Open your bibles to Genesis 22. We come to a critical section of Genesis this morning. As you’re turning there, let me remind you how we began this series. We started by looking at Luke 24, a scene that occurred after the resurrection along the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are leaving Jerusalem, devastated by the crucifixion, when Jesus appears. After inquiring about their attitude he begins to show them how the Scriptures speak of him. We read in verse 27, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Then we began looking at key events and characters in Genesis. We considered the order that God established in the first two chapters including the creation of the world and the first marriage. Then we looked at how the world began to spiral out of control with the first sin, the first murder, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Then we came to the covenant promises to Abraham. Several weeks ago we considered the call of the covenant. Then we looked at the rewards of the covenant. And last week we saw that God gave Abraham a sign by which he might have a physical reminder of the spiritual realities of the covenant.
Now we come to one of the most dramatic scenes in the bible. At one level it is difficult to comprehend, but Moses does an amazing job describing the action in vivid detail.
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.
This is the Word of the LORD.
I’m sure most of us are familiar with this story. It is one of the better known passages in the book of Genesis. But what is going on here? Why did God give Abraham such a test? Would you pass the test? If God commanded you to kill your son would you do it? It seems so out of character and even contradictory to the character of God.
This is a passage of Scripture that can be difficult to preach because of the familiarity of the text and the tendency to skip along the surface. Most of the time the passage is taught to show us something of the strength of Abraham’s faith. He went in obedience without hesitation or explanation. I don’t think there can be any doubt that that is one of the main points of this passage. But I also believe there is something more fundamental at the core.
We first have to ask the question: What kind of God would require such a test?
First, we will look at A Crushing Command (1-2). Second, we’ll see A Devoted Dependence (3-10). And third, we will see A Promised Possession (11-19).
A Crushing Command (1-2)
Right of the bat the readers are let in on a critical detail that was not at all clear to Abraham. We know that this is a “test” and that Isaac will not actually be slaughtered. But, again, that wasn’t clear to Abraham. His name is mentioned twice here and twice again in verse 19 which marks the end of this passage.
One thing we can’t move beyond too quickly is the severity of God’s test of Abraham. We must consider how unreasonable God’s request was. The words “Son” or “only son” are mentioned thirteen times in this passage! Moses strikes that same note over and over again. And we are all aware of the fact that this was a miracle child, born to Abraham at the age of 100, Sarah being 90. If leaving his father in chapter 12 was hard, and watching his son Ishmael wander off into the desert in chapter 21 was difficult, surely the command to kill his son is terrible. And the way in which he is commanded to do it calls into question the goodness of God and his commitment to fulfill the covenant promises (which depend upon an heir). Not only would their family be destroyed by this, but their future would also be in question.
Why does God do it? What is his purpose in testing Abraham? After his obedience in receiving the sign of circumcision was there any further doubt?
God’s tests are always meant to refine and strengthen our faith, never to lead us into temptation (James 1:13). In Exodus 20:20 we read, “Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
So often, especially among young Christians, the question is “How much can I get away with?” We want to know what is the least I need to do in order to stay in a right relationship with God. We take the commands of God lightly when we are trying to figure out what we can get away with. If this passage teaches us anything, it is that God’s are not minimalistic. He doesn’t demand the least of us, he demands everything. We cannot play games with God by simplifying his authority or expectations of us. Following God is costly. Following after God requires a forsaking of all others.
We should anticipate trials. The Christian life is not about making things easy, in fact it will often get much more difficult. In Luke 14:26 Jesus tells the crowds that followed him, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Christianity is not easy! Let’s not talk to others as if it is. Let’s not pretend as if Christianity is just a little bonus to an enjoy life a little more. There is suffering. There is pain. There is heartache.
But, James tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-6). Bruce Waltke states it well, “We are left with the inexplicable and exacting realization that faith demands radical obedience.”
So after we see the crushing command God has given to Abraham, we are all the more impressed by his…
A Devoted Dependence (3-10)
We see Abraham’s obedience begins “early in the morning.” It is interesting that he intercedes for Sodom in order to save Lot, but moves along without comment in this case. Was he in shock?
The description of the action in this section is detailed. We are given a step-by-step summary of the events that took place. Some of the details are even a bit puzzling. For instance, what is the role of these two servants? They are brought along on the journey and then told to wait. One commentator notes, “The servants are brought along to be left behind. This is their function, a very strange one in any narrative, characters who are introduced solely in order to take no part in it. It compounds our sense of Abraham’s isolation.”
But even the dialogue with the servants is a telling one. Notice what Abraham says, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Did you catch that? He is confident that he and the boy will return to them. I don’t believe he was misleading them, but he was declaring his trust even then.
Now remember, this is after having traveled an excruciating three-day journey. The dialogue was sparse but the emotions would have been intense, at least for Abraham. And yet he continues to trust in the faithfulness of God.
Josephus indicates Isaac was 25 years old, but another Jewish tradition says he was 37 based upon this occurring during the year of Sarah’s death. Since he carried his own wood for the journey and was capable of traveling the three days up to this point, he must have at least been in his teenage years. So Josephus was probably simply splitting the difference between 15 and 35 years old. Really, it’s just a guess.
Knowing this, we have to wonder how compliant Isaac was in all of this. It would appear that he did not fight back. Certainly he could have overpowered his father. Looking at the phrase in verses 6 and 8 that occurs twice, we might conclude that they acted together.
Now, in verses 9-10, the author transitions to slow-motion. This is the height of the tension. At this moment, in a split second, Abraham’s life is about to be turned upside down. He had given everything of himself over to the Lord. He is holding nothing back.
The first indication that you have heard the call of God is when you realize that every other foundation is shifting. Still, even when we admit the weaknesses of other worldviews, we are left with the problem of trusting a God like this. How does the skeptic respond? Soren Kierkegaard. It doesn’t make sense unless his purpose goes beyond Abraham.
And that’s what we see in the next section.
A Promised Possession (11-19)
God intervenes…finally! God provides a substitute. This is the first explicit mention of substitution in the bible. God shows his approval of Abraham’s faith and obedience. Last week we saw the new name for God “El Shaddai” (God Almighty). Wiersbe, “Abraham also learned a new name for God (22:14). As we have seen, Jehovah-jireh means “the Lord will be seen” or “the Lord will see to it [provide].””
- Wiersbe, “Abraham did not withhold his son (Gen. 22:16), and the Father did not spare His Son but “delivered Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32).”
- In John 8, Jesus says that “Abraham rejoiced to see my day…”
- Hebrews 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
- God, once again, reminds Abraham of his promises.
Waltke, “Abraham’s obedience prefigures the active obedience of Christ, who secures the covenantal blessings for Abraham’s innumerable offspring.”
Isaac says, “My father…” Jesus cries, “My God, my God…”
The angel of the Lord graciously commands, “Do not lay your hand on the boy.” The response to Jesus’ cry is the deafening sound of silence.
“You see, this passage is a poignant reminder of the cost of that sacrifice to God, our heavenly Father. Indeed it is a reminder of the father’s involvement. When we see Abraham in response to this command trudging up the side of Moriah, we know that his heart is breaking because he loves his son. But Abraham’s love for his son is a pale shadow of the Father’s love for His Son. And the heavenly Father is saying here, when you see My Son ascend to Calvary don’t you dare think that you love Him more than I do.”