August 29, 2004

MAJESTIC MAN

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. Psalm 8:5

The Olympic Games can be mighty exciting, and Olympic athletes can be mighty impressive. But there’s one big problem: Olympic organizers shut out all the best athletes. And I’m not just talking about steroid users who were banned. None of the world’s best athletes competed in the Olympics. There are millions of athletes on this planet who can run faster, swim faster, soar higher, and swing more gracefully than any Olympic athlete. People competing in the Olympics aren’t even close to being the world’s best athletes.

If you think Olympic sprinters are the fastest in the world, think again! How would the world’s fastest man do against a cheetah? If you think Olympic swimmers are the fastest in the world, dream on. They wouldn’t have a chance if dolphins were allowed in the competition. In high jumping, if an Olympian cleared nine feet, he would be praised as the most amazing athlete ever. But any hawk or eagle hovering hundreds of feet in the sky would see nine feet as a joke. The gymnastics performances at the Olympics are pretty good for humans, but monkeys can swing and flip far better than any human gymnast.

Athletes basking in Olympic glory are lucky that the real athletes weren’t allowed to compete. Many of us go crazy over athletics and sports heroes, especially during the Olympics. It’s humbling to get a dose of reality and realize what poor athletes we humans are, compared to many animals.

Our physical limits are obvious compared to animals, and it’s even more humbling to measure ourselves against the wider universe. Has anyone high-jumped the North Star lately? Has any sprinter matched the speed of light? Has any distance runner made it from one galaxy to another?

Sometimes we need to step back from things that seem like a big deal to us and look at the big picture. Television zeroes in on athletic competition and makes it seem big and important, but TV gives the small picture. If you shut off your TV, go outside, and look at the sky, you start to see a bigger picture. You start to realize how tiny you are. A person who jumps a few feet or runs a few miles isn’t very big on a planet that’s about 25,000 miles around. And the planet itself is puny compared to the vast expanse of the stars. A fly buzzing around an Olympic stadium is much bigger compared to that stadium than planet earth is compared to the universe.

Who Are We?

Now, given the fact that we live in a universe much bigger than we are and on a planet populated by billions of living things besides ourselves—many of which can do certain things better than we can—what do we amount to? What is man? Who are we?

There’s more than one way to answer that question. One place to start might be to ask a famous astronomer. Carl Sagan spent much of his life gazing at stars and galaxies and thinking about human beings in light of that. What was his conclusion? He said, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Doesn’t that sound depressing? Sagan used words like “insignificant,” “humdrum,” “forgotten.” Those words aren’t exactly uplifting or inspiring. But they’re not exactly true, either. Sagan was right that we’re small—that much is true—but does that mean we’re insignificant?  We’re limited, but does that make us humdrum? In terms of size, we’re a tiny speck in a vast universe, but does that mean we’re forgotten? Size isn’t everything. A garbage dump is bigger than a diamond, but which is more valuable, a diamond or a dump?

We are tiny humans in a huge cosmos. We’re miniscule—but we’re also majestic. I’m not saying that just to make us feel better about ourselves. I say it because God says so. You and I and even Olympic athletes may not be athletic compared to some animals, we may not be big compared to galaxies, but our majesty can’t be measured by size or athletics. It’s measured by who God is and by what he makes of us.

Our answer to the question, “What is man?” depends on what assumptions we start out with. People like Carl Sagan start by assuming that the cosmos is all that was or is or ever will be. They see how puny we are in a cosmos where everything is measured in light years and counted in billions and trillions, and so they conclude that in the long history and vast immensity of the cosmos, we don’t amount to much. They assumed that man is just a tiny, accidental product of random evolution. As Professor George Gaylord Simpson put it, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

The Bible, however, starts with a different assumption—not that the cosmos is all that was or is or ever will be, but that there is an infinite God who exists above and beyond and before the cosmos. The Bible says that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). The Bible teaches not that man is the unplanned product of a mindless process but that God made humanity, male and female, in his own image (Genesis 1:27).

The vastness of God’s creation and the variety of his creatures show us our smallness and weakness, but they also show us the majesty of the One who made all these things. And once we realize how majestic God is, we begin to realize how majestic we are. We’re not great or powerful in and of ourselves, but the Creator has made us in his image and—small though we are—has crowned us with glory and honor.

What Is Man?

The Bible expresses this beautifully in Psalm 8. Psalm 8 begins in praises of God. It then shows that tiny, weak people have a huge place in God’s plan. And it ends the way it began, in praise of God. It’s not a long psalm, so let me read it for you:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:3-9)

There are folks who talk as though the telescope and the discoveries of astronomy about the size of the universe force us to take a low view of earth and of humankind. But is it really a modern discovery to learn that the universe is vast and that humanity is tiny by comparison? Of course not! King David wrote Psalm 8 three thousand years ago. When he looked at the sky and the stars, he felt puny. He couldn’t help wondering what humanity amounted to, and he asked, “What is man?”

But David’s answer to that question was different than Carl Sagan’s. Why? Not because Sagan knew the stars better but because David knew God better.

David knew a Reality far greater than the cosmos. He knew the Lord God Almighty. David was as awestruck as any astronomer by the size and splendor of universe, but he saw it all as the work of God’s fingers. God’s fingers can make a galaxy as easily as a child’s fingers make a mud pie. David knew that this awesome universe is the handiwork of an infinitely more awesome God.

The vastness of the universe made David feel like a midget, but it also made him feel magnificent, for he knew that of all the marvelous things God has created, the one God cares about most is humanity. It’s amazing that the God of galaxies would care so much about puny little people, but it’s true. Psalm 8 shows that one human being matters more to God than a thousand galaxies. And it also shows that although God made a wonderful variety of animals (and made many of them better athletes than any human), yet God made us rulers over the other creatures and values us more than all of them.

Magnificent man—that’s what I am. That’s what you are. Think of it! Made in God’s image, crowned with glory, designed to glorify God and enjoy him forever! It’s astonishing to know that we’re made a little lower than the angels. It’s even more astonishing that in Jesus Christ, humanity is promoted above angels. What a magnificent identity!

Image Is Everything?

With all the talk about self-esteem these days, I’m afraid most of us don’t have a clue about our true majesty. Why not? Because we don’t focus on our Maker or on his intent for us. We focus more on image, on appearances or on what our society glorifies. Some of us base our self-esteem on things like athletic talent, but that’s a mistake. For one thing, most of us aren’t Olympic-caliber athletes, so if our value depends on athleticism, we don’t amount to much. But even if you’re a world-class athlete in a human competition, the fact remains that a great many animals are better athletes than even the best of us.

Others of us base our idea of what makes a person great on fame and public image. Most of us aren’t very famous, however; most of us never appear on TV; so what do we amount to? And for those few who do get really famous, how great are they really? Many famous people aren’t famous for anything heroic they’ve done. They’re famous for being famous. They’re admired for an image that has nothing to do with who they really are.

Tom Cruise has made millions as a movie star. He has an image of being strong and romantic. But what has he actually accomplished? In the movies he may be a deadly secret agent or a mighty warrior, but in reality Tom Cruise is a guy who puts on makeup and does a lot of pretending in front of a camera. In the movies Tom Cruise is the ultimate lover who could make any woman happy; in reality he hasn’t been able to make a woman happy long enough to keep a marriage going. But we’re so crazy about movie stars that we think men in makeup are macho and that stars who go through a trail of ruined relationships are romantic.

Now, I’m not knocking Tom Cruise or any other celebrity. I’m just knocking the way many of us tend to worship famous people. Most celebrities would agree that the way people think of them has nothing to do with who they really are as persons. They find it laughable that people make such a big deal of them. They’re not really any different from the rest of us. Tom Cruise and his fellow actors have many of the same struggles we have, and they have the same value and dignity as human beings made in God’s image. Any magnificence they possess has more to do with the image of God in them than with the image the public has of them.

Why are we so obsessed with famous people? I think it’s because we need to worship someone, and if we don’t worship God, we’ll worship someone who appears on TV and in the tabloids a bit more often than God does. Why are we so desperate for some link with famous people that we’ll do almost anything to meet them in person or buy some of their junk or wear their brand of athletic shoes? We want to take part in their glory—and that’s because we’re designed to take part in someone else’s glory. But we’re designed to take part in the glory of God himself, not just the glory of some celebrity.

Higher Expectations

Christians are sometimes accused of having too low a view of human beings because we criticize celebrity worship and phony ideas about self-esteem and especially because we talk so much about human sin and failure. But the fact is that the Christian who talks about sin has a higher view of what it means to be human than the person who talks only about self-esteem. The Christian who speaks of humanity as a miserable failure usually has a higher view of what it means to be human than those who say that humanity is a great success.

“How can that be?” you might ask. “How can you say that speaking of failure shows a higher view of humanity than talking about success?” Think of it this way. Suppose there’s a teenage boy who can jump higher than anybody in his school. His friends are always telling him what a fabulous high jumper he is. Then along comes an Olympic gold medalist in the high jump who tells the boy, “I’d like to work with you, but I’ll tell you right up front, you’ve got to change. Your technique is awful. I can see that you were born to be a leaper, but you’re doing it all wrong. You’ve got to let me help you. You’re never going to win an Olympic medal if you keep doing it like that.”

Now, who has a higher view of that boy? His friends who praise him constantly because he’s the best of a mediocre bunch? Or the Olympic medalist who tells the boy that his bad form is ruining his Olympic-caliber talent? The medalist! He may have a low view of the boy’s performance, but that’s only because he has such high standards and such a high view of how the boy is put together and of what he could yet become. Indeed, the very fact that an Olympic medalist would take an interest the boy at all, if only to criticize him, is a greater tribute to the boy than the highest praise of all his unathletic friends.

In the same way, when God speaks in the Bible of human sin and failure, it’s not because his view of humanity is so much lower than those who say how wonderful and successful we all are, but because his view of humanity is so much higher. God expects so much more of us than we dare to expect of ourselves. We think we’re successful if we look good or run fast or make a bit of money or have a nice family and live a decent life. But if that’s all we do, says God, we’re miserable failures. We’ll never live in his presence or reflect his glory or judge the angels or rule over the universe if we keep that up.

The Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). You might take that statement as an insult and a blow to your precious self-esteem. But the fact that God takes us seriously at all and that he holds us to the standard of his glory and not to some lower standard—that says something mind-boggling about what we were designed to be and what we may yet become, by God’s grace. It is in knowing the majesty of God and in knowing that we were created to reflect his majesty that we know how horribly we fail and fall short. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”–the fact that God even bothers to show us this is a higher compliment than any flattery for any of our trivial achievements.

Crowned With Glory

In Hebrews chapter 2, written after the coming of Jesus, the Bible quotes from Psalm 8 and says, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” Hebrews 2 then says, “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that was not subject to him.” What an astonishing statement!

Hebrews 2 then adds a strong dose of realism and says, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.” Isn’t that the truth! We don’t see humanity shining with God’s glory. We see sin and nastiness and people settling for their own comfort zone with no ambition to glorify God and be like him. We don’t everything subject to humanity. We see puny people struggling against the vast universe around them and eventually losing as they die and return to dust. So are all these big ideas about our created splendor and our glorious destiny just an empty dream? Is it really true that God has left nothing that is not subject to man, when at present we don’t see everything subject to man?

Here’s how Hebrews 2 deals with these questions. It says, “God left nothing that is not subject to [man]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:8-9). It is in Jesus that the riddle of our misery and our majesty is solved. It is in Jesus that our sin is removed and our bondage to death is reversed. It is in Jesus that we become majestic once again, renewed in the image of God, reigning with him.

In Psalm 8 David expressed amazement that the God of galaxies would care about puny people. But if that’s amazing, how about what happens in Jesus? How about the God of galaxies actually joining himself to humanity? A human like me—this tiny little creature called man who can’t dream of outrunning a cheetah or traveling to a star—the infinite Creator of cheetahs and stars has become one of us! Indeed, he became one of the least of us. The God who uses the praise of babies to silence his enemies—this God became a baby himself, lying in a manger. This baby grew up to be a penniless person of no fixed address, winning no medals, taking over no governments, and ending up despised and dead, nailed to a cross. But this crucified carpenter rose from the dead and returned to his rightful place above the angels and above all things.

Jesus has been crowned with glory and honor, and all who belong to him are crowned with glory and honor along with him. The Bible says that God has seated believers with Christ in the heavenly realms and that we will reign over the universe forever with him. At present we don’t see humanity as it ought to be, and we don’t see all things subject to humanity, as they ought to be. But we see Jesus, the majestic man whose majesty is one with God.

Do you see it all now? Do you see that you’re not just the smartest of the animals, but that you’re created to be the image of God? Do you see how unimportant so many of your activities are, compared to your calling to fellowship with the eternal God and to show forth his glory? Do you see how terribly you have fallen short of that glory? Do you see why it is so wrong and so tragic for you to ignore or dishonor the Almighty? And, most important, do you see Jesus? Do you see him as the One who died to pay for your sin? Do you see him as the One who conquered death and was crowned with glory and honor? Do you trust him as the one who crowns you with glory and honor?

Just before Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd that was calling for his crucifixion and said, “Behold, the man.” Pilate was saying more than he realized. “Behold, the man.” Jesus is the man, the perfect man, the image of God, made lower than angels, brought lower than the lowest sinner, but now risen, crowned with glory and honor, and ruling over all things.

What is man? Jesus is man! Behold the man! Trust in him, and you will become truly human. Behold the man, and you’ll see how you can shine with the glory of the infinite God. Behold the man, and when you see Jesus for who he is and for what he can make of you, you will exclaim, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.