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The First Things: In the Beginning God

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 8, 1998

Genesis 1:1-2

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn to the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 1. Genesis means origin or beginning. And this book, the book of Genesis, lays the groundwork, not only for the book of Exodus which logically and necessarily follows from it, but also for the rest of Scripture. Matthew Henry, a long time ago, said "Genesis is a name borrowed from the Greek. It signifies the original or generations." Fitly is this book so called, for it is a history of originals. The creation of the world. The entrance of sin and death into the world. The invention of the arts. The rise of nations and especially the planting of the church and the state of it in early days. "It is also," Henry said, "a history of generations. The genealogies of Adam and Noah and Abraham and the other great patriarchs."

The book, of course, begins with God's creation of the world. But its early chapters also record three low points in primeval history: the fall, the flood and sin at Babel. In each of those instances God responds in both judgment and grace, and so in the very first chapters of Genesis, as He is acknowledged to be the Creator and the sovereign Lord, He is also shown to be the God of justice and mercy simultaneously, even in His responses to the rebellion of man.

This book, Genesis, can be divided into two parts. The first eleven chapters give us primeval history. Then from chapter 12 all the way to the end of the book, chapter 50, we have the history of the patriarchs. So you have primeval history, and then you have patriarchal history. The stories of what happened in the world before the time of the patriarchs and then a focus on four particular patriarchs. And interestingly enough, each half of a book focuses on four events or people. The first half of the book, in chapters 1 through 11 which contains that primeval history, concerns four great events: the creation from Genesis 1 to Genesis 2; the fall and its aftermath from Genesis 3 to Genesis 5; the flood from Genesis 6 to Genesis 9; and then the events surrounding the Tower of Babel in Genesis 10 and 11.

The second half of the book covering patriarchal history also focuses on four things: in this case the lives of four great patriarchs. Abram had been mentioned in Genesis 11, and so he is the bridge between the first and the second half of the book, and his story is told from Genesis 12 all the way to Genesis 20. And then we focus on the life of his son, Isaac, from Genesis 21 to 26. And, by the way, there is natural overlap between these patriarchs as they are discussed in these passages. But Isaac is discussed from chapter 21 to chapter 26. And then Jacob, his son, from Genesis 27 to Genesis 36. And finally the book concludes focusing on the life, the story, and the biography of Joseph from Genesis 37 all the way to Genesis 50.

We should note that Genesis sets forth themes which are hardly developed again until we come to the New Testament. For instance, the garden and the river in that garden and the tree of life are all revisited in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, along with the serpent and Babylon which play an important part in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and throughout the book of Revelation. Genesis, you may be interested to know, is quoted more in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book, except for the Psalms and Isaiah. Genesis is the third most quoted book of the Old Testament in the New Testament. In fact, Derek Kidner says, "Genesis in fact is in various ways almost nearer the New Testament than the Old. And some of its topics are barely heard again until their implications can fully emerge in the gospel. The institution of marriage, the fall of man, the jealousy of Cain, the judgment of the flood. The imputed righteousness of the believer. The rival sons of promise and of the flesh. The profanity of Esau. The pilgrim status of the believer in this life. All of these are predominantly New Testament things but they are first set forth in the Old Testament." Now, if we’ll remember that, it will color the whole way we look at the Old Testament.

Very often we, as Christians, view the Old Testament as a shadowy prefigurement of New Testament truth. And therefore we believe that since the fullness of truth has come in the New Testament, we don't need to fool with the Old Testament anymore. One of the greatest preachers today in the evangelical world, and I'm not going to name his name because you all listen to him and I do, too, and we appreciate his ministry. One of the greatest teachers today in the Christian world says that the only book from the Old Testament that he's ever preached from is Daniel, because he doesn't believe that the Old Testament has direct bearing on the lives of Christians today. And that's a shame, because it's very clear as we read the book of Genesis, that it's not just a shadowy prefigurement of Christian truth, it is the very foundation of the faith on which the truth subsequently taught in scripture is built and therefore we can never do away with Genesis. We are never done with these truths. And isn't it interesting, in our day and time, it is precisely against the truths of Genesis that the world is worrying. And if Christians simply lay these things aside and pretend as if they really don't matter to the central things or other things, not these things set forth in Genesis, we will have jettisoned one of the most important parts of our faith.

The book of Genesis, especially in this first section in chapters 1 through 11, is designed to remind us of several great facts. It reminds us for instance that God created the world and is distinct from it, but He is not unconcerned for it. It reminds us that God shaped His creation from formlessness into order, from emptiness into fullness. The book of Genesis reminds us that God's world was originally good, and so since we live in a corrupted world, we must remember that it is different from that which God originally made. It also reminds us that man's sin is entirely responsible for the corruption of God's original creation, and that God's character is revealed as He responds to man's corruption.

Now having said all that by way of introduction, let's hear God's holy word in the book of Genesis, chapter 1, and particularly the first two verses:

Genesis 1:1-2

Our heavenly Father, we thank You for this great book and we pray that by Your Spirit You would teach us wonderful things. We ask, O Lord, that we would grasp these truths, holding onto them firmly and seeing their implications for our lives. We ask all these things in Jesus' name, Amen.

The first two verses of the book of Genesis bring us face to face with the ultimate reality - God. No surprise that God Himself is the subject of the first sentence in the Bible. And if we miss the significance of that, we've missed everything. God is the ultimate reality. The one true God. It is that reality which ought to be the conscious arena of all of our experience and that is one of the great lessons that we learn in this passage.

I. Christians acknowledge God to be the Maker of heaven and earth.

There are two things that I'd like to highlight for you this evening which are significant for Christians about the first two verses of Genesis. The first you will see is in the very first verse itself where we have a fourfold declaration about God and about the world. There we see that Christians acknowledge God to be the maker of heaven and earth. Those glorious words, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" are full of spiritual truth. And I'd like you to see four particular things in that little sentence, in that little phrase. By the way, it's very interesting when you compare Genesis to some of the other early creation accounts that are found in Babylon and in cultures near to Israel. Those accounts are very elaborate and allegorical and flowery. The entire creation account written in Genesis in contrast only uses seventy-six words. Only seventy-six words are used in the entire creation account recorded in Genesis and yet the simplicity and profundity of this account stands in stark contrast to the accounts of creation that you find in other cultures. In fact, I'm going to give you a synopsis of one of those accounts of creation and you can see the incredible difference between the self-revelation of God in the book of Genesis and the vain imaginations of men in the ideas of other cultures. But there are four things that I'd like you to see here in this first verse.

The first thing that I'd like you to see is, who the author is. The author and the source and the cause of creation, says Genesis 1:1, is God. Notice the glory of this phrase, "In the beginning God." Matthew Henry says, "The first verse of the Bible gives us a sure and better, a more satisfying and useful knowledge of the origin of the universe than all the volumes of the philosophers. The lively faith of humble Christians understands this matter better than the elevated fancy of the greatest minds." And that is true.

It is not an accident that God is the subject of the first sentence in the Bible. God dominates this chapter in every way. Thirty-five times, in as many verses, the name of God is repeated. And so we are impressed, over and over by Moses, that God is the central focus of this account that he records for us here in Genesis 1.

Now the God of Genesis, and we will see this as we continue to study through the book together, the God of Genesis is five-fold in His glory. And I want to think with you very briefly about how God reveals Himself in the book of Genesis. And I want to do this not simply from the passage we're looking at tonight, but looking forward to some of the things that we're going to learn about God in the first eleven chapters.

First of all it is clear, and this by the way is clear from the very first verse of Genesis, God is personal. God is personal. That is the first thing that we learn from the author of Genesis. God is not an it: He is a Thou. God is personal, not impersonal. Now this is so important in our own day and time. All of us perhaps have heard or read Carl Sagan, and we've heard him on "The Cosmos" utter his famous words, "billions and billions of years ago," as he begins to tell the story of the world from his secular perspective. But hear what Carl Sagan says about the universe. He says, "The cosmos is all there is or was or ever shall be." Now do you hear that? That is a declaration that the only thing outside of our human experience in this universe is an impersonal created order. It does not care about us, it does not know that we are there. It does not care about our future, our presence, or our past. We have no personal relationship with it. It is just there. And the struggle of all modern secularists who affirm that creation is a myth and that matter is eternal, is to somehow find out how to make this impersonal universe livable and meaningful for personal beings like ourselves who thrive on relationship and who die without it. And my friends, I want to tell you they will never accomplish the task of overcoming the attempt to relate to an impersonal universe. We know what it's like to try and relate to impersonal people and we find it hard. Can you imagine trying to relate to something that is not just a rather impersonal person, but is an impersonal "it"? If that is all the relationship that there is, we are in trouble. The very first verse of Genesis makes it clear that our God is unmistakably personal.

It is also interesting that throughout the book of Genesis there is not a mention of another God except in one story, and that underlines the truth that Moses wants us to understand, that the only God, Creator of heaven and earth and everything in it, is the only God there is. The God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is the God who created everything, and He is the only God there is.

It's very interesting that the only time in Genesis that other gods are mentioned is the time when Jacob steals away from Laban, and Laban comes after him because some of his gods have been stolen. Now realize Moses’ tongue is firmly planted in his cheek there. The only time he mentions other gods in the Bible and what happened to them, they got stolen. Now the sovereign God that Moses is talking about in Genesis 1 couldn't get stolen; only the imaginations of the man's mind could be stolen. And so Moses mocks other gods even in the way he describes this event in the book of Genesis.

Notice also that even these first chapters of Genesis reveal that God's ways are perfect. The expulsion from the garden, the cataclysm of the flood, the expulsion and the spreading, the scattering throughout all the earth that happens at Babel, remind us that God does not trifle with sin. He cannot stand its presence. He will bring judgment against sin. But isn't it interesting that even in each of these events, along side of God's justice and judgment is a very clear presentation of His grace. Even in God's judgment against Adam and Eve we are going to see that promise and grace is hidden. Even in the word of condemnation and judgment against the woman, the seed of the promise and of the gospel is present. Even in the judgment of the flood there is the preservation of the created order and of a family upon whom God has set His love. And even after the scattering of Babel, God will call a man out of the pagan culture, of Ur of Chaldees and make him the head of the race of His chosen people. Over and over we see judgment and grace. And you know what? We find something out about God in that process. We find out that God is holy and loving and neither of those attributes are emphasized at the expense of the other. Think how much modern theology either falls off on one side or another. You know good orthodox Muslin theology? You know about a god who is holy, sovereign and distant. But you don't know about a God who is loving. If you know modern liberal theology, you have a god who is the great grandfather in the sky, but he knows nothing about justice. But the God of Moses, the God of the Bible, the God of Genesis, is a God of justice and mercy, and those things are held without tension in God.

Notice also in the book of Genesis, God is self-revealed. The God of Genesis isn't found out by men reflecting about the nature of things and postulating Him. The God of Genesis is not found out by men groping ineffectually to figure out what He's like. The God of Genesis reveals Himself to man. God never proves Himself in this book. Such proof is ridiculous. He has written Himself on our hearts. He has revealed Himself unmistakably in creation. He's already built the proof in. It's there. But the God of this book reveals Himself in His character. Think of the names that are used for God in the book of Genesis. The two predominant names are, of course, God, and the word which we used to call Jehovah and now you hear many people call Yahweh, but it's simply the word that gets translated in our Bibles in all capital letters LORD. His name, His covenant name. Those are the two predominant names and they teach us much about God.

We’ll get a chance to look at both of those names as we study through this book. But I want you to understand that there are many other titles used for God as well. Titles like Almighty, titles like the Everlasting One, titles like the God of Israel, the God of Bethel. All of these titles stress three important realities about God's revelation. God's revelation is propositional, it is historical and it is personal. God's revelation is propositional in the sense that God speaks to us and reveals Himself to us in words. It is not that men have simply projected words onto Him about Him. He speaks to us in words. Notice from the very beginning of this book God does what? He speaks to His people. He communicates in words. One of the modern problems in theology is the denial that God speaks. That's one of the great problems. And from the very beginning Moses has solved that problem by telling us how it is. That God is not only propositional, that is, He speaks in sentences and in words when He reveals Himself, He is also historical. So, for instance, He will introduce Himself as the God of Jacob, referring to His commitment to Jacob in the past. Or as the God of Abraham, referring to His historical experience with and commitment to Abraham, reminding us that God has come down and intersected history. He has dealt with us at the level of the historical. He has really entered into human experience.

But God is also set forth in this book as personal. He is the God who sees, after Hagar is sent out into the wilderness by a mistress who was unfair. He is the God who sees when Abram's heart is breaking as he climbs Mt. Moria. He is propositional in the way He reveals Himself. He speaks in sentences. He is historical in that He reminds us of His past encounters with us in history, but He is also personal in that He engages in relationship with us. And all of this is set forth in the self-revealed God of Genesis.

And finally, let me say one more thing about this God. He is a unity. He is the one God. There are not many gods which the Jews or the Christians worship. There is one true God. But even in Genesis it is made clear that He is not a monolith. He is not an unindifferentiated nomad, as one theologian said. It is true that He is One, but there is also plurality to His being. And that is stressed in various ways. One of those ways is in the continuing appearance of the angel of the Lord. Now it's clear in Genesis that the angel of the Lord is God. But you know the funny thing is that both parts of that description indicate two aspects of God's being. An angel is a messenger and a messenger is sent. So the angel of the Lord is God, but God sent. Now those point to two aspects of God's being which are going to be brought out in full measure in the New Testament as we see the doctrine of the trinity laid open. Now we could point to other passages, and we certainly will, where the trinity is set forth in outline and the principles are inculcated here in Genesis, but I want you to bear that in mind. The author of this creation spoken of is the one true God and He is glorious in His being. That's the first thing that we learn in the very first verse.

The second thing we learn though is the effect of God's work. First we see the author of this creation, God Himself. Secondly, we see the effect of God's work. The production of the heavens and the earth. And that phrase, by the way, simply means the entirety of the universe. It's a way of saying just what the creed says when we say that there was nothing made that He had not made. God Almighty, Maker of the heaven and earth. He makes everything. Everything in this universe was produced by Him. The heavens and the earth stress that. The assertion here is the comprehensiveness of God's creation. He made everything. Now this is so important because in the other accounts of creation, that you get in the ancient world, it is not clear that God has produced everything. There are elements in the universe which seem to be co-eternal with the very first and greatest of the gods worshiped by other cultures. But not the God the Israel. In the beginning He was. When there was nothing else, He already was.

There's a third thing in this passage in verse 1 that we learn, and that is the way in which God created. God created out of nothing the heavens and the earth, and Moses is going to teach us from verse 3 on that he created by the word of His power. He spoke it into being. And so we use the phrase from the Latin created ex nihilo, He created from nothing. There was nothing before He created. But when He created He brought everything into being.

"In the beginning manifests" the truth that nothing existed prior to God speaking. If you’ll turn with me briefly to Hebrews, chapter 11, we’ll see this truth. In Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 3 we read: "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible." And so the author stresses this creation of the visible world from nothing.

Now look, from the very beginning of philosophy, the pagan philosophers had had two speculations about the nature of the world in which we live. Some taught that there was a time when there was nothing, and then something replaced it. Others taught that the universe had always been there in some form. And it's very interesting that those are still the two options in contrast to the Christian view.

Don't be confused by the whole issue of creation. There are only three options on the market and don't think that the Christian view has somehow been disproved by science. It hasn't. Listen to these words: "The impression has gone abroad, not only that the Christian doctrine of creation has been disproved, but that scholars have agreed on an alternative. Neither of these assumptions is correct. There is no agreed alternative to the Christian position. Those which are affirmed are beset with enormous difficulties. The Christian doctrine, on the other hand, seems to have no particular difficulty of its own. It is supported by a great body of argument, philosophical and scientific, and is confirmed by the whole process of special revelation in which God both asserts and describes Himself."

There are only three options on the market. There is the Christian view and that view is that before creation God alone existed and that He, in His sovereignty, is responsible for bringing into being everything there is. In contrast to that view, there are only two options out there. First, there is the view that before creation nothing existed. Before this universe was, nothing existed, absolutely nothing; not God, not matter, not mass, not energy, not potential, not a protoplasm, nothing. Now it needs, I think it's fair to say, a fair measure of credulity to rest in that particular view. The philosophers themselves said Ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing, nothing comes. And so that possibility is very implausible. The fact that something now exists drives us to the conclusion that there is something that always existed.

But in contrast to that view, for those who do not want to accept God, they put before us another view. And that view is the most popular view held among scientists and physicists today. And that view is that before the creation of the universe as we know it now, an impersonal something existed. Some protoplasm or primary particle in which all the potentialities later realized in the universe were latent. Listen to this description about that theory. Surely, the existence of an impersonal something is no less a mystery and no less of a stumbling block to the radically skeptical intellect than the existence of God Himself. If you postulate that everything came from a primary particle of protoplasm, doesn't that primary particle of protoplasm then have in itself all the characteristics of a sovereign God except personality? Let me go on with this description. Such a ‘something’ already possesses some of the characteristics of deity. It is eternal, self-existent and omnipotent. Moreover, this theory of origins is burdened with all the difficulties that face consistent materialism. The nature of the universe itself is against it. It is difficult to believe that the complexity of the life forms with which we are familiar is the result of an unprogramed molecular and genetic change. And it is even more difficult to convince ourselves that Paradise Lost, Hamlet and the Sermon on the Mount were derived through an inexorable sequence of cause and effect from a primitive protein. The movement from the impersonal to the person is an impossible barrier for modern naturalism and materialism, and don't let anyone fool you into thinking that they've got it all figured out. They have enormous problems and I'd much rather have mine.

Notice finally, that in this first verse the time of the work is given, "In the beginning." It was in the beginning that God created. In this verse we have the coup de gras against all atheism and modern skepticism and naturalism and materialism. In this verse, the sovereign Lord's rights and interests in all things are shown by virtue of His creation. In another city, in another Presbyterian church, a minister was beginning to preach a series on the book of Genesis and a very important member of his congregation was attending that series of sermons. He had been a churchgoer all his life and he was a member of the most prestigious law firm in the city. And yet God had not been very consequential in his life, even though he had been a church member for all his adult years. As he sat down and heard the minister read the words, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," a thought flashed across his mind. If that's true, I'm in trouble because I'm living my life as if God is not the sovereign Creator and as if I am my own sovereign. And it was in the very hearing of these words that he was brought to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and now prosperously serves Him in that congregation witnessing to the fact that our God is the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth. Let's look to the Lord in prayer.

O Lord, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We ask that You would impress it upon our hearts by Your spirit. These things we ask in Jesus' name, Amen.

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