"Image of God" vs. "Like God" (1st Lent A)
“Image of God vs. Like God”
1st Sunday in Lent (Year A)
March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” ... Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Today we hear two stories about temptation: one that worked out pretty poorly (Eve and Adam) and another that worked out well (Jesus). The first story from Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve’s first sin. It highlights for us the temptation and desire that lie at the heart of all sins. And then we hear about Jesus confronting the devil’s temptation in the wilderness and resisting sin. In order to understand how they connect, it will be helpful to go back to the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of the creation story, to see what exactly went wrong.
In Genesis 1, God creates the heavens and the earth and all the things that populate space, the sky, the water, and the dry land. On the sixth day, God creates human beings and the text explains it like this:
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27).
From the beginning, human beings have a core identity marker, a core purpose. We are created in the Image of God. That means not only that we are meant to imitate God and reflect God’s ways (like a mirror image), but also that we are always in relationship with God. We are called to fellowship with God as we grow into that Image.
But then the serpent comes along and starts to smooth-talk with Eve and Adam. (For the record, Eve usually gets the blame here, but Genesis tells us that Adam was with her the whole time, overhearing this conversation but saying nothing. He ate the fruit just like she did. It’s both of their faults equally. Women aren’t any worse than men. We’re just all people and we’re all sinners. Eve and Adam represent all humanity to us.)
Likewise, the serpent here represents all temptation from within and from without; it could be evil spiritual forces like Satan, or it could be our own twisted desires. The serpent questions God’s commandment about the tree of life, pushing Eve and Adam to try to remember what God said and pushing them to question God’s meaning and intentions.
The serpent tempts the two of them with these words: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” They are tempted to be like God.
That’s the heart of the problem. Eve and Adam’s temptation is the same as all human temptations. Human beings have shifted from living as the Image of God to striving to be like God. Instead of living in a harmonious relationship with God, as God’s Image, we want to replace God. We want the power and authority for ourselves instead of deferring to God’s true power and authority. We want to be in control, to become independent (like Creator Gods) instead of accepting that we are creatures and dependent on God. Part of this temptation is truly understandable. We are afraid of pain and suffering and we want to avoid death. But we can’t. Only God is immortal and we are God’s Image, not little usurper gods who can overthrow the One True God.
So human beings sin when we stop trying to follow God and try to become our own gods. This is the mistake that Jesus did not make. Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness with three things: food, superhuman abilities, and imperial power. Jesus resists all three by choosing not to be like God (even though he is fully God) but accepting his limits as a creature in the Image of God (since he is fully human).
In the words of my professor, the Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings, The Devil tempted Jesus with “supply, security, and significance.” These three desires tempt us constantly. I want stuff; I want to feel safe; I want to feel important. The serpent’s temptation of Eve and Adam is similar: “you will be like God.” You can supply your own needs and enforce your own security and make yourself significant. And they, like us, sought these things for themselves. On the other hand, Jesus finds his supply, security, and significance in God the Father.
Human beings are caught up in the lie that we can be like God, with no limitations on us and no prohibitions (Jennings). We don’t want to submit to God’s authority and live as Image-Bearers. We don’t want to foster a relationship with God; we would rather take charge on our own.
By contrast, Christ humbles himself and accepts limits when the Word becomes flesh. God becomes a real flesh and blood human being named Jesus. And as a real human being, Jesus does not strive to control and manipulate things for his own benefit.
In fact, Jesus never uses his power as God for personal gain. His signs and miracles are all for the benefit of others. When he is tempted in the wilderness after many days of fasting, he refuses to make a supply of bread. He will not secure himself against harm by calling down angels; he accepts the limits of the human body that cannot fly. He refuses to shortcut God’s purposes for his significance; he won’t try to take his rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords through worshipping the devil; he won’t do the right thing in the wrong way. And on the Cross, Jesus again accepts even the creaturely limit of death; he accepts mortality; he accepts suffering. And he refuses to use his power as God to free himself.
The Image of God is the true purpose and calling for all humanity. But only Jesus truly lived it. We, ordinary Christians, cannot live perfectly into the Image of God, tempted as we are to “be like God,” trying to fill our own desires for supply, security, and significance (among other things). And we don’t have the true power of the Godhead to manipulate the world supernaturally as Jesus could have done. But we do have the “natural” power to do a lot without regard for consequences.
Human beings use intelligence and technology to manipulate the earth and one another for our own devices. We have figured out how to destroy forests and other ecosystems so that we can build homes and buildings, killing and endangering lots of wildlife. We have figured out how to burn fossil fuels to help us heat and cool our homes and travel at great speeds, not considering the effect we have on the air, water, soil, and global climate. We have figured out how to push aside and dismiss many people from the privileged places of society and then blame them for their misbehavior. In these and many other ways, human societies have tried to “be like God” in our power and control of the world around us, but not “like God” in our morality and love. Instead of living in the Image of God, as creatures who bask in God’s glory and seek God’s fellowship, we try to ignore God’s presence and handle everything ourselves.
I’m not saying all modern technology is bad, but we human beings have often misused and abused it to hurt our human, animal, plant, and environmental neighbors. The temptation to sin is indeed individual, but it’s also communal. When we put our heads together, sometimes we commit even bigger crimes and sins than we could on our own. That’s why our hope doesn’t lie in ourselves, either as individuals or as societies and governments or even as the church. Our hope lies in God, in the God-Man Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit that lives within us.
Once more Dr. Jennings writes, “We were there [in the wilderness temptation], in the flesh of Jesus, and he takes our propensity to sin, to become [like God] and returns us to the [Image of God] by his obedience. … Just as we have fallen to temptation in Adam, which brought to us death and condemnation, so in Christ, who has taken upon himself sinful flesh, we overcome temptation. Jesus experienced the temptation of the flesh that sought to set the Godhead against his humanity. Every temptation for us now is the temptation of Christ in his members. We are not tempted. Jesus Christ is tempted in us. Satan pursues Christ in the temptation of his members, in his congregation. As we share in Christ's temptation, we share in his victory.”
Or to use the words of St. Paul: “Therefore just as one man's [Adam's] trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's [Jesus'] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's [Adam's] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's [Jesus'] obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18-19).
So do not fear the power of the Tempter. We will still do wrong. We will still stray like lost sheep who follow after the devices and desires of our own hearts. But God loves us and Christ chose to die for us even when we were still sinners. Jesus Christ has won the victory over sin and the devil. He resisted temptation for us and he continues to resist in us since we share human flesh with him and share his Holy Spirit.
Good News of the Week:
God created us in the Image of God (Gen 1:26-27), but we are tempted to reject our limits as creatures and try to be like God (Gen 3:4-5). We try to grasp and control the world around us to create false “supply, security, and significance” instead of leaning on God. Jesus resisted these temptations and lived a perfect, sinless human life as one of us and for all of us. Jesus overcame and made a path for us to do the same with him.
Another way of remembering the Good News of the Week is to sing the hymn “Yield Not to Temptation” (LEV #170): “Ask the Savior to help you, Comfort, strengthen and keep you; He is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.” Amen.