Sunday, February 19, 2017

Walking By Faith (Genesis 12:1-20)


The Bible is a book of books and a story of stories. It is the story of people who lived long ago and far away, and yet, at the same time, it is our story, here and now. The narrative flows in the shape of an hourglass. It begins broad and wide, with a focus on God’s dealings with the whole world in creation. Then it narrows to God’s dealings with the human race. It narrows further with a focus on the descendants of one of Adam’s sons, Seth. It narrows again to focus on one man, Noah, and his sons. From Noah’s sons, the narrative narrows once more to the family of one son, Shem. And from Shem, the story takes on an even narrower focus as it turns to one of Shem’s descendants, Abraham. As the story goes on, it will narrow further and further, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, then eventually to David, then to Jesus Christ. It is here that the story finds it’s center. To this point, all preceding history raced toward. From this point, all subsequent history unfolded. As the story moves on from the center with Jesus Christ, it begins to broaden again. His twelve disciples begin to multiply, and the story begins to envelop Jew and Gentile alike until it ends with an innumerable multitude from every tribe and tongue, people and nation surrounding the throne of God for eternity in ceaseless worship.

We come today to one of those crucial narrowing points – the beginning of the account of Abraham. He is called Abram here in Genesis 12, for God will later change his name to Abraham in accordance with His divine purpose for his life. He will do the same with Abram’s wife, Sarai, who will come to be known as Sarah. The writer of Hebrews provides us with this succinct summary of Abraham’s story: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Those two words “by faith” summarize Abraham’s entire life from Genesis 12 forward. He is an example to us all of what it means to walk by faith in God.

Yet, Abraham’s story has a far greater import than simply showing us what it means to walk by faith. It is through God’s covenant with Abraham that we see the unfolding of His promise-plan for the whole world, including ourselves. If we miss that en route to discovering the simple steps for walking by faith, then we have missed the most important thing about Abraham’s story. So we shall look at him under the heading of “Walking by Faith,” but with the understanding that it was through Abraham’s walk of faith that the purposes of God for the whole world were being carried out.

I. The walk of faith begins with the call of God’s grace (v1)

Different sports are governed by different rules. In football, the first possession of the game is determined by a coin toss. In baseball, however, the visiting team always bats first and the home team always bats last. But in the game of life, it is always God who makes the first move. All of our moves are in response to His initial moving. The walk of faith begins with the call of God’s grace.

Abraham did not suddenly decide that he would begin to walk with God by faith. He did not make the first move. In Joshua 24:2, the Lord says to the Israelites, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River (that is, the Euphrates River), namely Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.” It isn’t like God was searching the earth for a faithful man, and said, “Ah, here is Abraham. Him I can use!” No, Abraham was a pagan from a pagan family living in a pagan land. But God, in sovereign grace, chose Abraham as the vessel through whom He would bless the world. Abraham’s walk of faith began with God’s initiative in the sovereign call of His grace.

Inherent in this call of God’s grace is the call to leave the comforts of the familiar. God’s calling is always a call from and a call to. Before there can be movement to, there has to be movement from. So the call to Abraham begins with “Go forth from” -- “from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house.” These are all Abram has ever known. And now, by the calling of God’s grace he must leave them all behind. God is giving him a new start, and the past has to be left in the past. All of the ties to his pagan heritage have to be severed. By God’s grace, He sets Abram free from what would otherwise destroy him so that he can pursue God’s intention for his life.

It is only as God calls Abram from something that He can call him to something. And what He calls Abram to is a walk of faith. He calls Abram “To the land which I will show you.” That requires an immense measure of faith on Abram’s part. “Where are we going?”, he might ask. “I will show you when we get there,” would be the Lord’s reply. He will have to walk by faith as the Lord leads to an unknown destination that he will only discover when the journey is complete! He cannot do that while he is still enslaved to his pagan past. There has to be a clean break from all that, and a commitment of complete trust to follow God’s gracious calling as he walks by faith as the Lord directs him.

Friends, we find parallels to all of these aspects of the beginnings of our walk of faith. If you are a Christian, your walk of faith did not begin because you suddenly decided on your own that you wanted to turn over a new leaf in life. No, God moved in sovereign grace toward you and initiated your spiritual walk by choosing you and calling you. You might say, “No, He didn’t choose me! I chose Him.” If we have come to understand anything about the spiritual deadness and sinful corruption of humanity from these studies in Genesis, surely we must understand that there is no way a fallen human being in his natural state would ever choose God unless God had chosen him or her first. And this is precisely what Scripture dictates and demonstrates repeatedly. Our choice of God is only in response to His sovereign and gracious calling and choosing of us. And in that call, He beckons us to abandon the comforts of familiarity. We can’t move forward with Him by faith if we are still enslaved to our past! He sets us free from those snares so that in liberty we might walk with Him by faith wherever He leads us. Where will He take us? Seldom does He reveal more than one step at a time, but that is precisely the number of steps we are able to take. And with each passing step, He is preparing us for the next one before He reveals it to us. We need not know where He is leading, but that He is leading, and to follow by faith as He leads.

So this is how the walk of faith begins: by the call of God’s grace. Now secondly we see …

II. The walk of faith is fueled by the blessing of God’s promise (vv2-3)

If you are going to take a road trip, you have to have fuel in the gas tank. And unless you refuel, you will only go as far as that supply of fuel will take you. The car’s engine can’t run without fuel, neither can the walk of faith. Our walk of faith is fueled by the Word of God, for in it we find the blessing of God’s promises.

Notice the fuel that God puts into Abram’s tank as his walk of faith begins. Over and over again in the first three verses of this chapter, God tells Abram what He will do for him. No less than nine times in this chapter, God states directly or implies indirectly that his walk of faith will be carried along by the unilateral promises of God. He says repeatedly, “I will.” Abram’s journey is not fueled by what he promises do for God but by what God promises to do for Him, with Him, and through Him.

These promises are filled with blessings for Abram and his descendants, and for all the world through him. Notice the repetition of the word “bless.” Whenever God works on behalf of His people it is always for their blessing, but the blessings of God are not intended to stop with the believer. God’s blessings are intended to flow through His people to others. So, in verse 2, God says, “I will bless you.” But then He says, “And so you shall be a blessing.” In verse 3, He says, “I will bless those who bless you,” and then “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” So, the Lord says more about the blessings that will flow through Abram than He does of the blessings that will come to Abram.

Now let us behold the content of these blessings. God’s blessing of Abram consists of the blessing of prosperity. Now, we need to purge ourselves of this notion that the blessing of prosperity always and only refers to material wealth. Prosperity, in the economy of God, has to do with a state of well-being, and the locus of this well-being is as much a spiritual reality as it is a material or physical one. For Abram, this prosperity includes the prospering of his family and the prospering of his fame. He says, “I will make you a great nation,” and then “I will make your name great.” Remember how the settlers of Shinar in Chapter 11 attempted to gain greatness for themselves. They sought to build for themselves a great city and a great tower, and to make for themselves a great name. God brought an end to their efforts to achieve greatness apart from His blessing. Instead, God chose an obscure individual by His sovereign grace, and promised to bless him with the very things those men pursued by their own efforts. Humanly speaking, it was impossible for Abram to gain this greatness by his own efforts. In verse 30 of Chapter 11, we read that his wife Sarai was barren and childless. How could he become a great nation with a barren wife? It is impossible – that is, unless God accomplishes it for him. How is a nameless nomad going to gain worldwide notoriety, such that his name would be known and revered around the world even four millennia after his death? It is impossible, apart from the blessing of God on his life.

God promises Abram not only prosperity but protection. He says, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” By God’s gracious promise, Abram can live in security knowing that God is working on his behalf. Abram need not fear what others will do to him. His life is in the hands of a God who promises to deal with others on the basis of how they deal with him. No individual, no nation, no empire or power of the physical or spiritual world will be able to thwart God’s purpose or promise for Abram because God has committed Himself to the protection of His chosen man. Abraham can live at peace, without concern for defending himself or his reputation, because God has promised this to him.

In addition to the promise of prosperity and protection, God promised Abram the blessing of purpose. His life is not intended by God to be a reservoir of blessing but a channel of blessing. God is going to use him to be a blessing. It is a global purpose encompassing all the nations of the earth. The blessings of God will flow through Abram and his descendants to all the world’s peoples. It is all well and good to speak of Abraham’s descendants (the Jews) as “God’s chosen people.” But we have to be mindful of why they were God’s chosen people. They were not chosen so that they alone could be blessed by God. They were chosen by God so that the whole world would be blessed by God through them.

To understand how God would accomplish that, we must realize that this is more than a global purpose for Abram’s life and lineage. It is a glorious purpose. God’s promise to Abram to bless all the families of the earth will flow through Abram and through his seed. In verse 7, we read of God’s promise of the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. The word in Hebrew, however, is singular. God was going to bring through the long lineage of Abraham’s descendants a specific descendant, a singular seed, in whom all these promises of blessing would come to pass.

This is the very point the Apostle Paul is making in Galatians 3:16. He says, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,” that is, Christ.” Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham through which the promise of God’s blessing to all nations would come to pass. The nations are treated by God in accordance with their treatment of Abraham because the lineage of Abraham is bringing into the world the One who would bless the world. Abraham and his descendants were chosen and blessed by God to be a missionary people pointing all nations to the one true God. So Abraham’s life and lineage has the unique blessing of having a global and glorious purpose – to literally bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to all the world.

In that sense, there is no way that we can emulate Abram’s example, for his role in redemptive history is very unique. But viewing him as a man who walked by faith, we can make application to our own lives. Our walk, like his, is fueled by the blessings of God’s promise. God has not promised us prosperity of health and wealth according to this world’s table of weights and measures, but a prosperity accounted by the spiritual standards of heaven. Greatness in the eyes of God is not attained by our own striving apart from God’s will and work in and through us. If God intends us to attain greatness in this world, it will be as a result of His blessing in our lives. But whether or not we attain it here and now, we will know true greatness as we enter the life to come and experience the glory of His everlasting presence. And as we walk with Him by faith between now and then, we can entrust Him with our safety and security, with our lives, our families, and our reputations, because He has promised to be the Defender of His people. And He promises to bless us in these ways and many more because He has a glorious and global purpose for us. Our walk of faith is fueled by the blessing of His promise to use us in His mission to bring Christ to the nations. What Abram and his descendants did biologically and historically, bringing about the birth of the Messiah for the world, we do spiritually and missionally as we take the name of Jesus and the promise of His salvation to the ends of the earth! In our walk of faith we are carried along step by step as the blessings of these promises fuel us and energize us. This brings us to the next observation …

III. The walk of faith is carried out through the obedience of God’s people (vv4-9)

With God’s gracious calling bidding us to walk, and the blessings of His promise providing fuel for the journey, it falls to us to take those steps and go. Verse 4 of our text does not say that Abram awoke from a dream and found himself in a strange new place. It says, “So Abram went forth.” He obeyed the Lord.

Notice the marks of his obedience. It was a careful obedience. He went forth “as the Lord had spoken to him.” Whatever the Lord told him to do, he did. God’s word was his GPS, directing his every step. It was also a committed obedience. Verse 4 says that Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran and began this walk of faith. Genesis 25:7 will tell us that Abraham lived 175 years. Time does not permit me to get into a discussion about the long lifespans of the patriarchs, but it doesn’t really matter how long Abram would live after this time. The point is that he’d lived three-quarters of a century before this time. Some of you are around this age. And when folks begin to reach this age, they begin to think that their time of serving the Lord is drawing to a close. Abraham’s time of serving the Lord was just beginning! Committed obedience refuses to make excuses. It overcomes them in obedience to the Lord’s calling to walk by faith.

The third mark of obedience I want us to see here is that it was contagious obedience. Abram didn’t begin to walk in obedience alone. Sarai came with him. So did Lot, his nephew. There were also “the persons which they had acquired in Haran.” Now, admittedly this could refer to bondservants who didn’t have a choice but to tag along. But a good case can be made that these individuals are those who chose to come to with Abram because they believed his testimony about God’s promises. They wanted to participate in those promises. The point is that because of Abram’s obedience, others came along with him in his walk of faith. His faith and obedience was contagious. People wanted for themselves what they saw in Abram’s life. Careful, committed, and contagious – these were the marks of Abram’s obedience.

Now notice the outcomes of his obedience. The promises of God were kept. I love how verse 5 says that “they set out for the land of Canaan; thus they came to the land of Canaan.” God kept His promise to show them the place He was leading them, and He ensured that they got there. God’s promises were not only kept, they were enlarged. In verse 7 says that the Lord appeared to Abram. He hadn’t appeared before, He had only spoken. But as a result of Abram’s faith in what God had said, the outcome was that he saw the Lord face to face. And notice how God enlarged His promise to Abram by saying, not just that He would take him to this place, but that He would give him this place in verse 7. “To your descendants I will give this land.” The fulfillment of this promise remained for the future. It didn’t happen then and there. In fact, Abram would not experience the fullness of the promise, but his descendants would. Verse 6 says that the Canaanite was then in the land. It belonged to them at that time. But in God’s own time, He was going to take that land away from the Canaanites as a judgment for their sin and give it to the descendants of Abram in accordance with this enlarged promise.

Another outcome we see here is that God’s promises were celebrated. Abram did two things when he entered the land. He built an altar and he pitched a tent. The order is important. Worship was the priority. Because God had been faithful to His promise, a celebration of His faithfulness was in order. After Abram built that altar in verse 7, he moved on to another place in the land, and there he pitched his tent and built another altar. The tent is picked up and moved from place to place. But the altars are left standing as lasting testimonies to God’s goodness and grace, and new ones are erected at every place to celebrate God’s promises at each point along the way. 

As we walk by faith with the Lord, we do so in careful, committed, obedience, trusting the promises of His word and putting aside all excuses. When others see this level of faith and obedience, they are drawn to it. They want it for themselves, and so it becomes contagious. God is blessing others through the blessings that He pours out on us. And He keeps His promises! Sometimes we wish that God would give us more than He has. He may, but He won’t until we follow through in obedience by faith to what He has already promised us. He enlarges His promises step by step as we walk with Him. And we celebrate His faithfulness to keep His promises as we worship Him. Our tents are temporary, because our lives are not permanent in this world. But our altars are permanent, lasting testimonies of our unbreakable relationship with Him and our unshakable citizenship in His everlasting kingdom. We began by walking in obedience to His word. The journey ends when we see Him face to face.  

One of the evidences of the veracity of God’s Word is how honestly the characters are portrayed. Abraham’s failures are not hidden, and we find one immediately following this monumental description of his faith and obedience. But the good news of this is our final point of emphasis …

IV. The walk of faith is assured by God’s purpose (vv10-20)

If our walk of faith depended on our ability to never stumble, trip, or fall, then it would be a tragic tale. But our walk of faith does not depend on our ability, but God’s. Abraham gives us a vivid portrayal of this reality. Almost immediately, we see God’s promise-plan being put to the test. If the upholding of God’s purpose for Abraham and the whole world rested on Abraham, it would all come crashing down here and now. But God Himself assures that His purposes will come to pass as we walk by faith, imperfect as our walk might be.

Notice that God’s purpose for Abraham is challenged by his temptations. In verse 10, he is tempted to abandon trust. Here in this land of promise, circumstances arise that cause Abram to at least temporarily give up on walking by faith and begin walking by sight. There’s a famine in the land. We do not know what deliberations occurred in Abram’s heart and mind, but we know what he concluded. God could not be trusted to provide in the midst of such a severe famine, so Abram took off for Egypt.

Not only was Abram tempted to abandon trust, he was tempted to abandon truth. In verses 11 through 13, Abram concocts a deceitful scheme to pass off his wife as his sister so that the Egyptians wouldn’t kill him in order to seize his wife for themselves. Notice, he isn’t all that concerned about her being seized, it’s the being killed part that he takes exception to. So he tells her to lie and say that she is his sister “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live because of you.” He’s lying to save his skin. He doesn’t believe, at least in this moment, that God is able to deliver on his promise of protection, so he comes up with a lie to protect himself.

But I don’t want you to come away from this text being only impacted by the faults of Abram. I want you to be more impacted by the faithfulness of God! The assurance of our walk of faith depends entirely on His faithfulness! God upholds His purpose by His power. He supernaturally intervenes in the web of Abram’s deception and strikes Pharaoh and his household with “great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (v17). Not only does He uphold His purpose by His power, but also by His providence. God provided two important details here to preserve His promise-plan: a reasonable ruler, and a barren bride. Notice Pharaoh’s words to Abram in verses 18-19. “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” He has more integrity than Abram gave him credit for. God put that integrity into his heart as a means of upholding His promise to Abram. He could have ordered Abram to be executed, but he didn’t. He said, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife?” Those words imply that Pharaoh had every intention, and may have even acted upon that intention, to physically consummate his marriage to Sarai. But in what would otherwise be the painful tragedy of Sarai’s barrenness, God was providentially preserving His promise to Abram. How convoluted this entire episode would have become had Sarai conceived a child by the Egyptian Pharaoh. Under normal circumstances, that would have happened. But these are not normal circumstances. This is God preserving His promise by His power and providence!

So Abram failed. He was deported from Egypt, and graciously he was allowed to take everything with him. Everything, that is but his testimony before Pharaoh and the Egyptians. That had been spoiled by his abandonment of trust and truth. Rather than bringing a blessing upon this people, Abram brought a curse upon them, even though they treated him better than he deserved. But in spite of Abram’s failures, God’s purpose, God’s promise and God’s plan did not fail! He upheld His purpose by power and providence so that His promise-plan for Abram and the world would not come to nothing.

Maybe you find yourself today in the ruins of abandoned trust and truth. Having resorted to your own schemes to protect and provide for yourself, you’ve seen it all come to ruin. Well, you may have made a mess of things. You may have stumbled and fallen. But you haven’t thwarted the purpose for which God created, chose, and called you. You can return to Him in repentance and trust that in His providence and power, He will uphold and fulfill His purposes in and through you, even as He did for Abraham.

“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” He walked by faith. That walk of faith began with God’s gracious calling. It was fueled by the blessing of God’s promises. It was carried out by Abram’s own obedience, and preserved by God’s faithfulness even when Abraham’s obedience faltered. As a result, God’s promise-plan for Abraham and for the world through Abraham has come to pass in the person of Jesus. In Him, all the nations of the earth are blessed. In Him the scattered peoples of the world are gathered back together as one body – the church of Jesus Christ that is made up of those of every tribe and tongue and people and nation – those who are called by God’s grace to walk by faith just as Abraham did; those who are blessed by the promises of God’s word as Abraham was; those who by faith obey the Lord; those whom God upholds by His perfect faithfulness in spite of our imperfect faith. Thus God’s word says to us all, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Man at His Best and Worst (Genesis 11:1-9)`

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion these days of what is needed to make our world a better place. Perhaps what we need is a more perfect environment? Maybe changes in the educational system will help us? Perhaps a coming together of the nations under some new system of cooperation and alliance will rid the world of its troubles? However, as Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote in the middle of the last century, “God has tested man under every conceivable condition and found him wanting.”[1] We must remember that human history began in the perfect environment of Eden, and even there, man still rebelled against God. It is hard to imagine a more complete education than Adam had,  yet man’s state only spiraled in decline. And we come to this scene on the plains of Shinar where the whole of humanity coexisted together in a singular community with one government and one language, only to find that even under these conditions, humanity strived for greatness and sank into an even deeper level of rebellion.

In these verses, we see a true picture of man at his best and worst. As a result of the divine image in which man was created, he is capable of extraordinary things! But because that image has been marred by human sinfulness, those capacities are extraordinarily corrupted. As man exercises these capacities in the world, God observes and intervenes in such a way that nothing thwarts His sovereign plan for the world and for the people who bear His image. It was true in the days of Genesis 11, and it is still true for individuals, for nations, and even for churches. Therefore, while this text explains how the planet came to be filled with such a diverse population of humanity, it does more than this. It speaks to us even now of mankind at our best and at our worst.

As we dive into our text, we will observe first of all …

I. The Industrious Resourcefulness of Man

One of my earliest memories of childhood is sitting on my father’s lap as he read to me the story of the Little Engine That Could. You remember that story. The little train comes to a seemingly insurmountable hill and says to himself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” And he did it! Parents and teachers often shower this kind of encouragement on young people. “You can be whatever you want to be.” “You can do whatever you put your mind to.” “If you can dream it, you can do it.” And we find that it is often true. Human beings have been created with amazing potential and capabilities to be, to do, and to make.

We see this industrious resourcefulness of humanity on display with the people of our story in Genesis 11. By God’s design, they had all they needed to do great things. They had the gift of communication. Verse 1 says that “the whole earth used the same language and the same words.” You will recall from the creation account that of all that God made, only mankind was blessed with the ability to speak. Because God is a speaking God, those who were made in His image were blessed with the gift of speech that they might live in communion with Him and with one another. Because every person on the earth after the flood descended from the sons of Noah, it is not surprising that they were bound together by a common language. With that ability to communicate, there was no limit to the plans that could be conspired and carried out by men and women.

We also observe that human beings had the gift of creativity. Just as we speak because God speaks, so also we create because God creates. Creativity is part of His image within us. We do not create in the same sense that God creates, for in His infinite and omnipotent nature He is able to create something from nothing. Yet, man has the unique ability to take of what God has created, and create something fresh and new with it as we carry out our God-given commission to exercise dominion in the world. Francis Schaeffer observed, “We never find an animal … making a work of art. On the other hand, we never find men anywhere in the world or in any culture in the world who do not produce art. Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man. … Creativity is intrinsic to our mannishness.”[2]

This creativity most often finds expression in our efforts to solve problems. That’s what we find the people of Genesis 11 doing. As the human race began moving away from the mountains of Ararat where Noah’s ark came to rest, they journeyed east. The word used here for “journeying” speaks of Bedouins moving from place to place, packing up their tents as they went along each time. Coming to the plains of Shinar, they made the decision to “settle” there. This is part of that region known as the “fertile crescent” which became the cradle of civilization. No longer a people on the move, there was a need to establish a more permanent kind of dwelling place. So they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” In the asphalt pits that are abundant in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, they found tar that was suitable for joining those bricks together to build things.[3] And so they began to build homes. Several homes built become a village. Several villages built, and soon enough there is a need for a larger structure of society.

Here we find man’s industrious resourcefulness employed once again, exercising the gift of civilization. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city.” Because God is a God of order, His image in man imparts to us a desire for orderliness and an ability to create and maintain it. So, these industrious folks began to orchestrate their building into a well-organized city. There were systems of government and public administration necessary to run this city, goods and services that could be provided to meet the needs of the people. And man’s innate ability to order and organize came together to create a civilization – a city from which nearly every known civilization of the world today can trace its roots. When you study the history of world cultures, invariably the study begins with the Mesopotamian society of Sumer. There is a linguistic connection between Sumer and the word found here in verse 2, Shinar.[4] This is the place where the postdiluvian people began organizing themselves into the great city-states that have filled the timeline of human history.

So, we see here the industrious resourcefulness of man. It is a glimpse of mankind at his best: exercising his God-given abilities of communication, creativity, and civilization as a reflection of His divine image in which he was created. This industrious resourcefulness is so admirable when it is employed for the God-given task of exercising dominion on the world as God’s steward. It brings glory to God when it is carried out in the right way. But as is so often the case, when mankind is at his best, it is not a far step for him to degrade into his worst. That industrious resourcefulness can be set to motion by entirely wrongheaded motivations, and that brings us to consider …

II. The Relentless Rebellion of Man 

One of the strongest motivators in human achievement over the course of history has been the desire to prove wrong those who say something cannot be done. Tell me I can’t do it, and it only makes me want to do it more. Some might say that this sense of indomitable drive, this defiant spirit, is what makes us human. But that defiant spirit first made itself known in humanity in our relationship with God when Adam willfully disobeyed the Lord’s singular command. That led to the corruption of our entire race. By the time of the flood, God evaluated humanity with this sobering indictment: “every intent of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). And the situation was unchanged after the flood. After a life of God-honoring obedience and service, Noah’s story ends with him naked, drunk, and shamed in his tent.

Adam and Noah are great-grandfathers to us all, and the apple has not fallen far from the tree. We bear the strong family resemblance when we exercise our defiant sense of indomitable drive in rebellion to the Lord. And it is in us from birth. Children do not need to learn how to disobey, for they are born with a mastery of that deformed skill. Tell a child not to do something, and it awakens an unquenchable desire to do that very thing! And as adults, we seldom fare better.

Notice that the disobedience of the Shinar settlers was deliberate. The operative word in verse 2 of our text is the word “settled.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a settler, unless your calling is to be a pioneer. These people had not been called to settle but to pioneer. Remember that the Lord gave explicit instructions to Noah and his sons upon their emergence from the Ark: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1, 7). But this generation of pioneers determined it was better for them to settle. With deliberate intent, they disobeyed the Word of the Lord and put down roots in once place instead of carrying out the Lord’s commission.

Not only was their disobedience deliberate, it was determined. Once they settled, they began to conspire ways to remain settled. “Let us make bricks,” they said, which led to, “Let us build a city.” And the motive behind all this is spelled out in the final words of verse 4: “otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But that was the very thing that God had told them to do! Their deliberate and determined disobedience to the Lord provoked them to dig in their heels and raise up their fists to God and say, “We have come this far and no further! We shall not be moved!”

This willful rebellion has played itself out over and over again throughout human history. I dare say that most of us have observed it playing out even in our own lives. We are all well and good to say to the Lord, “Thy will be done,” so long as His will coincides with our own. But when His will beckons us beyond our comfort zones, when it threatens to inconvenience us, when it lays the axe at the root of our deepest personal desires and devotions and bids us to chop, our natural inclination is to sink in our heels and raise up our defiant fists to God and say, “No! My will be done!” And rather than yield ourselves to the kindness of God which leads us to repentance of our deliberate disobedience, we are more inclined to persist in determined disobedience until at last we are ready to make that final leap of unreasonable faith in which we say, “OK, then, I will just consider God to be nonexistent!” This is what Paul speaks of in Romans 1 as “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” However, we cannot escape the nagging awareness, though we dare not admit it publicly, that God’s existence is not dependent on our acknowledgment of Him.

C. S. Lewis said,

When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshall us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. … A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.[5] 

And so these settlers of Shinar have reached that point in their relentless rebellion. Crayon in hand, they prepare to scrawl God out of existence in a demonstration of our next observation, which is …

III. The Arrogant Idolatry of Man 

It’s been almost 20 years since the mass suicide of the followers of the Heavens Gate cult in San Diego. Do you remember those guys? Their bodies were all found wearing matching sweatsuits and Nike shoes, having been convinced by their leader that their spaceship was coming with the Hale-Bopp comet to take them to a new level of existence. I remember a news commentator saying these profound words: “When people stop believing in reality, they don’t believe nothing. They will believe anything.” That’s not new. That’s been true since the beginning.

Having determined that they would not yield to the word and will of God, the settlers of Shinar determined that they could get along just fine without Him. Rather than worshiping and serving the God who made them in His image, they began to craft for themselves a religion made after their own image. Thus arrogance is always at the root of idolatry, because it is always ultimately a worship of self. Verse 4 shows us how it took shape at Shinar.

It began with the pursuit of heaven without God. After determining to build for themselves a city, they began to build “a tower whose top will reach into heaven.” There are many scholars who believe that it was not a literal heaven that they hoped to attain by their tower, but a representative one. That is, atop this tower would be a temple where acts of worship and divination could take place, perhaps in devotion to the star patterns or something. And so this tower began to rise. All across the Mesopotamian region, archaeologists have uncovered the efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of these tower builders. The ancient ziggurats, a precursor to the pyramids, were built with ramps and stairs leading up to the central shrine on the pinnacle. And the names of almost all of them speaks of something to the effect of “The Link Between Heaven and Earth,” or similar. The tower in Genesis 11 was the prototype of them all.

We see their ambition clearly in their own words. Having rejected God’s word and God’s will, and determined to live this life in this world on their own terms, they concocted a system by which they hoped to attain the next life in the next world on their own terms without God as well. All that was necessary – climb that tower! We will apply all of our effort to build it, and then apply all of our effort to climb it in order to get to heaven. Who needs God? We can do it ourselves!

This arrogant idolatry has persisted in false belief systems throughout history. Work as hard as you can! Apply your own effort! Build as high as you can build, and climb as high as you can climb! That will get you to heaven! So says every religious system apart from biblical Christianity in the world to this day. From the false gospel of prosperity televangelists, to the homespun mythology of folk religion, to the pantheons and pagodas of Hinduism and Buddhism, and at all points in between, the common thread running through all these systems of belief is that you can get to heaven on your own merit and effort if you work hard enough.

Not only did they seek heaven without God, they also sought glory apart from God. They say, “Let us make for ourselves a name!” Standing on plains of freshly deposited soil and sand that had buried generations of nameless, forgotten people who perished in the flood, these people wanted to do something great that would give them fame and notoriety! What’s so wrong with that? Well, in fact, there could be a great deal wrong with it. You see, in the Bible, the right to “name” something implies authority over it. God names things with symbolic names of what He is going to do with them or make of them. So He named the first man Adam. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham. He changed Jacob’s name to Israel. And so on. And He gave man authority over creation, and man exercised it in Genesis 2:19-20 as he gave names to all the animals. But God did not give man the right to make a name for himself, as if man was the sole authority over himself. Contrary to Henley’s famous poem, Invictus, I am not the master of my fate: I am not the captain of my soul.” Man brings glory to God by living out the purpose for which God creates us and names us by His sovereign authority. But these people wanted to bring glory to themselves and make a name for themselves apart from God. Oh, they earned for themselves a name, alright. Verse 9 says, “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The name that they made for themselves lives in infamy, an epitaph of a civilization bent on godless corruption, which resulted in confusion and dispersion.

John Calvin exposes this arrogant idolatry to which we are all disposed by contrasting it with genuine faith in God. He says, “What is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue, in order to be clothed by God? That we are empty of all good, to be filled by Him? That we are slaves to sin, to be freed by Him? Blinded, to be illumined by Him? Lame, to be made straight by Him? Weak, to be sustained by Him? To take away all occasion for glorying, that He alone may stand forth gloriously, and we glory in Him?”[6]

Heaven cannot be found apart from Him. Glory is nowhere to be attained except for in Him. And with mankind demonstrating the use of his best abilities to carry out his worst designs, divine intervention is unavoidable. And so we come at last to …

IV. The Surprising Condescension of God

There are some poor, unfortunate people who believe that God does not have a sense of humor. How dull their lives must be! God has a remarkable sense of humor, and He is not opposed to showing it off from time to time. How does he respond to man’s attempt to build a tower as high as he can build it, all the way to heaven? Verse 5 says, “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.” So infinitesimal was this monument to man’s own greatness, it was barely visible from God’s throne in heaven. So He had to come down. He condescended to intervene in humanity’s endeavors, and He did so in surprising ways.  

We observe His patient condescension. He knew what these people devised to do before they did it. And at any point in the process He could have put a halt to it. But He waited patiently, and He allowed them to finish the project, giving them time all along to come to the end of themselves and repent of the folly of their rebellion, or to be ensnared by their own vainglory. It is as though He gives mankind enough rope to serve as a lifeline or a noose, and He leaves the choice to man what to make of it. How patient has He been with you and me? In His kindness, He’s leading us to repentance, not wanting us to perish, but wanting to rescue us before we destroy ourselves in persistent rejection of Him.

We see His merciful condescension. Just as the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden may have seemed harsh but proved to be for man’s own good, so here, the Lord came down to chasten humanity, but it was a compassionate chastening. Verse 6, He says, “Behold they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do?” In other words, with all that man had going for him, he chose to use it to destroy himself in rebellion. The Lord says, “Now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” In other words, “If they think they can get to heaven without Me, and make a name for themselves apart from Me, there’s really no limit to the depths of their depravity!” And so He says in verse 7, “Come, let Us go down.” Notice the parallel expression. Twice the builders said to one another, “Come, let us,” and a third time, “let us.” Now God says with the final and authoritative word, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Why not just topple the tower? Because they would just build another. God’s chastening goes deeper. For man’s own good, God must make more difficult for them to conspire themselves together to their own demise. How merciful it is when God takes from us that which we love, that to which we aspire, but which in the end would destroy us! As I look back on my life, I count few days happier than the day in which the Lord toppled the tower of my own making and delivered me from the name I was seeking to make for myself! How miserable I would have been had He let me succeed! It is His mercy which we see in His condescension.

And we also see His sovereign condescension. Verse 8 says He scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth. That’s what He told them to do in the first place, and it was the very thing that they refused to do, the very thing that they tried to prevent from happening! But God has the final word! His will cannot be thwarted and will be done at the end of the day. I read these words and I wonder how many churches in our day can be likened to these Shinar settlers? Concerned only for their own institutional preservation and the making of a name for themselves, they build and maintain and manicure their facilities, to the neglect of the commission by which the sovereign Lord bids us go into all the world making disciples for Him! God forbid that it ever be so of this body of believers! May we never prioritize the preservation of our name or our building project over the mission of God in Christ! If it were to happen, we would deserve and invite upon ourselves the toppling of our building and the scattering of our people.

All around the world, all throughout history, all around us today, there are individuals and institutions, cities, countries, and cultures – people made in God’s image and blessed with remarkable gifts that could be employed in the service of God for the betterment of the world according to His will. But time and time again, those capabilities are exercised in persistent disobedience to Him, and those individuals, institutions, cities, countries and cultures go about seeking a heaven of their own making and the glory of their own name. But it is not in the building up of towers of our own effort that heaven is found, that glory is attained, or that a name is made for ourselves. It is in the coming down of the Lord. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not tell you to build your own way to heaven and climb as hard and high as you can climb. It says that God has come down to rescue you – to live for you and die for you in the Person of Christ. It is in Christ that the confusion and scattering of Babel begins to be reversed. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God began to unite the languages of men again and gather a people together for God’s own glory and in the name of Jesus. He is building for Himself a church, a family, a kingdom into which those of every tribe and nation and tongue are gathered as one body in advance of the day when we will behold the glory of God face to face. And so, the Proverbs tell us, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe” (18:10).  

[1] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Genesis: A Devotional Exposition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 1.70.
[2] Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1973), 34-35.
[3] Henry Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 268.
[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 351, esp. fn. 9, pp 351-2.
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 47.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:13. 

Sunday, February 05, 2017

God Remembers (Genesis 8:1-9:17)

They say the first thing to go is your sense of the hereafter. You walk into a room and wonder, “What did I come in here after?” Earlier this week, I claimed to be having a “senior moment,” but was told that I was not yet old enough to use that excuse. Whatever factor we chalk it up to, or excuse we make, the undeniable fact is that we are a forgetful lot. A great example of this is found in Scripture, when Joseph was imprisoned, and he asked Pharaoh’s cupbearer to “please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh” (Gen 40:14). The Bible says simply, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” Most of us can relate to that. That is why we are especially grateful that we have a God who never forgets.

Sometimes we can feel as though God has forgotten us. We find ourselves in the midst of hardship or difficulty, worse yet, hit with wave upon wave of suffering. We may wonder, “Does God even know what I am going through? Does He even care? Has He forgotten about me?” Noah may have been tempted to feel that way. By the time our text begins, Noah had been holed up in the ark for about 5 months and a week. Think about where you were on August 30 of last year. That’s how long Noah had been on the ark when Chapter 8 begins. The incessant sound of torrential downpour had hammered on the roof of the ark for almost six weeks. The waves of the great flood had bombarded the sides or the ark, tossing it back and forth. His only human companions were his wife and three sons and three daughters-in-law. They were surrounded by animals, and by this time had either grown immune or weary of the odor. Food supplies may have begun to concern them. They may have wondered if they would die on board the ark, or if they would ever be able to emerge from it. It must have felt as though they had been forgotten. But Chapter 8 opens with these simple words, “But God remembered Noah.”

Now when you and I “remember” something, it means that something comes to mind that we have previously forgotten. But we also use the term in a different way. Sometimes when we say we “remember” something, it is to say that we could never forget it. We remember our wedding day. We remember where we were on 9/11. We remember our loved ones’ birthdays. How could we forget? And it is this second sense in which the Bible speaks of God remembering. To say that God “remembers” is to say that God never forgets. And so Noah discovered, as must we all, that God never forgets His people or His promises. He remembers.

I. God Remembers His People (8:1-20)

When we look at the entire flood narrative from Chapter 6 to Chapter 9, we find that this statement, “God remembered Noah,” becomes the turning point of the story. Prior to this statement, the waters are rising. Afterward the waters are receding. Everything before this marks an end of creation as it was known; afterward, everything marks a new beginning. Noah, you will remember, was introduced to us as a unique person of his generation who had “found grace (or favor) in the eyes of the Lord.” God had chosen Noah to be the object of His saving grace. Noah had been invited into a personal relationship with God, which was received by Noah’s faith, and which was maintained by God’s faithfulness. In the security of this personal relationship, there is assurance that God never forgets, but always remembers His people.

Because God remembers His people, He works on their behalf. In fact, the Hebrew word “remember” which occurs here in our text indicates far more than just mental recall. Some 73 times in the Old Testament, we read of God “remembering,” and in each case the indication is that God is taking action toward that person.[1] He acts upon His previous commitment to His people. And that is what He is doing here with Noah. Notice that because God remembered Noah, He did something. Verse 1 says that He caused  a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided. Surely the natural hydrological cycles were at work here, but behind and beneath them, God was orchestrating the events for the benefit of the chosen object of His grace.

Friends, we must come to understand this. There are times in our lives when our circumstances tempt us to conclude that God has forgotten about us, or that He has gone on vacation or something and left us to deal with our struggles on our own hopeless resources. But this is never the case. When we live in a personal relationship with God by His grace, we can have the confidence that He remembers us – that He will never forget us! – and that He is always at work on our behalf, even when we do not perceive what it is that He is doing. Because He remembers His people, He works.

Next, we find that God’s remembrance of Noah causes Noah to do something as well. Because Noah trusts that God does remember him and is working on his behalf, Noah waits. The narrative from verse 4 to verse 14 seems to slow down to a snail’s pace, and it is punctuated throughout with timestamps. Verse 4 says that the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat on the seventh month, on the seventeenth day. But it was almost three months later before the tops of the mountains became visible, as verse 5 indicates, “in the tenth month, on the first day of the first day of the month.”

Verse 6 says that after 40 more days had passed (6 weeks from the mountain tops becoming visible), Noah sent out a raven. The raven “flew here and there,” seemingly never returning to the ark. Ravens are “carrion birds,” who feed upon anything and everything, including the carcasses of the dead. The raven was able to fly long distances at great heights, finding plenty to eat and high places in the mountain peaks to make a home. At some point later, Noah sent forth a dove. Doves and pigeons are closely related, and both have a unique homing sense. The dove was able to go out and return, because there was no place for the dove to settle outside of the ark yet.

Another week passes, according to verse 10, and Noah sent out the dove a second time. This time, the dove returned holding a “freshly picked olive leaf.” This was an indication that vegetation below the treelines of the mountains had emerged, but there was still no dwelling place available. Finally, in verse 12, another week elapses, and Noah sends out the dove again, and this time the dove does not return. Conditions for sustaining life on the earth were improving.

Verse 13 says that on the first day of the first month of the 601st year, the water was dried up from the earth. To put that into perspective, this is approximately 11 months after Noah boarded the ark, and about four months after the ark had come to rest on the mountain. The final time stamp is in verse 14, where we read that on the 27th day of the second month (nearly two months after verse 13), the earth was finally completely dry. And it was then that God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark.”

Now, what is the point of all this tedious inscription of the slow passage of time? It is to demonstrate Noah’s patient waiting on the Lord. Because He knew that the Lord had remembered him, he was able to wait for the Lord to speak about what he was to do next. And he did not do anything until the Lord spoke. There is an important application for us here. If we are convinced, and believe by faith, that the Lord remembers us, that He never forgets us, and that He is working on our behalf for our good and His glory according to the promises of His word, then we can be patient as we wait for Him. Like Noah, we can abide under the momentary afflictions that come our way, the temporary discomforts and inconveniences, knowing that in His own time and according to His perfect will, God’s work will be done. And until we are certain that our next step of faith is one of obedience to Him, we can wait because we believe He remembers us.

Notice there is one other thing that we observe here in Chapter 8 that flows out of the assurance that God remembers His people. Because He remembers His people, He works and we wait, but we also see in verse 20 that we worship. Notice the first thing Noah does upon emerging from the ark. He builds an altar to the Lord. I suppose that the average person might think first to build shelter for himself, but not Noah. In grateful worship for the Lord’s gracious remembrance of him, he builds an altar and makes a sacrifice.

Although in our popular folklore, we tend to think of Noah only taking two of every kind of animal on board the ark, the Bible actually tells us that there were more of certain animals. In 7:2, the Lord told Noah to take the clean animals “by sevens,” and only two of the unclean animals. The distinction between the two has not been revealed yet in Scripture, but when it comes later, the clean animals will be specified as those which are fit for eating and for sacrificing in worship. The phrase “by sevens” could mean seven, with three pairs for mating and a spare for sacrifice, or “seven pairs.” In ether case, the point is the same: God provided more than was necessary for the mere survival of the species. Those which man would be able to eat and offer to God in worship were to be more abundant.

In building the altar and offering the sacrifice, Noah was engaging in worship. He was thanking God for His provision and for His faithfulness to deliver him and his family. He was also confessing to God his own unworthiness for this divine favor. Noah recognized that he was saved by grace, and in gratitude for grace, and as a confession of his reliance on that grace, he offered this sacrifice to the Lord. Because God had remembered him, he worshiped.

In Isaiah 49:14-16, the people of Israel who were undergoing captivity and enslavement say, “The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” But God’s response is this: “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.” We who have come into a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ find all the more assurance in these words. By God’s grace, He has rescued us from sin through the offering of Jesus Christ on the cross. He died to take our penalty for sin upon Himself that we might be saved. And just as the disciples were able to see the nail prints in the hands of the risen Jesus, so the Lord says, “I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands. Whenever He sees the wounds that Christ endured for us on the cross, He remembers those who are the special objects of His grace. How could He ever forget those who were ransomed by the shedding of the very blood of His only begotten Son? A mother would more likely forget her own child than that God should forget His blood-bought children. He remembers! Therefore, He works on our behalf, and we wait on Him with patience, and we worship Him with our lives, because God remembers His people.

II. God Remembers His Promise (8:21-9:17)

Mark Twain once famously said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” As we have seen in political and celebrity scandals, when a person lies to cover up lies with more lies, they can catch themselves in an awkward web of “misremembering” important details. Twain’s memorable remark is simply an admonition to be honest, for then one doesn’t have to remember what was told to whom and when, for it was always the truth being told. Of course, when God speaks, He speaks the truth. In Numbers 23:19, we read, “God is not a man, that He should lie.” And because He always speaks the truth, He is never in danger of “misremembering” a promise that He has made. The second occurrence of God “remembering” in this passage is found in 9:15. There He assures Noah that He will remember His covenant. He can never forget a single one of the many promises He has made.

In 8:21-22, immediately following Noah’s offering on the altar, we find that God’s promises are made with grace. The Lord was pleased with Noah’s offering, as indicated by the statement, “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma.” This is a literary device here featuring a play on words with the word “soothing,” and the name “Noah.” Remember that Noah’s father gave him this name “This one will give us rest” (5:29). The name “Noah” means “rest,” and the Hebrew word is very closely connected to the word here for “soothing.” The idea is not that Noah had placated an angry God to repent of His unbridled vengeance. It is that Noah had honored the Lord, and that finally the Lord was receiving the worship that was due him after humanity had dishonored him for so many generations. God was taking pleasure in the worship and obedience of Noah and it rose up before Him like a soothing aroma. And so God makes a promise. He says, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man.”

But notice that this promise is saturated with grace, for the very next thing the Lord says is, “for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” You will recall that this is exactly what the Lord said of the human race prior to the flood. “Every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). So the flood did not “fix” human depravity. Man’s fallen nature remains unchanged after the flood, as Noah will demonstrate at the end of Chapter 9 when his story comes to a close. Noah’s story begins with a man transformed by grace, and ends with a drunk, naked, shamed man. He is a reminder to us that the most important part of our story is how it ends. But though man remains radically corrupted by sin after the flood, God promises to deal with man in grace – that is, not to bring about what man deserves, but to treat mankind better than he deserves. The Lord says, “I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.” It is not that we don’t deserve that, but that God has a better promise for humanity. The flood has wiped the earth clean of the symptoms of human sinfulness. But it did not uproot the disease. In the future, God would deal with the disease in the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ and destroy sin fully and finally when the seed of woman trampled the head of the serpent as promised in the Garden.

So, as long as the earth remains (which is not a promise that it will remain forever, because it won’t), there will be the normal, dependable rhythms of life and time: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night. Last week, you may have seen the news concerning the Twitter account of Badlands National Park. In defiance of a presidential directive about government use of social media, and to make a statement about the president’s position on climate change, someone from Badlands tweeted, “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.”[2] Now, please understand, I am not making any kind of bold claims about climate change here, but I want you to see just how alarmingly unscientific such a statement is. How long has mankind had the tools necessary to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? And how long have those records been kept? Certainly not 650,000 years! Science, when done rightly, deals with observable, measurable data. Claims about the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere for the last 650,000 years exceed those bounds. However, when we look at the human history we do have, we find that God’s word stands on its own merits. There have been times of sowing and reaping, times of cold and heat, times of summer and winter. Sometimes, the trends have been warmer, sometimes colder. But, the world keeps turning, the sun keeps rising, and life goes on with a dependable sense of regularity. Mankind need not live in fear that the glaciers are going to melt and flood the world, because God has promised that it won’t happen again. Not that we don’t deserve it, mind you, because our cultural conditions are no different than in the days of Noah. But because God has made a promise with grace.

We notice as well that God makes a promise with blessings. Chapter 9 opens with language that sounds exactly like God’s blessing and promises to man when Adam was first created. And this is for good reason. With the emergence of Noah from the ark, we have a “new beginning” of creation. And here in this new creation, though man is still deeply scarred by sin, man still bears the image of God in which he was created. And so, just as God blessed the first man and woman, he blesses Noah and his sons in similar terms.

The first blessing in God’s promise gives life purpose. Just as Adam was blessed and commissioned to be fruitful and multiply and to exercise dominion in the world over all creation, so Noah and his sons were blessed with the same purpose (9:1). Because the human race at this point consisted of only eight people, it was essential that they repopulate the earth. God’s intention was that the world would be filled with the creatures that bore His image. So, life’s purpose is about more than just having babies. It is about filling the earth with the divine image that is found in man, even though that image is marred by sin. And as man exercises dominion on the earth, God’s will is carried out through them. Man rules in creation on God’s behalf as His vice-regents. But notice that now there is a difference. The harmony that once existed between humanity and the animal kingdom is now corrupted. The Lord says, “The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every best of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea” (9:2). They are still given into the hands of men, but now this dominion will be carried out with a struggle. But still, human life has a purpose under this blessing and promise of God. They are to represent God by reproducing His image and ruling creation on His behalf.

Second, we notice that God’s promise comes with the blessing that gives life provision. Originally, Adam and Eve were permitted to eat from any and every tree and plant of the garden except one. It was not merely for health or dietary reasons that the human race was initially vegetarian. It was because death had not entered into the world. Death came by sin, and as far as we can tell, the first physical death that ever happened on the earth was that of the sacrificial animal that was killed so that God could provide coverings of skin for Adam and Eve after their sin. But now that death was commonplace in the world, there was no reason to prohibit the eating of meat. So, the Lord says, “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant.” But there are boundaries to this blessing. First, notice that God says, “everything that lives.” That means that man must trust God’s promise to provide and not resort to scavenger living by eating things found dead. Also, man must abstain from savagery, and “not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” There must be a respect for life, and life is represented by blood. Leviticus 17:11 says that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” and it is for this reason that blood is offered as a sacrifice for atonement. It represents the giving of a life. Mankind is not to disregard the sacredness of life by carelessly eating and drinking blood. The animal life that he takes for food must be handled with care, and prepared with care. Because God has promised to provide, man can obey God and trust Him to provide the food that is necessary to sustain life without becoming bloodthirsty savages and scavengers.

We also see that God’s promise comes with the blessing of life’s protection. Because of the divine image in mankind, human life bears a unique sacredness. Therefore, God promises to defend human life above all else. “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it, and from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.” This means that any animal or human who takes the life of a human being will be put to death. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (9:6).

This does not authorize vigilante style justice, and it is not necessarily a blanket endorsement of all instances of capital punishment, but it does establish the role of human government in defending the rights and life of mankind. The architects of American government understood this, and said in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Because humanity has the right to live the life that God has given him, no one else has the right to take that life away. Mankind is thus commissioned to govern one another to protect this and other rights that are inherent in the created order. As one writer says, “innocent human beings have a right not to be deliberately killed.” Thus, when Christians stand today for the protection of human life, from the unborn child in his mothers’ womb, to the elderly, infirm, and disabled, we are standing for God and the protection of life that is created in His image. God has promised to defend human life, and that promise comes with the blessing of His protection.

God, as you can see, remembers His promise. His promise is made with grace, and it is made with blessings. But finally we see that God’s promise is made with assurance. We see it in the language used to describe the promise. God calls it a covenant. This is a binding and unbreakable promise. Now a promise of this kind is only as valid as the word of the one who makes it, and for that reason, we ought to draw great assurance from this promise. We see that the One who authors and offers this covenant and the One who stands behind to uphold it and carry it out is none other than God Himself. Notice the repetition of the first person pronouns throughout the passage. Verse 8, God says “I Myself do establish My covenant with you.”  Verses 11, “I establish My covenant with you.” Verse 12, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making.” Verse 15, “I will remember My covenant.” Verse 17, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.” The assurance we have is that God will not break the promises that He has made to mankind because it is His covenant. He made it. He established it. The promises of God are certain because they rest on God’s faithfulness.

Notice not only does God make His covenant, but He also memorializes it with a sign that assures us that He will remember His promise. He says in verse 12, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making.” And that sign is given in verse 13, “I set My bow in the cloud and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth.” Now some of the English translations use the word “rainbow” here in this passage, and certainly it is a rainbow of which God speaks. But the word that God uses is simply the word “bow,” and it is the same Hebrew word that is used to describe the weapon of the archer. God says, in effect, “I have hung up the bow, and promise to no more fire the weapon of my judgment at the earth in this same way that I have with the flood.” He says, “It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant.

The rainbow is the memorial which God has set in the sky as the assurance of His promise to never again flood the earth with the waters of judgment. It is not a promise that judgment will never again come, for it certainly will. But it is a promise that judgment will not come in the same way. If you think of the rainbow as a bow, a weapon, consider how it is suspended in the sky. The arch of the bow is pointed, not toward the earth, but toward heaven itself. And in this, we see a foreshadowing of how God will keep the promise of His covenant with mankind. The next time the arrow of His judgment would fire, it would fire, as it were, upon Himself as God incarnate was nailed to the cross at Calvary to take the flood of judgment for man’s sin upon Himself. So, when you see the rainbow in the sky, you know that God has made a promise that He can never forget, and will always remember. He has promised that He will take the arrow of judgment on our behalf and never again flood the earth with watery judgment. And this promise is as sure as any other that God ever made. Jesus said that He was making a new covenant with His followers – a covenant symbolized not by a rainbow, but by a cup and by bread. The bread and the cup symbolize that His covenant was established with us by the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood. He has promised to save us from the judgment of fire that will come upon the earth at the consummation of His kingdom.

We began our service with a reading from Isaiah 11 that speaks of life in the coming kingdom of Christ. The shoot that springs from the stem of Jesse and the branch of his roots will come -- the descendant of David who was promised to come and reign forever. He is the same one who is the seed of woman who will crush the head of the serpent. He is the “little boy” who will rule in the everlasting kingdom over the blood-bought sons and daughters of His covenant. And in that day, we will see the fulfillment of all that Noah and the ark represent. On the ark, man and animal lived together in harmony until the ark opened and they all emerged. But in the Kingdom, “the wolf will dwell with the lamb and the leopard will lied own with the young goat, the calf and the young lion, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox, the man and the cobra,” will live together forever under the banner of Christ’s kingdom. The present heavens and earth will have been destroyed by fire, as 2 Peter 3 promises, preparing the way for a new heaven and new earth where man will dwell in a renewed, glorified state with the Lord, free from the presence and power of sin forever. And Christ will stand as a “signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious.”

We serve a God who remembers His people, therefore He works on our behalf while we wait and worship. He remembers His promise, made with grace, delivered with blessings, and guaranteed with assurance. Hear His words of love inviting you into this blood-sealed covenant to become a citizen of this kingdom for which we all long.

[1] Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 299.

[2] Katie Reilly, “A Rogue National Park Is Tweeting Out Climate Change Facts in Defiance of Donald Trump.” Online at Accessed February 2, 2017.