The book of beginnings
I’ve said before that the book of Genesis is the book of beginnings. It’s the beginning of the Bible. And, of course, the Bible tells us what we’re to believe about God. And we begin to learn about God in the book of Genesis.
Genesis also tells us about the beginning of the world. In chapter 1 we read that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And then he took what he had made and he began to shape it and to fill it with living creatures that fly in the sky and swim in the sea and live on the land. Genesis tells us about the beginning of the world.
And, of course, in the book of Genesis we have the beginning of the gospel. In chapter 3 Adam disobeyed the Lord’s clear command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And so, he broke the covenant of life which God had established with Adam and with all of us through Adam. And therefore Adam and all his descendants after him fell into that state of sin and misery which our Catechism describes so clearly for us. But remember? God did not leave us in our sin and misery. Instead he promised to send us a Redeemer to deliver us from it and to bring us into a state of salvation. And the gospel is announced in chapter 3 verse 15 where God promises that one of Eve’s offspring, one of her descendants — and the Lord God was talking about Jesus Christ — one of Eve’s descendants will come and crush the devil. So, in the book of Genesis we have the beginning of the gospel.
We also see the beginning of God’s chosen people, this line of true believers which runs throughout the Bible. There’s Abel whose offering was accepted by God. Then there was Seth, born after Abel’s death. Then there was Noah, the one man who was righteous in the sight of God and therefore he, and his family, were saved from the flood. Then we should mention Abraham who believed God’s promises and so he was counted righteous in the sight of the Lord. And then there was his son, Isaac. And from Isaac came two sons, Esau and Jacob. But even though Esau was the elder son, God chose Jacob and Jacob, not Esau, became the father of the Israelites. So, in the book of Genesis we read about the beginnings of God’s chosen people, the church of Jesus Christ.
And we also read about the beginning of the conflict between the church and the world, between the line of believers and the line of unbelievers. So, godly Abel was killed by his brother Cain. Abraham faced many dangers during his life from various unbelievers, but the Lord preserved him from them all. Isaac was hated by his half-brother, Ishmael. Esau hated his brother Jacob. And later we can think of the way the Lord’s people were hated by the Egyptians. And, of course, this conflict between the church and the world, the line of believers and the line of unbelievers, continues to this day. And we read about its beginnings in the book of Genesis
So, Genesis is the book of beginnings. And today we begin a series of sermons on this great book.
Well, as we turn to Genesis 1, let me begin by making a couple of other introductory points. First of all, a word about its author and its first readers.
If you read some of the modern commentaries, you’ll see that there are long debates about who wrote the book of Genesis and the other four books that make up what’s known as the Pentateuch or the books of the Law. That is, the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And there are all kinds of theories about who wrote these books. Now, there’s no need to go into these theories this evening because the fact of the matter is that, according to the New Testament, the Pentateuch was written by Moses. Let me give you just one example of what the New Testament says. In Luke 24, the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples and he opened their minds to understand the Old Testament Scriptures so that they would understand that his death and resurrection were all announced beforehand in the pages of the Bible. And this is what he said:
These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.
What did he mean by the Law of Moses? He meant the first five books of the Bible including the book of Genesis. And he called them the Law of Moses because they were written by Moses.
Now, once we accept that Moses wrote the book of Genesis, then it’s not too difficult to work out that he wrote it originally for the Israelites. They had escaped from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea and they were on their way to the Promised Land. And on the way, Moses — under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — wrote the first five books of the Bible including the book of Genesis. And he wrote it for them to teach them about the God who had chosen them to be his special people and who had delivered them from their captivity.
And that’s important for several reasons. First of all, it helps to understand why there’s no attempt in the book of Genesis to prove the existence of God. Read some books of systematic theology and they contain arguments to prove the existence of God. It’s assumed that some sceptics may be reading these books and the author is trying to convince them about the truth of God’s existence. Or the author of these theology books wants to help believers debate with atheists. And he’s giving them various arguments to show that we’re right to believe in the existence of God. That’s the kind of thing we read in some theology books. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But the Bible doesn’t try to do that and the book of Genesis doesn’t try to do that. The book of Genesis simply states that before anything else existed, there was God. It takes the existence of God for granted. And Moses could do that because the people for whom he was writing this book had all the proof they needed. They knew by experience that God is real. Didn’t he sent the Ten Plagues on the land of Egypt? Didn’t he lead them through the Red Sea? Didn’t he feed them with manna in the wilderness? Didn’t he bring water from the rock? Didn’t he come down on Mount Sinai and cause the mountain to shake? They didn’t need Moses to prove to them the existence of God, because they knew God already.
And that reminds us that the book of Genesis was written for believers and not for atheists like Richard Dawkins and all the rest. They come to Genesis as sceptics, unwilling to believe what it says and demanding proof from us. But the book of Genesis was written originally for the Israelites, God’s chosen people, who already believed in him and who wanted to know what he was like so that they could serve him in the Promised Land.
We should note as well that because Moses wrote this book for the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s written in popular language. In other words, it’s written in a style and with words that anyone can understand. And that’s good. I’ve read enough science books in my life to know that, when it comes to science, I’m a bit of a dummy. And so, if Genesis 1 was written in scientific language, none of the Israelites would have understood it, because they were farmers and not scientists. And very few of us would understand it, because not many of us are scientists. But because it’s written in this popular style, anyone can understand it. And, in fact, one of my daughters has been telling me that her class in school has been studying what the Bible says about creation. You see, young children can read Genesis 1 and understand it. And so can a scientific dummy like me.
But let’s remember what it was like for the Israelites as well. They believed in the Lord. But all around them there were the other nations. And the other nations worshipped other gods. And so, Moses was writing to convince the people of Israel that their God was the true God and the gods of the nations were nothing. He was trying to convince them that the Lord God is greater than all the other gods the other nations worshipped.
Now, I’ll try to point this out as we go along, but let me take just one example now. In the ancient world, many of the pagans worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars. They bowed down to them and worshipped them. And for those who don’t know any better, this makes some sense. After all, the sun gave light to the world. And that was good. And the sun caused the crops to grow. And that was good. And the sun and the moon and the stars were up above us in the heavens. They must be gods! But what does Moses teach the Israelites? He taught them that the Lord their God made the sun and the moon and the stars. It’s as if he were saying to the Israelites:
You know how the other nations worship the sun and the moon? Well, our God made the sun and the moon. That’s how great he is.
And so, we believe that Moses wrote the book of Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch. Bits of it may have been updated later to include the names of places and to include the account of Moses’s death. But it was written by him and it was written originally for the Israelites. And so, it’s written in a popular style which everyone can understand. And it’s written to convince the Israelites that the Lord their God is far, far greater than the gods of the nations. He’s the one, true and living God while the gods of the other nations are only idols who can do nothing.
Well, today people will still read the horoscope because they believe the stars control their destiny. Others believe in the power of crystals and all this other new age stuff. But these powers that people believe in are nothing. The Lord God made the sun and the moon and the stars and everything else. He rules over all and those who know him need not be afraid of anything else.
The Eternal God
Now, that’s all by way of introduction. Let’s now begin to look at the text. We’ll not get very far this evening, but we can make a start. And so, please look with me at verse 1. It says:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
In the beginning, before there was anything else, there was God. Now, that’s so important. In the ancient world, the pagans believed that the gods were not eternal. The gods had to come into existence like everything else. They had to be created. The ancient pagans couldn’t conceive of anything being eternal and they assumed that everything had to come from something including the gods. And so, there are all these ancient myths about how this god came to be and how that god came to be. Or this god and this goddess got together and had little gods as children. One myth I’ve read about tells of one god who created himself. The ancient pagans couldn’t imagine that there was a god who always was. They thought the gods must be like us. And so, since we’re born and begin our lives, it must be the same with the gods. They had to come into existence.
But there’s none of that in Genesis 1. In the beginning, before the heavens and the earth came into existence, there wasn’t nothing. There was God. He is the eternal God who is from everlasting to everlasting. And so, we read in Genesis 21:33 how Abraham called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. In Psalm 29 the Lord is described as the one who is enthroned as King forever. Psalm 90 tells us that before the mountains were born, and before he brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, he is God. Psalm 102: God made the foundations of the earth. The heavens are the work of his hand. They will perish, but he will remain. They will wear out. But you remain the same and your years will never end. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come, forever the same. The ancient pagans couldn’t conceive of a god who always was. But Moses wrote Genesis 1 and taught the Israelites that their God — and our God — was before all things and he is the Eternal God who is from everlasting to everlasting.
The heavens and the earth
What’s next? Well, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now, in the same way as we say ‘good and bad’ or ‘rich and poor’ to mean everyone, so here the phrase ‘the heavens and the earth’ probably refers to everything. In the beginning, God made the entire universe.
Out of nothing
Notice, of course, that this happened in the beginning. Children sometimes ask:
Did God create that tree over there?
Did God create me?
And, of course, nothing would exist at all if it were not for God. However, the way God created things in the beginning and the way things exist now are different. Children come from their parents. A seed is planted and grows into a tree. Things grow now. Or they’re born now. That’s how new life starts now: It comes from something else. But something different happened in the beginning. Once there was nothing apart from God. But then, in the beginning, God made the universe. And he made it out of nothing.
And that’s clear from this first verse. When we make something, we need materials. Yvonne will warn us sometimes. She’ll say:
Don’t eat those bananas.
And she says that, because she needs some bananas to make some banana bread. And if we eat the bananas on her, there can be no bread. Or this week I need to call into Alexander’s, the Builders Suppliers on Tennant Street. And inside there are stacks and stacks and stacks of timber. All different lengths and thicknesses and types of wood. And there were sacks of cement and plaster and then all the tools a builder might need. Builders need the materials and the tools in order to build a home. We can’t start with nothing. We need to start with something. But God needed nothing. He made the heavens and the earth from nothing.
And that’s important because it means he wasn’t restricted in any way. When we make something, we need to start with something. If we’re making a cake, then we need flour and eggs. But if the eggs are off, then the cake is ruined. But God started with nothing and so there was nothing to restrict him or to limit him in any way. He was free to make the world exactly as he wanted it to be because he was starting from scratch.
Now, once we believe that God made the universe, then we must rule out materialism. Materialism is the belief that the only thing that exists is matter. In other words, all there is is what we can see and touch and measure. All there is is the stuff we can see and there’s nothing else which lies behind it. But no, says the Bible. Behind the things we see around us, there’s the Lord God who, in the beginning, made the heavens and the earth.
And this rules out another idea called Pantheism. ‘Pan’ means everything. And ‘theism’ refers to God. And Pantheism teaches that God and the universe cannot be separated. Everything that exists is divine. And then there’s a similar idea called Panentheism. And Panentheism teaches that there’s a little bit of God in everything. God interpenetrates all things. But again, what we read in Genesis 1 rules both of those ideas out because Genesis teaches us that God and his creation are separate. There’s God who is from everlasting to everlasting and who was before all things. And then there’s what God created. And the two are distinct. They are separate and cannot be mingled.
His mighty word
I’m going to jump over verse 2 and come back to it the next time. And instead I want us to think a little about the opening words of verse 3. There we read:
And God said….
Verse 2 tells us that the world, when God created it at first, was formless and empty. And in the rest of chapter 1 we see how God began to shape the world and then he began to fill it. He takes what was formless and he began to shape it. And he took what was empty and began to fill it with lots and lots of things. But how did he do it? Well, he did it by speaking.
Now, the ancient pagans thought that it was a struggle for the gods to make the world. And so they describe the battles which took place and the efforts they had to go to in order to make the world. But our God only had to speak. That’s how easy it was for him. And his voice was so powerful that what he said should happen happened just as he said it should. And so, he said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. Verse 6: ‘Let there be an expanse between the waters….’ And it was so. Verse 9: ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place….’ And it was so. And so on. God only needed to speak and it was done. Making the world, shaping and filling it was entirely effortless for him.
Well, this teaches us that our God is great. I mean, who else can do this? Who else can speak and whole worlds appear? There is none like him. None at all. And so we ought to worship him.
And then, think of why we speak. Well, there may be lots of reasons why we speak, but often we speak because we want to make known to someone else what we want:
May I have one of those sweets please?
In other words, I’d really like one of those sweets. Or we shout at the dog:
We want the dog to come to us. When we speak, often we’re expressing what we want. And so, when God spoke and said: ‘Let there be….’ he was expressing what he wanted. He was making known his will. He was saying:
This is what I want. I want there to be light. I want there to be an expanse. I want the sea to be there and the land there.
And so on. When he spoke, he was expressing what he wanted. And what does that tell us? It tells us that’s there’s meaning and purpose to the world. Why is there something and not nothing? Why are we here? Why do we exist? Well, the world is here, and we’re here, because this is what God wanted. This is what he intended to happen. And that’s so important, because it tells us that the world didn’t come about by chance. It’s not here because of some random event in space. The world didn’t come into being by chance and whatever living creatures are on this planet did not come about by chance. We’re here because God wanted us to be here. He intended to make the world. And he intended to make us. And so, because he wanted these things to exist, he spoke and said: ‘Let there be….’
People wonder why we’re here. And is there any purpose to life? What are we here for? Well, we’re here because God wanted us to be here. And in his written word he tells us why he made us. He made us to know him and to glorify him. And so, whenever we come here to church to hear God’s word and to give thanks to him we’re doing what he made us to do. And when we go out into the world and seek to bring glory and honour to him by the way we live, we’re doing what he made us to do.
And then, finally today, not only here in the beginning, but throughout the rest of the Bible we’re taught that God’s word is powerful. And so, think of Isaiah 55, for instance:
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
God’s word is always powerful. Whenever he speaks, things happen. And in the New Testament, we discover that the Apostles believed that the reading and preaching of God’s written word is also powerful. In Romans 1, Paul wrote that the gospel he wanted to preach in Rome is the power of God for salvation. In 1 Corinthians 1 he wrote that the message of the cross seems foolish to some, but to others it is the power of God. In 1 Thessalonians, he wrote how the believers there received the gospel message with power. In the beginning, God’s word was powerful and he made the world by speaking. And today, he still speaks through the reading and preaching of his word. And his word is still powerful. Sinners, whose lives were once chaotic and full of darkness, are made new and their lives become orderly and are made full of light when they heard God’s word about Jesus Christ the Saviour. Listen to what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4. He first wrote that we ought not to lose heart or to tamper with God’s word in any way when seeking to teach others about the Lord Jesus. Instead we should set forth the truth of God’s word plainly. Why? Because God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Do you see? Paul is comparing what God did at creation to what he does now in our lives. In the beginning he spoke and the light was made. And he still speaks today, through his word, to give light to sinners.
The one who once spoke to shape and fill the world still speaks powerfully today. And so we must come to his word today with believing hearts, and trust that he can still work powerfully by his word in our lives and in the lives of others. And every time we doubt the power of his word to change lives and to make sinners new we should turn back to Genesis 1 to be reminded of what God can do by his word.