Monday, January 30, 2017

Saving Grace in the Storm of Judgment (Genesis 6-7)

As we were preparing for the birth of our first child, I remember the overwhelming assumption that many people made. Since we are Christians, we would certainly decorate our child’s room with the theme of Noah’s Ark. That seemed to be a popular option judging from the options presented in the local stores. It was a genuinely honest question that I asked to one person who made such an assumption, “Why would we do that?” And the person responded that it would be cute, what with all the animals and such, and after all, it was in the Bible. I replied, “Well, wouldn’t that be kind of like decorating with a theme of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Armageddon?” I think many people have in their mind’s eye this vision of the story of Noah’s ark being a cute little cartoony story. In fact, the story of Noah’s ark is a story of cataclysmic judgment. It is anything but cute. When we attempt to make it a cute story, we minimize the severity of this judgment and overlook the sinfulness of humanity that brought it about.

If we were to envision it accurately, we would see it as a horror story. And yet, in the midst of the horror story there would be a sweet story line of divine love and redemption. That is how the Bible sets forth the account, and how we must understand it. As we make our way through this passage, we will discover the conditions which made the flood a necessary act of divine judgment. We will also discover the characteristics of a man who was shown gracious favor by the Lord. And we will also see how God acts to rescue and redeem the objects of His grace in the midst of His judgment.

I. The Conditions of a Culture Destined for Judgment

In our exploration of the essential texts of Scripture, we have looked at creation, and we have seen corruption as sin entered into the human experience. Because of sin, Adam and Eve immediately faced the consequences of shame, fear, guilt, pain, conflict, frustration, and death. One generation removed, the human race experienced its first murder as Cain slew Abel (4:8). It was not long before the family unit began to deteriorate with Lamech taking two wives (4:19).[1] Like his ancestor Cain, Lamech was a coldblooded murderer who boasted of his evil deeds (4:23-24). Genesis 5 records for us the wages of sin working itself out over successive generations of humanity with the repeated refrain “and he died … and he died … and he died.” The first four verses of Genesis 6 are notoriously difficult to interpret, and there has been no shortage of creative (and sometimes bizarre) attempts to explain them. I have dealt with those issues in depth in a document I wrote concerning the infamous “Spirits in Prison” passage from 1 Peter 3, and that document can be found on our church website. Suffice to say here that, whatever those verses mean, the conditions of human existence on the earth had been progressively degrading since Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord in the Garden of Eden. There was creation. There was corruption. And now comes catastrophe.  

Genesis 6:5 begins, “Then the Lord saw ….” The last reference we have to God “seeing” something occurred in 1:31 where, “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” But now, with successive generations of humanity having come and gone and with the sinfulness of man and the effects of sin having been compounded exponentially in the world, the Lord sees an entirely different state of affairs in the world. No longer is it “very good.” Now, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth.” The corruption of the human race had reached a tipping point, and divine judgment could no longer be withheld.

Notice how the text describes the expression of this corruption. There is a repetition of words like “wickedness,” “evil,” and “violence.” The Hebrew word hamas underlies our English word “violence” here. The word is defined by one scholar as “the cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal right of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality.”[2] Verse 11 says that the earth was filled with it. It was but one of many manifestations of human sin that the Lord deemed to be wicked and evil.

We also see in verse 5 the extent of the corruption. Here is the summary indictment of the entire human race, and it is the Lord’s flawless estimation: “Every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” For the ancient Hebrews, “the heart” was considered to be the center of thought, feeling, the will, and morality.[3] Under God’s own evaluation, the collective human heart was a cesspool of evil. It was not that there was a rare or occasional evil thought. It was every intent which underlied every thought of the heart, continually. Every. Only. Continually. Evil. This is what sin has done to humanity. We are radically corrupted to the core. The theological term is “total depravity.” It does not mean that each of us is “as bad as we could possibly be.” But it does mean that there is nothing within ourselves which would make us commendable toward God. As Timothy George writes, “We are born rebels inheriting a corrupt nature from our parents and growing up in an environment tainted by sin. ... [W]e stand justly condemned before the bar of God’s righteous judgment.”[4] The Apostle Paul will say of the human race that “there is none righteous, not even one,” (Rom 3:10), and that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), and hopelessly dependent upon the merciful pity of God for any remedy to our peril. This is the extent of our corruption.

We also observe the effects of our corruption. There is an effect upon the whole creation. Verse 11 says that “the earth was corrupt in the sight of God.” This earth which God had declared to be “very good,” He now looks at and says that it is “corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (6:12). The world did not make a mess of humanity, but humanity instead made a mess of the world by carrying out our sinful desires in their manifold expressions of evil and wickedness. When Adam sinned, God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you,” and so here on the precipice of the flood of divine judgment, the entire created order is in peril because of the sinfulness of man.

But notice also that there is an effect upon the holy Creator. Verse 6 says, “The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” To say that the Lord was sorry that He had made man is not to suggest that He had second thoughts about what He had done. The sovereign, all-knowing God, does not make mistakes. He is not wishing He had a mulligan on this one. In a sense, we can say that this is anthropomorphic language – that is, God is being described with language to which human beings can relate. Human language is impoverished to explain the pathos of God’s emotions, but we all know what it feels like to be sorry for something. But let us not press that point so far as to minimize the anguish which God Himself did feel when He looked upon the sorry state of human sinfulness. He was grieved in His heart. It is the language we use when we speak of the death of a loved one. It is the sentiment that a parent has over a prodigal child. God feels all of this, and more, to an infinite degree when He beholds the destructive sinfulness of humanity. We speak of God’s wrath, and we are right to do so. But we must never lose sight of the fact that, beneath His wrath, there is a breaking heart filled with sorrow and grief for humanity.

And so it is declared in verse 7 that judgment must come. Mankind is radically corrupted and has corrupted his way upon the earth in violent evil and wickedness. The heartbroken Creator is moved to action, saying, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Friends, as we observe the conditions of a culture destined for judgment, we cannot help noticing that these conditions mirror the daily headlines of our nation and world. Wickedness, violence, evil, corruption, we see it all paraded about with callous pride all around us. Moreover, when we take an honest assessment of the individual whose face stares at us from the mirror each day, we know the truthfulness of the assessment that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually.” Judgment is not just something that those people back then deserved. It is not just something that those people out there deserve. If we understand anything of the notion of the justice of God, then we have to confess that judgment is something that all people everywhere, ourselves included, deserve. And it is against the bleak backdrop of these conditions that the light of God’s grace begins to shine with all the more brilliance. And so we move on to consider next …

II. The characteristics of a man transformed by grace.

Call it a needle in a haystack, a rose among thorns, or a diamond in the rough. But in the midst of this wrath-bound society of humanity, there was one man singled out as unique. His name was Noah. His great-grandfather had been a similarly unique man of his own generation. His name was Enoch. Whereas it is stated clearly of every person named in Genesis 5, “and he died,” of Enoch we read something different. Something had happened in Enoch’s life after the birth of his son that sparked a spiritual change in his life. From that time on, the Bible says, “Then Enoch walked with God.” So unique was this man’s walk with God that he did not taste death. The Bible simply says that he walked with God, “and he was not for God took him” (Gen 5:21-24). Enoch’s son, Noah’s grandfather was also a unique fellow. He lived longer than anyone else in recorded history. His name was Methuselah. His son was Noah’s father. His name was Lamech, not to be confused with the man of the same name who descended from Cain who was a murderous polygamist. This Lamech named his son Noah, a word meaning “comfort,” as a prayerful blessing on the boy, saying, “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed” (5:29). And God answered that father’s prayer. At a certain point in Noah’s life, it is said of him that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8).

The word translated “favor” in the NASB could just as easily be translated “grace.” He found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Grace, as you may know, refers to the undeserved favor of God. This is the first time the word is used in the Bible, and from this point forward it takes on special meaning. It is not something that we earn, otherwise it could not be grace. Grace is a kindness shown to the undeserving. It was not because of anything inherent within Noah, or anything that he had done, that caused God to show him grace. Grace always flows from divine and sovereign initiative. God had grace upon Noah because God chose to have grace upon Noah. It had nothing to do with Noah, who apart from God’s grace would have been no different than the men of his day and time. It had everything to do with the benevolence of God, who chose Noah from among all the rest of men as the object of His unmerited favor. As the late Alec Motyer said, the idea of Noah finding grace is best understood by reading it backwards: “Grace found Noah.”[5] And this grace was effectual in Noah’s life. It transformed him into the man about whom we read in the rest of the story.

So what are the characteristics of a man so transformed by grace? Verse 9 tells us that he was a righteous man. Like the word “grace,” this is the first time we encounter this very important word in the Bible. The word “righteous” speaks of one’s standing before God. It is to be acceptable to God and upright in the Lord’s eyes. How does one who, by nature, is sinful and corrupted, become righteous before God? That is the question that the entire Bible answers for us. The righteousness that God requires cannot be found within any of us; but it is imparted to us by God’s grace and received on the basis of faith. Thus, we will read later of Abraham, of whom it is said that he believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). It is important to understand that grace comes before righteousness. Noah did not find grace in the eyes of the Lord because he was righteous. Rather, he was righteous because he had found grace in the eyes of the Lord and the Lord declared him to be righteous. This is the doctrine of justification. Justification is that divine work of the Lord by which He removes from us the guilt of our sin and imparts to us His own righteousness by grace, which we receive by faith. And from that time forward, the Lord works within us to transform us into the righteousness He has imparted unto us. So Noah was right with God. He had a right relationship with Him and a right standing before Him. And he was so because he had found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

Verse 9 also tells us that Noah was blameless in his time. This speaks to his standing before men. “Blameless” is not the same as “sinless,” for none of us will ever be “sinless” as long as we occupy these sin-corrupted bodies in this sin-ruined world. But one is blameless when he or she lives uprightly in the world, abstaining from sin by the power of the Spirit and grace of God. Thus, no one is able to point a finger of blame at such a person or otherwise criticize his or her conduct. Noah had this kind of reputation in his time, because he had found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

Finally notice that verse 9 says that Noah walked with God. Previously it was stated of his great-grandfather Enoch. While others walked, in the words of Ephesians 2, “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (that is, the devil) … in the lusts of (the) flesh, indulging in the desires of the flesh and of the mind,” Noah walked a different way. He walked with God. He had a relationship with Him that began when he found grace in the eyes of the Lord. As Amos 3:3 says, “Do two men walk together unless they have made an appointment?” or “an agreement?” Noah had come into an agreement with the Lord that he would walk with him. He would walk in the Lord’s direction, following the Lord’s leadership of his life. This is ultimately what is meant when we call Him Lord. We mean that He has the full governance of our life, and the right to order our steps. Because he had found grace, Noah walked with God.

When a person walks with God, they walk in obedience to God. And the Scriptures record here with painstaking detail the obedience of Noah. The command comes to him in verse 14, “Make for yourself an ark,” and the command is followed by detailed instructions. Precise measurements and details are given. Instruction is given about what Noah is to take into the ark. And we read in verse 22, “Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did.” Again in 7:5, “Noah did according to all that the Lord had commanded him.” We must acknowledge, it was a strange command, to build an ark. Along the way, surely Noah endured the mockery of his neighbors. They must have thought he was crazy. But obedience is not rendered for the audience of men. Obedience is rendered unto God alone. God had spoken. Noah’s task was to obey, and he did.

This is how grace transforms a man. When God’s grace is laid hold of by faith, a person comes into right relationship with God, by which he is declared righteous and then shaped into righteousness. When others look at one who has been transformed by grace, they find him to be blameless. He walks with God, and therefore he obeys what God says to him. It is true throughout the Bible, in the Old Testament and the New. The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2 that though we are dead in our trespasses and sins, by nature deserving of wrath, it is “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” And it is that salvation by grace through faith that Noah experienced, and that we all may experience, as we come to know the God who saves. That brings us to our final observation here in this text. We have seen the conditions of a culture destined for judgment. We have witnessed the characteristics of a man transformed by grace. Now we find …

III. The provisions of the God who saves.

In order to rescue Noah from the flood of judgment that was coming, God provided all that was necessary. I hope you noticed that when God declared that He was about to bring about this flood, He did NOT say to Noah, “Therefore, you better learn to swim really well!” He did NOT say, “Therefore, you better figure out a way to deal with it!” He did NOT say, “Good luck with that!” He said, “Make for yourself an ark,” and He gave Noah very specific instructions on how to make it. When God brings about judgment, He makes all necessary provisions for salvation.

Notice that God provides a means of salvation. I doubt very seriously that any human being who has ever lived would have come up with the plan to build an ark to rescue them from the coming flood. How would you even know where to begin? And would anyone have thought to build it in such a way as to have enough room for representatives of every kind of animal? God did not leave the idea, the engineering, or the architecture up to Noah to figure out. He gave Noah the plans and told him exactly what to do. He did not leave it up to Noah to figure out how to wrangle all the animals together. He said in 6:20, “(they) will come to you to keep them alive.” And this divinely designed ark became the means of salvation for Noah and his family and the representative creatures.

Notice as well that God provides an opportunity of salvation. He told Noah that the flood was coming. He commanded him to build the ark. In 7:1, as the day drew near, He ordered him to enter the ark. At any point, I suppose Noah could have decided to not follow through. The follow through was Noah’s call. But it was for God to provide the opportunity. But, you may ask, what about all the rest of the people? What of those of whom it is written that they “perished,” “died,” and were “blotted out … from the earth” (7:21-23)? Did they have the opportunity for salvation? Indeed they did!

We read two important facts about Noah in the New Testament. Hebrews 11:7 says, “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world and became an heir of righteousness which is according to faith.” Notice that the writer of Hebrews says that the very building of the ark was a condemnation of the world. They saw Noah building it. They surely inquired about it. And the second verse of the New Testament that informs us here is 2 Peter 2:5, which speaks of Noah as “a preacher of righteousness.” Perhaps in answer to their questions, or as a herald proclaiming the news, he warned them of the wrath to come and informed them that the ark was the only means of deliverance. God gave them the opportunity. But just as surely as the Lord gives, the Lord takes away. The day came when Noah and his family and the animals entered the ark. And Genesis 7:16 says that the Lord closed the door behind him. The opportunity for repentance and faith had expired, and the door was sovereignly closed. As they watched the rains fall and the waters rise, the vision of Noah’s ark was a condemnation of their resistance to the opportunity they had squandered. Thus we read that “only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark” (7:23).

The Lord provides the means of salvation, and the opportunity of salvation, but let it not escape our notice that the Lord provides the assurance of salvation. The rains came just as the Lord had promised. The ark “lifted up … so that it rose above the earth … and the ark floated on the surface of the water” (7:17-18). You see God had said to Noah in 7:18, “I will establish My covenant with you.” Noah’s arrangement with God was not of his own doing. God had authored a covenant, a binding promise, and invited Noah to be a partaker in it. His salvation in the ark was as certain as God’s word is true. If Noah had perished in the flood, God would be found to be a duplicitous liar. But Noah’s salvation and security did not rest in his own craftsmanship or seamanship. It did not rest in Noah’s faithfulness to God, thankfully, but in God’s faithfulness to Noah and the covenant by which God had sworn to save him.

Friends, in the story of Noah’s ark, we find a picture of the salvation that God has provided for us all. 2 Peter 3 says the mockers will come in the last days, following after their own lusts, saying “Where is the promise of His coming?” They are saying, “Oh you Christians talk about the pie in the sky by-and-by, and the hellfire down below, and the end of time and judgment, but where is it? It is never going to happen!” And Peter says, “When they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:3-6). Jesus said that it will be as it was in the days of Noah! “For as in those days before the flood,” Jesus says, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” (in other words, just going about their daily lives) “until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”

Well, what hope do we have? We have a great hope – a sure and certain hope – because our hope is fixed on the God who saves! He has provided a means of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus Christ is the better Noah, who has by His cross built for us an ark of salvation. He is the better ark, into whom we can enter by faith and be saved from the judgment to come. On His cross, He has taken our sins and all their penalty upon Himself, immersing Himself beneath the flood of God’s divine wrath, that we might find saving grace in the eyes of the Lord and be reckoned righteous before Him as we turn to Jesus in faith.

As the Lord said through Isaiah the prophet, “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22). As the Philippian jailer asked of Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Their response was simply this, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Ac 16:31). He is the means of salvation provided to us by the grace of God to rescue us from judgment. This salvation is assured and secured through God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises.

And He has given us the opportunity to be saved! Hebrews 11:7 says that God has fixed a certain day, “Today,” saying, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” 2 Corinthians 6:3 says, “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation!” How many “todays” will we have? How long is “now”? We do not know. Only God does. Psalm 139:16 says, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” And Hebrews 9:27 says that it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” You have today. You have now. You have this divine provision of an opportunity for salvation. But as surely as the Lord Himself closed the door of Noah’s ark, He will close the door of opportunity, and if we do not heed His call of grace, we will have sinned away the day of grace. Hebrews 2:3 warns us, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”

[1] It should be noted that this is a different Lamech than the father of Noah.
[2] Haag, cited in Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 134.
[3] Waltke, 118.
[4] Timothy George, Amazing Grace (Nashville: Lifeway, 2000), 72.
[5] David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11 (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1990), 137.

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