Our subject this morning as we continue our studies in the Nicene Creed is THE MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH and I especially want to refer to Genesis 1. I have four headings: first, POSITIVE TEACHING, secondly, POLEMICAL APPLICATION, thirdly, PROPER EXEGESIS, and, fourthly, PRACTICAL ENCOURAGEMENT
But by way of introduction may I tell you about Franklin D Roosevelt, the US President during the Second World War? He used to have a little ritual with the famous naturalist, William Beebe. After an evening’s discussion the two men would go outside and look into the night sky. Gazing at the stars, they would find the lower left-hand corner of the great square of Pegasus. One of them would then recite these words as part of the ritual: “That is a spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our sun.” They would then pause, and Roosevelt would finally say: “Now I think we feel small enough. Let us go to bed!” However, listen to King David. He could say:
“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens … When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8.1,3-4).
So when David went to bed he didn’t just think of how small he was. He realised how great God is. And that is the beginning of wisdom. Proverbs 9.10 says: "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” And godly fear involves reverence, trust, love, obedience, and worship as the proper response to God’s self-revelation. But the first words of that self-revelation in the Bible are these: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1.1).
If you ignore that cosmic fact, you will know little of the reality of God.
So, our first, heading, POSITIVE TEACHING.
The fundamental teaching on creation is there in that verse 1 of Genesis 1. It is that the God of the Bible, not someone or something else, was responsible for this universe. It was he who created the heavens and the earth. Therefore it is a great sin when men and women have…
“… exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom 1.25).
Now, there are many lessons to be learnt from the fact of God’s creation. Let me list seven.
One, this universe (or world) that God has created is quite distinct from him. But it is entirely dependent on him for its sustaining and maintaining. The Bible says that it is in Christ that “all things hold together” (Col 1.17). That is an amazing fact. Yes, the creator God is the triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So, two, it is not just the Father who is involved in creation. Genesis 1 verse 2 speaks about the “Spirit of God … hovering over the waters”. Genesis 1 verse 3 refers to the agent in creation being God’s word, “God said, ‘Let there be light.” And John, as we heard in our New Testament reading (John 1), identified that “word” with the pre-incarnate divine Son, Jesus Christ.
Then, three, of course, God’s work in creation is a mystery. As we heard in our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 40.28:
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth … and his understanding no-one can fathom.”
Such are our finite human minds.
Four, it is clear that our God is a creator and not just a craftsman. The universe has not been fashioned out of pre-existent matter. As the theologians say, it is ex nihilo (meaning “out of nothing”). That does not explain the mystery. It simply states it. So Hebrews 11.3 says:
“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.”
Five, the first chapter of Genesis also teaches that the created world is good. It has that constant refrain – “God saw it was good”. So Paul says to Timothy in the New Testament:
“everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4.4).
Six, Genesis 1 also teaches that God not only created matter and space. He also created time. That is the underlying meaning of the “days” of creation that he created. So God is not “in time” he is “outside time”.
And, seven, and most importantly, Genesis 1 teaches that man (understood as “man and woman”) is the high-point of creation. There is, therefore, a hierarchy in the created order. And at the pinnacle is mankind. Verse 27 says this:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
That threefold “create” expresses the superlative. That is to say, this is the most important and most significant thing of all. So man is not, as has been put…
“nothing but fat enough for seven bars of soap, iron enough for one medium-sized nail, sugar enough to fill seven cups of tea, lime enough to whitewash one chicken coop, phosphorus enough to tip 2,200 matches, magnesium enough for one dose of salts, potash enough to explode one toy crane, and sulphur enough to rid one dog of fleas.”
So you can never say (as also has been said) that man is “nothing but an accidental coincidence on a minor speck of interstellar dust”. Genesis 1 gives the lie to that.
Being in the “image of God” at least means human beings are uniquely able to “think, choose, create, love and worship”. Dust cannot do those things. Indeed, dust goes into the dust-bin. That is why, having lost the concept of “man in God’s image”, many in the modern world have no problems with putting nearly-born human beings into hospital incinerators, while in the ancient world many had no problems with putting newly-born human beings also out with the refuse. Being in the image of God means you must show respect for every human being, from conception to death. Genesis 9.6 says:
"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
And people can kill other people because that image, as Genesis 3 shows, is now defaced through the Fall of Adam and Eve but it is not destroyed.
So much for some positive teaching from the fact that God is our maker.
But, secondly, there is POLEMICAL APPLICATION
This is teaching about creation used directly to contradict what is currently in fashion and believed.
Israel was situated between the great empires of Babylon to the north and east, and of Egypt to the south. In Egypt especially there was sun worship centred at On, the Greek name of which was Heliopolis, “the city of the sun”. And Egyptian influence meant God’s people could drift with the tide of “sun worship”. Jeremiah cites one example of this drift. Speaking of kings, priests, prophets and the people of Judah and Jerusalem, he refers to…
“… the sun and the moon and all the stars of the heavens, which they have loved and served and which they have followed and consulted and worshiped” (Jer 8.2).
But Genesis de-mythologizes all such religion. It subtly attacks these practices and beliefs. It makes clear that the sun, moon and stars are not gods with power over you and to be worshipped but the creation of the one true God. Look at 1 verses 14-18:
“14And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.’ And it was so. 16God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.”
The sun, moon and stars are not gods but items for creation’s benefit. That is why horoscopes are wrong and misleading.
Then there were Babylonian influences that God’s people needed to resist. Some argue there are parallels between other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, especially the Babylonian epic known as Enuma Elish, and Genesis 1-3. Common sense, however, says these accounts are not similar but so different.
The Babylonian gods are immoral and fight one another. Marduk their highest god, attacks and kills Tiamat, the mother-goddess. Then he splits her body in two with half becoming sky, the other half the earth. So you have crude polytheism in the Babylonian epic versus the ethical monotheism of Genesis 1. They are light years apart. Yet some would have said then, as is said today, “Go along with Babylonian and other religions with all their seductions. Be ‘multi-faith.” But as people read or heard Genesis in Old Testament times they could not fail to see it was nothing like the Babylonian understanding of the universe. Rather Genesis was and is a contradiction of Babylonian type religion.
Moving on to New Testament times - Genesis 1 would have then been seen as a challenge to the beliefs of the Epicureans and Stoics that you read about in Acts 17.18. The belief system behind the Epicurean and Stoic schools had come from the earlier Greek philosopher, Democritus. So Epicurus claimed that all existence is matter. Ultimately there are atoms and void. The Stoics, too, held an atomic theory of the universe, in such a way that every event was caused by some other event “according to natural law”. Everything was determined.
And these ideas were current in Palestine and the Roman world in the time of Jesus and the Apostles. It was in this sceptical context that the gospel was often first preached. The early Christians had to face the challenges of cosmology and origin science as we have to face them today. So beware of thinking the present is unique.
The first major scientific development after the apostolic age came in the second century. There were new developments in astronomy at Alexandria in Egypt associated with Ptolemy. His was a new geocentric model that became orthodoxy until Copernicus introduced a heliocentric orthodoxy in 1543. That lasted until modern times and the new physics. Ptolemy, however, taught that: “the earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point”. And this was in the second century AD. But the greatest minds in the Church were not put off by new thinking. They realised how provisional even the best scientific descriptions are.
Basil of Cappadocia not long afterwards in the fourth century, discussing Genesis 1, produced a very practical philosophy of science. He said:
“natural scientists and philosophers have attempted to ‘explain’ nature; but not one of their theories or systems has remained firm and unshaken; each is overthrown by its successor. Refutation is thus unnecessary.
That is the view of some historians and philosophers of science today particularly regarding physics, and also biology when it has no chance of empirical verification. If a theory or model is useful for practical purposes, use it. But be careful of thinking that you are giving absolute truth about the nature of the universe. Basil of Cappadocia also says this in the fourth century (I quote verbatim):
“Those for whom the concept of ‘God’ is meaningless are unwilling to admit that a rational being was in control at the inception of the Universe … Take the ‘materialists’ – those who say matter is all there is, matter is ultimate, or put more technically, atoms, molecules etc. (invisible entities) coalescing make up the visible world. It is because they don’t know how to say, “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth” (Gen 1.1). An atheistic philosophy of the world has misled them; and it appears then that nothing governs or rules the universe, but all is given up to mere chance.”
So much for polemical application. But in all this there needs to be …
… thirdly, PROPER EXEGESIS of the Bible texts on creation.
What does that mean? Well, exegesis is getting out of the texts what the author intended. Eisegesis by contrast is putting into the text more than the author intended. And you have to know what you are dealing with in any given text. Obviously the poetry of the Psalms is different to the prose of the prophets and the legislation of Leviticus.
Then you need to understand and expound the text, but, as the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England say, not “so [to] expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” You are to interpret the Bible as a whole. And there is a special difficulty with Genesis 1-3. It not only contains two (but complimentary) creation accounts that are quite different. It also forms the prologue to chapters 1-11 that forms the prologue to Genesis as a whole, which is a prologue to the Bible as a whole. So Genesis 1-3 is quite unique.
It certainly contains symbolism, but it also certainly relates to what happened. Adam, meaning mankind, and Eve, meaning living, while being symbolic also have to be the first real man and woman, as other passages make clear. But how much in Genesis 1-3 is symbolism and how much isn’t? Let me tell you how I read Genesis.
I come to it, I trust, with theological assumptions on Creation that come from the rest of the Bible and are confirmed by the wisdom of the mainstream Christian tradition. I also have philosophical assumptions about natural science that have come to me from contemporary philosophers. I agree with those who say that in both cosmology and origins biology you can have some theories that are one half science and one half “metaphysics”. For it is difficult to see how the Second Law of Thermodynamics (where the universe is seen as running down) and “Evolution with a capital E” (where the universe is seen as getting better) can both at the same time provide total explanations, as “the Dawkins” of this world would like.
Here’s a very imperfect analogy from Geography about all this.
Let’s imagine a city, which has three dimensions. Let that stand for the reality of God and all his working in creation, preservation and much more. Then let’s imagine portrayals of this city in two dimensions on paper or a computer screen. Let that stand for our finite language and theories. And these portrayals can be in terms of satellite pictures, simple maps of main roads and bar charts on specific topics.
My conviction is that the Holy Spirit of God in Genesis 1-3 has given you the equivalent of the maps that help you find your way around rather than satellite pictures; and such truths as there are in cosmological and evolutionary theories are partial and more like bar charts. All that is why, I personally, am worried by both Christians and Secularists when they think they have satellite pictures (albeit very different ones).
Time has gone – so fourthly, and briefly, PRACTICAL ENCOURAGEMENT.
The Old Testament, says Paul, in Romans 15.4 was for our encouragement and to give us hope. It certainly does that in respect of its teaching on creation. Go back to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 40. Look at verse 27:
“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God’?”
Who this morning is like that? Like the Jews in their Babylonian exile, you are in a very difficult situation. And you are thinking that God is ignoring you because he doesn’t seem to be helping you. But this says he knows exactly what you are thinking and saying to yourself.
So let him give you, as he gave the Jews in Babylon, a new vision of his greatness in creation.
Look at verse 26 of Isaiah 40:
“Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing … [verse 28] Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.”
So trust that promise; and remember some words of John Stott, a great Bible commentator:
“Nothing is more important when we are in trouble than a fresh vision of God.”