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016). See Part 1 of Michael’s explorations here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

In this series, we have explored how each of our varied perspectives is valuable to the conversation about what it means to be faithful image-bearers of God. We have grappled with the tension of engaging with and being a part of culture, and recognized our responsibility both to be open to the goodness that is present and comes from God and to speak God’s truth in a world that is moving in the wrong direction. We have received encouragement from Jesus’ saving role as the true image of God, into whose likeness we are being shaped. We have also been reminded of the incredible potential and very real sinfulness of humanity, and the importance of holding these two realities together as we live in the world. All of these ideas have the potential to impact the way we understand ourselves, treat others, and go about our daily lives. However, in this final post I want to focus on our responsibility as witnesses to God’s kingdom, and how our educational and vocational pursuits ought to be integrated with that call.

As someone who is involved in ministry vocationally, I have found that I have an interesting perspective on how many in the church understand the significance of work and its intersection with faith. I have encountered something of a double standard relating to the value of work for people who are in ministry positions and for believers involved in “secular professions.” For those who are working in the church, work and call seem to coincide. For others, however, their work may not be perceived as ministry, witness, or of any real significance for the kingdom of God. I think the imago Dei offers us another way of understanding human work and its value in God’s eyes.

If all human beings bear the image of God, though flawed by sin, and if Jesus reveals that image perfectly and transforms us toward bearing it faithfully ourselves, then what is the meaning of human work? Christians have the privilege of looking to the Bible to give us guidance and to inform our world view, and we already are doing this by seeking to understand the meaning of the phrase “the image of God” found in Genesis. This is one side of the meaning of human work: we are to care for and rule over creation in ways that honor God and the good things God has made.

To add to this, we will move from the Bible’s first book to its last. Revelation 21 and 22 describe God’s consummated new creation, when Christ returns to fulfill the reign of God’s kingdom on earth and make all things new. The New Jerusalem is described as the centerpiece of this heavenly vision on earth, but if we read carefully we find suggestions that there is still work to be done, still tasks God wishes to accomplish through God’s people for the blessing of creation. The gates of the New Jerusalem are always open, and the kings and peoples of all the nations bring their glory and splendor to the city. The tree of life is there, and it bears leaves “for the healing of the nations” (22:2). There is more that can be examined here, but Revelation seems to imply that the new creation will include work that God’s people will do for the purpose of the flourishing of all God has made, the shalom found in Genesis. Work is not just something we trudge through in this life to discard in the next; our work now is connected to the stewarding of Eden and the eschatological healing of the nations. Our work has the potential to leave an eternal impact for the kingdom of God.

As image-bearers for God, we are given the privilege of joining in God’s work in the world. This will take numerous forms, as the life of each believer contributes to the manifold witness of God’s coming reign of peace and abundant life. As we come face to face with the evil in the world, we are called to live in the truth that life is precious, that God’s creatures are bearers of great purpose and glory to come. As we seek out the depths of mystery in God’s creation and pursue knowledge and understanding, we bring glory to the Creator whose craft surpasses all we can know. As we develop skills to steward, to create, to communicate, we are being drawn into our identity as bearers of God’s image. Your studies and your work are of great value to God, and God desires to use them for the kingdom.

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Michael Huerter

Michael Huerter is a graduate of Messiah College, and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity and a Master of Music in Church Music at Truett Seminary and Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is passionate about making music, and particularly enjoys jazz. He also enjoys being an uncle to his two nieces and one nephew, and a “dad” to his 110-lb Shiloh Shepherd, Tinkerbell. His academic interests include worship theology and the intersection of faith, culture, and storytelling, and an item on his bucket list is to compose music for a soundtrack.

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    Andy Walsh commented on November 21, 2016 Reply

    Michael – Thanks for this thoughtful and insightful series. I particularly appreciated your expansive, inclusive approach to the question of defining the image of God. In one sense, scripture provides few explicit details in Genesis 1; in another sense, all of scripture illuminates the image of God through its various portrayals of humanity and its revelations about God himself. The totality of scripture doesn’t lend itself to narrow definitions, so neither should the image of God.

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on the corporate aspect of our role as image bearers that you mentioned in part 4. Is it a matter of our collective witness having a magnitude none of us can achieve individually, or do you see unique aspects of the God’s image that can only be borne out as a group?

    • Michael Huerter commented on November 22, 2016 Reply

      Hi Andy – thanks for your comment! I do think both are true, but my intent was to address a uniquely communal image-bearing. Similar to how God’s trinitarian love is an impetus for Creation, it seems to me that the Church is called to embody that love in a corporate way. Jesus strongly emphasized the importance of Christian love within the faith, while also teaching about the necessity of serving and loving others. I suppose I’m drawing from an “alternative community” theology (possibly Anabaptist or similar?) that the Church, empowered by the Spirit, is meant to embody proper relationships between humans, Creator, and creation. In that sense, the image of God isn’t just something we each possess individually, but also something the Church is called to evidence to the world. You and I can and should seek to live an imago Dei way of life, but if this is about the broader purpose of humanity within creation, I think there’s room for recognizing that it’s not really about us individually. I do find that holding to a communal sense of purpose and identity is difficult in our culture, but I think that humanity does exist and carry out its purpose in relationships. Often we may not be aware of that, given our individualistic society, but I think it might be helpful for believers to acknowledge our own limitations and need for each other. It may also be a safeguard against despair or cynicism, because we recognize God’s purpose doesn’t all depend on us individually (not diminishing our responsibility).

        Andy Walsh commented on November 26, 2016 Reply

        Michael – Thanks, that’s a very helpful description and it reinforces the direction my own thoughts about the image of God. Actually, as a biologist, even my own sense of self has shifted somewhat towards a community identity rather than purely individualistic. While it is natural to think of ourselves as indivisible and unified wholes, I can also describe myself as a highly organized and interconnected collective made up not just of all the trillions of cells that share my genome but also all the bacteria and fungi which coexist with those human cells and make significant contributions to my overall health and well-being. If all those microbes are called to participate in the community of me to help me bear God’s image, how much more should I expect to be a part of a community of other humans working to bear that image corporately?

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