God’s Covenant with Noah

If you aim to build a road from Minneapolis to some other city, you don't buy any right-of-way or cut down any trees or dig one inch of roadbed until you know what city the road is intended to reach. Your destination influences all your decisions from the start. The things you do at the beginning make sense because of your goal at the end. If someone asks you, "Why are you buying farmland in Prior Lake?" you answer, "Because I'm building road to Mankato not Milaca."

The Future Determines the Past

One of the basic doctrines of Christianity is that history is God's highway to an appointed future. God himself is the state highway commission and the chief engineer and the head foreman on the job. History is not a random path cut through the countryside by people without a compass. It's a highway that leads from creation to consummation, engineered by God who directs everything from his sovereign standpoint in the future. History is going somewhere. God appointed the goal before the foundation of the world, and under his over-arching providence all events serve that goal.

The psalmist says, "Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written everyone of them, the days that were formed for me when as yet there was none of them" (139:16). Before you get up tomorrow to make your little contribution to God's highway of history, he has already written in his book what you will accomplish. And when he writes it down, he is not guessing. According to Isaiah 46:9, 10, God says, "I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'" At the beginning of history God saw the end of history. He saw what he aimed to perform, and he knew what had to be done to achieve it, and he decreed that it be: "My counsel shall stand, I will accomplish all my purpose!" (See also Acts 2:23; 4:28; Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8; 17:8.)

In a very real sense, then, God runs history from the future. He stands, as it were, already at the destination and guides the road crew so that his highway reaches Mankato instead of Janesville or Sleepy Eye. This means that when you want an explanation for some historical event, you don't just look at the past like most historians; you also look to the future. If the ultimate cause of things is running history from the future, then the ultimate explanation of things is found in the future. If the road crew builds a sweeping curve to the west, the ultimate explanation may be that there was a swamp ahead to the east.

The New Testament Explains the Turns in the Old

If you don't believe in a God who is powerfully involved in history, then the only explanation of events you will look for are past causes, not future purposes. But as soon as you reckon with the God of the Bible, tomorrow will always be part of today's explanation.

This means that when we meditate on the acts of God in the Old Testament, we should include questions like: How does this turn in the Old Testament highway lead on to the decisive New Testament events where God's Son joins the highway work crew for thirty years? If God runs history from the future, and if the coming of the Son into history is a foretaste of the future, then the experiences of Noah and Abraham and Moses and David are all preparations for the coming of Christ. God made a covenant with each of these saints; covenants always contain promises; and "all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20). Therefore, the coming of Christ was the future which guided all God's work in Old Testament times.

The Covenant with Noah Prepared the Way for Christ

What I want to do in the four Sundays of Advent is look with you at God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David with a view to how they prepared the way for Christ. And I pray that our confidence in God's planning and engineering skills will be strengthened.

Today we look at God's covenant with Noah. I remember hearing John Hoeldtke say one time in a sermon on the flood, "Noah and the ark is not a children's story!" It is one of the most terrifying and tragic stories of God's wrath in the Bible. Gustave Dore, the French artist, captures the mood of the story in his engraving of a huge expanse of empty sea with one lone rock protruding a few feet above the waves. There are three terrified children on the rock, and slipping into the sea are a mother and father trying desperately to push a fourth little baby to safety. On the rock sits a giant tiger. Bodies are floating in the water and overhead circle the exhausted vultures. Whatever else we may say about this story, it is not cute.

The Threefold Message of the Flood

The message of this story is threefold.

  1. First, the wickedness of man is very great and his heart is full of evil continually.
  2. Second, God's patience does come to an end and he destroys unrepentant sinners in judgment.
  3. Third, nevertheless, God does not surrender his purpose in creating man. Even in judgment God does not leave off building his highway. His counsel shall stand and he shall accomplish all his purpose: "All the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord" (Numbers 14:21). Judgment is real and horrible, but it will not be the last word. The story points forward to an unknown remedy.

1. The Human Heart Is Very Wicked

Let's look at these three lessons one at a time. First, the story of the flood teaches us that the human heart in its natural condition is very wicked. Now and then the Old Testament makes explicit pronouncements about human depravity. For example, Psalm 51:5, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me." But usually the incorrigible evil of the human heart is simply portrayed in its results. After the fall in Genesis 3, Adam passes the buck to Eve, Cain kills his brother; Lamech kills a boy, commits bigamy, and boasts; and when you get to Genesis 6:5, the writer says, "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Verse 11 shows that all this inward evil was breaking out everywhere: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth."

So the first lesson of the flood is the doctrine of sin. Advent season makes no sense without sin, because Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 2:5). The first point of the flood is that we are sinners and deserve judgment. But I suppose someone might say, "That was the condition before the flood. But that has been purged away and we are descendants of righteous Noah who was not condemned." But the writer builds three roadblocks to that view.

The Condition of Man's Heart Is Not Improved After the Flood

First, in 8:21, after the flood, God says in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." God's assessment of our moral condition is not improved by the flood. He is not so naïve as to think Noah and his descendants are without sin.

Noah Falls After the Flood

In fact—and this is the second road block—after the flood Genesis 9:20f. says, "Noah planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent." And his own sin leads to the sins of his son. Just as the first man after creation led the way into sin for all of his posterity, so the first man after the flood led the way into sin for all of his posterity. Before the flood and after the flood human nature is corrupt.

Noah Was Saved by Grace

The third roadblock to thinking Noah began a new sin-free population is Genesis 6:8. The reason Noah was spared was because he "found grace in the eyes of the Lord." Noah was not without sin, but he found favor with God because "he walked with God" (6:9): he agreed with God about the evil of his own sin, turned from it, and trusted God for grace. He is called righteous and blameless in Genesis 6:9. But blameless in the Old Testament doesn't always mean sinless. A man is blameless if he does not persist in his blameworthy actions, if he hates them, turns from them, and comes to God seeking mercy (cf. Job 1:1). Neither does righteous mean sinless. In the Old Testament, a righteous man is a sinner who hates his sin, turns from it, trusts God, pursues obedience, and enjoys acceptance by grace. (See Psalm 32:1–2, 10–11.) This is confirmed by Hebrews 11:7, "By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith."

Noah was not an exception to the rule of universal sinfulness. He had experienced what the Old Testament calls the "circumcision of the heart" (Deuteronomy 30:6) and what the New Testament calls new birth (1 Peter 1:23). That gave rise to repentance and faith. Therefore, the doctrine of sin stands as the first lesson of this story. Apart from new birth and faith it may be said of all men and women and children "every imagination of the thoughts of their heart is only evil continually" (6:5). If that doctrine is rejected, the meaning of the flood collapses and the advent season becomes the prelude to a pretty fairy tale.

2. God's Patience Does Come to an End

The second lesson of the flood is that God's patience does come to an end and he destroys unrepentant sinners. According to Genesis 6:7, "The Lord said, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'" Then in verse 13, "God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.'" And in verse 17 God says that his wrath will come as a flood: "I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die." Then after these three hammer-blow statements of God's intention comes the headlines in Genesis 7:21: "Aquatic Holocaust"—"And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died."

In a sense this is a children's story, because its lessons are plain enough for a child to understand: God hates sin and punishes unrepentant sinners. When Jesus came into the world, he taught the same thing about sin, only he made the punishment eternal. Matthew 18:8, "If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire." God's flood and God's Son teach the same lesson: God hates sin and punishes unrepentant sinners with unspeakable judgment.

3. God Does Not Surrender His Purposes for Man

But there is a third lesson from the flood, namely, that in spite of man's intolerable sinfulness God does not surrender his purpose in creating man. God created man in his image and aims for man to fill the earth with God's glory reflected in man's faith and righteousness. Therefore, he preserves one righteous man and his family and gives him the duty and blessing of filling the earth again. Notice how Genesis 9:1 is the same mission given to Adam in 1:28: "God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.'" In verse 7 the command is repeated: "And you be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it."

God is prepared to start over with a new "Adam." But this time the beginning is not in paradise. So the new "Adam" must reckon with three real threats against him and his mission to fill the earth: a threat from animals, a threat from man, and threat from God. So God makes three special provisions to protect the life of man in the new world where sin and corruption will again soon abound.

God Gives New Rights over Animals

First, God gives to man new rights over the animals so that they will not threaten him but serve him even as food. Genesis 9:2–3 says, "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the air and upon everything that creeps on the ground and the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything." So God supports man in his mission to fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory by removing the threat of animals: man now has the right to put them in dread and even use them for food.

God Makes Provision to Restrain Murder

Second, God gives man a portion of the divine prerogative to take human life and thus guard society against murder. The mission to fill the earth is threatened by men as well as animals. Hence verses 5–6: "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." Before the flood God kept for himself the whole prerogative to take life. You recall God threatened sevenfold vengeance on anyone who slays Cain, even though Cain was a murderer (4:15). But now God makes a provision for murder to be at least partly restrained by man. He makes murder a capital offense.

Man is created in God's image. God's purpose is that people in his image fill the earth with his glory. Therefore, when a man presumes to snuff out the potential of that glory, he attacks God in such a way that his own execution by men becomes a part of God's purpose. Later on God reveals some of the practical legal implications of this (e.g., Romans 13:1–6); but here the point is that a special provision is made by God to protect his mission from the threat of men.

God Makes a Covenant with Noah

Finally, there is the threat from God himself. How shall the earth ever be filled with his glory if his wrath overflows again in a flood against sin? To protect men against this threat God makes a covenant with Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:11, "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." The same promise is stated positively in Genesis 8:22, "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." In other words, I give you protection from the animals, I give you protection from man, and in my own covenant promise I give you protection from me. I will uphold rather than destroy the natural world processes on which you depend for life. As long as the world lasts, I will withhold universal judgment like this and preserve the order of creation.

These, then, are the three lessons of the flood:

  1. the wickedness of man is very great and his heart is full of evil continually;
  2. God hates sin, his patience has an end, and he destroys unrepentant sinners,
  3. yet God does not surrender his purpose in creation to fill the earth with men and women who reflect his glory in their faith and obedience.

The Epilogue to the Story of the Flood

But notice what this implies. Sin is just as much a problem after the flood as before. The flood of judgment did not eradicate sin; the covenant of grace did not guarantee righteousness. If God's purpose was to fill the earth with the glory of his righteousness, then we must conclude one of two things: God is a failure, or God is preparing for something greater in the future. God is not a failure! And therefore the New Testament writers see the flood as a foreshadowing of the final judgment with fire (2 Peter 3:5–7), and the ark as a foreshadowing of final salvation (1 Peter 3:20–21), and the days of Noah as typical of the last days before the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:37ff.). The story of Noah and the flood is incomplete in itself. God still hates sin and no remedy was found. The story cries out for an epilogue.

And there is a final clue in the story about the epilogue to come. It's found in Genesis 8:20. At the end of the flood and before God had made his covenant, "Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man.'" God's gracious covenant with Noah was a response to a pure sacrifice. Is not this, too, a foreshadowing that God, who must find a remedy for sin, will find it in another greater sacrifice, namely, the sacrifice of his Son?

There is an epilogue to this story, and it begins with advent. The final remedy for sin has been found. As Hebrews 9:26 says, "Christ appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." God still hates sin. We are still sinful. But God will never surrender his purpose to fill the earth with his glory. The final remedy is Jesus Christ. So come to him this advent season and discover the purpose for which you were made.

Added note: For further study notice how the Noahic covenant is used to give certainty to God's other promises (Jeremiah 31:36; 33:17–26; Isaiah 54:9; 2 Peter 2:5; 3:5–7).