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“In the Beginning ... God”

Genesis 1:1-5
Bob DeGray
August 28, 2005

Key Sentence

I believe in one God, Creator.


I. Creator ex nihilo (Genesis 1:1)
II. Unformed and Unfilled (Genesis 1:2)
III. Light (Genesis 1:3-5)


        It’s often been said that beginnings are the most delicate of times. The things you do in beginning something set the direction, the tone and the pattern for all that follows. One of the reasons George Washington is respected is because of the careful job he did as President: not only what he did that made the presidency effective, but the things he didn’t do, such as accepting a noble title, or running for a third term. His actions set the tone and pattern for all the presidencies that have followed.

        In the same way the book of Genesis, the Bible’s book of beginnings, records those things that set the direction, tone and pattern for all the events that have followed. There is much to be learned from those beginnings, and this morning we’re starting a series in Genesis. From now to Advent we’ll study the first 11 chapters, and we’ll see the beginnings of the universe, of the world, of life, of the human race, of work, of marriage, of sin, of judgement, of salvation, and of God’s promises. We’ll study a series of miraculous and catastrophic events that shaped the world we live in, and we’ll find explanations for much of what we now see around us in the world, and much of what we now see inside ourselves, and much of what God has done since those beginnings.

        This week we’re going to focus on the earliest events of creation. Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and the Nicene Creed affirms that “We believe in one God, Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Creed personalizes this foundational truth of Scripture, that God is the creator. The fact of a God who created all things has been widely challenged in our culture, most explicitly by atheism, and also implicitly by the philosophy of evolution, and passively by a pervasive silence. So the first thing we need to grasp from Genesis is God is the creator. ‘In the beginning God created’ needs to become, in our lives into ‘I believe in one God, Creator’. Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning--the first day.

        Who wrote these opening words of Scripture? Moses. The Bible is clear that its first five books, the Pentetuch, were written by Moses during the time of the Exodus. That doesn’t mean Moses didn’t have sources. It’s very possible that oral or written records from the early years were passed down, and informed what Moses wrote.

        So some affirm that Adam himself tells the story of creation, and that Noah had a hand in chapters 6 through 9, and that other contemporaries contributed to the library of material Moses edited under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be, and it means that when we hear these words, we are hearing the Spirit authorized voice of someone as close to these events as they could get. Of course in the case of day one, there were no eyewitnesses. God must have explained the creation to Adam or to Moses, else these details could not have been included.

I. Creator ex nihilo (Genesis 1:1)

        Verse 1 says ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ and that one simple verse tells us so much. First, the whole story starts ‘in the beginning’ - not once upon a time, in the middle of a history, but ‘in the beginning’ - when time itself had it’s start. Of course, the very next word tells us that even at the beginning of time, God existed. “In the beginning, God.” In fact, he was before time. The Psalmist tells us “Before the mountains were born, or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” From eternity past to eternity yet to come, God has existed and works out his own purposes. Ephesians even says that we were chosen in Him, Christ, before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His, God’s sight. So prior to the creation of time the Godhead deliberated the course of history, the sacrifice of Christ and the rescue of believers.

        The word ‘Elohim’ used for God, is one of his most common names; it stresses majesty and transcendence. It’s actually a plural form, occasionally translated ‘gods’, but 95% of the time, over 2000 times, it’s translated in the singular, God, as in the formula of Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” It’s a plural word with a singular meaning; thus, it may point to the unity of the Godhead, in which three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are yet one God.

        “In the beginning God created”. The Hebrew ‘bara’ is used only of God. He also ‘makes’ things, and the two words are somewhat interchangeable in this chapter. But men also make things: only God creates. Thus ‘bara’ emphasizes that he speaks and things come into existence. In Isaiah 45:12 God says “It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands and I ordained all their host.” Isaiah emphasizes the wonder of God as creator. Isaiah 40:26 “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.” and “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.” We see in creation the power and wisdom of the creator.

        So the word emphasizes God creating something distinctively new. In Genesis 1:1 he creates all that is out of nothing. The theologians like to say it in Latin ‘ex nihilo’. There was nothing - no space, no time, no matter, until God called it into existence.

        The story is told of the scientist who appeared before God to say “God, we don't need you anymore. Science has figured out a way to create life out of nothing -- in other words, we can now do what You did in the beginning." "Oh, is that so? Tell Me..." replies God.” "Well," says the scientist, "we can take dirt and form it into a man and breathe life into it." "Well, that's very Me." So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil into the shape of a man. "No, no, no..." interrupts God, "Get your own dirt.” We may think we’re hot stuff, but creation ex niholo is not going to be available on store shelves anytime soon.

        God creates everything from nothing. The verse says he created the heavens and the earth, and though these two things are distinct, when the authors of Scripture use the two together they mean ‘everything’. For example, Deut. 10:14 says “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” Psalm 89:11 “The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it.” Psalm 113:5-6 “Who is like the Lord our God, Who is enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?” Jeremiah 10:11 “Tell them this: 'These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.'”

II. Unformed and Unfilled (Genesis 1:2)

        So the first verse teaches us that God is creator, from nothing of everything. The second verse teaches that his initial creation was ‘unformed and unfilled’ - that creation was not complete when matter was brought into existence. Genesis 1:2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Hebrew phrase for formless and empty is famous; ‘tohu va bohu’. Ronald Youngblood of Wheaton College, writing in The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament has a great discussion of this phrase: “It has been variously understood as meaning "a formless waste", "absolutely nothing whatever", and "void and vacancy". But the traditional rendering, ‘without form and void’ or ‘unformed and unfilled’, to preserve something of the euphony of the Hebrew, is ably defended by Griffith Thomas who writes that "the adjectives 'formless' and 'empty' seem to be the key to the literary structure of the chapter. The record of the first three days refers to the heaven and earth receiving their 'form,' and the record of the last three days to the filling-up of their 'emptiness.'"

        Youngblood then spends a paragraph or so critiquing the gap theory, which says that in this verse, Genesis 1:2 there lies hidden a period of thousands or millions of years. By translating the verse with the less likely phrase ‘the earth became without form and void’, gap theory posits an original creation, described briefly in Genesis 1:1 and destroyed at the fall of Satan. Geologic ages followed, creating a "gap" in which the earth became old, and the new creation of Genesis 1 was built over the wreckage. But the few verses that can be marshaled to support this view are weak, and it’s a very awkward way to read this clear statement of the formlessness of creation before God began the majestic acts described in the following verses.

        Youngblood ends with this comment: “as difficult as ‘tohu va bohu’ is to define, it is even more difficult for us to conceptualize it.” What do you imagine when you hear the phrase ‘the earth was unformed and unfilled and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ If you’re like me, you see a large dark ball, surfaced with dark oceans, with a vapor-like Spirit hovering there. But how big was the ball? Was the ball everything in the created universe, as some creation scientists affirm, maybe two million light years across, or was the ball only the solid parts, and the heavens, what we would now call outer space, filled with a much greater mass of light gases that would someday form the visible universe? I tend to think it’s the latter, that only some of the matter that now exists was concentrated in this earth, and that much of that was contained in ‘great deeps’ of water or liquid. What we can say for sure is that God was present with his creation: his Spirit hovered over these waters.

III. Light (Genesis 1:3-5)

        So Genesis 1:1 is the summary: God the Creator brought forth all that is from nothing. Genesis 1:2 describes the original state of the creation: unformed and unfilled. The rest of Genesis 1 describes the forming and the filling. In particular, Genesis 1:3-5 describes the first day of forming, the creation of light. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning--the first day.

        Verse 3 is the first record of God speaking in the Bible - and his Word is powerful and effective. His speaking creates light. 2nd Peter tells us God’s critics “deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed.” And John identifies that word with Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness.” Elsewhere Paul speaks of Jesus and says “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

        So the Son was active in creation with the Father and the Spirit. But John goes on to teach that ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we have seen his glory.’ Jesus said “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” He came to sacrifice himself on the cross for us, so that we might find redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, the path out of darkness. This is the salvation God planned for us from eternity past, which we take hold of now by believing in who Jesus is and what he has done.

        So God creates light, and he separates light from darkness. But what was the source of that light? A plain reading of day four of creation will tell us the sun, moon and the stars were not created until then - we’ll talk next week about what the scientists call ‘cosmology’, the age of the universe and ‘the problem of starlight and time’. But for now its enough to say that the source of this light doesn’t seem to be the sun we now see. What alternatives are there? It’s possible to create light without a source, by creating and energizing photons. God could do that, create light in the heavens that illuminates and energizes the unfilled and unformed earth. But I think it’s more likely the light had a source - God Himself. In Revelation, which can be seen as a reversion to much of what existed in Genesis, we find that at the end the source of light is God. Revelation 21:23 “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” 22:5 “There will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them.” It wouldn’t surprise me if this first light had the same quality as that last light: God himself making his glory a physical phenomenon, to bless and form his creation in the first days.

        When this light appeared, God called it good, and divided the light from the darkness. He called the light day and the darkness he called night. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day, day one. Notice that the word day is used in two different ways. Day is the part of the day when its light, daytime, and night is the part of the day when its dark, nighttime. And yet the first day also constitutes the evening and the morning. No surprise there - throughout the Bible we find that days start in the evening. So the evening of day one started with this darkness over the face of the deep, and the morning of day one started when God said ‘let there be light’ and day two started when the darkness returned. But the fact that the word can be used for daylight and for the whole dark light cycle does not mean that it can be used for millions or billions of years. This day need not have been exactly 24 hours, but it almost had to be exactly a short period of time starting with darkness, continuing into daylight and ending when the darkness returned. That’s what a day was to Moses’ readers. Except for very obvious metaphorical uses; ‘in that day’, ‘in Abraham’s day’, the Hebrew word is consistently used in this common Hebrew way. A Jewish reader would never read this account and think of each day being an age long. Furthermore, the day age theory falls apart if you try to take the rest of the text literally - we’ll see that next week.

        But remember that the normal astronomical reason for daylight and darkness is rotation. In my image the earth, still formless and void, covered with this massive ‘deep’, set in the blackness of the heavens, bathed in the light of the glory of God, was rotating. Or possibly the source itself, the presence of God, physically showing his glory, moved around. We don’t have to be dogmatic on this. In fact, as we walk through these days of creation, we have to allow room for the miraculous. I don’t think we can expect to trace cause-and-effect backwards to the moment of creation.

        It seems clear to me that in this text we are seeing miracles with each ‘God said’, ‘God made’ and ‘God created’; that creation as it stood on day one did not have built into it by ‘natural’ means the events of day two. If it had, God could have wound up creation, set it out there on the first day, and it all would have happened, mechanically. God would have rested on the second day. But that is not the way the Bible presents the events. Scripture shows that God kept intervening miraculously to bring about the next step; He said let there be light, he separated the waters, he created man in his image. These were miracles: there was not a path predictable by natural physics that would have resulted in these developments.

        Let me explain just a little more. At every stage of creation, including the world today, there is a ‘natural’ course of events that the laws of God’s physical universe bring about. We rightly do not call it a miracle when we drop an egg and it falls to the floor and it breaks. That sequence of events can be adequately predicted using the natural laws built into the system. But God can intervene to violate those laws, and we call those interventions miracles. And there seem to be two kinds. The first I call directional miracles: in the normal course of events a certain pattern has been established, and you expect it to continue. A directional miracle changes that, but does it in continuity with the past. On Monday evening Mark and Karla Bauer and Doug Rask prayed for my stiff neck to feel better. After Tuesday morning, it did. There was no sudden transformation, merely a gradual relief of the pain. But it was an answer to prayer, something God did, a change in the expected pattern.

        Then there are what I call transformational miracles. This is a miracle which not only violates the normal course of events, but in which there is a significant disconnect with what was happening just before it. God does something new, and the way things are this side of the miracle gives you little or no insight into the way things were before it. For example, the resurrection of Christ from the dead was not just a directional change in a decay process. It was the transformation of the dead body into a living body with a wholly new set of capabilities, probably a body like the one we will have after the resurrection. 1 Cor. 15:42 says “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” That’s a significant miraculous transformation.

        Now how does this apply to Genesis 1? Mostly we’ll see this next week, but it seems clear even now that what is happening are transformational miracles. Certainly Genesis 1:1 is transformational - there was nothing and then there was everything: looking at the nothing you could never have predicted the everything, or vice-versa. The same seems to be true of making light, and forming the expanse of the heavens and creating man. These are things that you would not have predicted if you saw the natural course of events prior to the miracle, and which you would not be able to trace back by natural cause and effect before the time the miracle happened.
        Therefore I think we do a disservice to the supernatural power of God when we try to find cause and effect all the way back to the moment of creation. There has got to be something miraculous going on here or it wouldn’t keep saying ‘God said, God made, God created’. Some of these events we’re going to be looking at may be directional miracles, where the existing universe allowed for the kind of direction God took it. But in a transformational miracle, he can change even the physics of the universe as part of the transformation. So I think that not only in the creation week, but also at the fall and to some extent during the flood God miraculously transformed the universe to establish a new natural order of things, and we can’t know for sure the natural order of things behind that transformation. We can, and I think we should, speculate on the scientific implications of the creation story, and certainly on the natural order of the world right now, but ultimately we need to let miracles be miracles, just as we don’t try to explain by science the resurrection of Christ, but instead give God the credit and praise he deserves for it.

        So we’ve seen that God created from nothing, that what he created was at that moment unformed and unfilled, and that the first thing he created to form and fill it was light. We’ll see the rest of that forming and filling next week. The question for this week is - do you believe it? For you does ‘in the beginning God created’ translate into ‘I believe in one God, creator?’ If you do then the truths of this passage ought to make a difference. I believe in one God who is powerful - so powerful that his very word can speak a universe into existence. I believe in one God who is eternal - he existed before time and cannot be bound by it. I believe in one God who by right of creation owns the universe. He made it and it is his - his to sustain, which he does, and his to destroy if he so chooses. Yet I also believe in one God who is personal - he speaks and these things happens, and he sees them and declares them to be good -as he is good. And I believe in one God who is present, by his Holy Spirit, with his creation. Finally, I believe in one God who expresses himself in glorious light. He created it in the beginning, and revealed it again in the glory of Jesus. I believe his words were true and his salvation sure when he said “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” It is in that light which once lit the unformed and unfilled creation that believers will walk for eternity.