Let me start by asking: how many of us have read the Old Testament from beginning to end?
To be quite honest: I don’t think I’ve even done that.
But here’s a more important question: how many of us understood what we read? How many of us can say with confidence that we “get” the Old Testament?
Well, allow me to start this Old Testament Overview Series by saying, “That is okay.” I was in my mid-twenties before I went to a church that finally gave me the “key” to understanding the Old Testament. These days, churches like that are pretty rare. So what I am trying to say is this: if the Old Testament has never really made sense to you, don’t be ashamed of that. How can you know what you were never taught? So don’t be ashamed.
And: don’t be worried. You do not have to understand the Old Testament — or even read Old Testament! — to be a good Christian. Not all of us are enthusiastic readers. Not all of us are excited about studying this ancient literature we call the bible. And that is okay too! In fact, the bible clearly says that God’s people all have different gifts. Not all of us are called to understand the bible deeply; but some of us are. And that includes me. So my job here is not to force you to do what I do; my job is to give you the key I was given, the key that will simplify the Old Testament and show you how it connects to the New Testament. My job here is not to go through all the details of every story; my job is to give you an overview. That way, if and when you read the Old Testament for yourself, you will be able to see how each character and story fits into the larger epic, and how they all point to Jesus.
This is how it is going to work:
Today, I will start by giving you the key. Then we will apply that key to the story of Adam, and we will get to see it in operation.
Next week we will apply the key to the story of Noah. The week after that: the story of Abraham. Then Moses. Then David. Then…Jesus. In six sermons we are going to cover the whole bible!
Now, many of you are thinking, “how is that possible? The bible is huge! How are we going to cover all those details?”
Well, it is possible because of the key. The key is this: the bible is actually one mega-story made up of six smaller story cycles. The first five story cycles happen in the Old Testament, and they are all just the set-up for the sixth story cycle, which is the New Testament, which is still going. We are still living in the sixth cycle.
Each cycle is the foundation for the next one. Each cycle builds on the one that came before. But each cycle is longer, more detailed, more complicated. But again, don’t panic! Even as we see how each story cycle becomes more complex, we are going to see how each cycle is still the same essential story, repeated again and again again, teaching us a little more every time about who God is, how he works — and how this cycle is going to end.
That is how we can cover the whole bible in six session without getting lost in the details: by using the key.
All right. Ready?
First: the key.
The bible is made up of six story-cycles, as I just told you.
Every cycle follows the same pattern, and the pattern is the key.
Here is the pattern:
Step One: there is a problem to solve, or a crisis point of some kind.
Step Two: to resolve the problem, God chooses a hero, a champion.
Step Three: God makes a deal with his hero. He says, “I want you to build a safe space where my people and all my creation can live with me in peace and safety, protected from danger. If you prove your obedience to me by doing this task, I will make an eternal covenant of love and protection with you: your safe space will become permanent, and I will live there with you and your children forever. But if you fail to create that safe space, or if you violate my safe space, you and all your children will experience loneliness and shame, separated from my protection.”
Step Four: the hero goes on to do — or not do — what he is supposed to.
Step Five: if he fails to complete the safe space, he experiences loneliness and shame. However, if he succeeds in creating that safe space for God’s people, he performs a sacrifice to God.
Step Six: God comes and keeps his promise: if the hero has failed, God removes his protection from him and all his children. But if the hero has succeeded, God makes an eternal covenant of love and protection with the hero and with all the hero’s children. He confirms the safe space, and lives with his people there.
Step Seven: as the hero gets old, his children start to misbehave. Many of them decide they want out. They leave the safe space, they walk away from God’s protection, and quickly go from bad to worse. Many do remain within the covenant, but over the generations even they gradually grow more and more corrupt. This leads to another crisis point for God. If he allows his people to remain, they will eventually defile his safe space and destroy it, and he would be breaking his covenant of an eternal safe space. But if he kicks his people out to preserve his safe space, then he is breaking his covenant to keep them under his protection forever.
Only one option remains open for him: God has to choose another hero to build a new safe space —
— and the cycle begins again.
Now, don’t worry if you did not catch all those seven steps just now; they will be repeated six times during this series. And next week I’ll make sure they’re printed in the worship guide.
And as an aid to memory, I will tell you now that this key has an official theological name. This key is known as “The Covenant of Grace”. Even though God makes six covenants throughout the story of the bible, theologians noticed that really they are all just developments of the same covenant, which they decided to call the Covenant of Grace. Even though the details of the different covenants are sometimes really really different, the same key is actually used six times. As long as we remember the key, we won’t get lost in the details.
What we are learning together here is called “Covenant Theology.” And as I mentioned before, Covenant Theology is a bit of a dying art. Many churches have forgotten the key and gotten lost in the details, and stopped reading and teaching the Old Testament, because it got so confusing. And that makes sense: the Old Testament is confusing without the key.
My hope here, friends, is to place the key of Covenant Theology firmly back into your hands, so you no longer have to be intimidated and confused by God’s Word. I can testify to you that for almost thirty years of my life the Old Testament was really a dead book to me. I believed in Jesus, I believed the bible was God’s Word, but it was only when someone gave me the key that it finally came to life.
That is what I am hoping for you too.
Now, let’s apply the key to the first cycle: the story of Adam and his children.
The cycle begins with God creating the universe. Ta daa. That’s the first verse of the bible. Then, for the rest of the first chapter, God zooms in on earth. He basically organizes the place, gets it ready to support life. Then he actually creates life: plants, animals, etc. Then, last of all, he creates mankind, male and female. They are his children, made in his image.
But, Step One: there is a problem. The earth is incomplete. God created the conditions to support life, he created life — but he left the work unfinished. The earth is basically an untamed wilderness in Chapter 1. Now, why did God do it this way? Because God loves to create, and he wants to give his children the chance to create, the chance to challenge themselves and grow in strength and wisdom.
To be clear, then, the first problem to solve is not a moral problem, at least not for the man and the woman. It is a challenge. God wants his children to share in the delight of accomplishment.
So, Step Two, he commands them to have kids, who will then help them create a safe space for themselves and the animals. It is right here in Chapter 1, verse 28: God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it — because the earth is not yet tamed. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Their job is to tame the earth and make it a safe place for themselves, their children, and the animals. For them, ruling over the animals does not mean that the animals serve them; it means that they serve and protect the animals, and provide for them, just as God serves and protects and provides for mankind.
And how does God provide for them? That’s the very next verse, verse 29: “You get to eat plants and fruits, and so do the animals.” The man and the woman are going to be farmers. By cultivating plants, they will be creating a safe space where they and the animals will always have enough to eat, a place of peace and safety.
But the man and the woman are young. They need help to get started. So in Chapter 2 God gives them a boost: he creates a safe space, a protected garden full of water and fruit trees. We are told that outside the garden the world is wild, uncultivated; it needs to be subdued. But inside the garden is everything mankind needs to get started. So in Chapter 2, verse 15, we are told that the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;  but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
And this is Step Three of the first covenant cycle: God makes a deal with his chosen hero. He is basically saying, “I want you and your wife to start with this garden and I want you to expand it until you have turned the whole earth into a garden. You’re going to need kids to help you do that, so make sure to have lots of kids. And you’re going to need strength to do this work, so remember to eat — I’ve given you lots of good fruit to eat.
“Oh, but look, you are my kids, not my slaves, so I want to give you the option of leaving if you want to. There is this one tree here you should not eat from. If you do eat from it, that will be the sign that you actually want to leave, and if you do that I will respect your choice and give you what you have asked for. But I have to warn you that if you make that choice you and your kids will experience violence and grief and death outside in that wilderness, separated from my protection.
“But if you continue to choose to remain in my garden and expand it, then I promise that one day this garden will fill the whole earth, and it will become a permanent safe space for you and your children and the animals forever.”
Step Four: the man and the woman start to work. We don’t know how long they worked to expand the garden, but…
Step Five happens in the very next chapter. And of course we know this story quite well: the serpent, who is an animal under the rule of mankind, deceives the woman and becomes her ruler. She eats from the forbidden tree and becomes a slave to the serpent: an animal ruling over a human.
But all hope is not lost! God made his deal with the man, not the woman. The woman is voting to leave the garden and enter the wilderness and be ruled over by wild animals, but it is the man’s vote that counts. He has a chance to reverse the damage!
— but he doesn’t. The man also eats the fruit, and that leads directly to Step Six: God comes and keeps his promise. If the man had remained obedient, the garden would have filled the earth and become a permanent paradise. But because the man voted to leave, God comes and gives him what he wants.
There are three parts to the curse, just as there were three parts to the blessing.
Remember, in the garden, God told the man he would always have plenty to eat. But now, in Chapter 3, verse 17, God tells Adam, “Guess what: from now on you will struggle to find enough to eat. The whole earth would have become blessed and productive if you had done your job. But because you’ve quit your job, now the earth will continue to be a wilderness. It will be cursed and unproductive. You still have to do your job just to stay alive! — but it’s not going to be fun and rewarding anymore.”
And remember how, in the garden, God told the man and the woman to have lots of kids, and those kids would help them fill the earth with the garden. But now, in verse 16, God tells the woman that from now on it is going to be hard and painful to have kids. And even getting pregnant is going be difficult, because the best conditions for conception are found in a stable marriage, but from now on her marriage with the man is going to be unstable and difficult, full of conflict.
And finally, remember that in the garden, God told the man and the woman that they would rule over the animals. But from now on the serpent — an animal! — is going rule over them, just as they asked him to.
— oh, but wait a second. Actually…no, it’s not as simple as that. In verse 14 God steps in and saves mankind from that part of the curse. He doesn’t curse Adam; he curses the serpent. The serpent thought he would set himself up as eternal king, but God says, “No! Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” In other words, “you are going to be the lowest of the low!” Then God goes on in verse 15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Whoa. What just happened here? Shouldn’t Adam continue to be ruled by the serpent? Isn’t that the poetic balance to this thing?
Well, not quite. See, Adam and his wife were responsible for cultivating the ground and cultivating each other. They must suffer the consequences of their own actions. They were also responsible for ruling over the animals, including the serpent — but the serpent was also responsible for submitting to them. There were two sides to that deal. Adam was responsible to rule; the serpent to submit. The serpent refused to submit; Adam refused to rule. So now they must both suffer the consequences of their actions. The serpent is cursed; he made his bid for power and won — but God is not going to allow him to rule unopposed. Mankind is going to fight constantly against him, and one day God is going to raise up a hero — one of Eve’s sons — who will crush the serpent’s head and destroy him, even as the serpent strikes his heel.
God has just preached the gospel to mankind for the first time. The sins of Father Adam must be passed down and passed down and passed down through all the generations to follow — but somewhere, somehow, out of that wreckage will spring one righteous son who will rule over the serpent and put an end to the war once and for all.
And that is why, in verse 20, Adam names his wife Eve: because she would become the mother of all the living. Adam believes God’s promise, and the name he gives his wife is meant to be a constant reminder to himself that no matter how bad it gets, one day life — eternal life — will come to earth through her genetic code.
No matter how bad it gets, Adam wants to remember God’s promise. And it’s a good thing he did — because things get really bad, really fast. They are driven out of the garden toward the east, which is deeply symbolic, and then Step Seven happens. Adam and Eve have two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel remembers God’s promise of a coming hero, and he makes a proper sacrifice of trust in God. Cain walks away from God’s promise. He murders his more righteous brother, and is driven even further east, away from the garden. Chapter 4 tells us how Cain’s children and grandchildren grow rapidly more corrupt, violent, murderous, obsessed with power and success at all costs.
Then Chapter 5 tells us about Adam’s third son, Seth, a righteous son like the first. He, and his sons after him, call on the name of the Lord, trusting in his promise of a coming hero. They live longer, healthier lives as the Sons of God — but as we turn the page to Chapter 6, we find that corruption begins to set in even there: the Sons of God begin to marry the daughters of man, the descendants of Cain. Seth’s genetic code, which has been refined and strengthened by generations of faithfulness to God, gets mixed with Cain’s genetic code, which has become more and more power-mad by generations of rebellion against God, and this produces a race of people who are both thoroughly evil and strong enough to force their will on others.
Violence increases exponentially. Mankind’s corruption spreads. Instead of taming the wilderness, they have turned Earth into a hell-hole. Instead of providing food and care for the animals, they have left creation to fend for itself while they spend their time murdering and stealing from one another. Earth is reaching a crisis point. If God does not destroy mankind, mankind will destroy all life on earth. But if God does destroy mankind, how is he going to keep his promise to Adam? — his promise that one day one of Eve’s sons will save them all?
What is he going to do? He wants to preserve life; he needs to preserve Eve’s genetic code; but he also has to stop what is going on before there is nothing left to save.
Finally, God makes his decision. Reading now from Genesis, Chapter 6, verse 6: “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created — and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground — for I regret that I have made them.”
But — verse 8 — Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
Could this man Noah be the son who will crush the serpent’s head and free mankind?
This ends the First Cycle, and sets us up for the Second.
So…what have we learned here?
Quite a lot, actually. The first six-and-a-half chapters of Genesis are absolutely packed with information, enough for five or six sermons at least. And we will do that together one day.
But this series is an overview, designed to help us learn how to recognize and use the key of Covenant Theology to unlock the major themes of scripture. If we do not stick close to the key, if we do not learn how to use the key well, we can quickly get lost in the details and then draw the wrong conclusions.
For instance, many people who have lost track of the Covenant key — or never had it — might read these chapters and conclude, “Wow! The bible is telling me that I had better be righteous if I want to be blessed by God. And if I fail to be righteous, whoa buddy then I am under a curse!”
That is the exact opposite of what the bible is teaching us here. The bible is teaching us that we are already under a curse. It is impossible for us to be righteous enough to earn God’s blessings back. If Adam had continued to be righteous, we would all still be living in the garden. Who knows? After all these thousands upon thousands of years it might have already filled the whole earth; the animals would all have been tamed, every plant cultivated to perfection — !
But that is not what happened. Adam sinned. And the sins of the fathers are passed inevitably down to their children. It is too late for us to say, “I can be righteous! I can earn God’s blessings!” That is the mistake Cain and his children made. They refused to trust God through the hard times, but decided to make their own way through the world. Even Seth and his children, who continued to trust God, could not ultimately save themselves. And if they could not be righteous enough, living as they did just outside the walls of the garden, seeing the topmost branches of the Tree of Life just there and yet so far out of reach! — if they could not do it, why would we ever think we can?
That is one thing the Covenant key does for us. It actually protects us from legalism. It protects us from thinking we can save ourselves by being good, being religious. People who read the bible and conclude that God wants them to “be good” have lost the key. Friends, let us not lose the key! It will save us from so much self-righteous heartache.
Okay then, the Covenant key tells us not to put our hope in ourselves. Does it teach us where to turn for hope?
Yes! Oh, yes. That is the central point of the key: the Covenant. It is God who saves us through his promise. People who do not have the key might read these chapters and conclude, “Wow! So God is this harsh, judgemental dude and you’d better be good or else!”
But that is the exact opposite of what this covenant cycle teaches. What we see here is a deeply compassionate and committed God, a God who does not give up on his creation. His original purpose was to give mankind the joy of turning earth into a global paradise. That is still his purpose. That is still his plan. And we know this because he promised. Even though Adam had already sold himself, his wife, and all his children into slavery to the serpent, even though Adam had become an enemy of God, God still bound himself in covenant to Adam and his wife, promising to send a saviour to rescue mankind.
What does all this mean for us?
First, it means give up on religion. Give up on “being good”, however you define that. You cannot impress God. You cannot get back into the garden by climbing over the walls. So don’t try.
Instead, fix your minds on this: when God made his promise to Adam, he also made that promise to us. This is how it works: when Adam sinned, he passed his sins down to all of us; doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is. However, here is the other side of the coin: when Adam received God’s promise, he also passed that promise down to all of us. Also not fair! but so much better, wouldn’t you agree?
And this means that God’s offer of salvation is open to every single descendant of Adam. It does not matter what race or religion you come from. It does not matter how terrible your sins are, or how deep your shame: God’s covenant promise is for you! and that promise cannot be broken once you have entered in.
Which leaves us with one last question: how do we enter in? What does this Covenant key teach us about how to do that?
We enter in by faith. Not by religion. Not by good works. By faith alone. Remember how Adam named his wife Eve? That was all of Adam’s faith captured in one word: his faith that God would keep his promise, and send a saviour for mankind.
Nothing has changed. That was the First Cycle; we live in the Sixth; but we are still saved by faith in God’s promise, same as Adam.
And yet: everything has changed! That was the First Cycle, and Adam had nothing except the promise of God, just words in the ear. But this is the Sixth Cycle, and we know that God did keep his promise! We have thousands of years of evidence captured right here in the bible: proof that God always keeps his covenant, even if he has to die to preserve it.
So if you are here today and all this is new to you: listen closely. God is offering you the same mercy he promised Adam. Dare to believe it! Dare to walk with us as a church, as a family. Dare to give up on everything you think you have going for you, and let God’s saviour carry you safely back to the garden.
If you are here today and you already know God’s saviour, then relax! Remember the Covenant key: we enter into God’s covenant by faith, but we are kept there by the power of God. So let us not turn aside to religion, to other gods, to our own strength. But even when we do — even when we fail our Father in these ways — let us always remember that his covenant is all about us, protecting us like the walls of a garden that no man can climb. He will rescue us from every evil attack and will bring us home.
To him be glory for ever and ever.