God’s Work and Ours
It’s difficult for me to overstate how excited I am to preach on Genesis 1-11. I think that this section of the Bible is pivotal for understanding the Scriptures, ourselves, and the world around us. It’s a fruitful part of Scripture, pregnant with possibilities. It establishes patterns and sets trajectories that show up again and again in the Bible and in our lives. As we work through this portion of the Bible over the fall, we don’t want to simply read the Scriptures; we want the Scriptures to read us, to interpret our experience, to give us categories for understanding who we are and what reality is and what God is calling us to do and be. My primary lament in this series is that there is no way we will do these 11 chapters justice. There are so many connections to be seen, implications to be drawn, applications to be made. But with God’s help, we can make a start, so let’s press further in to Genesis 1 this morning.
Today’s sermon falls into two parts: the work of God’s hands and the work of our hands. We’re going to move from God’s work on the six days to our continuing work as his image-bearers.
The Work of God’s Hands
Let me begin by wrestling with a question about the relationship between Genesis 1:1 and the rest of the passage. There are two main options. First, Genesis 1:1 could be a summary of what follows. Verse 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Verse 2: And this is how we did it.” Second, it could be a sequence or progression of thought. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the next thing he did was address the earth’s formlessness and emptiness.” I could fill up a sermon with arguments on both sides of that question, but in the interests of time, I’ll simply tell you where I land and why. I think that in Genesis 1:1, we see the creation from nothing of a two-part universe: the heavens and the earth. The rest of the passage focuses on the lower part: the earth. “God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void.” The earth of v. 1 is the earth of v.2. But in v. 1 and 2, “the earth” is not yet distinguished into its various parts. It’s an undifferentiated mass of created substance, described here as formless, void, dark, and watery. On the other hand, the upper part of the cosmos is the angelic heavens, the invisible, spiritual place where God and angels dwell, the place that prophets see in their heavenly visions. Because the passage doesn’t describe the construction of the angelic heavens, I take this to mean that they were created fully formed and instantaneous. Thus, the passage moves from the totality of created reality to focus on the formless, empty, and dark “earth,” with the Spirit of God hovering over this mass of chaos. At the end of verse 2, there is an expectancy. This moment is pregnant with possibilities. Will the earth be formed? Will it be filled? Will it be seen? The rest of Genesis 1 answers those questions. God brings form to formlessness, fullness to the void, and he begins by turning on the lights.
Many scholars have noted how tightly structured and artistic the seven days of creation are. There are 6 days of work followed by the Sabbath day of rest. God’s work-week sets the pattern for our work-week. The 6 days break down into two panels. The first three days show how God brings form to formlessness. He gives creation structure and order, fixing various stable realms within his creation—sky (including outer space), seas, and earth. Days 4-6 show how God addresses the emptiness of creation. He fills it with myriads of mobile residents—heavenly bodies, fish, birds, animals, and ultimately man. What’s more these two panels (Days 1-3 and Days 4-6) have intriguing parallels. Day 1 establishes day and night; Day 4 is the creation of the sun, moon, and stars to regulate them. Day 2 establishes seas and sky; Day 5 is the creation of fish to fill the sea and birds to fill the sky. Day 3 has two creative acts: the separation of earth from seas, and the creation of fruit-bearing trees and seed-bearing plants; Day 6 also has two creative acts: the creation of beasts and the creation of man, who occupy the land and are given the plants and trees for food.
In noting the clear artistic structures in the passage, it’s important not to miss the outliers, the places where the expected consistency breaks down. For example, most of the creation days follow a basic pattern: God says, “Let there be [blank].” [blank] happens. God saw that it was good. And there was evening and morning. Command, Execution, Evaluation, Transition. But not always. Day 2 has no evaluation. God does not see that Day 2 was good. Why? I don’t have a clear answer. But it’s important to note the deviation from the pattern. Sometimes we get a simple execution: “Let there be light” and there was light.” Other times, we get an extended execution.
Regardless of these details, the overall movement of the passage is clear. Verse 2 gave us an earth that was formless, empty, and dark. God spends 6 days separating and dividing, evaluating and approving, forming and filling. At the end of 6 days, we don’t just have a formless earth; we have an ordered cosmos, filled with light and life and blessing.
What’s more, many biblical scholars note that ancient temples were often dedicated in seven days. They also note that the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus reflects many of the details of Genesis 1 and 2. We have a dark curtain with many jewels set in it, which reflects the heavenly lights in the night sky. The temple walls are adorned with pomegranate trees and other floral images, recalling the garden in Eden. The golden lampstand looks like a large tree and likely reflects the tree of life. The book of Ezekiel draws numerous parallels between Israel’s temple and the garden of Eden. Thus, over these seven days, God has not just built an ordered world; he’s constructed a temple-palace that he intends to dwell in.
The Hand Off
This is the great work of God’s hands, the work of his fingers, as Psalm 8 says. Now in order to transition to a discussion of the work of our hands, we need to recognize a few movements in this passage. We’ve already seen the movement from chaos to order, from formless to ordered, from empty to filled, from darkness to light. But this isn’t the only movement. We also see a movement of delegation in the passage. Notice the first few days:
God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. (Notice it doesn’t say that God made light; that might be a good question for our Q&A in a few weeks).
God said, “Let there be an expanse.” And God made the expanse.
God said, “Let dry land appear.” And it was so.
But notice what happens on Day 3.
God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation…” And the earth brought forth vegetation. Notice that earth is involved in the making process. God doesn’t make plants “directly,” but in some way includes the earth in the task of bringing forth plants.
Notice again on Day 4. We’ve had three days of evening and morning, of alternating periods of light and darkness. Then, God creates the luminaries, the light-bearers, the sun, moon, and stars, and he sets them in the heavens like jewels to rule the day and night. He delegates the task of regulating times and seasons to the greater and lesser lights. (I think this movement in the passage indicates how there could be light without the sun on Days 1-3. For three days, God himself was the light; he shone on the earth directly. Then on Day 4, he handed that task off to the sun.)
Finally, we see a similar movement on Day 6 with the creation of man. God gives man dominion over fish, birds, and beasts. Just as the sun and moon will rule the heavens, man will rule with earth and seas. So first we saw the work of God’s hands; now we see the hand-off. Throughout the six days, God hands responsibility and authority to his creatures. By the end of day 6, God’s work of creation is done, but our work is only beginning. This is especially true of man, which is unique among God’s creatures; we are made in his image, after his likeness.
The Work of Our Hands
What does it mean that man is created “in the image and likeness of God?” That’s a sermon series in itself. Let me give what I think is the most basic and obvious answer. Being made in God’s image means that we show, in a unique way, what God is like. In one sense, everything shows what God is like (Psa. 19). But we are unique. We reflect God and represent God in the world. We are God’s statues, his replicas. God is a seeing God, so he has given us eyes. He is a hearing God, so he has given us ears. He is a making God, so he has given us hands. God sees, hears, and makes, but has no eyes, ears, or hands. So he gives eyes, ears, and hands to us, so that we can represent what he is like. We are made in his likeness.
That’s the most basic answer. Human beings are made to image, reflect, and represent what God is like. But we can flesh out the meaning of this by noting the tasks that God gives to man in Genesis 1 and 2. There’s the obvious command to “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” In an age that sees children as a burden, it’s good to remember that in exhorting us to bear and raise children, God is giving us a blessing. But more than the command to procreate, I want to focus on three dimensions of man’s calling, three aspects of man’s vocation. Man is a priest. Man is a king. Man is a prophet.
We see man’s priestly calling in Genesis 2:15, when God places Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it.” Again, like so much in this passage, this phrase is pregnant with meaning. At a basic level, it refers to the agricultural work that Adam was called to. These two words are common Hebrew words for labor and keeping or guarding. They show up everywhere in the Bible. However, they only rarely show up next to one another. And the few places that they do, they refer to the activities of priests in the tabernacle (Numbers 3, 8, 18). If the world is God’s temple, then we are God’s priests, placed in the sanctuary and given the task of worshiping and obeying God and guarding and protecting sacred space.
Not only is man called to be God’s priest, but he is called to be a king. “Subdue the earth and have dominion” is royal language. Note two things about this call. First, it suggests that while the world is very good, much of the world is still unsubdued and untamed. We learn in Genesis 2 that God has planted a garden and placed man in it; now he calls man to make the world like the garden. The kingly aspect of man’s calling is to extend sacred space, so that the earth is filled with the glory of the Lord. More than that, based on the trajectory of the Bible, God isn’t just calling man to maintain a garden; he’s calling him to build a great garden-city. This is the movement of the entire Bible—from garden to garden-city—and it is present in seed form from the beginning.
Finally, in Genesis 2:19-21, we see man’s prophetic calling. God delegates the naming of the animals and woman to man. This is an amazing reality. On the first days of creation, God had separated and named everything: heavens and earth; sky, seas, and land. Now, he gives that task to his image-bearers. To see how amazing this is, think about the alphabet board books we use to teach children to speak. We point at the red fruit and say, “apple.” We point at the spherical toy and say, “ball.” We point at the whiskered animal and say, “cat.” In Genesis 2, God brings the board book to Adam and says, “What do you want to call it?” “Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” There’s a whole sermon series in what it means for us to be given the awesome responsibility to faithfully name God’s world.
Here then is the picture that we receive in Genesis 1. God creates a good world and over the course of seven days makes it very good. But while God rests on the seventh day, man does not. God has given him a threefold task: work and guard the garden, fill the earth, subdue and have dominion over it, and name the world. This movement from the work of God’s hands to the work of our hands is earth-shattering in its implications. Robert Farrar Capon captures it in this quotation:
Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth's gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself -- and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We are given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.
This is what God calls us to in Genesis 1-2. We are to take the rooted loveliness of the world, guard it, protect it, and then, wonder of wonders, make it lovelier. We are to taste the goodness of the earth’s absolute givenness and make it greater. This is what I want you to see in Genesis 1-2. The work of God’s hands handed to us so that, the work of our hands and with his grace, his work can be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
There are so many directions we could go by way of application. I just want to focus on two things: the dignity of your work, and the danger in your work. And by “work,” I mean everything you do, whether you’re a student or a teacher or a homemaker or a cop or an engineer or a nurse or a photographer or a customer service rep or a financial analyst. Whatever lawful work you do, in light of Genesis 1-2, I want you to see the incredible dignity and value in it. As an image-bearer, you are co-laboring with God in drawing out the resident goodness of his creation. God has embedded in the world a rich array of possibilities. He has scattered and hidden them throughout creation, and as his image-bearers, it is our glory to search them out and discover them and develop them and name them.
One of the fruits of this sermon is that I hope that you can begin to see your work in a new light, as an expression of some aspect of your calling to bear God’s image. Those aspects of your work where you are attempting to maintain and protect the good that you are already doing in some way reflects the fact that God made us to be guardians and protectors. Those aspects of your work where you are bringing order to chaos, branching into the new and untamed areas beyond the horizon, reflect the fact that you were made to take dominion. When you creatively see beyond what is presently there, and by your imagination and creativity bring new goods and services into existence, perhaps you are in some dim way reshaping the world by naming it afresh.
What’s more, this calling in Genesis 1-2 is a blessing to you and to others. When the garbage men collect the garbage, they may not be maintaining sacred space, but they are reflecting it by maintaining a clean and sanitary space. When you devise a new system at work that improves service to your customers, you are blessing them with the work of your hands. When you invest in the little hearts and minds that inhabit your home, you are being fruitful and multiplying and striving to fill the earth with more image bearers who show the world what God is like.
When you receive what God has done, and you study it in light of his character as revealed in the Bible, and you learn his works and you apply your creativity and imagination and blood and sweat and tears and you draw out from God’s work something more than what was there before, you are glorifying God’s work. By “glorify,” I mean “make glorious.” When we glorify God, we don’t make him glorious; we acknowledge and recognize and ascribe to him the glory he is due. When I say that your work glorifies God’s work, I mean that your work should make God’s work glorious by drawing out the potential that he has placed within it. God’s work establishes boundaries and sets trajectories, but it is our glory to follow those trajectories while staying within those boundaries. I know that for some of you, it’s difficult to see the dignity in your work. Part of the work God may be calling you to right now is to see how your job or your tasks testify to your calling as God’s image-bearer—his priest, his king, his prophet.
Your work has great dignity; thus, it also has a great danger. We don’t live in a Genesis 1-2 world. We live on this side of the fall, which means God has cursed our labor. It’s difficult and laborious; as Ecclesiastes says, it’s a great vanity and vexation. But it’s not just that the work itself is difficult. We are sinners. Which means that we can approach our work wrongly. Which brings me back to why I organized this sermon around the work of God’s hands and the work of our hands. Variations of this second phrase show up throughout the Bible in two very different ways. The first is what we’ve been talking about thus far.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:17)
In Deuteronomy, we’re repeatedly told to obey God and love our neighbor “that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deut. 2:7; 14:29; 16:15; 24:19)
We receive God’s work, and in the strength he supplies, we work, and we then offer back to him the work of our hands, asking him to establish and bless it.
But this phrase also shows up in other ways.
- In the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands. (Deut. 31:29)
- Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke me to anger with the work of your hands. (Jer. 25:6)
- Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands. (Isa 2:8)
There are two options here: we can offer our work to God in worship, or we can worship the work of our hands. We can look to our jobs and our earthly callings to give us our deepest sense of worth and value and purpose and satisfaction or we can receive worth and value and purpose and satisfaction because 1) we bear God’s image, and more importantly, 2) we are being renewed in the image of Christ. The work of your hands is good, when it is not your god. You must not find your value in your vocation (little v), but in your Vocation—as a servant of God, a son of God, a friend of God. In this fallen, broken, and cursed world, you cannot find who you are by looking to the work of your hands. You can’t even find it by looking to the work of God’s hand in creation. You can only find who you are by looking to the finished work of God in Jesus Christ. The work of Christ as the God-man is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s work and our work. He is the author of a new creation, in which righteousness dwells. He is the true priest, entering the sanctuary of God on our behalf. He is the true king, subduing his enemies and ours beneath his feet. And he is the true prophet, calling us his own and giving us a new name.
This brings us to the Table. I said a moment ago, that the main thing I want you to see in Genesis is how God creates the world with unfulfilled potential and then hands it off to man to draw out that potential and glorify it. This Table is a perfect representation of that truth. In fact, meditating on what we’re doing at this Table week in and week out, may be the most helpful thing you can do to understand the relationship of the work of God’s hands and the work of your hands. Follow me on this. This Table and its elements represent the finished work of Christ. His body broken for you, his blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins. But how does God represent that finished work of redemption to us? Through the work of his hands glorified by the work of our hands. Notice, at this meal we don’t remember Jesus with grain and grapes. We have bread and wine. Bread is grain, but glorified. Wine is grapes, but glorified. Hidden in grain and water and salt and yeast was this wonderful potential to become bread. But it took a human being, an image-bearer, to see it, understand it, and draw it out. Hidden in grapes was this wonderful potential to become wine to gladden the heart of man. But it took a human being, made in God’s image, to see it, understand it, and draw it out. And it is these works of human hands that God chose to represent the finished work of his hands. So as you eat and drink and sing, consider the work of God in creation, consider the work of man in cultivation, and consider the work of Christ in redemption, here at this Table.