The First Man
What does it mean to be a man? That can be a dangerous question to ask in 2021.
You might remember a couple of years ago, back before COVID-19 stole everybody’s attention, western culture was having quite a reckoning on the issue of manhood and masculinity. Major newspapers were running articles with titles like “What Does It Mean to Be a Man?” Razor companies like Gilette and Harry’s published videos that were trying to challenge many of our assumptions about what it means to be a man or a boy.
There were some helpful insights that came out of this cultural conversation. I didn’t disagree with everything that was said. And yet there was also so much confusion. Often a bad idea would get thrown out and replaced with just another bad idea.
Here’s an example: when all of this was going on, people were criticizing this idea that men should not show emotion or that men shouldn’t cry. And they were saying: “This is a terrible idea. Who says men shouldn’t show emotion? Who says men don’t cry?” And I agreed with them. This whole idea that being a real man means being emotionally dry is a terrible idea that should be thrown out with the garbage.
But people didn’t stop there. They didn’t just say “real men can cry.” Some went a step further and said things like “Being a man means being emotionally vulnerable. That’s a part of what makes a man.”
And I’m not so sure that’s any more helpful. It’s one thing to say that men can be vulnerable. But is vulnerability really a part of what it means to be a man?
I could give other examples. And in many ways this whole conversation is just what you get when a bunch of people talk about something without listening to what God has already said on the subject. You good ideas and bad ideas all mixed together and people end up in no better place than they begin.
But what would it look like to listen to what God has already said on the subject? What would it look like to ask God, “What does it mean to be a man?”, and to build our answer on what He says, not our own opinions?
I’d suggest that, if we wanted to do that, we’d start with Genesis chapter 2. It’s here that we read about the creation of the first man. And if we listen carefully, this passage has many helpful answers to our question, “What does it mean to be a man?” And as we’re going to see today, the answer to that question is really important for each one of us listening today, whoever you are.
Before we dive in to the passage, let’s just review what’s going on here. Genesis chapter 2, from verse 4 onwards, is kind of like an “instant replay” of chapter 1. Chapter 1 gave us this big, panoramic overview of God’s work in creation. And Chapter 2 zooms in and gives us a close-up view of some of the events, in particular the creation of man and woman.
We talked last week about how humans were the crown of creation. And chapter 2 tells us the same thing as it goes back and tells the story of their creation in even more detail.
So today we’re considering the creation of Adam. And we’re going to make four stops in this passage before summing up some of the lessons it has for us. First, we’ll see the situation. Second, the creation. Third, the location. And fourth, the vocation.
1. The Situation
Let’s begin with the situation, which is the situation before Adam was created. That’s spelled out for us in verses 4-6. Verse 4 begins with “These are the generations.” That phrase is used 11 times in the book of Genesis to indicate that a new section is beginning. It’s like saying, “this is the story of…” And then verse five begins to paint for us a picture of the situation before Adam was created. We learn that “no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground” (Genesis 2:5).
Now God had first created plants back in chapter 1 verse 11. And this verse doesn’t contradict that. In fact, it assumes that plants as a whole exist already. And it tells us that in this particular place, certain kinds of vegetation weren’t growing yet for two reasons.
Number one, “the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land,” and number two, “there was no man to work the ground.”
Now we need to really take note of this. Here we are, apparently on day six of creation, and plants were created back on day three, and yet the plants aren’t everywhere. There’s still some growing to do. And one of the reasons is that there’s no man to work the ground.
I think we get the idea that, when Genesis 2:1 says “the heavens and the earth were finished” (Genesis 2:1), the whole earth was in a perfect state of maturity and growth. Everywhere you looked there were plants and animals and everything was perfect.
But that’s not the case. This passage is telling us that when God made the world, He didn’t make a fully polished product. Rather, God designed a world that needed to be taken care of by the people that He was going to make.
We sometimes think of Adam and Eve lounging around all day in hammocks because they had nothing to do. And that’s so far from the truth. This world needed work. It needed care. It needed people to look after it. And God made it that way on purpose.
Verse 5 points us to God’s design: that people would work with Him in partnership. God will do what only He can do—send the rain. And people will do what God has given us to do, which is work the ground.
This is such an important idea for us to wrap our heads around because these days we are told, over and over again, that people are the problem with the world. Humans are a parasite on planet earth. All we do is cause problems and the planet runs best when we just leave it alone.
Haven’t we been told that in so many ways? “Just leave things to nature.” Just leave things alone. Things work best without us.
And that’s simply not true. I started to clue into this a few years ago when my wife started gardening. And she started learning from some of you how to care for those flowers and berries and vegetables.
And it became so clear to me that these plants will not reach their full potential if we just leave them alone. If you just throw some tomato seeds in the dirt and walk away, that tomato plant will not reach its full potential.
Rather, those plants reach their full potential under the watchful eye of a patient caretaker. Someone who studies those plants and gets to know how they work and then carefully, patiently tends them.
So have humans done a lot of damage to the world? Yes we have. But the alternative isn’t to just leave it alone. The alternative to wrecking this world is taking care of it the way God designed things to work. He designed this ground to be worked by us. He designed this world to reach it’s full potential under our care.
So this is the situation before Adam was created. Some of the fields were still bare, because they needed water, and they needed a worker. Verse 6 tells us that God began to do what only He can do—water the ground—and now we’re braced for what’s coming next.
2. The Creation
Verse 7 tells us about the creation. “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).
What an amazing contrast in this verse. Look at what we’re made of—the dust from the ground. And yet look at what we’re brought to life with—God’s very breath.
What we see here is a much more intimate view of creation than in chapter 1. God did not just say “let there be a man.” He could have. And He certainly still used the “breath” from His mouth to make us. But here we actually see God forming us, shaping us, almost by hand. It’s quite the picture.
Did you know that we were made from the dirt? Did you know that you’re still made from the dirt?
Think of it this way. Remember how big you were as a baby? And consider how big you are now. Where did all of that material come from? It came from the food that you ate. Our bodies digest the food we eat, pulling it all apart and using it to build the cells that make up our body. You literally are what you eat.
Now think about that food that you’re eating. Where did it come from? Think about planting a tomato seed and then, a few months later, having a tomato plant full of ripe tomatoes. Where did all of that material come from?
Most of it came from the soil. That’s the job of a root: to pull up material and nutrients from the dirt which the plant turns into stems and leaves and branches and fruit.
This is why farmers need to rotate crops and use fertilizer and so on. It’s because whatever grows out of the dirt is just that dirt and there’s less left behind for the next plants.
Plants come from dirt, and when we eat them, some of those plants become a part of our body. Which means that you are dirt. The material that makes up your body was once soil. And, if the Lord tarries, it will be soil once more.
We are soil. We are dust. But we’re more than this—we are dust that is alive because God breathed life into us. God, as always, is the life-giver.
There’s some wonderful mystery here in how dirt becomes life. And that mystery exists to the present day. Scientists today can’t explain human consciousness, for example. How does this rich awareness of the self and significance and meaning arise out of just cells and chemical reactions?
Scientists don’t have answers to the question. Atheists don’t have answers to that question. If what’s going on inside your brain is just chemical reactions, and what’s going on in side my brain is just chemical reactions, then how come we can understand each other? I’ve asked my atheist friends that question and I’ve never received a straight answer.
Human life is so full of mystery and wonder that science cannot explain. And that’s because we are more than dust. We’ve been given life by the Creator.
That’s what God did for Adam, and that’s what God continues to do for each life that comes to be today. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” says Psalm 139:13.
3. The Location
So, we’ve seen the situation, and we’ve seen the creation. Next, verses 8-14 tell us about the location.
Graeme Goldsworthy is a theologian who has pointed out that as we trace out the history of the Bible we often see three ideas coming together: God’s people in God’s place under God’s king.
God’s plan is to have a people, and His plan is always to have those people being cared for by a good king, whether that’s Himself directly or someone under Him like King David. And His plan always involves a place. For Israel, it was the land of Israel. For us right now, we’re exiles on this earth looking forward to the New Creation Jesus has promised us we’ll inherit.
For Adam, this first man, the place God had for him was the garden of Eden. God planted it Himself and put Adam in it, as verse 8 tells us.
What comes to your mind when you think about the Garden of Eden? How should we think about it?
And what I want to suggest is that the description here, and clues we see in the rest of the Bible, suggest that we see Eden as a mountain sanctuary, like an outdoor temple, where Adam, like a priest, met with God.
Why do I say mountain? Well, verse 10 says that a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divided and became four rivers. What makes rivers flow? Gravity. This river starts high and as it flows down it divides into four rivers that cover quite a distance.
Now when I say “mountain” I’m not talking about one of the Rockies. In the lands of the Bible, their ideas of mountains were a bit more modest than ours. But it was a high place. And that’s important because high places were associated throughout the Bible with places to meet God.
Next, notice that there is water flowing out of this garden. In Ezekiel 47 Ezekiel gets a vision of a new temple, and there is water flowing out of it. In Revelation 21 and 22 describe the New Jerusalem. There is no temple in that city, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). And then John sees “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life…” (Revelation 22:1-2).
So throughout the Bible there’s this picture of a river flowing out of a holy place where God’s presence dwells. This reinforces the idea of Eden being like a temple.
Verse 9 tells us how God filled the garden with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9), and then the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Did you notice how Revelation 22 talked about the tree of life in the New Jerusalem? There’s a lot of connections between Revelation 21 and 22 and Genesis 1 and 2, which helps reinforce again that the Garden of Eden was a place where man was meant to dwell with God, like we’ll do again in Revelation 21 and 22.
Israel’s tabernacle and temple also contained a golden lamp stand shaped like a tree, which corresponds to the tree of life. The tabernacle and the temple were also decorated with all kinds of images and shapes of living things— (Ex 28:33-34, 1 Kings 6:29, 7:18, 22), evoking the image of a garden.
It’s also important to note what verses 11-14 tell us about the four rivers flowing out of Eden, flowing through lands full of gold and onyx. Gold and onyx were used significantly in the furnishings of the temple and tabernacle and the priest’s garments.
All of these taken together draw a series of connections between the Garden of Eden and the tabernacle and the temple and finally the New Jerusalem where God will dwell with His people forever. And it helps us see the Garden of Eden as a place like a temple, a sanctuary, where Adam, like a priest, would meet with God.
4. The Vocation
So we’ve seen the situation, the creation, and the location. Now let’s look at verse 15 and consider Adam’s vocation. By “vocation” I mean the work that God called him to do.
Verse 15 tells us that “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
Adam had a job. To work and keep the garden.
So, at least three reasons why this is important. First, God gave Adam a job before there was sin. Work is not just a part of the fall into sin. Work is not bad. Work is a part of what it means to be human.
Work is one of the things God created us for. And if you hear an echo in that statement of “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” from Ephesians 2:10, then you’re starting to connect the Bible together in an important way.
Number two, this reminds us of this theme of partnership. Eden was planted by God but was not a self-sustaining kind of a place. It was a garden and it needed a gardener to “work” it. This is the same word from back in verse 5 which spoke about there being no man to “work” the ground. It speaks about tilling the ground, working and developing it to help it reach its full potential.
It also needed someone to keep it. This word speaks to careful watch, taking care of, guarding, and protecting it. Evidently, even before the fall, things could happen that should not happen. Such as, the garden not growing the way it should. Or, wicked serpents making their way into paradise. Adam was to keep careful watch over and protect this garden.
Third, this is important because it speaks to us about Adam’s priestly role. In the book of numbers, the work of the priests and the Levites in the sanctuary is described using these two words. Speaking of the Levites, Numbers 3:7 says “They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:7). In the Hebrew language, those words for “keep guard” and “minister” are the exact same words as “work” and “keep” here in Genesis 2.
And we see those words used like that twice more in Numbers (8:26; 18:5–6). This reinforces the idea that Adam was a priest, made to serve God in this garden sanctuary by working and keeping it.
Conclusion #1: Be Like Adam
So why does all of this matter? What does all of this mean for you and I today? There’s a lot that we could say about that, but I want to bring the conversation back to where we begin: what does it mean to be a man?
I want to sum up our findings here, in a way that might surprise you, but I’ll explain. Being a man, in large part, means taking responsibility.
Where do I get “responsibility” from this passage? Well, just look at what God did with Adam. He put him in the garden to work it and to keep it. He told him what tree not to eat from. And then, He expected Adam to get to work.
From what we can see here, Adam didn’t get a daily task list with every little thing broken out for him. God expected Adam to use his brain and use his body and to take responsibility for the mission given to him.
We see the same thing in the book of Acts. Jesus told His disciples that they would receive power and would be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And then He left and He expected them, with the power of the Holy Spirit, to figure the rest out.
I would argue, based on this passage and on much of what we see in the rest of the Bible, that this is at the heart of what it means to be a man. Doug Wilson has defined masculinity as the “the glad assumption of responsibility."1https://vimeo.com/30751344 That’s what it means to be a man. You take responsibility for what God has asked you to be responsible for, and you make sure that it gets done.
I’m pushing back on here is a real problem these days, which is men being passive. Men who never take any initiative. Men who need to be asked and begged even to take any little bit of leadership. Men who cannot be relied on to get the job done. Men who refuse to take risks and have lost their sense of adventure and who are content to live small lives dominated by the glow of their device screens.
This is not who we were built to be. We were build to be responsibility-carriers. We were built to be risk-takers. That’s the reason for testosterone. Testosterone makes men generally more prone to take risks than women.
And God built us this way on purpose, because when He built a man He was building the kind of person who would look out at an unfinished planet that needed subduing and a garden that needed working and keeping and would say “let’s do this.” And who would take risks and try things and would take the initiative on finishing the work that God had started and given to him.
Dads, teach your boys to be responsible. I had to learn responsibility myself in some very painful ways because I didn’t have a relationship with my dad during my growing-up years.
Some of those experiences happened when other men weren’t afraid to tell me that they were disappointed in my performance. That what I had done wasn’t good enough, but that I could do better. Don’t be afraid to summon your sons to something bigger than “everybody’s a winner.”
But all men here today, I hope you hear in this passage a summons to gladly assume responsibility.
Now let’s zoom in the picture a little bit. In what ways are we to take responsibility? Where do we start? I want to suggest that “working” and “keeping” are a really helpful way of thinking through what it means to be responsible. Remember, that’s what Adam was put in the garden to do. And in his excellent book “The Masculine Mandate,” Rick Phillips argues that “work and keep” is a great way to sum up the work that God calls men to do in every area of our lives.
We work and we keep. We till the soil and we care for the garden. We develop and we defend.
Dads, this is your work in your home. And I don’t mean your house, although that’s true. I mean your home. Do you work and keep the hearts of your children? Developing them and protecting them? Do you work and keep the heart of your wife, pursuing her growth and stomping on any snake who would threaten her?
It’s probably not hard to think about your job or work that you do outside of your house and how “working” and “keeping” are helpful ways of considering what you do there.
We’re in church this morning, so let me ask: do you work and keep in your church? Are you interested in the spiritual growth of the other people in your church? And are you playing your part keeping your church, standing guard against false teaching and gossip and slander and grumbling and all of the sneaky ways Satan tries to oppose God’s work?
Adam’s working and keeping happened in the context of a garden which, as we’ve seen, was like a temple. A garden sanctuary where God would come and walk with him. Adam was a priest, created for relationship with God.
Men, take responsibility for your relationship with God. Work and keep in spiritual matters, like a priest.
One of my happiest memories from 2019 was the week after we studied 1 Timothy 2:8 which says, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray.” And in our small group that week we talked about the need for men to take the initiative in prayer and spiritual matters. And from that point on, when we would pray together as a small group, a miraculous thing happened. The men prayed first. It was so good.
Men, if you know Christ, you are priests. By creation and by salvation: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). That is not a verse just for women. That’s for you.
So let me sum this whole part up, about responsibility and working and keeping. What if you were Adam? And you were dropped in the middle of a brand-new world, with a garden temple in front of you, and told: “work it and keep it.” What would you need to do? What kinds of decisions would you need to make? What kinds of risks would you need to take? What kinds of initiative would you need to take?
Answer those questions, and then go do it today. In your own life. In your family. In your job. In your church. In your world.
Let me sum this up with a quote from a guy I used to go to church with, who gave a testimony as a men’s event, where he said this:
“I wish I could stand up here and tell you guys that I’m nailing it, that I’ve got it all figured out, but the truth is it’s a battle and sometimes laziness is winning. But I’m fighting back because the stakes are too high not to. And God has been very gracious to me. He has been growing me in spite of my weaknesses. He continues to teach me that he has given me incredibly great responsibility and that I need to take ownership of that responsibility. I’m responsible for my spiritual development, not my pastors. I’m responsible for the health of my marriage, not my wife. I’m responsible to teach and guide my children, not the church. I’m responsible for the vitality of the church, not just the strong leaders. I’m responsible to influence the people around me, not somebody else.”
That is pure, 100% masculinity. That is what it means to be a man.
So be like that. Be like my friend who said those words. Be like Adam.
Conclusion #2: Don’t be Like Adam
But let me immediately follow that up by saying: don’t be like Adam. Because we all know what’s coming, and how badly Adam failed. And if you just try and go out in your own strength to be a responsible man, you’ll fail just as bad.
On your own, you can’t be like Adam was supposed to be. Every man since Adam has joined Adam in his failure and you are no exception.
Every man but one.
“Christ the true and better Adam, Son of God and Son of Man. Who, when tempted in the garden, never yielded, never sinned."
And the glorious truth is that in Christ, you can do better than just be like Adam. God is making us to be like Christ Himself.
“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
That’s coming in the new creation, when every single man in Christ will perfectly be everything that God has always designed him to be.
But we don’t need to wait for heaven for that to happen. Ephesians 4:22 tells us to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22–24).
The word there for “self” is literally “man.” Put off the old man and put on the new man. Who is the old man? Adam. Who is the new man? Christ.
We don’t wait for heaven to be like Christ. Today we are called to put off Adam and to put on Christ.
So yes, be responsible. Work and keep. Be a priest. Take initiative. But do that in Christ. You have to start by coming to Jesus for forgiveness. You have to receive His righteousness as a gift. You need to be born again and have His Holy Spirit fill you. And then you’ll be empowered to put off your old sinful man and put on the new man, Christ, for the glory of Jesus, and not yourself.
Now ladies, I hope you don’t feel left out by today. I know, as I say that, that many of you are thinking “of course not.” Many of you would love nothing more than for your families and workplaces and friend groups and church to be full of men, gladly assuming responsibility for the sake of everyone else.
Because, when a man assumes responsibility—when he puts on the heavy backpack and goes out in front to take the bullets for those behind him—the women around him flourish.
And beyond this, I hope you don’t feel left out by this because, like we’re going to hear next week, this task of working and keeping the garden sanctuary wasn’t for Adam alone. He couldn’t do it alone and he needed an Eve to help him.
And this business of putting on Christ is certainly not for men alone. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27–28).
I get to the end of this message and feel like there’s so much more to say. But here we’re going to end, men and women, by singing again of Jesus, the true and better Adam. Adam was just a shadow; Christ is the reality. So lets end today with our eyes fixed on Him.