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Old Worlds & New

Under the Shadow of His Wings

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2000

Genesis 1.1-3:In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The Bible pretty unapologetically presents a double-decker universe. There is heaven above and then the earth beneath. In the imagery from Jacob’s ladder, heaven is upstairs and earth is downstairs. Thus, when the Bible wants us to know that God created everything, it tells us that God created heaven and earth.

So far so good, but let me focus our understanding of verse 1. Translated in English, the text could be understood to say in verse one that God created everything. And then verse 2ff tell us how God created everything. In other words, verse one could be understood as an introductory sentence describing what will be recorded in the rest of the chapter. That really doesn’t work. Verse 1 is not a summary of the rest of the chapter, but a statement about the background to the rest of the chapter. It could easily be translated:

In the beginning, God had created the heavens and the earth.

What verse 1 does then is tell us what has happened before the narration begins. God had created the heavens and had created the earth, but created the earth to be formless and empty and dark so that he could spend the next six days shaping and filling and enlightening it.

Before I go any further, let me address one issue that I might have just raised in your minds. Yes, if all we had to go on was Genesis chapter 1, we couldn’t rule out the possibility that creation began before the six days. Heaven and some sort of primeval starless physical creation could have existed before the beginning of the first day – maybe. But we have more to go on that Genesis chapter 1. We have passages like Exodus chapter 20, which states that all things were made in the space of six days.

Now, some people have tried to make the case that what we have here in Genesis 1 is not a cosmogony – a story of the creation of the world – but a geogony – a story of the creation of the planet earth. The heavens were already made, they say, at the point when the action begins in verse 2; therefore all that is left for the chapter to recount is the creation of the earth. This is their conclusion from detailed study of the Hebrew in verses 1 and 2.

Well, this is an example in my opinion of straining a grammatical gnat and swallowing an exegetical camel. Later in the chapter will find that God makes the sun and moon and stars. The sun, moon, and stars are not part of this planet. So this chapter cannot simply be about the creation of the planet.

But we need to think about this since the grammatical insight is correct. The heavens have already been made in verse 1 and the rest of the chapter is about the “earth.” So what is going on? How can the earth involve stars?

The answer is actually not that hard to discover. The heavens in verse 1 are not a description of outer space, but of the spirit world. In the beginning God created angels and whatever else exists with them and he also created the physical universe in a dark and chaotic state. That is what verse 1 tells us. And the rest of the chapter describes what God did about the chaotic state of the physical universe. In that sense, the stars belong to earth and not to the heavens. On the other hand, since the sky is used from the beginning as a token of the spiritual realms, the stars are said to inhabit the heavens, even though what they inhabit was not created until the second day.

Our problem as a church in the twentieth century has mainly been the problem of materialism – the claim that the physical universe is all that exists and requires nothing else to be interpreted. So we are likely to applaud this passage as a statement that there is more to reality than the material world. There is another realm, a spiritual realm, that is also important.

The problem with this perspective is that, while it is true as far as it goes, it does not do justice to the situation at the time that Genesis was written nor that of most of human history. Most pagans believed in another realm. There were gods and then there were men. They each had their own world. The gods made and ruled the world of men, but they lived in a world that was not necessarily made by them. The realm of the gods was not so much from the gods and the gods were from the realm.

So keep this in mind, even though the Bible does present us with a two-tiered view of reality it is only a two-tiered view of created reality. Solomon when he built the Temple said it plainly:

But will God indeed dwell with men on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built! Yet regard the prayer of Your servant and his supplication, O LORD my God, and listen to the cry and the prayer which Your servant is praying before You: that Your eyes may be open toward this temple day and night, toward the place where You said You would put Your name, that You may hear the prayer which Your servant prays toward this place.

God is going to dwell in the Temple Solomon has made; yet God even transcends not only the Temple, and not only the whole of the earth, but also the highest heavens. They are all mere creations.

The implications of this fact are that even heaven is merely a created symbol. The writer of Hebrews speaks of how the Tabernacle and Temple were copies of the heavenly reality where God dwelt. And that is true, as we’ll see in Genesis. But even heaven itself is simply a symbol. God dwells in heaven on a throne in the same way that he dwelt in it’s copy the Tabernacle and Temple. By a special and mysterious act of condescension. Somehow, even though God is omnipresent, he can appear in certain locations and truly be there. Whether the place where he makes himself present is over the Ark of the Covenant as Moses saw, or in a throne in heaven as the Apostle John saw, is not relevant. God is not some sort of native of heaven who comes down to earth. Rather heaven comes from him.

The reason why heaven seems so much more special as God’s dwelling place is simply because he chose to especially dwell there and not on earth. It is no different in principle than the fact that he chose the Tabernacle to be his special dwelling place.

Having said that, he did choose heaven to be associated with himself as his throne room. He did first place his presence there, not on earth. And we see that even in the first verse. The earth takes six days to make. Its initial stage is dark and empty and confused. But what about heaven? It is already completed. It is mentioned in the beginning but it is earth which has to be dealt with for six more days.

Throughout the Bible people call to God in heaven for help on earth. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven – that is, just as the angels perfectly obey, so may humanity be brought to perfect service. And here we see the beginnings of this idea even apart from sin. Heaven is complete but the earth is unformed. The earth needs to be made more like heaven. Perhaps God needs to descend from heaven to the dark, empty, chaotic world and take action.

And that’s exactly what he does:

the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.

God’s Spirit is fully God and therefore is omnipresent. Yet the author of Genesis gives him a definite location. This is a description of a theophany – like when God appeared to Abraham as a man. In order to carry out his creative work, God took on space-time coordinates. He located himself in the world he was making.

Having established that it entails a theophany, we can understand this statement more clearly if we compare some other Scriptures. Let’s start with Haggai chapter 2:

“Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,” declares the LORD, “take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,” declares the LORD, “and work; for I am with you,” says the LORD of hosts. “As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!”

God assure those returning from Exile that even though the Temple is much smaller than Solomon’s Temple, nevertheless God’s Spirit is dwelling in their midst. Don’t misunderstand; God is not saying that they shouldn’t care about the Temple because God’s Spirit is in their hearts. He’s saying that they shouldn’t care about the size and appearance of the Temple because God’s Spirit is in the Temple. As Paul says in First Corinthians 3.16, the Temple is inhabited by God’s Spirit. That is the promise Zechariah is recalling that was made to Moses. God told Moses to build a Tabernacle and promised that his presence – his Spirit – would dwell within that Tabernacle.

The important thing to remember here is that God’s Spirit entered the Tabernacle in a specific form. Exodus chapter 40:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.

Now this cloud also came into the Temple when Solomon dedicated it as we find in First Kings 8. That was the Spirit – a theophany of God’s presence. We find additional evidence for this in Deuteronomy chapter 31. Moses states:

For the LORD’s portion is His people;
Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.
He found him in a desert land,
And in the howling waste of a wilderness;
He encircled him, He cared for him,
He guarded him as the pupil of His eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
That hovers over its young,
He spread His wings and caught them,
He carried them on His pinions.

Now in Genesis one we read that the earth was formless – a translation of a Hebrew word which does not occur anywhere else in the Pentateuch except here in Deuteronomy: the waste of the wilderness. And we also read in Genesis that the Spirit of the Lord “hovered” or “moved” over the face of the waters. Again, the Hebrew word occurs nowhere else in the first five books of the Bible until Moses mentions it in Deuteronomy: “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young. You see Moses is using a metaphor, but it is a concrete metaphor. The eagle represents the angel-filled glory-cloud that led them, which is the Spirit – the same Spirit which rested on the Tabernacle. To put it another way, the metaphor works in two directions at once. On one level the comparison of the glory-cloud hovering in the wilderness is being compared to an eagle. On another level, the language hearkens back to the Spirit hovering over the chaotic watery waste that was earth.

And by the way, there is a reason why Moses thinks it is appropriate to refer to an “eagle.” The Spirit does not simply appear as a glory-cloud, but when that cloud is penetrated by special vision, we find that the cloud is full of angels. Maybe you remember this from Christmas a couple of years ago. We’re told so unambiguously in Psalm 68:15-17. Listen to how God’s presence is described:

A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode? Surely the LORD will dwell there forever. The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; the LORD is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.

Now David in this Psalm is referring to Jerusalem where he has located the Ark of the Covenant and where Solomon will later build a Temple. He is comparing that mountain to Mount Sinai, saying that God is just as much present in Jerusalem as he was on Sinai. And to fill out that description, he affirms that, just as there were thousands of angels surrounding God’s presence in glory, so there are thousands of unseen angels now in Jerusalem surrounding God’s presence.

Ezekiel saw this and tells us that one of the faces of the four-faced angels in the cloud was the face of an eagle.

With the thought of that pillar of cloud and fire filled with flying angels, lets consider our last verse:

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Recall what God did to save Israel at the Red Sea:

the angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night.

This pillar of cloud which surrounded the angel of God produces light and even separates light from darkness in being a dividing wall between Egyptian and Israelite.

I’ve gone through all this to say that what we have here in the beginning of the beginning is a pattern followed throughout the Scripture. God comes down from heaven and brings light to the world.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

ARISE, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness will cover the earth,
And deep darkness the peoples;
But the LORD will rise upon you,
And His glory will appear upon you.
And nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light

The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them.

God descends from heaven in the Spirit and brings light to the earth. This is the pattern of salvation. It is the pattern of Sinai where God’s glory-cloud came down and delivered to Israel the Law and the plan for the tabernacle in which He will dwell. It is the pattern we see when the glory of the Lord filled with angels appears to the shepherds near Bethlehem. It is a pattern we see when Saul of Tarsus is confronted with a blinding light and confesses that just as the glory-cloud of Israel contained the angel of the Lord so he was brought face-to-face with the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

And it is the pattern of the incarnation itself. What does the angel say to Mary?

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.

Just as the Spirit overshadowed the chaotic dark void, the Spirit overshadows Mary and brings light and life to the world.

There was nothing sinful about the original creation. We’ll discuss next week why God would want to begin the world in such an incomplete state. But my point now is that, even though we see this pattern recur in salvation we know we not seeing in our passage this morning an act of salvation. Salvation presupposes sin and there is no sin yet. What we have here obviously, is an act of creation.

So why do we see time and again salvation following this same pattern? The answer is that salvation is a new creation. So the Bible describes salvation in language that reflects the way of creation.

The most fundamental thing about creation, after all, is that God establishes new relationships. At first there is only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a relationship of love; then there is Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and something else included in that relationship.

Thus, after the relationship of love has been changed because of sin, the restoration of that relationship is portrayed as a new creation. God calls us into being in a relationship of love with himself. When we depart God calls us back to that relationship. So the story of salvation closely resembles the story of creation. Salvation is a new creation.

I’ll conclude all this with a theological point: If God made the world, he can save it. That’s what Isaiah, to name just one example, says several times. You should not trust other gods to save you because the Lord is the one who made you. Only he can be trusted to save you. That’s the point being alluded to when we read descriptions of salvation which hearken back to this description of creation. If God alone is the creator then he alone is the savior. He will not leave us in darkness and chaos and emptiness. He will rend the heavens and come down. He will visit us. He will bring light to our darkness. That’s not all that Genesis 1.1-3 says, but it is certainly one of the most important things.

copyright © 2000

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