A few years ago I gave a presentation to young undergraduate Christian students on the importance of discipleship, which was then followed by multiple small groups to discuss the subject further. During this group session, somebody asked if a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian than a “believer”. I felt a bit devastated with the question, given all that we had said before, but I managed to clarify that to be a Christian was to be a disciple. But such levels of ignorance about discipleship amongst young educated minds who will in the future become leaders in Ghanaian churches and Christian communities made me realise that there really was a huge gap of understanding between what the New Testament expected of us, and what our churches were training us to be. Reflecting on J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image – Imago Dei in Genesis 1” brought home the centrality of discipleship to the whole enterprise of Christianity, evangelism and church. As i promised in my last post, its time to learn a thing or two from him.
Imago Dei in the Ancient Near East
One of the important reminders about reading the Old Testament is that there is the general scholarly consensus that it was edited and compiled during the exile. It thus exhibits certain tendencies to be critical of the ideologies that it was confronted with before and during the exile. And the 2 most dominant ideologies that it critiques are those of Mesopotamian ideologies (ie Assyria and Babylon, who ended up enslaving Northern Israel and Southern Israel respectively) as well as Egyptian ideologies which they inherited after the Exodus. Viewed in this light, Middleton points out how the idea of humans being created in the image of God would have developed to counter specifically the Mesopotamian ideas about humanity, seeing as Israel was exiled there for 70 years.
Middleton points out that in the Ancient Near East amongst whom Israel existed, almost all the dominant cultures viewed human beings as slaves of the gods, created to do the menial work that the gods didn’t want to do. However, there was a small but very important distinction amongst human beings. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were gods (or incarnations of the gods), whiles Mesopotamians believed that their kings were humans, but were made in the image of their gods. Alongside these Mesopotamian kings, the priests, who served in the presence of the gods were also made in their image. This implied that every one else was just a slave of the gods via the gods’ appointed representative “images” ie the king and his priests. Given this status of a Mesopotamian king, to disregard the commandments of a king like Nebuchadnezer was to question not just the king, but Marduk himself, the primary deity of the Babylonians whom the king represented. You can understand why Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel wouldn’t have been holding hands and singing kumbaya in Babylon, as recorded in the book of Daniel. Of course there were times Mesopotamian kings not only held their “image” status dear, but blurred the lines between being the image and being the god themselves, but that is of course the way of humans when power gets into their head.
Imago Dei in the Old Testament
However, the people of Israel tell a different story about human existence. Their story went like this.
Yahweh, the Creator god, created all human beings in his image. All humans are of equal worth to Yahweh, meant to “rule over the earth”, not be slaves for the benefit of others made in his image.
Being “made in Yahweh’s image”, each and every human being’s responsibility was to look a little bit like that of a previous group of people I have mentioned above who were made in the image of the gods in Mesopotamia – kings and priests. It is therefore not for fun that both Yahweh’s address to Israel after the exodus, and John of Patmos’ vision in the book of Revelation are aligned when they speak of Israel and the church respectively.
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”(Rev 5:9-10 NIV)
The primary problem then would seem to be that humans have lost the sense of direction as to what god in whose image they were made. They therefore worship their own creation or themselves, and fail to live as Yahweh had designed them to live. Just as Eve got deceived by the serpent into thinking that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was “desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6 NIV), humans craft their own “wisdom”, leaving behind the real source of wisdom – Yahweh himself. Hence the wisdom statement “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10;Ps 111:10 NIV)
And even when humans discern this god in whose image they were made (as Israel claimed to have discerned after the Exodus), they misunderstand understand his character and so do not reflect it properly. Speaking of Israel during the Exodus, Yahweh says:
“For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart. And they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10 NIV)
In short then, the key problem of human beings is not that they have failed some morality test that God set for Adam and Eve, but that they have rejected covenant relationship with the loving Creator god, Yahweh which will enable them to reflect his ways as image bearers upon this earth. This has lead to frustrations, inequality, poverty, violence and death. As NT Wright puts it in his book “The Day the Revolution Began”, the key problem of humanity is idolatory, leading to not being a true image bearer after the one in whose image we are made.
Once this conclusion hit me, being an avid reader of the Psalms and the prophets, I began to notice how stridently they criticize the “nations” aka Gentiles for not listening to Yahweh, and why Paul the apostle launches his epistle to the Romans with the standard Jewish criticism of this problem – the problem of idolatory leading to immorality.
Jesus enters the scene, and makes certain claims about his identity. The people of Israel think they know who Yahweh is, and what his character is like. But Jesus makes a scandalous claim – he is the embodiment of Yawheh, Israel’s God, and everything they previously knew about Yahweh, they knew in part. He had come to reveal Yahweh’s fullness. The Gospel of John puts the above scandalous statement pointedly.
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (Jn 1:18 NIV)
John even puts these words in Jesus’s own mouth
“Stop grumbling amongst yourselves”, Jesus answered … “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (Jn 6:43-46 NIV)
The author of Hebrews nails it down further
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3 NIV)
It is important that Christians not miss the implication of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Since Yahweh desired that the human beings he has so loving created in his image will actually learn to “be his image” (not the image of Marduk, Enlil, Zeus, money, sex, power and a million other gods that can be named) and to properly represent his character and “ways” on this earth, he came in the flesh and showed us who he was like. And when he had finished showing us who Yahweh was like in the person of Jesus – that Yahweh was a loving God who was willing to sacrifice himself even to death for the ones whom he loved, including for his enemies – he made a simple statement that large swathes of Christianity have been avoiding for centuries on end.
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
The implications are clear, if one is paying attention and not reading the Gospels as nice stories for Sunday school children.
God has shown us his character and his ways in Jesus. To “worship” Yahweh then, is to “follow Jesus”.
We who are created in his image are meant to follow in manifesting that character and way. There is a reason why the disciples were called “followers of The Way” (Ac 22:4).
That way leads through the path of self-sacrifice and loss, and into eternal life both on this earth, and in the life to come.
God himself takes upon himself defeats the powers of death and sin that enslave us from living as people made in his image by taking upon himself the punishment for our sins in the person of Jesus on the cross. We can now truly live as those made in his image.
The apostle Paul caps it off with a seminal statement about God’s goal for calling people into his church, using imago dei language of Genesis 1.
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29 NIV)
The Priority of Discipleship
The Christian life then, is centered around discipleship – following in the way of the one in whose image we were made. The Christian life is not about “saving souls” and giving them a ticket to heaven so they don’t go to hell. The Christian life is not about elevating “spiritual issues” over daily life ones. The Christian life is not about living in a constant state of “sin management”, as Dallas Willard puts it. All these are side issues that have clouded the real issue. The Christian life IS about being human on this beautiful earth that Yahweh, the Creator god intended for us to live, in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth that he himself will bring to pass. In Jesus we see what it means to be human, because we see the character of him in whose image we were made. The church Father put it this way.
“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.”- Maximus the confessor,
And that is why Jesus reminded us of the 2 most important things in the world, what Scot McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. a) Worship the right God (Yahweh, as revealed by Jesus) and b) follow in that God’s ways (ie love your fellow human being as Yahweh does, for they are also created in Yahweh’s image, as you are).
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29)
Whenever we think discipleship is a side issue, whether in evangelism, apologetics, theology or running a church, we are indeed missing the heart of the matter.
Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him