God created humans in His image to represent Him in ruling over the earth. Though sin has deformed man and enslaved creation, our work now finds new meaning in light of Christ's redemption.
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Dad died in 2016 at the age of 91. Over eight years earlier, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive disease where the lung sacs increasingly harden and lose their elasticity. This reduces the capacity of the lungs to absorb sufficient oxygen and increasingly makes it difficult to breathe. Dad’s condition was most likely caused by working with asbestos during his years in construction. At the time of his diagnosis, he was given only six months to live. Thankfully, by the grace of God and with the help of medication the disease progressed more slowly than expected and he outlived his diagnosis by nearly eight years.
Dad loved to work. He especially enjoyed yard work, gardening, and above all working in his shop. One of his joys was making toys and decorative items out of wood. Another of Dad’s joys was frankensteining parts together and making something useful. He built his first blow torch for burning weeds out of a pipe, a furnace orifice, a propane hose, various connectors, and other miscellaneous odds and ends. It wasn’t until years later that he bought a commercially available torch. He also designed and produced quite a range of fishing items including vented bait containers for holding live salmon flies made from metal Band-aid boxes, ice fishing stools made from five-gallon pails topped by removable padded seats, and fishing pole holders made from restructured car shocks welded to steel rods for driving them into the shoreline.
Some of the wooden toys that Dad made
As Dad’s condition worsened, he became more and more oxygen dependent. To work, he would throw on an oxygen backpack and could be found working in the garden, the yard, or the shop. Then when walking became difficult, he used the quad and eventually a cart to get around and do what he needed to do, including dragging irrigation pipes to water sections of the lawn that could not be reached by the underground sprinklers.
In the last year of Dad's life, his declining condition restricted him to a recliner lift chair, a walker, and a hospital bed. During one of our conversations at this time, Dad talked about his love for work, “I love to work. It feels good to know I’ve accomplished something. Now, I feel useless.” (My summary of some of the things Dad said.)
Dad had dreams and goals even into his aging years. While his body increasingly failed to serve these goals, correspondingly Dad grieved his loss of purpose and sense of usefulness that he found in doing physical work. Increasingly, he spent copious amounts of time in the Scriptures, reading Christian literature, and watching television preachers, sports, and documentaries. Though his body was failing, his mind was fully engaged until the last few months of his life when medication compromised his mental clarity.
Some of the decorative items that Dad made for Mom. His way of showing his love for her.
I believe that Dad’s love for work, and the meaning that he received from a job well done, reflects God’s image in man. On the sixth day of His creation, God looked at all that He had made with a deep sense of satisfaction, assessing it as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). In this moment, when God completed his work and basked in the results, we catch a glimpse of the functional aspect of His image.
In previous posts, we explored the substantive and the relational views of man created in the image of God. Now In this post, we will look at the functional view of God’s image, sin’s impact on it, and God’s redemptive purpose for it.
3. The Functional View
The functional view of God’s image in man emphasizes that God created man and woman to be His vice regents and rulers over the earth. It is in this governing and subduing role that Adam and Eve were to be representatives and image bearers of God. Support for this perspective is found in the direct Scriptural connection that is made between God making man and woman in His own image and His purpose for them to exercise dominion over the earth.
Genesis 1:26–28 (NIV)
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
God created man in His image to represent Him in ruling over the earth and its creaturely inhabitants. The task of subduing would involve harnessing the abundant resources that God placed in creation and developing them to their full potential. The immensity of the job would require multiplying the workforce by filling the earth with more people. This functional perspective of God’s image finds additional support in Psalm 8, where David describes man as a crowned ruler over God’s creation.
Psalm 8:3–8 (NASB95)
3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
4 What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?
5 Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!
6 You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
Even outside of Scripture, the link between the concept of “being in the image of God” and rulership was common in the ancient world. Ancient kings and Pharaohs frequently claimed some form of divine status as sons, images, or representatives of the gods. In Egypt, claiming divine origin and authority was customary. After citing a variety of ancient Egyptian writings substantiating this very point, David Clines in his fine article, “The Image of God in Man,” concludes:
“The image of the god is associated very closely with rulerhood. The king as image of the god is his representative. The king has been created by the god to be his image."
In addition to claiming divine status, Assyrian kings also erected statues of themselves in countries they had conquered to represent their occupation of that land. This image signified the king’s “real, though not his physical presence there.” Because of its representative union to the king, “To revile the royal image is as treasonable an act as to revile the king himself.”
In much the same way, Adam and Eve were representative images of the true God on earth. As co-regents, God created them to be rulers and stewards over His creation. As His “kings” over earth's affairs, they represent His presence and His purpose on the earth, much like King Herod represented the presence and purposes of Rome in Judea during the time of Christ. As mankind multiplied on the face of the earth, this purpose was to be passed to all mankind until all creation reached its full potential.
I’ve taught the book of Genesis at a college level since the 1980’s. Over the years, I’ve asked students, “When is work first mentioned in the Bible?” It is not uncommon for a student to wrongly answer, “Work came as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin.” In response, I explain, “It is true that after man sinned we do see the consequences of his sin on work. The pristine world that God created was subjected to futility (Romans 8:19-22). The ground that previously had fully cooperated to produce abundance was cursed and began producing thistles and weeds, causing toil and sweat in man’s labor, but this isn’t the earliest mention of work in the Bible.”
Frequently, my comments have been followed by a second student response, “God placed man in the garden to cultivate it and care for it, so work was God’s purpose for man even before sin.” I’ve replied, “You are correct, work was God’s plan for man even before sin, so work is not the result of sin, only toil is – a very important distinction. However, work is mentioned in the Bible even before God assigned tasks to Adam and Eve in the garden." Eventually, the conversation leads us to Genesis 2:2-3 where work is mentioned three times.
Genesis 2:2–3 (NIV)
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
So, when is work first mentioned in the Bible? Genesis 2:3 gives the answer, “he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (NIV). So, since creating is God’s work, the concept of work is actually first mentioned in Genesis 1:1, the very first verse in the Bible: “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This identification of work with creation is further supported by David’s description in Psalm 8, "When I consider the heavens the work of you fingers; . . . . You make him to rule over the works of Your hands.” (Psalm 8:6).
God is a worker and to be created in His image is also to be a worker. God blessed those created in His image with a meaningful purpose, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). At first, this mandate sounds very lofty, but in reality it is works out in very practical ways (pun intended). Remember, God’s specific job description for Adam and Eve, His first vice-regents and rulers over the earth, was to cultivate and care for a garden, not sit on a throne. Subduing and ruling the entire earth would require billions of people over thousands of years using their God-given talents to steward their portion of the earth’s resources, bringing them to their full potential. Timothy Keller insightfully writes,
“The word ‘subdue’ indicates that, though all God had made was good, it was still to a great degree undeveloped. God left creation with untapped potential for cultivation that people were to unlock through their labor.”
In the summer months, I often marvel while driving through the farmlands of Alberta, Canada, and seeing the countryside checkerboarded with fields of yellow canola interspersed with fields of waving wheat or barley. I’m amazed as I explore Google Maps in satellite mode and see countless houses and yards, schools and arenas, businesses and malls, hospitals and restaurants, parks and recreation areas, miles of roads, innumerable intersections and bridges, and farms and fields that reveal the results of man’s creativity and hard work in bringing out the potential of creation for human flourishing. Like human ants each doing their part, creation is being tamed and its potential is being released, while wise stewardship also preserves nature areas in pristine beauty for the well-being of God’s other creatures and for recreational enjoyment.
Because God is a worker and is creative, we image God through our work and our creativity as we take the resources He placed in the earth and make things of value. Every building, every item of clothing, every scientific advancement, and every technological innovation in transportation, communication, medicine, and electronics that have produced the many marvels of our modern world, all came from men and women who discovered the laws and resources that God providentially placed in the earth at the time of creation. Over time, these discoveries and advancements have been cumulative as mankind has unlocked the potential that God placed in creation from the very beginning. Through discovery, innovation, and hard work, man exemplifies the creativity and productivity of God.
Unlike the ancient kings who alone claimed to be the image of the gods, the Bible teaches that all humans are created in the likeness of God and given authority to subdue and rule over the works of His hands. As with Adam and Eve, God intended for all people in all times to do meaningful work as His coworkers and stewards of creation. God’s intent is not only that work would provide for our needs and the needs of others, but also that it would give us a purpose for our lives. Just like God placed Adam and Eve in the garden to cultivate it and bring it to its full potential, we too are God’s co-regents and given responsibility for bringing out the full potential in our unique spheres of influence in this world. Purpose and meaning are often attached to the work that we do.
As briefly noted above, Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in an enslaved creation that resists man’s productive efforts. This futility is also seen in natural disasters such as tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions. Creation groans with labor pains longing to be released from the effects of sin (Romans 8:19-22). In previous blogs we already looked at the corrupting effects of sin on man himself. This deformation in man mars God’s functional image as well as His substantive and relational image. Sin’s damage on the functional aspect of God’s image in man is evident on two fronts.
First, we see sin’s impact in man’s attitudes and actions. Sin warps the way humans function as rulers and workers while they go about the job of subduing and releasing the potential of God’s creation. Two extremes of sin’s impact are laziness and workaholism. At one extreme, slothful people want something for nothing. They want to be consumers and not producers, takers and not makers. Scripture issues warnings to sluggards who live idle and undisciplined lives (Proverbs 21:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12). At the other extreme, workaholics are often driven by their desire for recognition or by their greed to accumulate wealth, often at the expense of higher values such as family, health, and their walk with God. The Bible also issues warnings for those in this group (Luke 12:16-21; 1 Timothy 6:6-11)
Other ways that sin has corrupted man’s attitudes and behaviors in relationship to his work include selfishness, pride, envy, abuse of power, anger, and dishonesty. Frequently, people bring their sinful baggage to the workplace and it shows up as verbal abuse, conflict, lying, thievery, poor work ethic, addiction, and more. Often, rather than stewarding creation, sinful man in his greed has exploited it. This has resulted in extinct species, polluted water, and eroded topsoil. In addition, fallen man has used earth’s God-given resources and his own God-given abilities to produce all sorts of wickedness including idols, addictive substances, and objects of sensuality. So rather than releasing the potential that God placed in creation for human flourishing, man’s sinful attitudes and practices have sometimes damaged God’s creation or exploited it for sinful purposes. Along with the substantive and relational aspects of God’s image in man, the functional aspect has clearly been deformed by sin.
Second, sin distorts the nature of work itself. Since the fall of man, the ground resists fruitfulness and productivity. In fact, God’s penalty for Adam and Eve’s sin, pain in childbirth and a curse on the ground, negatively impact both of His creation blessings: to be fruitful and to subdue the earth. We now encounter resistance and suffering in carrying out God’s creation purposes. On top of this, man’s sin brought death. The dying process includes all manner of sickness and physical ailments that also thwart our abilities to be fruitful and subdue the earth.
Further, without a higher meaning for life beyond this temporal world, all work is ultimately futile. What is the point of work, and even of life itself, if we only perpetuate existence for a few years, just to die and be forgotten by other men and women who will die and cease to exist? Without a higher eternal purpose for our lives on earth and the hope of a life to come, existence and work on earth are ultimately meaningless. Thankfully, God has other plans for His children.
Jesus came to earth to accomplish the Father’s work (John 4:34, 5:17, 9:3-4, 17:4). His primary work was to achieve redemption for man through His death on the cross. Though the full extent of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross won’t be realized until His return and creation is finally freed from its enslavement to futility, even now we can fulfill an eternal purpose in our roles as God’s rulers and workers. This begins with a transformation of our attitudes and motives for working.
Colossians 3:23–24 (NIV)
23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,
24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
We are to see everything we do in our work for others as an act of service to the Lord, knowing that He will ultimately reward us. In fact, everything we do, including eating and drinking, is to be done for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). In this way, our work and every activity in our lives can be an act of worship and devotion to the Lord, because we do it all as service to Him.
Closely connected to working for God’s glory, is working for the benefit of others. Every act of good to our fellow man including clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and nursing the sick is an act of serving Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46). Though Jesus is calling us to serve people who are in genuine need, why do we restrict the application of this passage to only acts of charity? Cannot it equally be applied to the clothing industry, food industry, and medical industry as workers in those industries serve the genuine needs of humanity. If these and countless other jobs that benefit our fellow man are carried out as unto the Lord and for meeting genuine needs, these can be done as acts of service and worship to the Lord. Regardless of the job, by doing our work as unto the Lord and for the benefit of others, we can even turn mundane tasks into acts of worship and service.
God used Noah’s construction skills to save his family from the flood. He used Joseph’s wisdom and management skills to save a nation in a time of famine. And God used Bezalel’s skills in craftsmanship to construct the tabernacle and its furniture to house His presence. All three of these men fulfilled God’s divine purpose for His glory and for the benefit of others. In the same way, by our creativity, our work ethic, and using our God-given talents in a way that brings Him glory and benefits others, we reflect the image of God and fulfill His purposes on the earth.
Our work is also an opportunity to bring the presence of Christ and the light of His image to others. Not only do we serve others as unto the Lord, but Christ indwells the believer and we do our service in the power of His Spirit, looking for opportunities to leave His touch on their lives. In this way, we can be salt and light in our decaying and dark world, and when the time is right, we can verbally share the Gospel truths behind our actions. In the end, our work done unto the Lord will be rewarded.
1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
In our next post, I will pull together some final thoughts about what it means for us to be made in God’s image, including a look at the inherent dignity of man and the value of human life. I will also summarize some thoughts of how being transformed into the image of Christ will help us to more fully reflect God's image in three important spheres of our lives. Then in following posts we will look at God’s process for transformation. I hope you are enriched as we continue to explore what it means to grow more and more like Christ.
 David J. A. Clines. "The Image of God in Man." Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968). 85.
 Ibid, 82-85.
 Ibid, 87.
 Ibid, 83.
 Timothy Keller. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work. (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2012), 36, Kindle.
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