The Bible is a story that can be put together into one whole narrative from beginning to end. However, there is a lot of diversity in the Bible: in the literary styles, the various time periods in which the books were written, in the nature of the human authors, as well as in the languages that were used to compose the original texts. Yet through the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there is a unified story that arcs within and throughout Scripture despite all those differences. Our task is to step back and ask, “What is that story?”
The Bible claims to be the one true story of the one true God. It is the story of God’s engagement in human history and human destiny. That is why we could likely find more Bible verses discussing the nature and the acts of humanity - what humanity is like and what humanity has done - than those verses that explicitly say what God is like. God does not simply exist outside of human history in all of His glory as He has for eternity. He willfully engages humanity. He moves into human history and then guides it, shapes it, and remains involved throughout.
Many scholars contend there is a four-fold thematic organization to the Bible, following a chronological pattern. The first element, of course, is the creation narrative. The next theme is the rebellion of humanity against God, which brought about what we commonly call the fall of humanity. What did God do to address the fall? He chose to redeem humanity through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus, which is the third theme (or element). And at the end of the entire book, there is a marvelous consummation of God’s redemptive mission, a re-creation where John the apostle sees a new heaven and a new earth and where God says, “Behold I make all things new.” Creation brackets or frames the whole story of the Bible - creation and re-creation.
I would like to propose that the Bible has a fifth component and that, in fact, most of the biblical record is devoted to it. The fifth component is this: God chooses to accomplish redemption through His people. In the Old Testament God’s people are identified as the nation of Israel and in the New Testament as the Church. The bulk of the biblical record is the story of how God shapes His people for their participation in His redemptive mission.
God as Creator
The storyline of the Bible opens with the foundational account of creation. Genesis 1:1 starts out, “In the beginning, God,” which implies that God already existed before creation. The Bible argues that God is eternal. He is not bound by or understood by normal categories of time. God pre-exists creation, and He starts human history with His great creative act. Why is the creation story significant? Not only is it the foundation the whole story of the Bible, it is foundational for how we understand God Himself. The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 wasn’t necessarily written to tell us when and how God created the world but it was definitely written to demonstrate who created the world and why He did it.
God’s identity as Creator is consistently portrayed throughout Scripture. A good example is Job 38:4-7, where God challenges Job with these questions, “Were you there, Job, when I laid the foundations of the earth? Were you there when I measured out the heavens? Were you there when I caused the waters to spring forth like a newborn baby?” Of course, the answer to all of those questions is, “No.” Only God can make those claims. Because He is Creator, God is therefore sovereign over all things and worthy of our worship.
The creation story given in Genesis 1 is written in a way that demonstrates that the God of Israel is unique. When we read Genesis 1 and 2, we need to keep in mind that other ancient Near Eastern cultures had their own creation stories. The people groups, cultures, and religious systems in existence when Moses composed the book of Genesis had their own stories identifying their gods and describing how those gods were involved in creating the earth. A lot of work has been done in recent years comparing Genesis 1 to these other creation stories. Evangelical scholars who study these various cultures and their creation stories argue that Genesis 1 and 2 specifically demonstrate that the story told by Moses is unique because it presents a unique God.
Look at what Alan Ross says in his commentary on the Psalms, Recalling the Hope of Glory, “The faithful in Israel certainly praised God for creation in their hymns and psalms. They were aware of the bizarre ideas about creation in the mythological beliefs of the pagans and in striking contrast to them they declared in their holy writings that everything was created by the decree of the one true living God. The psalmist expresses this point precisely, ‘For He spoke and it came to be. He commanded and it stood firm.’”(Ps. 33:9). Ross goes on to say, “Here was the unambiguous witness to the sovereignty of God and this focus on His sovereign word, His spoken word, also provided a powerful instruction for the worshipping community: if all of creation exists because of the decree of God, then the way to life and blessing in God’s presence would also be through obedience to God’s word.”
Ross makes the case that out of all of the other stories of creation, the story the Bible tells is unique. God does not have to strive. He is not in some great cosmic battle; it is not an effort against other elements or other gods that brings about creation. He speaks and the world comes into existence. Therefore, the biblical record of creation and the biblical Creator God are unique from all other creation stories and the gods they portray.
It is not accidental that the New Testament picks up on the themes of God as Creator, sovereign, and worthy of our praise. John 1:1-3 is a striking example, “In the beginning was the Word,” (a wonderful combination with Genesis 1:1) “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made. Without Him, nothing was made that has been made.” We know who the pronoun “He” in these verses refers to because in John 1:14 we read, “the Word became flesh.” Therefore, the “He” is Jesus – the creator God incarnate. Paul picks up the same theme of Jesus as the sovereign Lord, the Creator of all things, in Colossians 1:15-17: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities, all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things and in Him, all things hold together.” Jesus is supreme over all things. There is never a distinction made in Scripture between the God who creates in Genesis 1 and the Lord Jesus of the New Testament. They are one and the same. The Triune God as Creator is attested by the Old Testament and confirmed in the New Testament.
When we think about creation and its importance to the story of the Bible, it points us to a God who is active and desires to make Himself known. Theologians and scripture itself present God as one who exists outside of time and space. He is not bound by history nor is He bound by geography or the universe or any other reality. Therefore, our God cannot be known unless He chooses to reveal Himself. God takes the initiative on our behalf. The very act of creation is the first act of God revealing Himself to us. Why does God create? Because He desires to be known and worshipped. And later, why does God redeem? Because He desires to be known and worshipped. And so the question arises, why does God desire to be known and worshipped?
Does God’s desire to be known and worshiped imply some need on God’s behalf? Is there some egotistical, self-serving motive that drives God’s desire to be known and worshipped? No! God desires to be known and worshipped for the simple, yet momentous reason that life can only be found in knowing and worshipping Him. He is the source of life. The triune God exists in perfect satisfaction, in perfect love, and in perfect joy. He desires humanity to experience joy and satisfaction in Him the way He experiences it in Himself. God’s motive in creation is for our benefit, for our good. Some would say that God’s act of creation is an act of His love.
Several years ago, we were trying to have family devotions at our home. If you have an image of truly obedient children, sitting around my feet waiting for the next word to drop from my mouth, you have the wrong idea. Family devotions in our home frequently devolved into either discipline or hilarity. At this particular time, my wife and I wanted to talk about how God is good. We decided to read through Genesis 1, and every time the word “good” appeared, we would emphasize it. And so, Genesis 1:9, “God saw that it was good,” and then Genesis 1:12, “God saw that it was good.” We said that over and over again. At the end of the story, we said to our kids, “Why was the creation good?” And they were supposed to say because God is good. However, one of our children, who had an amazing ability to say things that his parents could have never predicted, looked at us and said, “Well duh! It’s good because we can live here!” So I began to think back through the creation narrative, and how all that God creates contributes to the development of an environment necessary for humanity to survive: light, water, and living things, both flora and fauna. When you think about who we are as people, our finitude, the limitations of what it means to be human, we could not exist apart from the way God created the earth. So maybe my five-year-old son was right! Maybe the whole creation narrative of days one through five is designed to demonstrate how God, in His beneficence, creates a world wherein humanity can thrive.
The Image of God
The creation story provides a foundation for the way we understand ourselves, the way we understand humanity in general, and the way we understand life on this earth. Positioning the creation of humanity on the sixth day communicates that all of God’s previous handiwork was designed to lead to this climactic moment. And then, in light of everything else He has created, God makes the extraordinary statement that humanity is created uniquely as His image. Look carefully at the verses describing day six of creation in Genesis 1:26-28, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild creatures, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”
Now you may have noticed in my previous statement about the image of God that I changed the language just a little bit. I stated that humanity was created as His image. Most interpretations in English say that God created humanity in His image. This different translations, “in His image” and “as His image” demonstrate two different approaches to understanding the image of God and humanity. On the one hand, there is the idea that humanity is intrinsically different from the rest of creation. This is called a substantialist view: there is something substantially different in humanity from all the rest of creation. This is a view that has been held by many throughout the history of the Church and certainly has merit.
But there is another way to understand the image of God. This second view does not focus so much on how humanity is intrinsically different from the rest of creation; it focuses on the mandate of what humanity is created to do as the image of God. This interpretation of the image of God is based in the historical context of the ancient Near East where kings and sovereigns would erect stone images of themselves or of the god they worshipped throughout their territories. Those stone images demarcated those lands as their possession; it represented and revealed their rule over them. Many biblical scholars have questioned why Moses would have used this language of image differently than the way it was used in his historical setting. These scholars argue that humanity is created as the image of God to represent and reveal Him as sovereign over the earth. Some would call this a functionalist view of the image of God.
Notice at the end of Genesis 1 that humanity is called to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Added to that command, they are also called as God’s image to rule over the earth. Humans are the agents of God’s reign over creation, so when God says we are to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, we are therefore to fill all of creation with His image and reveal that He is the one true God over all. That, I would argue, is a singular privilege that provides dignity to humanity that none of the rest of creation bears.
Imagine with me for a moment that you are in Vancouver, British Columbia, looking west as the sun sets over the water. The sky begins to ignite and then explodes in a beautiful array of orange, purple, and red, the colors flowing together in ways you have never before seen. The beauty of that scene stuns you. Then, because of this location, you have the privilege of looking back to the east at the snowcapped Rockies. Not only has the sun in the west exploded in color, that color is now reflected on the snow covered peaks of those majestic mountains. A spectacular sight, as you can imagine. Now imagine that your revelry of wonder and even praise of our artistic God is interrupted by an odor. Not too far away from where you are standing, someone has passed out, fallen into the gutter and vomited all over themselves.
Ask yourself this question: in that scene, where is more of God revealed? Was the sun created in the image of God? The mountains? The snow? No indeed. Only humanity is the image of God. Even in depravity, in our own human depravity as depicted in Genesis 9, we are still said to be created as the image of God (Genesis 9:6). One of the reasons depravity is so heinous is because it takes that which has the most potential to reveal and represent the one true God and diminishes its capacity to do so. Thanks be to God that in Christ we have newness of life as the image of God! Those who have believed in Jesus are a new creation and through the regeneration of the Spirit can return to the capacity of revealing the one true God as His image.
Man in the Garden
Now look at the way Scripture unfolds the story of humanity in Genesis 2:7, “Then the LORD formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” This phrase, “the breath of life,” from the Hebrew word neshamah, is uniquely used in the Bible for God and for humanity. Other animals have breath, and that Hebrew word is ruach. But only humans and God possess the neshamah. This same Hebrew word is used in Job 32:8 and in Proverbs 20:27; it is used to indicate that those who have received the neshamah are animated spiritually. This creates a substantial difference between humans and the rest of creation. Only humanity experiences the animation of the soul. We could also argue, particularly from Proverbs 20:27, that the neshamah gives humanity the capacity to make moral decisions. Our moral decisions should then be consistent with this spiritual animation, this neshamah, which God has uniquely breathed into us.
Humans are created for the task of service, as those who are to serve in God’s temple. Look at Genesis 2:15, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” The Hebrew verbs in this passage are related to language used in the priestly care of the temple that comes later in Scripture. In fact, the verbs translated “work” and “care” are used for those who perform the services in the temple. Many scholars believe, and I think rightly so, that Moses is demonstrating that all of creation was to be God’s temple and that humanity was to serve in it for the glory of Creator God.
The final picture of humanity that we see in Genesis 2 is a beautiful scene of man and woman coming together in a way that only man and woman can. Genesis 2:24-25 reads, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” The description of the couple as being naked and unashamed is not primarily related to sexuality. The idea here is very simple: everything that they could possibly want or desire they now have. They are completely and wholly engaged in enjoying the good creation that God has made for them.
You could relate this to the picture of young children at a playground. They are picking up gravel or little pieces of wood. They are climbing, they are sliding, they are swinging. They are completely and wholly absorbed in the beauty and wonder of this place. They are aware of nothing other than the things they are touching, seeing, doing. They are fully and completely absorbed in the goodness and beauty and delight that this playground brings.
But there is a predator circling just outside the fence. That is what Genesis 3 tells us. In the Garden of Eden, completely satisfied with all God has created and enjoying life to its ultimate, Adam and Eve are fully and wholly alive. Like the children at the playground they are unaware of the danger, even naïve toward it. Genesis 3:1 introduces the predator, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals that God had made.” “Crafty” is actually a positive term in the book of Proverbs. It has to do with being able to assess a situation and act in a way that allows someone to accomplish their goal. If your goal is noble, Proverbs calls it shrewd. If your goal is evil, then crafty takes on a negative connotation. This predator was able to assess the situation and act in a way that would accomplish his ignoble goal. He was, indeed, crafty.
What is the serpent’s goal? The rebellion of humanity against God. The deception of the serpent is very simple: God is keeping something from you. The serpent wants Eve to think: there is something better. He leads her to believe that what God is keeping from the man and woman would give them a better life than what they have now. The Hebrew translation of this narrative is very concise: she saw, she took, she ate, she gave, he took, he ate, and it is done. What God has created, those He created as His image, have now rebelled against Him. Remember God’s warning in Genesis 2:17, “for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” The tension in this narrative builds to a climax. What is God going to do now?