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The good, the bad and the ugly - Genesis 3:1-7

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 22nd October 2000.

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Are you an optimist or a pessimist? It is said that the optimist believes that we live in the best of all worlds and the pessimist fears it is so. Well the Bible is both realistically optimistic and realistically pessimistic. Last week we saw that human beings were the pinnacle of God’s creation. He created them a little lower than the angels, and they had the unique privilege of being made in the image of God. And that is the teaching of Genesis 1 and 2. God created a perfect world where everything was said by him to be good. And at the end of his creation God created mankind, in his own image, to be God’s vice regents on earth. They had the job of ruling over the earth, of controlling it and looking after it. They had a perfect relationship with the creation about them, a perfect relationship with one another and above all a perfect relationship with their creator, God. The Bible is therefore profoundly optimistic about our origins and purpose. We were created by God for God, to live in harmony with him and one another.

And yet that is not the world we live in. You may have seen the film Good Morning Vietnam, and in that film there is a very poignant scene where Robin Williams, who plays an American forces DJ, is playing a record by Louis Armstrong, What Wonderful World. And as the camera pans round, it moves from the studio to the world outside. There are scenes of Napalm exploding, children being burnt alive, whole villages being destroyed, and as we watch the pictures, Louis Armstrong sings on: "I see trees of green and skies of blue….. and I say to myself what a wonderful world." Yes the world is a very wonderful place, but our experience shows that it is also a place of terrible evil and suffering. And the Bible is not blindly optimistic about our situation. It recognises that the world is not what it should be.

So our natural question is "what has gone wrong with the world"? And the Bible’s answer is that we have. We are the problem. The Bible is realistically pessimistic about the human condition. Its conclusion is that human beings are evil, and there is nothing we can do to get out of the situation. Don’t listen to those who would say that the human condition is fundamentally good. They either don’t live in the real world, or else they are blind to their own hearts. Winston Churchill recognised this in a speech made to the House of Commons in 1950: "Man in this moment of his history has emerged in greater supremacy over the forces of nature than has ever been dreamed of before…..He has conquered the wild beasts, and has even conquered the insects and the microbes. There lies before him, if he wishes, a golden age of peace and progress. All is in his hand. He has only to conquer his last and worst enemy- himself."

And so we must ask, how did we come to be in this situation? How did we move from being in a perfect world in harmony with creation and our creator, to live in world marred by evil and suffering. Well our passage for today provides us with the answer. Genesis 3 shows us that the first human beings rebelled against their creator and we have been living with the consequences ever since. But we shouldn’t turn round and blame them so quickly, because as we’ll see, we make their decision every day of our lives. But before we turn to see how this situation has come about, we need to pause. Because many people have questions about these early chapters of Genesis. Just how literally are we to take them, are we to believe in a snake who spoke, what was this tree that was forbidden, where does evil comes from. Well an important principle to bear in mind with any Bible passage is that the passage is not necessarily answering the questions we want it to answer. So we won’t discover here the origins of evil. In fact, the Bible never reveals the origin of evil. It is left to the realms of mystery which has not been revealed. But we are, it seems, dealing with history. The NT makes it clear that the first sin was an historical event. And I see no reason why the snake could not have spoken. The NT again makes it clear that it was Satan who was behind the snake’s words, and it is perfectly possible that he used this creature for his ways in a supernatural way. Christians however have always disagreed on the details. But the main point is clear. We are dealing here with history even if you think the story has symbolic elements in it. And it is a passage written for God’s people to help us to see why we are in the mess we are in, and how the same thing happens day after in our lives. So this won’t be pleasant sermon, but it is vitally important, so that we are clear on our position and can see the way the devil uses the same tactics today as he did on the first couple. So let’s turn to the passage which is explaining mankind’s rebellion against his maker. And we’ll learn three things about the nature of this rebellion, three stages in the rebellion:

 

1) Distorting God’s Word

2) Denying God’s Character

3) Displacing God’s Rule

1) Distorting God’s Word

So first, then, we learn that rebellion begins with distorting God’s Word. And the story begins with the serpent. As we have said, the NT makes it clear that behind the serpent is the devil, that old liar and deceiver. And he is always on the look out to destroy the works of God by attacking his Word. For when you attack God’s Word you attack God’s will and God’s character. So notice that the whole conversation centres around God’s Word and what God did or did not say. So as one writer has put it, "The snake smuggles in the assumption that God’s Word is subject to our judgement." The whole conversation is had on the premise that God’s Word is open to question. Have a look at verse 1: "Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made." Now even in this first verse there is a hint of what is to come, because we are told that the serpent is crafty. The word used for crafty is not necessarily a bad word. It can mean wise. But it can also mean cunning in the bad sense. So at the very least the warning lights should be on yellow alert. But there’s also a reminder of who is ultimately in control. It is the loving creator, who made even this cunning snake. So we come to the serpent’s question to Eve: "Did God really say ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’" Now at first sight, the question seems innocent enough. He’s just asking a question about what God said. But there are enough hints to make us think that more is going here, and that the warning lights should go to amber alert. First how did the snake know about the command in the first place, and if he heard it, why did he distort it? Do you notice the distortion? What God had actually said was, ‘You can eat of any tree in the garden’ (2 v 16). So already the serpent is distorting God’s Word. And the emphasis in the verse lies on the first few words. "Did God really say…." And to make the lights go on to red alert, the serpent uses a word for God which simply means God, not Yahweh, the covenant Lord. In chapter 2, the author has used God’s revealed name, Yahweh, the personal covenant Lord. That is seen in our versions by the word LORD in capitals. You can see it in verse 1. But the serpent simply talks about ‘God’, as if he is trying to distance his creator and hold him at arm’s length. So you’ve got a dodgy question, a distortion of God’s Word and a change in God’s name. Altogether, we can conclude that the serpent is up to something pretty sinister. He’s distorting God’s Word.

But how does the woman respond? Surely she’d spot all this cunning. Well no. She doesn’t. For a start she opens a conversation with the devil, which is always a bad thing to do. You’re never going to convert him, are you? And she too slightly distorts God’s Word. Verse 2: "We may eat from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will surely die.’" Again there is a subtle distortion. God certainly did say that they weren’t to eat from the tree in the middle, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but there was nothing about touching it in 2 v 17. She’s gone too far. She’s been sucked into the devil’s trap. And she’s called God just God, the word that the serpent used, not the covenant God Yahweh, whom she knows him as. She too has distorted God’s Word. You see already she is being sucked in by the craftiness of the devil. And it begins by distorting God’s Word, albeit ever so slightly.

But even if you distort it a little bit, can you see just what an impact it has. The devil doesn’t focus on all the good things God has given them in the garden. He’s focusing on the one rule. He’s making God out to be a spoil sport, a cosmic killjoy who will come down on us like a ton of bricks if we step out of line. The fact was that Adam and Eve had a whole garden of delights. The serpent just highlights the one prohibition, subtly distorts it, and thus casts aspersions on God’s character. And he’s still in the business of doing it today. "Did God really say ‘do not steal’. I mean it’s only a sheaf of paper. The boss won’t mind. God wasn’t really thinking of this situation when he penned that one. Did God really say ‘do not covet’. Go on you deserve it. You’ve worked hard, let yourself go for one night. Did God really say ‘do not lie’. Oh it’s only a white lie. No-one will notice. It doesn’t matter." The same old subtle twists get us all the time. And yet we need to be aware of the devil’s subtle tactics.

Do you remember how Jesus dealt with him? When the devil came to Jesus and tempted him in the desert by distorting God’s Word, do you remember how Jesus responded? He replied by quoting God’s Word properly: "It is written…it is written… it is written." So can you see why the study and absorption of God’s Word is so important? If we are to resist the devil’s subtle temptations by his distortion of God’s Word, then it helps if we know it properly in the first place. Lies and half truths bombard us all the time. The devil doesn’t want us to base our lives on God’s Word. So we need our hearts and minds to be filled with God’s Word. That is how Jesus resisted him. When John Wesley, the great evangelist, left home for the first time, his mother gave him a book to help him on his way. It was the Bible, and she said, "Either sin will keep you from this book, or this book will keep you from sin." That’s the solution for this first stage of rebellion, the first subtle trick of the devil. This is where rebellion begins. Distorting God’s Word.

 

2) Denying God’s Character

But now we come onto the second stage in the rebellion. Denying God’s character. For if the snake began by subtly distorting God’s Word, now he flatly denies it. And the reason he does this is again to attack God’s character, because if you attack his Word, you attack his character. Have a look at verse 4: "You will not surely die….For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Now we will see in a moment just what it was that the serpent was offering Eve. But for the moment see how the serpent attacks God’s character. The snake says: "You will not surely die." It is a straight contradiction of what God said. He says God’s word is not true, therefore God is a liar. God had specifically said to Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit. Now Satan says they will not die. Who is right? It is a flat contradiction. And then he states that the real reason that God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit is because God is afraid that they will become like him. He doesn’t want them to do that. He wants his own position guarded. He’s just got his own interests at heart. He’s not bothered about you two, says the snake. So he’s effectively called God a killjoy and a party pooper by pointing the finger at his authoritarian laws and now he’s calling into question God’s motives and his power. Quite simply, he’s denying God’s character. And when God’s Word is attacked by Satan, God’s character is slighted. You cannot separate someone’s word from their character. If you call someone a liar and say they are speaking untruths, you are effectively saying something against them. And Satan here is doing the same. He’s denying God’s character. And notice his subtlety. He’s doesn’t flatly call God a liar. He simply calls into question whether God will do what he’s said. And he raises the question of God’s motives.

And still today he’s up to his old tricks. "Surely a loving God doesn’t send people to hell does he? You can’t still believe that old chestnut can you? You surely cannot believe that God has only one way to save can you? No, there are lots of ways. Don’t let him con you into thinking that! Oh, you don’t want to follow those restrictive rules do you? God only wants you to go his way so he can control you. Let me be the first to tell you". How deceptive! Satan tempts us to doubt all sorts of areas of God’s character. His judgement, his justice, his holiness, his morality. We’re told these doctrines are outdated and old fashioned. But God says that is a lie. As one Australian speaker puts it, "It’s come straight from the pit. You can smell the sulphur all over it." Don’t believe the ultimate liar. It’s not God who is lying, it’s the devil. He wants Eve and you and I to go his way, to obey his word rather than God’s. Now let’s ask: Who knows best? Who really has our best interests at heart?

A few years ago, the sharks in Sydney harbour bay were becoming a real problem. There had been an increased number of shark attacks. So some notices were put up on the beaches which depicted a large shark with huge teeth and the word "Danger" underneath. So one mother complained that the signs were too scary and were frightening her children. Well of course she had missed the point. The point of the signs was to show people the real danger. It was a loving thing to do. And God’s judgement is a just thing. There will be no Guildford 4’s or Birmingham 6’s, no miscarriages of justice. And he tells us about it because he is loving. He wants no-one to have to go through it. So to say God is a liar, or to deny certain aspects of his character because they are unpalatable is foolish. But it’s what the devil tries to get us to do. It is the second stage in the rebellion against God. To deny his character.

 

3) Displacing God’s Rule

But then finally, the last stage in the rebellion is to displace God’s rule. Already Satan has invited Eve to distort God’s Word and to deny His character. Now she actually takes the step of displacing God’s rule. And that comes as Eve takes the fruit, eats it and gives some to her husband who also eats it. Now what was so special about eating a piece of fruit? Incidentally we are not told it was an apple. It was just fruit. Well the incentive comes in what the fruit is. It comes from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Just exactly what was Satan tempting Eve to do? Well he says that the effects of eating the fruit would be that their eyes would be opened, they would become like God and they would know good and evil. And to cap it all he’s told them they won’t die, exactly what Eve wanted to hear! And the amazing this is that all these things happen! In verse 7, their eyes are opened, and they don’t die, they are simply banished from the garden as we’ll see next week, and according to God in verse 22, they do become like Him, knowing good and evil. So what’s the big deal? Has Satan been vindicated? Is God really the liar?

Well the Bible makes it clear that whilst these things may have been true, to eat the forbidden fruit was actually something much more serious than the devil was making out. It’s pretty clear what this fruit was not. It did not lead to omniscience. They didn’t know everything. Nor was it moral discernment. If they didn’t have that before the Fall, they couldn’t be told by God what was right and wrong, for instance not to eat this fruit. Nor was it sexual knowledge. Sex is not the forbidden fruit. God made sex for the marriage relationship which they, man and wife, enjoyed before the Fall. Rather we can understand what the fruit is from the context. We are told in the passage, in fact by the serpent (v 5), that God knows good and evil. The temptation is therefore to have something that rightly belongs to God. And what is that but the ability to decide what is right and wrong. That is something which it is not appropriate for human beings to have. God alone calls the shots and says what is right and wrong. So for the woman to take the fruit is for her to decide that actually she knows best, and God doesn’t. It is to take God’s position as the moral arbiter, and to say I will run my life my way. Notice how this is seen in the way she looks at the fruit. Verse 6: "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it." Now who decides what is good in creation? Well it is God isn’t it? He says creation is good all the way through chapter 1. And now it is the woman. She’s doing God’s job. She decides that the fruit is materially, aesthetically and intellectually pleasing to her. So she takes it. She has displaced God’s rule. She has said she is the boss. It is a massive act of self-assertion. And it’s the final stage in the rebellion. Because if you’ve distorted God’s Word and denied his character, you may as well go the whole hog and displace his rule.

And that is why the world is in such a mess. Because we human beings do not have God’s wisdom and moral discernment to decide what is right and wrong. We cannot see the consequences. We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind. And so Adam and Eve end up hiding themselves from God and one another in a pathetic attempt to retain some dignity. But that dignity and perfection of chapter 2 has been shattered. They have taken the final last step and displaced God.

I remember when I was a child I would make model planes, or at least that’s what I liked to think. In fact, my father made them and I watched. And sometimes I would get an itch to try a bit myself. I would get impatient and try and do things my way. Maybe when he wasn’t looking I’d try and make one of the wings myself. Well it would always end in tears. There would be glue all over the place and bits fixed on the wrong way. The whole thing was a mess, and all because I thought I knew best. I wanted to do it my way. But I didn’t have the knowledge and wisdom.

Well we make that mistake every day don’t we? We fail to live by God’s Word, we forget or deny his character, and then we cap it all by displacing him of his rightful position in our lives. We decide what we do. We wear the crowns on our heads. That is what sin is. And where do we get ourselves? Hiding in shame behind a bevy of excuses, each one as pathetic as the other. Is it any wonder that the world is in a terrible mess when we’ve tried to run God’s world our way? Yes the Bible is realistically pessimistic about our position. And yet it is also optimistic, even in this darkest hour of the world’s history. Because as we’ll see next week, the road back to paradise begins with two wonderful words- "But God….." God won’t leave us there. He loves us far more than that! He’ll take the initiative to come looking. And that’s why the Christian has every reason to be profoundly optimistic about the future.


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