READ : Genesis 22:1-14
It is the glory and substance of faith to go on trusting and obeying God, not because of what happens to us, but in spite of it.
One of the most distressing stories in the Bible is about the day God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Here is what happened:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide.” And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
Genesis 22:1-14, niv
Reading this story raises some hard-to-answer questions. It raises questions about God, specifically, how could he and why would he? How could God order Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, when we know from the Bible that such a thing is utterly abhorrent to God?
Many ancient cultures practiced human sacrifice on the rationale that if offering the life of an animal to the gods was good for securing their favor, then offering the life of a person was even better. But this whole approach to the real God is wrong, because we cannot buy his favor with our sacrifices. We cannot bargain with God. There is nothing we can offer God that can earn his good will – not even were we to offer the most precious thing we possess, our own children. This is what the Bible says:
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? . . .
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Biblical faith teaches us not to try to merit or buy God’s approval through offerings or gifts but instead to trust in the sacrifice he has made for us through Jesus on the cross. We should come to him with nothing but humble repentance and faithful obedience. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). So why then would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac?
The story also raises some questions about Abraham himself. Why was he prepared to do this terrible deed? Can this really be an act of faith?
I used to live in a small town where a dreadful incident that had happened decades earlier was still remembered. In the early years of the twentieth century a local farmer believed that God was telling him to sacrifice his own son as a test of obedience. One fateful day he took his boy out into a field and killed him. The farmer spent the rest of his days confined to an institution for the criminally insane, as well he should have.
But Abraham was not insane; he was not horribly misguided. For him somehow it was different. This was a unique and unrepeatable test, just for Abraham. We don’t know how God spoke to him or how Abraham knew that it really was the Lord who was making that terrible demand. All we can say for certain is that, for reasons we may not fully understand, God chose this terrible test of faith for the man who would become the father of all the faithful.
A TEST OF FAITH
This, in fact, is exactly what the New Testament writer to the Hebrews tells us about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Heb. 11:17). The whole episode was the supreme test of Abraham’s faith. The purpose of the test was, as the angel implied, to see how much Abraham feared God – that is, took him seriously, held him in awe, obeyed him absolutely.
One biblical scholar says this, “God tests to discern the identity of his people – who is serious about faith – and to know in whose lives he will be fully God” (Walter Brueggemann).
We know that God did not really want Abraham to offer up his son, and that he had a substitute planned to take Isaac’s place. But Abraham did not know that. He only knew that he had to give up God’s best gift to him, one who was dearer to him than anything else in all the world. Imagine the horror that must have seized Abraham’s soul when God’s command came to him.
This was the nature of the test to which Abraham’s faith was put when God’s demand upon him seemed to conflict with God’s promises to him. God had promised descendants through Isaac. Now Isaac must be killed. How could this be? Abraham did not know, but he submitted to the demand without losing hope in the promise.
“We will come back [from the mountain],” he told Isaac and his servants; “the Lord himself will provide.”
The writer to the Hebrews says this about it:
He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from the dead.
Abraham believed, you see, that the Lord would somehow keep his word. The struggle for Abraham was to reconcile God’s demand for Isaac with his promise about Isaac. Abraham could have rejected the one, or given up on believing the other, but he held on to both. He decided that if necessary God could even raise Isaac from the dead. And, in a sense, that is just what happened.
You and I will never be asked to do exactly what Abraham was asked to do, but our faith might be tested in the same way, and perhaps just as severely. Faith is tested whenever suffering comes, when things happen to us that make it seem impossible that the Lord could still keep his good promises to us. Faith is tested when God’s hard demands upon us seem to conflict with his wonderful promises to us. What it comes down to is this: Do you still love, fear and trust God absolutely, even when appearances are against him and faith doesn’t seem to be paying off for you?
I hope that you are a person of faith, a follower of the Lord Jesus. All the promises of God find their fulfillment only in him. But if you are, I have to warn you of this: The day may come when God asks you for your Isaac. It may very well happen that he will demand what is most precious to you, your dearest love, your most cherished possession. He may open your heart, examine the secret treasure you hold there, and ask you to give it up.
It could be your husband, your wife, your child, or your dream of having all those things. It could be your career or job, your health, whatever holds the key to your earthly happiness.
Somehow God will demand it for reasons you can’t understand. And when that happens, the test for you will be whether you can go on believing his goodness and his promises to you. Will you still trust in God? Will you believe that God is still good, that his plan for you is happiness and joy, and that he will save and bless you? It is the glory and substance of faith to go on trusting and obeying God, not because of what happens to us, but in spite of it.
One other point has to be made about the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. The book of Hebrews says that the sacrifice which was interrupted when God sent the angel to stop Abraham still took place in a figurative sense. “Figuratively speaking,” Isaac did die and rise again from the dead on that mountain. The words in Hebrews 11:19 which are translated “figuratively speaking” literally mean “in the form of a parable.”
The mountain where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac was the site where, many years later, the city of Jerusalem would be built. It was, in fact, the very spot on which the temple stood. The great drama that unfolded on that day when Abraham climbed the hill with his son bearing the load of wood on his back, when he built the altar, and stretched Isaac out upon it, and prepared to strike him with his own hand – it was all a parable, a foreshadowing of a much greater drama that would take place two thousand years later on another hill in the very same place.
For next to Mount Moriah is Mount Calvary, the hill called Golgotha (the place of the skull). I can’t read the story of Abraham’s sacrifice without seeing in my mind’s eye that other hill, and that other day, and another Father and his Son. This Son too carried the wood of the sacrifice upon his back, in the form of a cross. He was stretched out upon it and bound and then raised up on it to die between heaven and earth. No angel stayed the Father’s hand that day. No ram was found that could be a substitute.
God did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all. Will he not also freely give us all things with him?
Romans 8:32, rsv
Whoever you are, if you know about this Father’s love, if you believe in his Son Jesus Christ, then you can be sure that he will also give you everything in Christ someday – everything you could hope for, more than you could dream. However hard your life may be now, and however much your faith is tested, he will give you all that he has promised in the end.
John Bunyan, that great Puritan, used to encourage his little congregation with this reminder: “Dear children, always remember that the milk and honey is beyond this wilderness.” The life of Abraham, the Father of the faithful, teaches all of us the same lesson. We live by faith in the promises of God. Our faith is tested day by day as we travel through the wilderness of this world. But someday all that God has to give will be ours. So let’s keep on walking in faith toward the promised land!