SUNDAY OT SERMON: Dr. James Montgomery Boice on “IN THE BEGINNING” – Genesis 1:1
SERIES: GENESIS – PART 1
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
These are exciting days in which to be studying Genesis. They are especially exciting for theologians and other students of the Bible, for much has recently been written on Genesis and there is new openness to looking at the book in the light of scientific data and theories as well as at science in the light of the Bible. They are also exciting from the viewpoint of recent developments in science, particularly those bearing on the origins of the universe.
Science has undergone what can almost be described as a revolution. For generations the prevailing view of the universe had been what is known as the steady state theory. That is, the universe has always been and will always be. It is ungenerated and indestructible. Such a view was materialistic and atheistic. It contained no place for God. In recent years this view has given way to the theory that the universe actually had an instant of creation. It came into being 15 to 20 billion years ago in a gigantic fireball explosion that sent suns and planets tumbling outward from this center into the form we observe them now. Moreover, they are still moving outward. In contrast to the steady state idea, this is called the big bang theory in reference to the instant of creation.
The change in scientific thinking goes back to 1913, when an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Vesto Melvin Slipher, discovered through his study of the shifting light spectrum of very distant stars that the galaxies in which these stars were found appeared to be receding from the earth at tremendous speeds—up to 2 million miles per hour. Six years later, in 1919, another American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, used Slipher’s findings to formulate a law for an expanding universe, which pointed to a moment of creation. Meanwhile, Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were shaking Newtonian physics. And two Bell Telephone laboratory scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were using new and sophisticated electronic equipment to pick up background radiation from all parts of the universe, which they now identified as the leftover “noise” of that first great explosion.
To be sure, there are still many problems. Current scientific theory puts the origin of the universe at a point approaching 20 billion years ago, which some Christians find unacceptable. Again the big bang theory, even if true, tells us nothing about the thing or One who caused it. Nor does it throw light on why the universe has such astonishing complexity and order or how life originated or many other things. Yet this is still exciting if for no other reason than that “the Big Bang theory sounds very much like the story that the Old Testament has been telling all along,” as Time magazine wrote.
Robert Jastrow, Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Admin-istration’s Goddard Institute, puts it even more strongly. He is known for two very popular books, Red Giants and White Dwarfs and Until the Sun Dies. Now, in God and the Astronomers, he writes of the dismay of scientists who are brought by their own method back to a point beyond which they cannot go. “There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event. … This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. … At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
None of this should make the theologians smug, however. They should remember that they have not been without difficulties in their attempts to understand Genesis and that the ancient Hebrews were not without wisdom when they forbade anyone under thirty to expound the first chapter to others.
The significance of Genesis is not in its proof or disproof of scientific theories, however, any more than the significance of science is in its proof or disproof of the Bible. It is important for its teaching about the origin of all things, which is what the word “Genesis” means. Genesis takes us back to the beginnings, and this is very important because our sense of worth as human beings depends in part on our origins.
In a smaller but very dramatic way, we have recently witnessed something like this in American pop culture. In early 1977 a serialized presentation of Alex Haley’s Roots, a book in which this distinguished black author traced the historical origins of his family back through their days of slavery in the old South to his African progenitors, was first aired on American television. This series was a success of such proportions that it astonished planners and producers alike. By the end of its seven-night run, Roots commanded 66 percent of the television audience—about 130 million people—and had become the most watched television program ever. It has been rebroadcast, both here and abroad, and has caused hundreds of colleges to provide Roots courses. In the aftermath of that historical week in January, thousands of Americans scrambled into libraries to search out their own family origins. The National Archives in Washington found itself flooded with requests for ancestral information. What caused this astonishing phenomenon? Some have suggested that it was Haley’s frank and wise handling of the racial issue. But Haley did not think this was the explanation, nor do many others.
The reason for the popularity of Roots is that it discovered a sense of present dignity and meaning for one black family by tracing its link to the past and thus also providing a direction for the future. In this it gave a sense of meaning to us all.
In an earlier age this would not have been so important, because many people at least still had a sense of history. They knew where they had come from and hence had an optimistic outlook on what the future would hold. But that has evaporated in current culture so that, as a number of writers have correctly pointed out, this has become the “now” generation in which any firm anchor to the past has been lost. We have been told that the past is meaningless. Everything is focused on the present. We are told by the advertisers that “we only go around once.” We should forget about the past and not worry about the future. It sounds like good philosophy. But the loneliness and anxiety of a philosophy like that is almost intolerable. Consequently, when Roots came along many identified with Haley’s search for the past and for dignity.
R. C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier Valley Study Center, has analyzed this in terms of secularism, which means “living within the bounds of this age” (from the Latin saeculum, meaning age). It is to live with our outlook confined to this period alone—without the past, without a future, above all without God, who is in both past and future and controls them. He writes of the secular man,
Man in the twentieth century has been busily engaged in a quest for dignity. It is a very earnest quest. The civil rights movement developed the cry, “We are human beings; we are creatures of dignity; we want to be treated as beings of dignity.” So also have others. But the existentialist tells us that our roots are in nothingness, that our future is in nothingness, and he asks, “Think, man, if your origins are in nothing and your destiny is in nothing, how can you possibly have any dignity now?” …
If our past history tells us that we have emerged from the slime, that we are only grown-up germs, what difference can it possibly make whether we are black germs or white germs, whether we are free germs or enslaved germs? Who cares? We can sing of the dignity of man, but unless that dignity is rooted substantially in that which has intrinsic value, all our songs of human rights and dignity are so much whistling in the dark. They are naïve, simplistic and credulous. And the existentialist understands that. He says, “You’re playing games when you call yourselves creatures of dignity. If all you have is the present, there is no dignity, only nothingness.”
This is what Alex Haley saw and what those many thousands of Americans saw who took their clue from Haley and began to search through libraries for their history. It is what makes Genesis important. Genesis is important because it gives us our origins—not merely the origins of one particular family but the origins of matter, life, values, evil, grace, the family, nations, and other things—in a way that unites us all.
Without the teachings of this book, life itself is meaningless. There are even parts of the Bible that are meaningless. Without this book, the Bible would be like the last acts of a play without the first act, or a meeting of a corporation’s trustees with no agenda. Henry M. Morris has written, “The books of the Old Testament, narrating God’s dealings with the people of Israel, would be provincial and bigoted, were they not set in the context of God’s developing purposes for all mankind, as laid down in the early chapters of Genesis. The New Testament, describing the execution and implementation of God’s plan for man’s redemption, is redundant and anachronistic, except in the light of man’s desperate need for salvation, as established in the record of man’s primeval history, recorded only in Genesis. … A believing understanding of the Book of Genesis is therefore prerequisite to an understanding of God and his meaning to man.”
All Things Wise and Wonderful
In our study of Genesis we are going to look at each of these matters in detail, but as we start we can cast our eyes ahead over a few of them. They are a part of those many things both “wise and wonderful” that confront us in the Word of God.
1. The first great matter of the Bible, the one related most directly to our origins, is God, who has no beginnings at all. He is the first subject mentioned: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
This sentence is among the most profound statements ever written, which we shall see when we come to study it in greater detail. But even here we must see that these words already take us beyond the farthest point that can be viewed by science. Science can take us back to the big bang, to the moment of creation. But if that original, colossal explosion obliterated anything that came before it, as science suggests, then nothing before that point can be known scientifically, including the cause of the explosion. The Bible comes forward at this point to tell us simply, “In the beginning God. …”We may want to bring God down into our little microscope where we can examine him and subject him to the laws of matter, of cause and effect, which we can understand. But fret as we might, God does not conform to our desires. He confronts us as the One who was in existence before anything we can even imagine and who will be there after anything we can imagine. Ultimately it is he alone with whom we have to do.
2. The opening chapters of Genesis also tell us the origin of man, the matter we have been looking at most closely in this message. Without this revelation we may look to ourselves in this present moment and conclude, as did the French philosopher René Descartes, “I think; therefore I am.” But beyond that even the simplest philosophical question confounds us. Our son or daughter asks, “Daddy, where did I come from?” and we answer with an explanation of human reproduction. “Yes, but where did you and Mommy come from? … Where did Grandma come from?” The questions baffle us apart from the divine revelation.
John H. Gerstner, professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tells a story concerning Arthur Schopenhauer, the famous nineteenth-century philosophical pessimist. Schopenhauer did not always dress like a product of Bond Street—he often dressed more like a bum—and he was sitting in a park in Berlin one day when his appearance aroused the suspicions of a policeman. The policeman asked who he thought he was. Schopenhauer replied, “I would to God I knew.” As Gerstner points out, the only way he could have learned who he was would have been to find out from God, who has revealed this to us in Genesis.
3. Genesis gives the origin of the human family that is—moderns especially must take note—not something that has been dreamed up by fallen men and women but something established by God even before the fall for our good. People have added to God’s provision, but not by way of improvement. They have added polygamy, prostitution, promiscuity, divorce, and homosexuality. But these are corruptions of God’s original order and bring frustration, misery, and eventual judgment on those who practice them. People are blessed only as they return to God’s original plan for the home, the ordering of the sexes, and the responsibilities within marriage of both husband and wife.
4. Genesis tells us of the origins of evil, at least so far as man is concerned. I give this qualification for two reasons. First, because the account of the fall involves temptation by the serpent and we are not told by Genesis where the serpent came from. (There are hints of it elsewhere.) Second, because there are philosophical questions about how evil could even come into a world created by a good and holy God.
This much is told us in Genesis: The evil that involves mankind is the product of our own choice, expressed as a rebellion against God, and it has affected us so totally that there is now nothing we can do to restore ourselves or regain that position of privilege and responsibility that we lost by rebellion. It is as if we had jumped into a pit. Before the jump we had the capacity for self-determination. We could use that capacity to remain on the edge of the pit or to jump in. But once we had exercised our freedom of choice in the matter by jumping, our choice was gone in that area and thereafter there was nothing we could do to restore our former state of blessedness. Moreover, because it was our choice and not that of another, we are guilty for what we have done and now quite rightly stand under the inevitable judgment of God.
5. We can do nothing. But God can—God can do anything—and the wonder of the gospel appears in the promise of One who would come to undo the results of Adam’s transgression. The origins of salvation are therefore also to be found in this book.
This is true in two senses. First, there are promises of a Savior to come, as I have indicated. When Adam and Eve sinned and God came to them in the garden, he first rebuked the sin. But then he spoke of hope in the person of One who should crush the head of Satan. Speaking to the serpent he said, “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”(Gen. 3:15). As the book goes on, this cryptic statement is elaborated and explained. God spoke to Abraham of a descendant who would be the source of divine blessing to all nations: “Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring [singular] all nations on earth will be blessed”(Gen. 22:17–18; cf. Gal. 3:8). Still later, Jacob spoke of him as a descendant of the tribe of Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his”(Gen. 49:10).
The second way Genesis foreshadows the coming of Christ is by its record of the institution and performance of the sacrifices, which he alone fulfilled.
6. A sixth and very important origin in Genesis is the doctrine of justification by faith, clearly seen first in the experience of Abraham. We are told: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness”(Gen. 15:6). If righteousness was “credited” to Abraham, then Abraham had none of his own. It was the gift of God. Moreover, it was credited to him not on the basis of his works, love, service, or obedience, but on the basis of his faith, that is, on the basis of his taking God’s word in the matter of salvation. In reference to this statement Paul later wrote, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:23–25).
7. Genesis also contains the first teaching in the Bible of the sovereign election of God in salvation. When Adam and Eve sinned, they did not come to God. They hid from him. He took the initiative in seeking them out and in beginning to teach the means of salvation through the death of the Mediator. It was the same with Abraham. Abraham did not seek God. He did not even know who the true God was. But God called Abraham and made him the father of a favored nation through whom the Redeemer should come. God chose Isaac and not Ishmael. He chose Jacob and not Esau. In the New Testament Paul uses these examples to show that salvation does not “depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. … God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:16, 18).
8. Finally there are the origins of divine judgment. In the story of God’s encounter with fallen Eve and Adam, we see accountability and a certain degree of judgment, but for the most part judgment is set aside or postponed. This is not so in the judgment of the flood under Noah, through which all but Noah and his immediate family perished. This is brought forward in the New Testament as a reminder of the reality and inescapability of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:3–10).
Back and Forward
When the secularists came along in the middle of the last century and cut the society of their day off from any sense of history, the deed was greeted with cries of joyous appreciation and great glee. To be freed from the past, particularly from the biblical past with its God of moral standards and threats of judgment, seemed to be true liberation. Man was free! And if he was free, he could do as he pleased—which is what he had wanted to do all along—without fear of God or judgment! Unfortunately, secular man did not see at what price this ghost of liberty had been won. Free of the past? Yes! And of the future too! But now man was adrift on a great sea of nothingness, a bubble on the deep, having come from nothing and drifting to a meaningless shore. No wonder that contemporary man is empty, miserable, frustrated. He is on the verge of a monumental breakdown. He gained freedom (so-called) but at the loss of value, meaning, and true dignity. No wonder he is searching for his roots, as Haley’s video phenomenon reminds us.
Fortunately, men and women can go back … and forward too. But the past and future are not in Haley. They are in the Bible where we find ourselves as we truly are—made in the image of almighty God, hence, creatures of value; fallen tragically, yet redeemable by God through the power and grace displayed in Jesus Christ.
About the Preacher
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 1 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.