Ryan Ward, Bowdoin Class of 2017
The Bible begins with the familiar yet bold proclamation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This one verse firmly establishes a fundamental truth about God’s place in the universe. He is the creator of all that was, all that is, and all that will be. He is the maker before whom we are exposed and to whom we must give an account. Not only is our natural environment His creation, but we are also shaped by His hands and made in the image of God. All of this is established in the first chapter of Genesis, which lays the foundation for the rest of the scripture that follows.
Creation is not just an item of history which we study merely for the sake of knowing the origins of life. It is a doctrine of profound importance to all who share in the life that is granted through God’s creation. Its present relevance is established by this revelation in Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.”
This passage tells us that creation is rich with content about the character and attributes of God. It declares the glory of God made known to all who inhabit creation. This allows us to see more in creation than the wonder it imparts by its own merit. It tells us that God created the heavens and earth in a way that reveals a part of His divine nature. Thus, it becomes our task to discover this knowledge for ourselves on the basis of what has already been made plain to us.
But merely looking at the stars in the heavens cannot reveal the whole of this knowledge to us. By use of our own reason, we might be able to look at the natural world and conclude that some higher power must account for what we see. This may be a justifiable reaction to the glory of creation, but it cannot succeed in revealing all the attributes of the God who is responsible for it. Furthermore, reason alone cannot discern the purpose in creation or how humans should live as a part of it.
Thankfully, we are not left unaided in this endeavor. Through scripture, God’s nature and purposes are described in terms of His creation. In order to understand the attributes of God, who is unseen, scripture makes reference to things that we can see. In the Old Testament, God is repeatedly described using examples of the things he has done. Creation and biblical history thus work together. Tangible clues drawn from creation itself, as well as from the history of the people of Israel, inform us meaningfully, even if only partially. The prophet Isaiah writes,
Who has measured the waters in the
hollow of his hand
and marked off the heaves with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
This rhetorical questioning emphasizes the power of God in creation. Isaiah speaks in terms that man can understand to emphasize the unthinkable power of God. For if it is the case that He has created the world, how can anyone presume to know better than the Lord? The appeal to God’s power over creation directs us to visible evidence of the invisible nature of God.
In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet speaks to the Israelites in their future captivity in Babylon. The words “Comfort, comfort my people” begin the chapter, which were made famous as the first line of Handel’s Christmas oratorio Messiah. The power of God expressed in the verses above might be seen in any other context as a justification for God’s judgment. Indeed, God does use His power over earthly rulers to punish Israel for its disobedience, but the context of this remark indicates that it is not a pretext for divine judgment. Instead, it is a promise of God’s power to redeem His people. The verses above act as a reminder to the afflicted that God has the power to redeem them from their suffering.
I wish to draw two lessons from this passage. First, the power of God is visible in the things He has created. The God who measured the mountains in scales must also have power over the whole of creation, including mankind. This is one of the most fundamental implications of Genesis 1:1. This is a tremendous source of hope for the Israelites, for this assures them that no worldly army can overpower the God they serve. But it also means that disobedience in the face of God will be met with the power of His judgment.
Second, and fortunately for us, there is another side to understanding God through his creation. God uses His tremendous power first revealed in creation for the redemption of all He has made. The people of Israel disobeyed God’s commandments, and they brought His righteous judgment upon themselves. However, God did not abandon them to their enemies forever. Instead, He proclaims the redemption of His people in Isaiah 44:
Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob
and will be glorified in Jacob.
24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself.
Notice how this passage connects the portrayal of God as creator and God as redeemer. Isaiah says that God has not only formed us in the womb, but has also created the heavens and the earth. Even with this infinite power, he has redeemed His people Israel out of the hands of their enemies. Indeed, these two roles are so interwoven that God the creator cannot be understood apart from His role as redeemer.
This has tremendous implications in considering our own place within creation. The history of mankind bears witness to the sinfulness which it has borne since its very first generation. Genesis 3 gives the account of Adam and Eve, the first humans of God’s creation, and also the first to sin against their maker. Upon their act of disobedience, God’s good creation became tainted by the evil introduced into it by mankind. The rest of the Old Testament reveals the effects of this sin upon the earth, specifically within the history of the nation of Israel.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of this situation, we can still find hope within these stories of Israel’s history. For God made His power known to the exiles by appealing to the power we can witness in creation. By this power, they are assured that their redemption will come soon. This is the hope in the story, and it is the same source of hope we all have for the redemption of all nations of the earth.
God did not abandon Israel in its sinfulness, and neither has he abandoned his creation generally, nor mankind specifically. In His greatest show of authority over creation, he took on human flesh and entered into creation in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. In a stunning reversal of roles, the God who created the earth and the stars took upon Himself the weakness of human flesh. This was done so that we might see more clearly His purpose in creation.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)
This establishes Christ as the ultimate revelation of God to mankind. For in the Incarnation, the Creator took upon Himself the mantle of creation. The One in whom all things hold together has walked the earth, making his testimony known to the whole of mankind. In a paradoxical way, this humbling resulted in the revelation of God’s ultimate power over creation. Paul writes of Jesus in Philippians 2,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…
Death by crucifixion is no obvious display of divine strength. In Jesus’ anguished last breaths on the cross, there seems to be no indication that this should grant him the exaltation that Paul speaks of. However, it is in this ultimate weakness that God’s greatest victory is revealed. For after three days in the grave, Christ rose from the dead. In this moment, God established His power over death. Just as God proved His power over the oppressors of Israel, the resurrection has proven His power to redeem mankind from the tyranny of death.
The Bible continually portrays creation not only as a past event, but a present reality continuing to testify to its Creator. By completing His redemptive work through the flesh of Jesus Christ, our own salvation becomes just as real and visible as the world we live in. However, the redemption of creation is not complete.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pain of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)
The redemptive work of Christ has been completed through the resurrection, but we still await the day that it will be fully revealed in the healing of creation. Since we are the “firstfruits of the spirit,” we are united in our fallen nature with all of creation. However, Christ has united the perfection of human nature with the original goodness of creation in his redemptive act of death and resurrection. In doing so, he has given us the promise of a restored life for mankind and creation as a whole.
This promise reveals to us the hope that we have in our own lives. For although we yearn in brokenness with all creation, God has revealed His commitment to us as our redeemer. This allows us to live with faith in the power of God to extend His love to us, and save us from our present condition. With an eye to past failures and looking forward to future redemption, we are assured that the groans of creation will at last be satisfied by God, who has proven his power to redeem.
If you hear no response to your own personal groanings, I commend to you the advice of Israel’s greatest King, David:
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 121: 1-2.)