'SERPENT CRUSHER OR SERPENT CRUSHERS?'
RE-THINKING THE TRAJECTORY OF GENESIS 3:15
About two years ago now I came to preach on Genesis 3, and I found myself thinking again about how it points us to Christ. I'm convinced it does. But in what way? So I found myself pondering again the ways in which I've heard others answer that question. Because on many occasions, at least in the circles I move in, I've heard people explain the Biblical Theology of Genesis 3 in a way that I'm not sure is right.
I'm referring to the idea that Genesis 3:15 is the first explicit statement of Messianic expectation in the Old Testament. From that moment on, so people say, the narrative invites us to await the appearance of the Serpent Crusher- the one who will crush Satan under his feet and thus reverse the effects of the fall. Furthermore, as Christian readers of the Old Testament, people have taught that we should see in this verse God's plan to send his Christ to deliver humanity from themselves. Jesus is the Serpent Crusher of Genesis 3:15. Or so the story goes . . .
Up to a point, this makes sense. Verse 15 certainly jumps out of the otherwise bleak picture of Genesis 3 and shines its hopeful ray of future anticipation upon the reader. I think the narrative does invite us to expect the Serpent Crusher (or Crushers?) to come and put right that which has been messed up by human sin. But my question is about whether this is to be seen as a necessarily Messianic expectation. Is this really a foreshadowing of Jesus? Certainly as we read on in Genesis we are disappointed to discover that none of the immediate descendants of Eve are "crushing the serpent"- bringing evil to an end. So we are left asking the questions, 'Who will crush the serpent's head?', 'When will the effects of the fall be reversed?'
Well, if biblical theology has taught us anything, it's that we should turn to the New Testament for our answers. In particular, we will look to see how New Testament writers refer to Genesis 3:15. So, what do we find?
One of the interesting things about that question is that there is only one place anywhere else in the Bible where deliberate reference is clearly made to Genesis 3:15 (I'm not convinced that either Psalm 110 or Galatians 3 have Genesis 3 in mind). That in itself is strange if Genesis 3:15 is really the fundamental building-block of Messianic expectation that people say it is. Why don't the Old Testament prophets remind us of the coming Messiah in those terms? Why doesn't Jesus ever speak of himself as the Serpent Crusher? Why is the New Testament strangely quiet when it comes to unpacking the work of Christ with respect to Genesis 3:15?
Nevertheless, we are not left in the dark to sketch the trajectories of Genesis 3:15 into the New Covenant by ourselves. The Apostle Paul offers us at least one Spirit-inspired thought. I'm speaking of course of Romans 16:20. At the conclusion of his epistle, Paul encourages the Roman Christians with these words: 'And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet'.
What do we learn, then, about how Paul would answer the questions raised for us by Genesis 3:15? (a) Who is the Serpent Crusher? And, (b) When will the serpent be crushed?
Unless I'm very much mistaken, Paul's answers seem to be: (a) the Roman Christians, and (b) 'soon'. Paul's answer to the "who" question interprets Genesis 3:15 as pointing not to a singular fulfillment in a messianic man, but to a plural (or corporate) fulfillment in the followers of the Messiah. And Paul's answer to the "when" question points to an eschatological moment the world is yet to see.
As I read Romans 16:20, the Spirit casts my mind back to Genesis 3 and encourages me that I myself, as one of God's New Covenant people, am a Serpent Crusher. I am a part of that great company of Jesus' followers who will one day enjoy the overthrow of the curse as I dance on Satan's head. But the Spirit also cautions me not to strap on my dancing shoes just yet. I'm not a Serpent Crusher right now. However, I will be 'soon', says Paul, and so I rejoice in that beautiful 'soon' of eschatological anticipation so common to the New Testament's call for patience and endurance.
Of course, when I dance on Satan's head and the curse is reversed it will be for no other reason than that my Lord Jesus defeated and disarmed Satan in his death and resurrection (Colossians 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14-15). In that more muted sense, Jesus is anticipated in Genesis 3:15. But as far as Paul is concerned, Genesis 3:15 is not a prediction about Jesus and it's not a prediction about when Jesus came the first time. It's a prediction about the very end of time when God will finally and perfectly make everything right, when the effects of the curse will no longer be felt, and when God's own people will enjoy the spoils of Christ's victory themselves.
This is my question: Is it possible that the populist Christological interpretation of Genesis 3:15 has seen people exalt their debt to Luther and the biblical theological meta-narrative over and above sensible exegesis and sound hermeneutical principles?
When I preached my sermon on Genesis 3, I resisted following the line I've heard many others articulate. I still spoke of the ways in which Genesis 3 reminds us of the black hearts which only Jesus can deliver us from, but I emphasised what the New Testament emphasises- that one day we will find ourselves fulfilling what Genesis 3:15 foreshadowed.
Next time you preach on Genesis 3, how will you explain verse 15?
For a more comprehensive discussion, see Simon's article "Serpent crusher or serpent crushers? Preaching Genesis 3 in the light of the gospel."
Simon Flinders is on the staff team at St. Thomas' Anglican Church in North Sydney where he pastors the 5pm Congregation. In his spare time he is also the Chaplain to the NSW Cricket team which enables him to combine two great passions- cricket and Jesus! Simon also enjoys good food, good friends, and being tickled by his 2 year old daughter.'