God blessed them and said to them,
“Be fruitful and increase in number;
fill the earth and subdue it.”
This verse is a bit like an acorn: small and seemingly unimpressive, it holds the potential of a mighty oak tree. In the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” we can discern the seed of all culture, science, technology, and art. From a theological perspective, this “acorn” finds its fulfillment in the church of Christ, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
This mandate comes at an important place in the Genesis story. God has just declared his intention to create human beings in his image. This means, at the very least, that as humans we resemble God in certain ways and have a certain responsibility toward him, like a son resembles his father and is responsible to love and honor him. But this opens an important question: what responsibility do we have toward the world we are in? After all, although we are unique among the other creatures in that we alone bear God’s image, we are made of the same stuff. What are humans to do in the world?
That is the question this verse plainly answers: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion. ” As we study this command, we will see what it teaches us about (1) God’s character in giving the command; (2) our abilities and inabilities to fulfill the command; and (3) God’s intent to fulfill the command.
1. The Character of God
First, this verse has much to teach us about the character of God. Note, to begin with, that in the very giving of this command God also gives a blessing. “And God blessed them.” He pairs his command with a blessing to show us that to be told to do something by God and to be blessed by God are not two contradictory things, but one and the same. God’s commands are blessings, and in this truth God discloses to us the goodness of his heart.
How different this is from the way we tend to think about God’s commands! We hear an command, and suspect that God is thereby burdening us with something unpleasant or barring us from something we’d like to have or experience. We have certainly learned by experience that this is often true with human authorities. Someone in charge of us issues a command, and we are not immediately convinced that he or she has our best interest at heart. We might even wonder silently to ourselves, “What do you really want? What’s in it for you?”
But I can think of a couple examples in my life when I have received a command that was unquestionably a blessing. From time to time, kind friends have given my wife and me an amount of money and said: “This is for you. Now spend it on a date, or on a pizza and movie night with your family.” Now there is a command I am happy to obey because with it comes a blessing!
By linking blessing and command, God wants us to know that his commands “are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). When he tells us to do something, he does so to prompt us toward what is good. When he forbids us from doing something, he is guarding us from something harmful to us and protecting something precious to us. So let’s discard any view of God that sees him as grouchy, stingy, tight-fisted, or arbitrary. He is good in all he does, even in his giving us commands!
This means that for all of God’s commandments, we can both obey with our will and inquire with our minds. God requires obedience, but not blind obedience. Granted, we must not wait to obey only until it makes full sense to us: this is why trust is required. But when we yield our wills to God’s commands, his commands often yield blessings to our inquiring minds. Why would he tell us, “You shall have no other gods before me,” if not to protect us from the cruel tyranny of serving a god who cannot save us?” Why would he tell us, “You shall not steal?” if not to direct our attention to his gracious provision for all our needs? Why would he forbid us from lying if not to protect the fabric of healthy relationships—truth and transparency? Commands and blessings do not come from two separate gods—the one malicious, the other generous. No, our God is one God, and when he gives commands, he blesses too.
And there is something else we learn about God: in the command itself, we see his wisdom. He told humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it,” teaching us that he wants a world that is both full and developed. He had created a good universe but left it undeveloped like a furled rosebud, or an uncultivated garden plot. Between the world as it was and the world as it could be, he left a great gap to be filled by human development, cultivation, and progress. Here is the seedbed of all science, technology, and art. In each of these domains, we take what God has created, and work as ‘subcreators.’ In the sciences, we apply our minds to what he has created—weighing, measuring, investigating, discerning patterns and correlations among other aspects of creation. In technology, we take what he has created and organize and assemble it in ways that maximize the benefits and help us in our work. In art, we imitate what he has created, arranging it in ways that delight, entertain, and deeply move us.
Finally, in the recipients of the command, we see God’s grace. This responsibility to cultivate this garden, to develop this latent beauty and usefulness into fuller beauty and usefulness, God has delegated to us his creatures. In this respect, God is like a master composer who leaves room in the music score for the notes themselves to write in more harmonies. He is like a master artist whose paints can add more texture, color, and detail. God has taken a bit of dirt, fashioned it into a human being, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, put him into a garden, and said to him: “There is a part you have in this. By working in this garden, you can bring about its full development.”
We would do well to pause to consider how this raises our affection for God. Whatever temperature your love is for God, doesn’t this raise it at least one degree? Doesn’t this widen your vision of who God is, and increase your admiration of him? Let us be taught by this command what a good, wise, and gracious God we have!
2. What we learn about ourselves.
Second, this command suggests some things about ourselves: specifically, our ability and inability to fulfill this command.
Consider first our ability to fulfill this command. Recall that God wants a world that is both full and developed. So the very way he fashions us answers to that twofold desire. In order for the world to be developed, humans must have bodies—eyes to drink in light and motion; ears to sense vibrations; hands to touch and feel; feet to take them places; a brain to think with. We are not disembodied spirits; on the contrary, we interact in tangible, concrete ways with the world we inhabit. Our earthly embodiment answers to God’s desire that the world be developed. But he also wants the world to be full of people, and for that God made us male and female so that we may reproduce and fill the earth. So in both our embodiment in general, and our embodiment as male and female, we are God’s image bearers, able to fill and develop God’s good earth.
But this is not the whole story. Our God-given abilities notwithstanding, we have proven ourselves unable to fill and develop the earth as God intended. But it is not because we didn’t procreate or cultivate; rather, it was because human procreation and cultivation proceeded in the wrong direction.
Immediately after the first sin, problems developed in the male-female relationship. Adam blamed Eve for his role in the act of disobedience. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Even further marital disruption is suggested in God’s words to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). When Adam and Eve were “fruitful” in having a child, their own rebellion was replicated—and intensified!—in that second generation: Cain murdered Abel. Civilization indeed began to take root, but its technology, science, and art (the Bible speaks of “instruments of bronze and iron” as well as “the lyre and harp,” 6:20-22) are of Cain’s unruly descendants and not submitted to the service of God. By the time we get to Genesis 6, the earth is “full”—but of violence!
Everywhere we look today, we see confirmations of this dire diagnosis: “God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Even within our own bodies, families, and communities we feel the tension between the way things are and the way we sense they should be.
Our late-modern Western culture, neither understanding this tension nor grasping how to deal with it, is eager to offer counsel—counsel we must reject in favor of the wisdom of the Bible. When it comes to our bodies, for example, we feel a vexing tension between the way our bodies are and the way we wish them to be. Our culture has many ways of approaching this issue, but one common approach is to insist that the most important thing about you is how closely your body conforms to a particular body type. The fact that this message is not stated in so many words makes it all the more powerful. It wields enormous influence on people both young and old and motivates them in their diet and workout routines. It trains us, unconsciously perhaps, to judge the worth of ourselves and of others according to how closely their bodies measure up to this ideal. That bodily ideal, then, becomes a kind of prison holding hostage our feelings, judgment, and even sense of self-worth.
The Bible presents a radically different approach to navigating the tension we feel with regard to our bodies. It is true, of course, that humans have bodies, and that our bodies are an essential part of what it means to be human. But we are more than our bodies, more than the dust that will eventually “return to dust” (Genesis 3:19). People will “look at the outward appearance,” but “the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). In the grand scheme of things, “beauty is fleeting”—it lasts a very short time!—“but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Paul speaks of our bodies as “jars of clay”—frail and temporary, and acknowledges that “outwardly we are wasting away” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 16). Our worth is not to be evaluated—either by ourselves or anyone else—by our conformity to some bodily ideal of strength, shape, or skin tone. God has already told us our worth: we are his image-bearers.
Another way in which people try to deal with this tension is by insisting that a person’s body is hardly a relevant factor in our humanness. This view is dualistic: it splits one’s self (or soul) from one’s body. It tries to present itself as wise corrective to the idolatrous glorification of the body. But because it ignores Biblical wisdom, it takes us down an equally wrong path. In ancient times, this view resulted in extreme asceticism—denying the goodness of food, proper exercise, sleep, and sex. In modern times, according to this approach, a person’s true self is the sum total of one’s present feelings, and if the body fails to correspond to that person’s feelings, it is viewed as a prison from which one needs to escape.
If the first approach wrongly exaggerates a certain bodily ideal, this approach fails to give due honor to our bodies. Our bodies are not prisons of the self; they are gifts from God through which, despite their flaws and frailties, we manifest ourselves. While we may experience conflicted feelings about our physical existence, it remains true our bodies including our maleness and femaleness, are the means through which God intends for us to interact with our world for his glory.
This is better news that any message that our culture, bereft of God’s wisdom, can deliver! It honors the body without worshiping it. It helps us take an honest view of the flaws, frailties and frustrations we feel about our bodies, without despising them. “I praise you,” sings the psalmist, “because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
The question we ought to be asking about our bodies is not, “How can I get the body I want?” Nor is it, “How can I escape the body I have?” It is, rather, “Who is my body for?” When we ask that question—humbly, honestly, and faithfully—it will lead us to consider the wise, good, and gracious God who gave us our bodies for our good and his glory.
3. What We Learn About God’s Plan to Fulfill This Command
But to return to the command of Genesis 1:28, the question still must be asked: Since we are unable to fulfill this command to fill and cultivate the world for God’s glory, how will it be fulfilled? The answer may come as a surprise: God himself fulfills this command by taking on a body. “The Word”—that is, God himself—“became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). What we, because of our sin, could not do—that is what God did.
Consider how God fulfills this command through the body of Jesus. Jesus—who is the embodiment of God and is God himself—had a body; but it was not a flawless body. Scripture does not give us any direct description of Jesus’ physical appearance, but a prophecy of Isaiah suggests that Jesus’ body was not uniquely impressive: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Not only did Jesus’ face and physique apparently not leave people in awe, but his body was also subject to fatigue, hunger, and thirst. Like us, he needed rest. He was not immune to the draining effect of pressure and sorrows.
Not only did Jesus have a flawed body, but he also used this body to reverse the pain and suffering that had filled the world. He used his hands to touch and heal people infected with noxious diseases. He used his arms to embrace children, and his knees for them to sit upon. He used his lips to comfort the sorrowing, to instruct the ignorant, and to confront the arrogant. He used his eyes to weep tears of compassion. He even used his saliva to make mud and apply it as a healing plaster to the eyes of a man born blind. He used his feet to take him where others refused to go. With his body, weak and flawed as it was, he was filling the earth and developing it, pushing back the effects of the curse that had spread ever since the fall.
But Jesus did not come merely to use his body. More than that, he came to give his body. This is what he kept telling people, but they did not understand. “I am like bread from heaven,” he taught. “The bread you eat every day can only sustain your life for a little while. Take me, the Living Bread, and you will never die” (see John 6:51-59). His last supper with his disciples was intended to help them understand this. Breaking bread and passing around wine, he said, “This is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19).
Then, hours later on Mount Calvary, the “bread” was broken and the “wine” was poured out. His beard was yanked from his cheeks. His face was slapped. His head was punctured with a crown of thorns. He gave his back to the whip, his hands to the nails, his side to the spear.
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down—
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
To us who have failed to use our bodies as we should—to us whose bodies now feel the disintegrating effects of the fall—Jesus gives us a command which is also a blessing: take me, trust me.
If you find it difficult to trust a God who gives commands, can you trust a God who, with the command, gives you himself? To you who struggle to trust and obey him—I ask, what more could he do to invite your faith and obedience? This is amazing, heart-melting, soul-stirring, obedience-inspiring love!
But our wonder and adoration does not stop at the fact that Jesus gave himself to fulfill this command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” He gave us his body to make us his “body”—that is, so that we can become the way his presence is seen and felt on earth. This is why the church is called “the body of Christ.” We can hardly grasp the immense privilege of what this entails, and would not believe it except that Scripture insists upon it: the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:23). In words echoing the Genesis 1:28 mandate, Jesus told his followers to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). By telling others about the good news of Jesus’ victory of sin and death, we are in a very important sense fulfilling the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”!
Yet one more thing should be said about how God intends to completely fulfill this command. The rot of sin runs so deep in this world that it will require a radical renovation to make it right. One day Christ will return. He will finish what he started, and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). And our bodies, which for now are like “jars of clay” will be transformed to be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). As the Apostle Paul writes,
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
Until then, may we walk by faith that “though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Yes, his command to “be fruitful and multiply” is a blessing in the truest sense: it turns back the corrosive tide of sin and replaces it with an never-ending ocean of goodness.