Richard Phillips on Teaching Genesis

Richard Phillips on Teaching Genesis

Nancy Guthrie interviews Richard Phillips


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Richard Phillips: No Christian who studies the book of Genesis should ever say, “I’m looking for a sense of meaning or purpose in my life.” But we don’t see ourselves and I think partly it’s because so much of evangelicalism, lacking covenant theology has just stripped the Old Testament away. They don’t know the story so it’s now this atomistic individual salvation experience lived out in South Carolina or Texas or in Nashville. No, no, no we are part of the people of God, chosen by His grace. We’re the people of the covenant of grace, that the nations would be blessed and so Genesis should give a great redemptive purpose to your identity and your life.

Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” Is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more at

I’m finally getting to do an episode on the book of Genesis for “Help Me Teach the Bible.” And I am sitting across from someone who has spent the last three and a half years, I’m gonna have to ask him exactly how many sermons that was, but the last three and a half years teaching through the book of Genesis, and that is Dr. Richard Phillips, who is Senior Minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Dr. Phillips, thank you so much for being willing to help us teach the Bible.

Phillips: It’s a joy to be here. Why don’t you call me Rick.

Guthrie: Okay, Rick. Well, you are the author of more books than quite literally, I could count when I went to Amazon and tried to count them. I did count that you’ve done, I think, 10 volumes in the “Reformed Expository Commentary” series, and I’m assuming maybe another is in the works on the book of Genesis.

Phillips: That’s like fourth down the line.

Guthrie: Seriously?

Phillips: So it’s gonna be…take a few years to get that ready. I think 2022 is the expected release date for that.

Guthrie: All right, but you did just finish preaching through the book of Genesis.

Phillips: I finished it in the fall. In the fall I finished preaching a wonderful three and a half years for our congregation in the book of Genesis.

Guthrie: So how many sermons was that?

Phillips: It was 121. I only get about 40 sermons in series because I got Easter, I got Christmas. I’ve got mission Sunday, I go on vacation, I travel a little bit. So it’s about 40 sermons in series. It was 121 sermons.

Guthrie: Well, we will link on the web page for this episode to that sermon series that people can listen to those. I’m gonna jump to the end before we go back to the beginning and ask you this. Investing yourself so much in the book of Genesis, I’d like to know how did it impact you, personally?

Phillips: Yeah, thank you, you know, you really live the book, and I preach morning and evening, and I’m working on other projects, so I’m living a lot of things. But that morning series is where I’m really living and I preach my…I write my sermons the week I preach them by design, I live the sermon going in. And I think that the sense of God’s message to a pilgrim people, one of the big things to understand about Genesis is its audience is the exodus Israelites. And I am an exodus Israelite in that sense.

And so God really is speaking to us through those passages. And yet you have a great sense of the majesty of God. The God of Genesis is an awesome God. He is a wrathful God. And I think maybe his patience was one of the issues that connected with me personally, he hangs in there with that knucklehead Jacob. But when you preach Genesis, you know, early on, you’re in the creation account, it’s so intense. And then you’re all Abraham, and then you’re all trying to…you’re laughing at Jacob, you know, and learning with him. And then you have that dramatic Joseph story and it’s so powerful as they’re all being buried at the end, but they’re looking to the future. And so, you become a member of the journey with them.

Guthrie: What a beautiful way to say it. Thank you.

Phillips: And it was so many deaths and burials, and I’m older and I have friends dying. I was deeply moved by, they were gathered to their people, and we’re going to be gathered to our people. So their stories end in a whole fellowship and joy that is to come.

Guthrie: But also that sense right there at the beginning of the story, we’re seeing the big problem that needs to be dealt with. And why we’re going to need that promised one who was promised early on in Genesis to deal with death once and for all.

Phillips: He is the answer to all the problems of Genesis.

Guthrie: That’s right. Well, most of us aren’t going to spend three and a half years and 121 lessons.

Phillips: Pity.

Guthrie: Teaching through Genesis, we’re gonna have to figure out how to do it in maybe 10, 12, 20. Can you give us any hints for figuring out… Let’s say we were going to spend maybe two semesters, we might call them, of Bible study in the fall and the spring. And so maybe we would have up to 20 sessions. Just do you have any suggestions for us on how to break it down?

Phillips: I think in general, you’re always going to spend some time saying, “How is the Holy Spirit organizing this material?” I actually plan my sermon series two, three series out. So I’m actually putting a lot of studying on Jeremiah which I plan to start in two years.

Guthrie:: Seriously? Wow.

Phillips: So I can do the academic reading and really do some of the questions you’re not gonna deal with…some of the macro issues you’re not gonna do week-to-week. Because we wanna say, “How does the Holy Spirit organize this book?”

Now, in Genesis, you have the Toledoths, these are “the generations of.”  But it’s interesting, it’s really the descendants of, these are the ancestor, this is the era of. And so you have the creation account of Genesis one. And then you have, these are the generations of Adam and Eve, which means this is what followed from them. This is what their life and faith produced. And so Genesis is structured into 10 accounts. Now, some of them are very short. These are the generations of Esau, and you get Genesis 33.

But I always want to organize, my teaching of a book of Scripture as transparently following the Holy Spirit and the inspiration of it, and the way that Moses organized the material. So I would say you’re gonna start with at least reflections on that. If you’re gonna do Genesis in 12, 20 series, then you’re going to be doing some larger units. And so I would start with the internal structure. Now, some of them are massive, you know, the account of Isaac and Jacob, that’s one generation, that’s one book.

Guthrie: And there’s so much there.

Phillips: So you can’t slavishly follow them, but you wanna look at that. You wanna look at it covenantly. Genesis is structured in terms of you know, God’s covenant dealings. This kind of blows my mind, the thought of doing Genesis in 12 lessons. I think I would recommend if I was a Sunday school teacher, that I would do a Sunday school quarter on Genesis 1 to 11. I would do a Sunday school quarter on Abraham. I would do a Sunday school quarter on Isaac and Jacob. There’s not a lot of… Isaac is not that man.

Guthrie: I think this is a great way to organize it yes.

Phillips: And then…

Guthrie: And then Joseph.

Phillips: Then you have that great, great, Joseph story.

Guthrie: Which 13 chapters of Genesis are dedicated to him. So there’s so much there.

Phillips: Yeah. And yeah, 3750, those are just great and significant narratives. And so sometimes you’ll just say, “Okay, well, we’ll drop in, and we’ll do Genesis 1, we’ll do Genesis 3, we’ll do Genesis 11.” But you’re losing context when you do that. And I never like to lose context. That’s why I preach almost everything sequentially, passage by passage through the books. So I would recommend the least best way would be to pick famous passages and go that way. But just different audiences or just different rhythms. I’m a kind of guy I like to…I don’t like to leave anything in the larder without putting on the table. So I don’t like to generalize…

Guthrie: The whole counsel of God.

Phillips: Well, but I mean, I also do it weekly pulpit ministry, and there’s other types of ministries that are gonna be more introductory. So I hope that’s helpful.

Guthrie: That is very helpful. Now, every writer has some aims in writing. Certainly, Moses had some aims in writing, he had a particular audience that he was writing to. Can you help us understand what Moses’ aim was as he took up his pen to write Genesis, and then relate that to what should be our aim as we teach Genesis.

Phillips: It’s hugely important to remember that this is a book written to a particular audience, and that audience is the Israelite generation in the Exodus. Now, we talk about Moses as the author, and he certainly is. When we talk about different theories of inspiration, people will go, “Well, inspiration is not dictation.” Well, it was for Genesis. I mean, he’s going into the Tent of Meeting, and he’s writing it down. I mean, that’s what’s going on in there.

Guthrie: I never thought that.

Phillips: Oh, yeah, he’s getting this kind of verbatim. So, while certainly Moses is the human author, I think this is one of the more passive modes of inspiration, to be honest with you. But Genesis is prologue to Exodus. Meredith Klein wrote a book on Genesis, which is a very interesting book. I wouldn’t endorse everything in it, but he called it Kingdom Prologue. It’s one of those books where the most valuable thing is the title. And Genesis…that doesn’t diminish Genesis, it places it in its context. And so the great redemptive, historical event that prompts the writings of Moses is the exodus. As, you know, Guthrie, scripture is not just random thoughts from stories from God. It’s his record of the great events in history that he’s done to redeem his people and then the implications of it.

Well, the first five books of the Bible are prompted by the Exodus, God declares the exodus in Exodus and in Numbers. And then he tells the meaning of it in the whole Pentateuch. And so Genesis is the beginning of a great story. And its main purpose is to set in place, the dynamics of that great story. So you’ve already mentioned Genesis 3, it’s not just a chapter in Genesis. I mean, I read one scholar, he said that, “You may organize the Bible this way, Genesis 1 and 2, and Genesis 3 and follows.” This is the Bible, because this colossal event of the fall of mankind, and then the promise of the Savior who will come through the woman, that is organically connected to the other five books of Moses to the histories that will follow.

But it’s also…it’s written to a pilgrim people. And so when we’re applying Genesis, it’s very often helpful to say, is this is being read out to that Exodus generation? What’s the application for their faith in life?

So that is a very valuable thing. You know, Genesis ends by place, getting them to Egypt. You know, it ends with Joseph as viceroy and Exodus begins by saying, “Now, after Joseph, there was a pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph.”

And so Genesis teaches a lot of things but it is the beginning of a redemption story. You know, for instance, I’m a guy who’s very interested in the creation, doctrine of creation, I think it’s massively under attack today, it’s a massively important issue, both of the authority of Scripture and for the Gospel story. But when we turn Genesis 1 to 11 into a creation argument and it’s going to give us vital truths about creation, which we need to defend. But it does not exist, Genesis 1 does not exist to be a creation argument.

Now, there are creation arguments that need to be made from Genesis 1. But that is not the telos, that’s not the end for which that story is there, it’s the beginning. And even the pattern that’s going to be fulfilled in redemption, the land, and the seed, is found in the order by which God created the heavens and the earth. Now, it’s not just how he wrote it, it’s how he did it. It was I think I use the example in my sermon on Genesis 1, 2, as a spirit is hovering over the waters. It’s like Michelangelo, looking at a block of marble and seeing his David statue inside of it. God saw the heavens or the new heavens, and he saw revelation 22 in verse 2 of Genesis 1. And it’s all getting from there to there. And then, of course, sin hits, but the structure of redemption is from the very beginning of Genesis.

Guthrie: You were talking about Moses’s aim for these pilgrim people. I wonder if you could maybe come up with a couple of examples from places in Genesis, where understanding that that was his audience, and the aim, something he wanted them to know about the life of belonging to God. And then how that would help to guide even guard, almost dictate, then how we are going to apply that in a way that may be different from the way we hear certain passages commonly applied. Does that make sense?

Phillips: Yeah. And I’m doing this on the fly. So the first one that comes to my mind is Genesis 12, of course, because when Abraham is sent to the Promised Land, there’s a whole purpose, whole redemptive purpose built into that. That is reminding those pilgrims that this is not merely for themselves, you know, it’s the, “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you,” in the land of Canaan. Now, where are they going? They’re going to the land of Canaan, and they’re going to conquer, they’re going to be the instruments of God’s wrath, as God foretold Abraham in Genesis 15. But they are too as they were in their own little setting with their own needs, and God’s promises for them that they care so much about, look, they’ve been slaves for 400 years, and they’re living in a desert. They want grass, you know, they want those orchards. And yet, there’s a great gospel purpose that is shown to them. And these accounts, God’s foreseeing the whole Bible, he’s foreseeing Christ, but he’s also talking to them. And he’s talking to me as I’m reading that, but I’m gonna remember that context. Is that helpful?

Guthrie: Totally.

Phillips: Yeah.

Guthrie: So you’re saying he’s talking to me? What is he saying to you in your day and time about that?

Phillips: Well, it’s always helpful when I ask that question. And we literally believe that when God dictated the book of Genesis in the Tent of Meeting, one of his purposes, explicitly was fulfilled the date I preached that passage in my church, and he is preaching, and God is speaking to those people. But it’s always very helpful in all our application to remember the original audience. Even when we’re doing Christ-centered preaching, we don’t race to Christ in a historically disconnected way. What was the meaning to the participants? We wanna ask the question with the whole Judah and Tamar, why is this in here? Well, why this episode?

Guthrie: Because it is dark.

Phillips: Well, yeah, but actually it’s dark in a way that is fraught with blessing. Judah is brought to conviction of sin. And he becomes a changed man when Tamar exposes him. She is more righteous than I. Well, that’s what God’s doing. So the application of my life is going to be seen in the application of his life. And then we wanna think about the original audience, you know, they’re going to come in, and they are gonna be the agents of God’s wrath. And in my own personal devotions, I’m doing Joshua right now. Whoa, they are agents of wrath. Yes, but they are sinners redeemed by grace. So, we want to do our application from what’s the action of the text. And then from the original audience of the book, and then say, “Now, how does that relate to me? How am I like them?” And that’s very helpful.

Guthrie: So you mentioned we don’t want to race too quickly to Christ.

Phillips: Yes.

Guthrie: But we do want to get to Christ. I think some people listening to this, they would say, “Yes, that’s what I want to do but I’m not really sure what that looks like.” So, maybe we could hop skip and jump through a few different scenes. And you could tell me how you got to Christ in that. So we were just talking about Genesis, chapter 12. And this promise to Abraham, “I’m gonna make your name great. I’m gonna give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. I’m gonna make you a blessing and through you, all of the families of the earth will be blessed.” How are you going to get to Christ?

Phillips: Well, I wanna push back a little.

Guthrie: Okay, you can.

Phillips: On Christ-centeredness.

Guthrie: All right.

Phillips: We were gospel-centered, and that is Trinitarian. And being gospel-centered is not to the exclusion of the first and third persons of the Godhead. And so the great star of the book of Genesis is God the Father, is the Elohim Yahweh, I mean, if we can put it that way. He is the Savior of Genesis, and the gospel is the gospel of Yahweh of Elohim Yahweh, who is God the Father.

Now, Christ is in Genesis in so many ways, he actually appears in Genesis, far more than he’s given credit. I mean, he’s the third angel of Genesis 18, talk about a great Trinitarian passage, but is the Gospel of the Lord. And so first of all, in Genesis 12, it is Yahweh who calls by sovereign grace, a people who are sinners. And Abraham, of course, how often in the Old Testament is gonna be, you know, look to Abraham, who he was this pagan from, Ur the Chaldeans, and the sovereign God of grace calls him with no merit. Now, that is pure gospel.

Genesis is a radically Trinitarian book. And so, mainly, the gospel is the grace of God for a sinner with a plan, not only for his own salvation through faith, but for the salvation of others through his faith. Now, that faith is going to be in Christ. And so Abraham is a…he’s believing the promise. And I’ll say this too, I’m kind of getting off script a little bit.

Guthrie: No, this is so helpful.

Phillips: One of the things that struck me in Genesis was, I think that we vastly underestimate the amount of awareness they had of the gospel, and of Christ. It actually came out more conservative than I thought it was going to be on the genealogies. Because when you look at the text and the Hebrew verb binyan, I ended up being strongly persuaded, those are literal genealogy links, in which case, I think Shem knows Abraham. I mean, you’re getting nine generations of fellowship. And it’s very clear that these are people of the promise. And Adam and Eve were given a…not a vague revelation of the gospel, the Messiah is gonna be born through the woman, he is going to conquer the serpent. And the effects of it are gonna be penal substitutionary atonement, and imputed righteousness. I mean, Genesis 3:20, as he slays the animals and cloths them with it. So many of the scholars say, “Well, they had some abstract notion.

Guthrie: Yeah, a very vague.

Phillips: I don’t think they had an abstract notion at all, I think they had a far greater sense of the gospel. And so…

Guthrie: And here’s Jesus, he says, “Abraham saw my day, and was glad.”

Phillips: Now, and that is… Now, the fact that he was conscious of sin. I’m gonna argue, far more so than is usually given. I think they had a far clearer understanding of what will come to bloom in the New Testament with this clarity. And so you have this gracious God, the Father, who is saving them through faith in the son. And so when Abraham is restored to true religion, and God is going to, you know, guide him. That gospel salvation is the salvation of Genesis 3. And so Jesus is the solution to all the problems but the gospel is not Christ-centered only.

Guthrie: Where is the spirit in there?

Phillips: Well, the spirit, you know… You think of Joseph, where God was with him. That’s the ministry of the Holy Spirit. And so, you know, the Holy Spirit doesn’t like to advertise himself. He likes to advertise the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is a Trinitarian gospel at work. And as I was thinking about this interview, gospel-centered, it does not equal Christ-centered in a limiting way. God the Father is the gospel, the grace of the sovereign God is gospel. And that is maybe the bigger theme in Genesis, I wouldn’t want to put them against each other, then the object of the faith, certainly the object of faith is a huge deal. But I don’t want the grace of God and His patience and His love and His sovereign intervention, his instruction, you know, all of that, God’s loving grace for them, of whom Jesus is the servant. You know, he is the Malachi Yahweh, He is the angel of the Lord.

So Jesus is the second person, almost scholars don’t like us to call him Jesus in the Old Testament, but that’s who he is, I cannot do it. But the second person of the Godhead is serving the first person of the Godhead in Genesis 1, and in Genesis 12, Genesis 18, and whatnot. So my first thing is in Genesis 12, the gospel is a sovereign grace of God, affectionately calling sinners who had no hope of salvation for themselves. That’s your primary grid there. And then he has this aim, which he announces there, that this purpose is not just for the Jews, again, oh, you Israelites coming into the promised land so that you can be on top, no, so that you will be a light to the world. And that light is going to be Jesus.

Guthrie: I know that you grew up in a very sound church, and were taught the Bible with this gospel-centered focus. Many of the rest of us, myself included, grew up with stories from the Old Testament, including Genesis where these characters were used more as examples to not be like them or to be like them when the teacher deemed that that was something worthy, I suppose, of emulating. So this very much making the stories they end up in kind of moral lessons. So, maybe that’s not an instinct you have had to overcome as a teacher.

Phillips: It makes me wanna weep at the thought that someone would do that. But I think may be it has been done once or twice.

Guthrie: You think?

Phillips: You think.

Guthrie: If you had a Sunday school teacher teaching either children or adults in your church, and you sense that those were their kind of the instinctual way they tended to use those passages. How would you encourage them to become more gospel-centered in their teaching of Genesis?

Phillips: One thing I always wanna say is, develop the habit of asking the question, what is this passage teaching me about God? The Noah story, it’s a terrifying story. I read an illustration of someone’s book that they had some Chinese students, non-Christian Chinese students. And they were living with them and they were teaching the Bible, I think, at a Christian school. And when they did the Noah story, they were horrified, “Oh,my, the God that you serve is such a wrathful God. He wipes out the whole earth because of sin.”

Guthrie: Which is an appropriate response, it seems to me.

Phillips: Amen, to his glory. Exactly. And so it’s kind of hard to get to Noah earns it by his moral righteous when he’s taught with the wrath of a holy God. And that’s the big issue, but he’s a God with a covenant purpose. And that’s why he’s doing all of it. Everything’s initiated by God. And so I think it’s gonna be a general in any passage of the Bible. What is God doing in this passage?

A second thing is to reflect on how the New Testament talks about that person. And Noah is not celebrated for his righteousness in the New Testament. It’s his faith, but he is a sinner saved by faith. By the way, if you finished the story of Noah, he’s a sinner. So how does the New Testament reflect on the situation is always gonna be, you know, Noah is a case where Hebrews 11 explicitly talks about, he’s justified through faith, not through his works.

And then, you know, this is where covenant theology is just so really helpful, and a redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture. And so for someone like you to go into a church and to help people to see how the Bible really works, the Bible really is not moral stories. The Bible records two things, God’s great redemptive acts in history and what they mean for us, what are the implications of it? And so the Noah story is a great redemptive act of history than the covenant with Noah, and of course, the flood. And then what is God’s purpose through it? So this is gonna get us away from that completely.

But you’re right, I was raised in liberal churches, and I always say, “A wet noodle leaves no scars.” So I have no memories, good or bad, of any sermon I ever heard prior to my conversion. But I was blessed to be able to be converted into a reformed church.

Guthrie: Well, as I mentioned to you over this coming year, I’m going to begin doing a series of biblical theology workshops for women around the country, including your city in Greenville, South Carolina, looking forward to coming there.

Phillips: Looking forward to having you.

Guthrie: And one thing I’m going to be doing in that workshop is training women to trace some of the major themes of the Bible through all the various parts of the Bible.

Phillips: Wonderful.

Guthrie: But so many of these begin right here in Genesis, and an understanding of these themes can really help us in our aim to get these passages right, to handle them well, and to not make them moralistic. If it’s alright with you, I’m just gonna mention a number of themes, major biblical themes, and I would love for you to tell us how they arise in Genesis, how they’re developed in Genesis, and how they might help us in our teaching, all right?

Phillips: Okay.

Guthrie: All right, so first of all, the theme of offspring, or maybe you would say generations, I don’t know if you would connect those two, offspring?

Phillips: Well, when you say offspring, I think of the promise of Genesis 3:15 and that, you know, your . . . or 16. God’s remedy to the fall with the catastrophe it is, is a child who’s gonna be born through the woman. And then there’s promises all through it. I mean, Abraham, you know, as God is…God’s not just telling a story, he’s actually orchestrating the history. And so why is it that Sarah is barren? Because God is teaching us about the offspring, mainly, that he will be the product of a supernatural sovereign grace. And so when Abraham in Genesis 15 is disgruntled because, you know, Eliezer of Damascus is the only person who…”I don’t have a son, I’ve got to give my servant all my possessions.” And God gives him a promise that you will have offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sands on the seashore.

Now, Paul is gonna come in Galatians 3 and say, “That’s to be taken in two senses.” And there’s actually a grammatical way that works. The plural and the singular of zera is the same. He also was talking about a singular offspring, through whom the inheritance of Abraham would come. I think the Bible is such a great story, the Harry Potters got nothing on plot development of the Lord. I never can read Genesis 15 without thinking of Rich Mullin’s songs, “Sometimes by Step”: “sometimes I think if Abraham, how one star he saw had been lit for me.”

Guthrie: Wow. I heard a pastor one time talk about Abraham, looking up into that starry sky with all those stars. And there in the middle of all those stars was the Bright and Morning Star.

Phillips: Yeah, there it is.

Guthrie: There’s that one particular offspring.

Phillips: One star. And so it is the story of offspring. God is promising in Genesis, a child who was born. So when you get to Isaiah, “For to us a child was born, a son is given.” That’s not like a theological innovation. This is the hope of the Old Testament, the hope of God’s people in these long ages is that the Messiah was born. Now, they don’t have total detail on it, although I like to say that the fact that Sarah gives birth, while she’s barren, by the supernatural work of God, shows us by sovereign grace, that salvation, where men had failed, God intervenes. But then you get to Mary, you take it up another level. It’s not even…

Guthrie: She’s never been with a man.

Phillips: Where it’s failed is where human activity is not even in view. It’s a complete divine intrusion to provide that child. And that story begins in Genesis.

Guthrie: Doesn’t offspring help us a little bit in that, like, even just when we get to Genesis 4, you know, I have, what is it? I have delivered a man. What is it?

Phillips: Yeah, she…what she’s saying is, “Well, here’s the Messiah.”

Guthrie: Right. So immediately, they’re thinking, maybe this is the one or we think about Noah’s name, maybe this is the one who’s going to give us rest.

Phillips: They’re absolutely relying upon that.

Guthrie: This explains, does it not help us to explain why we have all these genealogies? As teachers, those in some ways can be kind of intimidating to us, or we just think we’ll just leave those out.

Phillips: The Old Testament hope was through the offspring that would connect them to the future. This is why Naboth will not give up his land because you don’t give up your family connection to the offspring that are coming. And so the Old Testament hope was a salvation that was going to be achieved by the offspring who was going to come. And we don’t often think of that when Adam names Eve, he doesn’t name her till the very end. It’s because she believes, it’s. . .mother, Eve is is the mother, the life giver, and so their whole hope is bound up in the child who’s going to be born. And that’s their whole answer. Yeah, she gives birth to the first murderer. So you got a sin redemption story to work out. But we could look back on God having provided the promised child, and then we now are the offspring in him.

Guthrie: Yes. And as we share the gospel, there are more and more and more offspring.

Phillips: And what I think it means to be a Christian is that I’m part of this great story.

Guthrie: Yes.

Phillips: And when you read Genesis, that’s not somebody else’s history, that’s your. . . .Everybody’s on Right? Trying to find out if they’re a descendant of Robert the Bruce. Well, you are a descendant of Abraham spiritually. And that is your story. And that’s our. . . and its future is our future.

Guthrie: So that’s one theme that we really see get started, the seed or offspring. How about the theme of Covenant?

Phillips: Yeah. Bible organizes the story it tells by means of Covenant. So if someone were to say, “How do you describe the Bible?” We got the Old Testament, New Testament, well, that’s Old Covenant, New Covenant. You got the five books of Moses and you got, you know, the histories and whatnot. Okay, but how is the story of the Bible organized? It’s organized in covenants. You have God who has a covenant of works in Genesis 2, which is a manifestation of His Lordship. Obedience is the right way for man to relate to God, but you also see it, in the beginning, God imposes the covenants.

Covenants are an aspect of his sovereign lordship. So you don’t sit down with God and work out a prenup agreement, you know. His way is the way, but the covenant of works is broken. And so now history is a quest to restore the broken covenant of works. God has a covenant with Noah. He’s promising gospel history. And there won’t be another flood. He didn’t say anything about fire, flood, no water, but what he’s really promising, that sun, and moon, star will endure while there’s this history going on. Then you have God’s covenant with Abraham. Now, this is the covenant by which you and I are literally saved. You and I hope to go to heaven because God will fulfill the promises he made to Abraham.

We are the objects. . . I think when I preach to Genesis 15, where are we in this story? We are the objects of the promise together with Christ, He promised us to Abraham, and you will go to heaven as a believer because God will not break his promise to Abraham. So you develop the promise dynamic that’s so important to Genesis, and the God’s sovereignty dynamic. And you get this redemptive fabric, where the promise seed, really the covenant of grace is first announced in the garden. Isn’t that wonderful?

First thing God does is, even before he curses Adam and Eve, and those are very serious curses, and we live with them today. First he proclaims the gospel. What it says about our God, our God is grace. That he proclaims the gospel. He even shows us penal substitution every time, that an animal is going to be slain as a substitute for the Atonement of your sin, and you’re going to be clothed in the righteous garments of another. So he’s giving us a definition to how his covenant works. We see the faith dynamic. The condition of the covenant of grace is faith in the Gospel, and faith in Christ, faith in the promise, Abraham believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

And so just as Jesus and all of his dealings with the disciples, all he really cares about is faith because his spectacular miracles are going. That was a spectacular miracle and he says, “Oh, you are slow to believe. Will the Son of Man find faith upon the earth?” So also in Genesis, the issue is one of faith, the reasons they’re sinning is that they’re not trusting Him. And so that’s covenant life. So the whole, the covenant works, it’s broken, the covenant with Noah, when God put the rainbow in the sky as a sign of that covenant, it was a sign for whom to see?

Guthrie: God.

Phillips: For God to see, “When I see the bow that I hang in the clouds, I will remember my covenant.” And then you have the covenant of grace, literally, our salvation bond with God is that which he established with Abraham. And the new covenant in Christ was what it really is, it’s the culminating phase of God’s promise to Abraham. So if you’re gonna be a Christian and not know the Abraham story, that’s just gonna be really impoverishing to your understanding of what your relationship with God’s about.

Guthrie: Absolutely. How about this thing that we see happen over and over again, in Genesis, and that is, you expect it’s gonna be all about the firstborn, the strongest, the most impressive. And over and over again, God chooses to work through the younger, the weaker, the one that seems most unlikely. Maybe you can point out for us some places we see that and what do we do with that?

Phillips: Well, it starts with Abel, of course, where… I actually have a contention with many scholars, because I think the standard scholarly view is that there was no fundamental difference between the offerings of Cain and Abel, I beg to differ. Cain presents a picture of his works. Abel presents a picture of the substitutionary atonement. And it’s the strong older brother, who wants to be saved by his works. So there’s definitely a polemic against human pride, against earthly glory. Because the great moment is when Jacob crosses his arms, Joseph’s, like, you know, “Here’s my firstborn.” Another one would be Jacob versus Esau. So that’s the younger son, now happen to be the younger two boys, but it’s not about birth order. It’s about God saves a humble people, God saves those who are weak.

Now, everybody’s weak, but the point that’s being made, it’s not what is in you. It’s not what the world would assume. It’s not what the world would praise, that’s going to commend you to God, you’re going to be committed to God by his sovereign grace alone. And his purposes are often across purposes from the world. And the way that you think he’s going to work, its a good reminder to us, the way you think he’s gonna work, it may not be the way… And he has the right to do it the way he wants to do it. I like to sometimes say, you know, who does God think he is, God or something? The answer is, yes. And so you have embedded in it a principle of a humble faith, a sovereign grace. It’s not the things that the world, it’s an anti-works polemic built into Genesis that way.

Guthrie: It seems to me, we see it through the rest of the Bible. Israel, even tells them in Deuteronomy, “I didn’t choose you because you were the most in number or, you know,” the most anything. I mean, they’re in many ways, a very weak nation.

Phillips: Come on, they’re just utterly insignificant, we got, Babylon, you got Assyria, you got Egypt. They got it going down there. It’s a little pilgrim people. Deuteronomy 7:7. “Because I loved you. I loved you because I loved you.”

Guthrie: David, he’s the youngest.

Phillips: Yes.

Guthrie: And you look at him, he doesn’t look very kingly.

Phillips: And this means that if you are an older son and you’re accomplished, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you. It means that he’s communicating that he wishes to be glorified by a grace that is manifestly gracious. And there’s a way that applies to older brothers too, namely through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. But God is making the point that he desires to be known through a radical grace that he applies.

Guthrie: How about this theme that really, it doesn’t get developed much in Genesis, but maybe you can talk to us about it a little bit. We’ve got all these genealogies and some of them, we just kind of stop hearing about because we know that really Genesis is tracing that line of the offspring. Well, we get introduced to these nations that then continue throughout the rest of the Bible. So how is the stage being set in Genesis for what we will be told as we move forward about the nations?

Phillips: Yeah, well, Genesis 4, develops, who’s the guy the first human song “I have slain a man who dissed me.” The genre of the first song, produced by human culture was gangster rap. “He dissed me, I slew him,” you know, and you have this degradation of the image of God. But you also have this accumulation of worldly glory and power.

The Tower of Babel scene is a hugely significant scene. I think I preach three sermons from that chapter because really it’s not like a little fun story to move away from. It’s what are statements being made about the nations of the world and the relationship to God and God’s relationship with them. And the confusion he places them under. So there’s going to be no utopia. There’s going to a whole secular humanistic agenda, the whole progress, you know, philosophy of the 20th century, is just shattered historically, and then biblically, in Genesis 11. But God saves people out of them.

You know, Abraham, although he’s…you have this very good… Genesis 5, this good interest in the line of the godly. And there are rows of people who called upon the name of the Lord. I think it’s the last verse of Genesis 5. And so you have two distinct lines. And there are today just two kinds of people and it’s not dog and cat lovers. It’s the people of Christ and the people of Satan. That’s the deal today.

Guthrie: That doesn’t sound very popular to say, Rick.

Phillips: Well, yeah, but neither… The gospel makes no sense if we only say what’s popular. Now, the doctrine of God’s wrath and judgment which evangelicals are doing everything to downplay today, is essential for a right understanding of the gospel, because God’s wrath, to Genesis 6, God’s wrath upon them. But the problem is, sinners get out of the ark, that’s the problem. The sin goes into the ark and goes out with them. But God’s wrath on the nations is so manifest… Sodom and Gomorrah. One thing you see is apart from fellowship with Christ, we’re either drawn towards God or we’re being drawn downward by Satan. Look at our culture today. This whole idea that we can kind of have a spiritual neutrality is being shown in our increasingly Sodom and Gomorrah culture in every kind of way. The violence, the sexual insanity, all those things going on, the nation’s apart from God are without hope, and without God, they are strangers to the covenants of promise.

Guthrie: You mentioned this character who lives in the city of Enoch, this Lamech, who says, “I’ve killed a man for wounding me.” And one thing that stood out to me that I had never really noticed before until recently, was who he says this to. He says it to his wives.

Phillips: Oh, yeah.

Guthrie: And when I read it, I thought, he’s threatening them. He’s threatening them. I think he’s threatening violence against them if they don’t stay in line. And it’s just…

Phillips: He’s just being his alpha dog self, right?

Guthrie: Yes, to everyone around him.

Phillips: That’s what he does just…

Guthrie: But including these women. But really, when we’re teaching the book of Genesis, honestly, there’s a lot of hard things and dark things that happen to women in this book. It’s the kind of thing that many people today would actually call the whole Bible into question and what is presenting because of how women are treated. Also there in Genesis 4, that’s the first time that a man has more than one wife. We get to the stories of Sarah and Rebecca and their husbands, hand them over to pagan kings who lie and say that they’re sisters. You’ve got Hagar, who is Sarah’s slave and then she becomes a surrogate for them, then she’s mistreated, she’s sent away. Dinah, who is raped and then her father barely seems to care about this.

And so would you just help us in general, and maybe some specifics in terms of these passages you talked about. Our question is always what does this passage reveal about God? And I wonder if that’s a good question to ask in some of these passages that will help us.

Phillips: Yeah, in a macro way, what you’re seeing in Genesis is that everything falls apart until we come back to God. You know, you get to Genesis 3, you have the curse on the serpent, and you have the curse on the woman and the curse on the man. When I do marital counseling, I spend time there, and I’ll say, “Wasn’t it already bad enough, sin has its own natural consequences.” They’re alienated from themselves, they’re alienated from God, they’re alienated with each other. They’re hiding in the garden covering themselves with fig leaves. That’s the natural consequences of sin.

God then adds sovereignly curses upon sin. And so you have the woman who was created under the lordship of the male. This is a problem women… Genesis is not to be denied because it says it. This remains a big problem for women. God has given Adam and Eve dominion, but the man has particular lordship. And so you have an order, the man, the woman, and then the lower creatures.

Well, what happens with sin? You have this…it’s all reversed. And this is what sin does, it confuses and it seems to overthrow the God’s order. You have the serpent dictating technique to the woman and she lowers the man. It’s supposed to go the exact opposite way. So sin is gonna take God’s created beautiful pattern and ruin it, and then God is gonna curse it. Now, the poor woman she’s made a helper suitable to him. And so she has an innate orientation towards the relationship towards men. And now the curse upon her said, “You’re gonna have conflict with him. Your desire will be for him, and he will rule over you.” So this is, God’s curse on sin is really bad news.

Now, here’s the question. And then, of course, Adam’s cursed his work, life is cursed. Why would God do that?

God has injected into the social relations of the human race, a poison for which he alone is the antidote. That is the deal. And if you’re looking at the Bible, and you want to see your version of utopia found there apart from God is Lord of your life through faith in the Jesus Christ in whom sent, then you’re just at odds with history, because this ain’t gonna happen. And what you have are the tragedies of what it looks like when sin shatters the covenantal life under the rule of God. The answer is not to get better men, the answer is to return back to God. There are no better men, there are no better women than sinners who act this way until we’re born again. And until we’re restored with God at the center of our lives, and so, God has poisoned our relationships but he himself is the antidote.

Now, this is gonna work out. Now, a problem women have in Genesis is one of the big problems they have today, men, and they’re ego driven, you know. And God has given relational dominion to men and women can deny it all they want, but they have to deal with the reality of it. And men are, you know, can’t live with them, can’t live without them. And so you have very quickly in human society, the use of power, not to bless, not to glorify God, not to be fruitful and multiply, not servant lordship. just did a men’s conference, my bestselling book’s a men’s book, and I talked about a definition of a man is a servant lord. That is what God created men to be, servant lords, but they’re not servant lords, they’re Nimrod, you know, slaying and they’re conquering and the city is a hierarchy of subjugation that they create. And of course, the sinful people of God are among them. Of course, women are, you know, Sarah’s afflicting Hagar. I mean, she’s the one, you know, good old Abraham is trying to cut her slack, “Oh, not Sarah.” And see it cuts both ways.

But there’s no question that the plight of women in the ancient world was horrific in many ways. And there is a subjugation involved. And there’s, talk about taken for granted. I mean, the whole Abraham when he goes down in Genesis 13, or into Genesis 12, and he goes, he’s afraid and she’s beautiful so he tries to hand her over, because she’s my sister, and she is his half-sister. The real point of that is what happens when we’re not trusting God?

So if you’re marrying a man and neither of you are trusting God, don’t expect it to go well. And women are sinners in their own way too. But one of the reasons you see women being subjected is a particular nature of male position and male sin. And so, in very grievous ways, you see, and the whole Jacob thing with Dinah is, Jacob is not a person you end up admiring.

Guthrie: That’s true.

Phillips: I mean, I think of people who when I get to heaven, I’m gonna go, you know, “Sorry for the bad things I said about you.” Samson’s number one, Jacob’s number two, I think, you know.

Guthrie: But it gives us hope, doesn’t it?

Phillips: Well, and they’re abandoning their covenantal rule. Well, the hope is…there is no hope outside of Christ. I mean, people say, “You know, the divorce rate,” I’m surprised the divorce rate isn’t 100% outside of Christ. And in fact, when you take away social restraints, it basically becomes that. Life becomes a living hell and a walking death. Ultimately, we may be at a less advanced stage here, but that trajectory is in exorbitantly downward into the pit. Until we are born again, having been clothed in the rights of Christ, our sin washed away by the blood of Christ. But it also tells us, you know, the wrong thing for us to do is go look what bad people they were. No, that’s our people, Lamech is one of us. Even as Christians, we need to learn to walk in his way. And we need churches that teach and that lead in covenant really strong ways.

The Bible depicts a Christian woman, she spent her whole life under the nurturing covenantal headship of a servant leader man. And that doesn’t make her worthless, no, that actually unleashes her to be a devastating, honestly, who does Satan fear more? The women of our church or the men? I think he fears the women more and certainly the prayers of my wife are to be feared if you’re the kingdom of darkness. But it’s that covenantal design that God gave us with a complementarian relationship. That’s what unleashes women to play their role and to lead their lives, and exercise their dominion in such a powerful way. The answer is not to reject God’s design, the answer is to return to Him. And He is the solution to the problem.

It’s fascinating, you know, that when Adam eats the forbidden fruit, and we all think of it as an apple. It has a dental profile in it. So she is also…it’s not just men sinning against women. It’s the corruption of sin working in that relationship. And so she is used by the serpent to lead him, he falls because he chooses her over God. It is a brutal world for women today, outside of Christ. It’s without hope, without God, without… We are strangers to the covenants of promise.

Guthrie: Let’s close this way, Rick, let’s say we’ve spent whether it is three and a half years, or maybe more like 12 to 20 weeks teaching through the book of Genesis. What might we hope has been the impact on the people we’ve taught after teaching through this book?

Phillips: Wonderful question, I think in a macro way, that they are part of a great story. And that story has an origin. And it has a destination. And we are now the ones who are on the earth. And if we can inculcate in our people, in contrast to the idea that, “Okay, I’m my sociological self, I’m an American, I’m a Michigan fan, I’m a [inaudible 00:54:18]. I’m this race. I’m in this family. And oh, by the way, I happen to be a Christian, I hope to go to heaven.” Rather than my identity is a child of God in the covenant of grace, together with his people, marching towards the promised land, like the Israelites, with a great purpose and a calling in this world that has cosmic and eternal implications. No Christian who studies the book of Genesis should ever say, “I’m looking for a sense of meaning or purpose to my life.”

But we don’t see ourselves and I think partly, it’s because so much of evangelicalism, lacking covenant theology has just stripped the Old Testament away. The Legacy of dispensationalism is people don’t know their Old Testament. They don’t know the story. So it’s now this Adamystic individual salvation experience lived out in South Carolina or Texas or Nashville. No, no, no, we are part of the people of God, chosen by His grace. We are the people of the covenant of grace, that the nations would be blessed.

Even how we look at the culture war needs to be changed. We kind of have to fight the culture war to be loyal Americans. But the way that we think about it needs to be different. How do we think about our culture war, enemy, neighbor? Well, that we don’t think of them primarily as Amorites and Jebusites. We think of them as made in the image of God. And our purpose is that they would be blessed by coming to know God through us. And so Genesis should give a great redemptive purpose to your identity in your life.

Guthrie: What a beautiful thing it would be to have that impact on those we teach. Well, thank you so much.

Phillips: Thank you.

Guthrie: For this conversation on Genesis. You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Guthrie Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at

Understanding Genesis is foundational to understanding the rest of the Bible. It’s where our grasp of who God is and what he is doing in the world begins and develops. But when I sat down with Richard Phillips, who spent the last three and a half years preaching through Genesis, I found it interesting that he described Genesis as a prologue to help us understand the redemption story of Exodus.

Over the course of our conversation, Phillips—senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina—suggests some ways for organizing teaching through the book and discusses several themes central to the book: offspring, covenant, God’s surprising choice of the weaker and younger, and the nations.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

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