For a while now, I have been working on a new book project, Portraits of a Great God. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:1-5 (ESV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1 (ESV)
Whether you count the age of our world in thousands of years or millions, the earth and the universe are old. The world has been much the way we know it since before written history. We take for granted the stability of the earth beneath our feet, its steady rotation around the sun, and the moon predictably orbiting around us. Yet not so long ago, even these most basic fixtures of life—so basic we seldom think of the way they shape our existence—did not exist. Nothing about them existed, not even their most basic building blocks. We cannot fathom this nothingness, this lack of any of the world’s features, where only God existed. The Bible shows us God on the razor’s edge between the absence of creation and its beginning. In the beginning, God created. He created the “heavens and the earth”—i.e. everything. The creation narrative is rather simple, delineating each of God’s creating works in the space of six days, with the climactic creation of humanity on the sixth and God resting from his work on the seventh.
The Genesis narrative does not explicitly tell us much about God, but the way it weaves the story of his work is breathtaking. Everything we take for granted, seen and unseen, all of it owes its existence to God. God’s work is not described as arduous labour—a challenge in any sense. No, he simply speaks, commanding what does not yet exist into existence. There is no eternally co-existing thing that he moulds into the created world: everything comes forth by his command. If we take this seriously, it means that fundamentally, the world itself is God’s word. That is, to define something, we search for an explanation of it, why it is the way it is. For everything in our experience, this involves reference to its composing elements. We can speak of humans in terms of their bodies and that transcendent element we often call “mind.” Mind itself involves our rational abilities, our self, our thought processing, memories, etc. The body is composed of organs, these composed of cells, each of which has key components and all of which is built up of organic and then inorganic matter. If we dig deep enough, we get to “atoms.” Ironically, these “indivisibles,” the meaning of the Greek word ἄτομος, from which the term derives, are not indivisible. Scientists seek a further explanation for the particular ways atoms behave. At some point, this search must end, there must be something that has its explanation in itself—something that is self-caused. For most non-Christian worldviews, there has always been some fundamental thing that fills this role, sometimes called “matter.” This most basic element is completely unknowable, for it is the cause of the endless diversity of our experience. It must have no origins, for it is the cause of all else. However, this explanation of reality is not an option for Christians: we are told that God created all things “in the beginning.” Only God is self-explaining, self-caused. Therefore, the scientist’s search for an exhaustive explanation of observable reality inside the box, within the created order, is flawed from the start. At some point, we dig so deep that we find God. Whether we stop with atoms, quarks, or the next level down, at some point the cause of the most basic created element is God’s word. It does not have its origins in itself: it came forth when God “created the heavens and the earth.” By saying that the creation is God’s word at its most fundamental level we do not collapse the creation into God himself. No, we cannot do this. Instead, a word is something that comes forth from us, and so is distinct, and yet is inextricably tied to us, it is our own and no one else’s. A word is thought made public: so also, God’s word is the putting forth of his thoughts, of his good and perfect will. It comes forth from him, and so is distinct, yet it is inextricably tied to him as his own.
If the fundamental explanation of reality is God’s word, then the idea of a clockwork universe, which God wound up and left to run its course, is out of the picture. We are not saying that the world had its fundamental explanation in God’s word as if God spoke and a self-subsisting entity came forth—“matter”—which then explains everything. No, right now—at this very moment—the world is upheld “by the word of [Christ’s] power” (Heb 1:3). Zoom in close enough, and we find behind the appearance of skin minute cells, each of which is eventually explained by organic matter. These molecules are made up of atoms, which themselves are composed of parts. What explains these millions of atoms from which I am composed at this very moment? They are the way they are because of—and the very reason that they are is because of—God’s creative and sustaining word. Not only is God’s word the fundamental thing from which our world is composed, its most basic element, God’s word is also the programming by which everything in it interacts. The relation between a cause and effect has no explanation: it is invariably consistent, yet not necessary. There is no discernible, testable element of the universe that makes it necessary for any cause to produce an effect, yet time after time, an effect follows a cause. The explanation of this order is once again God’s word: his law dictates the relations everything in the creation has. In Him we “live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28, cf. Col 1:17).
Think about that for a moment. Behind all the beauty and insane complexity of this world stands one master artist, who conducts a symphony of immeasurable glory as each and every element sings the praises of its creator, proceeding on its ordained path with humble obedience and painting in unison with every other piece the masterpiece that is our world:
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.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Psalm 19:1-6, ESV)
God is imminent in this world (present and active in it) without ever losing complete control over it. God’s word is omnipresent; it is that without which nothing would exist, nor would anything move—that is, be affected in any way. God’s power and presence stretch to the farthest reaches of the universe and probe the deepest depths of the ocean. Being so intimately involved in his creation does not deprive God in any way, as if to be active and immanent would sacrifice his perfection and power. No, it is in this activity and intimacy that God’s unfathomable power is made known. I can barely lead a household of three members; God leads a universe of uncountable members! God’s transcendence, his power and otherness, is not threatened by his immanence (his presence and involvement in the creation). No, this intimacy is the greatest testimony to his power: “in the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
This breathtaking truth is brought out in John’s careful reflection on Genesis 1 in the opening chapter of his Gospel. The Gospel of John weaves a beautiful portrait of Christ as the manifestation of God’s glory among men, that the reader might believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [they might] have life in his name” (John 20:31). John begins far before Jesus’ birth from Mary; he begins at the creation. John’s introduction carefully mirrors the language of Genesis 1, inviting us to look back and see Jesus there, “in the beginning” (John 1:1; Genesis 1:1). As God created by speaking a word, so John speaks of “the Word.” This is a play on the Greek translation of Genesis 1, where John’s “Word” is the noun corresponding to the verb translated “God spoke.” Thus, by speaking of the Word in the context of “the beginning,” John identifies Jesus as the agent by whom God the Father created all things. In Colossians 1:24-25, we are told that “all things were created through [Jesus] and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Similarly, we are told in Hebrews that through Jesus, the Son, “God created the world” (Heb 1:2). Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). As John puts it, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Thus, God was not alone “in the beginning,” as if the creation created a community for God. No, in the beginning were God the Father and his Son, through whom he created all things. “The Word” was not less than God, different from him—perhaps the first creature. No, the Word was there in the beginning, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” When we read in Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth,” we are to see that this God is both the one Jesus would call Father and Jesus himself, the Word. Yahweh who created all things is both the Father and the Son, moreover, he is also “the Spirit of God” who “was hovering over the face of the waters.”
In his prologue, John reveals a new depth to the truth that God is imminent while nevertheless transcending his creation, having both created and continually sustaining it while maintaining complete control over it. Now we are told that Jesus, the agent of creation who is Yahweh himself and established and upholds the created world, “was coming into the world” (John 1:9). “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10-11). While never ceasing to maintain the existence of the world and its orderly function, the Word came into that very world.
He did not manifest as a conquering king or giant figure, but a humble baby born of a virgin. He who was and is Lord of all things “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Those who were with him, and we who read of him in the Gospels, “have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God’s glory is not diminished by coming as a man, nor is it disguised: by becoming like us in every way (Heb 2:17) and suffering alongside of us, by defeating death and ascending to the throne over us, God’s glory is thoroughly revealed in Christ. It is through his immanent yet nevertheless transcendent relations with His creation, through creation and incarnation, that we behold the glory of God.
How glorious, how great is this God? Who does not fear to interact with his creation as if his perfection would somehow be denied, who does not fear to die alongside his creation if it would make known to them the fullness of his glory to recipients of his mercy (Rom 9:23). This is the God of the Bible, all-powerful, yet approachable; reigning in heaven yet here beside us; and permitting himself to die by the wood and iron that he sustains in existence, moment by moment.