We are, today, beginning a series of messages drawn from some of the major themes in the book of Genesis. Our text for today is one of the Bible’s most familiar texts: 1:1.
Preparing for this series of messages has been far more challenging than I expected. Though the book is the foundation of many Sunday School lessons, it is a deep book, that requires intense study. The return for the effort is rich. So come along and let’s look at a book many of us tend to overlook or find hard to fit into our understanding.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day. And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
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.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 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.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
The book of Genesis, especially the stories of primeval events in chapters 1-11 stir up all kinds of controversy. People who read these passages tend to fall to one of two opinions with regard to them:
a. They read them as mythical stories that teach but that should not be taken as factual, OR
b. They read them over-literally, forcing all kinds of meaning onto the text that is not warranted by careful study of the culture and context of their first writing by Moses.
I invite you to another way. To the way of understanding that is opened by the Holy Spirit. We need to study and understand Genesis. If we do not know or believe the great, sweeping themes that are introduced in chapters 1, 2, and 3 - the rest of the Bible doesn’t make much sense! I hope that the ’why’ behind that statement becomes obvious in the next few weeks.
It is tragic that so many Christians avoid this book, or read it superficially, because of the perceived conflict between what they learn in science classes and what they find in the holy text. It is doubly tragic that so many people hear the stories of Creation, Fall, Flood, and patriarchs of Israel in Sunday School with great faith, but then, on reaching high school and developing a more sophisticated view of the world, discard those great lessons as childhood stories and old religious legends! More people take a walk from church over Genesis than over the Gospels! That is, I repeat, tragic.
IF Genesis is read with understanding much of the tension is drained away and great faith is strengthened by the foundational concepts in its pages!
One writer says, "It is easy for the modern reader of Genesis to feel lost ...between genealogies, the obscure, and the mythological. Emerging from the overgrown wood of antiquity into the modern era, we become mired in the bog of science and sociology." (1)
Mistakenly, we make this book a story of men: Adam, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. It is not. It is the story of God. We must not read it simply as history, nor must we allow ourselves to apply the lens of myth to the stories when they stretch our modern minds! That is not to say these chapters are not historical. The integrity of Scripture requires that we accept by faith that God gave us these passages to teach us about real people and events, but not primarily to provide full and/or detailed accounts of human history. I repeat - He is telling "His-story!"
If we attempt to make the first 11 chapters of Genesis say things God did not intend the text to say, if we force a 21st century mindset onto these passages, we will find ourselves troubled by a thousand questions and thus we will feel we must choose between science and the Bible. So many have constructed a conflict between science and Scripture. That is wrong. The Scripture teaches us truth. Science helps us to discover truth. Since, truth is God’s domain; all truth is God’s truth!
As we approach Genesis, we read it wrong if we believe there is a choice to be make between faith and science. The two dialogue with each other and inform each other. Science is not the enemy of the text. Some, who say they are scientists may be enemies of the text. Naturalism is an enemy of this text; naturalism being that point of view that all things can be explained within a closed universe apart from the super-natural. A naturalist makes a faith-based assumption in his own world view. He presumes there is no One greater than himself or greater than the observable world of which he is a part. That is an unprovable theory, thus one of faith.
Then, too, there are the so-called ’scientific Creationists’ who demand that Genesis say things that neither Moses nor the Israelites expected it to say. Mark Noll, in his splendid book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, laments that too frequently Christians who attempt to defend the Bible text, are all too often defending the wrong things! He writes,
"Millions of evangelical Christians think they are defending the Bible by defending creation science, but in reality they are giving ultimate authority to an interpretation of the Bible that arose during the mania for science at the end of the 19th century."
If we set up an unnecessary either/or choice between so-called ’Bible science’ and the science of a high school or college classroom, we risk losing many of our young people from the Christian faith at that moment when they are convinced that the Bible is an unbelievable collection of myths. It is not inquiry by honest minds that threaten the Bible. It is the teaching that emanates from those who worship naturalism and a false science that excludes the possibility of God from their study that we must question or from those who twist the text to fit their own preconceptions of dogma. It is tragic to REDUCE the Bible to a mere textbook of history or science. It contains both history and science, but it is, first and foremost, a HOLY BOOK that reveals God to His Creation!
Genesis comes alive when we realize that as Moses wrote these words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he was not writing into a world empty of other ideas or stories. It may surprise you to learn that cultures older than that of the Jews had stories of creation, of human rebellion, and of a great flood. The ancient world, where Moses and the newly born nation of Israel lived, was filled with stories about gods and their works. These gods were fickle and a reflection of the humans that worshiped them. These gods needed to be prodded and prompted to take care of their creation. They needed to be reminded to bring about the cycles of the seasons. They had to be bribed and bought so they would do good and not evil to the people who believed that they lived by the whims of these many gods.
These stories were influential in the minds of the Israelites, to whom Moses was writing. They needed a correct view of God IF they hoped to serve Him and do His work on the earth, thus God inspires Moses to record ’His-story’ for His people. He wanted them to know who He truly was, the one true God, the loving God, a God who blessed, the Creator.
The accounts we read in the first 11 chapters of Genesis lay a foundation for blessings and they taught the Israelites to trust a worthy God who did not share the Heavens with lesser gods. The blessings and covenants that come to Abraham and his family in later chapters come from a God who shows Himself to be much different than the false gods of the surrounding cultures. A whole new world-view emerged from these holy words. A new nation named Israel, a new religion named Judaism - the foundation for life as we in the Western World know it today - rests squarely on the book of Genesis!
What does the text say to you and to me that serves as a foundation for our faith?
1. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth...." The opening words make a statement that explains why He must be revered. He is the Source!
The Hebrew for this phrase, ’in the beginning,’ certainly can mean exactly what many of think as we read the phrase in our English Bible - namely, the first thing was God making the world. But Moses’ intent is more clearly hinted at in the translation of The Message -- "First this, God created the heaven and the earth."
Moses is calling on the Israelites, and by extension, calling us to get something of first order in our minds - God is the Source of the universe, the One who set it in place. As the Source, He also is rightly Ruler and Judge.
Moses calls on the Israelites to set aside all other gods as a matter of logic and reason.
Wouldn’t it be foolish to worship to have any other gods, if they could know the God who is the source of all things?
Why worship gods identified with rivers, mountains, sun, moon, stars, or animals if you can know and worship the one true God who made rivers, mountains, heavenly bodies, and the animals that live in the world?
Our faith, unlike that of the ancient Israelite, is not tested by false gods in nature. It is atheistic naturalism that would derail us. A religion that is wrapped in scientific terminology tries to turn us from the Living God. It is a religion that ’worships’ the natural world and the incomplete knowledge of humanity.
Naturalism promulgates the great lie is that we are our own gods! There is none greater. Life is a series of accidents and we arrived at our place purely by accident and random selection. IF that is the truth, then the strong can surely exploit the weak, it is their right. If there is no God that stands apart from and above the natural world, then there is no compelling reason to submit to moral order. Why not take what is ours to seize? Why not enjoy the fruits of life to the full without regard for compassion?
If you wish to see what a culture based on atheism looks like, take a close at the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China! When man became his own god, evil rose up and death reigned! The emptiness of our own culture and the fanatical emphasis on sexual pleasure and materialism is the result of throwing God aside. Without an understanding that "in the beginning, God created..." life becomes empty of meaning beyond the survival of our genetic code!
The only reason we have not descended into total social chaos is that a righteous remnant remains and an echo of truth continues to be heard.
You have two choices of faith before you today:
1. You may choose naturalism which denies all supernaturalism, insisting the universe is a closed system without first cause or Intelligent Designer. If this is your faith choice, you are your own god! What a hopeless situation. OR
2. You may choose to believe the declaration that opens the Holy Bible - "in the beginning, God...." and then set out to know Him and serve Him, finding life for here and for eternity.
The second foundation of faith is equally powerful.... V. 2
2. God, the Source is also God of Order and Design.
Genesis does not offer an explanation about why the earth was, in the primeval moments, a place of chaos. But the clear intent is to transmit to us that without God, there is only bleakness, barrenness, and darkness. Moses teaches the Israelites that their God is the One who put in place all the good things they enjoyed in this world. In subsequent verses, we see Him as God of Light; God of sky and sea; God of land and vegetation; God of the heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars; God of animals of the sea and the land; God of a fruitful and replenished earth, and finally as God of the human beings He made to be like Himself in will, purpose, intellect, and creative impulse!
The pagan cultures that surrounded the Israelites with their little gods, and yes, the naturalists that exclude God from our world today, live in a frightening place that can be bleak, barren, and dark. But Genesis 1, presents a different picture that brings HOPE.
There is a God who is drawing ORDER from the chaos! There is a God who has purpose, who governs time and space. He is present by His Spirit and powerful through His Word and we can KNOW Him.
The Israelites could see the order of creation which Moses taught them came from the same God who was now seeking to give order to their lives both individually and as a nation through the orderly principles of the Law that would teach them how to live together as the holy people of the living God who enjoyed His favor and blessings.
To us, these words, Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said. . . form the foundation for faith in our own redemption. If He orders the earth and presents us with beauty, with predictable seasons, and observable cycles in daily patterns, can we not trust Him to make sense of our lives and to give us purposeful existence?
Finally, we jump to the end of our text - (Genesis 2:1-3)
3. God completed the work and then made it sacred to Himself.
The word, ’rested’ which we read in that passage is the translation of the Hebrew, shawbat, meaning, ceased or finished. From that Hebrew root, we get our word - Sabbath.
It is a mistake to read ’rest’ with the sense that God was exhausted by all He had done and so He collapsed on the couch and let the world go by! Moses wrote that in this ’rest,’ God declared His work complete. Moses goes on to say that God’s ceasing from His creative work was marked by holy celebration. The pattern of 6 days to work at life, and one to cease from those works to focus on God became one of the key marks of the Israelites that set them aside from the pagan cultures around them! The celebration of the Sabbath, one day in seven, caused them to consciously remember that they were the work of God, that they and all they had accomplished, were His, the result of His blessings. They had a recurrent holy celebration that formed the basis of their calendar and kept them constantly reminded of God’s Presence and Provision.
As Christians, we do not scrupulously observe the Sabbath law, but we are called to enter into the same kind of rest. The writer of Hebrews holds out to every Believer the Sabbath promise of God. In the 4th chapter of that book, we read, Heb 4:1 .. .since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. If we had time to read in the context, we would find that because of the work of Jesus Christ, we Christian believers are privileged to live as God’s holy people every day in this world. There is no longer one holy day in the week, but all days are holy and we can enter into the completed work of God through Christ as we respond to His presence with obedient faith day by day. There are no longer endless rules and holy works to be done to remain in God’s favor. We are saved completely by Christ and thus we ’rest’ or cease from our own works, to live at peace in His love.
What a grand chapter! The narrative declares one great truth:
God, by His powerful Word, transforms the chaos into a blessed and holy Creation!
The challenge today - will you live obedient to His powerful Word?
Will you allow the One who brought forth the universe to bring forth righteousness in your life?
Will you trust Him who called order out of chaos, who ordered the worlds, to call your life into meaningful purpose?
Will you look to the One who completed creation and rested, to bring you to completion and to give you a Sabbath rest?
1. The New NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, John H. Walton
Jerry D. Scott © 2003