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Message Notes: Sunday School for Grown Ups – Between Two Trees

Sunday School for Grown Ups

Week 1: Between Two Trees
Pastor Rick Henderson                June 1-2, 2024

Grab a Bible and open to page 1. Genesis 1

SERIES THESIS: Let’s WONDER like children and READ like adults.

Call me crazy. I think we need both. Some of us need to crack open our minds to rediscover wonder, imagination, and curiosity. If you feel like you’ve lost touch with that, go volunteer in Kids Ministry. Now, don’t go and be a grumpy pants. This is my challenge. Go teach a Bible story to kiddos and then embrace the super-charged array of questions they have. Kids possess a passionate and playful curiosity. I think we could use some of that.

The stories that we are going to study in this series were written by adults to adults. They are the furthest thing from being childish. We need to wrestle with them and study them with rigor and seriousness. So, this is my suggestion. Let’s wonder like children AND read like adults.

Before we use our imaginations to transport ourselves back to this scene, let’s rewind back to days right after Jesus was brutally and convincingly executed. No one knows what to do. Some of his followers are claiming that Jesus is somehow alive. It’s chaos, really. What do you do with that? I don’t know how to describe this other than to say that Jesus was just all of the sudden there in a room with all of them.

What happened next had to be a laughable scene. They took turns cautiously touching Jesus—even his wounds. Think about what it would take to settle you down so that you could accept that he really is alive. That’s the scene. As the shock began to wear off, it was time to start thinking seriously. So, Jesus began to explain what was going on. This is one of the things he said.

LUKE 24:44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

This was Jesus’ way of saying the entire Old Testament. In his day all 39 books of the Old Testament didn’t look like this [holding up a Bible]. It was a collection of scrolls that were grouped together in these three categories. His claim was stunning and bold and clarifying. It’s all about me! That could only have made sense after he actually rose from the dead. Everything we read in the Old Testament is about him, building up to him.

One of my favorite bible teachers says that taking Jesus seriously means that we begin to look at the Bible like a photomosaic.

Message Notes: Sunday School for Grown Ups - Between Two Trees

This is one picture, that’s made up of hundreds of much smaller pictures. That’s what the Bible is. It’s a brilliantly bundled collection of stories, history, poems, prophecies, and teachings that come together to tell one big story. Reading the Bible like adults means reading everything in the Old Testament, that’s the first half of the Bible, we read all of it in light of Jesus. We read it with the understanding that Jesus is on every page.

This is Sunday School for Grown Ups. We already know that reading and thinking with careful seriousness doesn’t happen accidentally. We can’t be passive or casual in that process. We must be intentional. If this is all about Jesus, if knowing Jesus helps us better understand the Old Testament and knowing the Old Testament helps us better understand Jesus—what could keep us from becoming students of the Bible?

If that intrigues you just a little bit, go check out the Bible Project.

Message Notes: Sunday School for Grown Ups - Between Two Trees

They’ve got videos and podcasts and even classes you can take with biblical scholars, FOR FREE. You get fantastic resources FOR FREE. I promise you, no matter what your level of understanding is right now, it won’t make you feel dumb. It will super charge your reading of the Bible.

This is how it begins.

GENESIS 1:1-2 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Instead of reading what comes next, I want to visualize for you the complexity and intelligence with which it was written. I got this from Tim Mackie at The Bible Project.

GENESIS 1:1 Summary Prologue (7 words)
God created skies and land

GENESIS 1:2 Exposition of Prologue (7 x 2 words)


DAY 1: God separates light from dark. DAY 4: God separates day from night with sun, moon, and stars.
DAY 2: God separates waters above (sky) from waters below (sea). DAY 5: God fills the sky with birds and the sea with fish.
DAY 3: God gathers the water to create dry ground and vegetation. DAY 6: God brings forth animals and creates humans to rule over creation.


GENESIS 2:1 Summary Epilogue
God finished the skies and land

GENESIS 2:2-3 Exposition of Epilogue (7 words)

[Taken from Tim Mackie for Bible Project Classroom: Adam to Noah (2020)]

This is also on the digital notes available on our website. The number 7 represents completion. Segments are structured in seven words or groups of seven words. Day 1 corresponds to day 4. Day to 2 to 5. Day 3 to 6. Anyone who ever tried to write anything knows that this is not easy. You might find the first page of the Bible unbelievable, but you can’t say it’s unintelligent. This is genius level writing with complex literary structures and patterns that repeat. And we’re barely scratching the surface.

Would you give yourself permission to be in awe of this book? Would you also give yourself permission to ask hard, provocative, messy questions? If we’re going to wonder like children and read like adults, no question can be off the table. I’ll go first. How in the world can serious minded people take seriously that on day 1 God separated light from dark, but it wasn’t until day 4 that the sun, moon, and stars were created? Come on! That’s nonsense, right? Rochester ranks in the top 10 most educated cities in this country. Do we have to leave our education at the door when we come to church or crack open the Bible?

John Walton is a Biblical scholar and author who teaches at Wheaton College. I think he can help us.

In our culture, we think ‘scientifically.’ We are primarily concerned with causation, composition, and systematization. In the ancient world, they are more likely to think of the world in terms of symbols and to express their understanding by means of imagery. We are primarily interested in events and material realia [objects and material from everyday life]

This is how nerds flex on us by using strange words.

whereas they are more interested in ideas and their representation...To describe this sort of thinking, I would like to adapt the term ‘imagistic.’

He then uses a photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope and Van Goh’s The Starry Night to illustrate what he means.

Message Notes: Sunday School for Grown Ups - Between Two Trees


Both capture the night sky. But they do it in very different ways for very different purposes. Walton continues.

...We would not say that it is a false depiction of the night sky. Visual artists depict the world imagistically, and we recognize this depiction as independent of science, but not independent of truth...Imagistic history, like that preserved in Genesis, is to history as The Starry Night is to a Hubble photograph. –John Walton

Our job is to understand the text as the author intended the text to be understood. And if we try to impose demands and questions on the text that the writer is not trying to talk about, we’re reading it like people who need to grow up instead of reading it like grown-ups.

Sometimes Christians debate and argue over how old the earth is. And that always feels like it comes down to a fight between science and the Bible. Our church doesn’t have an official position one way or the other. Because we tend to think that Genesis 1 isn’t talking about that.

Genesis tells us WHO created everything, not WHEN or HOW.

It invites us into the story after there is already stuff. There’s only darkness and chaotic seas. The Spirit of God is there, and he begins a process of bringing order from disorder. With that order comes life. And at the climax of this ordering and creating, we find this.

GENESIS 1:26-28 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that Genesis uses the all the imagery that was common in the Ancient Near East (ANE). God communicates to us in ways that we can understand. God meets us where we are, as we are. For those of you who don’t feel quite ready for your literature of the ANE final exam, let me give some cheat codes.

The imagery of the garden communicates sacred space. This is special place where heaven and earth overlap. As you read Genesis and the Old Testament, look for this pattern. God interacts with people in high places, mountain tops, places with trees and lush vegetation. There is power and depth to the imagery that’s used. What does the writer want us to know? God is distinct from the world and creatures he made, and yet his wants to be relationally present. This is saturated with profound imagery of relationship and sacredness. When we begin to see that, we also come to understand what exactly it means to be human.


  • Be with God.

I don’t know who needs to hear this today. You are loved and prized by God. You are the artwork on his fridge.

  • Reflect what God is like.

One of my favorite columnists for the New York Times says, “You may believe in God you may not believe in God. I’m asking you to believe that there is a piece of you that has no weight, size, color, or shape, but it has infinite value and dignity.” That’s the only thing that makes racism and age and gender discrimination truly wrong. That’s the only thing that makes sense of the deep need we all have for significance and meaning.

There are people peddling alternative explanations. Take them to their logical conclusions and you’ll find nothing but dead ends that leave you bankrupt. You are made in the image of God. You have limitless value and there’s a whole way of being that comes with that.

  • Govern and care for what God has made. (King/Queen and Priests)

The man and the woman were made to govern, to join God as kings and queens. They were tasked with caring for the sacred space that God placed them in. They were both priests. This is how the story begins, and this is where the story is going.

Jump ahead to the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:9 you’ll read that everyone who is in Christ is part of a royal priesthood. Both men and women who are in Jesus are royal priests. The very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, says that we will reign with him forever.

So what went wrong? That’s Genesis chapters 2-3.

If you read chapter 2 like an adult, you’ll notice that it’s sequence of creation doesn’t match chapter 1. Biblical scholars offer a variety of explanations. I’m warming to the view the Genesis 1 represents the ideal and Genesis 2-3 represents reality.

God creates this lush garden. It is paradise. Then God made the man from what? He made the man from dust and clay. Did God literally make man with clay like a child would with Play-Doh? I don’t know. I do know this imagery tells us that man is mortal on his own. God placed him in the garden to enjoy it, care for it, and cultivate it.

What was in the middle? The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That second tree was off limits. Eat from everything but that one tree.

The man gets lonely. Animals aren’t enough company. And the responsibilities he’s been given are too big to do without a helper. Helper doesn’t mean subordinate servant. It’s the same word used to describe God when he helps people. It’s the same word used to describe the cavalry that shows up to help at just the right time in a battle.

What does God use to make the woman? I know it says rib. The word in Hebrew doesn’t mean rib. It means wall or the side of a structure. The imagery is something like God cutting the man in half and presenting a reflection of the man to himself. Remember. Don’t think scientifically; think imagistically.

I know we call the man Adam. That’s fine. He’s eventually referred to as Adam. In Hebrew it means human, humanity, or humankind. That’s the emphasis in the first few chapters of Genesis. The Hebrew word for man is ish and the word for woman is isha. When the man saw her he said, “She is isha for she was taken from ish.” In other words, “She is me, but different.”

They both reflect the image of God. They both are needed to fulfill the roles of rulers and priests. And all of that is great until another character shows up. Who’s that character? The snake. Our understanding is incomplete if we don’t recognize this is a very real spiritual being. This is Satan, living up to his title as the Father of Lies. He deceived the woman into rejecting God’s authority and replacing it with her own autonomy. And the man jumped in with both feet too. I want to put this on the screen.

GENESIS 3:1-6 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t bad. It’s good to know the difference. Another way to think of that tree is the Tree of Wisdom. Instead of humbly trusting God as the authority to teach them and define wisdom for them, the man and woman rejected his authority and replaced it with autonomy. They wanted to define it for themselves. It’s the incompetent arrogance of thinking we can handle life on our own terms.

I want to draw your attention to these words: saw, good, and take. This is a pattern that will show up again and again throughout Genesis and the Old Testament. She saw that it was good, and she took it. Look for that pattern when you read. People keep getting in trouble in the exact same way. We see something good and take it. But we take it in way that violates God’s good order, and it violates his character. That’s what sin is. And it always results in the same way. It brings disorder to order. It causes life to unravel into chaos and death.

Sin is seeing and taking, but on our own terms. Here’s one example of how you’ll see that play out in the Old Testament. King David was out on his balcony one night. He saw a woman named Bathsheba. He took her for himself. That began the disordering of his life. It unraveled into chaos and death.

That’s not just a pattern to identify so that you can make sense of what you read in the Bible. That’s a pattern to recognize so that we can make sense of what we experience in life. All the moral problems we have in life can boiled down to this pattern. We see and we take without humbly trusting God. This isn’t just a pattern we read in the Bible.

This is a patter we see in people. We see it in all of human history. And if we have the humility and guts to be honest, we see it in ourselves. That’s bad news and it doesn’t feel good. It’s uncomfortable and it may be offensive. But just because something offends doesn’t mean it’s not true. This pattern that keeps repeating in you and in me, what do we call that? I like the term pervasive depravity.

Would I sound crazy if I said to you, I bet that underneath every regret you have, the deep-down desire that you wanted to fulfill was good. The way you tried to fulfill it wasn’t.

The deep-down desire beneath your substance abuse wasn’t chaos. It was a desire to feel something good. The deep-down desire beneath your sexual regrets wasn’t a desire for chaos. It was a desire for something good. The deep-down desire beneath your anger wasn’t a desire for chaos. You wanted something good. So what’s our problem?

We were made to live between two trees, the tree of life and the tree of wisdom. We were lovingly created to humbly trust God as the source and provider of life and wisdom. And yet it’s our autonomy and arrogance that breaks that. It’s our rejection of his authority that replaces order with disorder, causing life to unravel into chaos and death. That’s what’s wrong with the world. That’s what’s wrong with us.

And in an instant the man and woman realized they ruined it. The realized they were naked, which means they were covered in shame and insecurity. Instead of being with God, their new instinct was to hide from him.

Spend some time this week reading Genesis 1, 2, and 3. If we read it like adults, we’ll see that God was merciful. He response was truth and grace. He invited them into conversation. When God told them what the consequences were, I hope you will take note that God only cursed the snake the ground. He didn’t curse the man or woman. He didn’t even punish them. He handed them over to themselves and their choices. And yet there was and is hope. When God have the snake his curse, he gave us hope.

GENESIS 3:15And I will put enmity [deep rooted hatred] between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Over the next couple of weeks we will unpack this further with the stories that are coming. Right now, let’s end by focusing on hope. One day there is going to be one who crushes the snake. He will restore all that has unraveled into chaos. He will turn death into life. He will make new all who trust in him. Genesis 1-3 is written to point to Jesus, to stoke our hope and longing for Jesus.

Tim Mackie is one of my favorite Bible teachers. He’s a scholar and co-founder of the Bible Project. He writes...

This is more complex than prediction and fulfilment. The whole story is driving toward the conclusion that the life and death of Jesus provides. –Tim Mackie

We were created to live between two trees, but we couldn’t do it. So, Jesus hung between two trees. On the cross he fulfilled what we never could. On the cross he humbly trusted, and covered over our sin, making a way for us to be with God again. That’s what we remember and celebrate when we participate in communion.