Image & Mission

Adam had a job. It was given to him and Eve in Genesis 1.28:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

This is sometimes called the cultural mandate, but it’s basically the Old Testament version of Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28.

Our first parents were created in the image of God, which was not primarily about which attributes we might share with God—though those do exist—but about being the place through which God’s presence was manifested and his blessing was conveyed.

To be an image is to be a reflection of God’s glory. Yahweh was to subdue and rule the earth through the action of his image. To be an image of God is to be a priest-king, and a place of God’s presence.

Sound familiar? As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere, we are Temples of the Holy Spirit. Image-bearers were common in other nations surrounding Israel, it was a kingly title. The remarkable thing about the Old Testament’s repeated insistence that humans are the image of God is that we all are. You are all kings. It’s a radical statement of political theology.

Adam finds himself as a priest-king in a garden, shaped a bit like the cosmos. Or to put it another way, he found himself in a Temple. The references to the garden of Eden in both the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus and the building of the Temple in 2 Chronicles are legion. We’re supposed to get the point forwards and backwards: the Temple and the Tabernacle are the starting points of God’s presence spreading across the earth, and the Garden was a Temple.

Later in the Old Testament the priests were guardians of the Temple and had to slay any unclean animal who walked or crawled or slithered their way into the sanctuary. Which raises the fascinating question, what was Adam meant to do when a serpent slithered into his garden temple? He found it debating with his wife about the meaning of God’s word, what should he have done?

Just reading the text on its own without asking who the serpent is, he clearly should have killed it. The hero always kills the dragon. He was supposed to subdue the chaos of creation, its right there in his commission, the serpent should have been removed from the garden.

We even find him under a tree of discerning, which is often a place of judgement elsewhere in the Bible (Judges 4, 1 Samuel 14, 22). He should have judged the snake.

We often talk about the serpent’s wily ways, and perhaps speak of the Enemy’s cunning in our own lives. We might pick over how he subtly changed God’s word and Eve didn’t pick him up on it immediately, finding what he said persuasive. I think these are worthy of reflection.

We sometimes suggest that Adam’s sin was in not adequately disciplining his wife: I doubt it, and we don’t get that from the text very easily. But, his impotence at protecting his bride form evil? I could go with that. Adam’s sin is in not fulfilling his mission,

Adam should have discerned that the serpent was evil and should have judged the serpent in the name of God at the place of the judgment tree

G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 35

Instead the serpent ruled over him.

Then there’s a really interesting question. If Eve was not deceived and Adam had not willing cooperated with the snake, if they had lived up to their mission, what would have happened next?

They were called to subdue the earth, which would have required leaving the garden. After subduing the serpent there would be a gradual, progressive move outward until Adam had fulfilled worldwide dominion. The Old Testament predicts this day in its eschatology (Psalm 72, 89, 2 Samuel 7, Daniel 7), but the goal was present even in these first few chapters. Presumably if he had reached that moment of worldwide dominion—that we still await—then his potentially corrupt existence as king would have reached a moment when he transformed into an incorruptible kingly existence. Perhaps even after willing choosing not his will but God’s at a tree, and some form of death and resurrection. He would have then filled the earth with image-bearing progeny to reflect the glory of God. It would have been less like leaving Eden and more like expanding the garden’s borders.

I’m unsure whether Christ would still then have been incarnated, I suspect perhaps yes, to come and marry the bride. If Adam had succeeded, we would have the age to come. He would have eaten from the Tree of Life and the Tree of Judgement as the reward for a completed mission, and then known true rest.

After Adam fell the commission was given again and again to individuals and the nation of Israel (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, Israel again, David, Solomon, Jeremiah etc). There’s a small change, it now included renewed humanity’s reign over the human force arrayed against it. It now including leading others to overcome the influence of evil in other’s hearts. It now included multiplying by telling others as well as by having children. It was a call to be a witness.

Why does this matter?

I think there are two reasons.

Firstly, this is Christ’s mission. He’s the last Adam—the Old Testament is full of a succession of Adamic figures who are called and appointed to do the same. Some of them even do fairly well (Noah, Solomon), but also fall before the end. The king who will inaugurate the age to come by the power of his incorruptible life (1 Corinthians 15) and fill the earth with his family line is our big brother Jesus. True rest will come when the kingdom does.

Secondly, to a lesser extent it’s our mission: to be the presence of God where we are, to judge chaos and evil and to grow the family of God by being a witness to the truth.

Photo by Aswin Chembath on Unsplash