SERIES: GENESIS – PART 3
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
When we say that Genesis is to be understood historically—as fact rather than fiction—we do not mean that we can understand it fully just because we are historical creatures. Genesis is history, but some of it is beyond us. This is nowhere more apparent than in its first four words.
I say “four words.” But in the Hebrew the words corresponding to our phrase “In the beginning God” are just two: Berasheth … Elohim. Yet, as the late distinguished physicist Arthur Compton once said, these words are “the most tremendous ever penned” (Quoted by Herschel H. Hobbs. The Origin of All Things: Studies in Genesis. Waco, Texas: Word, 1975, 9). Another scholar, John Gerstner, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has written that even if all other evidences for the doctrine were lacking, “the first four words of the Book of Genesis are sufficient proof of the Bible’s inspiration” (John Gerstner, “Man as God Made Him,” in Our Savior: Man, Christ, and the Atonement, ed. James Boice. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980, 20). Why? It is because of the statement’s profundity. The ancient Jewish people were not scientists. They were not even profound theologians or philosophers. So the fact that a relatively primitive people have bequeathed us a book embodying the most profound wisdom—the case with these opening words, as well as other passages—should convince us at the beginning that the book has been given to us by God.
In his study of this verse, Gerstner reflects on a statement made one day in his high school physics class. The professor said, “The greatest question which has ever been asked is why there is something rather than nothing.” At the time the young student was impressed. But he gradually came to see that this is not a profound question at all. In fact, it is not even a true question. Because if nothing really is nothing, then nothing defies conception and the choice vanishes. What is “nothing”? If you think you can answer that question, you are the person least qualified to answer it. As soon as you say, “Nothing is … ,” nothing ceases to be nothing and becomes something. “Nothing is what the sleeping rocks dream of,” said Jonathan Edwards. Therefore, as Gerstner observes, “Anyone who thinks he knows what nothing is must have those rocks in his head” (Ibid).
What was “in the beginning”? If the alternative is between God and nothing, there is really no choice. For nothing is nothing, and we are left with the statement “In the beginning God.”
We must deal with an objection. Some modern translations of Genesis begin differently from the New International Version and the King James Version, and the casual reader as well as the technical scholar might therefore ask whether everything we have said so far is wrongheaded. In some modern translations the opening words of Genesis are treated as a dependent or temporal clause rather than an independent clause, which changes the statement from an affirmation that God was in the beginning before all things to a statement that at some indefinite point in the past both God and matter existed and that God then began to form matter into the universe we know today. We see this translation in a footnote to the Revised Standard Version, which reads, “When God began to create. …” We see it in the New English Bible: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth. …” Even the Living Bible says, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was at first a shapeless, chaotic mass. …”
The implications of these translations are clear. Whether or not they are accurate—we will come to that question in a moment—they clearly deny (or at least overlook) an absolute creation. They make matter preexistent and therefore do not give us an absolute beginning at all.
What shall we say about this interpretation? It is a possible translation, otherwise we would not have it in even some of our Bibles. The word bereʾshith can be taken as a construct. But the fact that this is a possible translation does not mean that it is correct. In fact, when we begin to look into the matter deeply there are several reasons why the older translation should be preferred.
First, there is the normal simplicity of the Hebrew sentence. If the opening clause of Genesis 1 is dependent, then the sentence actually concludes in verse 3 where God speaks and light comes into existence. This means that the sentence is quite long, possessing not one but two subordinate parts (the second being a multiple subordinate clause), and the real flow of the sentence would be: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth being at that time formless and empty, darkness being over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God hovering over the waters—God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” This is unlike a true Hebrew sentence, especially an introductory sentence. It is often the case in German that a series of dependent clauses will begin a sentence and the verb will come twenty or thirty words later at the end, a feature of the language that Mark Twain once described as “falling down stairs.” But this is not the case with Hebrew. Certainly there are dependent clauses. But these are not complex, and one is hard-pressed to believe that, in this case especially, a complicated initial sentence is intended to begin the simple and classically straightforward account of creation that occurs in this chapter. Julius Wellhausen was no conservative—he was, in fact, one of the key figures in the development of the documentary theory of the Pentateuch—but he called the translation we are objecting to “desperate” (E.J. Young, In The Beginning. Young discusses the translation on pages 20-25. He offers a more technical treatment in Studies in Genesis One, “An International Library of Philosophy and Theology,” Philadelphia: P&R, 1976, 1-14).
Second, as has often been shown, the word “create” (the second word of the sentence in Hebrew) is used of God alone and characteristically refers to his bringing into being something that is entirely new. Of course, God also forms things from existing material, but when that happens another word (usually “make” or “made”) is used. “Create” refers to the production of new things from nothing. It is an inappropriate word if the creation referred to in these verses is merely the formation of the earth from preexistent matter.
Third, Genesis is a book of beginnings. But in telling us of these beginnings it has clearly failed at the most crucial point if, in fact, the best it can say is that at the very start matter just happened to be around.
Why is it that so many modern scholars and even some translators prefer to subordinate the first clause? E. J. Young suggests that the real reason is that the Babylonian Epic of Creation, which I referred to in the last sermon, begins this way and that these scholars have a prejudicial desire to have the Genesis account conform to it. The Babylonian account begins: “When on high the heavens were not named, and below the earth had not a name. …” It goes on in that vein for seven lines, introduces another temporal clause, and then gets to the main clause. By subordinating the opening clauses of Genesis 1, the scholars succeed in making Genesis somewhat parallel to the Babylonian account. But, as I have argued, Genesis does not begin that way. It begins by speaking of that absolute beginning of all things, which is God, and then provides us with the most profound insight into the question of origins. It overwhelms us with the profoundly simple statement: “In the beginning God.”
A Set of Denials
The phrase also instructs us concerning the nature of God who alone is the origin of all things. It suggests some negative statements and some positive statements.
The clearest negative statement is the denial of atheism. If God was in the beginning, then there was and is a God. How can it be otherwise? To say less would be to say God is dependent on creation, being subject to the same laws, and therefore could not be at the beginning of creation as Genesis says he was.
A second denial is materialism. When the text says that God was in the beginning, before creation, it sets him apart from creation and therefore apart from the matter of which all else is made. Ours is not an entirely materialistic universe. Moreover, since God created matter, matter did not always exist, which is what a true philosophy of materialism teaches.
Finally, the opening statements of Genesis deny pantheism. Pantheism is the philosophy that God is in matter or is matter. It underlies most pagan or animalistic religions. But if God created matter, then he is separate from it and is superior to it. Any religion that worships matter is idolatrous.
These and many other false philosophies err because they begin with man or matter and work up to God, if indeed they go so far. But Genesis stands against them all when it begins with God and sets him forth as the originator of all things.
The Bible’s God
It is not only through the suggestion of these negatives about God that Genesis 1:1 instructs us. It also suggests some very important positive characteristics.
First, when Genesis begins with the words “In the beginning God,” it is telling us that God is self-existent. This is not true of anything else. Everything else depends on some other thing or person and ultimately on God. Without these prior causes, the thing would not exist. We recognize this truth when we speak of the laws of “cause and effect.” Every effect must have an adequate cause. But God is the ultimate cause and is himself uncaused. God has no origins; this means: first, that as he is in himself he is unknowable, and second, that he is answerable to no one.
Why should God’s self-existence mean he is unknowable? It is because everything we see, smell, hear, taste, or touch has origins and consequently we can hardly think of anything except in these categories. We argue that anything we observe must have a cause adequate to explain it, and we look for such causes. But if God is the cause beyond everything, then he cannot be explained or known as other objects can. Like Robert Jastrow, whom we quoted in the sermon two weeks ago, A. W. Tozer has pointed out that this is one reason why philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God. These disciplines are dedicated to the task of accounting for things and are impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. The scientist will admit that there is much he or she does not know. But it is quite another thing to admit that there is something that we can never know and which, in fact, we do not even have a technique for discovering. To avoid this the scientist may attempt to bring God down to his level, defining him as “natural law,” “evolution,” or some such principle. But God eludes him.
Perhaps, too, this is why even Bible-believing people seem to spend so little time thinking about God’s person and character. Tozer writes, “Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self, back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good—about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives” (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: Harper & Row, 1961, 34).
God’s self-existence also means that he is not answerable to us, and we do not like that. We want God to give an account of himself, to defend his actions. But while he sometimes explains things to us, he does not have to and often does not. God does not have to explain himself to anyone.
Second, that God existed “in the beginning” means that he is self-sufficient. Self-existence means that God has no origins. Self-sufficiency means that God has no needs and therefore depends on no one. This is not true of us. We depend on countless other things—oxygen, for example. If our supply of oxygen is cut off, even for a few moments, we die. We are also dependent on light and heat and gravity and the laws of nature. If even one of these laws should cease to operate, we would all die immediately. But this is not true of God. These things could go—in fact, everything could go—yet God would still exist.
Here we run counter to a widespread and popular idea of God that says God cooperates with man and man with God, each thereby supplying something lacking in the other. It is imagined, for example, that God lacked glory and created us to supply it. Or again, that God needed love and therefore created us to love him. Some talk about creation as if God were lonely and created us to keep him company. But God does not need us.
God does not need worshipers. Arthur W. Pink, who writes on this theme in The Attributes of God, says, “God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to do so was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside himself, determined by nothing but his own mere good pleasure; for he ‘worketh all things after the counsel of his own good will’ (Eph. 1:11). That he did create was simply for his manifestative glory. … God is no gainer even from our worship. He was in no need of that external glory of his grace which arises from his redeemed, for he is glorious enough in himself without that. What was it [that] moved him to predestinate his elect to the praise of the glory of his grace? It was, Ephesians 1:5 tells us, ‘according to the good pleasure of his will.’ … The force of this is [that] it is impossible to bring the Almighty under obligations to the creature; God gains nothing from us” (A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God. Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d., 2-3).
Some will conclude that the value of men and women is thereby lessened, but this is not the case. It is merely located where alone it is possible to sustain our value. According to our way of thinking, we have value because of what we imagine we can do for God. This is prideful, foolish, and vain. According to the biblical perspective, we have value because God grants it to us. Our worth is according to the grace of God in creation and to his election of us to salvation.
God does not need helpers. This truth is probably harder for us to accept than almost any other, for we imagine God as a friendly, but almost pathetic grandfather figure, bustling about to see whom he can find to help him in managing the world and saving the world’s race. This is a travesty. To be sure, God has entrusted a work of management to us. He said to the original pair in Eden, “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” (Gen. 1:28). He has given those who believe on him a commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). But none of these aspects of God’s ordering of his creation has a necessary grounding in himself. He has chosen to do things in this way, but he did not have to. Indeed, he could have done them in any one of a million other ways. That he did choose to do things thus is solely dependent on his own free will and does not give us any inherent value to him.
God does not need defenders. We have opportunities to speak for God before those who would dishonor his name and malign his character. We ought to do so. But even if we do not, we must not think that God is deprived by it. God does not need to be defended, for he is as he is and will remain so regardless of the sinful and arrogant attacks of evil men. A God who needs to be defended is a God who can defend us only when someone is defending him. He is of no use at all. The God of the Bible is the self-existent One who is the true defender of his people.
All this is of great importance, for when we notice that God is the only truly self-sufficient One, we may begin to understand why the Bible has so much to say about the need for faith in God alone and why unbelief in God is such sin. Tozer writes: “Among all created beings, not one dare trust in itself. God alone trusts in himself; all other beings must trust in him. Unbelief is actually perverted faith, for it puts its trust not in the living God but in dying men” (Tozer, KOTH, 42). If we refuse to trust God, what we are actually saying is that either we or some other person or thing is more trustworthy. This is a slander against the character of God, and it is folly, for nothing else is all-sufficient. On the other hand, if we begin by trusting God (by believing on him), then we have a solid foundation for all of life.
Because God is sufficient, we may begin by resting in that sufficiency and so work effectively for him. God does not need us. But the joy of coming to know him is in learning that he nevertheless stoops to work in and through his children.
Third, the truth that God was “in the beginning” means that he is eternal. It means that God is, has always been, and will always be, and that he is ever the same in his eternal being. We discover this attribute of God everywhere in the Bible. Abraham knew God as “the Eternal God” (Gen. 21:33). Moses wrote, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:1–2). The Book of Revelation describes him as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6; cf. 1:8; 22:13). The same book tells us that the four living creatures that surround the throne of God call out day and night, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
That God is eternal has two major consequences for us. First, he can be trusted to remain as he has revealed himself to be. God is unchangeable in his attributes. So we need not fear, for example, that although he has shown his love towards us once in Christ he may nevertheless somehow change his mind and cease to love us in the future. God is always love. Similarly, we must not think that although he has shown himself to be holy he may nevertheless somehow cease to be holy and therefore change his attitude toward our transgressions. Sin will always be sin, because it is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 14), who is unchangeable. We may extend this by saying that God will always be holy, wise, gracious, just, and everything else that he reveals himself to be. Nothing that we do will ever change him. Again, God is unchangeable in his eternal counsel or will. He does what he has determined beforehand to do, and his will never varies. This is a source of great comfort to God’s people. If God were like us, he could not be relied on. He would change, and as a result of that his will and promises would change. We could not depend on him. But God is not like us. He does not change. Consequently, his purposes remain fixed from generation to generation.
The second major consequence for us of God being eternal is that he is inescapable. If he were a mere man and if we did not like either him or what he was doing, we might ignore him, knowing that he might change his mind, move away from us, or die. But God does not change his mind. He does not move away. He will not die. Consequently, we cannot escape him. If we ignore him now, we must reckon with him in the life to come. If we reject him now, we must eventually face the One we have rejected and come to know his own eternal rejection of us.
The God Who is There
In this lies the profundity of the first verse in the Bible. Indeed, we can go farther and say that in some sense this verse may even be the most important verse in the Bible, for at the outset it brings us face-to-face with the God with whom we have to do. This God is not an imaginary god. He is not a god of our own inventions. He is the God who is—the One who is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 4).
Sometimes we wish we could change him. We are like the man who was climbing up a steep mountain on his way to the summit when he began to slip. Unable to stop himself, he slid back down the treacherous incline toward a cliff that plunged a thousand feet to the canyon floor. He was sure he would be killed. But just as he was about to go over the edge he threw his hands out and managed to catch a small branch. There he hung. He had saved himself. But he could not get back onto the incline, and he knew it was just a matter of time until his grip loosened and he fell. He was not a very religious man. But this was obviously the time to become one, if ever. So he looked up to heaven and called out, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?”
He did not expect an answer. So he was greatly surprised when a deep voice came back, saying, “Yes, I am here, and I can help you. But first you are going to have to let go of that branch.”
A long pause! Then the man looked up and called out again, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”
There is no one else. There is only God, the One who was in the beginning and who ever shall be. But he is able to help. More than that, he is willing to help and even urges his help on us. How wonderful it is that we meet him at the beginning. Genesis 1 gives us a chance to come to terms with him and receive the help he offers, knowing that we will certainly meet him at the end.
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 3 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Under Dr. Boice’s leadership, Tenth Presbyterian Church became a model for ministry in America’s northeastern inner cities. When he assumed the pastorate of Tenth Church there were 350 people in regular attendance. At his death the church had grown to a regular Sunday attendance in three services of more than 1,200 persons, a total membership of 1,150 persons. Under his leadership, the church established a pre-school for children ages 3-5 (now defunct), a high school known as City Center Academy, a full range of adult fellowship groups and classes, and specialized outreach ministries to international students, women with crisis pregnancies, homosexual and HIV-positive clients, and the homeless. Many of these ministries are now free-standing from the church.
Dr. Boice gave leadership to groups beyond his own organization. For ten years he served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, from its founding in 1977 until the completion of its work in 1988. ICBI produced three classic, creedal documents: “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics” and “The Chicago Statement on the Application of the Bible to Contemporary Issues.” The organization published many books, held regional “Authority of Scripture” seminars across the country, and sponsored the large lay “Congress on the Bible I,” which met in Washington, D.C., in September 1987. He also served on the Board of Bible Study Fellowship.
He founded the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Alliance) in 1994, initially a group of pastors and theologians who were focused on bringing the 20th and now 21st century church to a new reformation. In 1996 this group met and wrote the Cambridge Declaration. Following the Cambridge meetings, the Alliance assumed leadership of the programs and publications formerly under Evangelical Ministries, Inc. (Dr. Boice) and Christians United for Reformation (Horton) in late 1996.
Dr. Boice was a prodigious world traveler. He journeyed to more than thirty countries in most of the world’s continents, and he taught the Bible in such countries as England, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Guatemala, Korea and Saudi Arabia. He lived in Switzerland for three years while pursuing his doctoral studies.
Dr. Boice held degrees from Harvard University (A.B.), Princeton Theological Seminary (B.D.), the University of Basel, Switzerland (D. Theol.) and the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church (D.D., honorary).
A prolific author, Dr. Boice had contributed nearly forty books on a wide variety of Bible related themes. Most are in the form of expositional commentaries, growing out of his preaching: Psalms (1 volume), Romans (4 volumes), Genesis (3 volumes), Daniel, The Minor Prophets (2 volumes), The Sermon on the Mount, John (5 volumes, reissued in one), Ephesians, Phillippians and The Epistles of John. Many more popular volumes: Hearing God When You Hurt, Mind Renewal in a Mindless Christian Life, Standing on the Rock, The Parables of Jesus, The Christ of Christmas, The Christ of the Open Tomb and Christ’s Call to Discipleship. He also authored Foundations of the Christian Faith a 740-page book of theology for laypersons. Many of these books have been translated into other languages, such as: French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
He was married to Linda Ann Boice (born McNamara), who continues to teach at the high school they co-founded.
Sources: Taken directly from the Aliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Website
from the Tenth Presbyterian Church website
1985 “The Future of Reformed Theology” in David F. Wells, editor,