Serpent Crusher or Serpent Crushers? Preaching Genesis 3 in the Light of the Gospel
About a year ago the congregation I pastor embarked on a sermon series in Genesis 1-11. It's the kind of sermon series where most well-churched congregation members will feel like they're pretty familiar with the texts, or at least with the "stories". So immediately the preacher feels the pressure to engage people in a way that will feel ‘fresh' to the hearers. But my theology of preaching tells me that the way to be ‘fresh' is to dig for treasures in the text rather than seeking to be novel or creative; and of all the sermons in the series, preparing to preach on Genesis 3 brought that truth home to me most strongly. I discovered ‘freshly' that this is a text full of great riches, especially for the reader/preacher who has eyes to see how the rest of the Bible reflects upon these verses.
But before I share what I believe are the riches of Genesis 3, let me mention a comparatively "poor" alternative.
An Impoverished Reading
A common mistake with this chapter is to moralise about the subject of temptation and how to resist it. On this kind of analysis, Adam and Eve become anti-heroes who model for us what not to do in the face of temptation. The preacher might therefore draw out some principles from the chapter for meeting Satan's enticements with firm resolve, and he will use Adam and Eve illustratively along the way. But this treatment of the text fails to do it justice. It is a false trail and it actually robs people of the riches that are here.
A Rich Reading: Genesis 3 In The Context Of The Whole Bible
So what is on offer for the preacher and hearers who, instead, consider Genesis 3 in the light of the whole Bible's story? Much indeed! In particular, we find that this is a passage which exposes the human heart in a way that is both penetrating and timeless. But even more profoundly, this is a chapter which leads us to contemplate the work of Christ as it meets the darkness of the human heart and graciously offers a perfect future. So allow me to speak in turn of both those trajectories from Genesis 3 into the New Testament.
a) The Human Heart Exposed
One of the most profound ways that the New Testament reflects upon this passage is that it teaches that all humanity are ‘in Adam' (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). So Adam is not ‘illustrative for us' (as in the moralistic sermon on Genesis 3) but a ‘representative of us'- and the difference is deeply significant. In Genesis 3 we don't merely see a picture of a man and woman who might happen to be like us at certain points. Instead, we actually see a picture of our own hearts- because what we're seeing is the human condition in its essential nature. If we are ‘in Adam' then we are ‘participants in' rather than ‘observers of' Genesis 3. If we are ‘in Adam', then our hearts are as black as his.
b) The Work Of Christ Exalted
Secondly, though, Genesis 3 leads us to a profoundly edifying reflection on how the Lord Jesus meets humanity with grace. Genesis 3 points us forward to a Saviour who will cleanse our black hearts and grant us a future where the blackness of sin will no longer cast its shadow over us and over our world. Both Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 tell us that being ‘in Adam' is not the end of the story for humanity. Through Christ's conquest of sin and death, we are given the opportunity of finding ourselves ‘in Christ' and enjoying all the benefits of belonging to him. Wonderfully, belonging to him ‘solves the problem' (for want of a better phrase) created by the events of Genesis 3. Furthermore, the New Testament focuses our attention on the benefits of being ‘in Christ' in ways that are self-consciously and evocatively "opposite" to where humanity finds itself in Genesis 3 (especially in Romans 16:20 and Revelation 21-22).
And what we find in the New Testament is that Christ has achieved all this, paradoxically, by sharing in our humanity (eg. Hebrews 2:14-18). What is supremely profound about reflecting on Genesis 3 through the pages of the New Testament is that we don't just find ourselves in Genesis 3, but also Christ! In the incarnation he embraced the human condition. He embraced humanity fully, yet without sin, in order that he might redeem us from our own black hearts and from all the consequences of the curses.
Excursus: A False "Biblical Theology" Trail?
Whilst there is no doubt that Genesis 3 points in both these directions, I have long been intrigued by the way in which Biblical Theologians have articulated the latter. It is one thing to say that Genesis 3 exalts the work of Christ. But it is another thing altogether to show exactly how Christ's work is honoured by our Biblical Theological understanding of Genesis 3. Moreover, in my experience there is a very popular and common Biblical Theological step taken from Genesis 3 that I'm simply not convinced of.
I'm referring to the idea (first articulated by Luther I believe) that Genesis 3:15 is the first explicit statement of Messianic expectation in the Old Testament. From that moment on, so people say, the narrative invites us to await the appearance of the Serpent Crusher- the one who will crush Satan under his feet and thus reverse the effects of the fall. This verse, cast as it is in the chilling context of God's condemnation of all humanity, offers humanity some hope. For here we see the Christ. As Christian readers of the Old Testament (and especially as well-trained Biblical Theologians) we are taught to see in this verse what we see at every turn in the Old Testament narrative- that God plans to send his Anointed One to deliver humanity from themselves. Jesus is the Serpent Crusher of Genesis 3:15. Or so the story goes . . .
Up to a point, I agree with that interpretation of the verse. Verse 15 certainly jumps out of the otherwise bleak picture of Genesis 3 and shines its hopeful ray of future anticipation upon the reader. I think the narrative does invite us to expect the Serpent Crusher (or Crushers?) to come and to put right that which has been messed up by human sin. But my question is about whether or not this is to be seen as a Messianic expectation. Is this really a foreshadowing of our Saviour Jesus? Certainly as we read on in Genesis we are disappointed to discover that none of the immediate descendants of Eve are "crushing the serpent"- bringing evil to an end. We even reach the end of Genesis feeling frustrated by the continuing spiral of sinfulness which has yet to be reversed. We are left asking the question, ‘Who will crush the serpent's head?', ‘When will the effects of the fall be reversed?', ‘When will we see this promised deliverance?'
I presume that if Biblical Theology has taught us anything, we will find ourselves turning to the New Testament's articulation of the gospel for our answers. And surely one of our sacrosanct principles of Biblical Theological interpretation (and rightly so) is that we should inquire of the inspired Apostles to see what they make of this part of the Old Testament? So what does the New Testament say about Genesis 3:15?
One of the interesting things about that question is that there is only one place anywhere else in the Bible where deliberate reference is clearly made to Genesis 3:15 (I'm not convinced that either Psalm 110 or Galatians 3 have Genesis 3 in mind). That in itself is unusual in my opinion if Genesis 3:15 is really the fundamental building-block of Messianic expectation that people say it is. Why don't the Old Testament prophets remind us of the coming Messiah in those terms? Why doesn't Jesus ever speak of himself as the Serpent Crusher? Why is the New Testament strangely quiet when it comes to unpacking the work of Christ with respect to Genesis 3:15?
Nevertheless, we are not left in the dark to sketch the trajectories of Genesis 3:15 into the New Covenant by ourselves. The Apostle Paul offers us at least one inspired (in the theological sense of the word) thought. I'm speaking of course of Romans 16:20. At the conclusion of his epistle, Paul encourages the Roman Christians with these words: ‘And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet'.
What do we learn, then, about how Paul would answer the questions raised for us by Genesis 3:15 and the unfolding plot of the Biblical narrative between Genesis and Romans? (a) Who is the Serpent Crusher? And, (b) When will the serpent be crushed?
Unless I'm very much mistaken, Paul's answers seem to be- (a) the Roman Christians, and (b) ‘soon'. It appears to me that Paul's answer to the "who" question interprets Genesis 3:15 as pointing not to a singular fulfilment in a messianic man, but to a plural (or corporate) fulfilment in the followers of the Messiah. It also seems to me that Paul's answer to the "when" question points to an eschatological moment the world is yet to see.
As I read Romans 16:20, the Spirit casts my mind back to Genesis 3 and encourages me that I myself, as one of God's New Covenant people, am a Serpent Crusher. I am a part of that great company of Jesus' followers who will one day enjoy the overthrow of the curse as I dance on Satan's head. But the Spirit also cautions me not to strap on my dancing shoes just yet. I'm not a Serpent Crusher right now. However, I will be ‘soon', says Paul, and so I rejoice in that beautiful ‘soon' of eschatological anticipation so common to the New Testament's call for patience and endurance.
Of course, when I dance on Satan's head and the curse is reversed it will be for no other reason than that my Lord Jesus defeated and disarmed Satan in his death and resurrection (Colossians 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14-15). In that more muted sense, Jesus is anticipated in Genesis 3:15. But as far as Paul is concerned, Genesis 3:15 is not a prediction about Jesus and it's not a prediction about when Jesus came the first time. It's a prediction about the very end of time when God will finally and perfectly make everything right, when the effects of the curse will no longer be felt, and when God's own people will enjoy the spoils of Christ's victory themselves.
This is my question: Is it possible that the populist Christological interpretation of Genesis 3:15 has seen people exalt their debt to Luther and the Biblical Theological meta-narrative over and above sensible exegesis and sound hermeneutical principles?
I'm well aware that I'm taking a shot at a pretty "sacred cow". But it's important that we ask: Have we got it wrong? Should we speak of a "Serpent-Crusher" at all? Or should we prefer to speak of ourselves as "Serpent Crushers" even whilst we acknowledge our debt to Christ in making us one of that number?
In my sermon on Genesis 3 I deliberately resisted the lure of heading down this popular Biblical Theological track. I tried instead to be guided by the emphases of Genesis 3 and the New Testament in how I concluded and applied the passage.
Sermon Structure and Content
So allow me to show you what I did with the sermon.
The title of my sermon was ‘The Bride & Groom Stripped Bare' and it was a play on the title of a book which had been released in 2004 and which had caused quite a stir. So in my introduction to the sermon I began by talking about the book- ‘The Bride Stripped Bare'. This is what I said:
It was a novel, but it was meant to be the great unveiling of the true story of the modern wife. It was meant to blow the lid on what it really feels like to be a middle-class wife in the Western world- expectations, insecurities, fantasies, all included. The book has been hailed as a window into the heart of hearts of the 21st century bride. And it's a book that made quite a splash.
Then I went on to compare the novel with Genesis 3. I wanted people to feel the significance of what Genesis 3 "reveals" and I wanted them to see Genesis 3 in the light of Genesis 2:
Tonight we come to Genesis chapter 3, and it's a chapter of the Bible that has been making quite a splash for well over two thousand years now. It too offers a shocking true story. It blows the lid on what humanity is really capable of. It's a window into the heart of hearts of both bride and groom, of men and women everywhere.
And in actual fact the story of chapter 3 begins with the bride and groom we met in chapter 2, quite literally stripped bare. They are naked, and, as you might recall, they felt no shame. For Adam and his new wife, there is a contented vulnerability that knows no embarrassment. It's a picture of wonderful blessing. But, sadly, it doesn't last long.
From there I moved into my exposition of the chapter. And I exegeted the text under four headings:
"The Assault on God's Goodness" (3:1-7)
"Shame in the Presence of God" (3:8-13)
"God's Curses Upon the Guilty" (3:14-19)
"From Here On" (3:20-24)
Under the first heading ("The Assault on God's Goodness"), I looked at verses 1-7 and tried to show people the subtleties of the narrative. I spoke of the serpent as a representation of the Devil (even though this isn't made explicit in the text) largely, in my own mind, on the basis of Revelation 12:9. I wanted people to see the movement in these verses from the serpent questioning God and twisting God's words in verse 1 (reflecting back on 2:16-17), and how the woman then gets entangled in the deceit, right through to the bald-faced lies of the serpent in verse 4. Here's a section of the sermon:
You remember from chapter 2 last week- in God's command there was restriction but there was also great freedom. And here the serpent exaggerates the restriction and implies that there was no freedom.
But the woman doesn't fall for this straight away. She begins by correcting the serpent. Verse 2. [Read 3:2-3]
But now even she has exaggerated the restriction. She repeats what God had said but she adds a bit- the bit about not touching the fruit. God hadn't prohibited them from touching, just from eating. And so we see that she is beginning to get caught up in the twisting of God's words herself. The serpent has suggested to her that God wasn't as generous as he had actually been. The serpent subtly begins his assault on God's goodness. And now the woman is beginning to doubt God's goodness too- even she is portraying him as more restrictive, more strict than he really is.
And that's all the encouragement the serpent needs. Now his confidence has grown and he lies straight out. Verse 4. [Read 3:4-5]
Under the second heading ("Shame in the Presence of God") I considered verses 8-13. Here my concern was to contrast the post-sin experience of Adam and Eve with their experience of the garden when it was unaffected by sin. Here the context of Genesis 2 is very important. Here's another section from the sermon:
We thought the chapter started with this man and this woman stripped bare. But now we see a great irony. It's as they're grabbing for something to cover themselves that we really see into their heart of hearts. Now that there are leaves covering their private parts- now they are really stripped bare. Now we see who they really are- what they are really like. They are guilty sinners. They are ashamed of their sin. But even though they are guilty and ashamed, even so, they are quicker to mouth accusations than apologies. This is the human heart- this is the bride and the groom stripped . . . bare.
Under the third heading ("God's Curses Upon the Guilty"), I considered verses 14-19 and the response of God to the sin of his creatures. As I mentioned earlier, I spoke of the curse on the serpent in the terms that I think the text most naturally suggests- anticipating a corporate fulfillment:
He was the craftiest of all the animals. Now he is the most cursed of all the animals. He is destined to live in the dust as a sign of his curse. And he is destined, as well, for a future of conflict with the woman he deceived. And his children will be in conflict with hers. The fangs of serpents will snap at human heels for generations to come. And, similarly, the feet of humans will crush serpent heads.
I went on from there to discuss the curses pronounced on the woman and the man in turn (illustrating the curse on the woman with reference to my wife's own experience of child-birth!). I wanted people to especially grasp that the climax of all the curses is the promise of death- a reality that was previously absent from the garden.
Finally, under the fourth heading ("From Here On . . ."), I looked at verses 20-24 and asked the congregation to consider where all this will lead in the years and centuries following Adam and Eve. I wanted people to see that death is not the final word in the chapter. For example:
Adam's bride finally gets a name. She is called Eve- a name which means "living". She is called that because she will be the mother of all the living. It's a subtle assurance that human life will not end with these two. There will be generations upon generations to follow. From here on, there will be more brides and more grooms, more men and more women, more people caught under the impact of this sin and these curses.
But at the same time, there will be on-going consequences for sin. Reflecting on verse 21, I said:
In this action, God underlines that the condition these two have chosen will be permanent. God is not about to wind back the clock. They have made their tragic choice. Now they will live with the consequences. The unashamed nakedness of the end of chapter 2 is well and truly a thing of the past. From here on, garments like these will be an on-going necessity.
My hope in concluding the exposition in this way was to help people see the bleakness of the future in a world marred by sin, but at the same time that there may be hope for a different future. This led me to asking the critical question of the sermon's conclusion.
So I began the conclusion this way:
Well, the first thing to remember is that this story in Genesis 3 is our story. The New Testament teaches that all humanity is ‘in Adam'. He is our representative in this story. And the rest of the Bible testifies to the same thing. All the descendants of Adam and Eve carry their disease. We are all infected with sin. When the bride and the groom are stripped bare here, and we see their heart of hearts, we are stripped bare too and our heart of hearts is also on display.
And this isn't just a Biblical assumption. When we're honest with ourselves we know it's true by our own experience too. Have we not heard the serpents whispers- "Did God really say you must not do this or do that?" And have we not questioned God's word and God's motives, and sinned as foolishly as Adam and Eve did? Have we not heard that silky line- "You will not surely die"? And have we not believed it and made mistakes no less stupid than those we see here? Have we not been deceived? Have we not sinned? Have we not joined in the assault upon God's goodness?
And so, just as we find ourselves in the sin of Adam and Eve, so too we find ourselves in their curses. We find ourselves in sweaty toil, in painful childbirth, in strained relationships. We find ourselves walking around in clothes because we'd be ashamed to be naked. We find ourselves fearful when we face up to who God really is and when we face up to our guilt. We find ourselves knowing good and evil. And we find ourselves outside of the garden. We find ourselves with no access to any kind of tree of life. We find ourselves living under the shadow of death.
And so it seems that, even for us, there is no way back. But is that really true? Is there really no way back? What does the Bible say?
It was at this point that I presumed a well-trained congregation would be expecting the predictable Biblical Theological answer (‘here comes the Jesus-bit!'). So I tried to surprise them:
Well, the Bible says- "yes, it is true. There really is no way back."
But, and this is a wonderful "but"- there is a way forward. God's way is not to go backwards. His way is forwards. And it is forwards because he has something in mind that will be even better than the garden of Eden.
Nor is this merely an attempt to be unpredictable for the sake of engaging communication. This is actually an intensely theological point. I'm not convinced that the meta-narrative of the Bible is all about returning to the experience of the garden (from garden back to garden). I'm convinced by the Scriptures that God had always intended that his people might inherit something even better than the garden- the new heavens and the new earth where there will not be even the possibility of sin anymore (from garden to city?).
So from there I began to talk about the hope of the new heavens and the new earth and how Christ has won it for us. I began by reading from Hebrews 2:14 and speaking of what it meant for Christ to ‘share in our humanity':
God's son took on flesh and blood. He entered into our world and became one of the living- a son of Adam. He found himself living outside of the garden. He found himself engaged in sweaty toil. He found himself living under the shadow of death. And he did this so that he might ultimately be consumed by death's shadow- consumed by death itself. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power of death- the Devil- that ancient serpent- the great deceiver of Adam and all his sons, of Eve and all her daughters. And by his death, he has opened up a way forward for us.
And from there I read to people from 1 Corinthians 15- verses 21-22 and then verses 55-57, showing how the death of Christ wonderfully opened up for us the way to life.
And from there I began to tie the promises of the New Testament about the future into the language of Genesis 3. I wanted people to see that the new heavens and the new earth would be marked by the fulfillment of the curses and, therefore, the end of their power. Firstly I turned to Romans 16:20:
Paul is saying something quite incredible here. He's reminding us that a day is coming when the curse on the serpent will be ultimately fulfilled. His fangs continue to snap at the heels of all Eve's children. But there will be a day before too long when some of the children of Eve, those who are the children of God, will finally crush his head. On that day, there will be no more temptation, no more lies, and the assault on God's goodness that has raged for thousands of years will be brought to a sudden end. On that day, an experience even better than Eden will have arrived. On that day, God's people will enjoy a place like the garden- but a place where there are no deceiving serpents, and no trees with forbidden fruit- a place even better than the garden because God is moving forwards not backwards.
Secondly, and finally, I turned to Revelation 22, and this is where I concluded the sermon. I read Revelation 22:1-2 and then I said:
It's hard to miss isn't it? That tree has re-appeared. The tree that was guarded by the flaming sword is no longer guarded. The tree from which Adam and Eve were banished is there bearing abundant fruit. The tree that offered eternal life is free for the eating once again.
Not everyone can eat of it. Not all of Eve's children are here. Only those who have embraced the one who shared our humanity. Only those who are ‘in Christ Jesus' as well as ‘in Adam'. Only those who have washed their garments in Jesus' blood. Only those who claim the victory over death that his death brings. They are the only ones in this place- a city now rather than a garden. The rest of Eve's children are outside the city. And they are kept out because they are not ‘in Christ', because they have not embraced the one who shared their humanity, because they have not been washed with Jesus' blood. They are outside, and for them there is no way back, there is no way in. But those who are in, they are eating from the tree of life, and they are very, very, very grateful. They have found God's way forward and they are eternally blessed. In the words of Revelation 22:14: [Read Revelation 22:14]
To a large extent, this is one of those sermons where the major application (made momentarily explicit in the final lines above) ought to be implicitly obvious if people are grasping the wonderful thing God has done for us in Jesus. Genesis 3 ought to make us appreciate all the more deeply what it is we have been rescued from in Christ. Sermons on Genesis 3 ought to cause us to be deeply grateful for the Lord Jesus and full of thankful anticipation for what lies ahead.
However, on the basis that we are ‘in Adam', I also thought there was some minor but legitimate application to be made on the way through the exposition. Some of that may've been observable in sections I've already quoted. But there was also this passage from my first section of exposition (3:1-7):
The serpent directly challenges God's word. God had told the man that the eating of the fruit from that one tree would lead to death. The serpent says, "It won't lead to death- it will lead to enlightenment. God's not actually looking out for you. He's trying to stop you from being as knowledgeable and wise as he is." The serpent has taken an expression of God's love and has distorted it into some kind of divine insecurity or envy.
And at its heart it's a very modern lie, is it not? The serpent basically denies that God will punish. How often do we hear that these days? "God is a loving God- he won't condemn people. He'll forgive everyone. Everyone ultimately gets to heaven. Those crazy fundamentalist Christians are always jumping up and down about the wrath of God- just ignore them- they're just a bunch of very up-tight people who are projecting their own guilt on to everyone else. God's not that easily offended. You won't die." It's an oldie, but certainly not a "goodie". The Father of all Lies has been spreading that one from the very first day until now. And in our day and age it's a lie that is widely, and very tragically, believed. I hope you never fall for it.
The woman does fall for it. She can't resist the serpent's silky words. He claims to offer her something that God wants to deprive her of. And that kind of lure proves altogether too intoxicating to refuse.
From the perspective of Biblical Theology there are other possible applications to be made as well. For instance, a consideration of the significance the Apostle Paul sees in Genesis 3 for the order of relationships in the church (1 Timothy 2:14) may be a productive line of inquiry. However, in my judgement, to pursue that line of application in the sermon would've been distracting from the main thrust of the sermon, and may've deflected attention from Christ. For that reason, I chose to avoid it.
In terms of the secondary literature, my two favourite commentaries on Genesis 1-11 are Genesis 1-15 by Gordon Wenham (in the Word Biblical Commentary series), and Genesis by Derek Kidner (in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series). Wenham's commentary gives more technical information than Kidner's and is more useful in terms of analysing the Hebrew. However, on this chapter I found Kidner a much more stimulating read. He's succinct, deeply insightful, and his language is colourful and evocative in a way that helps the preacher to express things penetratingly (you will find some of his thought and language in my sermon as a result). Even more helpfully, he reads Genesis 3 as a Christian, and Biblical Theological presuppositions are woven through all he says.
As a matter of interest I always find Calvin's commentary stimulating too. In the light of my earlier excursus, I note that Calvin has a very interesting and balanced discussion of Genesis 3:15 which includes this comment on Romans 16:20: ‘By which words he signifies that the power of bruising Satan is imparted to faithful men, and thus the blessing is the common property of the whole church . . .'
Richer Because of Genesis 3
In conclusion, I want to say that my great hope in preaching this chapter was that the congregation might be richer for understanding it in the light of the whole Bible- richer because of their grasp of how black the human heart is, how desperate is our need of Christ; but also richer for appreciating the way our Lord Jesus meets us with our black hearts and ushers us into a breath-taking future we don't deserve. I can't speak for the congregation, but at the very least this preacher admits to being richer for the study- it's my heart this text exposes, and with deep humility and gratitude I confess that it's also my future! Praise be to God for his indescribable gift.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature