If you’ve done one of those DNA tests like Ancestry or 23andMe, you know that the process involves spitting into a cup and sending that, along with anywhere from $50 to $100, to a lab. Then, after a few weeks, you get a full-color profile telling you who’s been swimming in your gene pool. It used to be that when you closely resembled someone in your family, old timers would say that you were a “spitting image” of them. Who knew that one day we’d use actual spit to find out how?
Mary and I took the Ancestry DNA test to find out more about our ancestors. While Mary has some fascinating Eastern European ancestors, my are decidedly white bread – England, Scotland, Ireland. Though my father regularly told me and my siblings that we had quite a bit of Cherokee in our background, my DNA doesn’t appear to see it that way.
A lot of folks do these tests for genealogical reasons, wanting to tap deeper into their family roots – I believe that was Mary’s main reason. For others, like myself, it’s a bit of a curiosity. Perhaps they hope they are somehow distantly connected to someone famous or even to someone royal. It’s the premise of countless movies and fantasy fodder for daydreamers. Imagine, for example, discovering that you’re the long-lost heir to a royal family and fortune, and that a castle is waiting for you somewhere where you will spend the rest of your life munching on turkey legs, ordering servants around and drinking from golden goblets at dinner.
One can dream.
And, from what I’ve been reading, because of my European ancestry, there’s a pretty good chance that I am actually related to royalty.
Yale statistician Joseph Chang revealed in 1999 that if you go back about 900 years, or 32 generations, you’d find that everyone alive today shares a common ancestor. In Europe, that ancestor would have lived only 600 years ago. That means that almost everyone in the Americas is likely descended from English royalty, due to intermarriages between royalty and commoners.
Of course, royalty isn’t confined to Europe, so there’s a good likelihood that everyone on Earth is connected to someone who sat on a throne. Interestingly, half of all men living in western Europe, including 70 percent of the men in the United Kingdom, are related to the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut).
Think about that the next time you’re gnawing on a turkey leg!
But it’s possible to go back even further in time to discover our royal ancestry. In fact, it’s a spiritual as well as genealogical link that goes all the way back even before creation. When we read the Scriptures, we discover the truth that we are all royalty and all of us have a royal vocation — not to be ordering servants around, but to be servants of God, heirs of a royal inheritance and the rulers of God’s good creation.
This is the foundational truth we learn at the very beginning of the story in Genesis 1. After God creates the heavens, the earth, light and darkness, plants and animals, separating these things and putting them in their proper order and function, God creates humans. “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and of 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,” said God (Genesis 1:26). God created humans in the divine image, male and female, to share in a royal purpose (v. 27).
In the world of the ancient Near East in which Genesis 1 was written, kings and pharaohs were often referred to as the “image” of a particular god, the human embodiment of that god, who ruled in the place of that god. The “image” was invested in the king alone. Often, there was a temple with the king’s image in it in the form of a statue, which acted as a concrete symbol of the god’s reign through the king.
In that context, Genesis 1 is a bold statement. There is one Creator God, whose image is invested not in a singular king, but in all of humanity — male and female — who are to be concrete, embodied symbols and stewards of God’s reign on the earth. It’s not a matter of birth or one’s family tree. It’s a gift of the Creator. Humans were made to be royalty.
Psalm 8 reflects this reality. “You have made [human beings] a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor” (v. 5). In 1 Peter 2:9, the writer says that we are made to be “a royal priesthood.” Humans are to be kings and queens who demonstrate the just rule of God and his kingdom.
But not only are humans to reflect this political image of God as governors of God’s creation, they are also to reign as a reflection of God’s character and glory. In other words, they were made to bear a family resemblance to God. One of the explanations for the origins of the term “spitting image” is that it’s a mashup of saying “spirit and image” together quickly. Spirit ’n image: spitting image. We were made to be spitting images of God, to be filled with his Spirit and resembling Him with our lives.
But it’s a quick trip from the glory and spitting image of Genesis 1 and 2 to the unraveling of God’s image in Genesis 3. The snake showed up and convinced the archetypical humans that they could be more than the image of God they were created to be — that they could be gods themselves. This was a lie, of course, but they were hooked. They grasped at determining the knowledge of good and evil for themselves and, instantly, they were dethroned. Instead of ruling God’s creation as kings and queens in a fellowship of equals, they instead began comparing themselves and sought to rule over one another. Instead of stewarding God’s kingdom, they begin to build their own. Instead of living a royal life in the castle garden God had created for them, they found themselves to be spiritual paupers, hungry exiles and immigrants in a strange land, hacking their existence out of the hostile and unforgiving soil.
This is the story that the Old Testament tells. It is a story in which the image of God in humanity fades quickly, replaced by a constant battle with idolatry — the image of God turned inward. It’s the story of mistaken identity, of missing the mark of what God intended for us, which is the very definition of sin. Sin clouds our ability to know who we really are. It strips us of our royalty. It enslaves us to being ruled by things that make good servants but terrible masters — like money, sex or power. It puts us at war with our bodies. It makes our eyes wander, our hearing selective, and our speech self-serving. It binds us to our past mistakes. In fact, sin convinces us that we are a mistake.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves: We all have the royal image of God and royal vocation of God in our DNA, and we all have the potential to be really bad at it. As John Wesley put it more succinctly, humans were created able to stand, but liable to fall.
The image of God in humanity fades in the biblical narrative after the opening chapters of Genesis. But then, powerfully and unexpectedly in the New Testament, the image reappears. This time, however, it is not just a human being made in the image of God. It is a human being who is the image of God, the crystal-clear image that replaces and reboots the image that was marred in Adam and distorted in us. The New Testament writers announce His arrival. “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” says Paul in Colossians 1:15-20, “For in him all things were created: things visible and invisible … He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” “For us and for our salvation,” says the Nicene Creed, “he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” The perfect image of God was embedded from the beginning of creation — the model for humanity — revealed at the right time in the person of Jesus Christ.
As the perfect image of God, Christ completes the original royal vocation of humanity and, at the same time, reveals what true humanity, what real royalty looks like. In the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, Paul proclaims that Jesus did not consider that royal image of God something to be grasped or exploited, but humbled Himself and took the form of an obedient servant, walking the way of perfect submission all the way to the pain of the cross. As the world’s true king, He came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). He shows humanity who they were intended to be — servant kings and queens — and then, through the cross and resurrection, frees them from the slavery of sin and death so that they can live that royal vocation. He offers that new life, a new birth, a new name, a new identity, a royal vocation, a place in the family, a community of love. When we receive Him, we discover the royal family from which we have long been estranged. We receive a new birth story. “To all who received him, who believed on his name,” says John, “he gave power to become children of God who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
In other words, when we receive Him, we share a common new birth — no matter how we came into the world or what the DNA test says about us. Our lives become restarted, renewed and rewired. The long-lost exiles become part of his royal family again. We were created by Him, through Him and for Him. As Paul puts in Romans 8:29, we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.” The goal, the chief end for which Christ has come, is that we might glorify God as His royal created image once again. To put it another way, Jesus became like us so that we might become like Him. It’s in Christ that we find our true royal identity.
One of Ancestry’s slogans is: “Everyone has a fascinating story. We’ll help you find yours.”
Well, our goal as disciples and Christians is to help everyone find themselves in the story. Your story doesn’t begin with your birthday. It began at creation.
And this is the good news we need to share with the world: You were made to be the spitting image of God! You are not your title, your career, your degrees, your desires, your preferences, your sins, your past, or your present.
You are royalty. Your destiny has always been to be a part of the royal family of God. Look at anyone closely and you can see the family resemblance (faint though it may seem at the moment)! This is the good news we proclaim to all those who wrestle with their identity, who think their lives are a mistake. The king has been looking for you, lost though you may have been, to give you a royal inheritance of abundant, eternal life.
And this, people of God, is good news!