Genesis 1:2-3

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Genesis 1

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.

Genesis 1:2-3 is a fascinating text. It takes us back to the first movements of creation. It presents us with a primordial picture of pre-creation and then the first words of creation. It moves from the terrifying image of a watery deep, a black void, and then into the divine pronouncement of light. All of this is beautiful and awesome and soul-stirring!

Then we find the New Testament writers taking these very images and applying them to Jesus in a way that magnifies His person and work powerfully and provocatively. In doing so the New Testament writers show that these words do not deal only with the murky distant past but also with the nowand with our encounter with Jesus today.

Once again we see the abiding relevance and transformative power of the amazing book of Genesis. We, too, yearn for light in darkness and dare to ask if the words of these verses might be actualized again, here and now, in our lives. We therefore turn with great expectation to Genesis 1:2-3.

Our God is the God who brings life out of nothingness and speaks light into darkness.

We have seen how Genesis 1:1 establishes the sole majesty and sovereignty of our Creator God. We have seen how God alone is eternally preexistent, how God created out of His own good will and not out of any sense of loneliness or compulsion, how God alone, in distinction to human artists, has the power to create out of nothing. And we have seen how the first words of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God…,” humble us and show us our proper place as utterly dependent upon God and His goodness. Furthermore, it calls us to worship. Now we marvel at God’s first movements of creation.

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.

This imagery is mysterious and powerful. The descriptions sound almost ominous to our curious ears: “without form,” “void,” “darkness,” “the face of the deep.” Ken Mathews, writing about the phrase “without form and void” (“The rhyming couplettohu wabohu(lit., ‘a wasteland and empty’)…”), argues “tohu and bohudescribe a ‘wasteland’ and ‘empty’ land,” that tohu“refers to an unproductive, uninhabited land or has the sense of futility or nonexistence.”[1]

What can this mean? As early as the 4th/5thcenturies we find opponents of Christianity arguing that these words suggest that God did not truly create ex nihilo, out of nothing,but rather that He acted upon some sort of chaotic primordial state that existed outside of His own creative will. Augustine responded to such criticisms those many years ago and argued that whatever “the deep” is referring to, and whatever state the “formless” and “void” earth was in, we simply must conclude that God created those realities as well. God created the deep upon which His Spirit hovered.

Consider a modern attempt to approach this issue. The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook says:

The story of creation in the Bible does not start with “nothingness.” That God creates matter out of nothing is implied, but the story in Genesis actually starts with a chaotic watery world. Thus the Genesis 1 creation account is not so much an account of creation out of nothing as it is an account of bringing order out of chaos, and life out of nonlife.[2]

This entry in the Handbook correctly suggests that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilois “implied.” It would go further and say that it is necessary. For Genesis begins with, “In the beginning, God.” That is its proper starting point: God, apart from whom there is nothing. Furthermore, as we have seen, Tillich was correct in arguing that any pre-existent matter or world state that did not itself come from the mind and heart of God would lead us into either dualism (i.e., that there is some sort of power or matter over against God in eternity past) or paganism (i.e., that the earth itself is somehow divine).

The Handbook entry is also correct in saying that we find in the first verses of Genesis 1 an “account of bringing order out of chaos, and life out of non-life.” But this need not, as Augustine saw, conflict in any way with creatio ex nihilo. It simply means that between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1 we have the shadowy first steps of pre-creation, if you will, which resulted in the formlessness and watery deep referred to in verse 2. Thus, yes, God brings order out of chaos and life out of nonlife but literally every step of that process was a result of His own creative activity.

Others have suggested that what we find in Genesis 1:2-3 is an attempt on the part of the biblical writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to describe nothingness. How, after all, would you go about describing nothingness? Perhaps there is some truth in that idea, though “the deep” here appears to be spoken of as an actual state of existence.

Still others suggest that at least part of what Moses was doing in writing Genesis was offering a polemic or argument against the false views of creation held by the Babylonians. In one of the early pagan creation stories we see the chaotic waters rise up in anger and smite the gods. This argument suggests that by depicting God and His creative Spirit as hovering over the deep, Moses was saying that the one true God is not like the false gods of the peoples. The one true God is not afraid of the waters or of any aspect of creation. He has dominance over it, sovereignty over it. The waters tremble in anticipation under His creative hand!

A caution: at this point we would do well to consider John Chrysostom’s 4th/5thcentury advice to his congregation not to pry too deeply into mysteries that are beyond the reach of our own finite minds. There are mysteries here. Genesis 1 is not exhaustive. It does not tell us things that we cannot even receive. Rather, it tells us the amazing news that we can receive, namely, that our great God is creator and Lord!

To be perfectly honest, I find the imagery of a deep, watery abyss to be utterly terrifying. The most horrifying thing I can think of would be surviving a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic and floating there on flotsam and jetsam in the dark waters not knowing what creatures and what depths lie beneath me! For this reason, I find myself yearning for the light of Genesis 1:3 when I read of the darkness of Genesis 1:2.

It is a beautiful scene! We see the darkness and the formlessness, the void and the deep. And there, hovering over the deep, is the Spirit of the one true God! Some Christian commentators have seen in the name of God used in Genesis 1:1, Elohim, evidence of the Trinity. This is because Elohim is in the plural. Others suggest that the plural is simply a Hebrew method of bestowing honor upon the name of God. Regardless, we know that our three-in-one triune God is the creator God of Genesis. It will not be the first time that we see God the Trinity displaying His power above the waters.

Consider the baptism of Jesus, for instance, in Mark 1:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

God the Fathersaid, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” and God the Spiritdescended as a dove, and God the Sonwas baptized by John the Baptist. No, Genesis 1:2 is not the only time that our triune God revealed Himself in power over the waters.

The Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep. The Spirit of God is greater than the waters and has the power to transform the darkness. He is there, hovering, quivering in anticipation. Then, amazingly, God speaks! I love the Latin here: Fiat lux! Let there be light! And BOOM!: Light!

It penetrates and shatters the darkness. Where there was nothing, there is now the voice of God and the light of His glory. The darkness gives way. The void is filled to brimming over with the manifestation of God’s resplendent majesty!

Our God is the God who brings life out of nothingness and speaks light into darkness!

What a picture! What a praise! In the beginning there was only God, and this God speaks! What a gift! God could have remained silent and we never would have existed. He did not have to speak. He chose to speak. And such is the potency of His word that what He speaks must be.



Our God is amazing!

Jesus reenacts life-giving, light-shining creation here and now in the lives of those who will trust in Him.

The first verses of Genesis 1 are soul-stirring enough in and of themselves. They harken us to remember and to know that we have been made and that God reigns on high! Then, amazingly, we find the New Testament writers, likewise under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, drawing on this imagery in order to flesh out the radical implications of the person and work of Jesus.

Consider Matthew 8. In this scene the disciples grow frightened while on a boat in the midst of the sea. What happens next evokes the imagery of Genesis 1:2-3.

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

Notice the contrast between Jesus’ disposition and the disciples’ dispositions. They are terrified. He is at peace. They do not know what to do on the surface of the chaotic deep. Jesus knows exactly what to do.

The disciples awaken Jesus in a frenzy of fear. “Save us, Lord! We are perishing!” “How can this man sleep on the surface of the raging deep?!” they must have thought. It is because Jesus has been here before. One of the many points that the gospel writers are making here and in other similar scenes is that this Jesus has authority over the deep because this Jesus is the God of Genesis 1. That the disciples at least partially understood these astonishing implications can be seen in their response: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

These disciples are Jewish. They have heard the creation story since their youth. They know that only God has the power to hover over and subdue the deep. Only God has dominion over the waters! “What sort of many is this?!” What sort indeed!

In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul draws explicitly on the imagery of Genesis 1:3.

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Beautiful! Paul says that just as God in Genesis spoke light into the darkness so God now speaks Jesus into the darkness of our own fallenness and sinfulness to give us light and life! In the parallel that Paul creates in verse 6, our hearts represent the void and the formlessness and the deep of Genesis 1:2.

Is it not so? Let me ask you: Are you in darkness? Do you live in the dark? Do you feel that you have been thrust into the darkness by somebody else? Has somebody done something to you that you feel has kept you in darkness? Do you find that your mind and heart have a disturbing love for what is dark? Do you have dark thoughts? Dark habits? Are you mired in the darkness of depression, perhaps? Do you stay in bed, your eyes shut against the light, caught in tangle of depression? Do you feel the anger and exhaustion of not being able to get others to understand that you cannot simply “get up,” that you feel as if a hundred-ton weight is on you? Are you caught in the darkness of bitterness? You know you must find a way to forgive, to move on, but you cannot? You are in the darkness. You are bound out there somewhat in the inky blackness of night.

Are you in the dark deep, the watery abyss? Do you feel that you are drowning? Are you hanging onto the wreckage of your life out there in the cold and the deep and do you feel your grip weakening? Are you in the deep of sin, of your own rebellion? Have you dug yourself into a deep, deep hole and the water is rising?

Consider, friends, Genesis 1:2-3. Consider that our God is the God who brings life out of lifelessness and light out of darkness. Then consider how Jesus reenacts life-giving, light-shining creation here and now in the lives of those who will trust in Him! Here is how John put it inJohn 1:

1 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.

Ah! Jesus is “the light of men.” He “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome” Him. The darkness will never overcome Jesus!

“Yes, but I have so many wounds. I have collected so much baggage out here in the dark. I fear the light of Christ! I fear it for what it will reveal!”

Yes, you do have wounds and baggage. Some of it put upon you by others and some of it embraced willingly by you. Which is to say we have all sinned and been sinned against. But here is the truth of the matter: you cannot unpack your baggage in the dark! Come to the light of Christ! Step into the light of His glory and His mercy and His forgiving power.

By nature we love the darkness, even as the darkness is killing us. Some years ago Roni and I toured a deep cavern in Tennessee. We went down, down, down into the dark. At the very bottom was a very scary looking underground lake. The guide turned off the lights then shined his flashlight into the dark waters. We could see pale fish swimming about. Then the guide told us that the fish, having lived in the darkness for so long, were all completely blind.

It is possible to live in the dark for so long that we can no longer see. This is what sin does. We are born blind and deaf and dumb in our sinfulness and then we plunge deeper still into the darkness as we turn from God. We get used to the darkness. We begin to think that darkness is all there is.

But somewhere along the way we hear good news. We hear that God has spoken light into the darkness and life into the nothingness and that He continues to do so here and now in the person of His Son, Jesus! Then we feel our hearts stir and move. Could it really be that I could step into the light? That I could come to Jesus? Could I really find forgiveness there? Could I really find hope there? Could I really find peace there? Could I really move from shame to joy, from death to life?

Yes! YES! For this is what God is saying in the scriptures: when you dare to call on the name of Jesus in faith and repentance, turning from who you were and taking hold of Him in faith, God does here and now what He did in Genesis 1. He leans down to you in love, puts His mouth to the abyss of your own heart, and says, “LIGHT! LIGHT! LIGHT!” and “LIFE! LIFE! LIFE!” And then—BOOM!—light comes cascading in! Yes, it reveals what is really going on in our hearts. Yes, it can burn because we are not used to the light. But all the while it heals and illuminates and gives that joy and peace and hope and life that only the light of God can give!

Jesus is the light! God still speaks His name into darkness! And, when He does so, we live!

Bring your dark and troubled heart. Call on the name of Jesus. And He will speak light and life and salvation to you!


[1]Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1:11-26. The New American Commentary. Old Testament, vol. 1A (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 1996), p.130-131.

[2]J. Daniel Hays and J. Scott Duvall, eds. The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), p.44.

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