READ : Genesis 6:5-22
You have heard of Noah, the first sailor. Well, his life can teach us more about faith than seamanship.
I am looking at the lives of some of the great men and women of faith from the Old Testament, as they are identified in the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews. In verse 7 of this roll call of the heroes of faith, we come to Noah,
By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
Just about everyone knows the story of Noah, but in case your memory needs refreshing, here is the first part of it again as told in the book of Genesis.
Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark – you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”
Noah did everything just as God commanded him.
Noah’s story is one of the most popular in the Bible, and I suspect most of us have heard it before, even if we are not overly familiar with the Bible. It is especially popular with children in Sunday school, being both exciting (boats and storms are always a thrill), and colorful, with lots of interesting animals (always good for pictures). Those who return to the story as adults rarely get beyond the same kinds of details: calculations of the ark’s capacity, questions about the availability of the animals, estimates of how much water it would take to cover the earth, arguments over whether or not such a story is even possible – all of which really are beside the point.
That there was a real man named Noah who built a real ark and survived a real flood in history is clear from the Bible. Besides the story in Genesis and the mention of Noah in Hebrews 11, there are specific references to him or to the flood in four other books of the Bible, including one by Jesus himself in the gospel of Matthew. But in thinking about Noah, it is important not to get hung up on details of naval architecture or animal husbandry or the geology of the flood. The most important lesson of Noah and his ark is the one emphasized in Hebrews 11:7 and that is a lesson about faith.
A LESSON ABOUT FAITH
Noah shows us that the very heart of faith is obedience to the word of God. Look at the things we learn about faith from his example. We learn first of all that faith is attentive. Faith starts by paying attention to the things God says. “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen took heed” (Heb. 11:7, rsv). Now the expression “to take heed” may be a bit antiquated, but it’s a good one. When you take heed of someone, you do more than just listen. You listen and you believe and then you respond. Noah listened to God when God warned him about the future. He didn’t scoff. He didn’t shrug off the warning. He didn’t make fun of the idea that judgment was coming upon the world. He didn’t treat the approaching end of his world as if it were a joke or something that only fanatics or lunatics would worry about. No. Noah took heed of the word of God. He took it seriously. He paid attention. He believed it and he responded accordingly.
Here is another feature of faith as seen in the life of Noah. Faith is obedient. Noah acted on the word he had received. To put it simply, he did what God had told him to do. We are not told exactly how God communicated with Noah, but we can be certain there was no doubt in his mind about who was speaking. Noah did not possess God’s word in written form as we do today in the Bible, but he had a sure revelation by which God spoke to him. When Noah built the ark, he wasn’t simply acting out his own delusions. He was obeying the word of the Lord. God revealed to Noah both the fact of coming disaster and a way of escaping it. He first told Noah of his intention to send a flood to punish the evils that the human race had inflicted upon creation. Things had gotten so bad, says the writer of Genesis, “that every inclination of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5), adding that “the Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (v. 6).
Then God commanded Noah to build an ark in order to save himself and his family, and he also gave instructions for its building. This becomes the basic pattern of biblical revelation: God’s word announces both the reality of coming judgment and how to be saved from judgment. The Bible warns all who will listen about the deadly consequences of sin, but it also points all who will believe to the only Savior from sin and death, the Lord Jesus Christ. The essence of faith is to both believe and act upon the word of God.
“Noah did all that God commanded,” says Genesis. Faith not only hears God’s word and accepts it. Faith obeys it. “Obedience flows from faith,” wrote a great Christian thinker, “like water from a fountain” (John Calvin). “Only he who believes obeys and only he who obeys believes,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Think about that for a moment. You won’t ever obey God unless you believe his word, but you don’t really believe him unless you obey him.
A LESSON ABOUT SALVATION
The writer to the Hebrews says of Noah, “By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Noah’s example of faith showed up the unbelief of all his neighbors for what it was. The Bible calls Noah “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). According to tradition it took Noah 120 years to build the ark, and all during that time everyone around him had the opportunity to believe the truth about what was coming and to join Noah in finding the way of escape.
It was not only Noah’s words that spoke to them. It was the evidence of his own life of obedience, integrity, and holiness that spoke most eloquently. Noah was not a freak, or a fanatic, not a crank building a boat in the middle of the desert. He was a holy man whose whole life breathed devotion to the Lord. Anyone could see that who chose to look seriously, but they all thought he was a fool. It could not have been easy for Noah to obey the will of God. He did not have much evidence to go on, but he did have faith.
Noah’s story still speaks to us today. It reminds us of the threat of coming judgment, and it points to the way of salvation by faith alone. The New Testament writers saw the ancient flood as a sort of preview of the coming end of the world, a sample of the universal judgment that lies ahead of us all. This is what the apostle Peter says:
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come. . . . They will say, “Where is this `coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water. . . . By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
(2 Peter 3:3-7)
Jesus warned that his coming at the end of the world in judgment would be sudden and unexpected, and that most people would be taken completely by surprise just as they were in the days of Noah.
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
These are solemn words, especially for a frivolous and careless generation like ours. People seem to think nothing of the somber warnings of the word of God, and just as in the days of Noah, they will be overtaken by disaster unprepared.
The most important of the “things not yet seen” (Heb. 11:1) is the return of the Lord Jesus to judge the whole human race. He will purge the earth and the heavens with fire and he will consign to eternal destruction all that is evil, including unrepentant people. People may laugh at this idea and make fun of it, just as they laughed at Noah while he was building the ark. They scoff at the thought that God is going to bring the world under judgment and call each and every person to give an account of his or her life. They bristle at the suggestion that unless they repent and turn to Christ in faith, they too will perish, but it is all true. It will most certainly happen.
There is only one way to eternal life. Despite the pictures of it you may have seen, Noah’s ark was not really a ship. It was actually a rectangular box without bow or stern, keel or rudder. Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner has pointed out that the ark’s dimensions are exactly the same as those of a coffin. In a symbolic way when Noah and his family entered the ark, they were dying and being buried, just as Christians symbolically die and are buried in the waters of baptism. The only way to life is through death, for nothing less than death can save us. Jesus’ death for us on the cross and our death with him by faith. As he died to pay for sin’s penalty, so by faith we must die to sin and self and rise to a new life of righteousness in him. There is no other way to be saved. We must go into the ark.