I’ve been seeing this quote about Christmas from the reformer/theologian Martin Luther floating around lately, and it resonated with some things God’s been putting on my mind these past few weeks.
Luther was preaching about how the Lord Jesus was born in poverty, in a humble and dirty manger. And Luther challenged his listeners with these words:
“There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen! How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!’ Yes you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”
What you do to your neighbor in need, you do to the Lord Christ himself.
Luther’s statement brings up two theological themes I’ve been pondering lately and ties them together quite nicely: God’s concern for the needy, and the fact that humans are made in God’s image.
There’s a powerful connection between the two in Scripture. Let’s take a look.
Let Justice Flow Like Water
I’ve been spending some time going back and studying the Old Testament prophets this month, and they speak much and often about God’s concern for those in need. They convey, in no uncertain terms, God’s hatred of injustice and his desire that all people — especially those who claim to know him! — would love their neighbor and ease the burden of the oppressed.
As God announced through the prophet Isaiah, “Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17 CSB).
In a time when the ancient Israelites were thinking they could get away with whatever selfish and immoral things they wanted so long as they kept up their religious rituals, God made clear he would have none of it:
“I hate, I despise your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies.
Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;
I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream”
— Amos 5:21-24 (CSB).
When those who claim to be God’s people live in a way that’s completely contrary to the loving, just, self-giving character of God, it essentially makes God sick to his stomach. He doesn’t even want “worship” services from people who pay him lip-service but then refuse to do what he’s told them to do.
From people who say they love God, but then deny it by failing to love people made in his image.
This is why Luther is so bold as to say, “You have Christ in your neighbor.” What he meant was that if you say you really want to serve the Lord Jesus with your life, then here’s your opportunity: serve the people in need around you. After all, they’re made in his image.
“What you do to the image, you do to the god.”
The very first statement the Bible ever makes about human beings is that we all are made “in God’s image” and according to his “likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27) Unlike anything else in the physical universe, humans alone bear the image of God.
This is a profound truth that’s impossible to unpack completely, and scholars have spilled much ink trying to define what all it means to be made in God’s image.
Some have tried defining it in terms of how we differ from animals — leading many medieval theologians to say that the “image of God” is our capacity for rational thought. The problem with this explanation is that it raises the question of whether people whose mental faculties are diminished still bear the image of God, leading most scholars to reject this definition as inadequate.
A better definition comes from examining the Hebrew word for “image” that appears in Genesis — tselem. Interestingly, it’s a term that most often referred to statues or idols. When an ancient king conquered a foreign land, he would have tselem (statues, monuments) put in place as reminders of who was in charge. Coins, likewise, were stamped with the images of the rulers whose authority lay behind them.
And though we don’t see them as often in the modern West, idols were very commonplace in the ancient Near East. Idols served as image-bearers of pagan gods and goddesses, and it was often assumed by the idol-worshipers that whatever you did to the image, you did to the god.
To the Israelites, trying to make an idol to represent God was forbidden for two very important reasons: 1) The true God is too great to ever be adequately represented by a man-made, inanimate object, and 2) He doesn’t need images to be made for him, because he already has them. People are his images!
Simply by being what we are as humans, we serve as pointers to God’s presence in this world. We are icons of his rule and dominion, created to reign alongside him and carry out his purposes as his ambassadors here in creation. We are like statues pointing the world to its true King.
Only, because of sin, we’re also broken statues. The image is there, but it’s tarnished; it’s obscured by our sins, our selfishness, our injustice, and our evil. Or by the evil that has been done to us.
But the image is never totally removed. This is why every human being who’s ever lived is of the utmost value and dignity. How you treat them (or neglect them) matters deeply to God.
Because what you do to the image, you’ve done to God.
This is why Proverbs 19:17 (NLT) tells us that “If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord— and he will repay you!”
It’s why, in the New Testament, James warns us against the absurd hypocrisy of praising God one moment but then cursing people made in his image the next (see James 3:9-10).
And ultimately, it’s why Jesus tells us these powerful words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 CSB).
This Christmas, consider the impact of how you treat those around you — those people who, no matter how much they may rub you the wrong way, are nonetheless made in the image of God.
When you serve them, you serve Christ. When you bless them, you bring joy to Christ. When you mistreat or neglect them, you’ve mistreated the One whose image they bear.
For you have Christ in your neighbor. Will you serve him today?