What is Man?

January 21, 2011 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen Series: In the Beginning

Scripture: Genesis 1:26–27

There is a very important, very fundamental question which demands an answer. How we answer the question has huge consequences in almost every domain and realm of life. Here is the question: What is man?

It was 1969. I had transferred after one year in a Christian university to a state run university. I had decided to focus my studies in the fields of anthropology and sociology. My first class was Anthropology 101: Physical Anthropology. The professor stood up on the first day of class. His opening words were, “I am an evolutionist and I am an atheist.” In that class, we were offered an answer to the question: What is man? The answer was, “Man is an animal. He is a highly evolved animal, but he is simply an animal and a product of time and chance.”

If that is the correct answer to our question, it has profound implications. I soon discovered some of those implications. Not long afterward, I took a Sociology class, entitled Deviant Behavior. On the first day of class, the professor opened his lecture by telling us that there were no moral absolutes. There was no absolute standard of right and wrong. All things were relative. Since there were no absolute standards to deviate from, there was therefore no such thing as deviant behavior. The goal of the class, therefore, was to study behavior which society had traditionally labeled as deviant. We were embarking on this study, not to condemn such behavior (because how can we condemn it if it is not wrong and how can it be wrong if there is no absolute standard of right and wrong) but to try to understand the people who behaved in such ways.

If man is just an animal, as my first professor stated, it is very difficult to argue against the statements of the second professor that there are no moral absolutes. Why does it matter how an animal behaves? And to whom does it matter? Many of the students I attended class with took this teaching seriously. They lived out a very simple philosophy: “If it feels good, do it, as long as you don’t hurt anybody.” Although, it was never quite clear why one animal should be overly concerned about hurting another animal.

There is a great clash of cultures, world views and value systems occurring in our world today. We are bombarded with it every day. It is not new. It is as ancient as man. Fundamental to this clash is the question: What is man? Different people get their answer from different sources. As Bible-believing Christians, we look for answers from the Bible. No section of Scripture is more important or more fundamental in this regard than the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.

We spent the last two weeks looking at Genesis 1. Today we are looking at Genesis 2, particularly the section we read in our Scripture reading, Genesis 2:4-25. (If you are reading this online, please take the time to read Genesis 2:4-25.) The first thing we need to do is to deal with the question of the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, particularly as it pertains to the creation of man. Some scholars see these chapters as different and competing accounts of creation which someone has tried to blend into one. They are quick to highlight what they see as discrepancies in the accounts to fortify their theory. The answer, I believe, is much simpler. Moses is simply using a very common Hebrew form of writing, in which a story is first told in broad, general terms. The writer then comes back and tells the story again, this time focusing on a particular part of the larger story, and filling in the details. If we allow the author such stylistic freedom, the discrepancies are relatively easy to reconcile and I refer you to the commentaries of conservative scholars if you wish to study out the specifics.

So, in Genesis 1 the broad strokes of creation are described. The creation of man is declared, but little detail is given. The details of the creation of the first man and the first woman are given in Genesis 2. I do not propose to go through the chapter verse by verse. Rather, I have taken the information in both chapters to get the complete picture of the creation of man and to find the Biblical answer to our question: What is man? Actually it is going to take us several weeks to answer this question in its entirety. We will take the question in different parts. Today we will look at the question: What was man? Who were our first ancestors? What were they like in their original state? We’ll actually spend a couple weeks on this. Today we’ll focus on Adam alone. Next week we will look at Adam and Eve together and their relationship with each other. In future weeks we will go on to address the question: What happened? What went wrong? And what is man today?

The first phrase I want to examine is found in Genesis 2:7: the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground…

This is an intriguing thought. Man is made of very humble stuff. The translation “dust” does not truly do it justice. Nor does the word “mud” that some prefer. “Dirt” or “loose earth” probably more accurately captures the force of the original. Whatever the translation, it is still very humble, ordinary material. In fact I read a very interesting chemical analysis of the raw materials of the human body by a Dr. Charles Mayo:

“You would need enough potassium for one shot of a toy cap pistol, enough fat for 7 bars of soap, enough iron for 1 large nail, enough sulphur to delouse a dog, enough lime to whitewash a chicken coup, enough magnesia for one dose of medicine and enough phosphorus for a few boxes of matches! The total purchase would not fill more than a couple grocery bags.”  And by the way, if you were to purchase the raw materials, it would cost you less than 30 dirhams.

We are made from the earth. In fact there is a play on words in the Hebrew text in the assigning of the name “Adam” as the generic name for “man.” The word for “man” is “Adam” and the word for “earth” is “Adamah.” So Adam was formed from the dirt of the Adamah.

Such humble raw material only adds to our amazement as the rest of the account unfolds before us. Let me give you a series of phrases distilled from Genesis 1 and 2 to answer the question: What was man?

The first one, then, is: 1. Made of dirt. But now let us complete the picture.

2. Created in the image of God.

For this one, we jump back to Genesis 1:26-27:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Entire books have been written on the subject of the “imago Dei” or the image of God in man. In what way was man made like God? We can first of all rule out any physical resemblance, because God is not physical. He is a spirit. So the image of God must relate to the invisible, intangible part of man. The theologians often explain that the image of God in man consisted of two elements. The first is a natural likeness to God; the components of personality such as self consciousness and self awareness, thought, knowledge, feelings and will. God certainly has these and he imparted them to Adam as part of his image. With the human will or capacity of choice, we encounter the reality of man as a moral being, who has freedom of choice and therefore carries responsibility for those choices. Man also contains the dimension of spirit or spirituality which equips him for communion and relation with God who is spirit. The second element of the image of God which the theologians identify in man in his original state was a moral likeness to God. The capacity for choice that we described a moment ago was set in a default position toward holiness. Since God himself is holy, he made man with a bent toward holiness.

The third statement is that man was 3. Crafted by the hand of God.

Genesis 2:7 again: the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground… The word for “formed” is the same word used to describe the work of a potter as he shapes clay, or of a carver as he carves an image from a piece of wood. How the God who is spirit took the earth and shaped it will remain a mystery to us. When we speak of the hand of God, we are clearly using a figure of speech, representing God as though he were a man and had a body. But the figure is used to portray an important reality; that is the care and time and attention he spent on this particular act of creation. I personally believe the Bible’s account that the first human being was a unique act of creation by God, and that he was complete in every part as a perfect man when God had completed his work.

In Psalm 139:13-14 the psalmist describes the forming of a baby in the womb in these words:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

The first man was shaped by God from the dirt. Each subsequent human being is knit together in the womb. The Bible credits God as the active, creative artist in each case. And everyone who has ever cradled a new born baby knows he does great work. As the psalmist says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Made from dirt, but carefully and beautifully crafted by God into something incredibly wonderful. Remember that chemical analysis of the elements in the human body I quoted a few minutes ago? Compare that to this analysis of the structure of one piece of human skin just 4 centimeters square: Three million cells, one meter of blood vessels, four meters of nerves, 100 sweat glands, 15 oil glands, and 25 nerve endings. That is a very complex piece of dirt.

The fourth descriptive phrase we can distill from these chapters is 4. Animated by the breath of God. 7 The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. The most natural sense of the root word for “breathed” is “to blow forcibly.” The picture that comes to my mind is that of a paramedic doing mouth to mouth resuscitation on a drowning victim. It is an active, forceful act. Once again we must allow for the figure of speech employed, as God is not a physical being. But the figure is employed to communicate that God imparted something very essential and real of himself into the perfectly formed body of Adam, and he began to breathe. He became a living being. This is unique in the creation. God also made the animals “living beings”, but he did not breathe his own breath, his own essence into them. Only into man.

The fifth phrase we can extract from these chapters is that man was 5. Made to rule. God gave man dominion over the rest of his creation. Once again we turn back to Genesis 1:26: 6 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Verse 28 repeats the same theme:

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The word “to rule” means to have dominion over. It is clear that God put man over all the other creatures to rule the earth. From the verses in Genesis 1 alone, we might come away with a sense of uncontrolled domination. But in Genesis 2, we find that sense tempered when we see God’s instructions to Adam in regard to the Garden of Eden. I believe God’s instructions for Adam concerning the Garden portray God’s intention of the kind of dominion and rule he desired man to exercise over the earth. Look at Genesis 2:15:  15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. It was intended to be a dominion of care and nurture and tending. But while the words and the commission of God in chapter 1 may need to be tempered and understood by God’s later instructions in chapter 2, let us not shy away from the awesome privilege and responsibility which God gave to man. Man was the very pinnacle of God’s creation. God put man on earth to rule. God gave man authority over all the other creatures he had made.

As we consider the question, what is man and the answers we have found so far, it is truly an awesome progression. Made of dirt, yet made in the image of God, crafted by the hand of God, animated by the breath of God, and made to rule over the world and its creatures. It is this stunning contrast that so overwhelmed the psalmist in Psalm 8:3-9

3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Made of dirt. In size, so small compared to the vastness of the heavens. Yet God assigned man a place only a little lower than the angels. He crowned mankind with glory and honor and put all of creation under his feet. Made of the dust, but intended for glory.

At this point, we must pause. Most of us know how the story unfolds in Genesis 3. We know that man today is not what God intended. In future weeks we will look at what went wrong, and the realities of what man is today. But even as we cast our thought forward, I believe that we will find that what went wrong for the human race was the result of a distortion of how God made man and what God gave man when he created him.

There is a truth and a reality about the glory of the first man which must be held in proper proportion and in proper tension with the rest of what is revealed in the opening chapters of Genesis. Yes, man was made and intended for glory. But we must always, always, always keep in mind that man’s glory was a derived glory. Remember God’s words in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image.”The original was God. Adam was but the image. God was the reality. Adam was the mirror. God was the sun. Adam was the moon. Man was intended to be God’s self-portrait on earth. It was a glorious role to play. But man’s glory was a derived glory. The true glory was always intended to go to the Original, of which man was only the image, and to the Artist who shaped man from the dirt. That is why the psalmist concludes his marveling over the glory and honor of man with the words:    O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The second thing we must keep in mind as we consider the truth that man was made to rule is that man’s authority was a delegated authority. It was never intended to be an absolute authority. It is not an authority to be exercised at our own whim and for our own pleasure. Even as God put mankind on the throne of the world, so to speak, he quickly moved to establish another fundamental reality of the human race. Look at verse 16: And the Lord God commanded the man.

We are going to look more closely at the command itself in a future sermon. But the first part of the verse is what I want to focus on today. “God commanded the man.” It is the first use of the word “command” in the Bible. But here it is in chapter 2, clearly establishing God’s authority over Adam. Man may rule over the earth, but God rules over man. God has the absolute right as the Creator to rule over that which he has made. God made man. God has the right to rule over man. And so he issued this first command to Adam. This simple act establishes a very important element in the universe’s chain of command.  

There is one more reality about man which we will take up next week. Man is made for relationship. In verse 18 we read: The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. That will be the focus of our message next week.

But for today we have enough to digest and think about. What is man? Is he just an animal, as I was taught in university? Or is he something more? Is man the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, as the poet writes? Is man just a nameless cog in a mechanized universe, playing out a role determined by an impersonal fate? Are we simply traveling souls, migrating through many lives, up or down based on karma? People may answer the question in different ways. But here is beginning of the Biblical answer. To understand what man is, we must understand what he was in his original state. Made of dirt, but intended for glory. What a glorious creature was Adam, as he awoke and blinked in the light of the sun; as he stood and took his first steps. We don’t know what Adam’s first words were, but I would assert that his very first words were words of prayer; for whom was there to speak to but God himself? Made of dirt, but created in the image of God. Made of dirt, but crafted by the hand of God. Made of dirt but animated by the breath of God. Made of dirt, but made to rule over the rest of creation.

What a glorious beginning! What astounding origins! In the weeks to come, we will continue to pursue the question: What is man? But in going back to the beginning, we gain very important clues to who we are today. If we know what man was like in the beginning, we can more appropriately mourn that which has been lost. And if we know what man was in the beginning, we can get glimmers of our potential and of what we can be again.

And I believe we have discovered very important clues to man’s fall and to man’s present dilemma. We have also discovered important sign posts to the journey back to man’s intended role. It lies in the recognition that, even in his original state, man’s glory was a derived glory. Man’s authority was a delegated authority. Man’s place in the world was truly astounding, awesome, breath taking. But it was always second place. The first place in glory and in authority belonged then and belongs now to our Creator.

As a result of the Fall, man tried and continues to try to overturn that fundamental reality of the universe. Man reached out and grabbed for first place. He sought for a glory of his own. He reached out to assert his own authority and to be like God. Mankind and the creation have suffered under the repercussions of Adam and Eve’s choice ever since. That is what is wrong with us and with our world. But it also gives us the clue to the way back. The path back lies in the reestablishing of that fundamental chain of command. The glory belongs to God. The authority belongs to God and to God alone. We live in a broken world, but we can begin the healing in our own lives and in our own spheres of influence when we recognize that fact and begin to order our lives accordingly.

The journey begins by acknowledging our own brokenness and rebellion against the rule of God in our lives. It continues by placing our faith in the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shed his blood to redeem us from our sins. We are then free to go on, under the ministry of the Holy Spirit to become the people God desires us to be, and to take our rightful role in the universe. Paul describes the journey this way in II Corinthians 3:18: And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. That is the way back.

The first question in the Westminster Catechism asks: What is the chief and highest end of man? The answer to the question is: Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

Our glory is to reflect his glory and to portray his image. Our honor is to reflect his honor. It was so in the beginning. It is now. And so it shall be in eternity. Let us begin now, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to reflect God’s glory on earth as his agents; agents of his glory in our families, our neighborhoods, our classrooms, our offices and wherever he places us.


  1. What are some common answers to the question: What is man?

  2. Discuss the implications of several of the answers you have given. (e.g. How would believing that man is _____ affect a person’s view of morality, self image, view of other people, etc.)

  3. In looking at the Biblical account of the origin of man, what are some possible implications of these statements from Pastor Cam’s sermon?

    - Made of mud

    - Created in the image of God

    - Crafted by the hand of God

    - Animated by the breath of God

    - Made to rule

  4. Read Psalm 8. How does this psalm make you feel as you read it?

  5. A clear understanding of the origin of man leads to the realization that man’s glory is a derived glory and man’s authority is a delegated authority. What happened when man departed from this truth? (Genesis 3) In what ways does the world ignore or defy this truth today?

  6. “Genesis 1-2 not only gives a glimpse of what man was (before the Fall) but also a glimmer of what we can be again.” Why are both perspectives important? What steps can we take to progress in that journey (to “what we can be again”) in your daily life now?


More in In the Beginning

May 27, 2011

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May 20, 2011

I Will Make a Covenant with You

May 13, 2011

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