Adventures in Faith – Abraham 14. The Ultimate Test
There is one story in the record of Abraham’s life that towers above all the rest. Nothing else can be compared with it. I speak of Abraham offering his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. If you are a parent, this story cannot fail to grip your heart.
Problems With This Story
In reading this story we face several problems. The first and largest deals with the issue of God’s character. How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only Son? Perhaps the only adequate reply is the obvious one—that we humans are hardly in a position to criticize Almighty God on any grounds whatsoever.
There is a second problem that is more or less related to the first. Because we all feel the problem of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, there is an unconscious tendency to read this story backwards. That is, we start with the fact that Abraham didn’t have to sacrifice Isaac even though God asked him to, and we say, “See, God never wanted Isaac to die in the first place.” Although that statement is true on one level, we risk missing the meaning of the text if we go too far down that road. Because whatever else might be true, it is unquestionably true that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son – v. 1, 2.
It would have been enough if God has simply said, “Take your son.” But he qualified that phrase 3 ways. Your only son—not forgetting Ishmael who was also his son, but meaning that Isaac was the promised son. Isaac—the son for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for 25 long years. Whom you love—which might seem as if God were mocking him, but these words were meant to reassure him that God knew what he was asking. By saying it this way, Abraham would know that God understood what it would cost him to obey.
Let us be clear about what God was asking. He wanted Abraham to travel with his son to Moriah (which today is called Jerusalem) and build an altar of stones on one of the mountains. He would then make a platform of wood on the stones. Then Abraham was to ask Isaac to lie down on the wood. Then he would take a knife and slit Isaac’s throat in the same way that a sacrificial lamb was slain. Finally, he would light the wood, burning his son’s body as an offering to God.
This is what God told Abraham to do. At that point the man of faith only has 2 options - Either you obey or you don’t. If you stop to argue, that in itself is a form of disobedience. If you try to talk God out of it, that too is disobedience. If you offer an alternate plan, that is also disobedience.
“We Will Come Back to You” v. 3 - 5
Abraham’s obedience is immediate - it is unquestioning - it is filled with faith. Was it merely wishful thinking that made Abraham tell the servants that “we” will come back to you? Nowhere had God promised to spare his son. Yet somehow Abraham understood enough of God’s character that he was willing to do what God required in the faith that somehow God would work out the details and spare his son – v. 6 – 8.
Across the centuries Christians have seen in these words a prefiguring of the death of Christ on the cross. There is Abraham (representing God) placing the wood (representing the Cross) upon Isaac (representing Jesus Christ). It is the father offering his son freely and without complaint, just as God the Father offered Jesus for the sins of the whole world.
God Will Provide the Lamb
Somehow Abraham understood something of the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. When he said, “God himself will provide the lamb,” he was pointing not simply toward the altar on Mount Moriah, but to a greater sacrifice to be offered at the very same location almost 2000 years later when God provided the Ultimate Lamb—Jesus Christ—for the sin of the world – v. 9 - 14.
Did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Yes. Was it a legitimate request? Yes. Did Abraham know in advance how the story would end? No. Specifically, did he know about the ram in the thicket? No. Well, then, what was it that Abraham knew? He knew what God had asked him to do and he knew that God had promised - to give him a son through whom he would bless the world. What he didn’t know was how God was going to reconcile his promise (to bless the world through Isaac) and his command (to offer Isaac as a sacrifice).
Faith at its Highest Point
It is at this point that we see Abraham’s faith at its highest and best. Even though the command made no sense from a human point of view, Abraham intended to obey it anyway. Looking back on this incident some 20 centuries later, the writer of Hebrews explains it this way: Hebrews 11: 17 – 19.
Abraham planned to kill his own son! He meant to obey God’s command even though it meant killing God’s promise. How could a man do such a thing? Because he believed that God could raise the dead.
The picture is now complete. Abraham offers his son in death, placing upon his innocent shoulders the wood that will consume him with fire. He did it believing that God could raise the dead. Even so, our Heavenly Father offered his Son in death, placing upon him the weight of the sin of the world. He allowed his Son to die, knowing that he would raise him up on the 3rd day.
First the Test, Then the Blessing
The chapter contains one final scene: v. 15 – 19. Now it all begins to come clear. God intended to bless Abraham from the very beginning. But he could not do so without putting him to the ultimate test. In this case, that meant asking Abraham to sacrifice the most precious thing in his life. In a sense, you might say it this way: God needed to know something and Abraham needed to know something.
–God needed to know if Abraham would put his son ahead of his God
–Abraham needed to know if God could be trusted completely
When I say “God needed to know,” I don’t mean that literally because God already knew what Abraham would do. Yet the angel of the Lord said, “Now I know that you fear God.” Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrated the unquestioning obedience that God desired. Now God knows, Abraham knows, Isaac knows, and thousands of years later, we know that Abraham fears God and wants to please him.
Seen in this light, the text is simple to explain but it takes a lifetime to apply this truth. In fact, I dare say that God leads most of us again and again up Mount Moriah where we are asked to sacrifice the dearest and best in life.
God owns everything. We own nothing. Even our life itself is a gift from God. Everything we have is on loan from him, and he has the right to take back that which belongs to him at any moment.
Nothing Left But God
To say it that way raises a question about our text that I can’t clearly answer. Had Isaac become too important to Abraham? Was this child of the promise loved too much? Had he begun to take God’s place in Abraham’s thinking? We have no way to know whether this is so or not, but we may be sure that such things do happen for all of us.
I personally believe that God orchestrates the affairs of life—both the good and the bad—to bring us to the place where our faith will be in God alone. Slowly but surely as we go through life, he weans us away from the things of the world. At first the process touches only our possessions (which we can replace), but eventually it touches our relationships (which may not be replaced), then it touches our loved ones (who cannot be replaced), finally it touches life itself (which is never replaced). Then there is nothing left but us and God.
Through all this process our Heavenly Father leads us along the pathway of complete trust in him. Slowly but surely we discover that the things we thought we couldn’t live without don’t matter as much as we thought they did. Even the dearest and sweetest things of life take second place to the pleasure of knowing God. In the end we discover that he has emptied our hands of everything and then filled them with himself.
Hold Lightly What God Has Given You
I only dimly understand the full meaning of this. At this point in my life I still have many things in my hands—my wife, my 3 daughters, my boy, my grandchildren, my friends, my career, my health, my dreams, my plans for the future. But the process of growing older is nothing more than this—learning to hold lightly the things God has given you, knowing that you can’t keep them forever anyway. At any moment, God can take them away—one by one, two at a time, or all of them together. Or he could take back the life he gave me 64 years ago.
If I have any advice for you, it is this. Learn to hold lightly what God has given you. You can’t keep it forever and you can’t take it with you.
Some of you are in the midst of a great struggle in your life. You feel pressured about something and you don’t want to give it up. But you must … and you will. I can’t spare you the pain of yielding your dearest treasures to God, but I promise you the joy will far outweigh the pain you feel right now.
How Much Does God Love You?
I close by reminding you that in this story we see a beautiful picture of God’s love. Here we see what a man would do for the love of God. But at Calvary we see what God would do for the love of man. Abraham was only asked to sacrifice Isaac; God actually sacrificed his only Son. More than that, Jesus endured physical death and spiritual death to obtain redemption for sinners. When God’s hand was raised at Calvary, there was no one to cry out, “Stop. Do not harm the child.” There was no ram in the thicket to offer in his place. So God’s hand fell in judgment on his own Son, and Jesus died for you and me.
This is what God did for you and for me. How much does God love us? Look to the bloody Cross and there you will find your answer.