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The opening verse of the book of books

February 2015 | by Timothy Cross

The first sentence of any book is always crucial, as it sets the tone for all that is to follow. Perhaps this is why many writers say the opening sentence is the most difficult to write.

The book, the Bible, opens with the well known words of Genesis 1:1, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.

This verse is one of masterly conciseness and directs our attention at the outset to God himself. It rules out atheism, for it states what we all secretly know — that ‘God is’. It also rules out polytheism, for it directs us to the only one, true and living God. ‘There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist’ (1 Corinthians 8:6).

And it also destroys pantheism — that is the view that everything is God — for it is clear from the verse that the Creator and his creation are distinct.

Plural of majesty

Interestingly, the word for ‘God’ in Genesis 1:1 is the plural word Elohim, yet the word used for ‘created’ is a singular verb. In the light of the whole Bible, we can surely see God the holy trinity here in Genesis.

Yes, there is only one God, but, as the Shorter Catechism puts it: ‘There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory’.

Genesis reveals that all three persons of the divine trinity were responsible for the creation of the universe, for the first chapter shows God’s creation of the universe by his word — that Word which became incarnate in the Lord Jesus in the fulness of time — and also shows the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the waters. Thus Genesis 1:1 directs us to the triune God. ‘In the beginning Elohim…’

And its focus here is in line with all the verses which follow. For the Bible’s primary purpose is to teach us ‘what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man’ (Shorter Catechism).

Omnipotent Creator

The name ‘Genesis’ means ‘origins’ or ‘beginnings’. Genesis 1:1 is clear that the entire universe would not exist at all, were it not for the will and word of God. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.

The verb for ‘created’ here is the Hebrew verb bara. It means ‘created out of nothing’. This takes us into the realms of the supra-rational and supernatural. We cannot comprehend how something can be created out of nothing, but we are obliged to believe it. ‘By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear’ (Hebrews 11:3).

Only almighty God can create. We might be able to make, that is, manipulate and mould existing materials; to make, say, a cake or car, but only God can create the materials themselves.

Of course, many seek to deny that the world was created and to explain its existence apart from almighty God. The Bible though has an explanation for this attitude.

As sinners, unless God’s grace intervenes, we are running away from our Maker. Hence people seek ingenious ways to deny creation, because they wish to deny the Creator. For, if there is a Creator, we are surely accountable to him. If a Creator makes you feel uncomfortable, explain him away!

The Bible though is adamant in its teaching about creation. From Genesis 1:1 onwards, it teaches: ‘He spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth’ (Psalm 33:9).

‘Creation … may be defined as that free act of God whereby he, according to his sovereign will and for his own glory, in the beginning brought forth the whole visible and invisible universe, without the use of pre-existent material, and then gave it an existence, distinct from his own and yet always dependent on him’ (Louis Berkhof).

John’s Gospel

When we turn to the opening verse of John’s Gospel, we get a distinct echo of Genesis 1:1. John 1:1 says of the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.

Contrary to the teaching of many cults, this verse teaches Christ’s pre-existence and eternity. He too was ‘in the beginning’. The verse also gives us a glimpse of the divine trinity, for it reveals that ‘the Word was with God’. And the verse — congruent with the whole of the New Testament — reveals Christ’s absolute deity, for ‘the Word was God’.

In the verses which follow, John expands somewhat on Genesis 1, by teaching that God made all things through his Son, that is, by his Word.

Perhaps, in the light of such a statement, our view of Christ needs to be enlarged. John is saying that Christ is the key to an otherwise meaningless universe. Paul stated the same, when he said of Christ that ‘in him all things were created … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:16-17).

The Bible, being ‘inspired by God’ (2 Timothy 3:16) — that is, breathed out by God’s Holy Spirit — is the only reliable revelation of the true and living God, and also the only book which gives us the ultimate key to understanding the universe and its origins.

It is the book about creation. But best of all, it is also the book of redemption, for it alone reveals how we can come to know and love the God who created the universe and enter into a relationship with him.

New creation

For this to happen though, another creative act of God — an act of regeneration — has to occur in our hearts. The Holy Spirit of God awakens us, convicts us of our sin and need, and enables us to trust in Christ crucified, who is God’s saving provision for condemned sinners.

It is Christ’s atoning death at Calvary which reconciles sinners to God and makes all things new. The Bible certainly teaches divine creation of this universe. But one of its ways of understanding salvation is through using the term, ‘new creation’.

The gospel proclaims: ‘Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Remarkably, the Bible teaches that the same omnipotent power behind the creation of the world is also at work in the salvation of sinners like you and me. ‘For it is the God who said, let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The wonder of all wonders is that sinful creatures can come to know and love the God of the universe, when they come to the Father through Jesus the Son.

It is Christ who gives us the true meaning and purpose of our existence, and the existence of all that is. It is in the light of God’s creation, providence and redemption that we may face the unknown days ahead with confidence.

Dr Cross has authored many Christian books and articles, and has an honorary doctorate of sacred literature, from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC.

Timothy Cross