A Place to Begin
Genesis 1:1; John 17:3
September 19, 1999
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“True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts; the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves.” With this sentence John Calvin begins his famous book, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He goes on to note that it is hard to say which should come first—the knowledge of God or the knowledge of ourselves. If we don’t know who we are, how will we know who God is? But if we don’t know who God is, how will we know ourselves? It is only when we come to know God that we discover who we really are.
Suppose I say to you, “Define God in 20 words or less.” And I give you 30 seconds to do it. What would you say? Does it seem unfair? Suppose I give you 200,000 words and 30 years, would it be any easier? And would you come any closer to the truth?
God is the first fundamental of the universe, which is why we can’t really “define” him. We can describe him but we cannot define the essence of who he is. But we can say this. Knowing God is the most important thing in life. If you live 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 years and you don’t know God, then it doesn’t matter what else you have done with your life. If you don’t know God, you have missed the very reason for your own existence. If you miss knowing God, you have missed the central reality of the universe. Everything else is just crumbs and nibbling around the edges.
Proverbs 9:10 declares that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” If you want wisdom, know God! If you want understanding, seek the Lord!
Let us begin with the very first verse of the Bible, which tells us that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Isn’t it interesting that the Bible begins not with a debate but with a declaration? As if to say, “Either you see this or you don’t.” Apologetics has its place but the Bible assumes the existence of God and moves on from there.
Don’t Start with John 3:16
If you understand Genesis 1:1 and if you believe it, you can believe everything else in the Bible. If you stumble here, you will stumble everywhere for the whole message of the Bible hangs on the truth of this verse. Believe this, and miracles will not trouble you. Believe this, and you will not be troubled by prophecies you don’t understand. But doubt this, and you will doubt everything else as well.
Last month the Kansas State Board of Education voted to remove the word “evolution” from the state science curriculum. It basically means that from now on local school districts will make their own choices regarding what to teach about evolution. The resolution didn’t mention God and didn’t say anything about the Bible or about creationism.
Predictably, the major media had a field day. You would have thought the troglodytes had taken over in Kansas. This will push science education back to the 19th century, the critics said. The poor children of Kansas won’t be able to compete if they don’t know about evolution.
The week Chuck Colson wrote a commentary (inspired, I assume, by the Kansas controversy) called The Dogma of Darwinism: It’s a Religion. He points out that the battle over creation and evolution is really a clash of worldviews. It’s not about dinosaur bones, peppered moths, and interbreeding, but about ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, and destiny. He also quotes Dr. William Provine, a biologist at Cornell University, who sees clearly to the logical end of evolution (which he accepts) as a worldview: “No life after death; no ultimate foundation for ethics; no ultimate meaning for life; no free will.”
Here is part of what Chuck Colson said in response:
This is why, in today’s world, the Christian message must begin with creation. We cannot simply start off with John 3:16 and the gospel message. That’s like starting to read a book in the middle of the story—you don’t know the characters and you can’t make sense of the plot. We need to start with creation, where the main character of the “story” is introduced as the Creator of all, and the “plot” of human history begins to unfold. Creation tells us who we are and why we are here. It tells us our lives DO have ultimate meaning. It gives the basis for morality, because if God created us for a purpose, then morality is the guidebook telling us how we fulfill that purpose. And when we live outside the bounds of the purpose for which we were created, that is sin. Suddenly theological terms make sense. Creation is the basis for the entire Christian worldview.
His first two sentences seem extremely important to me. We evangelicals love to quote John 3:16 (as well we should). But we often assume too much on the part of our hearers. We like to think that when we use the word “God” it means the same thing to unbelievers that it does to us. That’s often not the case. In fact, in our increasingly secularized culture, we can’t be sure that people have any knowledge about the God of the Bible. But if they don’t know who God is, they will trip over the second word of John 3:16. And they won’t understand the rest of it either.
The Gospel Begins With God
So where should we begin in thinking about the gospel? To borrow a phrase from “The Sound of Music,” let’s start at the very beginning, that’s a very good place to start. The Gospel begins with God. Psalm 96:3 tells us to “declare his glory among the nations.” That means our evangelism must involve telling people about God. In many situations we must explain who God is, what he is like, and how he has revealed himself to us. Verse 5 adds this sobering truth: “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” Here are five implications we need to think about.
There is a God.
There is only one God.
We must worship him alone.
We must declare his glory.
We must call the nations to turn from their idols and worship the living and true God.
I. Our Need—To know the God who made us
We were made to know God and we need to know him. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has put eternity in the hearts of men. This brings us face to face with the famous statement that there is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside each person. God made us to know him. He designed us so that we would want to know him—and then he guaranteed we wouldn’t be happy unless he himself fills the void within. Anthropologists tell us that man by nature is incurably religious. There is something in him that drives him to seek ultimate meaning outside himself. He may turn to God or he may worship idols of his own making or the evil spirits of his ancestors. That “something” inside him is put there by God. Augustine gave us this oft-quoted prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
So we restlessly search for God (though we don’t always know that’s what we are doing). Our problem is that we feel a distance from God. It’s like being around someone who seems to dress and act much nicer than we do. When we come into the presence of such a person, we instinctively check our hands to see if there is dirt under our fingernails. Multiply that by infinity and that’s our problem with God. We want to know him but we can’t come close because his character makes us feel dirty by comparison. So we concoct two solutions for our problem with God.
Our solution #1: That God should lower his standards. We hope against hope that he will stop insisting on perfection. We think that maybe he will “grade on the curve” and let us in even though we aren’t perfect like he is. But if he lowered his standards, he would cease to be God. This solution won’t work at all.
Our solution #2: We compare ourselves to others just like us so that we don’t look so bad. And it’s true, we may be relatively better or worse than our next-door neighbors. But that doesn’t bring us any closer to knowing God.
God is too good for us. And we are not good enough for him.
II. God’s Desire—That we should know Him
The whole Bible testifies that God wants us to know him. In a sense that is the theme of the Bible—how God created us, how we rebelled against him, and how God set about rescuing people who had turned against him. The story is clear enough. God sent prophets, priests, and messengers of various sorts. He sent messages that people could read. But we (the human race) didn’t want anything to do with God. So we ignored his message and sometimes killed his messengers. Then he sent his Son, the ultimate expression of his love. And we killed him too. But in his death God made a way for anyone and everyone to be forgiven.
Let’s go back to the very beginning of the story for a moment. When God first created the world, he also created Adam and Eve and made them “in his image” and “after his likeness.” These simple phrases are full of meaning for us. We were made in God’s image, which means there is something in us that corresponds to who God is. You and I were made with the ability to know God personally. Dogs don’t pray, birds don’t pray, fish don’t pray, but we pray. Why? Because there is a “God-consciousness” inside every heart. It is that “God-consciousness” that makes us want to know God and makes us eager to find out why we were put on planet earth.
But there’s another part of the story. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, that image of God within each of us has been marred by sin. I picture a piece of paper with the words GOD’S IMAGE in huge letters. Before Adam and Eve sinned, that paper was clean and smooth. But now for all of us that paper is crumpled, dirty and torn. But it is never completely destroyed. Despite all our failures we still want to know God, we still want to find meaning in life, but now we don’t know where to look.
To use a very modern phrase, we are left with a kind of “Father Hunger.” That’s a phrase used to describe children growing up in a family without a strong and compassionate father figure. He may be absent or he may have abandoned his family. Children growing up in a home like that desperately want a father and sometimes they will look for someone (or something) to fill that void.
On a much larger scale that’s the story of all humanity. We were made to know God and we want to know him, but sin has created a gap so that we are left with a deep “Father hunger” that won’t seem to go away.
III. Our Search—In all the wrong places
What do we do? Like the song says, we look for love in all the wrong places. Many years ago I remember seeing the “Bridge Illustration” (made famous by the Navigators). It’s a very simple way to explain the gospel using nothing but a pen and a napkin. You begin by drawing a cliff on one side of the napkin and labeling it “God.” Then on the other side you draw a cliff and label it “Us.” The gap in between is caused by our own sin. As we stand on our side something in us tells us we belong on the other side, with the God who made us. So we set out to build a bridge across the great chasm.
At this point you draw lines representing various attempts to find God. One is labeled “Money,” another “Education,” another “Sex,” another “Power,” another “Science,” another “Success,” another “Approval,” another “Relationships,” another “Religion.” You can make as many bridges as you want as long as none of the bridges reach the other side. Each one ends somewhere in the middle, illustrating the truth that you can never find God by starting where you are. No matter which road you take, you fall into the great chasm and end up being broken on the jagged rocks of reality.
The prophet Jeremiah used a vivid word picture to describe the futility of trying to get back to God on our own terms: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). I imagine people filling barrels of water, not noticing they are cracked so that no matter how much water you pour in the top, it gushes out the sides and you always end up empty.
That’s what I mean by searching in all the wrong places. Nothing in this world can satisfy our longing because nothing in this world can lead us back to God. The answer we need must come from outside this world.
The mathematician Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I can move the world.” It’s true. The challenge is not to find a lever long enough; it’s finding a place to stand. To move the world you must stand outside the world.
Three thousand years ago a man named Solomon went on a search to find the key to the meaning of life. He recorded his findings in a book called Ecclesiastes. In the first two chapters he tells about his grand experiment. He built buildings, planted vast gardens, tried the party scene and checked out intoxicating stimulants. He gathered books and amassed a vast store of human knowledge. Anything he wanted, he got for himself. Nothing was held back. He tried anything and everything in his search for meaning.
He reported his finding in three terse words: “I hated life” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). When nothing satisfies, when you’ve truly tried it all, when you can say with calm assurance, “Been there, done that” and you still feel the emptiness within, what do you do then? Solomon’s conclusion could stand as an epitaph for every generation.
Here is our problem in a nutshell. We were made by God to know God. There is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside each person that causes us to seek after the One who made us. Since we can’t find him on our own, we end up searching in all the wrong places. And still that eternal longing is not fulfilled. Try as we might we cannot find God on our own.
IV. God’s Solution—He has made himself known
In the end we are left with this great truth. We can never know God unless he reveals himself to us. Try as we might we always end up in the darkness, seeking a God we know is there but cannot seem to find. But God has not left us to live in darkness forever. He has revealed himself in three primary ways:
In creation—Everyone sees this.
In the human conscience—Everyone has this.
In his written Word to us—Not everyone knows this.
What about the Lord Jesus Christ? Is he not a revelation of God? Yes, indeed. Jesus is “God incarnate,” that is, God clothed with human flesh. When Jesus walked on the earth, he was the God-man, fully God and fully man at the same time. Jesus is the supreme revelation of God. He is like the light that shines out from the sun. To see the light is to see the sun itself.
The Bible says a great deal about who God is and how he has revealed himself. Here are five facts about God you need to know:
#1 He is the Sovereign Lord
God is the purest, simplest, most basic being in the universe. He is a personal God—not an impersonal force. Because he is infinite, he is not subject to loss, corruption or decay. Because he is eternal, he always was, always is, and always will be. He is present everywhere in the universe through all time and space. He is the “unmoved mover,” the source of all that is. He is the power behind all other power.
His character is unchanging—therefore entirely dependable. What he says, he will do. Because he has the only truly “free will” in the universe, he does whatever he pleases.
God is holy, which means he is utterly pure, free from all evil, totally without blame or error. Holiness is what makes God God. He never lowers his standards, never compromises, and makes no “deals.” All that he does is right and just. There is no falsehood in him or from him. He makes the rules and no one can object. He himself is the final standard of right and wrong. Therefore, everything he says about you and me is true.
#2 He created all things
God designed everything that is, he initiated creation, and personally brought all things into being. The universe did not happen by chance, accident, or by the random collision of cells. It is not the product of naturalistic evolution. God spoke and the universe came into being. He is therefore the source of all things—living and non-living. All things were made by him and all things exist at this moment by his powerful word. This means that he personally created you, that you were put on this earth for a reason, and the highest purpose of your life is to know the God who made you.
#3 He made you in his image
You were made to know God. Something in you yearns to know the God who created you. That yearning may be hidden deep within or perhaps you can feel it inside you at this moment. Perhaps you have tried to cover it up or to satisfy your longings with the things of this world. But it doesn’t work. You were made with desires that nothing in this world can satisfy. Only God can fill the hole in your heart.
#4 He knows all about you
Theologians call this “omniscience,” which simply means that God knows everything—the past, the present, and the future. He is never caught by surprise by anything that happens anywhere in the universe. Nothing is hidden from him. That includes your secret thoughts, your dreams, and your unfulfilled desires. He knows your words before you speak them and your thoughts before you think them. He knows where you were last night and who you were with. He knows the whole story of your life—the good, the not-so-good, and the downright ugly. Those secret things that no one else knows about? He knows them all and he knows them completely.
#5 He cares about you
The Bible tells us that “God is love.” He is perfect, infinite love. His love is undeserved. Never think that you “deserve” God’s love. There is nothing lovely in you apart from God’s grace. And this is the miracle. God loves the unlovely. He even loves his enemies. He proved it by sending His Son to the earth. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
If that is who God is, we need to know him. I end where I began. If you live 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 years, and if you amass great wealth and power, and if you have much success and a happy life, if your family is healthy and if your marriage is blessed, all of it will be for nothing if you do not know God. Truly, if you have everything I mentioned and yet do not know God, you have missed the purpose for your own existence and you have wasted your years on the earth. The other things are good in themselves, but they cannot compare with the surpassing value of knowing God.
To miss knowing this God is to miss the central truth of the universe. It’s like visiting Niagara Falls and seeing everything but Niagara Falls. It’s like traveling to Yellowstone and seeing everything but Old Faithful. It’s like going to Paris and seeing everything but the Eiffel Tower.
Knowing the God who made you is the most important thing in life. It gives meaning and purpose to everything else. If you don’t know God, you will spend all your days in the pursuit of things that cannot satisfy.
“Shoot me if you want to”
And what will you do when you die? That’s not an idle question. Sooner or later we will all face death. What will you do then?
The question became very personal for the youth group at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas last Wednesday night. It was shortly after 7:00 p.m. and over 300 teenagers had gathered in the sanctuary for a youth rally celebrating “See You at the Pole,” which happened earlier that day in schools across America. While the students and their leaders were singing, Larry Gene Ashbrook entered the sanctuary. Dressed in black, he slowly, methodically opened fire, spewing vile language as he shot first one person, then another. Then he paused, calmly reloaded, and began to shoot again.
Through the screams, shouts, smoke and bloodshed, a 19-year old young man stood to his feet. Jeremiah Nietz decided he had seen enough. He wasn’t going to stand by and watch his friends murdered one by one. Facing the gunman he said, “Sir, you don’t need to do that.” Ashbrook replied with a foul comment. “I know what you need,” said Jeremiah Nietz. “You need Jesus Christ in your life.” At that moment the shooter pointed his gun directly at the young man standing only a few feet away. “Shoot me if you want to. I know where I’m going when I die. What about you?” Something in those words seemed to pierce the twisted, evil heart of Larry Gene Ashbrook. He slowly sat down, uttered another swear word, then put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Out of that awful story comes one shining truth. It is only by knowing God that we can have the certainty that gave a 19-year-old boy the courage to look death in the eye. And the way to know God is through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Prayer for Guidance
Let’s wrap up this message with John 3:17, a verse often overlooked because it comes after the most famous verse in the Bible. But its message is right on target: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Here is the ultimate good news. Jesus came to save you, not to condemn you. Through him you can be saved, your life can be transformed, you can know God personally, and you can have absolute assurance that you will go to heaven when you die.
Since this is the first in a series of messages on the gospel, I’d like to suggest a prayer you can pray asking God for spiritual guidance. It may be that as you read my words, you realize that you need to know God and you want to know God but you’re not quite sure what to do next. If this prayer expresses the desire of your heart, I hope you’ll make it your own and pray it one phrase at a time.
Dear God, I want to know you. If you are really there, please reveal yourself to me. Show me the truth about myself. Open my eyes and create faith in my heart. Give me the gift of an open mind to receive your truth. Grant that my deepest questions may be answered with your truth. Help me to seek you with all my heart. And may I find you and be satisfied with what I find. Amen.
And now may God give all of us great confidence in the gospel. Lord, give us eyes to see the hurting people all around us who desperately want to know you but don’t know where to look. Help us to help them find you, and in finding you, may they find eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.