In the Beginning
Scripture: Genesis 1:1–1:1
Genesis 1:1 (parallel passages: Hebrews 11:3, Isaiah 45:9-12 and Romans 1:21)
A great book requires a great opening sentence. Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities springs to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” In the cartoon strip, Peanuts, Snoopy the beagle spends hours laboring over the opening words of what he hopes will be his best-selling novel. He never seems to be able to improve on his first attempt: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I do not think I am engaging in hyperbole when I state that the greatest book in the world has the greatest opening sentence in the world: (Quote Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew.) The English translation is equally simple, eloquent and profound: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. With quiet dignity and authority, Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, put quill to papyrus, or stylus to clay tablet and began to write the greatest book of all: the Bible.
In our next sermon series, we are going to be studying the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis: Genesis 1-11. Today, we are going to spend our entire time exploring this grand and glorious opening sentence. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The question of origins has always intrigued and fascinated the human race. Where did the world come from? Where did we come from? Why are things the way they are and how did they get that way? It is a question that intrigues the very young. I remember both of our boys, around age 3 or 4, went through a “who made it?” phase. They would look at a tree and ask, “Who made it?” They would look at a building and ask, “Who made it?” They would see a moose alongside the road and ask, “Who made it?” They were usually satisfied with one of two broad categories of answers: either God made it or people made it. But they would not accept “no one” as an answer. They sensed, intuitively, that everything had a maker.
Throughout history, every culture has come up with some way to answer the question: where did the world come from? We recently had the opportunity to visit Egypt. It was truly fascinating to visit the ancient pyramids and tombs of the Pharaohs. The Egyptians had a very intricately developed set of beliefs about the origins of the world beginning with a rather vaguely defined supreme being who in turn created or brought into existence a multiplicity of other gods. Each of the different elements in the visible universe was attributed to a different god who then controlled that part of the world and its functioning. Today, Egyptologists debate whether the Egyptians actually believed in many gods, or a single god who manifested himself in different ways. In either case the pictures carved into the various temples and tombs paint a very different picture than the simple words of Genesis 1:1. It is intriguing to remember that Moses was “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians…” (Acts 7:22) Yet it was not to their wisdom or theology that he turned for this great statement of the origins of the universe. In fact, these words lay an axe to the roots of the entire belief system of ancient Egypt as well as many other ancient and modern theological errors and heresies.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In these profound words we learn a number of fundamental and basic theological truths. It is a true primer in Theology 101.
In the beginning God… God exists. The Hebrew word for God that is used here is ‘elohim. It is used over 2500 times in the Old Testament and 32 times in Genesis 1 alone. The etymology of the word itself emphasizes the power and transcendence of God. God’s existence is not argued, debated or defended. It is simply declared.
In the beginning God… God always existed. He is eternal. He had no beginning, just as he will have no end. I remember being baffled by this when I was quite young. I was told, “God made the world,” so my mind logically asked the next question in the progression. “But who made God?” The answer is, “No one made God. God always existed. In the beginning God… already was.” The words of Psalm 90:2 reaffirm this truth: Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. I say that I was baffled by this when I was young. My finite mind is still baffled and awed in the face of the eternal One who has neither beginning nor end.
In the beginning God created… If this statement is true, in it lies the death of polytheism, the belief in many gods. The verb in this verse is singular, necessitating the conclusion that the world was created by one God and one God only. As one commentator writes: “The curtain of revelation rises to reveal a single actor on a cosmic stage.” What a radical statement this was for Moses to write, contradicting and denying all the gods and idols that would have surrounded him growing up in Pharaoh’s palace. This is a foundation stone of the world view and creed of the descendants of Abraham. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4) There is one God.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In this statement we are told that the universe had a beginning. Matter is not eternal. The world and the universe are not eternal. Only God is eternal.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. As the Creator, God is distinct from nature and the world he created. The doctrine of pantheism which equates God with nature and states that god is everything and everything is god is clearly contradicted.
So many of the errors and falsehoods which have clouded and distorted man’s thinking from very earliest times and which continue to mislead many today, are corrected, contradicted and refuted by these opening words of Genesis.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. These simple, yet profound words clearly proclaim and reinforce the priority of God. It is first of all, a priority in time. Since God is eternal and always existed, he existed before everything else. But it is not just a matter of priority in time. It also establishes his priority of rank. As the Creator, he is before all things and he is above all things and he has the right to rule over them.
This right of the Creator over his creation and especially over the human race is a theme that comes up repeatedly in Scripture. Consider Isaiah 45:9-12:
“Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker,
to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter,
‘What are you making?’
Does your work say,
‘He has no hands’?
10 Woe to him who says to his father,
‘What have you begotten?’
or to his mother,
‘What have you brought to birth?’
11 “This is what the Lord says—
The Holy One of Israel, and its Maker:
Concerning things to come,
do you question me about my children,
or give me orders about the work of my hands?
12 It is I who made the earth
and created mankind upon it.
The theme is repeated in a more reassuring note, but one which still clearly establishes God’s right to rule over the ones he has made in Isaiah 64:8
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
We are not going to go much further today. We will take up the rest of Genesis 1 next week. But before we close, I want to explore a couple of fundamental, foundational questions. First is simple and obvious. How do we know that Genesis 1:1 is true? And secondly, if it is true, what are the implications for us? What difference does it make to us today?
First of all, how do we know Genesis 1:1 is true? Here is the best answer I can give. You may or may not like this answer, but it is the best answer I have and I believe it is the Biblical answer. We know Genesis 1:1 is true by faith. Like I said, you may not like this answer. I realize it is circular logic. It is the same as saying: We know Genesis 1:1 is true because we believe it is true. But as I said, I believe it is the Biblical answer. This is what we are told in Hebrews 11:3: By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
The word for “faith” in that verse is the same as the word for believing. The word for “understand” comes from the root word for the “mind”. According to Scripture then, believing comes before understanding. We believe first, and then we understand. And what is it that we understand? We understand that “what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” There was an invisible reality that preceded the visible universe around us. God was and is that invisible reality. In the beginning God. The universe was created at God’s command. The invisible God spoke and the visible world came into existence. How do we know? The only way we can know it: by faith, because God said it happened that way.
But that quickly moves us on to another point. Let’s look at that statement again; “what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” The visible was formed out of the invisible at God’s command. This immediately creates huge problems for the scientist who says that only what is visible and only what can be subjected to scientific investigation and verification is real. That means that science will never be able to prove or disprove the truth or falsity of Genesis 1:1. If the visible came from that which is invisible, by definition that cannot be confirmed or denied by science which only admits the reality of the visible, observable and measurable. It is a matter that can be settled ultimately by faith and faith alone: faith in the revealed Word of God.
But just in case we are starting to feel a little sorry for ourselves, that we are required to take such a leap of faith: a leap in the dark so to speak – let me point out that the materialistic scientist who denies creation and the existence of God is also required to live by faith. He is also required to take a leap of faith, his own leap in the dark. The scientist who believes only in the natural, observable world must still account for this huge and complex natural world in which we live. Where did it come from? This scientist may spend his time working diligently to connect the dots on a piece of paper, arranging and rearranging the dots into different patterns and formulae to make sense of it all. But step back and ask him: Where did the paper come from? His best answer, stripped of its scientific jargon, is: A Big Bang, a very, very, very long time ago. And everything we see around us? Well, it all just happened by random chance, like a train running irresistibly (and, totally against logic, uphill) with no one pushing, pulling or steering it.
At the end of the day, those are the two options, are they not? In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Or, “it just happened.” I would suggest that both statements are statements of belief and not of science. Science and scientific observation can take us only so far. At the end of the day, we stand at the edge of the same precipice: the beginning, where the visible meets the invisible. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Or “it just happened.” Which way will you leap? No matter which direction you choose, it is a leap of faith.
Secondly, let us consider this question. If Genesis 1:1 is true, what are the implications for us today? The implications are huge for us as individuals as well as for the whole human race and the world and the universe itself. If God created the heavens and the earth, then he has the right to rule over it. If he created you and me as human beings, he has the right to rule over us. He is the potter. We are the clay. He has the right of sovereignty over your life and my life. He has the right to set the agenda and make the rules and declare to us what is right and what is wrong. It is we who are accountable to him, not he who is accountable to us. If Genesis 1:1 is true, the world and the universe become God-centered and not man-centered.
In a very real sense, the rest of Scripture, not to mention the rest of human history, is the working out of the implications of this first great opening statement of the Book of Genesis. We will certainly not exhaust this topic in a single sermon or even in this series of sermons. But I want to conclude by looking at one verse that summarizes a fundamental responsibility that we cannot ignore if Genesis 1:1 is true. It is found in Romans 1:21. Before I read it, let me point out that this verse actually comes at this matter in a backward manner. Sometimes we can understand something more clearly by looking at its opposite. We can understand what the right thing is to do by looking at someone who has done the wrong thing. In the second half of Romans 1, Paul is looking at those who have turned away from God; particularly those who have turned away from the truth about God that is available in the created world. This is what he says:
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
What did these people do wrong? They looked at the created world. They looked at the truth of God revealed there; truth about his power and his Godhood. And what did they do? They neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. So as we consider the truth of Genesis 1:1, if Genesis 1:1 is true, what must we do? We must glorify God as God and give thanks to him. That is the fundamental responsibility of every man and woman, boy and girl, created by God and in the image of God: Glorify God as God and give thanks to him. We are to look at the creation around us and acknowledge that God made it, and we are to give him credit as the Creator, and glorify him as the one and only true and eternal God who made all things. And we are to give him thanks for the world he has made.
I like to call it the “wow” factor. A couple of years ago, I was driving with my two sons and (at the time) three grandsons to an event in San Francisco. As you approach the city from the south, there is a range of hills that rises up in the distance to the left of the freeway. My little grandson, Marcus was sitting beside me. He was about two and a half at the time. He was sitting in his car seat, peering out the window. He didn’t really have too many words at that point, but suddenly I heard him say, “Wow! Whoa! WOW!” I was a little puzzled, because I wasn’t quite sure what he was focusing on. I glanced across at my son, Dennis questioningly. He shrugged, smiled and said, “I don’t think he’s ever seen hills that big before.” They live in a rather flat section of Illinois. The hills of San Francisco were a revelation to Marcus and he responded with simple, child-like wonder: “Wow! Whoa! Wow!”
I think it is sad how quick we are to lose the “wow” factor when we look at our world. We look right past the beauty around us. When we do, we miss an opportunity to worship. We miss an opportunity to draw near to God. We miss an opportunity to glorify God as God. We miss an opportunity to say “Wow!” and then say, “Thank you, God!”
Here is a challenge for you in this New Year. Have you made any resolutions? Here is one to add to your list. Take the time to regularly look around you; look up; look down. Take time to look at the world that God has made. Take time to say, “Wow!” and then remember to say, “Thank you, God!”
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- How does the indigenous and/or dominant culture or religion in your country of birth account for the origins of the universe?
- If Genesis 1:1 is true, how does it refute or contradict the following beliefs: atheism, agnosticism, polytheism, pantheism, scientific materialism, dualism? Are there other common or historic belief systems that are contradicted by the truth of Genesis 1:1?
- How do you react to Pastor Cam’s statement (based on Hebrews 11:3) that “we know Genesis 1:1 is true by faith”? What about the statement: “belief precedes understanding”? Discuss.
- “The scientific materialist who denies God and creation also lives by faith in accounting for the origins of the world.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
- What are your feelings and reactions to the “potter and the clay” analogy and the implication of the Creator’s right to rule over his creation? Is there an area in your life where you are resisting this truth?
- Relate some experience you have had in which you connected with God through the world he has made and “glorified God as God and gave thanks.” Suggest ways or strategies we can use to do this on a more consistent basis.