“In the Beginning”: The Most Important Verse in the Bible
April 21, 2002
Today we are beginning a new sermon series entitled First Things: The Amazing True Story of How the World Came to Be. Over the next few months we’ll be looking in detail at the opening chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-11. Our goal is abundantly simple. We want to know what God has said about the origin of the universe. More than that, we want to know where we came from and how we got here. Are we the chance products of mindless evolution or are we here because God created us? When you put it that way, the issue is very stark indeed. Did the universe just “happen” or was it caused? Did the human race rise up from the primordial ooze or were we intentionally created by the hand of God? As we will see in the days ahead, those questions are fundamental to our understanding of reality itself. If you believe that we evolved over billions of years, that we are nothing more than time plus chance plus a few helpful mutations that separate us from the shark and the koala bear and the porcupine, if that’s what we are and that’s all we are, then you don’t need God because the universe can take care of itself quite nicely without him. But if you believe that every single man and woman is a creation of God and that we are unique because God made us in his image, then you will have an entirely different view of the universe and your place in it.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
The stakes are very high, indeed. Say what you will about Genesis 1-11, but sooner or later you have to deal with it. This is where the Bible begins so we can’t escape it or ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. Our church theme this year is “God’s Word: Our Unshakable Foundation.” If we mean to take that seriously, then we ought to make sure our own spiritual foundation is strong and secure. A song from The Sound of Music says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Absolutely right, and where else would you start but with the very beginning of the Bible? So that’s what we intend to do. By God’s grace, we will “start at the very beginning” and see what God has in store for us. I think we’re going to have a wonderful time as we journey through these early chapters of the Bible.
It’s only fair that I tell you right up front where I’m coming from. I accept the words of Genesis 1-11 as literal truth from God. As I read these chapters, I find them to be exalted and yet simple. No other writing in all human literature possesses the grandeur of these opening chapters of the Bible. The subtitle of this series calls it “the amazing true story of how the world came to be.” My son Mark suggested the phrase “amazing true story,” and it certainly fits. There are many amazing things in Genesis 1-11 and they are all literally true. Because I believe they are all literally true, I reject outright the notion that these chapters are myth or legend or poetry. Read it and see for yourself. You may not believe everything you read, but I do not think you will come away saying, “This was meant to be a fairy tale.” To the contrary, these chapters were meant to be taken as a true account of the origin of the human race, and that is how we will approach them in this sermon series.
The Hottest Battleground
I should add that these chapters are the hottest battleground in the Bible. For well over a hundred years, from the time of Charles Darwin until the present day, unbelievers, skeptics, infidels, and doubters of all varieties have leveled their rhetorical artillery at Genesis 1-11. They have attacked this section of God’s Word from every possible angle. We are told again and again that science has proved that these chapters cannot possibly be true, that evolution must be accepted as fact, and that no intelligent person could ever actually believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal serpent talking, a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Cain and Abel, a literal Noah, a literal ark, and certainly not in a literal, worldwide flood, much less in a literal Tower of Babel. These things are nonsense (so we are told), foolishness, and the product of a pre-scientific era. Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians have bought into these attacks to a significant degree. Because we are intimidated by the cacophony of criticism that comes whenever we dare to say, “Yes, we do believe this is how the world came to be,” it has been easier for us to keep silent so we won’t be mocked, or to make a series of compromises so that we can live at peace with the unbelieving majority that largely controls education in America and the media. I am going to say over and over again in this series that there is no need to make any compromises with unbelievers. It never works, it never helps, and they won’t be convinced by our compromising anyway. If they’re going to shoot at us, we might as well fight it out with our guns blazing. I think that many of us who say we believe the Bible have a mental asterisk by the book of Genesis because we know how controversial it is. We believe it but we have some internal doubts. This series will have been successful if by the end the mental asterisk is gone.
I should add that these chapters present us a whole array of intriguing questions. Here are just a few of them:
1) How long were the “days” of Genesis 1?
2) Were Adam and Eve real people?
3) Where was the Garden of Eden?
4) Did God really make Eve from Adam’s rib?
5) Why did Satan appear to Eve as a serpent?
6) Could all the animals talk back then?
7) What is original sin?
8) Why was Adam sentenced to toil and sweat and Eve to pain in childbirth?
9) Where did Cain get his wife?
10) Why did God tell Noah to make an ark out of gopher wood?
11) What’s gopher wood?
12) Was there really a flood and did it really cover the whole earth?
13) What happened to the dinosaurs?
14) Who were the “giants” who roamed the earth in Noah’s day?
15) Is it true that before the flood some people lived to be 900 years old?
16) Is it true that it never rained until the flood?
17) Why did God use a rainbow to make a promise?
18) Why was Canaan cursed and what does it mean today?
19) What really happened at the Tower of Babel?
Then there are some other questions that pop up from time to time, such as, “Did Adam have a belly-button?” and “How did Noah keep the ark clean with all those animals on board?”
And there are other questions relating to the trustworthiness of the Bible. Is it true that there are two creation accounts and do they really contradict each other? How do we reconcile the Bible with the findings of modern science?
Finally, there is a whole range of questions relating to contemporary social issues: How does Genesis 1-11 help us understand the roles of men and women in the home and in the church? How does Genesis 2 apply to the question of homosexuality and gay marriage? What should we learn from Genesis 1 about cloning and stem cell research and from Genesis 9 about capital punishment and abortion? What is the biblical foundation for marriage and the family? Is euthanasia wrong? What is the biblical basis for human rights? Why is racism wrong?
The Headwaters of Divine Revelation
These are just some of the questions we encounter as we study Genesis 1-11. I hasten to add that I am not going to be able to answer all these questions. For some of them, the Bible doesn’t tell us enough to offer an answer. In some cases, the answers are clear and of vital importance. We’re going to try to note those answers when we come to them in the text.
And so I invite your careful attention as we begin our journey together. Remember that this is the Word of God to us, to you and to me. Genesis 1-11 is the seed plot of the entire Bible. What the acorn is to the oak, so this passage is to the rest of the Bible. These are the headwaters of divine revelation. Everything God wants us to know starts right here.
In her book on Genesis 1-11 called “God’s Story,” Anne Graham Lotz makes much of the fact that Genesis is an eyewitness account. She points out that in a court of law nothing is more valuable than an eyewitness who can relate exactly what he saw and heard. Every week criminals are convicted on the testimony of eyewitnesses whose stories could not be impeached. Genesis is God’s eyewitness testimony to the creation of the world, which is one reason why skeptics attack it so bitterly. Satan hates this portion of God’s Word because of its message. Genesis 1-11 establishes that there is a God who reigns supreme over the universe. It tells us that God made us, that he established the rules for life, and therefore we are totally accountable to him. In a deep sense, the purpose of these chapters is to reveal God to us that we might come to know him personally.
The First Question You Must Answer
There are three questions we all must answer eventually:
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
You can never answer the last question until you answer the second question, and you will never answer the second question until you answer the first one. Genesis tells us where we came from and it also tells us why we are here. We were made by God and we were put on the earth to know God and to serve him. And in serving him we find meaning and purpose and fulfillment and incredible satisfaction and a sense of self-worth. We were made for God and the more we know about him, the happier we will be.
As we begin our study together, I urge you to ask the Lord for his guidance. Pray like this: “O Lord, reveal yourself to me as I study your Word. Show me who you are that I may know who I am. I want to know you so that I might know your purpose for my life. May your Spirit give me an open heart and ears to hear what you are saying to me. Amen.”
With that we come to the very first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). As I study this verse, I am struck by the fact that it is a declaration, not an argument. As far as I can tell, the Bible nowhere argues for the existence of God. The Bible simply declares that God is and that he created all things. A few years ago E. V. Hill preached a powerful sermon at a Promise Keepers gathering in Chicago. In his own unforgettable style, he preached for 40 minutes on just two words: “God is.” He said it over and over again. He whispered it and he shouted it. He illustrated it, declared it, proclaimed it, and dared anyone to deny it. You wouldn’t think you could preach that long on just two words but he did, and when you think about it, you could preach a lot longer when your topic is as profound as “God is.” Once you get it settled in your heart that “God is,” a lot of other problems will be solved as well.
As far as I can tell, the Bible nowhere argues for the existence of God.
I’d like to briefly suggest four implications from Genesis 1:1. If this is true, what then follows?
#1: The Universe Had a Definite Beginning.
The text says, “in the beginning,” referring to the beginning of all created things. When the Jews named this book, they named it after the first word of the Hebrew text, which literally means “In the beginning” or as a title, “The Beginning.” This is where everything starts.
That fact helps us understand that matter is not eternal. There was a time when matter as we know it did not exist. The universe is not eternal. There is a time when the heavens and the earth did not exist. The things we see around us, the trees and the buildings and the cars we drive, the things we own, the mountains and the oceans, none of it has been here forever. Only God is eternal. Everything else had a beginning. Even time itself was created by God.
This world is God’s house. He’s left clues everywhere about what kind of God he is.
That raises a question that children like to ask (and adults secretly wonder about): Who created God? The answer is, no one “created” God. He was there before the beginning. He had no beginning and he did not create himself. He was, he is, and he will always be. I freely admit that we cannot comprehend what that means. But know this. God stretches back farther than the mind can imagine. He goes far beyond the reaches of chemistry or biology or history or mathematics or quantum mechanics or the speculations of theoretical cosmology. He dwells in eternity, which means no telescope can find him and no computer program can define him.
Once the great Augustine was asked what God was doing before he created the world. He thought for a moment and then replied, “He was creating hell for people who ask questions like that.”
#2: The Universe Was Created By God Out of Nothing.
The Apostles’ Creed begins with these simple, majestic words: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Ponder this thought. Genesis 1:1 tells us that God created all that we see around us. He created the sun and the stars and the moon and the planets. He created the comets and the asteroids. He created the quasars and the pulsars and the black holes of space. Scientists estimate there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Scientists estimate there are more than 100 billion galaxies, each with at least 100 billion stars. Imagine that. And God hung each one in space and calls each one by name (“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” Psalm 147:4). No wonder the Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV).
God has left his fingerprints all over the universe. You have to be blind not to see them. Let me illustrate. Suppose you were to visit my house while I was not there. How much could you learn about my family just from looking around? You might suspect we had boys from the basketball goal above the garage door. Although you might not know I was a pastor, you would certainly know I studied the Bible from seeing all the Bibles and commentaries strewn around the computer in the corner of our dining room. In our bedroom you would find artifacts from our trips to the Holy Land. By counting the beds you would figure out that we probably have three boys. And if you looked in my closet, you’d discover I’m tall just by looking at my suits. There’s a lot more a careful observer could discover about the Pritchard family just by rummaging around through our drawers and bookshelves. In the end, you’d know a lot about me although you wouldn’t know me personally. The clues are everywhere for those who care to look.
This world is God’s house. He’s left clues everywhere about what kind of God he is. When you stand at the Grand Canyon, you can’t help but be overwhelmed at the mighty power of God to create such magnificence. He must have had a mighty hand to scoop out the Royal Gorge in Colorado. He is as infinite as the dark recesses of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Each snowflake testifies to his uniqueness. The changing colors of the Great Smoky Mountains proclaim his creativity.
The galaxies shout out, “He is there.” The wildflowers sing together, “He is there.” The rippling brooks join in, “He is there.” The birds sing it, the lions roar it, the fish write it in the oceans—”He is there.” All creation joins to sing his praise. The heavens declare it, the earth repeats it and the wind whispers it—”He is there.” Deep cries out to deep, the mighty sequoia tells it to the eagle who soars overhead, the lamb and the wolf agree on this one thing—”He is there.” No one can miss the message. God has left his fingerprints all over this world. Truly, “This is my Father’s world,” and every rock, every twig, every river and every mountain bears his signature. He signed his name to everything he made. The earth is marked “Made By God” in letters so big that no one fails to see it.
The Unstumpable God!
He created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. The technical term is ex nihilo. He spoke and the stars filled the sky. He spoke and the birds began to fly. He spoke and the fish began to swim. He spoke and the roses began to bloom. He spoke and the snail began to creep, the coyote began to howl, and the hummingbird started to hum. Hebrews 11:3 explains creation this way: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” When God wanted a turtle, he said, “Turtle, be,” and the turtle poked his head out from his shell for the very first time.
On the basis of Genesis 1:1, we know these things are true:
He is sovereign. He is Almighty. He is Omnipotent. He is Supreme.
Only God creates. We don’t create anything. We take existing material and fashion it into something new. We make things. Only God creates something from nothing.
Because he is the Creator, he is greater than his creation. Because he is the Creator, he is absolutely supreme over all things. That means there is nothing in my life that is greater than God. And there is no problem I have that he cannot solve. Nothing that baffles me baffles him. Nothing that stumps me stumps him. He is the Unstumpable God!
Evolution for some people is just an excuse to reject God’s sovereignty.
#3: All Things Owe Their Existence to God the Creator.
This point follows from the previous two. Because God is the Creator, he is also the owner of all things. If I make a toy boat, I can truly say, “This is mine. I made it and I own it.” Since God made us, he has the absolute right of ownership over us. At this point we gain a crucial insight into why some people fight so bitterly against Genesis. Evolution for some people is just an excuse to reject God’s sovereignty. People want to be free. We want to do our own thing, go our own way, live the way we want, do whatever we feel like doing, whenever we want to do it, and no one has the right to tell us what to do. But if God created us, he owns us. If he owns us, then we are accountable to him for everything we say and do. That’s not a happy thought for many people.
As is so often the case, we get some very good help on this point from dear old Martin Luther. Writing over 450 years ago, he asks what does it mean to say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?” Here is his answer:
I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given and still preserves my body and soul, my eyes and ears, and all my members, my reason and all the power of my soul, together with food and raiment, home and family, and all my property; that he daily provides abundantly for all the needs of my life, protects me from all danger, and guards and keeps me from all evil; and that he does this purely out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.
To which I say, right on, brother!
#4: True Wisdom Begins With Genesis 1:1.
If we say we believe the Bible, we must start where the Bible starts, with the very first verse. Wisdom and truth and the search for God all begin right here. If you want to end up where the Bible ends up, in the New Heaven and New Earth of Revelation 22, then you’d better start where the Bible starts, with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Let me put it another way: If you can believe Genesis 1:1, you won’t have any problems with the rest of the Bible. If you can believe that there is a God who miraculously created everything in the universe, you won’t struggle over the other miracles of the Bible. Why should you struggle over the Resurrection of Christ if you are willing to believe that God spoke and the stars sprang into place? In that sense we can fairly say that the Christian faith starts with the very first verse of the Bible.
If you can believe Genesis 1:1, you won’t have any problems with the rest of the Bible.
God or Dirt
Here is the choice we face: Either we were directly created by God or we evolved over billions of years by the random acts of mindless, purposeless, materialistic evolution. Either we come from the hand of God, being made in his image, or we come up from the mud through eons of mindless evolution. It’s God or dirt and nothing in between. You are free to believe what you want. As for me and my family, we believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. If you don’t believe in God, you are forced to say that nothing plus nothing equals something. It takes more faith to believe that than to believe Genesis 1:1.
Everything begins with God. Life begins with God. Truth begins with God. Understanding begins with God. Wisdom begins with God. That’s why Genesis 1:1 is the first verse of the Bible. This is where wisdom begins. Skip this and nothing else in the Bible will make sense. Skip this and you’ll miss the central fact of the universe. Skip this and even though you graduated from Harvard or Yale, you’ll spend your days nibbling around the edges of truth. You’ll know the details of daily life, but you’ll never understand where you came from, why you are here, and where you are going when you die.
It’s God or dirt and nothing in between.
Our Culture is in Trouble
It might be said that the sort of worldview I have presented in this message is out of step with the majority view today. That would be a correct observation, and I would go a step farther and say that the Christian is almost always out of step with the majority culture in one way or another. Because we embrace God’s truth, because we stand on the rock of Holy Scripture, we will always be out of step with those who have no time for God or who have pushed him into the corner. We propose to be Theo-Centric—that is, God-centered in all we say and do because we believe God must be at the very center of life. In him is life and apart from him there is no life at all, only barren, dreary existence. I think militant unbelievers understand this better than we do. They know what is at stake in the battle over creation and evolution.
Truth begins with God.
It’s nothing less than their entire way of life. That is why evolution is to them a religious point of view and that’s why they violently reject any attempts to challenge evolution or to present creation in the public schools. God must be kept out at all costs. They can’t let him in because if you let God in, there’s no telling what will happen next. If God is more than myth or legend, if God is more than a slogan on our money, if God is going to be God, then modern culture is in big trouble. We have so effectively marginalized God and removed him from the marketplace of ideas that the very idea of taking God seriously is something akin to secular blasphemy. If you take God out of the picture, you have to explain everything without him. But nothing makes sense without God. And that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 circled the dark side of the moon and headed for home. As their tiny capsule floated through space, they saw the glistening blue and white hues of earth slowly fill their window. In that moment, what do you think those men did? They did not quote Einstein or Shakespeare or Darwin. Only one thing could capture the magnificence of the moment. Billions of people around the world heard the voice from outer space begin to read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The astronauts read Genesis 1:1 to a worldwide audience. In that moment no other words would do.
Nothing makes sense without God.
“Love Made Me”
I close with the words of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That text takes us back before Genesis 1:1. Before creation there was God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “And the Word (that is, Jesus Christ) became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Why did God create the world? Because he wanted to. We are here because God wanted us here.
First, there was eternal love. Then there was a vast purpose. Then there was a mighty creation. Then there was a great fall. Then there was a willing Savior. It is a very short distance from Genesis 1:1 to John 3:16. The God who created you also loves you. Someone has said that the beasts of the field say: “Love made me.” The birds of the air say: “Love made me.” The creatures that swim in the rivers and the sea say: “Love made me.” Only man, his back turned to the sun, does not say “Love made me.” But when he turns to receive the light of Christ, then he too knows in his heart “Love made me” and he cries out with every living creature, “Love made me! My Father in heaven loves me.”
It is a very short distance from Genesis 1:1 to John 3:16.
And so I close the first message in this series. There are enormous moral issues that we face if we believe the first words of the Bible. If God created me, then …
He knows me.
He sees me.
He knows the truth about me.
I cannot hide from him.
I must someday answer to him.
If we believe that God created us, then …
Our heads should bow.
Our knees should bend.
Our wills should yield.
Our hands should serve.
Our minds should worship.
Our hearts should love.
God created us. God loved us. And he made it possible for us to spend eternity with him. And so we join with Christians everywhere in proclaiming our belief in the very first verse of the Bible. We believe that God created us, that he made us and we did not make ourselves, that God created everything that exists merely by speaking words, that God is at the center of everything, that God is supreme, and we therefore gladly bow before him in worship, wonder, adoration and praise. In him we live and move and have our being. We owe him everything. He alone is the Lord. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is where the Christian faith begins. Amen.