Noah’s Ark… What is the first thing that popped into your mind? Probably pictures from a child’s Bible Story book of animals filing in to a large wooden boat 2 by 2. Maybe a rainbow and an elderly couple.
The story of Noah’s Ark is a perennial favorite for introducing children to the stories of the Bible. “The Lord said to Noah there’s gonna be a floody floody Lord said to Noah there’s gonna be a floody floody Get my children (clap) out of the muddy muddy Children of the Lord. The Lord said to Noah go build me an arky arky Lord said to Noah go build me an arky arky. Build it out of (clap) gopher barky barky Children of the Lord.”
But there is much more in this biblical story than just fodder for children’s stories. And some of that theological meat is contained in the Ark itself. So today I want to explore some Ark Theology or Arky-ology. No, we are not going to dig up the remains of Noah’s ark. Instead we will examine the theological significance of the Ark.
Noah’s Ark, how big was it? The Bible gives the measurements in cubits: 300 x 50 x 30. A cubit is the distance from the elbow to the tip of your finger. So it is hard to tell exactly how big a cubit was for Noah. If he had long arms it could have been 2 feet. But on the average a cubit was probably about 18 inches.
Assuming a cubit of 18 inches the ark would have been 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. It had three decks and a roof. The decks would have been about 15 feet apart. It had no sail or rudder. But it did have a door that was big enough to let the animals and people in!
How much space is that? That is about 101,250 square feet of deck space. It would have been 1,518,750 cubic feet of space.
All those measurements are fine but I wanted to get a feel for how big it actually was. So I took some measurements. 75 feet is about one and a half times the width of the church. It is a little over 50 feet from one side to the other so picture that 1/2 again. It is a little over 15 feet from the floor to the ceiling so a few feet shy of the ceiling would have been the height of one deck on the ark and there would be two more like it above. Now you can see that part, but to get an idea of it length you have to imagine this room, half again as wide, extending all the way to the back of the parking lot. That is about 450 feet. To get a perspective on the square footage our new building is a little over 11,600 sq feet of floor space. The ark was about 9 times that!
While that is much larger than this church, we all have been in buildings larger. But this was made entirely of wood. And you couldn’t go to the lumber yard and buy pressure treated plywood back then either. The massive planks used to build this structure had to be hand cut with bronze age tools. They didn’t have power tools or epoxy tipped nails driven in by an air hammer either. They probably didn’t even have nails. It was probably held together by pegs and faith.
The sanctuary for the last church I served was built in the late 1800’s. Once while we were getting a leak in the roof fixed I went up in the oldest section of the attic. The main part of that structure was built before the invention of power tools and it is amazing how much wood was used. Imagine how massive the timbers had to be to not only support the weight of the ark itself, but also large animals and a stormy sea! The ark would be a massive structure in our day, but it must have been utterly amazing to the people of Noah’s day.
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So why all this talk about the size and structure of Noah’s ark? As you might have guessed it has a religious significance. You see the ark is a symbol of the church. Back in Noah’s day “the world was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence.”(6:14) We live in the same situation today. The world we live in is corrupt and full of violence.
Back in Noah’s day God sent Noah to build an ark. The purpose of this Ark was to save the animals and as many people as would enter the ark from the wickedness of the world and the coming destruction. 2,000 years ago God sent his Son to draw people unto himself and build a church. Not a physical structure made of wood like the ark, but a spiritual structure made of people who have given their lives to Christ. And this church is designed by God to be big enough and strong enough to carry us through the storms of this world; to save us from its corruption and violence and the coming judgment.
Just like the ark it has exacting specifications. God told Noah to make to ark of cypress or gopher wood. This was no ordinary wood. It was the highest quality of wood. In the same way God calls us to build the church out of people. But not every person will do. Only those who have given their lives to Christ are suited for being built into the church. We are called to be strengthened by the prayer and study to do the job. Most importantly God told Noah to make the ark big enough to hold all those who needed to be saved from the flood. And the door had to be big enough to let them in. In the same way God calls us to make the church big enough to accommodate all who will be saved and the door must be wide enough to let them in. The ark had no sail or rudder. It was not a boat. It was a big box. Noah and his family were told to simply seal themselves up in it and float. They were to trust God to guide them through the wind and the waves. In the same way we are called not to control the church but to trust God to guide us in the direction. That doesn’t mean we don’t make plans and try to carry them out. It means that we realize that our plans need to be God’s plans or they are useless. And that ultimately it is God who will guide us through this world of violence and corruption.
I assume Noah followed God’s specifications when he built the ark. I assume that because it worked! The problem is we don’t always follow God’s specification for the church. We give ourselves to God to be built into his church without properly dedicating ourselves to his service. God needs Christians who are spiritual redwoods, but most of us are spiritual balsa woods. Now you can’t change balsa wood into maple, but a spiritual light weight can grow closer to God and become stronger. Once we have surrendered to God’s will, then we will suitable for the church of Christ.
We also fail to make the church big enough. Now I am not talking about the physical structure but the spiritual and social structure of the church. Too often we scale down the church to fit our designs. We either actively or passively exclude people who fit God’s specs but not ours. Sometimes it is people who don’t dress well enough or who dress too well, or people who are not well educated or are too well educated. Sometimes we try to exclude those who have different theologies or stances on social issues or ways of worshipping.
But perhaps our biggest failing is in the area of sails and rudders. We try to control the church. We try to control where the church is going. It is one thing to try to discern the direction God is calling us, but it is another to try to decide where we want the church to go. Like Noah we have to seal ourselves up in the ark and trust God to guide the way.
The ark was not just a box that would sit there. It was sealed with pitch so that it would float. Often when the ark is pictured it is on a calm sea but I imagine it was pretty stormy and chaotic at times. If we would realize that this is the real picture of the church it would clear a lot things up. If we understood that our world is a chaotic and violent place, then we would realize that a sail and rudder will only get us in trouble. We can’t control the direction we are headed any more than we can control the wind and the waves.
This image of a lone boat in the vast sea might make us realize that we Christians are all in the same boat. We were all perishing in the chaotic and violent waves of this world when Jesus rescued us and pulled us into his boat. And it doesn’t matter what our socio-economic or ethno-political background is, we are all in the same boat. It doesn’t matter what our theology or our preferred mode of worship is. What matters is that Jesus reached out a hand to save us and we accepted it. In a life boat there are no princes and paupers. We are all merely survivors!
The church is a life boat. It is an ark designed by God to save all who will but enter it. Let us remember that God will destroy this world. Not with a flood this time but with fire. And we who are in the ark will be saved, while those who aren’t will perish!
Copyright 2008, Alex Stevenson. Used by permission.