Lessons From Noah's Ark

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 30, 2013

Genesis 6:9-22, Hebrews 11:7 Lessons from Noah's Ark

A Children’s Story?
I am not an expert in the world of baby showers or nurseries.

But as we’ve moved through our child-bearing years and our friends and in-laws have had children and Beth has been invited to baby showers, I’ve learned that the thing to do is to have a theme for the baby's nursery. Beth gets invited to a baby shower and she asks, "What's the theme?" and she gets told that it is Winnie-the-Pooh or Mickey Mouse or something like that and then she goes out and buys baby gifts accordingly.

And lately, it seems as though I have been hearing more and more about parents who are decorating their child's nursery with a Noah's Ark theme. Apparently there are quite a number of baby blankets and baby clothes and toys and pictures and such which contain images of the ark and which can be placed in a child's nursery.

On the one hand, it’s kind of neat: you could do a lot worse than to surround your child in his or her formative years with the images of a Biblical story. But, on the other hand, if you really look at the story of Noah you have to wonder: Is this really a kid's story?

That’s something we’re going to discover as we work through some Old Testament heroes of faith this summer. A lot of these stories that we think of as Sunday School stories exist in two forms: there’s the version we tell our kids, and then there’s the version in the Bible.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't tell the story of Noah and the Ark to our children, but my question is: Is that all it is? Just a child's story? Have we reduced this historical testament to the justice and power of God to the level of a fairy tale? Have we put the story of the ark on the same level as “Hansel and Grettel” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”?

It is my contention this morning that the story of Noah and his ark and the flood that destroyed the world is much more than just a children's story.

For example, because the story is about Noah saving the animals--and everybody knows that kids love animals--we really emphasize that part of the story to our kids. Noah's Ark would have been like a giant, floating zoo. The best zoo in the history of the world. Wouldn't it have been fun, we think, to have been on the ark with Noah and his family?

The answer, quite simply, is "No." I mean, have you ever been in the monkey house at a zoo? Do you remember what it smelled like? Now imagine being stuck on a ship for more than a year with all of those animals. Does that sound like fun to you?

Of course, being on the ship is better than the alternative. When we tell the story to our children we usually gloss over what happened to those who didn't get on the boat. But that's really what the story is about. By the time of Noah, some 1600 years after creation, conservative estimates put the earth's population at about half a billion people. And this story tells us that every single last one of these persons--save 8--was wiped out in a sudden, unpredictable, and catastrophic flood. This is not a happy story.

One preacher describes an engraving by the French artist Gustave Dore. It is a picture "of a huge expanse of empty sea with one lone rock protruding a few feet above the waves. There are three terrified children on the rock and slipping into the sea are a mother and father trying desperately to push a fourth little baby to safety. On the rock sits a giant tiger. Bodies are floating in the water and overhead circle the exhausted vultures. Whatever else we may say about this story, it is not cute."

My point is that this is not an easy story to get a hold of or to digest. We can dress it up as a story for the nursery or the picture books, we can treat it as a fairy tale or an interesting trip to the zoo, but that does not change the fact that it comes to us in the Bible as a stark and hard story about God's judgment and wrath towards sin. More than just a story about something that happened so long ago it hardly seems real anymore, this is a story which tells us about God and how He still looks at the world today.

The New Testament Witness
The story of Noah is told in chapters 6 through 9 of Genesis. That’s too long for us to read it all in church or to go verse by verse through the story. So I’m going to assume that most of us are familiar with the basic plot of the story. At least the children’s story version:

God grows tired of the wickedness on Earth. He comes to Noah and tells him to build a boat. Noah and his boys build a boat large enough to hold two of every animal on earth. Then it rains for 40 days and 40 nights. There is a universal flood destroying all but those who are on the boat. After about a year of living on the boat, the waters finally recede enough for Noah and his family to come out. They offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and God sends a rainbow to signify His promise to never send such a universally destructive flood again.

That’s the basics. And there is more there than I can cover in one sermon. One commentator I looked at spent no less than 11 chapters on Noah. But I only have one week. So what I’d like to do is draw some lessons out of Noah’s story by looking at what the rest of the Bible has to say about the flood. There are at least three different places in the New Testament where Noah is referred to--in the teaching of Jesus in the book of Matthew, in the two epistles written by Peter, and, of course, in the Hall of Faith of Hebrews 11.

So our message today is going to use those passages as our guide in highlighting the main themes of this story. As we go, I believe that we will learn important lessons about judgment, salvation, and faith.

Cloudy with a 100% Chance of Rain
The first New Testament reference to Noah is found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:36-39. Talking about His second coming at the end of time, Jesus says in Matthew 24:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.

The first lesson we need to learn from Noah is this: Though some will deny it, there really is a judgment of sin coming. Let me repeat that: Though some deny it--though some would like to go through life as though there were no consequences for evil and believing that the world will only get better--there really is a judgment of sin coming.

Do you see that from the story of Noah? Do you see the point that Jesus is making?

Talking about the final judgment, when He will come to judge the living and the dead and the world as we know it will come to an end, Jesus says it will be just like it was in the days of Noah. People will carry on as though nothing bad could possibly happen--they'll be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage (in other words, they'll be living for the day and making their plans for the future)--and suddenly the end will come. Suddenly God will remind us all of just who exactly is in charge.

Though some will deny it, there really is a judgment of sin coming.

Let's consider what it was like in the days of Noah.

The human race was becoming more and more depraved. Genesis 6:5 says:

The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.

It couldn't have gotten much worse, sin's grip--begun with Adam and spread through Cain--had become internalized ("thoughts"), pervasive ("every inclination"), and continuous ("all the time").

So God decides, in verse 3, that He is going to start the clock ticking down. He says:

My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.

He says, in essence, "I will give them 120 years to clean up their act. And if they don't do it, if things keep going the way they're going, then I will open up the floodgates of heaven and clean the earth up Myself."

And then, just to make sure that everybody gets the message, He recruits Noah to start building the ark.

Now, this isn't entirely plain from the text in Genesis, but the New Testament makes it clear that while Noah was building the ark, that's not all he was doing. Peter, who writes more about Noah than any other New Testament writer, calls him a "preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5). In other words, during the 120 years or so that it took Noah to build the ark and stock it, he was also explaining what he was doing. He was warning people that judgment was coming. He was telling them about the flood and telling them to get right with God. He was preaching righteousness and urging them to mend their ways.

But, of course--and this is just the point Jesus is making--nobody paid any attention. They just kept on doing what they were doing, going about their business and practicing their wickedness as though nothing bad could ever possibly happen to them.

The Bible doesn't exactly describe what it was like for Noah in those days, but we can imagine. Whenever we see the story of Noah told in the movies or picture books, one of the scenes always included is that of Noah and his family building a huge boat in the middle of a very dry field. And always there are neighbors and passers-by who come to laugh and scoff and point their fingers at "that fool" Noah and his crazy ideas about a flood. We can imagine their taunts and their cruel jokes. Nobody believed that the world could actually end.

And so they carried on with their wicked ways. Eventually the novelty of Noah and his building project would have worn away and they would have dismissed him as just another kook. They didn't have time for him, for his God, or for his unwelcome ideas about righteous living.

But Jesus' point is just this: even though they didn't believe it, that didn't mean the flood was not coming. They didn't want to believe that God could be displeased with the way they were living, and so they ignored Him. And then, before they knew what was happening, the flood came and it was too late. God's judgment was very, very real.

And that, Jesus says, is what it will be like when He comes again. Whether people are ready or not, whether they believe it will really happen or not, there is a day of reckoning coming. There will be a day of judgment, and people will have to answer for the way they've lived.

Do you see how this is a word for our own day? No doubt we live in a world that is "corrupt" and "full of violence" (Gen. 6:11). Sin, of course, has been present in every generation of history. But today as much as any it seems that people are discounting the reality of judgment. More and more it seems as though the taboo is being taken off of wickedness. Materialism has become the "American Way" of life. Sexual immorality is not only permitted, it is now celebrated. We expect our politicians to lie. Killing is of course still punished, but we are increasingly producing people who think that violence is good. The major question in ethical debates is no longer "What is right or wrong?" but "What can I get away with?"

And the reason for this decline into sin is that the possibility of punishment is being denied. People--even Christians--just don't believe that God will actually punish sin. The prevailing train of thought appears to be: "It hasn't happened yet, so why should we worry about it happening at all?"

But the lesson of Noah, and the solemn warning of Jesus, is that judgment of sin is very, very real. It is coming, and it is not something to be ignored.

The Ark
So, the first lesson we learn from Noah is that, whether we believe it or not, judgment of sin is real. The second lesson comes from the writings of Peter. 1 Peter 3:18-21:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.

The second lesson we learn from Noah's story is this: God has made provision to save some from judgment. Let me repeat that: Even though the judgment of sin is very, very real--and is definitely coming--God has made provision to save some.

This is the point that Peter is making. He says that in the ark "a few people, eight in all, were saved through water."

That, of course, is the dominant idea in the Noah story. Even though God determines that He is going to cleanse the earth with a flood, He first comes to Noah with very specific instructions on how to build an ark. He makes sure that Noah and his family will have exactly what they need for themselves, as well as the animals, to be saved.

I think it is no small matter that the Bible tells us that God provided Noah with the exact dimensions of the boat he was to build. He didn't just come and say: "Hey Noah, there's going to be a flood, build a boat." Remember, Noah probably would have had no idea what a boat would look like. Instead, God comes with a blueprint and the building materials and everything planned out in advance.

It's also interesting to note that a boat built to the specifications given in scripture would have been more than adequate to perform the task for which it was designed. Many people scoff at the story of Noah because they can't conceive of a boat big enough to carry two of every animal on earth. The whole story is a fantasy, they suggest, because the very idea is absurd. But a careful look at the figures demonstrates that this is not true.

According to several commentators, a vessel built 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high would have yielded a boat with a carrying capacity of approximately 1.4 million cubic feet. For comparison's sake, that carrying capacity would be roughly equivalent to 522 standard livestock cars. Liberal estimates place the number of animal and bird species who would have had to accompany Noah at about 35,000, meaning the ark would have contained about 70,000 animals. This seems like a lot, but when we keep in mind that most of these creatures would have been insects and the like, we realize that the average size of the animals on the ark would have been somewhat smaller than a sheep. Since 240 sheep fit comfortably in one railroad car, simple calculations show us that only about half of the carrying space of the ark would have been taken by animals, leaving ample space for people, food, water, and whatever other provisions may have been necessary. (Morris, p. 108-109 and Boice, p. 328-329)

Moreover, simulated tests on scale model versions of the ark built to the Bible's dimensions show that a design like this would have been extremely stable and nearly impossible to capsize. Clearly, since it could hardly be expected that anyone in Bible times would have known so much about ship building, this design came directly from the mind of God (for comparison's sake, it was not until 1858 that a ship of greater length--"The Great Eastern" was built).

The point is that even as God brought judgment upon the world He made provision for some to be saved. He saw to it that Noah and his family--as well as the parent population of the animal kingdom--would be kept safe.

Of course, the correlation to our own time and place is obvious. Just as in Noah's day God provided salvation through the ark, so today He has made provision for our salvation in Jesus Christ. That's just the point that Peter is making when he says "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."

Jesus Christ is the new ark which saves us from the coming judgment. In the death, resurrection and Lordship of Jesus God has provided the means for us to escape His wrath.

The Evidence of Things Unseen
This, in turn, leads us to our third lesson from the story of Noah. The third New Testament passage to refer to Noah is Hebrews 11:7. Our Hall of Faith:

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

Here’s the third lesson we can learn from Noah’s ark: the key difference between those who are saved and those who are not is the gift of faith. Let me repeat that. Though some may deny it, there is a judgment of sin coming. Yet, God has made a provision for some to be saved. And the key difference between those who are saved and those who are not is the gift of faith.

Do you see that? Do you see the point this verse in Hebrews is making? Noah had faith. When God warned Him about the coming flood he actually believed God and obeyed His commands. He built a huge boat out in the middle of a dry field for 120 years because he had faith that what God had said would really happen. He and his family were kept safe in that ark, but it was his faith in the Lord that protected them.

An important verse is Genesis 6:9. It says that:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.

What does that mean? "Noah was a righteous man"? It doesn't mean that Noah had never sinned. When we read Genesis 9, we see him sinning. But it does mean that Noah was basically a good, godly person. It means that he trusted God.

But, the big question is: How did he get that way? The answer lies in the verse that comes just before it. Genesis 6:8:

But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Noah did not find favor because he was a righteous man, but rather he became righteous because he found favor from the Lord. Like everyone else in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, Noah is a righteous person because of God's grace alone, and he experienced that righteousness through faith alone. He was saved because God gave him the gift of faith.

The same thing is true for each of us. None of us can ever earn God's favor. If God were looking for men and women who on their own, without any help from Him, were living righteous lives, He would come up empty. Those people don't exist.

Yet, in His grace, God chooses to show favor to many. He enables people to stop trusting in themselves and put their trust in Jesus Christ. That is how someone becomes a Christian, a child of God. When by God's grace we trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, we escape eternal hell and find God's protection in the midst of judgment.

There is nothing more important than making sure our faith is truly in Jesus Christ. Because if we are not believers in Jesus we are in just as much danger as those people standing outside the ark when the door closed. No matter how good they were as swimmers, they were not going to make it through the flood. No matter how religious or good a person we may be, we are never going to be good enough to escape God's judgment. We can only experience God's salvation by turning to Jesus Christ. If you have not done that, that is what you need to do today. That is the most important lesson we can learn from the story of Noah.

But, beyond that, this story also helps us to learn what genuine faith looks like. The thing is: there are lots of folks who say they "believe in Jesus" but who are not genuine Christians. They believe in Jesus the same way they believe in Abraham Lincoln. They believe both men existed and were good guys. But, that is not genuine, Biblical faith.

Noah shows that one of the marks of genuine faith is that it leads to action. Faith means obedience. This passage in Hebrews says that because Noah had faith, he obeyed God. “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family.”

If Noah said, "Sure, I believe You, God," but then never got around to building the ark, he would have gotten wet, and he would have demonstrated that his faith was not real.

And so, if God has given you that gift of faith, you need to put it to work. I'm not saying that you can earn righteousness in the eyes of God, but if you want to know if your faith in Him is real the test is to ask yourself whether or not you are obeying His commands. He may not be calling you to build a literal ark, but He is calling you to trust Him in all sorts of ways.

So where is God asking you to exercise faith today?
Maybe He wants you to use your retirement years serving in a mission field.
Maybe He wants you to get financially behind some new ministry.
Maybe He wants you to expand your family by adopting a needy child.
Maybe He wants you to work on your marriage at a marriage retreat.
Maybe He wants you to do something totally unexpected and new.
Maybe He wants you to simply stop trusting in yourself and start trusting in Him.

God is calling us to put our faith in Him. Faith leads to obedience. Whatever your particular ark looks like, are you willing to build it?